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TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 29, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos 6:1a, 4-7
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 6:11-16
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 16:19-31

Dear friends in Christ,

Why don’t people get upset, even angry, as some of Jesus’ parables are proclaimed?  This Sunday’s parable is a case in point.  Perhaps we protect ourselves instinctively by adapting the text so that it is not nearly as confrontational as the naked text would seem to be.  Chances are the first audience for this parable, the Pharisees, heard it the way Jesus told it, without those defense mechanisms in place.  The story became a punch to the gut.  No wonder they became so angry with Jesus that they wanted to see him dead. If we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief because we conclude someone else is the focus of the telling, we should banish that thought.  What challenges the Pharisees is meant to challenge the rest who are listening, the crowds, and the disciples, and us.  

It is okay to feel upset, even angry, as you listen to the gospel today.  That anger could well be a grace prompting a change so that we will more closely conform to people whose lives are rooted in the Gospel, people who seriously want to imitate Jesus as we walk with him on The Way.

The first reading from the Prophet Amos sets aim for the complacent in Zion.  Complacency is an interesting word.  My dictionary defines it as self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.  Amos addresses those among God’s chosen people who have made it, as we say today.  They are the successful ones who are able to partake in the best that life can offer – the finest meats and wines and the best furnishings that money can buy.  They are arty and pretentious.  There is nothing particularly sinful about what they are doing.  They might have been even thanking God all the while for the good fortune that is theirs.  In listening to the reading, we might not catch that some of what they feast on really should be given to God in temple sacrifice.  Aside from that dereliction, there is not anything blatantly sinful in what they are doing.  So, to what is Amos trying to awaken the complacent in Zion and among us?

Remember the two great commandments in the Law?  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Jesus linked the two commandments and made them one.  It is impossible to fulfill the one without fulfilling the other.  That seems to be what Amos is getting at here.  This people with all their indulgence in lavishness are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!  Here, Joseph means all of the people, especially the poor, the widows and the orphans who are supposed to be the objects of their special care.  In effect, the rich separate the love of God from the love of neighbor.  Amos is saying also that the self-indulgence by the rich is bringing about the collapse of the nation.  The warning: the rich will be the first to be led off in exile when the nation succumbs.  If they are to be the first, that means they will be enslaved even before their poor counterparts are led away.  It has been maintained that historically Israel was strongest when the people were most zealous in living the Law as God’s people.  The nation weakened when the people became fascinated by the gods of the Gentiles and did not follow the Law.  They became complacent and were unaware of actual dangers and deficiencies.

In the gospel, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day.  The man is probably unaware of the physical hazards from that kind of habitual diet.  Remember, those were the days when full-figures and masculine girth were signs of material success.  It will become apparent that he was blind also to the moral deficiencies of his lifestyle.  Most often, when people hear this parable, they assume all kinds of evils in the man’s life.  He must be thoroughly corrupt, judging by where the man goes after his death.  Read that in, if you will, but there is nothing in the text that would indicate licentiousness.  The only voiced evil in the man’s life is the fact that he ignored Lazarus, the beggar at the rich man’s doorpost.  

The scene shifts to the netherworld – Hades, Sheol, or hell in our parlance.  What a difference in perspective comes to us.  Lazarus has died and now is embraced by Abraham (the God-figure).  The rich man has died also.  From his place in torment he can see the transformed Lazarus.  Abraham informs him that he is where he is as a consequence of the life of luxury he lived while Lazarus lived in want.  That may be, but notice that the rich man has maintained his attitude of superiority over Lazarus.  He asks Father Abraham to have Lazarus tend to the rich man’s needs.  He wants Lazarus to do his bidding and bring him a sip of water to slake his thirst.  Not possible.  The rich man comes to realize how deep and wide is the chasm that separates the two worlds and how permanent is his present situation.

Finally comes the only indication that the man is aware of anyone else in his universe.  He asks that Lazarus be sent to the man’s brothers to warn them to change their lives lest they suffer the same fate.  But Father Abraham reminds Dives, as the rich man is often called, that they have Moses and the prophets whose teachings should serve as warnings.  They should listen to Moses and the prophets and respond.  Dives says the brothers may be ignoring all the teachings up to this point in their lives, but they will listen if Lazarus, from among the dead, goes to them.

If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.  And so the parable ends.  Luke’s Gospel was written in light of Jesus’ resurrection.  In effect, Dives’ request of Father Abraham is granted when Jesus triumphs over death and rises to new life.  Someone from among the dead has risen and returned to call people to live a new and different kind of life, a life of justice, love, and peace.  Will Dives’ brothers listen?  Will they respond?  Will people down through the ages listen and respond?  Will we?

Sunday after Sunday, we come together to listen to Moses and the prophets and to St. Paul and the Gospel in our Liturgy of the Word.  The readings are meant to confront us, even unsettle us.  They are meant to warn us.  Our starving spirits are nourished at the Table of the Word.  As uncomfortable as we might be made by what we hear, we are meant to take the Word to heart and be transformed by it, as we are shown time after time that we are to love God with our entire beings and love our neighbor as ourselves.  In these times when we are witnessing the greater and greater separation between the rich and the poor, the parable of Dives and Lazarus must resonate.  The separation between First World Countries and Third World Countries should cause the parable to echo in our hearts.  There must be more than a notional response.  If Dives had been asked about Amos, or Moses, or any of the prophets, he may well have said that the accepted their teachings.  But the teachings did not change his heart.  He could love God with all sincerity and step over Lazarus at his doorpost as he entered his mansion. 

We listen to Jesus who has come back from the grave.  He commands us to love God and to love one another as I have loved you.  That love must be practical or it is not love at all.  It is by that love that the world will recognize Jesus’ disciples.  That is, that we are his disciples.

Recently I read a statement by a fairly well known Catholic writer announcing that she was giving up being a Christian.  She gave as her reasons what we would call the sins of the Church, the way the Church is perceived in these times.  Judgmental.  Condemning.  Divisive.  Clerical.  Sexist.  Her words.  It is true that what the woman says is simplistic and un-nuanced.  But it is also apparent that she is not turning her back on Christ, but on the Church as she hears the Church’s message to be today.

Pope Francis continually urges the Church to exercise a fundamental option for the poor.  He wants an end to clericalism and the elitist attitudes of the hierarchy.  The poor must be given primacy of place – practically.  Decisions that are made must work toward justice for the poor and seek a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods.  The chasm that separates the wealthy nations from the developing nations must be narrowed.  Differences that separate should not be the primary theme of ecclesial declarations, but rather, what unites us in God ought to be the proclamation.  When the strangers, rich or poor, regardless of race or creed, male or female, or sexual orientation, or country of origin, when the strangers come among us, the first thing they should experience is God’s love that embraces all, that wills the salvation of all.

So, once again we will go from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  We will give thanks to God as we renew Jesus’ dying and rising in the Bread that is broken and the Cup that is poured out.  Once again we will take Jesus’ promise to heart that whenever we do this, Christ is present.  We are transformed just as are the bread and wine, into the Body of Christ.  And believing the One who has come back to us from among the dead, we are sent to live that reality that is Christ until he comes in glory.

PS.  As I write this there have been two mass killings in the space of twelve hours.  Two cities grieve and so does the nation.  Will we learn from these horrors?  Will we recognize the suffering Christ in those who have been shot, wounded and killed?  Will we heal and forgive and recognize that we are all sisters and brothers in the one Lord?  Can we hear the Lord Jesus’ command to love one another as He loves us?  May we hear and respond.  It is our vocation as followers of Christ.

Sincerely,

Didymus  

TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 22, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to Timothy 2:1-8
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 16:1-13

Dear Friends in Christ,

Keep in mind the audience Jesus addresses when he tells a parable.  Parables are meant always to unsettle as they teach aspects of discipleship, or of the coming Kingdom.  If Jesus speaks to the crowds, that is to those who have not yet decided whether or not to cast their lot in with Jesus and follow him, often those parable warn of the cost of discipleship.  If Jesus speaks to the disciples, as he does in this Sunday’s gospel, then he is pointing out to those who have determined to follow in his footsteps, aspects or implications of discipleship, that is, how Jesus expects disciples to live out their vocation.

To remember that today Jesus is speaking to disciples, that is, to you and to me, is especially important because this parable is among the most problematic of them all.  At first hearing, it might seem that Jesus is praising craftiness, and even dishonesty.  After all, the master reprimands the steward, the one left in charge of the estate during the master’s absence, for squandering the master’s property.  That is interesting, isn’t it, because squandering was what the Prodigal Son was accused of doing with his inheritance in last Sunday’s parable.  The word prodigal means to spend wastefully or foolishly.  In both cases, the foolish spending involved what was entrusted to them.  To top it off, Jesus praises the dishonest steward when he acts prudently.

Once the steward has been confronted and an accounting demanded, he concludes, rightly so, that his station in life is about to be drastically reduced.  Living like one of the entitled, he is about to become one of the hoi polloi.  That will be like going from prince to commoner.  Recognizing his own limitations, that is, that he can neither be a common laborer nor someone who sits and begs, he determines to ingratiate himself with those who are indebted to his master.  He slashes their bills and makes it easier for them to repay and get out of debt.  

Some commentators say that he simply removes from their tab what he had added  that would come to him upon payment.  That is what tax collectors did to tax bills; they added to the tax assessment in order to make their living.

Other commentators say he has recognized which side his bread was buttered on, as we would say, and reduced what the master could expect to retrieve from his debtors.  It is possible that the master did not even know what was owed. 

The steward would do anything to make friends to receive him in his desperation.

Jesus says that the master commended the steward for his prudence.  He is not commended for his dishonesty but, recognizing the precarious situation he is now in, he does what he can to have friends once he is thrown out of his position.

Disciples are to be prudent with what has been entrusted to them.  Jesus entrusts the Kingdom to his disciples.  That means that their living the Good News and imitating Jesus are meant to prepare the way for the Kingdom’s entry into the lives of those they meet.  Disciples should be as determined in their ministry as the steward was in his endeavors.  Of course the obvious difference is that the steward was self-serving.  Disciples are to pour out their very selves in service of others.  This is not so that the disciples will be received into earthly mansions.  At the end of their ministries they will be welcomed by the poor they have served into the heavenly mansion prepared for them.

What follows is Jesus’ commentary on the implications of the parable.  Those implications have to do with the response to worldly wealth.  Jesus does not condemn wealth.  An axiom is often misquoted in this regard.  It is not money that is the root of all evil.  Rather, it is the love of money that is.  If you are wealthy, what is important is what you do with that wealth.  The negative implications of squandering would apply.  Do you suppose the Lord laughs at those who stand outside in long lines through the darkest and dreariest of nights just so that they can be among the first to buy the latest electronic gadget.  Much more encouraging is the news of the movement among some of the billionaires in our land to bequest the bulk of their fortunes to charity.

It is safe to say that the Lord does expect us to give of our wealth, great or meager as it might be, to tithe of our wealth to ease the needs of the poor.  It was sad to read that much of the funds pledged in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti never materialized.  Like the survivors of the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the Haitian survivors continue to live in squalid conditions.

Jesus expects disciples to hold wealth in perspective.  Bernie Madoff’s name will live in infamy.  While he is not the only one to plot and become ruthless in his pursuit of worldly wealth, he can stand as the epitome of what the Lord is warning about regarding succumbing to the love of money.  There is always the possibility that Madoff thought his Ponzi scheme would work.  Otherwise, his lust for money stifled his conscience as he bilked wealth from friends and strangers alike with the promise that they would see amazing returns from entrusting their fortunes to him.  Turned out in disgrace, as he was when the scheme collapsed, and were he not in prison, who would have received him and offered him shelter in his impoverished state?  Had he been trustworthy and honest in his dealings, there would have been those to receive him into their homes when his wealth failed.

Pope Francis, to the disgust of some in the church, continually reminds us of the Gospel, that we are to serve the poor and hold them in primacy of place.  Some in the episcopacy and clergy do not see it that way.  The love of money has corrupted them.  They see themselves as among the entitled.  And some, due to the errors of their ways, have been brought low.

It is important for us to listen to the Prophet Amos in this Sunday’s first reading.  Amos rages against hypocrisy and blindness to the needs of the poor.  He is searing in his condemnation of a religious people whose observances and practices are hollow.  They may suspend their dealings for Sabbath observance, or other religious celebrations, but instead of giving praise and honor to God in order to return to working for justice for the poor, the suspension time becomes one of calculating how to gouge more from the poor for their own profit.  It is chilling when Amos quotes the Lord as saying: Never will I forget a thing they have done!  That should give us pause, don’t you think?

By now, as disciples, we should know from all the emphasis that Jesus places on the embracing of poverty as part of the call to discipleship, that worldly wealth poses a danger for us.  The question we must ponder is, what is most important in our lives.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.  My dictionary says that mammon is material wealth having a debasing influence.  There are those who seem unable to talk about anything else but money and their desire for more.  Were you to wonder what is most important in their lives, you might well conclude that money, mammon, is.  Where does God come in?  Second place?  We cannot be slaves to wealth and serve God faithfully.

We come to Eucharist.  The Assembly gathers around the table, united as the Body of Christ, to again give thanks to God, as we renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine.  Christ’s dying is self-emptying.  He gives his body to be eaten and his blood to be drunk by those who stand in need.  In the communion procession, we approach open and empty handed to receive the Bread and to drink from the Cup.  We come in our hunger and poverty to be filled and strengthened so that we can continue to be faithful stewards in service of the Gospel.  We come  to be transformed by what we take and eat so that we can be sent to continue to meet the needs of the poor in whom we recognize Christ in his passion.

How would our attitudes change if we recognized Christ in his Passion in our brothers and sisters at the borders?  If we saw Christ in his passion in the homeless on the streets of our cities.  Those are only two groups of the many in whom Christ’s passion continues.  How do we respond?

Christ is the master who has gone on a journey and entrusted us as stewards of the Kingdom.  We pray that when he returns in glory, he will find us faithful and trustworthy stewards, not slaves to mammon, but servants of the One who seeks and saves us, and of the Good News he announces.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 15, 2019

A reading from the Book of Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
A reading from the fist Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 1:12-17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 15:1-32

Dear Friends in Christ,

How are you at forgiving?  That was the question my Confessor asked me one evening during Spiritual Direction.  I responded to the question with a blank stare – or was it a deer-in-the-headlights stare?  He broke the silence after what seemed to me to be an interminable pause, during which my heart pounded and my mouth went dry.  He had been watching me the whole time.  I looked at my hands clasped in my lap.  The evening turned out to be one of the most important in my faith journey.

After some gentle prodding, he told me that my answer to the question about how I was at forgiving was among the most important that any person of faith could consider.  My answer would determine how I pray.  It would determine how I would respond to adversity.  I told my Confessor that I did not bother much with forgiving.  If someone offended me, I either swallowed it and resumed the friendship after a day or two to cool down, or, I ended the friendship, especially if the offender wasn’t that significant in my life.  After a second thought, I said there was also the possibility that I would think I forgave, but reserved the right to terminate the relationship should the offense ever happen again.  Forgiving, for me, was one thing; forgetting was quite another.

He listened patiently to my babble.  When I paused with the hope that I had impressed him with the mature way I dealt with offenders, he looked at me and asked the question that stunned me.  Do the ways you forgive reflect the way you want God to forgive your sins?  You pray every day that God will, you know, every time you say the Lord’s Prayer.  ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’   Then came the question that resulted in our discussion for  the rest of the session.  Do you think of yourself as a sinner?

Those are the issues intertwined in the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday.  These readings, especially the gospel, are among the most important that we will hear this Liturgical Year.  I have heard many people make snide remarks about Catholic Guilt.  Sometimes the remarks are said in jest.  Often they speak of pain because of unresolved issues in their own lives.  Even more often, the remark rises from the wrath or scorn of a priest in the Confessional.  There are those who would say that you might as well get used to living with guilt.  There is no way to get rid of it.

How many people have left the church because of issues of guilt?  More than we would care to admit.

So then, perhaps the question should be, what kind of forgiver do we think God is?  Search Hebrew Bible and you can come up with passages that indicate God is subject to temper tantrums, those moments when God threatens to annihilate with fire and brimstone because of sins Israel has committed.  This Sunday’s first reading is a case in point.  God is angry because of Israel’s infidelity.  They have fashioned a molten calf and are sacrificing to it, proclaiming it to be the god that led them out of Egypt.  God tells Moses to warn the people that their end is near.

Moses asks God if the promises made to Abraham have been forgotten.  What will the word be when the nations hear that God has eradicated the very people God brought out of Egypt?  Moses reminds God that the promise was for a perpetual heritage.  God remembers.  God relents.  Hebrew Bible is really the saga of God’s pleading with Israel to let God be their God and for them to live as God’s people.  God forgives over and over again.

Paul, in the second reading, marvels at the abundance of forgiveness he has received in his life.  He began as a persecutor of the church.  Now he is an apostle of the faith.  He acted out of ignorance.  Grace intervened and brought him to faith and forgiveness.  Now he believes that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I am the foremost.  That forgiveness is the Good News the church must proclaim.  That is the Gospel to be announced so that all people can live in hope.

Now let’s consider the question again: Do you think of yourself as a sinner?  That question is not asked to get us onto a guilt trip.  That was not what Paul was saying to Timothy.  The question is asked so that, in answering it, we can find our commonality with the human race.  Like it or not, with the exception of the Mother of the Lord, and her Son, every human being knows what it means to sin.  Some just have a harder time admitting it than others.  This brings us to the Gospel reading.

Notice the audience.  Once again those in attendance are segmented.  In one group are the tax collectors, hated by the Jews, and sinners, that is, those designated as such by the judgmental members of society, and ousted and shunned accordingly.  These gather around Jesus and hang on his every word.

Then there are the scribes and the Pharisees gathered in condemning judgment: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  The scribes and Pharisees do not consider themselves sinners.  They know the Law and they keep it.  They judge everyone else who might struggle with the Law.  They do not need God’s mercy.  They might long to see the God of fire and brimstone rain havoc on the ones they have judged.  It would be justice, after all.

Luke states clearly that Jesus addresses the parables that follow primarily to the scribes and the Pharisees.  the tax collectors and sinners are the secondary audience.  Remember, we began with the question I was asked: What kind of forgiver are you?  In the parables Jesus tells us what kind of forgiver God is.  Those who are paralyzed with guilt and corresponding fear ought to listen carefully.  So should the rest of us who deal with the reality of sin in our lives.  Those who are not sinners can learn something, too.

The parable about the shepherd with the hundred step who notices that one lamb is missing and leaves the rest to go out searching for the lost one describes God who searches for the sinner and rejoices when the lost is found.  The woman searches for the lost coin until she finds it.  In itself, neither the one sheep nor the small coin is of significant value.  But that is not so in the eye of the shepherd or of the woman.  And so follows the retrievals the great rejoicing, the celebrations, and the lavish parties.  Notice that Jesus introduced each parable with the question: What man among you…what woman…?  He is saying, would not all of you act just the way that these two did?  Chances are the answer would be something like: You’ve got to be kidding!  Ah, but that is the way God acts.

During Lent, so many months ago this year, we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Chances are that this Sunday, because of the length of the gospel reading, the Prodigal Son parable will be skipped.  As I recall, I told you then that I read the Prodigal Son at least once a week, and pray with it.  During Lent we looked at the parable primarily from the son’s point of view.  He represented all those among us who were coming late to the faith, the catechumens and elect preparing for Baptism.  There is an implicit warning to any among us who might resent latecomers, by the way, and those who disparage deathbed conversions. 

In the present context, the parable is about God as forgiver.  Jesus is saying that the attitude of the Father of the Prodigal Son is God’s attitude.  The Father loves his two sons and divides the family fortune between them when the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance.  The young man leaves home and goes off and sows his wild oats, as it were, and falls into ruin when famine hits the area where he is living.  Could there be anything more degrading to befall a Jewish man than to sink to such a level that he had to tend pigs in order to survive?  We use the phrase bottom of the barrel to describe the lowest point to which people descend.  Sometimes we conclude that some have to fall to that level before they can begin to climb their way out.  That was the case with the Prodigal.  It was when he found himself longing to share the slop fed to the pigs that he remembered his father and how well he teated even the hired hands on the estate.  We could call that a grace moment for the son.

Jesus tells us that the father, longing for his son, goes out to the head of the road every evening, hoping to catch sight of his son returning.  On the evening that he does, the father doesn’t stand where he is, tapping his foot, waiting to see what his son will have to say for himself.  He runs to his son and embraces him.  He doesn’t care to hear about the shortcomings that emerged during his absence.  The Father wants to dress his son like a prince and throw a banquet to celebrate his return.  Pretty lavish, don’t you think?  Shouldn’t there have been some form of retribution?  Some punishment?  Not in this story.  I would wager that practically every one of those tax collectors and sinners felt a flood of emotion when they heard about the father’s embracing of the prodigal one.  I always do.

But the story doesn’t stop there.  The older son, after working all day in the fields, hears the din of the celebration and learns it is for his brother who is, in his view, a wastrel and lecher.  He refuses to go in to the banquet.  This son is the stand-in for the scribes and the Pharisees, and for all those who see themselves to be without sin and therefore in no need of  mercy or forgiveness.  And they are not too keen to see mercy and forgiveness lavished on those who need them.

The father comes out to the older son and tries to encourage him to come in and be part of the celebration.  But this son is seething with resentment and cannot even refer to the returned one as his brother.  The older one has been slaving for his father all the while this son of yours squandered his inheritance in lewd ways.  The father tries to get his son to see things differently.  The father speaks of your brother, of his having been lost and now is found, being dead but having come to life again.  Don’t we have to celebrate?

We do not know whether the older son goes into the party, or if he welcomes his brother home.  That is for the hearer to decide.  What will determine the conclusion will be the ability to identify with the younger son, to know what it means to be a sinner, to rejoice at having been forgiven.  These will hope that there will awaken in the older son and the other judgmental ones, a desire to rejoice with those who find the same loving embrace of the Father that they have been blessed with all their lives.

Now, do you see yourself as a sinner?  How are you at forgiving?  My confessor reminded me that I prayed every day that God would forgive me the way I forgive others.  Do you think it is a good idea to present God as being so lavish in forgiving?  I didn’t until after that conversation when I realized my own need for forgiveness.  I’m still working at being lavish in forgiving those who offend me.  In the meantime, every Sunday I go to the banquet where that reconciliation and return are celebrated.  I continue to learn the language of rejoicing.  And I say I am willing to be sent from the banquet to invite others to come to the feast.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus