Sunday, September 21, 2014

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A very committed Catholic man once shared with me an experience he had with his dad, who was adamantly not a Catholic, or even a Christian of any stripe. The two of them were watching together a movie called The Scarlet and the Black. It’s the true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a courageous Irish priest who worked at the Vatican during WWII and helped hide thousands of refugees from the Nazis.

The local Gestapo chief, Colonel Kessler, tried in vain to have the priest assassinated. When the Allies occupied Rome, however, and Colonel Kessler was taken into custody, Monsignor O’Flaherty actually helped Kessler’s wife and children, and he visited Kessler in jail on a weekly basis. Thanks to O’Flaherty’s demonstration of Christian love, Kessler himself eventually converted to Catholicism.

At the end of the movie, a text appeared on the screen which contained an appeal for forgiveness. When my lunch companion’s father saw this, he absolutely hit the roof. He was a WWII vet who had fought the Nazis, and he had decided long ago that under no circumstances would he ever forgive them. They had done too much harm and committed too much evil, he said. To forgive them would be wrong, he concluded, because it wouldn’t be fair.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right!! It wouldn’t be fair for him to forgive the Nazis. That’s because there’s nothing “fair” about forgiveness at all. Think about the times someone has hurt you and you’re found it difficult to forgive. Part of us wants to retaliate and get even, right? We want them to know how we feel and to give them a taste of their own medicine. We think: They’ve hurt us; we should be able to hurt them back! After all, it’s only fair…

But forgiveness, as we Christians understand it, is not fair. Remember today’s first reading, from Sirach? It called sinners to repent and seek reconciliation with God. Why? Because God is merciful, and “generous in forgiving.” Not because he’s fair.

Jesus in today’s gospel makes it quite clear that God isn’t fair. In his parable, God the Father is the landowner who paid workers the same wage whether they had worked all day in the fields or only the last hour. Fairness would dictate that those who worked more should get paid more. But this isn’t a story meant to teach us about salaries in the workplace. It’s a story about salvation. And salvation, as Jesus concludes his parable, is not about fairness. It’s about the generosity of God.

To say that God isn’t fair can sound rather strange to us, can’t it? This is because so often life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We conclude that in contrast to all of this unfairness, surely God must be fair! But God isn’t fair. And this has to do with a difference between what we might call human fairness, or human justice, and the justice of God.

Human justice is about people getting what they deserve. I’ve head it described as a “nicely dressed ‘eye-for-an-eye’ philosophy.” But God’s justice is entirely different. It’s one of the ways, as the Sirach reading reminded us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Do you recall the Opening Prayer we offered together at the beginning of this Mass? It said that “the perfection of justice is found in (God’s) love.” In other words, God’s justice is about love. And love is about giving of one’s self for the good of others. Love isn’t concerned with getting what we think we deserve; it isn’t preoccupied with getting our so-called “fair share.” It’s about giving without counting the cost.

It is this love, this “divine justice,” that we as Christians are called to give. But so often, we fall short of this standard, all in the name of “fairness.” We only love those who love us back. We’re only kind to those who are kind to us. We limit our patience to what we think is reasonable. Such as, “I’ve been patient long enough- you’ll do what I want now!” We restrict our forgiveness with a “three-strikes and you’re out” mentality-which really is probation and not forgiveness at all. We say, “I’ll change- but only if she changes too.” After all, it’s only fair, right?

Fairness also leads us to “keep score” in our relationships. We keep track of our how often we’ve been hurt, how much sex we have, how much housework we do, how money is used (Such as: she bought a new sweater; I should get a new TV), and how time is spent (Like: he went fishing on Saturday, I should get a day off too).

When we act this way, we tell ourselves, “It’s only fair!” In reality, we’re just being selfish. Thank God that God isn’t fair with us! Because he loves us, God doesn’t give us what we deserve. Instead, God forgives us! And, as we’ve already established, forgiveness isn’t fair at all. The fact is that we don’t deserve anything God gives us, because everything God gives us is his free gift of grace. As I’ve heard it said many times: Justice is getting what we deserve; mercy is not getting what we deserve; grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Mercy and grace are what God gives us. And neither one of them is fair.

God doesn’t call us to be fair either. Instead, God calls us to be more than fair, because God calls us to love. He asks us not to keep score and focus only on getting our fair share and giving only what we think other people deserve. He invites us instead to be people of generosity, kindness, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Just like he is with us.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ordinary 24 Friday

Have you ever heard the expression, “Just be yourself?” This little proverb is good advice in so many areas of life: at work, in relationships, and especially in our faith walk with the Lord.

Consider what Jesus did in today’s gospel. We’re told that he traveled around with women. This doesn’t sound unusual to us today, but in Jesus’ lifetime this would have raised eyebrows and quite possibly have created a scandal. No Jewish rabbi would have dreamed of doing this.

But this didn’t stop Jesus. He wasn’t worried about what other people thought. He didn’t do what other people expected him to do. He wasn’t concerned with his public image. Instead, Jesus was true to himself; he was faithful to what God intended him to be; he was absolutely obedient to the Father’s plan for his life. Because of this, Jesus is supremely holy.

If we want to be holy, we need to follow Jesus’ example. We need to remember that God made us the way we are- and God doesn’t make mistakes, and he doesn’t make junk. Therefore, we need to be true to ourselves, and not try to be somebody else. We need to be “for real,” and not a phony or a fake. We need to be authentic- and for us to be authentic, we need to be obedient to the Father’s will for us, just like Jesus was. We need to submit ourselves to God.

As C. S. Lewis once said: “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become- because God made us. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to his personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” 

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ordinary 24 Thursday

We all know the familiar cliché, I would imagine, of a husband walking through the front door with a bouquet of flowers, whereupon his wife asks: "OK, what have you done?" Her assumption is that he’s done something wrong, and that his flowers are a bribe for forgiveness

It would be easy to assume that the woman in today’s gospel was trying to bribe Jesus for his forgiveness. After all, she did anoint his feet with a jarful of expensive perfumed ointment, and Jesus did say that her sins were forgiven. However, Jesus was careful to make the point that it was her faith that had saved her, and not her gift. Her gift was a reflection of her love, Jesus explained, for her already having been forgiven.

True forgiveness, like true love, cannot be purchased or won with a bribe. If it were, forgiveness would simply be a ransom, and not a free gift. And that would mean that only those able to pay could hope to be forgiven. But God knows that there’s no way we could ever pay the price for our sins. Like the characters in Jesus parable, there’s no way we could ever satisfy our debt! But thankfully, our God is neither an extortionist nor a loan shark. He is our Father who would never ask us to pay an impossible price. Jesus his Son did that for us, on the cross.

Those who are forgiven much, love much, Jesus said. And we can be grateful that we have a God who loves to forgive

My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ordinary 24 Wednesday

Do you remember the old ad campaign for the EF Hutton, the stock brokerage firm? "When EF Hutton talks, people listen." There’s a similar campaign today for another financial services company that shows people stopping in their tracks to eavesdrop on a financial advisor speaking to a client.

These ads remind us that lots of people want to hear about how they can make more money. But are people as eager to hear the word of God? They weren’t in Jesus’ day. In today’s gospel, our Lord challenged those who made endless excuses in order to reject God’s messengers and hear God’s Word. But in a sense, don’t we all do the same thing? None of us really listens to God’s Word as we should.

What’s our excuse? God’s Word doesn’t seem reasonable or relevant? It’s too hard to accept? It’s too difficult to understand? We’re too busy to listen? We’re too indifferent to care? We think we’ve heard it all before? We don’t care for the messengers? We’ve twisted it with bizarre interpretations? We’re daydreaming about lunch during Mass? We’ve allowed other voices to drown out God’s?

Whatever our excuse, Jesus challenges us to wake up and truly pay attention to the life giving power of his Word, which is both timeless and true. Let the world listen to EF Hutton. As for us, let us listen to the Lord.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Monday, September 15, 2014

Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

How did Mary show her feelings as she witnessed her Son’s Passion? Was she numb with shock? Did she try to be stoic and stifle her tears? Did she crumple in a heap and sob uncontrollably? Or did she express her anguish in all of these ways?

Scripture doesn’t answer these questions. However, if Mary is human, which she is, and if she loves her Son, which she does, then surely the Passion must have filled her with sorrow. It is this sorrow that we recall today, the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

We recall especially that Mary suffered while Jesus suffered. When we suffer, Mary invites us to gaze at Jesus on the cross. Jesus, however, refers us back to Mary and says: "Behold your mother." It’s as if he says, "Look at Mary; she’s your example; do as she did." And what did Mary do? She stayed with Jesus at the foot of the cross. She didn’t run away. We can learn three things from this.

First, when we stay at the foot of the cross, we realize that we’re not alone in our suffering. We have a Lord who has suffered for us, and who suffers with us. This can be for us a source of consolation and strength.

Second, staying at the foot of the cross helps us to think not only about ourselves, something so easy to do when we suffer. By being at the cross, Mary was able to comfort her Son, in spite of her own pain. Her witness can teach us to be compassionate too.

Third, keeping the cross in sight reminds us that it was followed by an empty tomb- which is a cause for joy. As Mary learned, sorrow and joy can coexist, and sorrow will never have the final word. Through her witness, Our Lady of Sorrows embodies for us what Mother Teresa once wrote so beautifully: "Never let anything cause you so much sorrow that you forget the joy of Christ risen!"

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Solemnity of the Holy Cross

Lamin Sanneh is a Gambian who teaches at Yale Divinty School. His grandfather and uncle are influential Muslim clerics, and Sanneh himself grew up a strict Muslim. He ultimately converted to Catholicism, however, primarily because of his fascination with the cross of Jesus. Specifically, Jesus’ crucifixion led him to conclude that suffering is not alien to God’s nature, as Islam teaches, but is at the heart of God’s compassion.

As Lamin Sanneh came to appreciate, we have a God who humbled himself on a cross, as today’s Scripture readings remind us, that we might have eternal life. This is why we need to exalt the cross. We need to lift it high and proclaim the good news it signifies for everyone to hear. It changed the life of Lamin Sanneh. It can change the world. And the world desperately needs to hear of the cross, especially during these days as we recall an anniversary of terror and violence.

Pope Benedict has said: "Precisely in this moment… we need the God who triumphs on the Cross, who wins not with violence but with his love. Precisely in this moment we need the face of Christ, to know the true face of God and thereby to carry reconciliation and light to this world."

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ordinary 23 Friday

Jesus asks us a question in today’s gospel that he doesn’t actually answer. Perhaps this is because he wants us to answer this question for ourselves; maybe it’s because the answer will a little bit different for each one of us.

The question is: “Why do we notice other people’s faults and ignore our own?” Or to quote Jesus exactly: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?”

Maybe we’re too afraid or ashamed to admit our faults. Perhaps focusing on others’ faults makes us feel better about our own. It’s possible that we’re ignoring our faults because we don’t want to deal with them. Or it could be that we don’t even realize they’re there in the first place; maybe we need another person to help us identify what they are.

And that’s an important point. Sometimes we need someone to reveal our faults to us; sometimes we need to reveal another’s faults to them. Jesus did not say that we should never point out the splinter in somebody else’s eye. What he did say is that we need to remove the beam from our own eye first.

To do that, we need the humility, courage, and self-love necessary to honestly examine ourselves so that with clear vision and a clean conscience, we can then examine others. It’s like St. Augustine once wrote: “We will benefit the souls of others,” he said, “only to the extent we benefit our own.”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forgiveness and 9/11

(this is a re-posting of a homily I preached three years ago at Saint Patrick's in downtown DC for the Archdiocese of Washington's "Christ in the City" program for young adults)
We’re anticipating a big anniversary this Sunday: the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Over the next few days there’s going to be a huge media focus on this event: in print, online, on the radio, and especially on TV. It will be very easy for us to get sucked in.

This happened to me after 9/11 itself. The media attention was 24/7, and we were all glued to the coverage for days on end. I was speaking about this with a friend, when at one point in our conversation she asked: “When am I going to start praying?” She realized that she was so immersed in the news of that tragedy, that she’d neglected to lift it up in prayer. Just like me.

Hopefully that won’t happen this year. Indeed, here we are in church, having come together to pray. And through our prayer, we can look back on those terrible events through the eyes of Christ. The media will look back on that day through all sorts of different eyes: survivors and soldiers; policemen and politicians; Manhattanites and Muslims. But in prayer, we can look at it as a Christian.

Tonight we engage in a special form of prayer: adoration. We look upon Christ; we gaze upon the host in which we encounter the Presence of Jesus himself. But this gazing isn’t one-way, because Jesus is also looking upon us. And when he does, he loves what he sees. He can’t help but do that! Jesus is God, God is perfect love, and God can’t deny his own nature. Knowing this can help us to look out upon the world with love- for everything, and everyone. Including the events of 9/11- as hard as that may be.

Think of it this way: God the Father created the world through his Son, and when they were finished they looked upon it and exclaimed: “It is good.” Later, God the Son looked out upon that same world as he hung on a cross. And even in his pain, he looked out upon that world with love. He looked upon those who unjustly condemned him, and he loved them. He looked upon those who hurled scorn and contempt, and he loved them. He looked upon the empty ground where his friends should have been, and he still loved them. He looked upon those who had driven nails into his hands and feet, and not only did he love them, he forgave them for what they had done.

Can we look back upon 9/11 with love and forgive those responsible? Indeed, can we look back upon any painful event with forgiveness, especially toward those who have hurt us most deeply, and most personally? That is our Lord’s invitation to us; that is his challenge to us.

This Sunday, 9/11 itself, our Lord will speak to us through the gospel- the same gospel we heard tonight. Peter asked: “How many times am I to forgive one who hurts me? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus will insist, “Seventy-seven times.” How are we to understand this? Are we to keep score for the times someone has hurt us? Is there to be a limit to our forgiveness, whether it be “three strikes and you’re out” or “seventy-seven strikes and you’re out?” Of course not. God doesn’t ration the forgiveness he showers upon us, and he doesn’t want us to ration the forgiveness we extend to others.

To grasp what Jesus meant, we need to appreciate that the number seven was associated with perfection, and therefore with God, because God is perfect. By teaching us to forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus is driving home the point that we’re to forgive like God forgives: without limit, without restriction, without compromise, without any strings attached. We can’t earn God’s forgiveness, and we shouldn’t expect others to have to earn it from us.

But how can we apply this to 9/11? How can Jesus’ words help us view that event through his eyes? To answer that, we should recall that forgiveness is a decision- it’s a choice to refrain from retaliation, revenge, or a desire to take an eye-for-an-eye. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had some wise words on this score. “An eye for an eye,” he promised, “leaves everyone blind.”

Yet so many wanted to take an eye for an eye after 9/11. Referring to the terrorists, one politician announced: “God may have mercy on you, but we won’t!” That was anger speaking. And it’s normal to feel angry when hurt or attacked. But we can’t that anger harden into bitterness, resentment, or a thirst for revenge. Adding evil to evil is the devil’s work. To bring good out of evil is God’s work, and that’s where we come in. When we forgive, we bring an end to the cycle of violence and hate.

If such forgiveness doesn’t seem fair to us, we’re absolutely right! Forgiveness isn’t fair. An eye-for-an-eye is fair. Strict justice is fair. Through forgiveness, we temper justice with mercy. As has often been said, “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” By God’s free gift of grace, we’re able to not give to others what they justly deserve, through the mercy of forgiveness.

But does being forgiving people turn us into doormats or punching bags? Does it invite someone to hurt us over and over again? Does it encourage terrorists to strike again? Not at all. Forgiveness doesn’t preclude justice. Blessed Pope John Paul II forgave the gunman who tried to assassinate him. But that gunman remained in prison. Dangerous criminals can be forgiven, and kept off the street at the same time. Terrorists can be forgiven, while we still act to protect our nation, and defend the common good.

By forgiving them, however, we let go of the desire for revenge; by forgiving, we can view them and what they did, not through eyes of hate, but through eyes of love. Just as Jesus sees them- he who begs us to love our enemies. Indeed, it is they who are the very measure of our love. Dorothy Day put it well: “I really only love God, as much as I love the person I love the least.”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )