Sunday, October 29, 2017

WHAT IS THE GREATEST COMMAND OF THE LAW? a homily for the Thirtieth Sunday, Year A (Matthew 22:34–40)

 The audio is here.
Last week we had the Pharisees and their the enemies the Herodians gathering together to oppose the Lord.  Last week our Lord told us that we are to put God first in our lives.  He told us that while we owe something to our Nation and the State our ultimate loyalty must be to God and to His Law.  As St Thomas More said “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”  “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”
It seems that this week we have the Pharisees gathering together with another of their enemies, the Sadducees.  The Pharisees were wealthy, devout Jews, men who could afford to spend time studying and observing not just the Law of the Old Testament but the vast body of teaching that had been built up around it.  They also accepted all the prophets and books that we know as the Old Testament.  They were scholars who really wanted to be holy but on their own terms. 
In contrast the Sadducees were the party associated with the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, a vast extended clan of hereditary clergymen.  They acknowledge no holy books but the Torah, that is, the first five books of our Old Testament.  To them the one and only prophet was Moses, the man who spoke to God face to face.  If a doctrine was not there in the Torah of Moses it was not to be believed which led to a lot of conflict with the Pharisees.  The Sadducees and the Pharisees were no more friends than chalk and cheese.
That was the context behind this simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  It is one of those questions that experts (or those who think they are experts) would like to argue and discuss ad infinitum.  Our Lord responds by citing the Shema Israel, “Hear O Israel”, the Jewish creed that they still recite everyday.  Indeed the Church also often cites it in her worship for we believe as they do.   Traditionally it is the first prayer an observant Jew will say when he wakes and the last he will say before sleep.  It is their fervent wish to make it their last words in this life.  It is the heart of the Jewish Faith.
Our Lord does not quote the whole of the Shema nor its first verse but its third line, its very heart.  The Lord God is to be the centre of our lives, of our whole being.  He then adds to it another commandment from the Law, from one of those first five books of the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  This does not mean that we are to love our neighbour more than our true self but neither does it mean that we love him less.  It means that we should put as much energy into loving others as we do into loving our own selves!  Our Lord tells us that this latter commandment is akin to, and dependent on, the first.  Love of God and love of our neighbour are intimately linked and are at the heart of our Faith for both Jews and Christians.  Remember too that for our Lord love does not mean affection nor does it mean mere niceness.  For our Lord love means the total gift of one’s self in service of another.  If you want to know what love means for God looks like look at a crucifix.

Our Lord is telling us that we cannot sincerely love our neighbour if we do not sincerely love God and our love for our neighbour is not sincere if we are not prepared to aid that neighbour in his nakedness, his hunger, his thirst, in other words, his suffering.  We would not let ourselves go hungry if there was food, or thirsty if there was something good to drink, nor naked and cold if there were clothes, nor homeless if there was a place to stay.  If we would not do that to ourselves then we ought not to do it to our neighbour either, not if we claim to love God and hope to go to heaven.  That is the price of eternal life: to show one’s faith in Christ by one’s love for one’s neighbour in his need. 
Some of course will point to others and say ‘why doesn’t he do it?’ or ‘why don’t they?’  But our Lord does not ask you to answer for your neighbour.  Your neighbour will answer for himself before the throne of Judgment just as you and I will. It is there that we will answer for our neglect of those in need unless we take the chances we are given here.  If you want to wipe away your sins start by wiping away the tears of those who are hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, homeless, lonely or despised.  If you truly love God reach out to those who are in need and you will find that God is there before you, reaching out to you.
You see that this Law, this Faith of ours, is not some sentimental injunction to ‘be nice’ and not hurt anyone.  Our Lord is not a sentimentalist.  He is absolutely sincere in his command to us that we measure our love for Him by our love for our neighbour and our neighbour is anyone who is in need.  
Our Lord is not saying that He will love us if we love our neighbour but that if we love Him we will love our neighbour, that is, each person we meet but especially whoever is in need.   Why should we love God?  We should love Him because every breath is a gift from Him.  All that is is a gift from Him.  Not content with creating us and blessing us He has emptied Himself in sending the Son into the world to die for us so that we could be with Him forever in Heaven.  To borrow an image from Isaac Newton we are like children playing by the sea and all the vast ocean of the knowledge of God’s love remains unexplored and unappreciated before us.  It realizing this that made St Francis weep out loud “love is not loved.” 

Let us not be Pharisees trying to save ourselves or like the Sadducees living a minimalist Faith.  Our path to Heaven is not impossible, not with God’s grace, but it is hard and narrow.  It means letting go of many things we may cherish so that we might really and truly love God and really and truly love others.  Climbing a mountain is not easy but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.  The view from Heaven will take our breath away and the way up there is through love for God and for our neighbour.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

WHOSE IMAGE IS THIS? A homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Year A, (Matthew 22:15–21)

The audio is here.

As Christians, while we are in this world, we have one foot in Eternity and one foot here.  We are both members of our nation and state and members of the Body of Christ and His Kingdom.  Which side takes preference reveals our true priorities and can determine our ultimate destination.  This same conflict appears in today’s passage from the Gospel. 
The Pharisees were not clergy.  They were the wealthy religious Jews who could afford to give all their attention to the various rules that grew up around the Old Testament Law of Moses.   For over the centuries since Moses gave the Law to the Jews they had added on layers of legal decisions and commentary that itself had become part of the Law.  For them happiness and peace came from strictly following the Law in all its detail.  The Herodians were the political followers and supporters of the half-Jewish family of the Herods.  If you want an idea of what the Herod family was like think of a cross between Eastenders and the Sopranos.  Not a nice bunch of people.  They were not religious Jews.  They thought of happiness and peace as making money and gaining power while keeping on the right side of the Romans.  These two groups (two of many factions) were not friendly to one another to say the least.  So our Lord who has come to save us and in the process bring true peace and happiness is opposed by a union of two groups that are otherwise bitter enemies.
This makes their question more interesting.  The Law forbade the use of images, especially idols.  The Romans, being pagans, used images everywhere even on their coins.  The question seems to be about how one is to relate to the occupying power.  If our Lord says not to pay taxes because of the image on the coin then he can be reported to the Romans as a traitor but if he says to pay the tax then he can be accused of acquiescing in idolatry as well as supporting the Roman occupiers. 
Our Lord’s answer is brilliant.  He asks for a coin and when they hand it over they already show that they themselves are using the Roman coinage.  The he asks that simple question: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  It is Caesar’s, that is, the Emperor’s image, a pagan.  They are using the Roman coinage and therefore recognize the authority of Rome.  The coin belongs to Rome so one has to give it back in taxes.
The deeper issue, though, is about to whom we owe allegiance.  From the foundation of the State there was a tendency to think of Ireland as a Catholic state and therefore to over-identify Irishness and Catholicism.  That is dying out.  The danger is that we swing in the opposite direction.  Yet the question has troubled believers in different ways over the centuries.  The English martyr Sir Thomas More put it succinctly “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”  That from a man who had held the highest office in England after that of the King.  “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.” 
One could say that by being born and raised here, or for some of us having chosen to make this land our home, we bear the imprint of Irishness.  We are stamped, shaped by our culture of origin and the culture around us.  Yet when we were baptized a much deeper, eternal imprint was made on our very soul, that of Christ.  More, we became one body, one person with Him and we cannot lose that mark, that mark, that connection.  There can therefore arise a conflict between these two imprints.  Are we Irish or are we Catholic?  Do we cherish the imprint of Caesar or imprint of God-made-man?  What we owe to the government and what we owe to God and His Kingdom, the Church? 
Certainly we owe the Irish nation and the Irish State our allegiance (they are not the same thing for the latter is there to serve the former).  As long as both seek to serve the Natural Law, that God-given law of right and wrong that is known to us by reason then we can serve them.  We should never act in a way as to do harm to our neighbour or our people.  But what do we owe God?  What do we owe Him without Whom there would be no state, no nation, no world?  What do we owe Him without Whom there would be no possibility of eternal life?
We owe God worship, that is, at the very least attending the Sacraments with devotion and attention but also ordering our whole life to His service and praise.  We owe Him our faith, which is itself, along with everything else, His gift to us.  We express that faith through prayer, fasting and care for those in need.  We owe God obedience in all things, that is, doing the duties of our state of life for love of Him, avoiding and opposing evil, and doing good especially to those who would do us harm, or are in any kind of need.  By these means we truly love our neighbour and show our love for the God who holds nothing back from us. 

We have the imprint of Christ on our souls through baptism and confirmation, the imprint of Him who is the exact likeness and image of the Father.  The Father in sending the Son to us has held nothing back from us.  He has given us everything, holding nothing back so that we can give our whole selves to Him in return.  It is in this giving of ourselves to God and to others in love that we discover what it really means to be human.
While we are still here in this world we corrode through sin and the image of Christ can grow faint.  We can scrape away the grime and corrosion of this world, we can polish and bring out that imprint by doing as our Lady requested at Fatima: pray the rosary everyday, wear the brown scapular, to make sacrifices for the sake of saving sinners, to practice the First Saturday devotion (sincere confession and communion in a state of grace) as an act of reparation to her and to respond to Christ by seeking to live an ever more obedient, more holy life.

By these means we bring out and become the image of Christ in the world, wherein others can see Him and come to faith in Him.  To remain stained and corroded, dull and disfigured is to be a block for others.  We owe our Lord our total service for He has held nothing back from us.  When He come first in our lives then we lift our foot out of this world and place it in Heaven and after that it is only a matter of time before we are entirely and eternally in His Presence.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

MANY ARE CALLED BUT FEW ARE CHOSEN: A homily for the Twenty-Eight Sunday in Year A (Matthew 22:1–14)

 The audio is here.
“Many are called but few are chosen.”  Are we to take this statement literally?  What does our Lord mean?  Are there those who are doomed to be excluded from Heaven?  Why can’t everyone but the worst people go there?  Surely most people get to go to Heaven because most people are not murderers or rapists or thieves?  Surely Hell is nearly empty?  How many will be saved in the end?  Elsewhere in the Gospels our Lord refuses to answer the question of how many will be saved.   He will not answer the question.  Why?
To understand our Lord we must understand a few things.  First the passage I have just read must be understood in the context of our Lord’s confrontation with His fellow Jews who will not believe in Him.  For generations, centuries, they had been promised a Divine intervention, a Saviour who would grant them the power to truly keep the Law.  Our Lord is the fulfillment of these promises.  He is God made flesh for us, the Word of the Father, the True and Perfect Lawgiver, and they owe Him obedience and worship.  They have been called to the Wedding that is the Kingdom promised to them but have made excuses, preferring the things of this world to those of the next.  Therefore, our Lord points out that the Gospel will be directed to those who are outcasts, the sinners, the Gentiles, us.  Yet there is a condition on entering the Kingdom even for us; it is not a blanket welcome.  The wedding garment that is asked of us may be the Sacrament of Baptism, or faith in Christ as God made man or a life of virtue.  Indeed the wedding garment made of all three. 
The “few” might mean that there are very few who will get to Heaven or that few among the Jews will or that few will freely co-operate with God’s grace and seek the heights of holiness.  The “many” obviously means all mankind for, as St Paul says, “God wants everyone to be saved.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we read that “many will come from East and West” to take the places in the Kingdom that should have gone to the Jews.  The passage, therefore, is not entirely clear.  Why does our Lord leave it so vague?
The reason our Lord refuses to answer the question of how many will be saved and does not clarify what he means by “many are called but few are chosen,” is that He wishes us to avoid two extremes, two dangers.  These two dangers to be avoided are those of despair and complacency.  If we think that few are saved, as many fundamentalist Protestants do, then we risk driving others and even ourselves into despair.  On the other hand, if we think that few will be lost and most of us are going to heaven, there is the risk of complacency.  The complacent make no effort to produce the fruit that our Lord asks of us while those who despair no longer try to avoid evil.  Neither seek to repent and to change and make no effort to convert others to Christ.   The complacent do so because they do not believe in God’s justice while those who despair do not believe in God’s mercy.
The Catholic understanding of our Lord’s teaching is that we do not know who is saved, apart from the canonized saints of the Church, but neither do we know who is lost.  “Count no one lost before the day of Judgment” say the Fathers of the Church.  They would add though that neither should we presume on our own salvation.  St Paul tells us that we should do as he does and strive like an athlete in the Olympic games not to win a medal but to win eternal life.  St Peter says that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling.  By this he means that we must avoid despair by making every effort to do our Lord’s will and co-operate with His grace but also know that without final perseverance we cannot be saved.  We should fear and loathe evil, any sin of any kind, especially our own sins, while trusting that God is merciful to any and all who turn to Him.  Now is the time that we have for salvation.  Now is the time we have been given to win the race and enter Heaven.
What of those we love who no longer practice their Faith?  What of those immersed in second unions, bogged down in addiction, or heedless of God’s commands?  What of brothers and sisters, children and friends who have turned their back on God or so it seems?  What about them?  St Therese of Lisieux once took it into her heart to pray for a condemned murderer.  She prayed earnestly for him and just before he was about to be executed he reached out, seized the crucifix the priest was holding and kissed it.  This she took to be a sign of sincere repentance and that the man was saved.   Only God knows how long he may have had to spend suffering in purgatory but at least he was on the way to Heaven.

If we want to see our loved ones saved then we must take our own salvation seriously.  As a Russian saint said “become a saint and you will save a thousand souls.”  God wants everyone to be saved for the very small price of faith, a gift He has given to all though many neglect to unwrap it.  When we seek to become holy we become reservoirs of grace and when we pray sincerely and earnestly for others we become channels of Divine grace to them.  We may not see the fruits of our prayers in this life but God always rewards faithfulness and obedience.  He wants us to put our whole faith and trust in Him, to let Him be the center of our lives.  When He is at the center then everything falls into its proper place and our lives and the lives of others are transformed.  This is our time to become saints.  We are running the race now.  Let us not get distracted, fall away and lose.


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