Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Free Call and Gift of God

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Sept. 24, 2017. Gospel: Mt 20:1-16.
Theme: – The Free Gift and Call of God.  When people hear today’s Gospel most come away thinking, "That sure doesn't sound very fair to me! The guys who put in an hour's work ended up getting as much money as those who sweat it out in the sun all day long!"  Now, if Jesus had intended to give us a course in business ethics and hiring practices, then these people would be right!  But we must remember that this story is a parable, that is, a simple fictitious story told to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson and to begin to understand it, we have to look at the symbolism used by Jesus. You see, in this parable the landowner is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom of Heaven. And the workers are you and me, that is, everyone on planet Earth. The various hours of the day represent the different times in life that God’s call can come to us. I think there are 3 main lessons here…

1) The Call originates with God, it is his initiative…This is important to remember because it teaches us something that, it seems to me, most people I meet - including many Catholics - seem to forget: that we have no right to Heaven, to eternal life. Humanity, in the persons and choices of our first parents, Adam and Eve, gave up God's original invitation to Paradise, to the Vineyard, by choosing to sin, to live life on our own terms and according to our own desires. And each one of us has agreed with Adam and Eve each time we have personally chosen to sin…so we can’t just blame them! 

2) But God calls each one of us in a particular and individual way and at a time in our lives when he might be most open to saying “yes”.  When God look out at us humans, all standing around on planet Earth, like those men in the parable with nothing to do and waiting for work, He doesn’t just see billions of faces all lost in the crowd. No, God sees the individual, He sees you and me personally, and not just our faces but our hearts, our minds, our most intimate selves. And he calls us in a time and in a manner in which we might be most open to saying “yes” to going into the Vineyard.

3) And lastly, responding to the Call of God requires work, effort, on our part.  We just don’t say “yes, thank you, God” to the call and keep standing around doing nothing!  We respond in faith to the invitation to the Vineyard by building up our relationship with God through prayer and the sacraments, by laboring over the reformation of our lives, by being of service to others. In the parable, these good works are symbolized by the sweat and labor of the workers, because as St. Paul tells us, co-operating with God's grace requires a lot of hard work on as we make our way through this world with all its distractions and temptations.

So, let's thank God for this free underserved unearned gift of His grace. Let's praise Him for inviting us into the Vineyard of the kingdom although he has no need to do so.  And let's ask him to strengthen our hard work as we labor to be found worthy, at the end of our lives, to inherit the free unearned undeserved gift of eternal life.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness is the Pathway to Peace & Healing

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 17, 2017. Gospel:  Matthew 18:21-35.  Theme: Forgiveness is the Pathway to Peace & Healing.  It really hurts when someone sins against us, when they betray us or commit an act that robs us of happiness, of relationships or even of material belongings.  The pain can be deep and the wounds long lasting.  These wounds can turn into anger, bitterness, resentment if we do not treat them with the medicine of forgiveness.  They can consume us from the inside out like a cancer. Refusing to forgive can become a spiritual and emotional poison that slowly but surely kills us, while we foolishly believe it is hurting the other person and not ourselves. And more so, this spiritual disease can spread out from us like an infection, either contaminating others or driving them away from us because we are toxic.

But Jesus, our God of Love came in the flesh among us, teaching us that forgiveness is at the very center and root of our faith, so much so, that if we refuse to forgive others, God will not forgive us. Now on a human level this seems impossible, and it is! But we Christians do not live on a purely human level.  Jesus did not ask the impossible and then leave us to our own resources to try and live up to it! Because of God’s gift of grace, His life and love within us, we can live on a super-human, a supernatural level, due to the Holy Spirit who dwells and acts within us.

This Spirit makes it possible for us to become like the Forgiving Jesus, no matter who we are or what has been done to us. The divine power of the Holy Spirit in us enables us to truly forgive from the heart, just as Jesus tells us to do in today’s Gospel.  The Spirit makes it possible for us to break free of the prison bars of resentment and bitterness.  Through our forgiveness, the Holy Spirit brings healing and new life to both the one who forgives and to the one who is forgiven. So, I think the very important question on our minds should be: how do I learn to do this?

I personally believe that St. Francis of Assisi, who has been called the most Christ-like man to walk this earth, gives us a way to do this in his simple Peace Prayer. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta agreed with this and made it a mandatory daily prayer for her Missionaries of Charity.  The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, a group famous for their emphasis on forgiveness and making amends to others agreed with this, and made it one of their official prayer, too. It goes like this:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Informed Consent from Jesus

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 3, 2017. Mt 16:21-27 . Theme: Informed Consent for Following Christ   Every time I come across today’s Gospel reading I can’t help but think of what we in the health care world call “informed consent”. Before you have any kind of serious medical procedure, the physician is required to inform you all about it, so that you can make a good solid decision. You are informed about the basic details, the requirements, the risks and the benefits of the procedure you will undergo. That way you cannot say “I had no idea of what I was getting myself into!” Well today’s Gospel from Matthew is very much like Jesus giving informed consent to each one of us about being and living as a Christian, a disciple of Christ. So, let’s take another look at it from this point of view and see what he is telling us…

The basic details of Christianity, or the overall picture of discipleship, are found in his words “follow Me.” To follow someone in Bible language doesn’t mean to simply walk behind them in their footsteps. It means to take on their attitude towards life and relationships, to live life from their viewpoint. So, to be a Christian means to think and act like Jesus, which is quite the opposite from how our culture tells us to live and act. It means to take on a new way of thinking, a new way of loving, a new way of looking at life and relationships.

The requirements of Christianity are spelled out for us by Jesus when he says: “deny yourself and take up your cross.” In other words, once a person chooses to live life as a Christian, the priorities of life change from what our culture tells us. Daily, the media of all sorts, assures us that we must think of ourselves first and live so as to meet every one of our personal desires. Then, if it doesn’t cost us too much, we should think of others. As for God, well… look long and hard and you will never find him entering into the equation of life in the outlook of secular society. But the informed consent that Jesus gives us to be Christians tells us that God must come first in our lives and relationships, and our neighbor second. He tells us that we must place ourselves last just as He did.

And this brings us to the risks and benefits of Christianity. The huge benefit with eternal results is that in forgetting about ourselves in a selfish way, we actually come to discover who we really are as children and images of our God who is Love.  By living out our baptism, we become one with Jesus in death and resurrection and thus have victory over sin and death. We discover a new kind of inner joy and peaceful serenity that fills our hearts even in difficult times. And because we have tried our best, with the help of God’s grace, to be like Jesus and to be of service to others in this life, we are guaranteed the eternal life of Heaven.

So, that’s the huge benefit but what about the risk? Should we decide, however, to use our free will to reject this invitation to Christian discipleship, Jesus informs us that we will lose our lives eternally because we have chosen to be left on our own. We have freely decided that we do not want to participate in His victory over sin and death. We do not want to be like Him or take up his way of living. All we will have is the 80 or 90 years we are given on this planet, and they might well be full of pleasure and riches and temporary joys, but then it will indeed come to an end. No one can avoid that conclusion.  God loves each of us immensely and desires our salvation, but love is a free choice, and he respects the choices we make…even if it saddens his heart.

So, all of this is the informed consent that Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel. What is your choice? How will you respond to Jesus today about following Him? What is your heart telling you to do? He is waiting for your reply and is hoping with all his heart that you say YES!