Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 133

Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.

Today's Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Saint Matthew remind us of God's sovereign authority over us. 
  • Isaiah says, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 
  • Saint Matthew's parable challenges us, "Are you envious because I am generous?'"
Given those readings I find Saint Paul's attitude all the more refreshing. He has found his place in God's service with his dedication to the well being of others. He is not cowed by God's sovereign majesty; nor does he make much of his own divine authority in the Church. 
Rather, although he is writing from prison and tempted to hope he might die in the wretched place and be delivered instantly into Paradise, he prefers release from prison that he might return to Philippi. 
In either case he is open to God's will. His fate doesn't matter that much to him; but, given his druthers he’druther be on the Gospel Road again. 
The great Italian poet Dante put it succinctly, "In his will is our peace." 
This gospel may sound sour to American ears. The Catholic Church has a history of championing workers’ rights to a living wage; and our sympathy may lie with those who labored the whole day in the hot sun and were paid no more than those who arrived in the cool of the evening.
We also have a tradition of challenging authority. In fact, we're supposed to be able to change our leadership with national, state and local elections. "Throw the bums out!" we say; although the bums are demonstrating a remarkable ability to stay in place.
The landowner in Saint Matthew's story won't even respond to the workers' complaints. He replies to only one man. He owes the workers nothing but what he has paid them. "Take what is yours and go!" he says with considerable contempt. The point of this parable is not God's contempt for his people. It is rather his generosity and freedom.
Precisely because the story is hard to swallow, it smacks us with God's sovereign freedom and superabundant generosity. We're not used to seeing such behavior; wealthy people are usually parsimonious; even their generosity is self-serving. The landowner in this story sneers at the whole lot of them. We need other stories to show us God's more genial side, and there are many in the scriptures.
Isaiah reminds us of God's sovereign freedom and strange ways when he says,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
This should remind us of Jesus’ rebuking Saint Peter, which we heard recently, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God thinks but as men!”
I find it helpful to look at the universe around me when I think of God’s generosity. The  stars in the sky; the fruit on a tree; the sand on the seashore, the bugs in a swarm; the power of the wind: they speak of overwhelming abundance. If they are not infinite they are far beyond my counting. They are quite literally as high as the heavens are above the earth; and that measure seems to increase exponentially every time a scientist studies the data – which is also expanding exponentially!
So who am I to complain if I don’t get as much as I want? Do I have standing in God’s courtroom, especially when I cannot finish an inventory of the gifts I’ve been given? Saint Paul from his prison cell just wants to do more for the Lord. He knows intimately the Lord’s mercy for he has received the good as well as the bad. He never suffered a stress or misery which was not compensated, and he knew plenty of both.
Isaiah was told, “They will look but not see; listen but not hear.” This parable challenges us to open our eyes and see again God's generosity.

Memorial of "Padre Pio," Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, Priest

Lectionary: 448

I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus, who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession, to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

Closing his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul reminds him (and us) of where we stand in time; that is, between that moment when Jesus made his noble confession of faith before Pontius Pilate, and the "appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ." 
To be human we need a sense of where we are both geographically and chronologically. Rising from an unusually deep nap in mid-afternoon the first thing we ask is, "What time is it?" Most often, under normal circumstances, we know what time it is when we get up in the morning, take our lunch or retire at night. For as long as historians can remember people have kept track of the time. There are records of Romans complaining of living too much by the sundial! Rarely are we caught off guard and discover that time has slipped away.
Likewise, as Christians we want to know the time. Indeed some Christians have studied the scriptures like ancient magicians studying the entrails of chickens to determine when the Lord might make his long awaited appearance. They do this despite the specific teaching of Jesus:
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
In today's teaching this chapter in time began with Jesus standing before Pilate and making his noble confession. Paul would remind us that we too must make our "noble confession" by keeping the commandments without stain or reproach. 
We stand under judgement all of the time; it is both God's judgement and our neighbors'. They're watching to see if we act like the Christians we pretend to be. Sometimes their notions are unrealistic or self-serving. Panhandlers may think we owe them charity if they see us coming from the church. 
But very often they are right! The human being has a sense of right and wrong and they know when we're doing wrong, even if they sympathize with our misbehavior. They might even show some compassion for our hypocrisy because they recognize it in themselves. 
But they want, need and deserve inspiration. Our non-Christian, non-practicing neighbors need to see married couples holding hands in public; parents and children enjoying one another; and volunteers committing themselves to works of mercy. They need to see spirited church ceremonies if they happen to look in on us on a Sunday morning. They need to see something attractive in our behavior. 
Our life of faith can fascinate our neighbors because we are fascinated by, and live always in the light of 
the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 447

Teach and urge these things.
Whoever teaches something different
and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing,
and has a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes.

In his First Letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul doesn't allow much room for honest disagreement. He considers his opponents "conceited, understanding nothing." In fact, he says, they have a "morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes."
I am, by the grace of God, not a theologian but from my position out here in the hinterland of theological disputation, I have sometimes heard, like distant thunder, an argument for the "right to disagree." "Honest people," it is said, "may have differing points of view."
I can understand that. Two people standing side by side and witnessing the same auto accident can offer quite different narratives of what happened. One may be a carpenter, the other a mother of toddlers. They have different skills for seeing what appears before their eyes. But if a traffic cop happens to see the incident, that interpretation will probably weigh the most in court.
Opinions, including theological and philosophical distinctions, do make a difference. Saint Paul brought his Pharisaic training to his ministry. Grounded in Jewish history and thought, familiar with the best writing of his time, working closely with forming Christian communities, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he did not hesitate to use his authority to encourage and discourage.
He could see when people were being difficult for the sake of being difficult. These individuals permit their egos to get in the way of their own best interests and those of the community. It's not hard to detect ego; it smells and pollutes conversation. It is a tree that bears bad fruit. Pressed by conflict and defensive, it may appeal to a fictional "right to disagree."
The United States Constitution has been described as "godless." The authors and signers intentionally avoided the word God. And they granted enormous room for religious disagreement among citizens so long as they observe the law of the land. Given the broad agreement among Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, that law is a good thing; they did not foresee a religious challenge to the law. Even Christian pacifists could find a place to serve within a warlike society.
The Catholic Church has supported that document precisely because it permits Catholics to practice our faith without harassment from authorities, and because it permits us to compare and contrast various theological opinions. We can still condemn outright religious opinions that are contrary to our religious tradition.
Some Christian churches support the legal right of abortion; we don't buy it. Not only do we suspect the idea, we suspect the individualist impulses that demand it. They are hostile to our sacred institutions of marriage and family. We cannot support any fictional "right" to abortion. It flies in the face of God's mercy, with which we are intimately familiar.
Many Christian churches readily recognize divorce. It seems to them a compassionate response to the violence women endure within their own homes. Again, we smell a rat. If the vows of marriage mean nothing then Truth itself is threatened. A child of divorced parents must suspect everything they tell him. For that matter, divorce has not protected women from being sorely abused by their "lovers." They suffer more violence today than before divorce was introduced as a solution.
We wonder if the 19th century legislators who introduced divorce to the American way of life were not "conceited, understanding nothing." Perhaps, their motives were not compassion but being rid of troublesome wives.
The tent of "compassion" has become rather tattered as it shelters divorce, abortion and gay marriage. Ministering as I do in health care, I wonder if it's not a short cut to drug abuse as doctors use pharmacology to deal with troublesome patients.
Bad ideas are bad ideas, they corrupt even the mind of a good person. Saint Paul urged his disciples to avoid those who are conceited, understanding nothing, and have a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes.
He urged them to trust his wisdom, experience and authority, even as they asked the Holy Spirit to enlighten their understanding. That Spirit which is confident, courageous, humble, generous and hospitable opens ways to communion that are closed to the opinionated.

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

Lectionary: 643

I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit....

If the world around me, and everyone in it, were ideal my only problem would be me. My inner moods and dispositions would not conform to the wonderful place in which I live. I would simply be challenged to live in a manner worthy of the call which I have received, an invitation to conform to everyone else's behavior.
Sometimes I am convinced the only problem is me. If enough people are mad at me I am sure of it. And then I remember that others have problems too; and the world we live in is a mess. I am only another of God's problems.
Today we celebrate the Evangelist Matthew. Jesus sent him along with all the disciples into a mad, chaotic world of distressed persons and dysfunctional families with a bond of peace, the Holy Spirit.
This bond is strong and subtle. It can hold large congregations of quarrelsome people together and reassure isolated prisoners like Saint Paul that, "All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of things shall be well."
The Apostle surely knew whereof he wrote when he urged the Ephesians to live "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love." He felt that peaceful spirit even as he wondered if he would ever get out of prison, if he would eat another meal, be permitted to finish his letter, or be beaten by his guards.
There in that miserable place he knew the presence of Jesus who had also been imprisoned, beaten and finally executed. This cosmopolitan man, raised in comfort, educated in the best schools, conversant with the best people, familiar with capital cities and the highways that connected them was reassured by the Spirit that he was right where God wanted him.
He could not be bothered with theodicy, the modern question about the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God who seems to have lost control of the world. He could say what our African-American Christian neighbors living in a hostile nation, tell us over and over, "God is still in charge."
Even the hostility is a sign of God's sovereign authority.
Yes, the problem is me; but it's also all around me. And the Spirit of God still binds us together with all humility and gentleness.

Memorial of Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, and Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 445

Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion:
Who was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated in the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This passage from Paul's first letter to Timothy is a poem or song celebrating the "mystery of devotion" who is Jesus. However, this mystery requires many names and deep reflection. If you think you know the Lord, you don't. If you acknowledge that you are known by the Lord and wish to remain in his company, you reflect some of the humble wisdom required of a disciple.
This mystery comes to us as a "manifested" word, "in the flesh." The word, of course, is an analogy which suggests the mystery; human beings speak words to one another; what God does is unspeakable in human terms but it's something like a word -- which we have heard and welcomed. But the word was a man who came to us in the flesh, a messenger from God, bringing peace, mercy, atonement, justice, communion and so forth.
However, the Word was crucified like any common criminal. He did not display any great authority or power while he lived among us; he did not persuade Roman emperors, their sycophant kings or their punishing armies to worship him. In fact he and his claim needed vindication. It was given by the Spirit.
You and I received that Spirit, but not everyone has. I often think of Saint Luke's "icon" which reveals the young virgin Mary and her matronly cousin Elizabeth greeting one another. These two know something in the Spirit that worldly powers cannot imagine. They are dancing for joy well beneath the radar that scans the earth for resistance or rebellion. Why would the emperor care if a couple of silly women are pregnant?
But we know and we dance for joy.
The mystery is seen by the angels, which are also invisible to earthly powers, and proclaimed to the Gentiles. The apostolic church never forgot its keen disappointment that the entire Jewish world did not receive the Word.
But he was "believed in throughout the world" by those whom God foreknew, even as he was taken up in glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

My eyes are upon the faithful of the land,
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of integrity
shall be in my service.

Today's responsorial psalm picks up on the theme of leadership from 1 Timothy. Psalm 101 is one of the royal psalms, probably written for the grand ceremonies when a king was crowned or welcomed for a state visit.
In the selection above the king speaks, announcing his benevolent gaze upon the "faithful of the land" and his policy of employing in his service the "upright." The king of Judah, a descendant of David, the protector and sponsor of God's temple, sets the tone for just government.
It didn't always happen that way but the Jewish religion allowed critics of the government -- God's prophets -- ample freedom.
Of course, this being a divinely-inspired religion of human beings, the king found ways to influence the prophets, by special favors or outright threats. There were prophetic guilds in Judea just as there are religious communities in Catholicism; they could be devout or impious, zealous or lazy, intelligent or stupid, perspicacious or dull. Inevitably the question arose, "How do you know if a prophet is from God?" That too was the king's problem, which he and his capital city had to address.
Jewish kingship disappeared with the Babylonian exile and was never restored. Prophets remained and guided the people through the turbulent centuries that followed, but they too fell silent long before Jesus was born. The Jewish religion persisted with a restored priesthood in Jerusalem until 70 CE, and rabbis provide guidance to this day.
The new Christian religion adopted a different system of leadership as the apostolic missionaries disappeared. Bishops, deacons and presbyters led churches scattered throughout the Roman world, from Britain and Spain to India. The system was built around the Mass with the bishop presiding, the deacons providing physical and clerical assistance, and the presbyters acting as elders. In many cases the deacon had more authority than the presbyters but the bishop, representing both Jesus as high priest of the altar and the enthroned God the Father from his presider's chair, ruled the assembly.
During apostolic times the bishop might have been appointed and ordained by an apostle. After that halcyon era he would be elected by the presbyters and formally ordained by an assembly of neighboring bishops who laid hands on his head, thus ensuring the unity of the Church.
Given the external hostility of Roman authorities and the Jews, and the internal challenge of managing money and personnel, the bishop's job was never easy. Not then; not today. Many, like today's martyr Saint Januarius, were executed as reward for their zeal.
Anyone who wants the job probably wants it for all the wrong reasons. If he gets the job he will suffer even more for the inevitably disappointment; no amount of privilege can balance the misery.
Which is why we must pray for the leaders of our church, from the pope, through the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, ushers, greeters, readers, Eucharistic ministers down to the altar servers, not to mention virtually everyone else in these trying times. Amen.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 443

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

In recent years many critics have raised concern about the Church's support of the state. When Saint Paul urged Saint Timothy and his disciples to offer prayers for kings and all in authority, few authorities were even aware of their Christian subjects; they were so few.
By the time of Saint Augustine, the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Seeing the Empire disintegrating before his eyes, he wrote his City of God, a book-length essay that foresaw the rise of the Church to political eminence during the middle ages. There was no single state for many centuries but virtually all rulers in Europe claimed allegiance to the Catholic Church, even as they waged continual warfare with one another and the City of God, Rome.
Many Catholics, citing Augustine's work, believe the Church's greatest century was the 13th, when the pope and bishops had enormous political, financial, military, economic and social power. This, despite Pope Innocent II's recognition of an inner corruption and his promotion of the mendicant orders to reform the Church. More than ever before, Europe needed to hear of Jesus' poverty and helplessness.
By the dawn of the 20th century secular governments had regained authority and the Vatican empire was reduced to 110 acres; the Pope's influence, mostly moral. But it took a Second Vatican Council to recognize the rightness of that arrangement.
Throughout these many centuries we have found justification for our attitudes toward secular authority in today's passage from Saint Paul's letter to Timothy and a similar passage in his Letter to the Romans
The Church has an obvious preference for economic and political stability. We pray for our rulers because we want civil authorities, of whatever religious persuasion, to govern wisely and justly, and so to maintain peace. 
We have a long memory of injustice, both those we have suffered and those we have imposed upon others. The Magisterium might deny our support of racism, bigotry and persecution, maintaining as it does the purity of God's action within the Church, but we know that sinful societies, acting in fear and greed, fighting for stability and defending their prosperity, can do terrible things. Catholics recall the hostility we met arriving in the United States and we remember the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, which spawned such suspicion. We remember too, Catholic Spain's expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. We're not innocent. 
Since Saint Paul wrote his letters to the Romans and to Saint Timothy, we have devised ways to select our governors and change our laws. The Apostle would have supposed God himself willed the Empire, it was so deeply entrenched and settled. We know we have the duty to support, criticise and challenge our governments. They are only secular institutions set up to serve a purpose.
Christian patriots are profoundly aware of their own sins and those of governments. They demand justice especially when it might cost them some measure of comfort or security. Habitually they make sacrifice and they don't mind asking the same of their authorities. 
The Lord himself sent us from Jerusalem to our native or adopted lands to be a blessing. We remain as staunch supporters of good government and fearless critics of corruption; and thus we contribute to God's work of building the Kingdom.