Responding to the Master

“So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter?”

This line bothers me. Out of all the lines in the entire parable, this line bothers me. It makes the master sound like a crook. I’m not sure I would want to work for this guy either. But I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it? The master seems a bit off, but that doesn’t excuse the servant with one talent of silver for burying it.

The parable isn’t about the master, whether he stole other peoples’ crops, whether he was particularly honest. The parable is about the response of the servants. The first and the second servants, after receiving their silver or gold or whatever, took it and worked with it. Eventually, the master returns and they’ve made a nice return. The master entrusts them with more. The third servant, however, decides, “Hey, I don’t want to work for this guy,” so he takes his bucket of money and buries it.

Unlike the other servants who, despite some apparent illicit or odd activity of their masters, decide to make the best of it, this guy doesn’t. I imagine he probably complained about his master a lot, and generally was unpleasant to be around. He acts out of fear and mistrust of the master. He never asks the master to clarify what he’s doing, he just sees something and assumes the worst. Instead of taking the chance given to him by the master to do things his way, the “right” way, he just buries a bunch of metal in somebody’s yard.

Which servant are we?

God has bestowed many great gifts and abilities upon us. Sometimes, he acts in ways we don’t understand or that we really don’t like. But how do we respond to God when this happens? Do we stand firm in our faith, trusting that God knows what he’s doing? Or, do we start acting out of fear and mistrust, second-guessing God?

What about in our daily lives, and our daily struggles? When we are given what seems like an impossible schedule, with an excessive workload on top of it, how do we respond? Do we complain and moan and groan about it? Do we shut down and binge watch three seasons of “How I Met Your Mother?” Or, do we follow the example of the first two servants, and get to work? I’m not saying there’s no place for some leisure, but I’ve recently discovered how much I can get done when I’m not trying to stay current on 5 or 6 different TV shows, and how freeing it is.

This parable is telling us something pretty simple, really. Accept what you’re given, and do your best to make the most of it.

That is what we, as children of the light, are called to do.

That is how we make ourselves alert and soberly await the coming of the Lord.

That is how we remain in the Lord.

Remain in me as I remain in you, says the Lord. Whoever remains in me bears much fruit. 1 For when we remain with the Lord, we are coming to him with our labors and our burdens, and we can lay them at his feet. There, we will find rest… For [his] yoke is easy, and [his] burden light.2

Today’s Readings:
Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalms 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30

The Fuel for our Lamps

At our baptisms, our godparents lit a small candle from the light of the Easter candle. This candle was then presented to us, or our parents if we were not old enough. This candle was a visible symbol of the light of Christ that had now been lit within us. Jesus calls us to keep that light burning, not just for us, but for all those around us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that no one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 1 We must put the light within us on display so that others can see it, and so that our light can guide others to Christ.

To effectively guide others to Christ and his Heavenly Kingdom, we must ensure that our light shines as brightly as possible, and that it continues to burn. How are we to do this? How do we make the light of Christ within us burn ever more brightly? What must we do to ensure that the light of Christ within us continues to burn?

The light of Christ within us grows with our virtue. As we become better people, people who are more like Christ, the basket around our light is lifted. When we put sin behind us and dedicate ourselves to doing the work of God and his kingdom, we work to remove the basket that covers our light. In addition to the basket around our light being removed, the light itself can grow to hold more fuel and to burn brighter. This happens when we regularly receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.

Reconciliation trims the wick of our light. It may sting, and it may be painful, and we may really hate having to do it, but it is worth it. Just as when a wick is trimmed, the lamp glows brighter, so when our soul is healed by reconciliation God shines more clearly through us. The Eucharist grows the size of our lamp. By increasing our charity and love for others, the Eucharist gives our lamp the ability to hold more fuel. When the Eucharist increases our hope in God, it gives a purity to the flame, allowing it to shine even more brightly and beautifully. The Eucharist strengthens our faith, which makes the light within us stronger, so that it may withstand even the strongest gusts of wind that work in opposition to it.

Let us now turn our attention to the second question: how do we ensure that the light keeps burning? This is the question asked by today’s Gospel. The virgins are awaiting the return of the bridegroom. They do not know the hour at which he will come and call them into the wedding feast. The wise virgins ensure that they have strong lamps, and that they have plenty of fuel—even if the bridegroom comes at a very late hour. The foolish virgins do not take such precautions. Even when the bridegroom is delayed, these virgins do not go to find more fuel. They squander their time, waiting until the very last possible moment, when the bridegroom’s imminent arrival is announced, to search for more fuel. At this point, it is much too late to search for more fuel.

The wise virgins are unable to give them fuel. They can’t give them the fuel, for two reasons. Firstly, their fuel would be too strong for the foolish virgins’ lamps. The fuel of the wise virgins—the fuel that powers the light of Christ within each of us—is purified and strengthened and cleansed by our virtues. It will destroy a lamp not strengthened by the grace of God’s sacraments. Secondly, the fuel is not theirs to give. The virgins have a duty to light to path for the bridegroom. If they give their fuel away, they will be unable to complete the one task which they were called to do. Similarly, the fuel powering our lamps is given to us by God as a gift. This gift is called grace. While we can give some of these graces away for the betterment of others, we cannot give them all away. This grace, sanctifying grace, is necessary for us to enter into Heaven. Only God can give us these graces. Any other source simply cannot give us the graces we need for the light of Christ to burn within us. These graces are free gifts from God, but we must prepare ourselves to receive them, and we must be willing to receive them. We do this by living a virtuous life and by receiving the sacraments regularly.

Where do we get the fuel for our lights?

Today’s Readings:
Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A
Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Sanctifying the World

Just two weeks ago, Jesus called out the Pharisees as hypocrites for testing him. Last week, the Pharisees tried again. Today, Jesus preaches against the Pharisees. “They do not practice what they teach,” Jesus says, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Jesus is not pulling his punches. Why is Jesus reacting so strongly to the scribes and the Pharisees?

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) by James Tissot

Jesus condemns them because their observance of the law is merely external. They preach the law, but they do not live it. They may say, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself,” 1 but they love luxury and accolades more than God and neighbor. They have made idols of their phylacteries and their fringes. They have exalted themselves, and they shall be humbled if they do not repent of their ways—either in this life or the next.

The readings here are pointed at the priestly portion of society in Israel. Each reading speaks of the necessity for the priests to care for the children of God, and strongly condemns those who tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. The message to the priests and scribes and Pharisees in these readings is clear, and it is strong: practice what you preach, or you will answer to God.

But what does this have to do with everyone else? Why does the church give us all this reading?

The purpose of the priesthood is to sanctify. In the Church, there are two fundamental types of priesthood. There is the ministerial priesthood, conferred through ordination. Its goal is to sanctify the children of God. The priest exists to serve and sanctify the baptized. There is another type of priesthood in the church, on in which each of the baptized share: the common priesthood of the faithful. Through this common priesthood, the baptized are called to sanctify the entire world.

When we understand that all of God’s baptized children are a part of the common priesthood of the faithful, the readings take on a new meaning. We must all follow the way of God. We must care for all our brothers and sisters in this world. We must humble ourselves.

Malachi warns us that if we do not do this, our blessing will become a curse. Our baptism gives us a great blessing and great graces. Baptism transforms us into children of God, and God marks us as his beloved. With this blessing, with this covenant, however, we are given a missionary responsibility. God calls us to sanctify and convert the world: to teach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world through our words and actions. If we fail to do this, the we will not only lose what we had before our baptism, but we will also lose all the gifts we were given in baptism.

This duty is serious. It is a challenge to each of us. We must allow God to take control of our lives, to reflect him in everything we do. We must all humble ourselves and become servants of our neighbor. Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived, and in today’s Gospel, he tells us that the greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Today’s Readings:
Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131:1, 2, 3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12

Children of God

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. We take this day to remember all those saints in heaven who may not be known to us or those who may not have their own day. While we don’t the particular people in Heaven (unless they’ve been canonized), we do know there are many. St. John tells us that in Heaven there will be a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.

Heaven is where we all desire to go. It is where we set our “aim” in this life. We all must aspire to live a good life, a holy life, a life close to God, so that we might attain the gift of Heaven. While we always remember that Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb, we also remember that we must live our faith. We must live the faith we believe, otherwise we can’t honestly claim to believe it!

How do we do this? Jesus tells us. The Beatitudes, which Jesus gives today, are a new law. They are the code of conduct for his new kingdom. If we wish to live our faith, to enter Heaven, we must strive to live the Beatitudes. The entire Sermon on the Mount, in fact, gives us a code by which to live. This is no easy code. It is a challenge. Augustine comments that the mountain signifies that this is a higher teaching than the old law. He continues, “the same God gave the lower precepts to a people to whom it was fitting to be bound by fear. Through his Son he gave the higher precepts to a people to whom it is fitting to be set free by love.” 1 God has freed us from the shackles of fear. He has sent his Son so that he might show us his love.

We must take up God’s challenge to love. Through prayer we can come to understand how to live the Beatitudes, both in relation to God and in relation to our neighbor. In this challenge, when the going gets tough, we remember that the Lord will never abandon us, for he calls us all back to himself, saying “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, And I will give you rest.” 2 Through Baptism, we become children of God, and God will never abandon his children.

Today’s Readings:
The Solemnity of All Saints
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 1-12a

How do we love?

God loves me into existence. He has loved me since before he formed me in my mother’s womb,1 and he will love me long after my bones turn to dust.2 Every moment of my existence is due to God’s love for me.

How do I respond to this love? The only response that could possibly be close to sufficient is to love God with every bit of my existence: with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind.3 God has given me everything, so it makes sense that I should love him back with everything. But what does this look like? There are some obvious answers to what loving God looks like: attending Mass, praying, trying not to sin. But that is not all that is required of me.

God doesn’t just love me into existence. God loves you into existence, too. God loves everyone that you or I will meet today into existence. Every person who has ever existed: Donald Trump, Barack Obama, St. Pope John Paul, St. Mother Teresa, the guy down the street who is always mad about your lawn, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Peter: God loves them all into existence. Immediately after telling us to love God, Jesus tells us that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.4 To truly love God, we must also love those whom he loves. To say we love God and to mistreat our neighbor at the same time is hypocrisy! Jesus tells us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to him.5 If we want to love God, we must also love all our brothers and sisters in this world.6

Love is not a thing that we can practice sometimes. We can’t act in hate toward one person and expect it not to have an effect our ability to love another person. This works in our favor, though! When we act out of true love for someone, it grows our ability to love in general. By loving our neighbor, we learn to love. We learn to love God by loving our neighbor, and by loving our neighbor we love God.7

But what does this look like? How do we love our neighbors?

The readings today give us a great starting point. God called the Israelites—and us—in the Exodus to treat the foreigners among us as any other citizen, because ultimately, we are all citizens not of this earth, but of heaven. We should not do wrong to those who are vulnerable, such as widows or orphans. Paul tells and shows us that by living a moral life, we can become models of good behavior, and love our brothers and sisters by showing them the way to happiness. We turn away from our idols of self and let go of the idea that we must protect our time from the encroachment of our neighbors. A wise priest once told me never to make my schedule too tight: we must allow for those “God moments,” where you run into someone who just needs to talk.

But we can do better than this. Love is the only virtue that remains in Heaven, so it is critical to work on it as much as we can! I believe that the best examination of our love was written by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.8

we can use this as an examination of conscience to see how we are doing with love. Have I been patient with myself? Have I been kind to my neighbor? Have I born the burdens that God has allowed me to experience this day?

Love your neighbor as yourself, so that you are able to love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Today’s Readings:
Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40

Image of God

What if Jesus had said, “Why are you testing me? Hand me one of the children.” He held a child in his arms and said, “Whose image do you see inscribed upon this little one?”

When my friends have a baby, it’s common to hear “she looks just like her mom!” or “he has his father’s eyes!” The baby is, in a very true way, an image of his or her parents. They look like one another! What’s more, parents bestow a name upon their child. This name is emblazoned on the child throughout his or her life. This name is how we tell one person from another, and it was given to them by their parents.

But there is another who has given us a name, even if we do not know him. [God] called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew [him] not.1 He has not only called each one of us by name, but he has given each of us a title—a title unique to us. Each of us is unique, each of us is special. None of us are the same. We are each called to reflect God’s glory in a different way, in a way that no one else can. Not only did God call us by name, and not only did he give us each a title, but the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells us that God created humankind in his image.2 Each one of us is a unique reflection of the image of God.

I reply to Jesus, “Yours! I see your image in this little one!” Jesus says, “Then repay to Washington and Hamilton and Lincoln what belongs to them, and repay to God what belongs to God.”

God’s image is inscribed on me, how am I to repay God what belongs to him? When we pay our taxes to the government, we give a part of our money back to the government that issued it. How do we give a part of ourselves to God? We can’t, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

There are days when I want to try to put God in his silo. In college, I would go to Mass and then think, “God, you’ve got your hour for the week. Now it’s time to go have some fun.” Even now, I catch myself saying, “God, I said my prayers for the day. I’ve been to Mass. Now it’s time for me to get some real work done. Come back tomorrow.” As if we could limit our response to God to a certain day or time! One of the names given to Jesus is Emmanuel: God is with us. God is always with us! When we recognize his image in ourselves and in others, we are reminded that God is always with us.

When we recognize God, and all the gifts that he has given us, can we honestly sit back and do nothing? God has given us our lives, our families, our friends, our talents, everything. How do we send God a thank you note for all he has given us? We dedicate ourselves to him. We give of our resources to support his work on this earth. We spend time with him in prayer. We live virtuous lives. We always strive to remember that God is with us!

Today’s Readings:
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21

The Wedding Garment

Parable of the Great Banquet - Brunswick Monogrammist

The king says, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” The man doesn’t make an excuse. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t even claim he shouldn’t have to wear such ridiculous garb after being brought in from the street. He doesn’t do anything. He is reduced to silence. Like the king in the parable, our Heavenly King—God—demands a response from us every day of our lives. We can respond in one of three ways: we can follow God; we can turn away from God; or, we can simply not respond to God.

The wedding garment in the parable doesn’t necessarily refer to something special the man had to put on to attend the party. It is entirely possible that it means, simply, that the guests were expected to wear clean clothes to the party. The man came into the wedding party in dirty clothes. He didn’t bother to put on clean clothes. This discourtesy was an insult to the king. The king may have invited people in from the street, but he still had standards! Thus, the king asked the man, “why he did you come in dirty clothes?”

Imagine if someone had shown up in torn up jeans and a t-shirt to a wedding you are attending. If someone had shown up to my sister’s wedding like that, I would have had some questions for that person too! “Did you intend to come dressed like that? Are you in the right place? Do you need some help?”

The man didn’t respond to the king, and so he was cast out.

The results of following God and turning away from God are clear, but not responding to God is just as bad as turning away from him. We are all wounded by sin, and we all approach God unworthily. Using the language of the parable, none of us have a clean wedding garment. God knows this, yet he still invites us to his wedding feast. God knows we need help. We must not be speechless! Instead, we must ask our merciful Lord for help! “I’m trying, please help me!” “Lord, I don’t even know where to begin!” “Lord, I thought I was doing the right thing, but everything just went so wrong!” “I’m sorry, God. Help. Please.”

Through our daily work to accept God’s invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb—to Heaven—, we slowly wash clean our soul. Eventually, we will come closer and closer to having a clean wedding garment—a clean soul. By responding to God, even in our weakness, we allow God to scrub, slowly, the stains of sin out of our soul. Our king is so generous that he will give us all the mercy and all the grace that we will need to cleanse our lives. What fantastic news!

What is this daily work we must do in order to enter into the wedding feast of Heaven? We must cut out those things in our lives that take us away from God. We must cut out those things in our lives that prevent us from responding to God.

We cannot say yes to God when we regularly engage in mortal sin. We cannot hear God when our lives are filled with constant noise and distraction. We cannot hear God when we assault our bodies with substances that intoxicate us and divorce us from our ability to think.

We must live lives of purity, chastity, and goodness.

We must live lives of stillness, making time to listen for God in the silence.

We must live lives of sobriety and good choices.

We must live lives so that when we die we can say:

“Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!
This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!

Today’s Readings:
Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

Reflection for September 11, 2017: The Question

Sixteen years ago, men flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. More men failed to reach their target when heroic men and women rebelled against their hijackers. What would bring people to commit such an evil action? How could anyone think that crashing planes full of people into buildings full of people was an OK thing to do? They, like the Pharisees, were following a law that they believed to be from God. They believed that because their imam declared a holy war, they could commit atrocities. The laws of Islam, as the terrorists understood it, permitted this.1

Today Jesus asks all of us, “is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

A new person shows up at the parish. They aren’t dressed well, and are acting strangely, but seem to want to talk to someone. Mass starts in 2 minutes, and I don’t really have time to talk, so I find something to do so that I look busy.

Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil?

I meet some friends for lunch. After the usual pleasantries, we begin discussing what is happening in the neighborhood. It turns into gossip about all the people I don’t like.

How do my actions save life, rather than destroy it?

We do not know the day nor the hour that God will call us to himself. As we mourn the loss of life on and after September 11, let it be a reminder for us to remain ever vigilant about the state of our own souls.

Today’s Readings:
Monday of the Twenty-Third Week in Ordinary Time
Col 1:24–2:3; Ps 62:6-7, 9; Lk 6:6-11

Brief Reflection on the Fifteenth Wednesday

In Exodus today, we heard the story of the burning bush. The bush was on fire, yet it was not consumed. This seeming contradiction is fascinating. Why was the bush on fire, and how was it not consumed?

In a very real way, the burning bush is a symbol of our souls. When God is present within our souls, when we allow Him to love us and work through us, our souls are lit afire with His presence much as the burning bush was. God, however, will never hurt us. He will not allow us to “fizzle out,” or going back to the burning bush: He will not allow us to be fully consumed.

Let us strive to live in the presence of God, so that he may light us on fire with his love.

Today’s Readings: Ex 3:1-6, 9-12; Ps 103:1b-2, 3-4, 6-7; Mt 11:25-27

Reflection for the Tenth Thursday of Ordinary Time

In the Gospel today, Jesus warns us that we must make peace with our opponents before we bring our gifts to the altar. He tells us that while we are on the journey, we must settle with our opponent. If we do not, we will be thrown into jail until the full debt is repaid.

Our lives are a journey, during which we grow in our ability to love. St. Paul tells us that there is neither faith nor hope in Heaven: we can see God, therefore we do not need either; however, love remains. If we do not always work to grow in our capacity to love during our time on Earth, then in Heaven we will not reach the heights God planned for us.

On this journey, we have a traveling companion: God. God is always with us. Sadly, through original sin and our own sins, we have turned God into our opponent. He always loves us, and he always desires to be with us; however, we have turned him into an enemy in our minds. God is the one with whom we must settle. If we do not, and we reach the end of our earthly existence seeing God as our opponent, we will be handed to the judge. This judge—Jesus told us that the Father has given him this authority—will separate those going to Heaven, and those going to “fiery Gahenna.”

The full debt, however, must be repaid if we have made God into our opponent. The Gospel says that we will be handed over to the guard until this occurs. For those going to hell, this can never be repaid, as those going to hell have made God into their enemy forever. Those going to Heaven, however, have only partially made God their enemy. They have struggled to reconcile with God, but have done so imperfectly. This passage may also refer to the time spent in purgatory, where the soul is cleansed before it enters into eternal bliss with God.

This passage, ultimately, reminds us of our need to receive the sacrament of confession regularly. God has given us an easy way to reconcile ourselves with him. Confession may not be fun, because we have to admit we were wrong and that is often painful, but it reconciles us with God. It is how we can be sure we’ve reconciled with God. Sadly, our human condition will cause us to need this sacrament over and over again, but God will give it to us with great joy. God desires to give us mercy. As the scriptures tell us, God and his Angels rejoice greatly in Heaven over one repentant sinner.

Today’s Readings: 2 Cor 3:15-4:1, 3-6; Ps 85:9ab & 10, 11-12, 13-14; Mt 5:20-26