Homilies - October 2014

Select a homily to read:
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year: October 5, 2014 by Fr. Joseph Jensen
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year (at CUA): October 5, 2014 by Abbot James Wiseman
Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year: October 12, 2014 by Abbot James Wiseman
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year: October 19, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel Myers
Thirtieth Sunday of the Year: October 26, 2014 by Fr. Philip Simo

Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year

Since our first reading and the gospel feature parables, let us start by asking, “What are parables all about?” We know that the Scriptures, the gospels in particular, are full of them. They are Jesus’ favorite technique for getting His teaching across. We probably think of parables as homey little stories, lifelike but probably fictional, intended to teach a religious truth. How many would agree with that definition? I suspect that those who didn’t raise their hands think there may be a trap of some sort. Actually, that is a good definition; it’s just that in many cases, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

This would be an accurate definition for the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, for example, because there the Lord Himself explains the point of the story: the humble Publican, who begs for mercy, goes home forgiven, justified before the Lord, while the proud Pharisee goes home unchanged; he came a braggart and goes home a braggart.

But often the parable calls for a judgment. Last Sunday, for example, in the parable of the two sons, the hearers are asked “Which of the sons did what the father wanted?” Or in the case of the Good Samaritan, “Which one was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” In fact, a parable is often a ploy used in a debate, a way of forcing someone to come to an admission that he/she would not willingly make. That is why the real issue is disguised as a fictional story; we are not put on our guard. But once the story forces us to make a judgment, the point of the parable is made, and you may find yourself impaled upon it.

With all this in mind, let us go back to the story Isaiah tells us in today’s first reading. To begin with, he acts as though he is not speaking in his own name, but tells the experience of another; and even this other is anonymous—“my friend,” “my beloved.” This friend, it seems, has planted a vineyard and done everything humanly possible to make it the very best. Yet the result, the crop of grapes, is very disappointing; instead of good grapes, it yielded “rotten grapes” (more accurately than the ‘wild grapes” of our lectionary). The hearers (now specified as “inhabitants of Jerusalem, people of Judah”) are asked to render judgment: what could the owner have done that he did not do? Why did it bring forth rotten grapes instead of good grapes? The answer is that nothing more could have been done; the only explanation is perversity on the part of the vineyard. He doesn’t ask them what the punishment should be, but tells them: destruction. When he says he will “command the clouds not to rain upon it,” he begins to tip his hand, for this is something only God can do. He throws away all pretense when he says, “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, his cherished plant.”

This opens the door to further interpretation. Although our lectionary reading does not have “beloved,” the term appears, along with “friend” in Isaiah’s Hebrew. “Beloved” (dod) also appears frequently in the Song of Songs; “vineyard” also appears there as a metaphorical term for the “beloved.” In this way Isaiah both conceals (initially) that he is speaking of Yahweh and gives a personal dimension to the betrayal (in the term “beloved”).

But Isaiah doesn’t leave us in doubt as to what sort of betrayal is involved. Isaiah specifies: “He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!” The picture is of a poor man who has lost all, perhaps though a judge bribed by a rich man. The poor man or widow has lost everything and has no recourse except to scream out his/her despair. This is the “outcry” the Lord hears in the city. For Isaiah, social justice is a supreme demand, a demand he sets forth in every way he can, including a parable such as this.

Isaiah’s composition is obviously the great granddaddy of Jesus’ parable of today, but much has been added. In each case there is the same careful work of the “landowner,” the same disappointment in terms of the produce. But now the poignancy is greater because now the owner sends his own son, whom they murder. And now we see allegorical features, as the “landowner” is clearly God and “his son” is Jesus Christ. Again, the threat that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will bear its fruit,” can easily be taken to refer to the Gentiles and the Jews.

So what do we do about these parables? They are fictional stories, so we can ignore them? Right? Wrong!

They may be fictional, but they are true. Israel of the OT neglected justice, as the prophets tell us. Their wall was thrown down, their city destroyed, as history tells us. Israel of the NT rejected the Son of God and their kingdom was taken from them, as history tells us. The unforgiving servant will not be forgiven, as the final days will tell us. The word of God may not literally be seed nor we literally be ground, but if we let the devil snatch it away from us, if we let cares and luxury choke it off, we will be fruitless. The servant who did not employ to good use the talents given him will lose everything. The servant put in charge of the Master’s household who carouses and mistreats others, will certainly be dismissed. Some bridesmaids will be prepared and some will not be and will accordingly either be admitted or excluded from the kingdom. And remember, you know not the day of the hour; the Son of Man will come like thief in the night.

So let us attend to the parables, try to understand them, but above all, let us believe and act on them. They were Our Lord’s favorite medium for teaching. Anyone who thinks he/she can take them lightly will certainly have to give an accounting to Our Lord, as so many of His parables warn us.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year (at CUA)

  • October 5, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Of the various letters that have definitely come down to us from St. Paul himself, there is no doubt that the one to the Philippians is addressed to the community to which he felt most attached. Unlike the Corinthians, whom Paul had to correct quite harshly in his letters to them, the Philippians were basically receptive to his preaching and lived in accordance with it. This led Paul near the beginning of the letter to commend them in the following words: “I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:3-5). Then, toward the end of the letter, he writes the verses that we just heard, including the following words: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and … anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (Phil 4:8-9).

Now I dare say that words like those, referring to qualities like truth, honor, justice, purity, and the like, can easily pass us by without making much impression. Oh yes, we might think, we know all about that, but let’s hear something more practical, something with a little more bite to it, something like that passage in First Corinthians where Paul castigates that community for their selfish behavior when they come together for the breaking of the bread, with each one going ahead with his own supper, while one goes hungry and another gets drunk (1 Cor 11:21). Passages like that are obviously important too, but my main point that, in the long run, verses like those I quoted from Philippians are even more crucial for the way we live. I want to support this claim by referring to a very thought-provoking column by David Brooks that appeared in the New York Times a couple days ago and in which he referred to a much older essay by Lewis Mumford published in 1940, when Europe was already at war and many in this country were arguing for strict isolation from that struggle.

These isolationists had a very pragmatic mind-set, assuming that civic life can best be lived without reference to issues of philosophical, theological, or literary depth. The core problem, Mumford argued, is that such pragmatists rely so closely, almost exclusively, on the natural and social sciences that they ignore the kinds of insight offered by philosophy, theology, and literature. They are inclined to apply economic remedies to non-economic actors, whereas “those who threaten civilization—Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now—are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives,” and against such individuals and groups, “economic sanctions won’t work.”1 This helps explain why the people we revere as truly heroic are those who were willing to lay down even their lives for values that they knew in their bones were more important than themselves, people like Jesus, or Gandhi, or Oscar Romero. In Mumford’s words, “Bare life is worthless. Justice is worth fighting for; order is worth fighting for; culture … is worth fighting for.” St. Paul would have phrased it somewhat differently, but he would absolutely have agreed with the thrust of that argument. If we are going to follow the admonition he gives to the Philippians—that we actually do what we have heard and seen in him—then it will mean living and acting with what David Brooks calls “a heart brimming with moral emotion,” a heart not blindly going along with “the crowd,” not thinking that just because a majority of a population approve of something and have even enshrined it in civil law it is therefore right, but rather, in Paul’s words, standing up for “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is gracious,” that is, filled with the grace of God. May our Eucharist this morning strengthen us in our resolve so to live.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 David Brooks, “The Problem with Pragmatism” New York Times, October 3, 2014.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year

Our lectionary today offers a choice between the Gospel we just heard and a longer version containing four additional verses. I have chosen the shorter not because it would be too difficult to deal with the extra verses but because they almost certainly come from what was originally a separate parable and do not cohere very well with what we just heard. The parable we did hear was originally the evangelist’s way of describing what happened to those who did not accept the teaching of Jesus, for the line about the burning of their city almost certainly refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70. It would be quite possible to reflect further on this point, and it would indeed be of some theological and historical interest to ask whether or not that is a helpful way of understanding why Jerusalem fell. I think, however, that it would be more useful for us to bring the Gospel passage to bear on our situation today.

To begin, note that the whole image of a wedding banquet can reasonably be applied to what is going on every time we celebrate the Eucharist, which for centuries has regularly been referred to as a banquet by spiritual writers, preachers, and composers of hymns. They may not often use the language of a wedding banquet to describe this sacrament, but even that would not really be far-fetched, for there is a sense in which the believing community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist could be said to be espoused to Christ. The truly significant point is that the parable ends with the king having everyone, bad and good alike, invited to share in the festivity.

This is also the case today, and in general has always been the case. The whole purpose of evangelization is to invite everyone into the fold. In the early Church, it was St. Paul who, more than anyone else, recognized that God did not want to limit the call simply to the Jews, so Paul traveled what in those days were tremendous distances, often at the risk of his own life, to proclaim the Good News far and wide. Not everyone accepted the invitation, but as far as possible he made it.

Let us now fast forward to the Church in the early 21st century. We have all heard of “the new evangelization,” referring mainly to renewing and reinvigorating the call of the Gospel in lands that were once rather solidly Christian but are so no longer. From all I read, both in articles and in an occasional letter from a friend in Europe, the situation is especially dire on that continent. One can read statistics that American Catholics have, by and large, remained more faithful in the practice of their faith, but we ought not delude ourselves into thinking that all is going well enough here. There is a recent book titled Young Catholic America, whose lead author is a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame named Christian Smith, assisted by colleagues from two other universities and by one of his own doctoral candidates. A principal value of the book is that the many young adults interviewed now that they are between 18 and 23 years of age had also been interviewed five years earlier, so it was possible to see how their thinking, especially their commitment to the Church, has changed over those years. The results are sobering. As one reviewer wrote, now that these men and women are “eighteen to twenty three, their current status as Catholics might discourage even the most ardent evangelist. Only seven percent of these young adults who might have turned out Catholic can be called ‘practicing’ Catholics—if ‘practicing’ is tightly defined as attending Mass weekly, saying that faith is extremely or very important, and praying at least a few times a week.”1 This means that the vast majority do not feel very much drawn to the Church at all. I expect the case is similar for many other denominations, but that is no real consolation.

When one asks the reason for such widespread withdrawal—for such responses as that of one young man interviewed who said, “It’s just easier not to follow a religion, is what it comes down to”—the interviews and the survey data seem to indicate that the major cause of dissatisfaction is with Catholic sexual teaching, especially with regard to premarital sex and birth control. If such persons ever get married themselves, and many of them probably will not, it is hard to expect that they will pass much, if anything, of their earlier childhood faith on to their own children. One can immediately see that the subject of the current synod on the family being held in Rome could hardly be on a more important topic. No one of us, no one at the synod, dare claim to have all the answers, but at the very least we should do everything we possibly can to make young people feel welcome in the Church, not by watering down principles but by emphasizing that, more than anything else, the Catholic faith is a matter of relationship with a loving, merciful, saving God who doesn’t ask instant perfection from any of us but only a genuine will to seek to live ever more faithfully as followers of his Son.

The other morning I was having a class with our two postulants and referred to St. Augustine’s Confessions, written by a man who absolutely knew that he had often fallen short—even after he had been baptized and eventually named a bishop—but who nevertheless positively rejoiced and reveled in his faith because he knew that in the final analysis being a Catholic is what I have already mentioned—a relationship with a loving God. When Augustine asked himself what it was he loved when he loved his God, he answered in words that may indeed be of unsurpassed eloquence but are surely not beyond what any of us could and should affirm Here is the way he answered his question:

It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner being, where my soul is floodlit by a light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God. (Conf. 10.7-8)

We ourselves might well use less florid language in answering his question, but we can surely affirm the rightness of what Augustine said. It is what has drawn all the saints to try ever more closely to put on the mind of Christ, to treat others as they would treat Christ himself, to realize that there are things far more important than one’s bare life and that this life could rightly, even joyfully, be sacrificed for something greater still. Just saying this in a homily will not make much difference, but to whatever extent we can manifest it, radiate it, in our very lives, then some of those 18 to 23-year-olds may indeed want to give the Church a further look. May our participation in this Eucharistic banquet bring us closer to doing just that.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Thomas Baker, review of Young Catholic America, in Commonweal, Oct. 9, 2014.

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year

A vast literature comes from this gospel. It’s about church and state, culture and religion, politics and faith. If you want to pursue this, I recommend the Jesuit weekly America, the ecumenical Christian Century, or, if you want traditionalism with an edge, First Things. These will help you to find your stand, or support your stand, on how faith relates to contemporary issues. I am not going to add to that literature in this homily. Not because I am indifferent, or unqualified, or afraid of controversy. But rather because a homily should give spiritual sustenance to left and to right, and if possible, draw us more together. Are you with me?

I also wonder whether Jesus foresaw this vast literature. Did he speak off the cuff with a gleam in his eye? “Whose face is this? [scratch of head; squint at the coin] Caesar’s? Well, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.” Our Lord is not quite so pompous or prelatial as we like to make him. He had wit and irony in his rhetorical arsenal, and sent them flying like arrows. Down the centuries we have made such witty sayings incredibly ponderous.

If not politics, what? First, I thought I could trace the coin, with or without Caesar, through the gospels. The ones in the wise men’s box; the ones entrusted to the servants in the parable; the lost one found by that woman’s diligent sweeping; the blood money given to, then rejected by, Judas. I could contrast this with the trivialization of coins in our own day. They shoot out at us from the cash register; they jingle in, and fall out of, our pockets; they accumulate in the little bowl on our dressers; they are eventually hauled over to that nifty coin-counting machine at Shoppers Food Warehouse. You see the sort of thing: entertaining, harmless, literary. Underneath is the metaphor of coin as self. How we spend it is how we use our moments and days.

Alternatively, I thought the thread might not be through the coin, but the way Jesus handles the situation. Today’s gospel is a controversy story, one of many in which Jesus must deal with opponents and antagonists. In this story they slyly flatter him—“we know you are truthful and sincere; we know you can answer this question that troubles us.” Jesus saw through this; he “knew their malice.” They hope to say “aha! got’cha!” But instead, Jesus says, “ah, ah, ah, not so fast.”

A precursor of the story is that of the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). Both of these are found only in Matthew. His gospel wants to portray the church, with a certain nationalism, as the new Israel: this has not always been a blessing for the church. In the earlier story, someone asks Peter, “Does your master pay the temple tax?” It would not be in Jesus’ interests to answer no. But, as in today’s gospel, Jesus treats the issue playfully and indirectly. In private he asks Peter, “Does a king collect tribute from a stranger or a son?” Peter answers, “A stranger.” He knows that Jesus is “the Son” of the Temple-owner, and doesn’t need to pay the tax. Jesus says, “Correct. But to avoid giving offense to my enemies, go put a hook into the sea. The fish you catch will have a coin in its mouth. With it you can pay for you and for me.”

You can see why this story is omitted from the Sunday lectionary. It is delightful, and fabulous, something out of Aesop, a version of the tortoise and the hare. But what is the moral, and how can it be applied? Jesus is sidestepping. Perhaps the coin comes from within (if you are the fish), and you are to give of yourself. But no, he tells Peter to go back to his old way of life at the fishing boat. It is as if to say, civic duties are part of your old world, so keep up appearances; but now you are living with me in the new world. It’s a story to play with when you have plenty of time in your lectio divina.

The controversy story that is more profound and emotionally engaging than the stories of the temple tax or the Caesar coin, would be the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). This is “aha! got’cha” at a tragic level. She has been trapped, like an animal, and now she is being sprung as a trap to get Jesus. What shall we do with her? They know they are putting Jesus in a no-win situation. With his non-violence, he cannot say “stone her.” But allowing her to get away with it, a serious breach of the mosaic law, is not a good option either. Jesus, as he so often does, wiggles out of the dilemma; he boldly proposes a third way, hitherto unthought of. It is as if he takes each accuser by the heels, turns him upside down, so that all the coins which are his assumptions, drop out of his pockets, scattering, and never be recovered. It is what he will do for us, if we let him: liberate us from our tired old proverbs, and give us a third way of thinking and living. If we are the woman, the victim, backed against the wall, with no option, he also opens a third way.

“Aha! Gotcha!” Jesus says, “Not so fast, think again.” Let the one without sin cast the first stone. He doesn’t need to watch who leaves first, or who holds out the longest. Stooping, he doodles in the sand, a vulnerable position. But he wins.

And the woman wins in a way she could not have dreamt of. “Does no one condemn you?” “No one, sir.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Wow. This is really new world stuff. It also invites us to think how we want to spend our coins, the moments of our life. There are some things, like death and taxes and being caught in adultery, that we can’t wiggle out of. But what about all the rest? Do we want to get and accumulate and take? Or do we let go and give? Do we want to be like the post-adulterous woman? No longer needing to sneak out and creep around, she can fly and soar. The authentic Christian life always takes the imaginative third option. God gives it, and there you find him.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Thirtieth Sunday of the Year

  • October 26, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Philip

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A transcript is not available for this homily. Please listen here.

Fr. Philip Simo
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