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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
A story is recorded about Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. It seems that while she was serving as the Mistress of Novices in her convent, responsible for the formation of the younger sisters, one of them approached the saint and in frustration confided in her: “Oh Sister Therese, I am so far from perfection. I have so many good qualities yet to acquire that it seems that I will never be able to complete this.” To which Saint Therese replied, “No Sister, you have a lot of good qualities to lose.” The point that Saint Therese is making to the younger sister (and to us) is that holiness in our lives as Catholics does not consist in self-sufficiency and verbal compliance to the words of the Gospel. Our faith does not merely complete our life as one part, even if we think it to be the most important part, of our life. Holiness requires a humble response through action and change in behavior that frequently precedes our full change of heart and conversion. Holiness requires action in response to the promptings of God. It requires our conversion by the emptying of our self-sufficiency by which we attempt to live life by turning to God only when we need His assistance to complete our will. It requires our conversion to a spiritual disposition in which we simply respond to and do God’s will for love of Him. Saint Therese says elsewhere, “Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be.”
The parable in today’s Gospel underlines this theme of personal responsibility and the seriousness of Christ’s call to follow Him, to be His disciple, and to be a faithful member of His Church. The Gospel simply tells a story of an owner of a vineyard asking his two sons to do some work. One refuses while the other one agrees. But only the one who refused reconsiders and goes to work. The one who so quickly answered ‘yes,’ never appears in the vineyard at all. Perhaps because he never truly considered the gravity of the invitation to labor in the vineyard and all the things in his life that he would have to let go of. He thinks that his words are sufficient for a response and that no action is really required of him because he really takes his father for granted and thinks himself as self-sufficient. The other one, who initially declines his father’s invitation, eventually reconsiders because he knows his father and he knows that his father loves him. He then answers the father’s call by actions that become the means of redemption of his initial refusal to do what his father asked him to do. It is the love that his father has for him and the love which he has for his father that moves him into action and then finally to profess the faith through action.
In many ways, the example of the son who readily says “yes” but does not deliver on his actions represents those who treat the Gospel cynically, who use their faith and religion only as a matter of words to achieve cultural or political ends, but who fail to act with faith and be converted in response to God and His call to us. The son who honestly says “no” but ends up doing what the father asks represents those who recognize the impossibility of living the Gospel without grace but who incrementally grow in the Gospel by acting with trust in the call of the Lord by giving of themselves for the sake of others. By making his response to the invitation of the father only a matter of words, the son who says “yes” becomes full of himself and reduces his relationship with his father to one of utility. By responding to the father with action after an initial refusal, the son who initially says “no” does not give up in his struggles and is emptied of his selfishness and grows in the grace of a loving relationship with his father. The one son has lofty aspirations, but the other son makes a decisive commitment. As Pope Francis recently said, “Faith in God asks us to renew every day the choice of good over evil, the choice of the truth rather than lies, the choice of love for our neighbor over selfishness.”
In today’s second reading, Saint Paul reveals to us that Christ is both the example and the source of grace needed for us to be emptied of our selfishness and our “grasping at” playing God through self-sufficiency. Saint Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus who is perfectly selfless because He is fully Divine and fully human, empties Himself not of selfishness but out of love for our salvation in obedience to the Father in Heaven.
In following Him, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we empty ourselves of selfishness and of our stubborn attempts to be God through mistreating God as only a means to our own ends and purposes and reducing our Catholic faith to simply a matter of words or show. To quote Saint Therese, “When one loves, one does not calculate. Everything is a grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love — difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs — everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness.”
Our responsibility as Catholics is presented to us as working in the vineyard in obedience to our heavenly Father. This requires that we be emptied of our selfishness through gratitude and love. It involves not talking but doing something with our lives in response to God: being patient, understanding, kind and compassionate, generous, and charitable, forgiving and seeking forgiveness. The Kingdom of God is built with concrete deeds and not just beautiful thoughts and empty words. Perhaps the reason why the first son in the parable hesitated in going to the vineyard was because he knew the work was hard and demanding. The work of the mission entrusted to the members of His Church is hard and demanding and, as we will be reminded through the secular media in the coming weeks, it always involves persecution. Are we willing to become part of Christ’s plan or are we only going to talk about treating Him as part of our plans? Each of us is given the same choice by Christ to enter the vineyard or simply to talk about it.
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus teaches with a parable that underlines the overwhelming generosity and mercy of God announced by Isaiah in our first reading. The workers who arrive late at the vineyard could be referred to as outcasts separated from the fullness of the religious life of Israel, while those who work all day can be taken as those dutiful to the law of God all their lives.
These dutiful and law-abiding people were continually offended at Jesus’ interaction with the outcasts and the unclean, or the scoundrels and wicked as Isaiah calls them. Jesus’ reply to such criticism is both kind and stern. “Are you envious because I am generous?” After all, even based on strict justice, the payment of the all-day workers is honest and even generous.
As we hear the final sentences of the Gospel, Jesus directs our questioning, reflection, and prayer toward His generosity and the need for our humility. The generosity of Jesus reveals to us the generosity of the Father in sending His Son to save us — the preeminent merciful act to which none of us are entitled. “Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We are all sinners in need of forgiveness, but those who come to a realization of their need for God’s mercy will be drawn into the joy of His immeasurable love, while those who think and feel themselves to be only dutiful observers of His law may miss the gift of God’s glory that He offers us daily, or even miss God Himself.
Does the parable offend our sense of fairness and justice, or does it call us to enter more deeply into faith and trust in God’s authentic justice and mercy? Does the parable challenge us to rely on God’s grace — the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? This is the daily bread that the Master in the parable provides according to His own generosity to all who belong and labor in His vineyard.
We are tempted to take our stand against the landowner along with those who were hired first and paid last. But as Isaiah reveals the words of the Lord in today’s first reading, “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.” If parables are to reveal the mysteries of God’s Kingdom, then we cannot look at this one as simply a lesson in the rules of justice and morality of labor relations. If we did, we would miss the point and reduce God’s ways and thoughts to fit our own.
What this parable focuses on is divine generosity and our conversion to God’s way, not simply the human justice, human equality, and human fairness of a fallen world. The landowner is more than an employer, he represents God and the laborers represent all of those who are adopted into His People by Him. The currency in God’s Kingdom is mercy, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness, and we are paid according to our need as well as our merit in light of the fullness of the truth. Saint Paul reminds us today that life is a gift and its goods are wonderful and worthy of our esteem, but they are nothing compared to the love of Christ — a love that sets us free and is unconditional. “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.”
Christ shows us in His full humanity, through His words, through His actions, and through His Cross, what human thinking, human speaking, and human acting in unity with the high thoughts and lofty ways of the Father looks like. Christ’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with His accompanying gifts and graces, enables us to think, to speak, and to act according to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God. Through His generosity and grace, His thoughts and ways soon transform our thoughts, our ways, our words, and our actions. For Jesus Christ is the answer to the prayer expressed in the 145th Psalm we prayed today: “the Lord is near to all who call on Him.”
Yet, we are tempted to act like the laborers who are first hired and paid last and try to reduce the high thoughts and lofty ways of God to the thoughts and ways of the limited scope and logic of our fallen world, a scope and logic that can only provide scarcity and suspicion, jealousy and resentment. This temptation currently looks like the misrepresentation of the Gospel of Life as only one part of a partisan platform or the fragmented positions of political candidates. To succumb to this temptation would make the Church subordinate to the power of the state through the public endorsement of candidates or the alignment of the Church with any one political party.
To be clear, the right to life is the preeminent human right established and given by God Himself as the right upon which all other human rights depend including: the right to the biologically determined and gendered integrity of human sexuality and marriage between one man and one woman, the right to family life, the right to religious liberty, the right to live in peace and security with sound borders, the right to migrate to sustain one’s life and the life of one’s family, the right to labor and a just and living wage, the right to private property, the right to clean and potable water, the right to be told the truth, the right to a good name, the right to basic healthcare, the right to access to an education sufficient for participation in the common good of a particular society to name but a few such rights. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Christi Fideles Laici in 1988, “The inviolability of the human person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the . Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if , the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”
Thus, direct assaults on human life, especially upon vulnerable human life, through such social policies and practices as abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia cannot be supported or even tolerated for the sake of other rights or social goods to be enjoyed by others. We must begin with respect and protection of the inviolable right to life, but we as Catholics cannot end there. To live according to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God means that we must begin by respecting the inviolable right to life and to continue by respecting the other necessary human rights that are contingent upon the right to life. The high thoughts and lofty ways of God require of us the measured respect and fostering of each of these rights in an ordered and proportionate manner without exclusion of any of them for the sake of human dignity whereby the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is in contradistinction with the ways of the fallen world that would entice us to break these rights apart and to mistreat them only as isolated and competitive points of self-interest within a partisan agenda where the first are first and the last are last.
The earliest name for the Church in the Acts of the Apostles is “the Way” which means “God’s way.” It most clearly does not mean “my way.” It is only by trust in God, nurtured through prayer and the grace of God, that we can be converted from our thoughts of undue entitlement and selfish ways to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God. Thoughts that without His grace are otherwise inaccessible to us. “The Lord is near to all who call on Him.”
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” This passage from the Book of Sirach today is a reflection on anger, vengeance, and forgiveness. Wrath and anger are destructive forces, and we tend to let them overtake us and drive us away from reason. We remember insults and injuries we have received and feel justified in returning the same. Unfortunately, our anger not only hurts others, but make us bitter and resentful and increasingly irrational. The offensive civil discourse of today is neither civil nor discourse because anger has taken over many of us and has foisted disorder into our shared common society.
The extreme positions of the political left and political right currently have something in common: anger and the refusal to accept accountability for one’s actions and responsibilities. They each have the desire to develop a system of government that does not require human beings to become morally virtuous. Both extremes foist upon the people a notion of government in which the government becomes the agent whereby the people become entitled to take little, if any, responsibility for their own actions or the actions of the society of which they are a part. This includes both the statist approach of the socialists and the laissez faire approach of government espoused by contemporary conservatism.
For us to say that individuals are distinct persons does not mean that they are selfish egoists. Rather, individuals can only flourish in a community through cooperation with one another with responsibility for their own behavior and the consequences of their behavior. This means that persons must cooperate with each other to survive physically, emotionally, spiritually; or we will end up interacting with each other as objects to suit our own selfish purposes. Cooperation is necessary also in the sense that the well-being and moral development of one’s own person is inherently linked to other persons’ well-being, and without other persons’ well-being, one’s own well-being would be substantively incomplete.
This is what comes into focus in the Gospel for this Sunday’s Mass — the parable of the unforgiving or unmerciful servant. Without excusing the unmerciful servant for his actions, we wonder how we often imitate those actions. How often do we forget how God has blessed us? How often do we not even realize what He has given us? Do we ever ask ourselves how we might repay God’s generosity to us? When Jesus commands us to forgive seventy-seven times, He is asking for perfection in forgiveness. Forgiveness takes time and involves our healing and grief of the pain that we have suffered from the injustice and harm done to us by another person. Remembering what we have been given and how often we have been forgiven allows the Holy Spirit to enter and change our hearts. After that, miracles can happen. And supreme among those miracles is mercy — given and received. This is the very thing that the unmerciful servant forgot in his dealings with his fellow servant who owed him so much less (literally, 100 days’ wages) than what he had owed his lord and master, who in showing him mercy, forgave him the entire debt (literally, 150,000 years’ wages.
It is important to remember that mercy is not the suspension of the moral order. Mercy does not ignore wrongdoing and sin. When we receive mercy and when we offer it to others we are reintroduced to the accountability of the children of God, just as the prodigal son was so reintroduced by his merciful father. This accountability maintains a structure of right order beginning with what we owe God but also involving human beings with a definite hierarchy with rights and responsibilities.
The fourth commandment is the duty one has to one’s parents: “Honor your father and your mother.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal.” But it also states that the fourth commandment “extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.” Furthermore, “this commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons” (CCC §2199).
The Catechism calls us to consider that the fourth commandment establishes the foundation and order for the subsequent commandments revealed to Moses. These commandments not only serve for the salvation of the world, but also articulate human rights; among these are the right to life, the integrity of human sexuality and marriage, the right to property, the right to be told the truth, and the right to a good name. Thus, the fourth commandment “constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church” (CCC §2198).
It is important to note that the first three commandments articulate what we as human beings justly owe God, which is the virtue of piety. The fourth commandment follows upon this debt to God with what we owe other human beings, which is the virtue of justice. This human debt begins with our parents, father, and mother, and what follows in the subsequent commandments are the just delineations of other human relationships within and with society.
We must remember that the commandments are the Covenant first made by God with Moses which makes the disparate group of refugee slaves into one chosen people — God’s chosen people on pilgrimage to the Promised Land. The Commandments are not an arbitrarily placed list of single and distinct imperatives united only in that they are ordered by God and intended for human obedience. As the Covenant, they are binding and follow each other in a clearly ordered and inherently united sense. Within God’s Covenant, each Commandment follows the previous one by drawing God’s people more deeply into the loving and just relationship of belonging to Him and to each other. The Commandments belong to each other in both substance and order; God’s people belong to each other in both the substance of family life and an order of political life, language, and culture.
For us to understand consciously and live well with each other as a nation we should recall that the Ten Commandments undergird our rights and responsibilities in an ordered manner, including the responsibility to forgive. Our civic responsibility as citizens also depends upon our understanding of forgiveness and mercy. This is the forgiveness and mercy we have received from God and the forgiveness and mercy that we are called to give to one another. This is the only path to freedom for us and the development of our consciences as faithful and not just angry citizens.