Tuesday, October 28, 2014

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)


1. We can call the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the chapter of the three questions. The Pharisees were plotting how they might trap Jesus in his speech. So they asked him – Teacher, give us your opinion. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Last Sunday we reflected on this question and on the Lord’s response. The second question came from the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They offered Jesus a hypothetical case about a wife and her seven husbands – and they asked – though not believing in the resurrection – Whose wife will she be at the resurrection? The Pharisees tried again in the question asked in our Gospel reading today – Which commandment in the law is the greatest? Although the Lord was asked about one commandment, he replied by giving two. These two commandments were not original with Jesus. Rather, Jesus quotes from Chapter 6 of the Book of Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength; and from Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. What was original with Jesus was his putting these two commandments together as the two sides of one coin. It is interesting to note how St. Paul expresses the commandment of love in his Letter to the Romans. He writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be – are summed up in this saying: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

2. No one in recent times has spoken so compellingly of love as our present Holy Father Emeritus in his first encyclical letter, entitled “God is Love”. This title is taken from the I Letter of John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him”. These words express with remarkable clarity the heart of Christian faith: The Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. As I John expresses it – “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.

3. What is the meaning of this little word "love"? We Americans tend to assume that love is found only in our feelings – a love relationship, for example, is good when it feels right, so we say. What happens to a feel-right love when the needs of two individuals come into conflict? Given the way the Lord God has created us, we have both the passion of love and the virtue of love. Our passions are our friends although they can lead us astray. If we did not have passions, we would all be as attractive as telephone poles. The passion of love is good when it promotes the virtue of love. It is the virtue of love that enables us to love God and our neighbor even when our feelings and emotions are moving in the opposite direction. God has made us body and soul so it is not the spirit alone nor the body alone, but it is the person, the human being, the unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united does the exercise of love attain its full stature.

4. When we first begin to love, we go out to get. Our Holy Father calls this “possessive” love, ascending love. C. S. Lewis calls it “need” love. More importantly there is gift love which centers not on the lover but on the beloved. The challenge for one who loves is make progress by the grace of the Spirit from need love to gift love. St. Ignatius of Loyola incorporates this notion into his Spiritual Exercises. In the course of the second week of the Exercises, the retreatant comes to understand how good God is for him or for her. This is a form of self-seeking love, but it is a good self-seeking love. Other kinds of self-seeking love can lead us astray. It is only in the third and fourth weeks of the Exercises that the retreatant comes to realize that God is good – period, that God is all good in himself and deserving of all my love.

5. St. Bernard has a wonderful description of love. He writes – “Love is sufficient of itself; love gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. Love is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Love’s profit lies in its practice. I love because I love. I love that I may love.”

6. The Gospel question, of course, in all of this love talk is this – And who is my neighbor? Pope Benedict suggests quite simply in response – “Anyone who needs me and whom I can help is my neighbor”. And this question and answer should lead us to the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and to the great parable of the Last Judgment in which love becomes the criteria for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, those who are hungry or thirsty, those who are strangers and those in prison. As you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. In this way, love of God and love of neighbor become one. In the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself and in Jesus we find God.

7. The command to love God and neighbor find concrete expression in the Sacrament of Marriage – described by Pope John Paul II as “a noble, high and sacred calling”. God has intended that the Sacrament of Marriage be a living sign of Christ’s love for his Church, for all his members, and for the entire world. It is precisely in their married love that husband and wife bring each other to holiness of life. A sacramental marriage isn’t an accident; it is not something “by chance”. God chose this particular man and this particular woman to be a sacrament sign – showing forth to all who can see the living presence of God for the wider world.

8. Sometimes, I conclude my wedding homilies by suggesting a meditation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the symbol of God’s great love for the world, a symbol of Christ’s love for his heavenly Father and for each one of his members as he gave himself in sacrifice for the world’s salvation. Prevailing philosophies down through history often tell us that every living being strives for its own preservation and fulfillment, but this is not what the Gospel teaches. The Gospel teaches, through the imagery of the Sacred Heart, that the way to happiness and holiness is not so much by self-preservation but by self-abandonment. Christ’s heart saves us indeed, but it saves us by giving itself away in love. This is what makes love truly sacrificial. This is what the saints have discovered to their great joy. This is what marriage is supposed to proclaim. Sacrifice, as we know, is always difficult and irksome; only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


October 19, 2014

1. In the Gospels we often find Jesus in conflict with both religious and secular authorities. However, never does he challenge legitimate authority but only the ways individuals may exercise that authority. In fact, the Lord Jesus instructs his followers to fulfill lawful civic duties. Caesar is not always the enemy. Our first and third readings today provide the springboard for our reflections. They concern difficult political realities in scriptural times and they speak a similar message to us as well.

2. Notice what the Prophet Isaiah has written: "Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus… I have called you by your name, giving you a title though you know me not." Who is this Cyrus and why does he receive the title – the anointed one – an expression the Old Testament used with reference to Israel’s kings. But Cyrus was not a king of Israel. Like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus in later times, Cyrus in the fifth century before Christ was the most powerful ruler in the then known world. He was king of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, who were the ones who had conquered Israel, destroyed Jerusalem and led the Jews into the dark days of the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus was an enlightened despot. He liberated the Jews, permitted them to return to their land and helped them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. This was a new political experience for the Israelites. They found themselves under a pagan ruler who was chosen and in fact praised by God, whom God made – though Cyrus did not know the Lord – God’s own agent for the advancement of God’s own purposes and the rebuilding of God’s people, Israel. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Persia is really Iran in our warring, terrorist world today.)

3. Our Gospel presents another sort of political issue. Out of malice, the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus in his speech, hoping he might say something hostile about the hated Romans who ruled Palestine at that time. The story of the coins with the inscription of Caesar is familiar to us all. The Lord instructs his hearers that both God and Caesar are to be respected. The same sort of question is asked of us today. As Catholics in the United States take on an evermore-prominent role in the economic, educational and political mainstreams of our country, we who are Catholic find ourselves discussing the relationship of our Church to the American society in which we live. The Lord gives us a sacred principle. With his help we must work out the specifics.

4. We should note that over two millennia the Church has lived under every conceivable political structure – the Roman Empire of the Caesars, the Barbarian rulers of the unchristianized West, the Holy Roman Empire, benevolent and hostile kings and queens, the developing democracies of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Fascism, Nazism and Communism of the last century. What about our own country and its democratic government which is becoming evermore secular and consumerist? If the Lord Jesus were to look at our coins or paper money today, He would see not Caesar but the images of various presidents and He would read the Latin inscription "E pluribus unum" – one country from many different states – at first thirteen, and now fifty. Our culture is a pluralistic culture made up of many nationalities, languages, philosophies and religions of all kinds and – probably for the majority – no religion whatsoever. In such pluralism, we find a civic posture which leaves matters of religious beliefs and philosophical convictions outside the pale of official public concerns. Originally – unlike the wooden-headed axiom about the so-called wall of separation between church and state – this does not mean that religious beliefs and philosophical convictions were of no importance and should have no influence on corporate or individual behavior. Rather, it meant that government is limited and religion and philosophy and political theory and editorial opinion all lie outside government jurisdiction. This traditional understanding is threatened in our day by the reduction of natural law values, by political correctness and by the popular embracing of many aspects of what has been termed "a culture of death".

5. The question remains – What is the relationship between faith and culture, better perhaps we should say – church and state, that is, how are we to do justice to God and to Caesar? The Catholic Church is not a sect. Catholics by very definition cannot refrain from societal participation. This mission belongs primarily to laymen and women. By their very calling they are to seek God’s kingdom by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering temporal affairs in accord with God’s teaching. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life from which the very web of their existence is woven. Forty years ago this very month, the Second Vatican Council said to lay persons in the Church – "This Council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age."

6. What does this challenge involve? We cannot be true believers if we are unwilling to translate our beliefs into social practice. We cannot be good citizens of our two cities if we are unwilling to have our voices heard in the public square. We must be ready to answer with courage both the challenge of the Church and the demands of Caesar. In a word, we must do justice to God and to Caesar.