Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Justification.  What does that mean… in a Catholic sense?  According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.”  In other words, to be seen as being right (or justified) by God.  How do we do right by God?  Some people have some definite opinions when it comes what they think is considered doing right by God.  Still others say that our mere faith in Christ justifies us before the Lord.  As always, let’s see what our readings have to say on this topic:

Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading comes from the Book of Wisdom.  Similar to the Book of Sirach (which we heard last week), the Book of Wisdom is newer (dating to about 50 BCE), and comes from the Jewish community in Alexandria instead of Jerusalem.  What makes Wisdom stand apart from Sirach, however, is its perspective as from a people who are being oppressed.  Within the 100 years between the writing of Sirach and Wisdom, the geo/political winds had changed, with the Greek Empire in collapse giving way to the rise of the Romans, and setting up the conflicts that eventually blossom in the New Testament.  During the writing of the Book of Wisdom, the Jewish people in Alexandria are suffering, a feeling to which early Christians can easily relate.  From this standing as a people feeling persecuted, it’s easy to understand their need to reach out to God, and the Book of Wisdom delivers.  Our passage this week shows the depth of God’s love for his people and his creation.  By this passage, it would not be unreasonable to say that our mere existence, as God’s creation, is enough to be justified.  That does not mean however, that we are without fault.  Even so, because we are God’s own, he is patient with us, giving us time to turn away from sin and return to Him.  The joy we feel at God’s willingness to take us back is echoed in our Psalm as we sing “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Our second reading begins a three week study of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Though not intentionally related to our theme, this opening passage has Paul reminding us that we should not be “shaken or alarmed” with regard to the second coming of Christ.  The community in Thessalonica is concerned about news they have heard and read from those not associated with Paul or the other Apostles.  This is not unlike the fear stoked by many others today with their predictions of the end times and the rapture.  As Catholics, we embrace the coming of Jesus.  We don’t fear it.  This is the message that Paul wants to convey to the Thessalonians… that through our faith, we are justified.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are justified.  Those doing their best to live as Jesus taught have nothing to fear, because as the Book of Wisdom has taught us, God’s “imperishable spirit is in all things, ”and can “loath nothing” that He has made.

Our Gospel this week is another story unique to Luke.  You may recall last week’s Gospel where we heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Many of Jesus’ detractors often criticized the company he kept, spending time with what they considered the dregs of society (tax collections, prostitutes, the sick) who in their eyes are unworthy of his attention.  Jesus, however, recognized that these people too are justified in the Lord, and if anything  are in more need of this “good news” than others.  The story of Zaccheaus in this week’s Gospel is just such a story.  Zaccheaus was the Chief Tax Collector and a wealthy man.  If that were not enough to alienate him from the rest of the people, we are also told that he was “short of stature.”  Yet something within him made him eager to see Jesus as he was traveling through town.  In order to get a better view, he climbs a tree.  Jesus, in seeing this, stops, recognizes him, and invites himself to stay with him.  The crowd grumbled about this, seeing Zaccheaus as unworthy of this honor, yet Jesus sees this as an opportunity to reclaim one more lost sheep… an opportunity that leads to his salvation.

Final thoughts:
So… who among us is justified in the eyes of the Lord?  Our readings would seem to indicate that we are all justified before God for the shear fact that we were created by God.  But is that enough?  No.  Like the perfect parent, God stands ready to forgive his children, but that forgiveness can only be offered to those who ask… those willing to turn back to the Lord, recognize him, and seek to do better.  Just like the Pharisees, however, our society will often judge certain classes of people as being unworthy of this great gift.  But Jesus goes out of his way to remind us that even those who might seem unredeemable are in fact those who are in most need of hearing what he has to say.  For you see, Jesus teaches us that no one is to be marginalized, for we are all created by God, infused with the Spirit of God, and all worthy of redemption.  All they need do is ask.  All we need to do is give them that chance.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Are young men today being marginalized?

This week's Angeles has a great article by Bishop Robert Barron:

In this article he sees some trouble with our "you-go-girl" culture.  Without marginalizing how our culture is encouraging young women to "do it for themselves," is it possible we're marginalizing our young men?  Please read this this article and see what you think...

My mother was a strong woman.  As a member of the Silent Generation, she was sandwiched in between the Greatest Generation who fought WWII, and the Baby Boomer Generation who fought the social revolution.  Actually, as an "in-betweener" myself, I can relate to her situation, sandwiched in between those same Baby Boomers who seem to rule the world, and the Millennial Generation who are taking over the world, leaving us Generation X'ers in a social void.  But I digress...

My mother was somewhat ahead of her time.  Outgoing and single when being outgoing and single wasn't appropriate for a young woman.  When her father became too ill to work due to heart disease she quit college and went to work... but not just any job, as a secretary in that boys club called Wall Street.  She and my father didn't get married until they were 27... very late by 1960 standards.  And even after their marriage her personal strength played out as my father, a merchant marine engineer, was often away at work for months at a time (bringing new meaning to the phrase, "wait until your father gets home") leaving a household and eventually 5 children to tend on her own while he was away.

Needless to say, being raised by a strong, progressive woman gave me a unique perspective on women that many of my peers didn't have.  And being the second eldest son, much of the work around the house that a father would normally do would fall into my lap, as would helping to care for younger siblings as I got older.  Changing diapers was nothing new for me when my own children were born.  Doing the cooking, the laundry, the dishes, the household cleaning were all second nature for me.  Between my mother and the Boy Scouts, my development of these and many other life skills played into my own craving for self-sufficiency and being able to take care of myself.  Needless to say, my experience, both growing up, and in my own marriage today, seem to be outside the norm.

Bishop Barron makes some very astute observations about how young men today are feeling marginalized by these media stereotypes.  Need proof?  Just look at any Disney princess movie.  Where are their fathers?  There are only two choices… either they’re dead or they’re helpless buffoons.  It’s great to show that girls know how to get it done, but as a middle-class white male, I also feel somewhat offended by this portrayal of men as being unable to take care of themselves (or being dead), or worse, being portrayed as the worst version of male privilege (I’m looking at you, Gaston!)

It is an unfortunate reality that many young people, both yesterday and today, are not taught a full course load of basic life skills.  The old stereotype of a first year college student not knowing how to do laundry, or not knowing how to cook a basic meal.  And the media, from TV sit-coms to feature films, from the dawn of their day through to today, still mine these tired stereotypes for comedy.  Years ago this could be directly attributed to defined socio-economic rolls in society, but why does this happen today in our supposedly enlightened society?

First, we have to recognize that the pull of these old social stereotypes still exist, especially in our immigrant cultures.  Add to this the more modern phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” and self-esteem education we have a recipe for building an entire generation bereft of domestic and self sufficiency skills… particularly among boys.  They go from being pampered by mom, then by their girl friend, then back to mom, and onto other female relationships that essentially have them going from one care-giver to another well beyond the time where they should be caring for themselves (which should be by age 12 if you’re doing it right).  So is it any wonder that our young men are feeling less than adequate?

So how do we fix this?  Bishop Barron is quite right when he suggests that we need to throw in an “at-a-boy” just as much as we should encourage our girls… but it has to go farther than that if we are going to break the chains of perceived gender roles and roll back the schools of “modern parenting” if we are to teach these young men how to manage on their own… to teach them the skills they need to take care of themselves and provide them the opportunities to exercise those skills.

There is no question that today’s young men must bear the consequences of male privilege that have prevailed throughout all of recorded history.  It’s no wonder they’re feeling less than stellar about their current situation.  But as they say, the first step to recovery is to first recognize the problem.  And while today’s young men may not be the perpetrators of male privilege, they must first recognize that this has been the long standing situation, and how that situation has lead to some social injustice.  Education is the key to understanding this and provides the foundation for supporting a change in the status quo.

The next thing to getting past this malaise is for them to have confidence in themselves, as people.. as contributing members of a larger society.  More often than not, it is a lack of confidence that makes them feel less than adequate.  Here again, education, training, and building experience, both in domestic and non-domestic trades will help them see that they are capable of taking care of themselves, which leads them to be in a position to care for others.

I see this a lot with young fathers.  Many of them not only recognize the need to be involved in the car-giving of this new infant, but they genuinely want to take part.  Unfortunately many new mothers, or the mothers of new mothers, will shoo them away because “they’re not doing it right.”  In this type of environment how long do you think it will take for them to cede all child care responsibilities?  In too many cases, the women in our boy’s lives must give them the opportunity to do it themselves.

By teaching our boys (and all our children) good domestic skills, there is also one very important benefit that cannot be overlooked:  It helps them build empathy.  Empathy for those whose job it is to care for others:  From hotel maids, to restaurant servers, to car mechanics, to gardeners, to school teachers, to coaches… the list just goes on and on.  Without empathy we can all too readily marginalize others, which Is not what God intended.  Instead, God felt it important enough that he sent Jesus to this world so he could see firsthand what our lives were like.  And it is that empathy leads us to the mercy of Christ.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Humility.  It’s a virtue that seems to have been left behind in our current civil discourse.  To many people being humble connotes a sense of weakness.  Contrary to popular thinking, humility actually takes courage and strength, and affords even greater rewards as our readings this week will show:

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Our faith teaches that we must approach our prayer with humility.  Our first reading from Sirach is an example.  Here he reminds us that all our prayers are heard by God, but those coming from the most humble among us “pierce the clouds”.  This sage from the 2nd century BCE reminds us that though we are all equal in God’s eyes, he also hears the cry of those who are marginalized… the weak, the oppressed, the orphan.  This idea has echoed through the ages, including in our Psalm when we sing, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

Our second reading concludes our 7 week journey through Paul’s letters to Timothy.  This week’s passage takes us to the conclusion of his letter.  Though not intentional, our theme of humility continues as Paul, nearing the end of his life, reflects on his service to the Gospel.  He has suffered greatly, giving his all to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, but has no regrets.  You can hear Paul’s sadness as he acknowledges he is nearing the end of his life, but this is anything but a lament... he is proud of the work he has done, and as always, offers himself as an example to his younger charge.

We then hear from Luke’s Gospel where we pick up right where we left off last week (with the dishonest judge).  In yet another story unique to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus turns from his disciples (who just heard the last parable) and faces the larger crowd (no doubt with some Pharisees among them) and gives them the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Here we witness the prayer of two men – one from a supposed holy man, and the other from a supposed sinner.  But which is the holy man, and which is the sinner?  Jesus gives us the answer… the one who’s prayer is honest is the one who will be saved.  Honesty and Humility work hand in hand as we face the Just Judge in prayer.

Final thoughts:
One of my favorite films is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  At the climax of the film, Indiana must make it past three booby traps to retrieve the Holy Grail and save his father.  The elder Dr. Jones has discovered the three clues needed to get past these challenges.  The first challenge is “the breath of God” to which we are told “only the penitent man will pass.”  The younger Dr. Jones tries to think through what this means, coming to the realization that a “penitent man is humble before God.” and the proper stance to reflect this humility is by kneeling, and thus avoid being decapitated by a couple nasty looking circular blades.  Today we live in a society where kneeling is viewed as a sign of subservience.  But if we think that, we’re missing the point.  C. S. Lewis once said “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”  Put another way, we need to think of others first.  Humility is not meant to demean us or make us feel less worthy of God’s love.  Rather, it’s recognizing that the needs of others must come ahead of our own.  To recognize that we are part of a greater whole.  We, as individuals and as a people of God, must continually look outward.  Only then can we see the light.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Persistence.  The Oxford Dictionary defines this as “firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”  Persistence is an important part of our faith tradition, as our readings this week will teach us:

Exodus 17:8-13
Psalm 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

Our first reading is a story from the book of Exodus.  Here Moses and the Israelites, not long after their flight from Egypt, are pushing forward into Southern Canaan where they are experiencing resistance from the nation of Amalek (named for the grandson of Esau, Abraham’s other son… though this may just be a literary device).  As they engage in battle, Moses holds out his hands (as he would in a prayer position) and the battle goes in favor of Israel, but as Moses grows tired and lowers his hands, the tide of battle shifts.  With the help of Aaron and Hur, Moses is able to keep his arms up so that Israel wins the day.  So what does this story about an ancient battle teach us?  There are actually two important points:  First is the need for persistence:  As long a Moses persevered in his prayer, the Lord responded in kind.  Second is seeking help from others.  As Moses began to tire, Aaron and Hur were there to hold up his arms, acting as intercessors in his prayer, and reinforcing the idea that we all need the help of others from time to time.  Our Psalm reminds us that when we need help, it is the Lord to whom we should call as we sing, “Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 

This idea of persistence is also carried through to our second reading.  As we continue our study of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul is reminding him to stay faithful to what he has learned because he can trust the source of that learning… the Sacred Scriptures and  his faith in Christ.  One can imagine that Timothy feels unsure of himself in his priestly ministry without having his mentor at his side.  Paul reassures him that within the scriptures, inspired by God, he can find the wisdom he needs to be persistent in his ministry.  An interesting sidebar to this passage is the recognition of those elements that form the two pillars of the Church:  Scripture and Tradition.

Our Gospel from Luke, continues with this theme of persistence.  Picking up the narrative from where we left off last week we hear another parable unique to Luke’s Gospel:  The Parable of the Persistent Widow (sometimes also called the Parable of the Unjust Judge).  Here a widow (part of the underclass) keeps pressing her case with a dishonest judge.  Her perseverance ultimately leads the judge to rule in her favor, if for no other reason than to get her out of his hair.  Jesus’ approach is a little unusual here (typical of Luke), but he uses the widow as an example of how we need to be persistent in our prayers to God, the just judge, if we are to be heard.

Final thoughts:
Persistence, whether in prayer or action, only works when you have a goal.  For Moses, the goal was the defeat of Amalek.  For Timothy, it was the successful shepherding of his community and spreading the Gospel.  For the woman in Jesus’ parable, it was to get a judgment in her favor.  As Christians, as followers of the Lord, our goal is eternal life.  Yet our persistence to attaining this goal can seem, at times, very lackluster.  Take for example going regularly to Sunday Mass.  Why do we go to Mass every week?  Most will answer, “because the Church says so.”  While that’s not an incorrect answer, it most certainly is an incomplete one.  Do you ever stop to ask why the Church wants us to attend Mass every week?  It’s an important question… both for Catholics and those who want to become Catholic.

Suffice to say, there are many reasons the Church wants us to attend Mass regularly, but I will not go into those here, except to say that our persistence in attending Mass regularly is one of those elements that can lead us to our goal of eternal life.  To building a relationship with God that can spread to those around us.  Persistence requires a goal.  What are your goals?  They can be short term, like simply getting through the week, or long term, like finishing your college degree, or advancing in your profession.  As the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.”  To get what we want, it often means putting in the time and effort it takes to get there.  We have to want it, and it has to be worthy of our persistence.  Our Lord offers us grace and everlasting life.  Isn’t that a worthy goal?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Thank you.  It’s a phrase we hear and use every day.  It’s an accepted and expected courtesy for a variety of interactions.  In fact, when we don’t hear it when we expect to, we feel slighted and unappreciated.  Here’s a question:  Does God feel slighted and unappreciated when we don’t give him thanks for his great gifts?  Let’s see what this week’s readings might say on the subject…

2 Kings 5:14-17
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Our first reading comes from 2nd Kings.  Naaman, a Syrian military commander, seeks to thank Elisha for curing him of his leprosy (an act that King Joram of Israel isn’t likely to appreciate).  Not only does Naaman wish to give thanks to Elisha, but also to his God.  This is nothing short of a complete conversion for Naaman, who not only sees the glory of God, but recognizes the importance of the land in this covenant relationship.  In fact, his recognition of God’s covenant with the people and the land that he asks for two mule loads of dirt to take back to his homeland so that he may worship God on his holy land.  Naaman’s experience reveals some important lessons:  First, of the need to show gratitude and thanks.  Second, is both recognizing and giving honor to God.  Third, it is an example of a theme that is often played out in the story of the prophets… where a foreigner finds greater insight (and favor) with God than do his own chosen people.

All these themes are also reflected in our Gospel.  In another story that is unique to Luke’s Gospel (and a continuation from where we left off last week), we are told Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee (the equivalent of the “outback”) on his way to Jerusalem when he happens upon ten lepers.  They ask Jesus to have pity on them, whereupon he tells them to go show themselves to the priest.  As they go on their way they are cured of their affliction.  When this happens, one of the men, a Samaritan, runs back to Jesus to thank him.  Once again, we see that it is the foreigner who demonstrates a faith stronger than the others, and is blessed for it.

In our second reading, we continue our study of the 2nd letter to Timothy, where an imprisoned Paul urging Timothy to persevere in his call to Christ.  The message is clear… stick with Christ, and you will be saved;  deny Christ, and he will deny you.  It’s a harsh testament.  Would Jesus really deny us?  That depends.  We recognize Jesus as our advocate, our champion to the Father, willing to forgive us our sins if we stray.  But if we were to completely turn our back to Christ, without remorse, our path to the dark side is clear.  It is also important to remember, however, that Paul’s words are meant to inspire us while shaking us out of our complacency, fear, or guilt.  After all, it is Paul himself who reminds us that even a sinner such as himself can be saved.

Final thoughts:
So… does God expect to be thanked?  Does he feel slighted when we don’t thank him?  Personally I like think that God is a “bigger man” than that.. far above such petty human vanity.  After all, this is the same ever-loving God who stands ready to forgive us whenever we turn to him.  At the same time I do believe that God appreciates our thanks.  Every loving relationship needs affirmation.  It goes beyond common courtesy, it expresses an appreciation for what one has done… whether something simple, or something extraordinary.  It is also a reflection of our humility… both when offering thanks, or being put in the position to accept someone else’s thanks.  Thanks, like love, must be freely given to be fully received.