Friday, August 26, 2011

Are You Ready?

Today's Gospel (Matthew 25: 1-13) is a very apt one for those of us living in the path of Hurricane Irene. In this parable, Jesus speaks of ten virgins (bridesmaids) who are waiting for the arrival of the groom. In those days of no means of instant communication there was no way of knowing exactly which day or hour someone would complete a trip. So part of the duties of bridesmaids was to wait for the groom and accompany him into the feast, announcing his arrival to the guests so that they could gather for the celebration. And since there were no "streetlights", these girls would also have oil lamps to light the way through the streets. As they awaited his arrival, the girls would have to keep trimming the wicks of the lamps to prevent burning excessive oil. By keeping the wicks small and using just a little oil, they would have enough to light the way for the groom when he arrived. The foolish girls, who fell asleep and did not tend their lamps, were running out of oil by the time the groom arrived and were not ready.
There has been a lot of talk about being prepared, what provisions people should have "just in case" there is a direct hit. Some are heading the warnings, others seem to take pride in defying both civil authorities and common sense. All the news reports seemed geared to dwell on a "worst case" scenario, warning people of the coming disaster, and it seems as if the entire east coast of the United States is focused on the potential paths and possible results of the storm. There are reports of shortages of batteries, generators, plywood and food, as people are now trying to make sure they are ready to make it through the next few days. And I am sure that there will still be those who will not have the necessary items and will be expressing anger and resentment at others who are better prepared.
The hurricane is definitely coming, even though some think it will be "much ado about nothing". They will refer to previous warnings of ,monster storms that turned out to fizzle before arriving. And when it hits and there is widespread damage, we will find some who, after neglecting the warnings, need to be rescued, putting others' lives in jeopardy. This is, indeed, the height of foolishness!
The bottom line is - get ready now -  and not just for Hurricane Irene. The reality is that many people will die even before Irene hits. Each day it is estimated that 153,400 people die. Some of them will be people from your hometown, people with whom you work, people in your own family. One day each one of us will be part of that daily statistic. The hurricane will hit within two days, and I hope you are getting ready for it. But what if today is the day you will be one of the 153,400? Are you ready?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Master's Goods

Today's Gospel (Matthew 24: 42-51) is a very timely lesson from the Lord. Given the recent earthquake in this part of the country, and the impending hurricane expected this weekend, a caution that "at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come" seems to be very apt.
I would like to reflect on the second part of the Gospel, in which the Lord reflects on the servant who is given responsibility for the household while the master is away. He tells us that if the servant acts properly, he will be blessed. But, if the servant acts improperly, there will be consequences. If we examine the actions of the one who does not act properly, we see that he treats the master's property as if it were his own. Without regard to the fact that he is a mere steward, the servant begins to act like a master, eating and drinking as he wishes, using the master's property as he wishes instead of as the master wishes.
When we think about our own "property", we have to ask ourselves "What is really mine?" Even our salary, that which we earn by our labor - how much of it is really mine? Even before I receive what I have earned, the government takes a chunk. More of it goes to the bank for my mortgage, credit cards and other loans. I have to pay utility companies, the grocery store and doctors. Even the money that is "left over" never really stays with me very long. So how can I say that it is mine? And what will I be able to take with me when I die? In reality, I am a mere custodian of material things, and even then for a relatively short time.
So the question becomes - to whom does it all really belong? I would suggest that the answer is God, since He alone will always be around and, after all, He created everything to begin with. So, how much concern do I give to what God wants me to do with things? It is a very powerful and disconcerting question. I thinkl it is probably one that I do not ask often enough, especially when I am making decisions about what to do with "my" things. I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of the servant who lives as if all the master's goods were his. God certainly has a plan for each of us, and He provides us with the means to live out His plan. It is probably a good idea to keep check on ourselves, so that we will be using these means - the Master's goods - as He wants. Failure to do so could end up with us wailing and grinding teeth, which is not a very attractive picture!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Spirit of the Law

In today's Gospel (Matthew 23: 23-26) the Lord warns the scribes and Pharisees (and by extension, all of us as well) that they need to be more concerned with what is integral to their lives, those values that should be guiding all actions. Evidently there was a lot of finger pointing being done, but none of it was being focused on their own actions. The Lord indicates that they had been very harsh in demanding that others adhere to the smallest and insignificant laws, but had failed to adopt what the law sought to instill in them. The paying of tithes (donations to the temple) and cleansing of utensils have overshadowed judgement, mercy and fidelity, and the Lord denounces them as hypocrites. Certainly the gospel does not portray the Lord as treating the scribes and Pharisees gently. Our impulse may be to denounce them as well and feel superior. We have to be very careful about this, however.
It is always easier to see the faults in other than in ourselves, but the Lord call us to look at ourselves and make sure we are being faithful to who we are called to be. We may be quick to point out how others are not being faithful, not following the commandments, not living as they should. But before we try to tell others how to live, we better take a look at our own lives. Most of us, you see, are rather selective in following the law. We don't steal, just "borrow" things from work. We only tell "little white lies". Simply going to Mass means that we have kept holy the Lord's day, and "God understands" when we decide not to if we are too tired or busy.
The Lord speaks to us as He speaks to the scribes and Pharisees. He expects that we will make sure that we are pure inside, not just outside. He demands that we not neglect the "weightier" things that are at the core of our faith, and follow His example. If we can try each day to live as Christ wants, doing the Father's will, we will not have to be worried about being lumped in with the scribes and Pharisees, but will be counted among the faithful who are part of God's Kingdom. This is what it means to live the spirit of the law - living like Christ.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Law of Love

It seems strange to think of love as something that is the subject of a command. But that is exactly what the Lord affirms in today's Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), when He was asked to state the greatest commandment. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind... You shall love your neighbor as yourself" are not given as suggestions, but rather commandments. How can you command someone to love?
One of the problems is that, in English, the word "love" means different things. I may say that I love my mother, I love that car, I love the color blue, I love the beach, etc. Even though I use the same word to describe my feelings about these things, each one means something different. Other languages use different words for each of these realities, but English is rather confusing. What they may all have in common, however, is that they are emotional responses. And emotional responses are influenced by a variety of factors. If these factors change, how can I be commanded to love?
The question betrays another problem with the modern concept of love when referring to a relationship, which sees it as an emotional response rather than a decision. "You can't help who you fall in love with" is frequently heard. But that very statement contains the answer to this dilemma. You see, there is a difference between being in love and loving. Two people may "fall in love" rather quickly, and this is a normal experience in today's world. But falling love is not the same as loving a person and is not even necessary. The love a parent has for a child is certainly not a result of being in love, but it is perhaps the strongest type of love. Being in love may lead to loving someone, but not necessarily. The difference is a choice that the people make. Choosing to love someone actually involves a series of choices made daily. I choose to overlook the little things that may drive me crazy. I choose to be faithful, even when they do something that disappoints me. I choose to emphasize the best and forgive the worst. I choose to put their needs ahead of my own. I choose to do for them without expecting anything in return.
All of these are ways that I make a decision to love. And if love is a decision (just like committing murder, lying, stealing, etc.), God's commandment makes sense. The real challenge is seeing these daily decisions as a means of expressing love. Every decision we make, in fact, is a decision that will either shoe love or not. Love God and love neighbor is a daily challenge, one that we are commanded to live. How will I follow this law of love today?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Put On Something Beautiful

Today's Gospel (Matthew 22: 1-14) is the parable of the king who threw a wedding feast. As the story goes, when the invited guests refuse to come, he ultimately ends up having people invited in from the highways and byways, so that there will still be a grand celebration for his son's wedding. One of the interesting things to remember is that the only thing people had to do was come to the feast. They didn't have to worry about bringing a gift, they didn't even have to be worried about what to wear, since, as was the custom,  the king supplied the clothes for them to wear. (No one could have been expected to own clothing suitable for such an occasion, and so the king would provide suitable clothes for the guests - sort of like renting a tuxedo to be in a wedding today!)
When those who had been invited refused to come and went so far as to kill the messengers of the king, they met a terrible end. This left those who happened to be in the neighborhood - the poor, unemployed, "peasants" who were invited to come in and celebrate. Maybe to show that rudeness and lack of manners are not the exclusive provenance of the wealthy, one man refuses to put on the wedding garment. This was a tremendous insult to the king, and as a result he was ejected from the banquet.
In reflecting on this parable, I see the Lord inviting us to the eternal Feast. There is nothing we can do to earn it, He has already done that for us. The only thing we are asked to do is put on the "wedding garment". What does this mean? Well, when we were baptized we were clothed in white, symbolizing our new life as a child of God. This becomes our "wedding garment", as we celebrate the union of Christ, the bridegroom, with the Church, His bride. As long as we live as a child of God, reflecting the example of Christ, we keep this new life alive and continue to wear the wedding garment. We are, however, free to cast it off. Just as the attendants did not force the man to wear his wedding garment, neither does God force us to live in the proper way. But there are also consequences for us, just as there were for the improperly dressed guest.
As we continue celebrating the union of Christ and His Church, we need to make sure we do not discard this new life we have been given. Every day we have to once again put on something beautiful: the grace-filled life of a child of God.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Full Day's Pay

The parable of the laborers who worked for different amounts of time all receiving a full day's pay (Matthew 20: 1-16), is really challenging. It seems to go against our sense of fairness. We all tend to think that the amount of pay should somehow correlate to the work performed. But the Lord seems to indicate that God will reward us in a different way. The ones who have been laboring for many years, trying to do what is right, should not expect any more than those who have come to know and follow the Lord very late in the game. Is this fair?
I believe that the Lord is trying to make us see that the question itself is flawed. We should not be asking "Is this fair?". Instead, we have to remember that, as any loving parent, God is not going to love us based on what we do, but rather who we are. A parent may have one child who always does what the parent wants, and another who is always getting in trouble. Even though disappointed in their actions and decisions, a parent does not love the wayward child any less. Even if there have to be consequences for their actions, the child who does not choose the right path is still loved by their parent. So it is with us and God.
You see, heaven is not a reward for doing the right thing. Heaven is our true home, and being there is the natural consequence of our relationship with God. The only thing that can prevent a person from being able to enter their own home is deciding that they do not want to go there. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard parents say "No matter what, this will always be your home". Now, since parents realize that they will not live forever, they always want their children to be able to take care of themselves. And competent adult children should be able to take care of themselves. But Jesus was aware of a different reality, a heavenly home where we will live forever. And God, our Father, wants us all to be there for eternity. So it does not matter whether we come to this realization early in life or at the last minute. It is for this that we have been created. And this is not earned by any of our own good deeds. No, the Lord is the one who did the work, and we receive the recompense. His death on the cross earned us the full wage - eternal life in heaven. The only thing that can mess it up is our own refusal to accept what God wants for us.
So, I guess that the lesson for us is that we are all being offered a full day's pay for the work that was performed by the Lord on a Friday long ago. And there is no better pay that anyone can receive.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Being In Debt

In today's Gospel (Matthew 18:21 - 19:1) the Lord uses an example of two men who are in debt and how their creditor reacts to the situation. The first man owes money and, when the master demands payment, he pleads for more time. This is given to him. Leaving that meeting, this first man encounters someone who owes him money. Naturally he sees this as an opportunity to get some of the money he owes in order to pay back the master, and so he demands that the second man make good on the debt. The second man pleads for more time, just as the first man did. The first man, however, despite being given more time by his master, does not extend the debt for this second man. Instead, he has him jailed for failure to pay.
Now when we examine this example, we can understand that, given the terms of the agreement, both men were legally bound to pay the debt in the time that was specified in the agreement. The master, despite his legal right to take any and all measures to collect his money (including selling the servant, his family and all his possessions), takes the path of patience and mercy, realizing that it would be better for all if he gave the servant more time to repay the debt.
That first servant however, goes to the full extent of the law, having his fellow servant jailed for failure to pay. It is probable that he did this as a lesson to others who owed him money, hoping that it would motivate them to repay him quickly so that he could clear his debt with the master.He forgets the example shown by the master and fails to look beyond the letter of the agreement and live by the law of love.
In a very practical way, Jesus is trying to move people from the old "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" way of dealing with others, to a do unto others" way of living. With more and more of us concerned about finances, it also is a lesson in priorities. When money is tight and we find ourselves in over our heads, sometimes we can forget that the most important thing we possess is our integrity. If we call ourselves followers of Christ, we have to live that way, even when times are tough. Indeed, it is the very essence of a Christian to hold fast to our determination to live according to the example of Christ especially when times are tough. Anyone can be a good Christian when life is easy. But when life is difficult, that is where you discover the true disciples. We will not always do it perfectly (just look at how the apostles denied, ran away, cowered in the upper room) but we have to keep trying. Remember, our original debt was paid by Christ on the cross. Now we are called to reach out to those who are looking to us for forgiveness, understanding, patience, assistance. After all, it is no fun being in debt, especially when eternity is in the balance!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Father Knows Best

Today's Gospel (Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14) speaks of being humble and uses a child as an example. At first this sounds pretty off-base, since I doubt that many of us would use the word humble to describe many children. Children often seem to be the exact opposite, demanding attention and seeing the world as if it revolves around their needs and wishes. But when you think about it, a child is really powerless without adults to support and take care of them. As much as they may whine and plead for things, as many times as they may throw a "temper tantrum", it is still the parent who makes the decision. Now, some parents may just give in and acquiesce to the demands of the child, but that is also the decision of the parent. And in the end, most children are glad that they do not have to make big decisions, because they instinctively know that their parents will always want what is best for them.
In reflecting on this, it seems that the Lord correctly identified the way that our relationship with God is lived. We may beg and plead, but it is God who has the ultimate power and is the One who has the best understanding of what is good for us. Even when we decide not to do God's will in a particular situation, we know that He has the ultimate say and His will is what will ultimately prevail. In this sense, then, the sooner we realize this and act accordingly, the better.
Most of us are very glad to finally become adults, because we can do what we want. But that is really not true. Indeed, adults have just as many, if not more constraints on them as children, even if we fail to realize it. But the Lord is advising us to look at our relationship with God in a different way. Rather than being upset, sad or angry that we have to depend on God, He invites us to rejoice and be glad. If we take on the humility of a child and accept that our Father knows best, we can rely on the fact that He will not allow us to become lost. And even if we occasionally think that God is not around, not watching, not concerned, we can be sure that He is always aware of us and always watching over His beloved child.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What Are You Looking At??

Sorry for the gap in posting. I was at the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus this past week. But today's Gospel (Matthew 14: 22-33) helped me realize that I have to stay focused, even when there are other things that try to distract me.
You see, that is what happened to Peter. When the Lord called him to come and walk on the water, Peter was able to do it because he was focused on the Lord. The scripture tell us, however, that he "saw how strong the wind was", meaning that he moved his attention from the Lord to other things that were happening around him. And this is what caused Peter to begin sinking.
There are so many things in today;s world that try to distract us, to turn our attention away from God. Sadly, some people not only give in to this but also join in. In fact, most advertising today seems to try and make the most important things in life what YOU want, what YOU need, how YOU can have a better life, what YOU deserve. This continuous attention to the needs and wants of the individual run completely contrary to what God teaches us. And that is why it more important than ever to try and keep our eyes and attention focused on God.
But how can we do this? How do we make sure that it is God that we look to for guidance? One sure way is by having frequent conversations with God. This is what we call prayer. And we not only have to talk to God, but more importantly, listen. This requires time and space away from other distractions. Just by seeking to remove ourselves to a quiet, "alone" place, we can set ourselves up for success. The very act of entering into a conversation with God will help us discover what God's will is in our lives. If Peter had not been willing to look at the Lord and enter into a conversation with Him, he would have remained cowering and afraid in the boat. And even though he faltered and began to sink, the Lord stayed with him and helped him get back into the boat.
This is a great model for us, especially when we feel that life is tossing us around. Look to the Lord. Focus on Him and His word. And don't let the storms of life distract you from concentrating on God's will. This is how we will all be able to walk on the troubled waters of life. So, whenever you find yourself feeling a little overwhelmed by life, stop and think about Peter. What are you looking at?