Homily From the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

There are some pretty strange laws in Missouri.  And I’m not saying that as a political statement or talking about laws that I may not agree with – there are objectively some strange laws in Missouri!  Did you know that it is illegal for milkmen to run while on duty?  Or that in Columbia, clotheslines are banned, but clothes may be draped over fences?  In University City, it is illegal to own a PVC pipe.  In St. Louis, it is illegal to sit on a curb of any city street and drink beer from a bucket, but that’s eased up a bit in Natchez, where it is only unlawful to provide intoxicants to elephants.  Like I said, there are some strange laws.  Probably a lot of them have context that makes them a little more sensible.  For example, the PVC pipe law in U-City has to do with drug paraphernalia, and maybe in Natchez, they’ve had horrible elephant accidents in the past.  But how would you know these things unless you went to Jefferson City and looked them up in some archive?

It’s possible to think of God’s law in the same way – remote, distant, foreign – but today, the lesson we have to learn is that God’s law is simple.  We are to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves, and we will live.  It’s a simple lesson within everyone’s reach, even the Samaritan in the parable today, who was thought of as very low class and uncivilized at the time of Jesus.  This commandment of love summarizes the Gospel, summarizes the teaching of Jesus, and summarizes the meaning of life.  It is utter simplicity.

"Le Bon Samaritain" by Aimé Morot
“Le Bon Samaritain” by Aimé Morot

But life is complicated, as we all know, and we like to extend those complications into the law of God.  And so we ask that question of Jesus – who is my neighbor?  We want clarifications and qualifications.  One of the most dangerous things we can fall into is relativism.  We can begin to think that God’s law is so abstract and incapable of covering our situation that because of that, my way of treating others is just as good and just as valid as anyone else’s.  Morality becomes something abstract and more individualized.  It seems strange, but the relativist would be inclined to thank the Samaritan for doing what he did to help that beaten man on the road, but that such action depends on the individual.  When we see how truth and morality seem to drift away and disappear, we can understand why Pope Benedict XVI said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  It’s that selfishness within us that asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

The thing about the law of God is that it’s not abstract – it’s simple and accessible to all.  Like the first reading says, it’s not something written in the sky or across some foreign land, or buried in a stack of paper in an archive in Jefferson City.  The law of God is written on our hearts, even from the moment of our conception.  Jesus gives us this parable to explain what he’s talking about, and he’s given us further lessons to understand what this means: the words and examples of a thousand saints, the teaching of the Church from the Roman Empire to Vatican II to today, the little nudgings of our consciences, and even the day to day actions of our Holy Father, who even recently invited 200 homeless people to dine in the Vatican.  It’s pretty clear what we have to do.  But we still complicate it and find it hard to learn.  We have to ask ourselves, “What holds us back from deciding once and for all to make Christ’s standard our own?”

There are a million different complicated self-help lessons that will teach us how to live good lives, be successful, and make people like us.  But do me a favor and forget all of those things for a moment and concentrate on one phrase from the Gospel: “Go and do likewise.”  If we can just be like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, then we will live.  There are two big ways that we can do that.  The first is by having the right intention.  We find ourselves really busy all day with responsibilities and jobs, but it’s a good thing to remember that many of these things are themselves “Good Samaritan” activities.  Moms and dads, you spend all day cleaning up after people and making sure the kids get to where they need to be.  Workers and professionals, you spend 8 to 10 hours every day offering some service to another person who needs it, whether it be as a pharmacist, an insurance agent, a nurse, a web designer, or whatever.  Kids and teens, you guys spend your free time away from school cutting the grass and doing chores.  Retired grandmas and grandpas, you volunteer for things and babysit constantly.  All of these things are normal responsibilities to us, and maybe a little tedious, but when we see them from the perspective of the Good Samaritan, offering love and care to those in need of it, they take on that true Christ-like meaning.  The second thing we can do to be like the Good Samaritan this week is to choose right here and now that when we run into someone who needs us this week, we will lend them a hand.  It could be a friend, it could be someone you’ve never met.  It could be something material that they need, or it could be just a few prayers.  Let’s promise that we won’t let that law become abstract in our hearts and just walk right along by that needy person.  Let us pray that strengthened by this Holy Communion that we will soon receive, we will follow Christ’s call to “Go, and do likewise.”

The Holy Apostles: St. Matthew

Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican
Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican

Today we come to one of the better known apostles, St. Matthew, also known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.  St. Matthew was known primarily for being a tax collector, and it was while he was sitting at his post in Capernaum when Jesus called him.  It’s actually more accurate for us to think of Matthew as a “publican”, an official position in the Roman Empire.  Publicans were despised by their fellow Jews because their job meant that they collaborated with the occupying Romans.  Publicans were public contractors, overseeing public building projects and other goings-on.  But yes, they were mostly known for collecting taxes.

Being a publican was very profitable.  Taxes in the Empire didn’t work as they do today, but instead, the Roman officials approximated how much tax a province could handle, and the publican would manage the payment.  The sum paid to Rome was actually treated as a loan, and the publicans would receive interest on that payment in the end.  Also, the publican kept any excess tax collected beyond the requested sum, so there was extra incentive for the publican to collect.  You can imagine why it was considered a rather greedy profession.

The fact that St. Matthew turned away from an incredibly profitable life as a publican to follow Jesus makes St. Matthew’s conversion all the more powerful.  He even held a “going away party” of sorts, inviting all of his friends – who were also publicans, because everyone else hated him.  But Jesus clearly gives his reasons for calling Matthew as an apostle: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Even as a sinner, St. Matthew was empowered by Christ to do wonderful things.  He became an eyewitness to the Resurrection, and afterward, spent his time serving the communities of Palestine.  Perhaps he was making amends for his previous life, but he selflessly served his Hebrew brothers and sisters until he moved elsewhere.  Where exactly he went, we don’t know.  Some sources mention Persia, others Macedonia, and others Syria.  Almost all mention that he preached in Ethiopia…but not that Ethiopia.  The Ethiopia Matthew went to was south of the Caspian Sea, near Armenia.  I guess they didn’t know the name “Ethiopia” was already taken!

The tradition of the Church is that Matthew was martyred like so many of his apostle brothers, but there is disagreement as to how or where.  Whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded, suffice to say that it wasn’t pretty, but he did it to give witness to Christ.  Today, what are believed to be his remains rest in the Cathedral of Salerno, Italy.

St. Matthew doesn’t seem to have as many fancy stories as the other apostles, but his primary contribution as an evangelist was authoring the Gospel bearing his name.  It was written in Aramaic, the language of his people, and then translated later into Greek.  We are not exactly sure when it was written (there were no copyright pages then), but probably very early, possibly even 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus!

The transformation of Matthew from a man of selfishness and greed to a man of generous and loving service is a great example for us today.  It’s easy for us to get down on ourselves for our weaknesses, believing that we are not good enough for God, but like St. Matthew, Christ calls us to follow him, especially as sinners.  Let us continue to pray that we would embrace that call to live and spread the Gospel, just as St. Matthew did!

Homily From the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

So I heard a story about this priest who was going on a missionary trip to Africa.  Before he departs, he took some time to pray that God would protect him and keep him safe.  And in prayer, God responded to him saying, “Do not fear, I will protect you on the way, if only you have trust in me.”  So the priest goes to Africa, and as he is walking on a mountain on his way to another village, and there is a huge avalanche.  The priest finds himself clinging by his fingernails above a lake full of crocodiles.  Soon a group of tourists in a van comes along and asks, “Do you need any help?”  And the priest responded, “No, I put my trust in God.”  Later a boat came along and the people on board asked if they could bring him aboard.  And the priest said again, “No, I put my faith in God.”  So later a group of scientists in a helicopter came and asked him the same thing.  Again, the priest told them that he placed his trust in God.  Well, as it would happen, at that moment, the priest lost his grip and fell into the lake and got eaten by crocodiles.  So he gets to heaven (he made a good confession before he left) and he said, “What happened?  I though you said if I put my trust in you, you’d protect me?”  And God shrugged his shoulders and answered, “Well, I don’t know!  I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter…”

You know, it seems like every Mass is about trust and faith, but to be honest, it’ a message that we just can’t hear enough.  So this Gospel is for all of us who are control freaks.  I can’t imagine being called by Jesus and volunteering for this amazing mission, only for him to tell me to bring almost nothing with me!  That would drive me nuts, because in my packing, so many times, I’m concerned about those “what if’s.”  Well what if a shirt gets ruined?  What if it gets really cold while I’m away?  What if I get bored?  A lot of control issues aren’t control issues in the first place – they’re trust issues.  And that’s nothing new.  That’s how all of this began way back in the Book of Genesis – Adam and Eve had trust issues.

I think it brings up to us a question or two about faith.  What is faith in the first place?  It’s a lot more than just believing without seeing.  Faith is trust without reservation.  Faith is a sheer gift of God, which we receive when we fervently ask for it.  Faith is that supernatural power that is absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Faith comes from free will and clear understanding.  Faith is incomplete unless it actually leads to active love.  Faith grows when we listen more and more to Christ in the Word of God and interact with him in prayer.  Faith gives us even now a foretaste of the joy of heaven.  Faith is absolutely certain, because Christ himself guarantees it.  A lot of people say that simply believing and having faith isn’t enough for them because they want to know.  But what’s interesting is that the word “believe” has two completely different meanings when used in different contexts.  If you’re getting ready to skydive, and you ask the pilot, “Is the parachute packed?” and he says, “Hmmm, well I believe so,” chances are that you’re not going to jump out of the plane.  But if the pilot were to say, “Absolutely, I did it myself.  Can you trust me?” And you might answer, “Yes, I believe you.”  That kind of belief or faith is much more than just knowing that things are right.  It’s an assurance.  So when Christ sends out the 72 in the Gospel today, inviting them to trust him, he’s giving them an assurance, inviting them to trust that he will provide for them.

What would you answer if I asked you, “Do you trust God?”  A few weeks ago, we had Vacation Bible School at the parish, and I walked in at one point to hear all these little kids singing about trusting God.  And it’s really cute when you hear little kids singing about trust, but honestly, what kind of problems do they have that they are forced to trust in God?  I think a lot of us thinking about this invitation to trust and find it clichéd.  It sounds nice when we hear about trust in the Gospel, but we tend to think that our issues are much too complicated for God.  But the truth is that Christ does understand trust.  He became like us in all things but sin, even to the extent of having his trust tested.  Even at Gethsemane before his death, he knew he would have to die.  And I don’t know if he knew how it would all work out in the end, but he received the assurance of God, and trusted, saying, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”  And his prayer of trust was rewarded with the glorious Resurrection.

Do we trust the Lord?  Do we trust that he speaks to us in prayer?  Do we trust that the sacraments do for us what we say they do?  Do we trust that he will give us what we need, even in difficult situations?  What are we trusting for?  If we are trusting in tangible successes or results in whatever it is we’re struggling with – if we’re trusting that God will provide for us what we expect him to provide, is that really trust?  At the end of the Gospel today, Christ tells his disciples today not to rejoice or trust because of what they were able to do, or because people know their names for the works they’ve done.  He invites them to trust and rejoice because Heaven knows their names.  As we come before him in the Eucharist today, may we trust in his providential guidance for us, placing our hearts in his hands to give us whatever we need on our journey.

Homily From the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Jesus_Disciples_iconI love my car, and I love driving my car, but driving has become a near occasion of sins against charity for me.  I tend to be a pretty intent driver (sounds better than intense), partly because I have been conditioned so by my parents, and also my driver’s education teacher, who also happened to be the football coach at my high school, so you can imagine he used to be pretty intense.  It’s because of those things that it drives me crazy when I’m driving along on the highway and somebody happens to be going 45 mph because they’re trying to forward pictures of cats to their friends on their cell phone!  Do you ever see that someone’s car is dented up and as you drive by, they’re brushing their teeth and trimming their beard at the same time?  And then do you think, “Oh wow, those dents actually make a lot of sense to me now!”  It seems that for some people, the drive is all that matters to them – the music, the e-mail, the beard, etc, and getting to their destination in one piece is kind of a bonus.

Where am I going with this?  Well, partly it makes me feel better to vent, but I think it also has a little something to say as an example of priorities.  Today, we hear Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, where he just foretold last week that he will suffer and die.  On his way, he’s preaching and proclaiming the Kingdom, and gathering followers.  But today’s reading focuses not so much on those that followed Jesus, but on those that didn’t and why.  First, we have a man who says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” to which Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”  These animals set their nests up so that they have somewhere to return at the end of the day to rest and relax.  In a way, this man is willing to follow Jesus wherever it takes him, but he wants someplace to return to at the end of the day, and Jesus reminds us that a disciple’s resting place is in heaven.  Next, we have a man who tells him, “Let me first go and bury my father,” to which Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their dead, but you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”  The man sees the Kingdom as something secondary, that his family is the first and most important thing, but Jesus is pointing out that for a disciple, the Kingdom is his primary responsibility.  The third man says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first, let me say farewell to my family at home,” to which Jesus replies, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”  The man wants to be sure that his family will be ok, to make sure that they will remember him after he has gone, to make sure that his sons and daughters carry on his legacy.  But Jesus says that he’s acting like a person who plows a field and looks behind them to see all the work they have done.  He’s pointing out that discipleship isn’t about where we have gone, but where we are going.

Yikes.  I guess we can tell why St. Theresa of Avila said, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies!”  It seems pretty harsh, because all the things that these near-disciples want to do are good things – they want to be good sons and good fathers.  They want to be sure that their future is secure, and that their families will be ok.  Those are admirable things!  I think the Gospel is bringing out these rather harsh examples as hyperbole – to prove a point about what it means to be a disciple, what it costs to be a disciple.

We try in as much as possible to do things so that we are rewarded with something to make our lives better, and more liveable.  We want to hand things on to our children better than we ourselves had.  And we figure that if we make things well, if we dedicate ourselves well, that when the job is done, we will inherit the just reward that comes from that, so that our retirement in our last days will be in good shape.  We’ll have a place to grow old, we’ll have the gratitude of family, so that people will take care of us.  We’ll have the legacy we left behind, so that people will remember us.  But Christ is showing us that discipleship is that transition from preparing to be rewarded in this life to preparing to receive the reward of the life to come.  All the things I mentioned that we work for are good things.  They are what good and virtuous people strive for – the love of family, preparedness, a legacy of goodness.  But it doesn’t go quite far enough.  Sometimes the tendancy is to think that doing good will reap it’s benefits in this life, and that heaven is just circumstantial, that it’s a bonus round or something.  It’s like a person climbing to the top of a mountain, and then looking back down the mountain to admire what they had done to get there, rather than being in awe of the view at the top.

But that’s not the goal of a disciple.  The goal of a disciple is always one step further.  The goal of a disciple is not of this world.  You don’t see the saints doing what they did so that they would have nice homes to relax in at the end of their lives.  You don’t see them doing it so that they have churches named after them or statues built for them.  You don’t see saints doing what they did so that we remember how awesome they were, their legacy, for one day out of the year.  They did it for one goal, and one goal only – for Christ.  Think of it as a glorious crown.  Sometimes we might think that those different accomplishments are all jewels in the victorious crown of life, and that our faith in Christ is one more, even the most prominent jewel.  But I think what the Gospel shows us today is that Christ isn’t a jewel – he is the crown.  All the other elements of life are valuable jewels and draw even more attention to the crown itself.  As the psalm today says, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”  These other things are signs that you love me, and they are worth caring about and loving, but you are my inheritance, O Lord.

Lord, today, give us the grace to be able to put you as the focus and reward of our lives.  Help us to have that eternal perspective that places all else into relationship with you.  Help us to give thanks for what you have blessed us with, but help us to respond to you as truly God-centered disciples as we respond, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

The Holy Apostles: St. Bartholomew

The Call of Nathanael
The Call of Nathanael

This week’s apostle is St. Bartholomew.  Well, actually, he’s only called “Bartholomew” in the lists of the apostles in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In the Gospel of John, which tells us the most about him, he is named “Nathanael”.  I guess they called him “Bartholomew” for short…

So Nathanael was from Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding feast, and he was summoned to Jesus by St. Philip, who we discussed last week.  Upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael asked Jesus how he knew him, to which Jesus responded “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”  Now, I’m guessing that Jesus wasn’t ten feet away from the fig tree at the time, because this had a huge effect on Nathanael.  We don’t know the significance of the fig tree, but apparently, it was a decisive moment in Nathanael’s life.  He exclaimed, “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Jesus responds in a way fitting for the beginning of Nathanael’s journey: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than this.”

And indeed that was true.  St. Bartholomew/Nathanael was a witness to the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared near the Sea of Tiberius while they were fishing.  After that, things get a little confusing.

What did St. Bartholomew do after the Resurrection?  It depends who you ask.  Two ancient sources, Eusebius of Caesarea (the famous Church historian) and St. Jerome, had Bartholomew preaching in India.  Whereas St. Thomas went to the southeast of India near Mylapore, tradition says that St. Bartholomew went to the western coast of India, near the present-day Mumbai.  It was there that he supposedly left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew.

Other traditions hold that St. Bartholomew went to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia (present-day Iran), and Lycaonia (central Turkey).  And apparently, he went to Hierapolis with St. Philip, as we heard last week.  One of the more popular and widespread traditions of St. Bartholomew is that he went to Armenia (in present-day…Armenia), an area that is traditionally very strongly Christian.  He converted Polymius, who was the king of Armenia, but this wasn’t popular with the king’s brother, who ordered Bartholomew to be tortured and executed.

Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" Look at him!  He's holding his own skin!!!
Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment”
Look at him! He’s holding his own skin!!!

Tradition holds that St. Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive and crucified.  In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicts St. Bartholomew with the other apostles, holding his own skin in his left hand!  His relics were eventually moved to the Church of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island in Rome, where they can be venerated today.

Back to his call, one of the first things that Bartholomew/Nathanael said when Philip tried to introduce him to Jesus was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Basically, he was making fun of Jesus for being a hillbilly from the country!  The great Messiah couldn’t possibly be from there, could he?  The Messiah wasn’t really living up to Nathanael’s expectations.  But Jesus was found in the very place he least expected him.  How true is that for us?  Many times we place our own expectations of Jesus in the way of our faith – what he should do for us, what we should receive from him, how he is supposed to work in our lives.  It takes a real act of faith and docility to put aside our own expectations and follow, but that is what a disciple does.  Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Bartholomew to be able to follow Jesus more closely, even when he does what we least expect!

The Holy Apostles: St. Philip

Rubens_apostel_philippus
“St. Philip” by Peter Paul Rubens

This week’s apostle is St. Philip, who shares a feast day with St. James the Just and his native town with St. Peter and St. Andrew.  He came from Bethsaida, and was called by Jesus there, shortly after the calling of Sts. Peter and Andrew.

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say very little about him, but St. John’s Gospel gives a few more details about his life as one of the apostles.  After having been called by Jesus, he must have been overwhelmingly inspired in his discipleship, as he then introduced Nathanael (called Bartholomew for short) to Jesus, saying “Come and see.”

Like the other apostles, St. Philip had a hard time grasping some of the things that Jesus said.  We usually think of St. Peter asking all the questions, but in John’s Gospel, Philip asks quite a few as well.  In some cases, we can almost feel Jesus’ frustration.  Jesus said at one point (Jn 14:7-9), “I am the way…if you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  Now, I know that’s confusing, but St. Philip doesn’t seem to get it at all.  “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus probably face-palmed and said, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Well, St. Philip got it eventually, because like the other apostles, he preached along the Mediterranean coast, particularly in Greece, Phrygia (modern day Western Turkey), and Syria.  Now, just as a caveat, the sources for much of St. Philip’s post-resurrection information is pretty shifty, but we know that St. Philip preached and evangelized, and was eventually martyred.  According to the Acts of Philip, he was doing missionary work with his fellow apostle Bartholomew, and his healing miracles and preaching were so successful in Hierapolis (a great ancient city in Western Turkey), that he converted the wife of the proconsul of the province.  This didn’t sit well with the proconsul, and he tortured the two apostles and crucified them upside-down (How do all these evil guys know to martyr them the same way?  Was there a mass e-mail or something?).  Philip continued preaching from the cross, and even convinced the crowd and the proconsul to release Bartholomew, while Philip embraced martyrdom.

Interestingly enough, Philip’s tomb was only discovered in July of 2011 in the ruins of the ancient church dedicated to his honor in Hierapolis.  His relics were no longer there, but other accounts have them likely brought to Constantinople, and then moved to Rome to protect them from invaders.

I think one of the most striking qualities of St. Philip was his willingness to invite others, namely Nathanael, to follow Christ.  He wasn’t told to do so by Jesus, and he wasn’t forced – when he understood what great things Christ had already done for him, he wanted others to experience it.  When was the last time you invited someone to church with you?  When was the last time you invited someone to share a quiet moment of prayer at adoration?  Let us pray that St. Philip would pray for us, that we too might give thanks for what God has done for us, and invite others to that joy also!