Do I Give to God What Belongs to God?

Do I Give to God What Belongs to God?

 

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Hypocrite is one of those words that many people use and use incorrectly. Jesus was the first person to use it as a criticism. In modern use, it has come to describe a person whose actions don’t match their stated beliefs.  An obese cardiologist? Hypocrite! Someone who claims to love the environment but drives a gas guzzler? Hypocrite! Family values politicians who are unfaithful to their spouse? Hypocrites! When actions don’t match words we all get upset—and rightfully so. We all want a world where we can take people at face value. What we commonly call hypocrisy undermines trust. But I think we commonly misidentify this disparity between word and deed.

If we are honest, each of us is in some way guilty of what we say differing from what we do. We might tell our kids to put down the phone or tablet while engrossed in our own device. Or we urge others to drive more carefully while we drive with distractions. We know what is best for us and do something less. We opt for the extra donut over the apple (or butter coffee), the nap over the brisk walk, impatience over the kind word, or one more episode on Netflix over prayer and scripture. But this doesn’t make us hypocrites in the sense that Jesus used the word. These examples and many more are really instances of concupiscence and weakness as a result of the Fall.

In Jesus’ time, “hypocrite” was the Greek word for a stage actor who wore a mask. When Jesus called someone a hypocrite he was implying that they were playing a role, wearing a mask. Hypocrites were people more concerned with their image than anything else. Their aim was not to be righteous but to appear righteous and gain the praise of the world. In this Sunday’s Gospel, it is the idea of image that really stands out.

The hypocrites come to Jesus with a trick question. They approach him with false praise for his teaching and wisdom, even laying it on thick. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus disappoints them with a better answer than they could have expected. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If the gold coins are Caesar’s because they bear his image, then how do I know what belongs to God? What bears His image? We learned what bears God’s image in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. We do. We belong to God.

To repay to God what belongs to God we have to give Him our whole self. Repaying God means giving him glory and honor. It means giving Him our time, talent and treasure. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted a debate that would end in Jesus saying something they could use to condemn him. What they got instead was a simple and clear teaching—take off your masks. Stop pretending to be something you are not. Remember that the only image that matters is not the one you craft for public approval, but the Imago Dei—the image of God. We are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. While our ideals and actions might not always agree, we can begin to shine by removing our masks and letting the world see Whose image and inscription we bear.

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God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

This Sunday’s Gospel reading challenges every one of us to come to a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our God. It seems like a universal reaction to complain when we have been deprived of something we think is owed to us. This sense of dissatisfaction with unfair circumstances can fuel the changes that make a more just world. But sometimes, this sense of dissatisfaction is misplaced and can even make the world less just, less merciful.

Imagine winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping that it’s not two million. Or receiving a miraculous cure of a terminal illness and complaining that it didn’t also cure a less serious condition. I remember going on pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000. It was hot the day we celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. A local beverage company handed out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water—for free. Someone in my group complained that it wasn’t cold water. Complaints like these fuel bitterness and envy.

Think about the complaint of the “early shift” laborers in the vineyard. They worked the whole day. I’m sure that working the whole day gave them the benefit of establishing a rhythm. Not only were they working longer, but they were likely more effective and efficient workers because of it.

Then come the “late shifters.” I bet they showed up, with an hour or two to go, and had no idea what they were doing. They likely caused more harm than good by messing up the efficient technique of the veterans. Some of them might have even voiced ideas on how to improve the system as if they knew what they were talking about! And in the end, they got the same pay. The injustice of it all.

We may have a tendency to view our fellow vineyard workers in the same light. “They’re not as committed as I am,” we might say. Or, “They don’t give as much time, talent and treasure.” Or even, “They’re not as morally good as I am!” Yet all are given the same work of evangelizing and offered the same reward of eternal life.

The reality is that none of us deserves the opportunity to labor, nor do we deserve the generous reward. In reading this parable, we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to identify whether we are early or latecomers. That might lead to comparison. Love doesn’t compare, it doesn’t weigh benefits, and it doesn’t hold back. This parable is an opportunity to stand back and marvel at the generosity of our God, who desires that all be saved and gives us each a role to play in His Divine plan.

The response to Jesus’ love is to look within and ask, “Lord, how can I give more?”

Saint Paul talks about his dilemma in the second reading. He desires an end to his labor in the vineyard, that he might live with Christ forever. But he also has a strong yearning to continue his mission of evangelizing, sharing the love of Jesus and the message of salvation with anyone who will listen. Keep in mind that Saint Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians. His mind was not focused on receiving fair treatment, but on Jesus. For him, and for us, every soul brought to the vineyard and given a reward is a reason to celebrate with joy the undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

This Sunday we will hear one of those challenging passages that are hard to interpret at first. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman approaches the disciples and asks that her daughter be healed. The disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. He tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman comes to Jesus, worships Him and asks for help. His reply is shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She accepts that she is a dog, and asks for scraps from the master’s table. It then appears that Jesus has a “come to Jesus” moment where he recognizes the greatness of her faith and heals her daughter.

Some Catholic commentaries explain that Jesus was a product of the time and place he inhabited. He held the tendencies that most people of his time held. As a woman, especially a Canaanite woman, this mother was on the bottom rung of society. They say her persistence helped Jesus “evolve” and see His saving mission in a broader sense. I reject this interpretation for a few reasons. First, if Jesus were so anti-gentile, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Second, at this point there are already examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus heals both women and gentiles, so the interpretation doesn’t fit the context.

But the larger problem with this interpretation is this: it means that either bigotry and ethnic/racial prejudice aren’t sins, which they clearly are. Or, the alternative, which is even worse, it means Jesus wasn’t the spotless lamb, like us in all things but sin, and therefore died for his own sin, not ours. Our Catholic faith holds that Jesus was sinless, and affirms that racism is a sin so there has to be a better way of reading this passage. There is, fortunately, a third alternative. Jesus is being ironic. He’s using a specific irony called sarcasm.

Irony and sarcasm aren’t rare in the Bible. Elijah uses sarcasm in a confrontation with the priests of Baal. They are calling down fire from heaven on their sacrificial bull and it’s not going well. Elijah suggests they shout louder, as their lord Baal might be busy taking a dump.

Jesus uses irony throughout the Gospels. Every time he responds to the Pharisees starting with the words, “Have you not read…” he’s using subtle irony. Of course the Pharisees have read what Jesus is about to tell them. The Pharisees had poured over the scriptures countless times and could recite every word from memory. He also makes use of sarcastic forms of irony.

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” (Lk 13:31-33)

Not only does he call Herod a fox (actually a vixen, Jesus uses the feminine form) but he then basically tells the Pharisees, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to die now and rob you of the chance to kill me in Jerusalem.”

The idea that Jesus used sarcasm at times might be unsettling to some. It’s a form of irony that is usually reserved to express contempt or scorn. And that is exactly how Jesus uses it in this story. He pours contempt and scorn on the ethnic and racial supremacy of His time, of all time. His target audience was not the Canaanite woman, but his disciples, then and now. I don’t think Jesus would have spoken this way if He didn’t see the woman’s heart and know that she could grasp the subtlety. Her wit and humility gave Jesus the space to teach a valuable lesson. But the lesson on bigotry isn’t the real gem here.

The Canaanite woman is the treasure buried in this reading. The worst part about wrongly interpreting this story is that you might miss out on her. For her, Jesus was a mere rumor, but she persisted in faith. He was a Jew, the enemy of her people, but she persisted in faith. The disciples, among them the Apostles who were the first bishops, told her to get away. She persisted in faith. Her faith was greater than the obstacles and in the end she was rewarded. Her reward was not to be exalted as an example while the disciples were humbled. The true reward wasn’t even the healing of her daughter. Her reward was the one we all should seek—Jesus Himself.

We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

This weekend groups of teens and adults will be returning home from Beyond Sunday Missions in Mexico, ME and CAMPS (Christ as My Personal Savior) in Pittsfield, MA. Two weeks ago, another dozen teens and adults joined thousands at the Steubenville East Conference in Lowell, MA. Close to 30 members of our parish community joined in these experiences with thousands of other Catholics for one purpose: to encounter Jesus Christ.

For many years now experiences like these have been integral to the formation of teens and adults into disciples of Jesus Christ at our parish. It is important for every Catholic to step back from mundane life occasionally to reach out and be touched by the Living God. We call these conferences, retreats, bible camp, missions etc. But they are all really Transfiguration experiences.

In the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain to reveal His glory to them. The events leading up to this are important. Six days before this, the twelve were gathered with Jesus and he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” It was a question not only for them but for us too. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He didn’t grasp the full meaning of this declaration, confirmed immediately after by Peter’s attempt to convince Jesus to evade his arrest, passion, and death in Jerusalem. But Peter stepped out in faith anyway.

And so, six days later, Jesus called Peter, along with James and John, to journey up a mountain, because he had something to show them. There on Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed His Glory and left no doubt in the minds of the three disciples as to who He was and is.

To encounter Jesus and be left with no doubt about who He is.

That is why we invest so much time and money on experiences like Steubenville, Beyond Sunday Mission and CAMPS. That is why we urge so many young people to step out in faith and get on the bus, or get in the van and go. I wrote a few weeks ago on the Parable of the Sower. One of the types of soil was rocky soil, where crops spring up at once and wither because they have no root. I said that sometimes when people return home from a profound retreat experience they can be like that rocky soil—on fire for Christ for a while, but not when troubles come. I did not mean that as a criticism of powerful spiritual experiences. I think these experiences are critical to developing as a disciple, and they remain with someone for years. Saint Peter recalled the events of the Transfiguration decades later in this week’s second reading.

I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m a product of the “small” acts that build faith. The informal catechesis of my parents tilled the soil of my heart. The mountain of little things served to amplify those huge Transfiguration moments. I’ve probably been to Mass a couple thousand times in my life, Reconciliation maybe a hundred times. Despite all that, I still remember the first time experiencing a God who was both bigger than I could possibly imagine and closer than I could ever dream. I was singing a song at CAMPS in 1995 called “Where Justice Rolls Down” surrounded by friends from my parish and a couple hundred other campers. In that moment, singing at the top of my lungs with arms raised heavenward, I had no doubt who Jesus Christ was and is. That sort of thing changes you like the first Transfiguration changed Peter, John, and James.

No, it’s not an either/or thing. Like so much of Catholicism, it’s both/and. That Transfiguration experience 22 years ago set a fire that still burns today, but it wouldn’t still be burning without all the little things that prepared me for it and sustained me afterward. Even when it looked like my faith would wither and die (and there were times when it did look that way) the roots had gone too deep for that to happen.

So, I’ll just ask you for two things. First, will you pray for deep roots for all those who have come home from a Transfiguration experience this summer? Pray that they now have the courage to persevere in doing the little things that sustain the fire they received. Second, if you’ve never had a Transfiguration experience, or if it has been a long time since you have, would you prayerfully consider setting aside time for one this year?

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Perfect Love Casts Out FOMO

Last week Jesus consoled us and commanded that we have no fear. Not even a fear of death. He wasn’t talking about an emotion. We have very little immediate control over our emotional response to things, especially things we don’t often encounter like our lives being threatened. The word He used still exists in English—phobia. When we say someone has a phobia we almost always mean that their internal fear or anxiety translates into action which is disproportionate to the thing they fear.

Being creeped out by seeing a spider in your bathroom isn’t arachnophobia, but burning down your house and moving to another continent is. Sometimes when I talk to people I have this internal conversation critic who seems to think every word out of my mouth is The Dumbest Thing Ever Said, but I wouldn’t dare minimize the suffering of someone with actual social anxiety by calling mine a phobia. It’s just an annoying worry with little power over me—anyone who knows me knows I keep on talking anyway. No, the fear Jesus forbids is of the sort that dictates our behavior—a fear that can make us choose to do and be less when Christ invites us to greatness.

For us, discipleship doesn’t carry fear of death (for now). Instead we suffer from a spiritual FOMO. FOMO means fear of missing out. It’s a word coined in 2004 that immediately became overused and annoying. But it is a real phenomenon. Some people think social media is to blame. We see posts of our friends and family at the Best Party Ever or the Best Concert Ever and we get a sense of anxiety over our loss for doing something less important like going to work or taking care of family. It makes people fail to see the good things right in front them while they worry about the other things they could be doing. For some people, it results in a failure to commit to doing anything at all because what if it’s the wrong thing? For most, it means a nagging feeling that there’s always something better than the present moment.

FOMO is nothing new though and it’s much older than Facebook or Instagram. Spiritual fear of missing out goes all the way back to the Fall. The serpent convinced Eve that God was holding out on her and Adam.  God had promised paradise, but what if he was holding out? They feared, they disobeyed, and the rest is history. Come to think of it, maybe FOMO isn’t that much older than social media. I can’t help but notice the logo on my phone: an apple with a bite out of it.

When we fear that life in Christ isn’t the greatest good, that it will make us miss out on something better (what could be better?) we become less. Saint Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” We fall short of the Glory of God if we give power to fear of missing out on comfort, or a chance to shore up our ego, or to achieve acceptance and worldly success, or any number of lesser things. We fail to be fully alive.

This is the point of the first part of Sunday’s Gospel.  It sounds harsh, I know. On the one hand, I think Jesus is saying to love him more than even our own family to drive home the point that He is the greatest good. If we’re supposed to love Jesus more than we love our own mom then you better believe we’re supposed love Him more than we love Sunday sports, political ideology or money.  Loving Jesus more than our parents, more than our children, and more than our own lives doesn’t convey their unimportance, but it demonstrates Jesus’ absolute importance. It’s not a command to not love mother and father, sons and daughters, and ourselves, but an opportunity to love them more by loving Him more. In other words, if, as disciples of Jesus, the upper limit of our capacity to love is measured by how much we love Christ, then seeking to know and love Him more can only mean we will love others more, especially mom and dad, the kids, and ourselves.

There’s no denying the difficulty of taking up our cross daily to follow him, even in a nation where free exercise of religion is supposed to be unrestricted. When we should be more engaged in prayer, or doing spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, or fulfilling our Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it is all too easy to let spiritual FOMO slip in. The Catholic life, the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ, is not easy, it is not popular, and sometimes the temptation to be less than our calling is overwhelming.

Maybe that’s the rationale for the second half of Sunday’s Gospel. We are commanded to show hospitality, especially to fellow disciples, especially the little ones (maybe they’re little because the weight of their cross has crushed them). They, like you, are walking a hard road. They too struggle with fear of missing out—a nagging feeling that might not be a true doubt in God’s goodness but still represents a persistent anxiety that this isn’t the right path. We need to help carry each other’s crosses. That could take the form of a note of encouragement, a warm greeting at Mass or on the street, prayer for our fellow disciples, fellowship and time spent together simply being present to and loving each other–there are countless examples. None of us can carry our cross alone, so I’ll end by taking my own advice:

Please know that I am constantly in awe of the sacrifices you make to be fellow disciples. Your sincere love for Jesus and His people encourages me. Sunday is my favorite day of the week not just because I get to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, but also because I share it in communion with you. There’s no place I’d rather be than in His presence and I am blessed to be there with a family of which you are part. The Body of Christ truly is beautiful and I have genuine affection for each of you. I hope that your example of faith inspires people Monday to Saturday as much as it inspires me on Sunday.

In Jesus and Mary,

Frank

 

 

A Mass Within the Mass

A Mass Within the Mass

If the Last Supper was the very first Catholic Mass, then this week’s Gospel reading has to be the second one. The middle 22 verses of Luke 24 contain almost all the significant elements of the Mass we celebrate today. It begins with a procession, not from the back of the church to the altar, but from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Along the way, the two disciples meet Jesus, though they don’t know its him. They introduce themselves, explaining their heartbreaking situation (the introductory and penitential rites). They tell the stranger all that Jesus said and did, leading up to His suffering and death, and show confusion and doubt about the Resurrection account offered by the women at the tomb. Jesus, still unknown to them, breaks open the old testament (the first reading and the psalm) and shows them how the scriptures were talking about Him (the second reading and the Gospel). He helps them to understand how the Word of God applies to their life (the homily). Sensing Jesus is leaving, the disciples petition Him to stay (the prayers of the faithful). He obliges and stays for supper–taking bread, blessing and breaking it. (Liturgy of the Eucharist and Communion). Finally, they see it is Jesus. In awe and wonder, they ask how they could have possibly not known, “Were not our hearts burning while he spoke?” Saint Luke tells us that they set out to Jerusalem at once to announce the good news, but I’m sure they stayed through the announcements, final blessing and all four verses of the closing hymn.

Do we feel this same burning in our hearts at Mass? Do we leave Mass on fire for Jesus? I don’t mean an emotional response that can burn out as quickly as it flares up, but a real sustained fire that compels us to share the good news with everyone. I’d like to humbly offer some helps to building such a fire. These are some ways to open our hearts to receive as much grace from Holy Mass as we can. They range from simple to incredibly awkward.

  1. Read the readings before Mass. This wasn’t something I did until I started selecting songs for Mass on a regular basis. It gives me the opportunity to think and pray about the themes of the Mass before I even arrive at the church. Familiarity with the readings makes every prayer and hymn come to life. You can find them online pretty easily.
  2. Respond. In December of 2016, after a terror attack on a Coptic Christian cathedral in Egpyt, demonstrators took to the streets in support of the victims. A video emerged of people not just reciting the Nicene Creed, but declaring itWhile not in English, you can hear the familiar rhythm and cadence of the Creed. The freedom we have to worship openly should be a reason to respond even more boldly, both in gratitude and in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters. The responses we declare at Mass are an emptying of self. And, ultimately, the more of ourselves we invest in participating in the Mass, the more room we make for Jesus.
  3. Sing. I joke with my pastor that I long for the day when we have to hold a second collection to repair all the cracks in the ceiling caused by singing Jesus’ praise. It’s difficult to be disengaged when you sing. Nothing creates a sense of community like singing together. A common objection is, “but I have a terrible voice!” Then sing out! If it’s truly that terrible God might hear it and give you a better one. In the very least the people around you will sing louder to drown you out.
  4. Pray with and for each other. Here’s the awkwardness I promised. Too many Catholics, without realizing it, treat the Mass like a personal devotion. I’m guilty of this from time to time. The Mass isn’t a private prayer. It’s part of the public prayer of the Church. I have a greater Mass experience by knowing the readings, boldly responding, and singing my heart out. The reality is that I also owe it to you to do these things. As much as we should actively participate in the celebration for our own good, we should also do so for the rest of our parish family. When I mumble responses, only sing the hymns I like, and let distractions pull me from praying as best I can, I drag you down. To make the communal experience of the Mass more real, try this: Turn to someone near you before Mass and introduce yourself if you don’t know them. Now—here’s the hard part—ask them to pray for a specific intention you or your family has, and ask them if there’s anything they need you (and your family) to offer as part of your Mass intention. And then really, earnestly pray for that person.

In the Eucharist we have access to infinite Mercy and Grace! When we receive, our hearts should be burning with desire to know Jesus and to make Him known. I hope these small suggestions can be kindling for that fire.

On Deflated Hope

On Deflated Hope

Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

I must admit, to my great shame, that I lost hope. It was for a fleeting second, and I’m not even sure it was an intentional thought. It snuck up on me. The New England Patriots had just scored making it a 28-18 game with 5:56 on the game clock in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. They were attempting a 2-point conversion and I had this thought: “Please miss this.” I know, I’m so embarrassed. I immediately dismissed the thought but I’m still ashamed that it was even hiding in my head somewhere. But I understand it’s origin.

At that point in the game I had already begun the difficult work of accepting a disappointing outcome. I had let myself grow detached from any desire for victory and simply wanted to see my team erase some of its huge deficit to make the loss respectable. I’m not a football expert but I have gleaned some things from listening to my fair share of angry sports radio. Being so far behind, with so little time left, they couldn’t just be good. They had to be perfect. And they would need some absolute miracles along the way.

And they were perfect. And they got a few miracles (Edelman’s catch, are you kidding me?!) And I was wrong to despair. Haven’t I seen Brady and Belichick do this before? I had every reason to hope, but the difficult road ahead let despair creep in.

 I think we lose hope because of how dangerous it is. Disappointment is easier when we can brace for impact. So we settle for being “good enough” and resist anything that draws us up and out of being merely good to being perfect. Internal voices and those people around us ask the question, “What right do you have to desire and to expect perfection? You’re just so far from perfect!”

Over the last few Sundays we’ve been hearing Matthew 5. Jesus has been laying out the structure of His Kingdom and describing the attributes of its citizens. After all, winning citizenship in the Kingdom of God is our greatest hope—far greater than the hope of winning a Super Bowl. But His demands so are hard. We are blessed when we’re poor and mourning? We should pray for those who hate us and go the extra mile when our service is demanded? We should give until it hurts? Maybe what he means is that we should generally try our best to be a good person and show kindness most of the time. But no. He clarified it for us with these words: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s enough to cause that same voice in my head that said, “please miss this,” during the game to say something similar in response to Jesus. Because if hoping for the Kingdom of God relies on my being as perfect as our heavenly Father, then part of me would rather not try. Part of me would rather accept being “good enough” and losing in a respectable way. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks directly to that part of me:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus speaks of worrying about food, drink, and clothing and tells us not to worry about where we will get them. In some sense He is talking about literal food and drink and clothing, but He means more than that. He means that God will provide exactly what we need to be citizens who have a right to desire and expect our own perfection in His Kingdom. Brady and Belichick are a fantastic team, but they have nothing on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The road to victory is difficult, demands perfection and seems impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. He gives us the church, where we pray for and build each other up. He gives us the Holy Spirit who makes us holy and begins the process of perfecting us. He sends miracles along the way, the greatest of which is the Eucharist—Jesus, truly present and alive in our midst. The sacraments are all miracles, Edelman-like catches that provide a spark and ignite us onward and upward.

If being perfect, as the Father is perfect, completely depends on my efforts, then there is no hope. I’m more likely to lead a fourth quarter down-by-25–come-from-behind Super Bowl comeback win. But thanks be to God that perfection and eternal citizenship in His Kingdom are not up to our efforts alone. Because we have Jesus, we can hope.