By: Fr. James Gross
I’ll never forget the first time I went to Los Angeles with one of my brothers, many years ago. A cousin of mine who lived there took us driving around one day through Hollywood, and we also went through a part of Beverly Hills. Afterwards my friends asked me how the trip was, and what we had seen. I told them, “with Beverly Hills, it’s not what you see, but what you CAN’T see.” Down one street after another, there were tall walls along the sidewalks or thick, well-sculpted shrubs. We knew darn well that there were opulent homes, but they were completely concealed behind the walls. In the name of privacy, the owners were separated behind their partitions, insulated from undesirables. I thought to myself, “When do they ever see the Lazaruses of the world, and what do they think of them?”
Let’s be clear about something from the start: In the Gospels, Jesus does not condemn the wealthy simply for having wealth. He speaks about the dangers that wealth can cause. One of my cousins has a favorite saying: “I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on it.” What he means is to spend your money having fun in this life while you can. But there’s a more spiritual meaning to that saying. We cannot take material goods with us. Our love for God and for our neighbor is infinitely more important. At the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta three weeks ago, Pope Francis repeated his frequent calls for a new spirit of solidarity with the poor and an honoring of their God-given dignity.
The message of Jesus advocates for a responsible humanitarianism, and nowhere does he describe this approach more vividly than in the parable from today’s gospel. It begins with two characters. The rich man is not named, but Lazarus, the poor man, is. Very rarely does Jesus give names to the characters in his parables. This gives us notice that what is about to happen requires our close attention. Lazarus is destitute and repulsive in appearance, covered with sores. He is famished, and what’s worse, only a few feet away is a house with abundant meals prepared every single day.
The head of the household, we are told, is “dressed in purple garments.” Purple was one of the most expensive color dyes. Only kings and dignitaries wore anything purple, and mostly to prove to others that they could afford to do so. Also, people of the time did not use utensils at meals. Instead, they would scoop into the dish with pieces of unleavened bread and bring each morsel to their mouths. This bread was a sort of napkin; the wealthy would use the remnant to clean the face and hands, and leave it behind. These were the scraps that Lazarus craved, and they don’t exactly sound appetizing to me.
Jesus reminds us of an important truth about the human condition: wealth does not equate wickedness, nor does poverty equate virtue. However, one could say that Lazarus had fewer distractions that could turn his soul away from thoughts of God. Secondly, for all we know, the rich man may have been an active philanthropist. Perhaps he gave large sums to charity or attended his synagogue every Sabbath. But he was a man of large affairs and “big-picture” concerns. An individual’s immediate need, literally in his own front yard, never registered on his radar screen.
The next scene fast-forwards to the afterlife. Although there is fixed an abyss between Lazarus and the rich man, they are in close proximity, almost as actors on opposite sides of the same stage. Jesus does this not so much for the dramatic effect as to remind us of human solidarity. The rich man could never really get as far away from the great unwashed as he thought, either in this life or the next. The fact that the rich man is in torment is merely a natural consequence. Selfishness makes for hell on earth: why should we doubt that it brings hell in the hereafter?
One might expect that the rich man is finally starting to see his flaws as they are, but we see that he still fails miserably. I’ve always wondered: why does he only speak to Abraham, and not to Lazarus? Why does Lazarus never warrant being spoken to directly? “Father Abraham, have pity on me; send Lazarus to help me…” We expect Lazarus to say, “You blockhead, I’m standing right here!” In his life the rich man put up walls so as to avoid mingling with the riff-raff. He had an assistant who told his assistant to do all the dirty work.
As for his request that Lazarus warn his brothers from the great beyond, the rich man appears to be drawing slightly closer to a spirit of altruism. However, the problem is not that the rich man or his brothers are ignorant. They know the Law of Moses and the sermons of the prophets in their heads. There is nothing insufficient in God’s revelation through the Old Testament. The problem lies elsewhere. What if the rich man had thought of Lazarus as a sixth brother? What if he had cared for the well-being of Lazarus during his lifetime even half as much as he cared for the souls of his siblings afterwards?
The rich man had become too absorbed in himself to see what lay beyond himself. Consequently, he is as a child even in death. One of the marks of adulthood is to love another as “other,” and to be a gift to another in freedom so as to receive love in return. The real tragedy is that this man never grew up. And when we place him in the context of the message from the prophet Amos, which we heard in our first reading, his haunting words nearly leap off the page—“Woe to the complacent in Zion!”
Lastly, let’s remember the instruction St. Paul gave to his young protégé St. Timothy: “compete well for the faith, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, purity, and gentleness.” Underlying his instructions is the knowledge that, in the Body of Christ, all of us are brothers and sisters, lovingly brought into being and called to share in the ultimate gift of eternal life. This applies to all of us, whether we are Lazarus, the rich man, or somewhere in between
By: Fr. James Gross
Earlier this spring, a huge amount of rain fell in parts of the Gulf Coast, and many areas of southern Louisiana sustained major flooding. Tens of thousands of people had their homes and businesses damaged and even destroyed. Living as we do near an unpredictable river, we can empathize with their situation and exclaim, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Many of you saw our notice in the bulletin that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited Catholics all over the country to assist our brothers and sisters in Louisiana who are recovering from this tragedy. Bishop Folda has authorized a special second collection today to be taken up in every parish. This will happen immediately after the usually parish offertory, and will be tallied separately. We ask you to please respond generously to this pressing need, and thank you for your prayers for these poor folks.
Jesus uses a peculiar parable in this Gospel, in which a boss does not fire his rogue assistant, but rewards him for his shady dealings. If you were scratching your head and wondering, “What in the world was that about,” I assure you that you’re not alone.
One common interpretation over the years (and this is mostly an educated guess) is that the steward, by reducing the amounts that the debtors owed, was skimming off an interest charge that his boss imposed over and above the initial transaction. That way, what each person repaid would be what he or she actually borrowed. Still, the steward comes across as hardly having a praiseworthy personality.
For our purposes today, we can boil down the moral of the story to this: the children of the world hustle and “get after it” when their priorities are on the line. Do the children of light act in the same way? How much more precious is the treasure that we possess? All the grain bins of wheat and all the tanks of olive oil in the world do not compare to the eternal salvation of one soul!
St. Paul knows well the treasure we’ve been given; he declares in the second reading that there is one mediator between God and man—the man Christ Jesus. We should think of this term “mediator” in a technical sense; Jesus is the perfect bridge between humanity and divinity. It’s not that that he is half of each nature, like two half-full pitchers of liquid combined to make a full one. Rather, Jesus possesses each nature, human and divine, fully, so that he is rather like two pitchers in one person.
Sometimes we hear the word mediator used in a different sense, such as the Blessed Mother, the Holy Angels and the Communion of Saints. Yes, they are intercessors and helpers, but that is a finite mediation. There is only one Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, who by his death and resurrection has rescued us from destruction and leads us to lives of holiness.
This weekend the Church in the United States celebrates Catechetical Sunday. This observance is an occasion to commission our faith formation volunteers and to pray for all those involved in our newly begun year of Religious Education, and we will offer a blessing to the catechists present with us after the homily. I also want to use this occasion to describe the present situation at hand and issue a rallying cry.
There is a need in every generation for the Church to truly be apostolic and evangelize, both in foreign mission territory and locally. Over the years this takes on a different appearance. For my great-grandparents 100 years ago, church membership was so woven into the fabric of North Dakota small-town life that it seemed almost automatic. Nowadays the landscape is very different.
One survey indicates that for every person who comes into the Catholic faith, whether through infant baptism or an adult program like RCIA, six others leave. Think about that; an average of six people fall away in the United States for each one we gain. What is becoming of these brothers and sisters? A number of them find their way to other churches, claiming that they now get something in their new church that their former parish didn’t give them. If ever there were something that should stir up a strong reaction, that would be it! How did they not know about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the teaching of the magisterium, or the authoritative interpretation of Sacred Scripture? What do we ourselves know about these things?
Presently an increasing number of Americans, especially millennials, are what they call “nones,” choosing no religious denomination or activity and only applying spirituality in a private, individual context. Whatever the case, we find a growing subset of Catholics who describe their faith by saying what their grandparents do or used to do. I’m not just talking about a lack of attachment to the external parts of parish life: I’m talking about the status of our relationship with Jesus. How is he relevant to the circumstances of my life? Do we know what we have, so as to share what we have with others? How does our Catholic faith move from “something I do” to “the thing I am honored to do?”
I came across something recently that’s gotten me ruminating on this topic more than usual. Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles wrote an article a couple of weeks ago entitled “Apologists, Catechists, Theologians: Wake Up!” (Not exactly subtle…) Among the things Bishop said was this: “…unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we’re going to keep losing our kids.” He cited examples such as the false canard that faith and reason are opposed to one another, the Marxist accusation that religion is a wish-fulfilling fantasy (an opiate of the people), and historical episodes of certain Christians behaving cruelly or corruptly. Bishop Barron’s point is that, unless we’re able to charitably yet quickly refute these excuses, they will spread like wildfire in our secular society.
So what can we do about it? As it turns out, we can do a lot, even if we think we are poorly equipped. The battle is God’s. What he asks is for us to step onto the battlefield, just as we are, and to beg Him for the armor of prayer and works of mercy. Jesus tells us today that we cannot serve two masters. Here are some suggestions for serving the Lord more faithfully. And before I begin, let’s recall that the parish plays a supplemental role. We’re here to help, but this presumes that families will roll up their sleeves and dive in.
Yes, we have so much more to learn about what we believe, and I definitely include myself in that category. What are we doing for our own nourishment? There are great resources such as Real Presence Radio, Lighthouse CD’s and numerous Catholic blogs with great content and articles—come to think of it, we should promote some of them in our bulletin and on our web site.
We have hired a new staff member named Joe Hendrickx to work on evangelization and discipleship. Those of you who were here last weekend recall that he introduced himself at the end of Mass. Our investment in his work and position shows that we recognize the effort it entails to reach out to our whole community, one and two people at a time, with the love and mercy of Jesus.
Now, some of you might complain that what I’m doing is preaching to the choir, so to speak. In addition, I want to challenge you to have the hard conversation with loved ones and relatives estranged from the faith. Don’t put them on the defensive and begin by saying “So what happened to you?” Instead, ask, “How are you? What can I do to help you?” Lastly, invite your neighbors, coworkers, and friends to join you. What do you have that they’re missing? Can they tell that we are striving to be children of light, instead of children of the world?
By: Fr. James Gross
Fifteen years ago today, the tranquility of a late summer weekday was shattered, not only in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania, but all through the country. The 2001 terrorist attacks left us stunned and grieving. Air and train traffic was brought to a halt, along with many other events. And sadly, the past fifteen years have visited sorrow and violence upon many other parts of the world. The number of people who refuse to learn from and grow out of the lust for conquest and bloodshed is a scandal for us as Christians and all those of good will. Our observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us that only divine mercy will improve the world. May the Hearts of Jesus and Mary pierce through the hardness of heart of all who deny and reject mercy, and lead us to a new era of peace.
In today’s readings we receive some powerful images of God’s mercy. I feel like my homily should stand to the side and let these images shine through. So I will briefly shed light on some of the pertinent details from these scriptures that we ought not to miss.
Hindsight helps us to see the magnitude of the Israelites’ sin in today’s first reading. After all the miraculous works they had witnessed, all it took was Moses’ prolonged absence atop Mt. Sinai for the people to panic and revert to idolatry. The very picture of worshiping a golden calf fashioned out of the molten metal of the people’s jewelry strikes us as pathetic and absurd.
The author presents this dialogue between God and Moses as though God had changed His mind. Actually, God does not and cannot change, but over time we come to see how God has always been that merciful and understanding. To meet them in their wretchedness, to refuse to wipe them out, was the greater display of God’s power, because it enabled the Hebrews to return to a more profound faith than before.
The three parables we hear in today’s Gospel are among Jesus’ masterpieces. The first two point to our intrinsic value simply for who we are as God’s children, and that God always regards us as such. Upon finding his lost sheep, the shepherd doesn’t cruelly strike him and force him to run the whole way home. Rather, he carries the sheep on his shoulders and gently returns it to the flock.
Moreover, when one of the woman’s coins is missing, she doesn’t act as though it doesn’t matter. She searches high and low, and broadcasts the good news once she has found it. What a consolation it is to know that the Holy Trinity, our Blessed Mother Mary, my patron saint, and my guardian angel—just to name a few—care every bit as much as that for me. Whereas the world is inclined not to care much about a single sheep or coin, God never casts us off like that.
We have three well-defined characters in this final parable: the Prodigal Son, his older brother, and their father. As we listen closely to the story, we find ourselves identifying with one character more than the other. What amazes me is how that has changed in different stages of my pilgrimage of life.
For example, frequently in my younger years I would focus on the elder brother. He happens to be a carbon copy of those Pharisees who complained that the Lord welcomed sinners and ate with them. I can trot out a sob story just like the elder brother did. I entered the seminary out of high school. All these years I’ve walked the straight and narrow. I haven’t betrayed my vows. Will I come to know and trust the Father’s love for me? Or will that love apply to me only if I cross every “T,” dot every “I,” and follow every last rule? Only God can make forgiveness real. Only God can break through the armor of all the world’s angry siblings who don’t allow God to touch and heal their wounds.
I take solace in the repentant son who owns up to his sinfulness and comes home. We don’t have to hit rock-bottom in some dramatic way in order to relate to him. What we need to do is to remove the blinders of pride, see our true hunger and poverty, and ask the Lord to fill us in our emptiness. All the younger son dared to hope for was the status of a hired man on his dad’s farm. How much more the father had in store for him and provided for him!
St. Paul could speak from experience on this topic, and it is fortunate that we get an autobiographical account from him in today’s second reading. It is hard to think of someone who had more to answer for than Saul of Tarsus—a man who not only opposed Christianity, but sought to apprehend and imprison those who practiced the faith! His conversion was so drastic that at first the faithful had a hard time believing that he was genuine. But patiently and consistently, Paul submitted himself to the compassion of our miracle-working God, becoming as he called it an “earthen vessel” whose strength came from Christ and not himself.
As I grow older, I find that I naturally identify more with the dad in this parable. My heart will get broken, but God will spur me on to continue loving, hoping, and praying. The fact that the father sees and recognizes his son, although he’s a long way off, indicates that the father never stopped looking for him. The father could angrily have declared, “I was as good as dead in your eyes. Guess what; forever you’ll be dead to me!” But he refused.
Instead, he runs to his son. In this culture it was disgraceful and very unbecoming for an older man to run. One would expect the father to stay put, and for the son to take every last step to him out of deference. That’s not what unfolded. The father is emotional, extravagant, even foolish: the one who loves cannot do too much for his beloved. Don’t we all long for the Father’s love for us to be just like that? Praise God that it is.
By: Fr. James Gross
In every congregation that hears Jesus’ words today, Catholic or otherwise, a great many of its members own possessions, and lots of them. There are major possessions, like homes, cars, and property, but let’s not stop there. How easy would it be to do an inventory of every single thing you own, from the last little tool in your garage to the last pair of socks in the back of your dresser drawer? The truth is that most of us own things, tucked away in closets and attics, that we hadn’t even thought about for years. We think we live fairly simply, but how many millions of people from other continents would be amazed at the volume of stuff we own?
What, then, do we make of the parting shot Jesus delivers at the end of our Gospel reading? “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Are we hypocrites? Or have Christians, at some point along the way, chosen to ignore these verses in favor of a contrary lifestyle? Will we do what so many other children of God will do today—conveniently gloss over this teaching and not touch it with a ten-foot pole? That seems to be a bad habit to develop.
Many scholars have closely studied the so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus (and if ever there were any, we have just heard them). Often their thesis goes something like this: we can find a way to accept the thunder and fury behind the Lord’s message while appropriating his specific directions in a measured and rational way. For example, wouldn’t most of us have eye patches or prosthetic limbs if we literally followed the Lord’s advice that if our eye, hand, or foot is ever our undoing, we should remove them?
Most of us make that rationalization, perhaps without even knowing it. But at what point do we risk sanitizing the Gospel so that it loses its fierceness and its challenge? At what point do we subtly turn the Lord Jesus into someone he is not?
The fact of the matter is that, whether we approve of them or not, Jesus says some things to us that we find unpleasant. His words wound those pieces of our hearts that we withhold from him. And only his grace provides the salve to heal those wounds. If we insulate ourselves from the Lord’s hard sayings, it is only an anesthetic. We are broken and not healed; we remain wounded, numb, and unreconciled. As for those of us called to be leaders and preachers in the Church of Christ, if we choose not to “tell it like it is,” we commit a greater sin than those who hear the truth but refuse to live in it. In his immense love, Jesus ransomed the lost sheep of the house of Israel, rather than to leave them to forage in the wilderness among the wolves. Old Testament prophets such as Ezekiel offered grave warnings that the shepherds of the Jewish faith did not exist to shepherd only themselves.
Our modern society brings out the long knives and fights vigorously against the bold proclamation of Christ’s teachings, undiluted and uncompromised. So many who choose what are called “new age” religions flee from objective truth about virtue and holiness in order to be able to decide what is true for them. Our response cannot be to prune away one verse here and another verse there in order to keep the peace, because what we’re really doing is depriving those whom we love of the full revelation of the Word of God, a supernatural gift without equal.
As we heard a couple weeks ago, our road as disciples is not a wide and smoothly paved one. God made us for greatness. God made us for holiness. And Jesus has set out for us a clear and radical way to reach that destination. We will not, cannot, get there by way of a bland, morally flexible set of principles. Frankly, we can come up with something like that easily enough on our own. All we can offer one another is heaven on earth. The Holy Trinity offers us heaven in the celebration of the Liturgy. Through Christ His Son, God speaks to our human hearts and leads them to a glimpse of divinity.
There is no other way for us as Christians to live then to first put on the heart and mind of Christ. St. John of the Cross, a priest and mystic from the 16th century, once said that Jesus is like a mine with deep, rich pockets, and when we survey those pockets, we find an inexhaustible treasure beyond price. No decision in our lives is neutral, or stands apart from the magnificent love of Christ. He did not come among us in such miraculous means to proclaim, “Keep on keeping on; you do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Jesus came to teach, to confront, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. When he becomes our first priority, we’ll be as well prepared as the carpenter building a tower or the army commander mustering troops for battle.
There is one more item we need to deal with from today’s Gospel; the Lord’s use of the word “hate” is not only a hard saying, but a head-scratcher for a lot of us. Jesus used that word on purpose, but we can hardly imagine why. Here’s how I like to interpret this, for what it’s worth. I myself would hate, and I mean deeply hate, for someone, even those dear to me, to prevent me from being united to God. It is repulsive to me that any person or thing could derail me from the greatest love of my life. The first commandment alludes to this in its instruction not to have any strange gods before God alone. Here’s an example: a priest in the seminary told us before we left for Christmas break, “Your family and friends back home will want you to spend a lot of time with them, and that’s good. But don’t set aside your responsibilities to the Lord. Tell them that you need time alone for prayer and reflection, as well as attending Mass every day. Even if they pitch a fit or feel insulted, stick to your guns. There is time enough for everything, but always put God at the front of the line.”
We have come here today, as on so many Lord’s Days in the past, because we believe two basic things: each of us needs to be transformed, and God alone, in His mercy and power, can transform us. If neither of those were true, we’d be saying that we are finished products. Our ancestors in faith didn’t dare to make such a claim about themselves. They knew they needed purification, redemption, and grace. And what a fountain of grace God has delivered! In addition to what we’ve heard today, let’s keep another message from Jesus in mind: “Blessed are your eyes for what they see and your ears for what they hear! Many a prophet and righteous man longed to see what you see and did not see it, and longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it.”