Sunday, October 26, 2008

With All Your Heart

1. Last week we heard Jesus told us to Repay to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). And what belongs to God? Deep down we know the answer - everything belongs to God. In the Gospel of Matthew, between last week’s reading and this week’s, the Sadducees came and tested Jesus regarding the Resurrection. Like He did last week, Jesus answered authoritatively and definitively regarding the truth that there is a resurrection of the body. The resurrection will not be to the same kind of life we have now. It will be to a new and glorious life in Heaven with the Father. At the same time, it will indeed be a bodily resurrection. And everyone will rise from the dead. It is important to keep this in mind. When we stand before Christ at the end of the world to be judged, everyone who ever existed will be there also. The people we love, the people we do not love. Those whom we look forward to meeting, and those whose existence is inconvenient or whose presence may provoke us. For example, for many the unborn, the sick or the elderly are inconvenient, (just as the Jews were to the Nazis) . They will all be there, as will anyone else whose personhood was denied either by the state or by other people’s wishful thinking. But what will we do when we meet them? How will we deal with the fact that God loves each and every human being He has made?
2. Our capacity to stand at the end of the world is related to today’s question from the Pharisees. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus’ answer in this case is not all that astonishing really. A familiar prayer came from the book of Deuteronomy Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) . The second part of Jesus’ answer was not really novel either: you shall love the your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Although many people like to quote an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24) as Old Testament justice, those scribes and Pharisees who studied the scriptures should have known well that the law required the people to look out for the good of those weak and vulnerable. (Eye for an eye etc.. in fact is the the punishment for injuring a pregnant woman while at the same time causing a miscarriage). The reading heard from Exodus exhorted the people to care for the orphans and widows and also the aliens- that is, those from other countries regardless of religion. As God had cared for them, they were to care for those who abandoned or strangers in their midst. God even threatens them that if anyone mistreats these vulnerable people, that He will let the oppressors be punished severely. The Lord’s assures them that He is compassionate and hears the cry of the smallest weakest people.
3. If we were to study the history contained in the Old Testament we would learn that when the People lost their land and went into exile, it was because of their unjust behavior. In fact, they were greedy for material goods, and many practiced child sacrifice, killing and burning their sons and daughters in worship of false gods. The Pharisees knew all this history (they were trying to avoid repeating it) and they knew that loving God is revealed in love of neighbor.
4. 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. These commandments are indeed the foundation of the whole law as stated in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the Living Law, Jesus Christ. In this particular case, there really should not have been any argument with the Pharisees. The big question comes later: who is my neighbor? The Gospel makes clear the answer to the question. Everyone is my neighbor. Not only those whom I like or agree with, but those who would be my enemy. And we must not forget that the Lord takes into special account those who are most in need of mercy.
5. Another question that arises is: what does it mean to love them as myself? The consideration that Jesus is asking for is not merely a warm fuzzy feeling, or a set of kind sounding words, or even for that matter a few actions. For we all know that love is not merely any of those things. It is entirely possible to say words or even do things with no charity whatsoever. For example, we can open our wallet and give someone something so that they will go away and leave us alone. But Charity requires more. We are called by Christ to treat them as if they were ourselves. To give them the same consideration and mercy that we ourselves desire. To see their good as our good, and what would harm them as harming us.
6. The answer to the question who is my neighbor and how am I to love them is clarified when Jesus commands us to love one another as He has loved us (see John 15:9-12). In other words, we can only obey the commandments when we love as Jesus loved. And how does Jesus love? He poured out the last drop of His blood to save us.
7. In Jesus, everyone is my neighbor. It is already true from the scientific point of view- we are all interrelated. And whatever happens to one of us, is going to affect the rest of the human race. It is especially true because of the life of Jesus. He is God who became a human being, exactly like us in every way. He did not sin, that is true. But Jesus did take upon Himself all the consequences of human sin. Saint Paul even says that For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
8. Jesus did come to save those who were mighty (for who could be considered mighty in the face of the living God?). He did not come to save those who are righteous in their own eyes, (for who can make themselves holy without God?). Jesus did not even come to save those who loved Him first. No, He came to save sinners and those who are weak. In demonstrating His authority and power, Jesus strove to remove the blinders from those who listened to Him and would propose themselves as His judges. Only in realizing our weakness, our sinfulness, our need of a savior, our inability to save ourselves, our complete dependence upon our Lord both individually, and in solidarity with those who in the world are vulnerable can we begin to receive the graces that we need to live in the hope of Jesus’ promises.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Belongs to God

This weekend the letter of the Bishop to the people was read at all the Masses. It was a letter regarding the formation of conscience especially in light of our duty to vote. In the letter, the difference between matters of prudential judgement and matters which are intrinsically evil was clarified. Examples prudential judgement are the different ways to address immigration reform or the economy or the war on terror. Reasonable people can differ in their opinions and discuss how best to proceed in these areas. On the other hand, some actions are intrinsically evil, such as abortion of euthanasia. The only reasonable and sane (and holy) approach to these evils is to confront and to oppose them.

Furthermore, as important as areas of prudential judgement are, they simply do not carry the same weight as areas of intrinsic evil. If a candidate is a supporter of something intrinsically evil, one cannot simply say that his or her opinion in that area is just one thing that can be balanced with their view on something else, like the economy.

Anyway, the letter was very good. If you would like to read it, here is a link to the full text in English.

In the evening, we celebrated what can be called an "Explanation Mass." That is, a Mass with a accompanied by teachings regarding general liturgical principles and some explanation of what is going on. It is only allowed to interrupt the flow of the Mass at certain points of the liturgy. So instead of a plethora of comments after each part, the teaching is delivered in the format of a few lectures. Of course, with a subject so profound as the liturgy, not everything can be explained completely. But the experience was well received, in spite of causing the Mass to last for two hours.

Between the Letter of the Bishop, which was certainly pertinent to the Gospel reading, and the liturgical education going on, there was not a lot of time to delve into the issues raised by the Gospel.

The cooperation of the Pharisees and the Herodians brings to mind the saying "politics make strange bedfellows." Generally, these two groups were not getting along. Yet they both had their reasons for wanting Jesus to be removed from the scene. They begin their questioning of Jesus with flattery, which was all true, but their hearts were not open to the Truth. Jesus knew their malice and uttered one of the memorable sayings of Scripture Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). Jesus was not interested in destabilizing the Roman Empire. After all, Jesus knew that all authority comes from above. Those in authority are permitted to do so by God. With the exercise of authority comes responsibility to serve the common good of the people governed.

At the same time, Jesus is not concerned with maintaining the status quo of the government. He was not interested in politics, but rather with salvation. Jesus was and is interested that we get our lives in order with God. We have a responsibility to the common good in the public arena. But that flows from the fulfillment of our responsibility to God. Someday, the earthly part of our existence will cease, and we will be judged for how we conducted ourselves. But our relationship with God will never cease.

In some sense, repaying Caesar what belongs to Caesar will continue onward, only because the love of neighbor we are called to exercise will continue into eternity for those who love God. But giving God what is justly His to receive will never stop, because He is eternal. All things are of God's making. Everything that is, exists because God is making it exist. There is no part of anything in which the Lord is not God.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wedding Invitation

1. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast. When you are at a wedding feast, there is usually plenty of food and drink. The hosts are encouraging you to eat and have a good time. There is music, maybe dancing. As a rule, people wear their best clothes, even renting them if necessary. Even people who normally would never wear a suit or a tie or a dress will dress up. At a wedding feast you will find people of all ages young and old. It is not a time for sadness, but a time of joy to celebrate the new family which has been formed. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast.
1. Now how much does it cost to go to a wedding feast? Nothing. It is all paid for. When we are the guests, all we have to do is show up and enjoy. We might have been generous donors to assist the couple and their families in providing the feast, but it does not cost anything.
2. That is part of Jesus’ point in the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven is a feast in which God our Father has already done all the preparations. It simply remains for us to attend the feast. Of course if the invited guests do not go to the feast, it does not really matter how delicious the food is, or how rich the wine is, or how great the music is, or how beautiful and pleasant the other guests are. If you are not at the feast, you get nothing. As strange as it may sound, there are people who simply do not want to attend the feast of the kingdom of heaven. They have other things to do. And they will even kill the messengers who bring the invitation, so that they do not have to even listen to what they are missing.
3. In the parable, Jesus is referring to those who did not listen to the prophets of old, but preferred to remain in sin and not turn to God. Their worldly pursuits were satisfying, so they thought, and they did not want anyone to tell them what to do. It is the same way now. When people do not want to hear God’s call they try to drown it out with other things- pleasures, work, getting their own way... There are countries where children are beaten at school simply for being Christian. And where Christians live in constant fear of being kidnapped or murdered. Or where it is illegal for a priest to celebrate Mass, which is the wedding feast on earth. In our own country, there are politicians trying to pass a so-called Freedom of Choice Act- which will make abortion a civil right that must be supported with tax money. They are hoping to force people to accept their way of thinking and silence anyone who would claim that life is precious and that the innocent ought to be protected from violence.
4. In any event, if someone does not want to go to the wedding feast of the kingdom of heaven, they do not have to go. Just like if you want to skip Mass on Sunday, you can. (Now as Catholics we are obligated to go to Mass, it is a sin to miss). But we are not going out and forcing people into the doors. If you really do not want to be here, then you probably will not show up. Of course, there are consequences. If you do not share in the feast, then your punishment is that you do not get to share in the feast. Anyway, as one of our professors in the seminary put it "if you’re damned to hell its your own damned fault"- you chose it.
5. The part of this parable which has always been the most notable for me is the part where the guest who did want to come was thrown out. He was there, he responded, yet he was thrown out for not being prepared. I do not mind telling you that this part of the parable makes me very uncomfortable. Of course, we could interpret this to mean that when we come to Mass, we should be properly attired. And there is a point to that. If you were invited to eat dinner with the President of the United States, what would you wear? If you had an interview for a high-dollar job that you really wanted, how would you dress? If you were invited to be a participant in your friend’s wedding, would you wear flip flops and shorts to the feast? I don’t think so.
6. But this Gospel is more than just about clothing. The parable suggests to us that although the feast is freely given, there is some expectation of our personal commitment beyond merely showing up. Some theologians suggest that the wedding garment signifies baptism. Others have said that it represents good deeds. Still others offer that repentance is the key to understanding. It is all of these and more.
7. You see, the King giving this wedding feast is God the Father. And the groom is also God- His Son Jesus Christ our Lord. The wedding garment is important because we are not just the guests- we’re the Bride.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Biking to the Beach

Well, I am back from a few days of vacation. While I was gone, I accomplished some of my goals. For example I slept and ate a lot. I was able to play golf a few times and even got a glimpse of a professional golf tournament.

The big activity, however, was my bike ride 160 miles from San Antonio to Corpus Christi Texas. It was all part of the "Valero MS Bike to the Beach" to raise money for research for Multiple Sclerosis. The process of obtaining my ride number and participation packet was very easy. That was done the night before the ride began.

The day of the ride, my sister prepared a delicious breakfast and then she and her husband drove me to San Antonio to the ATT Center. I loaded my luggage on the truck that would take it to Beeville, the stop for the night. Then I got the bike out, made my pre-ride check and walked over to the starting area. Since it was not exactly a race (although everyone goes just about as fast as they can) starting order was based on fundraising. The biggest fundraisers got to go first, and all the others followed in waves. There were teams, usually based on fund raising, and individuals like me. The Valero team was large- hundreds of riders. I believe that they raised the most money.

It is interesting to see all the different jerseys of the riders. Some reveal their team affiliation, others simply the personal preference of the rider. There were police officers riding with special police jerseys, and EMT's with the EMS jerseys. Accompanying us were motorcycle escorts and police cruisers with bike racks on the back if someone were to get injured or be otherwise unable to continue on. Of course we were followed by the "Sag Wagons" which picked up those who determined that they needed a rest or were done for the day. I saw a police special event van and there were probably ambulances following us around too.

There were rest stops with food and drink and bathrooms every so many miles. I stopped at nearly every one of them to drink Powerade, eat an orange or other things, and refill my water bottles. I carried various kinds of energy foods. After the first hour, I ate a little something every ten minutes to keep my nutrition going.

I was impressed at the ride organization. Every town we passed through had law enforcement protecting us from cross traffic. The rest stops all had exit and entry lanes with traffic cones to assist our leaving and returning to the road. In some places, we had whole lanes to ourselves blocked off. There were motorcycle escorts and police cars going along next to us, lest any traffic get unruly. I did not hear any negative comments from people in cars or along the road. There was nothing but encouragement, even in Corpus Christi, where we had a whole lane to ourselves and the car traffic was backed up because of it. People stood by the side of the road and shouted encouragement and held up signs for the riders they were supporting.

The ride went down US 181. After lunch on Saturday, we began a climb toward Beeville. The climb would not have been all that bad, except for the headwind that seemed very strong to me. The ride Saturday was only 96 miles, so they had laid out an alternative 4 mile extra loop for those wanting to finish a century. I did the extra and for a bit, regretted it because the wind was so strong. One had to pedal in a low gear regardless of riding on the flatland or even going downhill. But after the turnaround, it was very nice riding with the wind for 2 miles.

After I finished, I went immediately to eat supper. I knew once that I had unrolled the sleeping gear, I would not be able to get up for anything. I was not really hungry, but in these cases, one must eat for the next day's activities. I was able to get a place to sleep in the gymnasium of Coastal Bend College in Beeville. I took my shower there and the water was cold. But I was so tired and in need of a shower that I did not care. After the shower and change of clothes, I found a plug to recharge my phone and spent an hour praying. Then I went to bed.

I guess I woke up about 5am on Sunday. I got dressed and packed and went to breakfast and then took about 30 minutes to go through Office of Readings and Morning Prayer. Then I put my bags on the truck and reclaimed my bike from the security area. The bike was wet because it had rained. But by 7am, it had quit and we saw no more of it, except for the wet streets. I had to wait in line to use a pump to top off the tires, but I got in line to start in plenty of time.

I was determined not to ride so much by myself as I had done the day before. My first strategy was to start spinning immediately and move up as far toward the front of my group that I could. I actually was able to bridge the gap to the previous group. My reason was that I knew I would get tired later. I wanted to have plenty of people behind me. When they passed me later, I would still have a respite from the wind and a chance to latch on to a pace line. It worked great the first 20 miles, then the paceline I was following took a break at a rest stop. I decided that I felt really good and would not stop until the lunch break at 32 miles. But I suffered greatly until I came upon a soldier (or ex soldier) riding solo. He let me draft on him most of the way to lunch. I led briefly, but the wind was too much for me. I cannot remember his name, but God bless him.

I ate lunch at 9:40am, which pleased me greatly. I planned to stay about 50 minutes, which I did. At about 10:30am, I left and was able to find a group going about my speed in just a few miles. They were from the San Antonio Express News. God bless you all too! I rode in that train for the next 20 miles, including two rest stops. At Gladys Porter High School, the last stop, they were waiting for more of their team to show up (it was a very large team). So I did the last 10 miles solo. But the wind was not bad at all. The concrete barriers effectively blocked the wind for the most part.

The last adventure was crossing the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi. It is the steepest hill I have ever climbed. But I was able to pedal all the way up and did not get off an push. Of course, three people passed me like I was standing still. On the other hand, I passed several as well. I was looking forward to going very fast down the other side of the bridge. But the wind and my tired legs could not get into my highest gear. After the bridge, it was just a little jaunt over to the finish line.

My sister and her husband had arrived in time to see me on the bridge and cheer me across the finish line. It was a great ride.

Again I want to thank all the other riders I drafted on for two days. I especially want to thank my friends Bob and Angela, who talked me into the ride. They did it on a tandem, and crossed the bridge too!

Other memories that I like were that on Saturday, another rider drafted on me for about 6 to 10 miles. It was nice to be able to provide a similar service to another that I had received. Also, there were military vets there who were quite impressive. I mean the men with the prosthetic left arms attached to their handlebars, riding with one hand. And the rider with the prosthetic leg. I do not know what he rode, but his leg was painted crazy colors. And then there were the men with no legs and those with spinal injuries who hand cranked tricycles the whole way. And all that to raise money for other people who were suffering. They were inspirational.