Thirtieth Sunday – Not Our Goodness, but His

Over the summer, at a marvelous summer camp, a wise old grandfather was telling me of his experience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

praying for his descendents.  He said he keeps finding himself tempted to think, if I just pray x many rosaries, maybe I can get the upper hand, and force God to do what I want him to do – or at least earn it from him.

But to the contrary, we pray not to get power over God, but precisely because we know that’s not how it works.  We pray because we know all good things come from his hands, and all we have to do is ask.

There’s a similar lesson in many of our prayers.  The Memorare focuses, of course, on Mary’s faithfulness in responding to our prayers.  But this faithfulness is put in focus by the line, “sinful and sorrowful.”  See, the point is that in praying I renounce my merits.  I don’t say, “hey, I deserve this.”  I say, in your mercy, hear and answer.  The same thing happens in all the Psalms that say, “for thy name’s sake, O Lord.”  Not because I am good, but because you are.

(That, of course, is the point of a novena – or even the defined length of the liturgy of the hours, and the intercessory power of the Mass.  Not that I do so much that God has to listen, but that I say my prayers and then stop, trusting not in my goodness, but in his.  That’s why we pray to the saints, too – not my goodness, but his, in them who are close to him and full of him.  I don’t think myself worthy to storm into the throne room on my own.)


Our Sunday readings all talk about the power of prayer, and the power of our weakness in prayer.

The first reading, from Sirach, is about God’s preferential option for the poor – sort of.  “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  Pretty effective!

But there’s a spin.  The reading begins not by saying the poor are God’s favorites, but by saying, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.”  He is “not unduly partial toward the weak – yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It isn’t that they win because they are poor.  It’s that they win because they trust in his goodness, not theirs.


So too in our reading from Second Timothy, one of the “prison epistles,” written from Paul’s captivity.

“Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation” – that is, like one of the “drink offerings” of the Temple, where the wine was a sacrificial victim, poured out on the altar.  Pretty good!  Paul himself is the sacrifice!  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”  He’s got his act together, huh?

Then (the reading skips several verses), he talks about his trial.  “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.”  It starts out sounding like he’s the hero, he alone is the deserving one.

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  Nope.  The whole point is that he boasts of his weakness.  I didn’t stand a chance.  I couldn’t do it.  He did it.  His goodness, not mine.  So Paul talks about being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” – like Daniel, who is not the one who shut up the lion’s mouth.  “The Lord will rescue me . . . .  To him” – not me – “be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

That’s the meaning of being a libation.  Not that I was so strong that I made myself a sacrificial victim – but that I was so weak that the only thing I could do was be broken down, and trust in the goodness and the strength of God.  It is good to be weak, for then we know that he, he alone, is strong.


And so the Gospel is obvious.  We pray not like the Pharisees, “convinced of their own righteousness,” who say, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”  Our prayer is not, “I fast twice a week,” look at me!

No, our prayer is like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

How do you find yourself trying to coerce God, instead of depend on his mercy?  How could your prayer be more focused on his goodness, and less on yours?

St. John Paul II on Catholic Social Thought and the Lay Vocation

From John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the Lay Vocation, Christifideles Laici:

The situation today points to an ever-increasing urgency for a doctrinal formation of the lay faithful, not simply in a better understanding which is natural to faith’s dynamism but also in pope-john-paul-IIenabling them to “give a reason for their hoping” in view of the world and its grave and complex problems. Therefore, a systematic approach to catechesis, geared to age and the diverse situations of life, is an absolute necessity, as is a more decided Christian promotion of culture, in response to the perennial yet always new questions that concern individuals and society today.

This is especially true for the lay faithful who have responsibilities in various fields of society and public life. Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine, as repeatedly stressed by the Synod Fathers in their presentations. They refer to the participation of the lay faithful in public life, in the following words: “But for the lay faithful to take up actively this noble purpose in political matters, it is not enough to exhort them. They must be offered a proper formation of a social conscience, especially in the Church’s social teaching, which contains principles – of reflection, criteria for judging and practical directives (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation,72), and which must be present in general catechetical instruction and in specialized gatherings, as well as in schools and universities. Nevertheless, this social doctrine of the Church is dynamic; that is, adapted to circumstances of time and place. It is the right and duty of Pastors to propose moral principles even concerning the social order,  and of all Christians to apply them in defence of human rights. Nevertheless, active participation in political parties is reserved to the lay faithful” (proposition from the Synod).

I think the holy Pope’s main point is this: Catholic social thought is the lay vocation.  The Church informs our thinking about family, politics, economics, and culture.  (Those are the four elements traditionally summarized, including in this papal document.)  To miss out on Catholic Social Thought is precisely to miss out on how our faith penetrates into our lives as lay people.

Unfortunately, in my experience, apart from abortion (which is certainly a key part), orthodox Catholics tend to be told that Catholic social thought is purely optional, something with no doctrinal authority whatsoever.  What the Church thinks about economics is treated as roughly equivalent to what your grandmother thinks about economics.  The more I’ve studied Catholic social thought, the more I’ve heard the Popes – all of them – strenuously rejecting that kind of dissent.  As John Paul says above, “Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine.”  Indispensable.

Of course, how can they believe unless they hear, and how can they hear unless it is preached?  I used to dissent from Catholic social doctrine because I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was.  The assumption that it is okay to dissent leads many priests and lay people never to bother to learn what it actually teaches.


A subordinate point the Pope makes is that part of Catholic social doctrine is the recognition that it requires application.  The Church teaches, for example, that employers have a responsibility to the families of their employees.  It also teaches – this is part of Catholic social doctrine – that it is up to employers to figure out how to live out that responsibility.  The Magisterium doesn’t pretend to answer every question; they don’t pretend that the answers are simple.  But it does teach a lot.

A parallel: the Church teaches the obligation of parents to love their children and to teach them the faith.  It doesn’t pretend to explain every detail of how we go about that.  But to dissent – to say that I am not required to love my children and teach them the faith – would be a denial of Church teaching about marriage.  I think we all agree about that.

What is less commonly acknowledged is that, though the Church does not teach every detail of how we live economic, political, and cultural responsibility, she does teach a lot – too much, obviously, for this short blog post – about the responsibilities we have.  We have to welcome immigrants, for example – though there is plenty of room to discuss how we go about doing that.

To reject or minimize what the Church does teach is, as St. John Paul says in the introduction to the same document, to succumb to “the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.”

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: All is Grace

In last week’s readings we learned about living by faith.  In this week’s, Jesus tells the leper who was cleansed, “your faith has saved you.”  In fact, this week’s readings take us deeper into the grace in which we have faith.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The readings begin with Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman, you’ll remember, came to Elisha to be cleansed of his leprosy.  Elisha sent him to wash in the River Jordan, which was surprising.

Naaman’s response teaches us much about grace.  First he acknowledges the God of Israel, and responds, “Please accept a gift from your servant.”  Literally, it’s a blessing, or benediction.  God has given Naaman a gift or a blessing, and Naaman wants to repay him.  Perfectly respectable.

But Elisha says, “As the LORD lives” – he invokes the unspeakable name of the unfathomable God of Israel – “whom I serve, I will not take it.” And Naaman learns a new approach: “If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth,” so that when he goes back to Syria, he can worship God on the soil of God’s blessed land.

The moral of the story is that our relationship with God is not quid-pro-quo, it’s not about trading blessings, paying God back and making things even.  Elisha leads Naaman from a response that tries to bless God back to a response that merely continues to receive God’s blessing.

We don’t buy grace.  It is a free, unmerited gift.  A gift, yes, that changes our lives, that makes us new.  But nothing we can pay back.


We are spending seven weeks on Paul’s two letters to Timothy.  In this week’s reading, from Second Timothy, Paul again speaks of the inequality of God’s power and ours.  Paul is “suffering” for the gospel, “even to the point of chains, like a criminal.”  On one level, Paul is doing something very meritorious.

But Paul makes a play on words.  He is in chains, “But the word of God is not chained.”   I am weak and he is strong.  I willingly boast of my weakness.  What Paul can do for the Gospel is just to show that it’s not Paul who makes the Gospel powerful, but God.  He is not the hero, God is.

He quotes a little song, or saying.  “If we have died with him we shall also live with him” – all we can do is die, but he can raise the dead to new life.  “If we persevere we shall also reign with him.”  Literally, it’s “if we stay under”: a bit less active than “persevering,” we just cling to him – and he reigns, and brings us to his reign.

“If we deny him he will deny us.  But if we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”  The only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit – the only sin that cannot be healed is the one that we don’t bring to Jesus – the only way he will turn away from us is if we turn away from him, push him out of our life.  And yet he remains faithful, not because we are good, but because he is.

All is grace.  I am weak but he is strong.  I gladly boast of my weakness, for when I am weak, then I am strong.


In the Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers, who have all asked his mercy – but only one returned to thank him.  All were healed of their bodily disease, but only to one does he say, “Your faith has saved you.”  Faith is the recognition of grace, the knowledge that it is God who has done it.  And that is the more radical healing.

Oh, we are changed, healed morally, just as the leper was really healed.  Don’t get me wrong: “all grace” doesn’t mean that we remain the same.  Grace heals us.  Grace makes us holy.  Grace even, in the language of St. Thomas, makes us “merit” heaven, makes us in some sense worthy of God’s grace.  We are called to be changed.  But that change doesn’t begin with us.  It is Jesus who heals us, not we ourselves.  We are justified not by works but by God’s grace – and so too, the Council of Trent and St. Thomas will say, along with St. Paul, we are saved by faith, by our discovery of God’s promise to save us.

And the heart of the matter is not the healing, which all ten lepers received, but the recognition of the healing, the return upon grace to acknowledge that it is grace, that this is God’s work in me.  To be changed would be nothing if we did not return to give thanks.  He makes us holy so that we can worship.

In Latin, as in Spanish, grace is both the word for a free gift and the way you say thank you.  Gracias, they say in Spanish: free gift!  Wow, thank you!

For what works of God in you do you need to return to give thanks?

Scripture and Grace

Scripture is a grace, in a sense the first grace.  And Scripture is necessary for us to keep alive our awareness of grace.


Mary reads the Bible and receives the Holy Spirit

The monastic tradition chants Psalms “antiphonally.”  That means that one half of the group sings a verse while the other half listens, and then the second half sings and the first half listens, back and forth.  It’s a splendid metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace.  When we listen, we see that God’s Word – and God’s grace – comes to us from the outside.  Scripture is something we receive, something we did not make.  But when we sing, we show that God’s Word – and God’s grace – becomes part of us.  It becomes my word.  The Psalms are not supposed to remain outside of me, but to become my own prayer.

Grace begins outside of us: it is God’s work, not ours.  But grace means that we are transformed.  It becomes our work.  It becomes us.  God’s Word speaks to us from the outside, but it is meant to become our own word, our own understanding.

Scripture is a metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace.


But so too, Scripture is a guardian of grace.

Because grace does not begin with us, because grace is God’s initiative, and a totally free initiative, it is unexpected.  Grace doesn’t fit into our plans.  It certainly doesn’t fit into our natural way of thinking.  We can craft whole theologies of how we would expect our relationship with God to work – and it will almost always leave out grace, because grace, by definition, is not part of our plan, not part of our view of things.

Scripture is the inspired Word of God.  It is not just inerrant; it’s not just that everything that it says happens to be okay.  It’s that God himself – God’s Holy Spirit – moves the human authors to see and say things they would not say on their own.  They say it in their way – it is, again, they who say it; God’s Word becomes their own word; our “reading from the letter from James,” for example, is how we receive “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God” – and yet it is a word that does not begin with them.

Indeed, the Word is Christ: he is the Word they speak.  And he is grace; grace is conformity with him, becoming as he is, through his Father giving us new birth into his divine sonship.  And the Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, he who is grace, he whose presence transforms us, and we call it grace.  Grace and Scripture go hand in hand.


Here’s my punchline: when we forget Scripture, we forget grace.  I shouldn’t complain about homilies.  But here are the two things I most notice about homilies.  (I’ll get to complaining about lay people in a moment.)  First, very few homilies are Biblical.  Sometimes there’s one verse here or there taken out of context, but rarely does the homily dig into what the Bible is saying.  Second, even fewer homilies are about grace.  To listen to most Catholic homilies, you would think that we were deists, who believe that God made the world and then left it behind.  (Deists can say many nice things about how we ought to behave – they can even say we ought to worship God – and so too do many of our deist homilies.)

Now, these two problems, forgetting the Bible and forgetting grace, go hand in hand.  Or put it the other way: because grace is unexpected, of course we’re going to forget about grace if we don’t listen to the inspired authors.  Of course we’re going to make up some alternate theology, in which there is no grace.

Again, many of these grace-less theologies are very nice; in many ways you might call them “orthodox.”  I heard a homily the other day from a very nice priest.  His starting point was a line in the Gospel: “no one who lights a lamp conceals it.”  He came up with this whole nice thing about how we ought to let our little light shine for all to see.  Nothing heterodox about that.

But he barely scratched the surface of Scripture, ignored all of the readings except one convenient line, which he wasn’t even interpreting very directly, and he had nothing whatsoever to say about what God does in us.  His little light was a light without grace – a light, it appeared, that we create ourselves.

And of course it was!  Because without listening to God’s word we never expect the amazing things God does.  Deists can tell other people about their deist God, light their little lights and witness to their absent God.  But Catholics ought to be talking about the vastly better plan, the plan of grace, which is revealed to us in Scripture.


Well, of course this isn’t only true of homilies, it’s true of all of our lives.  If we don’t read Scripture, if we don’t meditate on Scripture and let Scripture shape our thinking, we’re bound to craft our own little alternate pseudo-Catholic theology, in which God does nothing.

Let Scripture surprise you with grace.

How has Scripture surprised you?

Living by Faith

This past Sunday’s readings talked about faith – with a surprise ending in the Gospel.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The selection from the Prophet Habakkuk gives us both the substance of his short book, even a summary of all the Minor Prophets, and also one of the most important phrases in St. Paul: “the righteous shall live by faith” is the theme of his pivotal Letter to the Romans.  But here we get to see that phrase in action.

The Prophets wrote in the time when Israel was being conquered.  Their experience speaks to our time – and every time in which it has seemed that the powers of evil are stronger than the Church.

Habakkuk says, “How long, O Lord?  I cry for help but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.  Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery.”  (I kind of know how he feels.)

The Lord responds: “Write down the vision . . . .  For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come.”

This is what Habakkuk means when he says, “The just one shall live by faith.”  We live by realities that do not appear to us.  We believe God is good, and powerful – and the world gives an awful lot of counter evidence.  We believe the heart of Jesus will triumph – but we don’t see it.  Well, we live by faith.  Trust me, he says, it will all come clear in due time.


In our reading from Second Timothy, Paul takes us deeper into this life of faith.  “Bear your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel . . . ,” he says.  The message of faith calls us to a struggle.

But more deeply, it gives us the strength to accomplish that struggle: “. . . with the strength that comes from God.”  It seems like what Jesus asks of us is too much.  But the Gospel is the promise that he will give us the strength to do what we cannot do without him.

“Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”  Now, Timothy is a bishop, and this may be referring to ordination.  But Acts also describes “imposition of hands” as part of Baptism (or Confirmation; Acts 19:6).  In any case, we are talking about the strength that comes through the sacraments.  To live by faith is to trust in that strength, though we cannot see it.

“Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me.”  To live by sacramental grace is to trust in the teaching of faith: to live by faith.


Now, the first part of our Gospel reading is obvious enough: “Increase our faith.”  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’”  On the one hand, faith is powerful – or rather, we have access to the power of God’s grace by our faith in his promise.  On the other hand, faith itself is an example of the power of grace: it is a gift we beg God to give us.

(“Mulberry tree”?  In Matthew and Mark faith can move mountains.  But it’s also connected to the withering of the fig tree.  The Greek for “mulberry tree,” sukaminos, is a kind of “fig tree,” suke.  It’s also a big tree, like the mustard.)

But the second half of our Gospel is obscure.  Suddenly he’s talking about the servant who serves his master dinner: he should not expect to get invited to sit at the table, but should say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”  What does this have to do with living by faith?

The bigger theme running through these chapters is self-righteousness.  The Pharisees think Jesus should not eat with sinners, but Jesus says God knows their hearts, and that they break the laws: of adultery (by divorce), and of care for the poor (in the parable of Lazarus).  He tells his disciples, too, that though, “Woe to the one through him offenses come” – though sin is bad – yet they should forgive their brother “seven times a day.”

This is the context in which the disciples say, “Increase our faith.”  As in Second Timothy, the call of the Gospel seems too hard.  I would rather trust in my incomplete righteousness than except Jesus’s higher call.

In this context, Jesus says, part of living the life of faith is not commending ourselves: not patting ourselves on the back like the Pharisees, not expecting immediate reward like the servant who wants to sit down at table, but again and again returning to the path of love, which we live only through the continual gift of God’s grace.

Because life by faith is hard.  But the grace is there.

How do you find yourself letting self-righteousness interfere with trusting in God’s grace?

St. Jerome, Doctor of Translation


St. Jerome and the Bible

I’m sure you know that St. Jerome, whom the Church celebrates today, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  It should be underlined that he didn’t say this in passing.  Jerome’s whole life was oriented around his love of Scripture.  He was an irascible monk from Dalmatia (just to the east of northern Italy), who did Biblical work in Rome and then was sent by the Pope to Bethlehem, where he lived in a cave, studied with local experts, including Jews, and translated the Bible into Latin.  He wasn’t the first one to do that, but he did it well.

But though the best name for St. Jerome would be “Doctor of the Bible,” today I would like us to consider him as the “Doctor of Translation.”

Doctor of the Church (ironically, since we’re talking about a Doctor of Translation) is a poorly translated term.  In Latin, doctor doesn’t mean healer, it means teacher.  (We professor-doctors are more properly doctors than those so-called medical doctors!)  The phrase is used by the tradition to talk about that particular group of saints whose writings are especially important: the “doctors” are the great teachers of “doctrine.”  The title seems to have grown up in part as a kind of liturgical category: some saints’ feasts deserve special liturgical emphasis (and later, a special liturgy) because it is so important that we learn from their writings.

In the West (where they spoke Latin, and so used the Latin word “doctor”) the title first went to St. Augustine, arguably the greatest teacher of the Western tradition (at least until St. Thomas, who viewed him as such); also St. Ambrose, his great and spiritual teacher; St. Gregory the Great, one of the most important ones to translate Augustine into spirituality; and St. Jerome.

Later some Eastern, Greek fathers were named: St. John Chrysostom – his second name means “golden mouth,” because he was the greatest preacher of the early Church, bringing his monastic wisdom to the metropolis of Constantinople; the monk-bishop friends St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus, who especially enriched the teaching of the Trinity; and later, to give the East four like the West, St. Athanasius, great defender of the divinity of Christ.

Later on, Thomas Aquinas was added to the list – and after that the title was extended to many great writers.  The point of all this is that the doctors are great writers.  It is a distinction meant to point us toward writings of the saints as an important part of our faith.



St. Jerome, St. Francis, and Our Lady

Now, the interesting thing for us today is that Jerome is not an especially important writer.  Don’t get me wrong: he was a saint, and like many saints of the early Church, he had interesting things to say about spirituality, and Jesus, and the Bible.  But even his commentaries on Scripture are not that important.

Jerome is not a doctor of the Church because of his original writings.  Jerome is a doctor of the Church because of his translation – of the Bible.

Understand this, and a key element of the Latin tradition suddenly comes into focus.  Jerome is one of the favorite saints of the Middle Ages – and their very most important “writer” (doctor) – purely because he put the Bible into a language people could understand.

The deepest thing we learn from this devotion to St. Jerome is how much the tradition loved the Bible.  But the other thing we learn is how much they loved translation.



St. Jerome (on the right) and the Cross

Let me be blunt.  This is something completely inside out about “traditionalism.”  Some Catholics today love Latin because it’s not the vernacular.  But the Middle Ages loved Latin because it was the vernacular.

Some people know that the Church – in authoritative documents, such as at Trent and Vatican I – said that the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, is authoritative.  But people wrongly interpret that to mean that Latin is a unique Biblical language.  To the contrary, the tradition – and those documents: read them! – understands the Vulgate to be an endorsement not of Latin, but of translation.  What’s amazing about St. Jerome, for the middle ages, is that he took the Bible out of a language that Westerners could not understand and translated it into a language they could understand.  What’s amazing is that we can hear the Bible in a language we understand.

St. Jerome is, first of all, a saint of loving the Bible.  But he is also, and inseparably, a saint of loving translation into the vernacular.  Vulgate means vernacular, the “vulgar tongue,” the language dumb people speak (or spoke).

If we want to love the Bible – and to love the Tradition, which loves the Bible – we too need to learn to love translation.  Like Jerome, it’s best if we can learn the original languages.  But for all those people who can’t, thank God for saints like Jerome who make the Bible (and the liturgy) accessible in the language of the people.  Thank God for translators.


Twenty-Fifth Sunday: Biblical Social Thought

As I mentioned in my last post, my son has been in and out of the hospital, and so I haven’t had as much time to devote to writing these reflections.  I wish I did, I think it’s good for me.  But Deo gratias, things finally seem to be clearing up, and maybe life will settle down again.  Thanks for all your prayers.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

There’s an important part of the Bible, the Tradition, and the Magisterium that we in America tend to ignore.  It’s often called Catholic Social Thought, and many people who consider themselves orthodox tend to think they can ignore it, based on the assumption that it’s ignorant of the laws of economics.  I used to think that way, until I studied what the Church really teaches.  I found that it’s neither so stupid nor so optional as I had thought.  It’s an important part of letting our faith permeate our lives.  And this past Sunday’s readings give a good opportunity to think about it.


The reading from the prophet Amos is hard hitting.  “When will the new moon be over, you ask.”  The Old Testament, like traditional Catholicism, had many feasts.  Although the main purpose was to worship God, a central part of the practice was to step away from economic work.  In addition to the Sabbath, every month (not on the full moon, when the pagans celebrate, but on the new moon), God’s people were to set aside their economic work and focus on God.

The desire to get back to money making highlights what Jesus says in this week’s Gospel: a servant cannot serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating.”  Alongside defrauding God, the Old Law also forbids defrauding our neighbor.  The ephah was the measure for flour; it’s tempting for the seller to give the buyer less than he’s paid for.  The shekel was the weight for measuring gold; it’s tempting for the the seller to take more money than the buyer bargained for.

The examples of the fixed scales nicely cut to the heart of Catholic social thought.  We can talk about the laws of economics till we’re blue in the face – and actually, the Church acknowledges that social policy should be based on a good understanding of what “works” economically – but alongside those issues, there are moral issues.  Free market, sure – but beware the constant temptation to cheat.

The next line pushes the issue a little further: “we will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell.”  We saw how the seller can cheat.  But the buyer can cheat too.  And here’s the real danger: the poor are easy to take advantage of.  Enslaving someone “for a pair of sandals” cuts to the heart: when someone is desperate (for clothing, for example – notice Jesus puts clothing the naked alongside feeding the hungry, etc.) they may be willing to be cheated.  But it’s still cheating.  So too with “the refuse of the wheat”: they might be so starved that they are willing to buy junk – but that doesn’t make it right to take their money.


The reading from First Timothy is not obviously connected.  “God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved.”  Well, first, there must be a recognition that there is “one God . . . one mediator . . . Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.”  At the heart of the “preferential option for the poor” is the recognition that Jesus died for them, too – and where he gave himself as ransom, we should not look for easy profit.

But Paul isn’t primarily talking about all being saved.  Actually, “who wills everyone to be saved” is part of saying, “I ask that supplications . . . be offered for everyone.”  The point is not that everyone will be saved.  The point is that we pray for everyone.

Especially, he says, “for kings and for all in authority.”  Well, this isn’t about the poor at all.  But it is about social thought: those with power, whether political or economic, need conversion.  And we want their conversion, too, so “that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life”: we pray, also, for the right to live Catholic social thought, to live justly.


In the Gospel, Jesus commends a “dishonest steward for acting prudently.”  But it’s a funny “dishonesty”: the “dishonesty” of forgiving debts.  Then Jesus says we need to be “trustworthy with dishonest wealth” – or rather, “faithful with the mammon of unjustice”.  That is, in the economic realm, where we are all tempted to cheat and take advantage, we should focus not so much on getting rich in this world as on storing up riches in heaven.

Our deeper concern – and the concern of the Bible and the Church in their social thought – is not how to make a buck, but how we can use our economic life to grow in charity.

In what ways do you think people in our society are tempted to value things more than people – to “fix the scales” – in our economic relationships?

Twenty-Third Sunday: God’s Plans

Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital.  The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery.  So please do keep praying for us!


St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon.  Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus.  They were both Christians.  Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.

It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances.  There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation.  Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons.  Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.

In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time.  Now he sends him back to his master Philemon.  He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are.  When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.


“Perhaps this is why.”  The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.

I have spoken of this problem before.  Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence.  But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God.  Everything is orderly.

But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects.  One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan.  A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random.  But it is not random from God’s perspective.  He has a plan.  He has a way.


In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.”  But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . .  Who ever knew your counsel?”

Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.”  We don’t know why things happen.  We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor.  We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways.  “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”

Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love.  And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.


Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.

This reading too focuses on knowledge.  Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning.  The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.”  We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.

But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings.  Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families.  But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan.  Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families.  Things harden in our foolish little plans.

Let go, says God.  It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter.  But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.

Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.

God’s plans are richer than ours.  Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.


What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?

On Mass at the Hospital and True Participation

Dear readers, I have had a hard time keeping up with this website the last few weeks because I have been in the hospital.  My oldest son, who is paraplegic, had a major surgery for scoliosis at the end of July; he and I spent almost a week in the hospital recovering.  The next few weeks we were at home, and those weeks were also hard – I have found that disability and hospitalization have not been hard in the ways you’d expect, but have been hard in ways I didn’t expect.  Then last weekend there were some Sistine Adamcomplications from the first surgery, and our doctor told us to go to the emergency room.  Then there was another minor surgery, a small infection, and another week we have spent in the hospital.  We aren’t home yet, but it looks like we’ll go home Monday.




(But by the way: Joseph’s doing great.)


Now, I might write this to apologize for not keeping up with my reflections here, but actually, I want to make a theological point.  (It’s actually a point that explains why I want to keep writing these reflections, as much as I can.)




Most of these days I have managed to get to Mass.  But what is Mass like when you’re exhausted in the hospital?


On one level, it looks like not having the strength to pray, flopping in the pew with my mouth hanging open, trying to remember where I am.


But it means more than that – and this is an important point about liturgy and about grace.  The thing is, the Mass (and the Liturgy of the Hours, and the quasi-liturgical rosary) gives me an opportunity not just to sit slack-jawed, but to have intense moments of prayer.


St. Thérèse used the image of an elevator.  God does all the work – which is good when I haven’t the energy to climb the stairs.  But I really rise.  The divine elevator doesn’t leave my behind.


I don’t have the words to pray – but the Mass does, and now and then I can grab on to those words and pray with the full intensity of the Mass itself.  We are not meant to sit there slack-jawed.  We are meant to participate in the greatness of the action.  In the Mass, Christ puts himself in our empty hands, so that we who have nothing to offer can offer all the awesomeness of God and of the Cross.




The key to Christology is that Christ is not part man and part God, he is 100% God and 100% man.  Normally it doesn’t work that way, you can’t be two natures in one person – but in this case, it is not a zero-sum game.  He doesn’t have to be less man to be more God, or vice versa.


(Creation, actually, is parallel.  The sun is not less a sun for being created.  It is 100% created by God and 100% the sun.  This is how the relationship between God and the world works.)


It is the same way with grace (and the liturgy).  It’s okay to say that we “cooperate” with God – but far too often we imagine it’s 50% God and 50% man – or in hard times like this, maybe 98% God and 2% man.  We can be tempted to say God prays “for us,” in our place, so that it’s okay that we sit there slack-jawed, because anyway, God’s doing the work.  He goes up in the elevator so we don’t have to.


When we sin, it’s like 100% God and less than 100% man.  We are not receiving all that he has to give us.  We are at 50% – or far less.  But when we are weak, it is not like that.  When we sin, it’s like God is pouring water, and we are moving our glass out of the way.  But when we are weak, it is more like we have a smaller glass, but God still fills it all the way.  (That’s another Thérèse image.)


When I get distracted at Mass because I don’t love God, I don’t pray as much.  When I get distracted at Mass because I am exhausted, in some sense I also don’t pray as much.  But there’s a big difference between leaving my glass empty because I refuse to receive, on the one hand, and on the other hand, having my tiny weak glass completely filled by the awesomeness of God.


The point is: we are supposed to pray at Mass.  That is the whole gift, the whole point – of Christianity, really: God acts on us so that we can receive his fulness, so that we can be, not only active (on our own) but “activated,” brought to life by his touch.


Moments of exhaustion are a great time to discover that God does great things in us.


When have you experienced God bringing you to life?

George MacDonald on Fear of the Lord

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century dissenting Protestant who wrote amazing fiction.  People like Chesterton and C.S. Lewis attribute their conversions to his stories.  The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie are among the best fairy stories I’ve come across – and the great fairy story writers, like Tolkien, agree.  I do not know how to write a short sufficient recommendation of At the Back of the North Wind.  It is extraordinary.

In an idle moment, I recently pulled off the shelf C.S. Lewis’s book on George MacDonald.  I did not realize it’s an anthology, mostly snippets from MacDonald’s preaching.  Lewis’s praise is superlative: “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”  I am eager to read the other fantasies Lewis recommends: Phantastes (which Lewis says made his conversion), The Golden Key (with pictures by Maurice Sendak!), The Wise Woman, and Lilith.

Well, I’ve only read – slowly – the first couple passages in this anthology, but they are exquisite, and mostly focused on a topic I love but have had a hard time expressing, fear of the Lord.  Here are a few splendid snippets:

When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?  No.  As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. . . .  The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear.

For that which cannot be shaken shall remain.  That which is immortal in God shall remain in man.  The death that is in them shall be consumed.  It is the law of Nature—that is, the law of God—that all that is destructible shall be destroyed.


The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.


And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end from any which they are capable of supposing?  He is against sin: insofar as, and while, they and sin are one, He is against them—against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus He is altogether always for them.  That thunder and lightning and tempest, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, that visible horror billowed with the voice of words, was all but a faint image . . . of what God thinks and feels against vileness and selfishness, of the unrest of unassuageable repulsion with which He regards such conditions.


Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that He will burn them clean? . . . They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured.


How should the Hebrews be other than terrified at that which was opposed to all they knew of themselves, beings judging it good to honor a golden calf?  Such as they were, they did well to be afraid. . . .  Fear is nobler than sensuality.  Fear is better than no God, better than a god made with hands. . . . The worship of fear is true, although very low: and though not acceptable to God in itself, for only the worship of spirit and of truth is acceptable to Him, yet even in his sight it is precious.  For He regards men not as they are merely, but as they shall be; not as they shall be merely, but as they are now growing, or capable of growing, toward that image after which He made them, that they might grow to it.  Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected gradations of an infinite progress.  A condition which of declension [that is, downward movement] would indicate a devil, may of growth indicate a saint.


He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.  It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship.  He will have purity.  It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; yeah, [it] will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.


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