Twenty-Second Sunday: The Wedding

Our Gospel this Sunday tells us to choose the lower seat so that, instead of being humiliated, we can be called up higher.

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The story is more complicated than it first appears.  First thing: it has two parts.  The first part is about being called up higher.  It seems to be practical advice, a shrewd way to behave. 

But the second part is different in an important way.  Jesus is at table at a Pharisee’s house.  The first part he addresses to the others at table.  The second part he addresses to the host.  To the host he says, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor . . . . For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The difference is that the first piece of advice seems to be worldly.  It suggests a way to get repayment in this world.  But the second says we should not seek repayment in this world.  Is Jesus giving us practical advice for how to improve our reputation?  Or he is pointing to something deeper?


A second complication: His advice to the other guests, in that “first part,” is not as straightforward as it seems.  Our translation says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor.” The translation is interpreting the Greek so as to make it match the situation where Jesus is sitting: invited to a table.

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One parallel is real: He is speaking to those who “were choosing the places of honor” and challenges them not to take “the place of honor.”  But he’s speaking about a distinctly different situation.  The Greek says he is at the home of the Pharisee not “to dine” but to “eat bread”: very tangible.  But he speaks about “a wedding.”  Now, the word wedding, in Greek as in English, implies something about a banquet—but Jesus says nothing about tables or eating.  He just talks about the wedding.  He’s not describing the situation they are in, he’s talking about something else.

Oddly, Luke says, “He told a parable to those who had been invited.”  Luke doesn’t seem to think this is practical advice about the current situation.  It is a parable.

And with the words “invited,” “guest,” and “host,” our translation obscures something evangelical: it is all about those who are “called,” and “the one who calls.” 

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Suddenly, this all sounds more like . . . the parable of the wedding feast, in Matthew 22.  Which wedding is Jesus talking about?  And who calls us to that wedding?  Is he giving practical advice about how to score social points in this world?  Or is he teaching us about seeking our reward in the next life?  Whose voice do I want to hear saying, “Friend, rise up higher”?

Luke is putting that parable from Matthew into the context of ordinary life.


Our reading in Hebrews is one of the most beautiful in Scripture.  “You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” etc.  It describes the great wedding feast.  We are already there.

It contrasts that wedding feast to Moses on the mountain of the Ten Commandments, “a blazing fire and gloomy darkness . . . and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.”  The Old Law was given with a threat of punishment, while God still seemed far away.

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But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.

But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.


Sirach gives us wisdom.  Seek humility rather than to be “a giver of gifts.”  How ironic, that we often hoard money in the name of being generous to others.  Forget the hoarding, seek the lowest place.  Find favor with God.

Listen to the proverbs.  Don’t think you have penetrated the higher things.  Be taught.  Listen to the Gospel.

And give alms, which quench sin like water on fire.  Don’t hoard, but pour yourself out.  Hoarding is the root of all sin.


Our Psalm response says, “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.”

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First, let us see ourselves as the poor.  God is good.  Trust him.  Don’t hoard, don’t calculate, don’t angle—trust that God is good. 

And second, let us see God’s love for the poor.  Because if we trust that God is good, we will give.  We will trust that he will provide, even if we don’t hoard.  And we will see that life is not about calculating how we can rise higher, but abandoning everything for the pearl of great price, the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem, the great wedding of the Lamb.

What parts of your life are worldly?

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Strive

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus once again turns our thinking inside out.

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(Notice that he is still on his way to Jerusalem, the organizing principle of Luke’s Gospel.  What does Jesus’s pilgrimage to die in Jerusalem mean?)

On the way, someone asks, “Will only a few people be saved?”  We tend to think of religion, and lots of other things, as an alternative between two answers to that question.  “Liberals” say, hey, everyone’s fine, no need to judge; their answer to the question is, “many will be saved, everyone!”  “Conservatives” say people are not fine, people do deserve to be judged, only a few will be saved—but tend to define the standard of judgment as “like me” or “not like me.”  (Our current trends toward nationalism and tribalism—on both the Left and the Right—show how far we can go in judging people based on their conformity to us.)

Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative.  He doesn’t answer the question how many will be saved.  Instead, he changes the perspective.

He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” and our reading concludes, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  On the one hand, he seems to say that many will not be saved: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. . . . He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers.’” Jesus is opposed to liberal presumption.  We can lose our salvation.


But he is also opposed to conservative presumption, to the presumption that other people will be condemned, but people like me are going to be fine.  “Some are first who will be last” means, you might think you’re in the in-crowd—but if you think that way, you will end up on the outside.

It’s striking how his metaphor proceeds.  Right after talking about the gate, he switches to the metaphor of knocking on the door after it has been locked.  Those on the outside will say, “Lord, open the door for us,” and the Lord will respond, “I do not know where you are from” (or maybe, “I don’t know you—where did you come from?”) 

But then they give their wonderfully presumptuous answer: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  They say, “Hey, Jesus, let me in, you know me, we hung out together!”  They think they are insiders.

But the Gospel is full of humor, and this is a funny way to describe being insiders: We ate and drank, and you taught.  They are passive.  But Jesus says, “Strive.”  (Maybe the more important part of the metaphor is not the “narrow door” so much as the “striving”: you have to work hard to be a real Christian.)  Their self-description, “We ate and drank in your company,” makes Christianity sound like eating popcorn at the movies.

And their passivity is a description of going to Mass.  “You taught in our streets” (literally, our big open areas, our plazas) is the Liturgy of the Word.  “We ate and drank in your company” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  And Jesus says, showing up at Mass and sitting there passively while I preach, and then mindlessly eating my Body and Blood, will not get you into heaven.  “Being Catholic” won’t get you into heaven.

As he says elsewhere, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Or as he says here, “struggle to enter in,” “strive to enter through the narrow door.”


The context of our Gospel is a series of stories where more people get into heaven than you’d think: Luke 13 begins with the Galileans crushed with their sacrifices, who are not as unrighteous as you’d like to think; then the barren fig tree, that gets a second chance; then a woman cured of her disability, when the Pharisees would tell Jesus to stop his works; then the mustard seed and the leaven, which become a huge tree, home for the birds, and the kingdom leavens three whole measures of flour.  Many will be saved.  But not you, if you take it for granted and rest on your “identity.”

Something similar happens in our reading from Isaiah, almost the very last verses of that hopeful but strange book.  In third- and second-to-last verses, Isaiah speaks of new heavens and a new earth, when “all flesh shall come to worship.”  Many will be saved!

And yet the last verse of the book is, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”  Those who trust in the Lord will be saved, he can do it, he will reach out to every nation.  But those who think they are in the nation of the saved and are eager to treat others as outsiders, those who think they don’t need a savior and don’t need to repent, those who rebel against his command, they will not be saved.

Thus in our reading from Hebrews he says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  If we let the Lord be our Lord, how great a salvation!  But you have to strive for it!

Do you catch yourself thinking you’re already righteous, already an insider?

How to Preach: Some Thoughts

Searching the Scriptures

I am a layman, not a preacher.  But I listen to plenty of preaching, teach seminarians preparing to preach, and study the theology that is supposed to give life to preachers.  And one of the reasons I write Sunday reflections on this website is to help me appreciate the life of preaching that my teaching is supposed to support.  So here are some thoughts on how to approach preaching, for the preachers who are reading:

1. Be clear about the heart of your preaching, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think the best summary of that Gospel is not just “God loves you,” which leaves a lot out, but “the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5).  Preach God’s love.  Preach that we are not only to be loved, but ourselves to love with that love.  Preach that God transforms us, by the Holy Spirit, that the ability for us to love is his gift to us.  Preach the Holy Spirit, who is God’s love poured into our hearts.  The theological name for all of that is “grace,” specifically “sanctifying grace”: God makes us holy by sharing his heart with us.  But whatever you call it, keep it foremost in your mind.  Too much preaching, liberal and conservative, sounds like God is completely passive, like we have to do it all ourselves—or like God expects nothing of us.  That’s heresy, and it covers over the heart of the Gospel.

2. Preach Jesus Christ.  It’s through him, only through him, that we receive God’s Spirit.  It’s he who shows the Spirit and he who gives the Spirit.  As JPII said, “contemplate the face of Christ.”  Again, a bizarre amount of preaching hardly mentions Jesus.  Talk about him!

3. Preach Scripture.  Scripture is God’s Word, Jesus’s Word, the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets.  It spells out the basic Gospel.  The Gospel is simple: the love of God is poured into our hearts.  But there’s a million applications of that.  That’s why the Bible is so long.  And the reason Jesus gives us the Bible is that it’s pretty hard to apply the Gospel right, pretty easy to apply it wrong.  Pretty easy to preach what’s comfortable for the preacher instead of the actual consequences of the Gospel.  Let Scripture call you out of yourself.  Let Scripture show you what needs to be said.  Let Scripture show you the multitude of things to be said: one week (or one day) one thing, but the next week, a different thing, because there are many different things that need to be said.  If you’re left to your own resources, it’s going to be lousy.  Preach God’s word, not your own.  Make it a joy to be learning God’s word beside your congregation, instead of pretending that you’re Mr. Know-It-All, which you’re not.

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4. Lean into the details of Scripture.  To prepare a homily, read the readings and look for what is striking.  Too much preaching sounds like the preacher had something he already wanted to say, and then he just used whatever miniscule part of the readings (if he used the readings at all) confirmed him in what he already wanted to say.  Instead, look for where Scripture surprises you.  When the word choice is weird, don’t ignore that, lean into it.  When the progression of ideas is weird, think about that.  When Scripture surprises you, let yourself be surprised, because that’s when you are being led out of your thinking into God’s thinking. 

5. I highly recommend good Bible software.  I love E-Sword (and I-Sword on my phone), a free program that makes it easy to look up the original languages.  Look at where words come from, what word the original author is actually using.  You don’t need to know the original languages (though it helps).  I don’t know Hebrew, but when I’m curious what an English word in the translation means, I can still look up the definition of the Hebrew word, and find what words it’s derived from or related to, what pictures the word is evoking.  Again, the point is to find out what Scripture is saying, not what you (or the translator) wants it to say.

6. Lean, too, into the connections.  Read the readings together.  See how one reading helps you understand the other.  Scripture is all connected, ultimately all written by the same author.  You understand one part better by looking at the others.  And the Lectionary is a great gift the Church gives us, to help us think Biblically.  The more you love the Lectionary, the more you teach your people to love the Lectionary, the more you think with the Church and teach your people to think with the Church, the more you help your people (and yourself) understand that all the details of our faith fit together. 

7. Lead into the Creed.  Right after you preach, on Sundays, comes the Creed.  Love the Creed.  Make it your own prayer.  Pray it thoughtfully, carefully, every day in your rosary, or elsewhere in your prayer.  Figure that the best judgment of whether you prayed a good homily is whether you’ve helped them understand the beauty and richness of the creed.  That doesn’t mean that you have to talk about specific lines in the Creed—though it wouldn’t hurt.  But it does mean you have to have them thinking about the central realities of our faith.  (The same could be said about the Eucharist, and the other verbal prayers of the Mass: but the Creed is a good focal point.)

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8. Finally, I ought to say something about your people.  Talk to your people.  Know your people.  Love your people.  Want your people to be holy, and to grow in Biblical, Catholic faith.  My advice is to aim at the more serious parts of your congregation.  You are not the only evangelizer in the parish.  It is not your job to sink to the lowest common denominator, or to preach the thinnest gruel possible, so as to reach everyone.  It is your job to build up saints in your community who can evangelize others.  Respect the people in your parish who are trying to grow in holiness.  Feed them.  Show the others that holiness is real by talking about holiness with the people who believe in holiness; if you sound like you don’t expect anyone in your congregation to be serious about the faith, you send a horrible message to everyone.  Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator.  But do love your people, and try to speak to them. 

That said, I think you do best not to focus on what you think those people need to hear, but on what Jesus is saying through Scripture in the readings at that Mass.  Preach God’s Word, not your own.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Peace, but Only through the Cross

In our Gospel this week, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three,” etc.

I’m afraid with my summer travels I haven’t finished writing my Sunday reflections in a couple weeks.  (I have several half finished!)  But we remain in the context we’ve been in, in Luke 12:

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“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said last week.  But then, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.”  Then he gave the principle: “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

On the one hand, we have no reason to fear.  God will provide!  But that doesn’t mean we should settle into worldliness.  To the contrary, our trust that God will provide is why we are not worldly, why we abandon earthly riches and trust in heavenly.


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The same dynamic comes out in our reading from the prophets this week.  The princes say to the king, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city . . . ; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

(I just did a long personal study of Jeremiah.  I recommend it: he’s the easiest to understand of the long prophets.)

The context is this: the Nothern Kingdom, called Israel, has been taken into exile.  Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is under seige by the Babylonians.  And the prophet Jeremiah says, “we deserve this.”  God will protect us, he says—but first he will punish us.  And we need to accept that punishment.

As always—as today—the people of his kingdom want a prophet who will say, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” but who will not say, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.”  They want an easy Gospel, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  We all want Christianity without the cross.  But there’s no such thing.  That is not what the Christian God’s love for us means.

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Jeremiah does care about them.  But that care includes God’s “severe mercy.” 

In fact, in our reading, Jeremiah dramatizes the whole thing.  He is thrown in a cistern—a pit for gathering water—and sinks into the mud, until the king’s eunuch comes to his rescue.  God protects Jeremiah, and he will protect us—but through our weakness, not through our strength, and through our acceptance of the hard road of conversion, not through cheap grace.


Our reading from Hebrews shows the same thing with Jesus.  “For the sake of the joy that lay before him” (that sounds nice!) “he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  So too we have to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race.”  God will come through—but it won’t be easy.  That’s the religion of Jesus Christ, the religion of love through the cross.  He died and so must we.



In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  The “set” is more like “throw.”  The image is something like fire and brimstone, or shooting lightning bolts.  Some translations say, “how I wish it were already kindled,” making us think of starting our fire small and gentle—but our translation rightly shows the violence of Jesus’s language: he’s not gently warming our hearts, he is crashing in, kicking down the walls.

Then, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.”  Jesus uses lots of mixed metaphors.  Notice how he’s shifted from fire to the water of baptism.  (Baptism literally means dunked in water.)  It seems to me he shifts metaphors partly to keep us from getting too attached to any one of them.

But notice too that he has shifted persons.  He wants to cast fire on the earth, on us.  But he wants to be plunged into the waters himself.  That’s his love: He leads the way, “the leader and perfecter of faith,” as our reading from Hebrews says.  And that is the meaning of our baptism: we are violently plunged into the cross of Christ, the radical call of conversion—and so the waters cast fire on us.  This is not the religion of a comfortable bath, it is the religion of the radical cross.


And then the household.  There are five characters here, father, mother, adult son, daughter, and the son’s wife, a pretty picture—but “a household of five will be divided.”  He says, look, the religion of love is going to be hard; it will not make cozy happy homes; it will set us at odds with a fallen world.  That’s ironic—as ironic as the fire and water he has just discussed. 

But that’s the cross.  That’s setting our face toward Jerusalem, which is both the place of communion and the place of the cross.  Of course he has “come to establish peace”—but not “on the earth.”  It’s a hard peace, the peace of radical love.

Where do you use God’s love as an excuse to avoid conversion?