Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014 - Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

When is the last time you used the word “vainglory”? We all know what it means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it. You know, the people with bloated self-esteem, the people who are Presidents of their own fan clubs.

St. Paul says vainglory is to be avoided. But then he goes too far: “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” Isn’t that just the other extreme? Is it honest? Is it fair?

It may well be true that a humble attitude is better than an arrogant one. But surely St. Paul can’t be saying we should adopt a false attitude, putting ourselves down and beating ourselves up.

And yet, consider the following quotation: “I was at prayer one day when suddenly, without knowing how, I found myself, as I thought, plunged right into hell. I realized that it was the Lord's will that I should see the place which the devils had prepared for me there and which I had merited for my sins.”

These words are found in the autobiography of one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila. Elsewhere she says that the place prepared for her in hell was actually less horrible than she had really deserved.

What is going on here? It is an awareness that both of the sons in the parable represent all of us. We’ve all been there, promising to do something and not doing it, refusing to do something and then doing it after all; resolving to give up some old bad habit or adopt a new good one, and failing on both counts. Each of us is capable of the greatest holiness or the most abject evil. But both the first reading and the Gospel show there is no guarantee in the first case and no irremediable doom in the other.

St. Paul goes on to give Jesus as example: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” who “emptied himself” and “humbled himself.” That doesn’t mean Jesus had low self-esteem.

What is being asked is that we empty ourselves of self, not just of selfishness but of self-full-ness, of self-importance, and that we humble ourselves at least by acknowledging the equal worth of others.

The chief priests and elders, as we often see in the Gospels, were full of self-importance, so faithful to the observance of the Law that they felt no need for repentance, for humbling themselves before God, much less before others, as would have been the case if they had publicly presented themselves to John for baptism.

The bad news is: we can’t rest on our laurels, on any good we have done. The good news is: we aren’t doomed by our past sins. We simply have to recognize God’s work in our lives, understand that our salvation is his work, that the best we can do is accept the gift, and cooperate with God’s will in our own imperfect way.

One of God’s greatest gifts is that he makes his will known to us. Another is the grace that makes it possible for us to say yes. Another is that he is always ready to forgive us when we say no, and take us back when we return to him.

It’s all his work. It’s all his grace. Not just in you, not just in me, but in all of us. We have ample grounds for genuine humility.

Next time you look in the mirror, say to the person looking out at you, “You are the center of the universe.” If that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, it should. As I said at the beginning: we all know what vainglory means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it.

Homily for the Feast of Our Lady of La Salette, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The anniversary of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette is September 19. As La Salette Missionaries around the world we celebrate the event on the nearest Sunday. My homily today is therefore not based on the readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary time but on special readings for the Feast.

One might find the story from Genesis, about the rainbow after the flood, to be an odd reading for a feast of the Blessed Virgin.

The rainbow makes its appearance as the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah. The bow, an ancient symbol of war, now becomes a sign of peace. God is starting over, re-creating, reconciling humanity to himself, promising he will never again give up on us.

Other covenants followed, with Abraham, with Moses, until the definitive, final covenant was ratified in the blood of the Cross. As the flood in Noah’s time both destroyed creation and cleansed it for a new beginning, so too Jesus’ blood marked not only his death but a new beginning of life for all of us. Entrusting us, in and through the Beloved Disciple, to his own Blessed Mother, he puts us all in a new relationship to one another as he reconciles us with the Father.

St. Paul, passionate about everything in his relationship to the Lord, pleads emphatically: Be reconciled to God! Five times in five verses he speaks of reconciling and reconciliation. There is no new covenant after Christ, but we often need to renew our relationship with Christ within the covenant he has established.

It is not surprising that all the readings for today’s feast point to the reality of reconciliation. The whole purpose of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette was reconciliation. Like the prophets of old she uses language that is sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh— whatever it takes to restore the relationship between her people and her Son.

Some twenty-five years ago I was a curate in the Parish of Our Lady of La Salette in Rainham, England, east of London. Over a period of several weeks I visited a man named Sydney who had been diagnosed with cancer. Each week I found him weaker.

Meanwhile, there was another parish staffed by La Salette Missionaries, in Dagenham, the next town to our west, and on Mondays at noon the priests of both parishes would get together for dinner at the rectory in Dagenham. One Monday the three of us in Rainham drove there, but after the meal two of us decided to walk the two and a half miles back home. After a while it began to rain lightly, and as we approached our destination, there appeared before us one of the most glorious rainbows I have ever seen. Sydney died that same day.

I decided to use the image of the rainbow to begin the homily at Sydney’s funeral: “On the day that Sydney died,” I began, “a magnificent rainbow was shining over Rainham.” I noticed as I said this, however, that his widow and her son looked strangely at each other; but I didn’t give it another thought until we were leaving the cemetery, and she asked me, “How did you know?” “About what?” I replied. “About the rainbow.” “I saw it.”

“No,” she answered, and then went on to explain. On the day before Sydney died, he had been unresponsive most of the day. Then he awoke and said to his wife, “I’ve just seen the most beautiful rainbow.” With tremendous compassion and courage she told him, “Go to the rainbow.” That was their last exchange. You can imagine the comfort she found in learning that there was just such a rainbow on the day he died.

A rainbow, you see, is not just a thing of beauty. It radiates not only color but hope. That is the point of today’s reading from Genesis. That is the point of the Apparition and the Message of Our Lady of La Salette.

Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

What do Judas, and the leaders of the Sanhedrin, and Pontius Pilate, all have in common with God the Father?

You might find the question confusing, even bizarre, if not downright blasphemous, but the idea came to me when reading a commentary of St. Augustine on the First Letter of John, which I also referred to in last week’s homily.

Note the following passages, all from the New Testament: 

“Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:15-16) 

“As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1) 

“So he [Pilate] released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.” (Luke 23:25) 

God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.” (Romans 8:32) 

The common thread is the verb “hand over.” In more classical translations we read that Judas “betrayed” Jesus, the Sanhedrin “delivered” Jesus to Pilate, Pilate “delivered” Jesus to be crucified, and God “delivered him up.” The use of the identical verb easily goes unnoticed. 

What we have then is this: 

Judas so loved money (see also John 12:4-6) that he gave Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. The leaders of the Sanhedrin so loved their authority and so feared losing it that they gave Jesus as the price to keep it.  Pilate so loved his power that he gave Jesus to his executioners rather than risk a riot. 

But God so loved the world... 

In John 3:16, the verb “gave” is not quite the same as “handed over,” but it is the same reality. That’s why Jesus uses the phrase, “When the Son of Man is lifted up.”

Today’s feast is called the Exaltation, that is, the “Lifting High” of the Holy Cross. Moses “lifted up” the bronze serpent, and those who looked at it lived. Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, humbling himself, becoming obedient to death, uniting his will to that of the Father and loving the world just as much as the Father did, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  

And there’s more. 

In the Third Eucharistic Prayer, at the Consecration of the bread, the priest says: 

“For on the night he was betrayed
he himself took bread,
and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my Body,
which will be given up for you.” 

Following the same idea as with the New Testament passages quoted above, this could be translated just as accurately, “For on the night he was handed over he... broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: ... This is my Body, which will be handed over for you.” 

When you see the Host “lifted up” at the Consecration, always remember: God so loved the world then, God so loves the world today.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014 Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

I have always thought I would like to be on a jury. There is something fascinating about trying to find the truth amid the conflicting claims. I was called to a jury pool only once, but it was a Friday, and by 1:00 p.m. everyone was sent home.

The scenario in today’s Gospel at first seems the same. But in this case I would not be at all interested. What is the difference? A jury is anonymous, unacquainted with the persons involved, and can ideally be objective. In a local Christian community, however, people know each other, have personal opinions on the issues, etc.

I am told (but have been unable to verify) that there was a time in French Canada that Catholic families would take their disputes to the pastor for him to adjudicate. Often enough the result was disastrous, not resolving the issue but only creating hostility toward the Church.

Theoretically it makes sense, of course. At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus gives the power of “loosing and binding” not only to Simon Peter (as in two chapters earlier), but this time using the plural “you,” addressing at least the other Apostles and very probably all his disciples. It isn’t quite as dramatic as the responsibility given to Ezekiel in the first reading, where God warns him that it will be his fault if he fails to challenge a sinner and the sinner dies in his sin. But it isn’t to be taken lightly either.

Ideally situations of conflict ought not to arise among Christians. St. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” the context just before it reads: “Pay to all their due, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” In other words, don’t go looking for trouble.

Jesus apparently understands that people who rub elbows sometimes step on each other’s toes. And although in the Sermon on the Mount he had said, “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well,” here he is being perhaps more realistic.

St. Paul complains in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth that when they have a conflict, they take each other to civil court instead of to members of the Christian community. It is clear that the situation described in the Acts of the Apostles, where “all the believers were of one mind and one heart,” didn’t last very long. At a certain point, the honeymoon was over.

St. Paul’s “solution” is before the fact. “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That might sound like he is saying we should always do the “loving thing.” Maybe the loving thing would be not to pursue one’s rights at all.

Well, yes and no. “Things” are not loving or unloving in themselves. The same act can be loving or unloving. It isn’t the act that is loving, but the person. Circumstances differ. Personalities differ. The “thing” that may work for one may not work for another, or at one time and not another. Anyone who has raised children knows this. Sometimes—rarely, I hope—one really must be cruel to be kind.

We mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “nice thing;” that can be dishonest, or even truly unkind. On the other hand, we mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “right thing” in an absolutist way; sometimes you can be so right you’re wrong.

St. Augustine points out that a parent will punish a child, whereas a would-be kidnapper will lure the child gently. The first is loving, the second is anything but. Not every nice gesture proceeds from a loving heart, not every harsh word bespeaks hatred.

To sue or not to sue? To punish or spare? To protest or accept? The answer is: whichever really carries out the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014 - Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

In the 1932 edition of the Rule of a certain religious order you find this statement: “The professed [= members with vows] cannot be denied anything that is necessary. However, the Superiors occasionally try their inferiors, by giving them an opportunity to feel some privation, and to be made aware of the fact that the poor cannot have everything they could wish for.”

How times have changed! The language of “superiors” and “inferiors” is gone from the latest edition (1982), and the very idea of those in charge deliberately depriving others of what they need is unthinkable, repugnant even.

Certain things made perfect sense in 1932; they made no sense at all fifty years later. That said, members of religious orders are still by definition different, counter-cultural. They still take the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, which makes them different from most people.

When St. Paul writes, “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” however, he is not speaking to a religious order, but to the Christians of Rome. He is telling them all to be counter-cultural. The word “conform” comes from the word “form;” it has to do with “fashion,” in the broad sense, with life-style. The phrase could just as easily read, “Do not adopt the fashion of this age.”

Paul’s point is that the Christian way of life ought not to be subject to the fickleness of fashion. A poet named William Cowper wrote in 1785, “Variety’s the very spice of life, / that gives it all its flavour.” The poem was a satire, and the poet understood full well that, as the saying goes, in fashion one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out. The following of Christ is not a fashion statement.

Jesus is even more forceful. We have to deny ourselves! In spiritual writings, this is often called “mortification,” a putting to death. Very unfashionable.

A partial list of “unfashionable behaviors,” or attitudes of mortification, that might be expected of us could include the following: I do not necessarily deserve everything I want. (Ever notice the number of ads that claim you “deserve” a particular product?) — It’s not enough for something to be legal to make it right. (Think about tax loopholes, for example.) — If I serve God that doesn't guarantee I’ll have an easy life, or even succeed in what I am trying to do for him. (Consult Jeremiah in today’s first reading.)

Here’s another: people who disagree with me are not necessarily idiots or demons. (Think of the level of much political discourse.)

Speaking of demons, Peter contradicts Jesus and Jesus calls him Satan, which means adversary or accuser. In last week’s Gospel, remember, Jesus gave him the name “Peter” (“Rock”). Simon Peter little realized in that moment that the day would come when, far from denying himself, he would be denying Jesus! That was his real “Satan” day.

There are many ways of denying Christ. Conforming to this age is one of them

We admire people who are able to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others, or for what they believe in. In this spirit, St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, wrote this beautiful prayer:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess You have given me.
I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.

Admirable, but hardly fashionable! Just the right thing for saints, but not for the rest of us, surely.

Guess again! Whether we like it or not (and most likely we don’t), Jesus and Paul are saying we have to choose between the world and Jesus or, more accurately, between ourselves and Jesus. This can take many forms—personal convenience vs. another’s need; personal opinion vs. Gospel teaching; easy Christianity vs. the call to Christian perfection; etc.—and it’s never easy. Never was. Never will be.

That’s why Jesus calls it a cross. 

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Who was Shebna? Who was Eliakim? Why did Shebna lose his job to Eliakim? Why should we care? These questions are pretty irrelevant. Today’s reading from Isaiah was clearly selected only because of its reference to keys.

The questions in today’s Gospel, on the other hand, are far from irrelevant.

Can you imagine a head of state or a pope asking his closest associates, “Who do people say that I am?” The more normal question would be, “What are people saying about me?”

The disciples felt no need, apparently, to ask what Jesus meant, and they gave precisely the kind of answer he  was looking for: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (How anyone could think he was John the Baptist, whose death was so recent, is beyond me.)

When Jesus asked the disciples the more pointed question, “Who do you say that I am?” again they understood, and Simon responded accordingly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It is amazing how many different answers are given today to this question. Over the years I have seen articles in print or on-line making some interesting claims.

Some argue that Jesus was a married man, because men in his day were expected to marry, and the Gospels never say that he was not married. (Mary Magdalen is usually the most like candidate as his wife.) My first encounter with this position was published by a former priest arguing for married clergy.

Or: Jesus was a vegetarian. This idea is supported, among others, by the scene of Jesus casting out the sellers, which is interpreted as showing that Jesus was opposed to animal sacrifice. This is from an author associated with a group called “Denver Vegans.” (I have seen a stained-glass window depicting the same Gospel scene, and on the ground, among the spilled coins, are Bingo cards! There was no doubt about that pastor’s position on fund-raising options.)

There is even a book, published in 2003 by the Law and Business Institute, with the following title: Judith Christ of Nazareth: The Gospels of the Bible, Corrected to Reflect that Christ was a Woman. Unlike the previously mentioned articles, the authors make no attempt to justify their claim from Scripture.

As you can imagine, there are similar positions taken by various other interest groups, each claiming Jesus as one of their own.

In a way, that is a compliment to him. It shows how important it is to believers to have Jesus “on their side.” One could even claim that Simon’s response was similar. Who was “the Christ,” after all? In Hebrew the word is “Messiah,” and the Messiah was the one who would ultimately “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Who could be more desirable as “one of ours” for the Jewish people?

Simon’s statement could perhaps be seen as politically self-serving, except that Jesus says, “Blessed are you..., flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

In all of the above, I am not actually interested in getting involved in any controversies. I have neither the time nor the temperament for that. What I am fascinated by, today at least, is Jesus’ response to Simon.

After Simon, under divine inspiration, has named Jesus correctly as the Christ, Jesus repays the compliment. In effect he says, you have told me who I am, now I will tell you who you are: “You are Peter.” The name means Rock. The interpretation of this name varies, naturally, according to the presuppositions and/or desires of those interpreting it.

Shortly in the Creed we will profess our faith in Jesus: Lord, Son of God, born of a virgin, risen from the dead, etc.

Imagine Jesus saying to you after that, “Thank you for your expression of faith, and for recognizing me for who I am. Now let me tell you who you are.”

What does he say next?

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The image is a familiar one: one or more dogs begging while you are at table, ready to pounce on whatever falls from the table, if not actively “demanding tribute,” as my brother’s Chihuahua “Rosy” does. Cute, if you like that sort of thing.

But there is nothing cute about the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this Gospel. I once read an author, bent on finding humor in the Bible, who claimed that this was just a friendly little repartee, what Webster’s Dictionary describes as “amusing and usually light sparring with words.”  I couldn’t disagree more. The scene presented here by Matthew is no game of wits!

Let me digress briefly with a little trip down memory lane:
[Click on this link:] Kyrie eleison from the Missa de Angelis

The point isn’t the music, the Gregorian chant or any other classic settings. The point isn’t the Latin Mass vs. English. It isn’t even that “Kyrie eleison” isn’t Latin at all, but Greek.

What is the point? It’s that we find those very same Greek words in today’s Gospel, and the point is especially what they mean.

The woman says “Eleison me kyrie.” This is translated in the Lectionary as “Have pity on me, Lord,” but it means equally well, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Now leave out the middle word, change the order and there you have it: Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy.

She knows that as a foreigner she really has no claim on the one she calls “Son of David.” That doesn’t stop her.

Maybe she’s stubborn by nature. Maybe she’s had a hard life and is used to fighting for what she wants. Personally, I think the simple answer is the best: she’s a mother. And even if she has to accept being insulted by a famous teacher and healer, she accepts it, for her daughter’s sake.

But there is another reason why she doesn’t hold back. Jesus recognizes it, tests it, praises it, and rewards it. It is her “great faith”! (This woman, by the way, is one of the two foreigners I alluded to last week who are described as having “great” faith in the Gospels.)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” we read in Isaiah. In this story we see a partial fulfillment of that prophecy. It’s no longer about a place, much less a single building situated in Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus and the community of believers gathered around him. It’s about the universal Church.

It seems everyone knows people who get in touch only when they need something. Often enough, however, that describes our prayer. The Canaanite woman might never have approached Jesus if her daughter hadn’t been sick. But in that moment, he saw her faith. and that was all that mattered. The same great faith that brought her to him in tears sent her back home to her daughter in grateful joy.

It is perfectly natural that we come to the Lord in our need. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?”

When we look at ourselves, and at our needs, and at what we actually deserve, and then we come to Jesus, what are we if not beggars at the Lord’s table?

No wonder we cry “Lord, have mercy!” at the beginning of every Mass! After that, however, reassured of his love, we are in a position to fulfill the other line in Isaiah’s prophecy where God predicts, “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Let’s start today with an informal survey about Scripture.

Of the following two prophecies from Isaiah, which one do you like better: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you;” or: “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil”?

Which of the following two verses from the Psalms do you prefer: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or: “My only friend is darkness”?

What about the Gospels? “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest;” or: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”

You see the trend? It is the most natural thing in the world that our favorite Scripture texts are those that comfort and encourage. (My personal favorite is Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”) Nobody’s favorite is a verse of condemnation, and rarely even one of challenge. We know those things are there, we accept them and respect them, but we don’t go looking for them.

As we saw in our little survey, the prophets have good news and bad news. Today we encounter Elijah. He is a little different from other prophets. There is no “Book of Elijah.” His story is told in the two Books of Kings, in about 10 episodes. There are few “oracles” of the kind we find in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He was more a doer than a speaker.

The prophet’s job description is given by Balaam in the Book of Numbers. The prophet is one “whose eye is true, ... one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows, ...  who sees what the Almighty sees, in rapture and with eyes unveiled.” That’s why, in today’s reading, Elijah, although he knew that God certainly could be in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, recognized in this case that God was in the “tiny whispering sound”—a pleasant image, don’t you think?

The prophets couldn’t limit themselves to pleasant sayings, however, and were often looked on as troublemakers. This was certainly Elijah’s case, and he had powerful enemies.

Paul encountered a similar phenomenon. His preaching was met with unbelief by his own people. Every place he went he couldn’t wait to share with the Jews there the Good News that the Messiah had finally come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, many of them took it as bad news. A crucified Messiah was a “stumbling block” to them, as Paul says earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians. Today we would say, a crucified Messiah “does not compute.”

From a very different perspective, it was good news for Peter that he had enough faith to get out of his boat and walk on the water with Jesus. He didn’t hesitate. The bad news was that he was a man of little faith, and allowed himself to be intimidated by the force of the wind, and down he went.

We can apply this easily enough to ourselves. With the Lord’s help maybe we have been able to deal with some major issue or overcome some serious temptation in our lives. Then, for whatever reason, our faith faltered, and we began to “sink.” Still, there’s some consolation in the fact that even “little faith” is true faith.

Only two persons in the Gospels are described as having great faith: not Apostles, not even disciples, but foreigners. We’ll meet one of them next week.

In the meantime, we can pray in the words we find in two other places in the Gospels. One is: “Increase our faith.” The other is: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Note from Fr. Butler: As you may have noticed, the homily I sent to BigCCatholics for this past weekend was the wrong one (from last year, actually). With due apologies, I now submit the homily I did in fact preach on August 3.

Isaiah was surely an honest prophet, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped the economic principle of an honest profit. “You who have no money,” he says, “come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

Imagine if you owned a restaurant in town, and someone set up a local charity serving the same menu, or maybe even better, and offering it free of charge to one and all. At the very least, you would object that the charity was making a mess of the local economy.

Jesus wasn’t helping the local economy either. Surely local farmers and vendors were counting on a banner day when they saw the huge crowds gathered in the area. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel there is an account of Jesus’ casting out demons from two possessed persons into a large herd of swine. The entire herd ran down into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. When the locals arrived on the scene, they begged him to leave the area. He was not an asset to the local economy.

Pope Francis is immensely popular, but not all economists agree with his description of modern economy as “an economy of exclusion” and “idolatry of money” which lead to inequality and violence. Some months ago, when I walked into our church, I found Pope Francis’s picture covered over with a bulletin. I have no idea who did this, or why; but I speculate that it had something to do with the Pope’s persistent advocacy on behalf of the poor, which may have irritated someone who perhaps equates the poor with people living off entitlement programs. Be that as it may, Church teaching in such matters is rarely greeted with enthusiasm.

Now St. Paul tells us that not even famine can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But this doesn’t mean we can live on love. It’s true that we don’t live on bread alone, but we don’t live on love alone either.

It’s interesting that when the disciples suggested to Jesus to send the crowds away to get something to eat, he didn’t say, “Not to worry. I’ll take care of it.” Quite to the contrary. He said, “Give them some food yourselves.” In other words, You do it! It was only after they acknowledged their inability to do so with just five loaves and two fish that he said, “Bring them here to me.” After he blessed the food, then the disciples were in a position, after all, to feed the multitude.

Jesus didn’t have to do this. The crowds, at least in this account, are not fainting away and would presumably have been able to find food as the disciples suggested. Like so many of Jesus’ miracles, this was a sign.

To understand the sign, we need to return to the beginning of this scene in today’s Gospel. Jesus wanted to get away by boat to “a desert place,” but the crowd got there first, and when he saw them, “his heart was moved with pity for them.”

He then healed their sick. This is what his heart prompted him to do. And when evening came he fed them all. This was a symbol, a sign of the mission of the Messiah. In a very real way he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy which was also symbolic, as we can see from the words, “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”

When we look at the world around us, there is so much suffering. We ask Jesus to do something about it. He responds, “Why don’t you take care of it?”

We respond in turn, “We don’t have nearly enough.” He says, “Bring me what you have,” and then he blesses it.

What happens next is up to us. A few of us may actually be able to do something in the “big picture,” on the “world stage.” Most of us will only be able to work behind the scenes.

What will ultimately matter is that, like Jesus, we allow our heart to be moved with pity—Pope Francis notes how difficult that can be—and then allow that heart to guide us.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Put yourself in Solomon’s place. God says to you, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What criteria would you use for your request?

Solomon’s criteria were simple. He was King, he had to govern his people, but he was inexperienced. We commonly say he asked for wisdom; but his actual words were, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.

His values are clear. Yes, his royal position is important, but his responsibilities are not merely administrative; and judging justly is a sacred trust. The highest value, however, is expressed with the words, “I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen.” His service is to God first. And his governance is exercised not over just any nation, but over God’s chosen people.

Using the language we find in today’s parables, we could say that Solomon asked for a “treasure” or a “pearl of great price.” And he got it.

Let me be clear. When I say, “Put yourself in Solomon’s place,” I don’t mean you should think of yourself as a newly crowned king. Think of yourself as you are today, and God tells you to ask for anything you want.

This isn’t one of those three-wishes jokes. It’s a serious question, first and foremost about what really matters in your life.

From one point of view, your answer isn’t all that important. St. Paul reminds us today that “all things work for good for those who love God.” That’s helpful, because it means we don’t have to worry too much maybe making a mistake. This is not “Jeopardy!”

Still, you would want to choose the right thing, the best thing for what matters most at this moment in your life, maybe even one of the things Solomon didn’t ask for. “Long life” and “riches” can’t be all bad, especially if they can be put to good use to accomplish your goals.

There we go again. Goals imply values, values imply what is most important.

We can be reasonably sure that God wouldn’t agree simply to satisfy our greed, or our lust for power and pleasure, or our desire for revenge. We can be reasonably sure that those things would not ultimately matter the most to us.

Our request, like Solomon’s, would have to be personal without being selfish. It would have to be concrete without being too specific, general without being ambiguous, realistic without being crass, noble without being a daydream. Here is an example from the Book of Proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; provide me only with the food I need; lest, being full, I deny you, saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or, being in want, I steal, and profane the name of my God” (30:7).

Interestingly, this request from Proverbs, just like Solomon’s, also has something to do with God. This is where the “Kingdom of God” comes in. Whether we think of it as treasure or as a pearl, its value is such that everything else pales in comparison. The Christian is prepared to sacrifice everything for it.

At the time the Gospel was being preached and then written, Christians were in fact forfeiting lands and freedom, being rejected by friends and family, and even being put to death, all for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus was their treasure. Nothing and no one else could even come close.

There’s a famous story about the ancient Greek thinker and inventor Archimedes running around shouting “Eureka! I found it!” What he had found was the solution to a practical problem put to him by the king.

Our problem is put to us by the Lord: “Ask for anything you want.” What shall we ask for?

Everyone wants world peace, for example. What gifts would you ask for if you felt called to be an effective peacemaker?

The best starting point is for each of us to recognize our unique place in the Kingdom of God, then work out what gift will enable us best to accomplish the work that has been given to us, and then ask for it—confidently, even boldly.

The treasure in the field and the pearl of great price are there for the finding. We can run around shouting “Eureka!” for a while, but then we have to put ourselves in Solomon’s place.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The three Parables we heard today all speak about growth of one kind or another, and so they also imply some level of patience. This dovetails perfectly with the first reading, from Wisdom, especially its concluding phrase, “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”

From that perspective, it might seem almost as if, in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, that the weeds will be given time to become wheat—impossible in nature, but possible in this kind of imagery, not so different really from other Scriptures, such as Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones being covered with flesh and returning to life.
When Jesus explains the Parable, however, we see that the patience on the landowner’s part is just to allow the wheat to mature. The wheat has had only to survive whatever threat might have been posed by the weeds. The final scene is one of judgment.

We do indeed proclaim in the creed that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” but something in us prefers to look away from the image of “the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Despite the number of times the notion of damnation turns up in the New Testament, despite the number of images used to describe it, we would rather not hear it. Even the famous judgment scene in Matthew 25, in which the Son of Man says, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” etc., is remembered and cited mostly for its call to treat others with Christian kindness, even though it ends with a reference to eternal punishment and eternal life.

Rather than linger on these unappealing truths, then, let us look at the very last words of Jesus’ explanation of the Parable: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” It echoes a passage from the prophet Daniel: “Those with insight shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
These are pleasant truths. Just imagine:

There you are, leading many to righteousness and justice, by your exhortations, by your example.

There you are, a lighthouse, a beacon helping others avoid the shoals.

There you are, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless.

There you are, carrying out the lesson taught by God himself in today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom, “that those who are just must be kind.”

There you are, living a life of the Beatitudes, blessed indeed as you hunger and thirst for justice and serve as a meek and humble peacemaker, rejoicing when you are persecuted for the sake of Christ.

There you are (as we read today in Romans 8) counting on the Holy Spirit to come to the aid of your weakness and make your prayer what it ought to be.

There you are, like Mother Teresa, doing “something beautiful for God.”

What amazing thoughts!

What? Don’t you see yourself in them? If in fact you are finding it hard really to imagine yourself in these situations, behaving in these ways, what is the alternative?

Before you throw up your hands in despair and cry, “I’m doomed!” stop and think again about the three Parables. You aren’t doomed. You have time to grow. You have time to meet  the challenge issued by all these inspiring images.

You have time. Make the most of it.

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Before my present assignment, I was pastor in a small parish in Vermont. The former pastor, Fr. Paul, lived with me, and one of his greatest interests was his garden, one of the most famous in town, not huge—just four raised beds—but always early and always lush. One of the secrets of his success was the soil, just the right mix of soil and his own rich home-made compost, completely organic, no chemicals. Just like the fourth illustration in the Parable of the Sower. Not for nothing he used to say he never felt so close to God as in his garden.

I don’t suppose the yield was a hundredfold, but there were plenty of fresh vegetables through the summer, and plenty for canning and freezing. (My specialty was soups.) We ate well on a very moderate budget.

One thing Fr. Paul couldn’t plan. The weather. If it was dry, he could water his garden. If it was too cold, the eggplants would complain; too wet, and the tomatoes would sulk and fail to produce as expected.
That’s where Isaiah’s prophecy comes in. God compares his word to the rain and snow that do not return to him until they have accomplished their purpose and his. We find a similar image in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (or, if you prefer: “God gave the increase”). Today’s reading from Romans uses a very different image: labor pains.

Seed, soil, rain, and labor pains, all ultimately evoke the same image: producing fruit.

The fruit itself is not just one thing. Jesus’ parable refers to grain, probably wheat or barley. No tomatoes, no eggplant, though cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic are mentioned in the Old Testament; but it seems unlikely they would be planted in the way described.

From a figurative point of view, the fruit can be many things. One thinks immediately of good works, after the manner of Blessed Mother Teresa and St. John Bosco. One thinks also of conversions, like that of St. Augustine or Edith Stein.

St. Teresa of Avila saw the fruit as prayer. Instead of focusing on the quality of the soil, however, she considered the watering of the soil. Just as in our parable of today, she reflects on four options.

Option 1: You go to the well, back and forth, back and forth, until your garden is properly watered. This is good, but requires a lot of effort. You pray a lot, you reflect a lot, you stave off distractions as best you can.

Option 2: You set up a system of water wheels and aqueducts. You turn a crank until the garden is watered. (You might also think of a hand-pump at a well.) This requires less effort. You get more water in less time. Your prayer has become simpler and easier.

Option 3: You set up an irrigation system from a nearby river or stream. You just need to keep the system maintained.

Option 4: Rain. Here, of course, you actually do nothing. God gives the increase. Your prayer becomes his work.

Unlike the four kinds of soil, these four levels of prayer all produce fruit. The difference lies in how much we do and how much God does. The more our prayer becomes God’s work, the better the quality and more abundant the quantity of fruits.

Still it is not a choice of which “option” I shall choose. Everyone begins at the beginning. There are no deadlines. Nor is there any expectation that everyone move through all four levels. A spiritual director can help a person discern if and when the passage from one kind of prayer to another is taking place. Sometimes the transition is an uncomfortable experience. But remaining at any one level is never a failure. Prayer of any kind is the fruit of good seed sown in good soil.

Years ago I attended a series of talks on prayer by the Director of the Jesuit Center for Spirituality in Rome, Fr. Herbert Alphonso, S.J. I will never forget the conclusion of the last talk. “How should you pray?” he asked, and then answered his own question, “Pray as you can.”

This applies ultimately to more than prayer. If we are good soil ready to receive good seed, there is so much possible fruit of so many varieties to bear, and God’s word will not return to him empty.

What fruit should bear? Bear the fruit that you can.