July 26, 2014

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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


(Click here for today’s readings

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.

July 19, 2014

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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


(Click here for today’s readings

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.

July 13, 2014

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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.

July 6, 2014

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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



When you hear the expression “sins of the flesh,” what kind of sins do you think of?

That’s what I thought.

Do you suppose that was all St. Paul had on his mind when he wrote to the Romans, “We are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh”? Remember what he wrote to the Galatians about what he calls the “works” of the flesh. The list is impressive, fifteen sins. Yes, it includes  impurity and licentiousness, but also idolatry, rivalry, factions, outbursts of fury, and selfishness, to name only half of them.

What these all have in common is that they take what is good and honest in our nature and then twist them and distort them. Let me give a few examples to explain what I mean.

Impurity and licentiousness are a distortion of the natural and beautiful mutual attraction between men and women.

Selfishness is a distortion of appropriate self-esteem.

Factions are a distortion of the need for community and cooperation.

Outbursts of fury are a distortion of a proper sense of self-preservation.

Why does this happen? Because of our fallen nature, also known as our tendency to want what we want when we want it.

Nothing could be further from the way Jesus describes himself in the Gospel. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he says, “for I am meek and humble of heart.”

When you hear the word “meek,” what image comes to mind? Self-effacing? Jesus wasn’t self-effacing. Timid? Quiet? Shy? Passive? None of those, obviously.

The first reading, from the prophet Zechariah, gives us a clue. There we read, “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass.” No chariots, no warrior’s bow. In fact, he will banish them, along with the horse. He rides a donkey, not an animal associated with battle. He will proclaim peace. No military hero he. Meek is the opposite of warlike.

The dominant image of a hero has been, in most of human history and not surprisingly, a military one. Exceptional bravery, above and beyond the call of duty, has always been recognized and admired. Even in the Bible, most of the “heroes” are found in the Book of Judges, the most famous being Gideon and Samson. They saved the Hebrews from their oppressors. They were saviors.

Sometimes people who do something exceptional to help others are called “heroes.” There is no reason to begrudge them the honor, especially when it comes from the persons they have helped. They themselves, however, are often meek in the face of the attention they get, insisting they just did what anyone might have done. A good example is Louis Zamperini, who died last Wednesday at the age of 97. He was called a hero because he survived, incredibly, against impossible odds in World War II. His response: “They gave me three medals. What for?”

Jesus was no Samson. Nevertheless he is the Savior, the great hero. He fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy not only in a literal sense with his solemn entry intro Jerusalem before his passion, but also in many ways throughout his life and ministry.

And yet, he calls himself meek, perhaps because the last thing he wants is for us to fear him. “Come to me,” he says, “I will give you rest.”

So we have in Jesus a “meek hero”—oxymoronic as that might sound.

If we look back at St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we find that he speaks of neither meekness nor courage. But his call “not to be debtors to the flesh” actually requires both. It takes courage not to live “by the flesh;” it takes meekness, too, the honest recognition that we are too easily tempted.

Meekness and courage, therefore, are not opposites. In fact, it can require a lot of courage to remain meek in certain circumstances, as Jesus himself demonstrated. And Jesus, here as always, is our model.

Sometimes we need courage. Sometimes we need meekness. Most times we need both.