September 30, 2013

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

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

If the purpose of a homily is to explain the point of the readings, especially the Gospel, I could stop right here. Both the first reading and the Gospel state emphatically, unequivocally, that we cannot, may not, must not ignore the poor and the hungry.

There are plenty of other passages that reinforce the message: Whatever you did/failed to do to one of these least, you did/failed to do to me (Matthew 25).

It’s not enough to say “Goodbye and good luck” to a person in need (James 2). Real fasting includes freeing the oppressed and sharing your bread with the hungry (Isaiah 58). Hunger is truly a burden, a yoke, a kind of oppression.

In the best case scenario, the rich man would have invited Lazarus in to share his table.

That failing, he could have sent food out to him.

That failing, he could have told him where he might find food.

That failing, he could have directed him to someone else who could help.

Instead, he did none of the above, which was the worst case scenario, not only for Lazarus but for the rich man himself.

There is always the danger of insulating ourselves from the challenge of poverty and hunger by repeating certain convenient truths: Maybe it’s their own fault that some people are so poor—true enough.

It’s hard to tell the genuinely needy from the frauds—true.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me—true.

I’m not rich!—true for most of us.

Here is where the second reading comes in: But you... “fight the good fight of faith” (I prefer the classic translation to today’s “compete well for the faith”), and two verses later, “Keep the commandment.” Notice, commandment is in the singular. Paul is not writing here about the Ten Commandments but about living by faith, facing up to the challenge of faith, even in the face of inconvenient truths.

What does our faith call us to in the presence of poverty and hunger? Even without today’s parable, the answer should be obvious!

Yes, some kind of discernment is needed. We want to “help responsibly.” But we can’t discern poverty and hunger out of existence.

You and I may not be the next Mother Teresa, or the next Dorothy Day; but we do actually have to care, and care deeply, about poverty and hunger. This might enable us to see what we really can do.

Not to care is our worst case scenario.

September 19, 2013

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

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

Today’s readings couldn’t be any clearer. The first reading and the Gospel have the same message, and it is blunt: greed is evil. It’s not money that’s evil, not private property, but the “relationship” with money and possessions that interferes with the more important relationships—with other persons and with God.

Coincidentally, one of the most direct statements on this subject in the New Testament is from 1 Timothy, though not in the passage found in today’s second reading. It comes four chapters later, in 1 Timothy 6:10: “The love of money is the root of all evils.”

The dishonest steward of the parable loves money. He is dishonest throughout. He uses his position not only to squander his master’s property, but also to save himself from being put out on the street, as either a day-laborer (digging) or a beggar. From beginning to end he is thinking only of himself. He is praised for one thing only: his prudence.

There are two “morals of the story.” The one that gets all the attention is the second one: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

The first is a little more complex. “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth [the Greek original text here has “mammon of iniquity”], so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I am reminded of the Roman centurion, whom one would normally have expected to be hostile to the Jews, on whose behalf the local people appealed to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, because he loved the Jewish people and had built their synagogue.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was criticized for accepting generous donations from persons of dubious reputation. Her focus, however, was on the poorest of the poor and her mission to them. We cannot say how consciously or deliberately “dishonest wealth” was being used by the donors to “make friends” in view of being “welcomed into eternal dwellings.” We cannot exclude it either.

But the point doesn’t concern someone else. It concerns us. Both “morals” touch our lives. From a negative point of view, “serving mammon” is a disastrous life choice. From a positive point of view, we are told that to use “mammon” wisely—with the inspired wisdom of “the children of light”—will be viewed kindly by the Lord.

Prayer for Catholics who experience anxiety

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability,
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

- by Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. from The Making of the Mind

September 15, 2013

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

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

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The celebration of the prodigal son’s return will last, in keeping with the local custom, a week or so. But when the party’s over that son will get his wish. He will be like a hired servant, maybe better off and enjoying certain privileges, but he will be forever dependent. He will have no inheritance when his father dies. His father makes that clear when he says to the elder son, “Everything I have is yours.”

The elder son wasn’t concerned about questions of inheritance. He was angry because he never had such a party. This parable comes close to home for a lot of people. It dredges up images of old sibling rivalries. But that is not the point.

This parable is more like the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the question is: What’s fair? The elder brother clearly has resentments of long standing. He tries to turn his father against the younger brother. “Look what he’s done!” is the essence of his remarks. “How can you reward him like this?”

It is very important to note that the father doesn’t deny it, doesn’t defend the other son. Nobody is saying he didn’t do anything wrong. That isn’t the point of the celebration.

What matters is that the father and the prodigal son are putting all that behind them. This reflects several Old Testament passages. Here are a few:
Isaiah 38:17 You cast all my sins behind your back.
Micah 7:19: You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins
Psalm 103:12: As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our sins.

Saint Paul, in today’s second reading, sees the same reality in his own life. “I have been mercifully treated,” he writes.

In the first reading Moses takes a different approach, not putting behind but remembering: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, Israel.” He reminds God of certain promises he has made.

All these things speak of a new beginning. So what if the prodigal son starts a new life on new terms? His return is still worth celebrating. This is the goal of the ministry of reconciliation.

The father doesn’t love his elder son any less than the other. What the son doesn’t get is that he doesn’t love him any more, either. He thinks he entitled to be the favorite; he’s earned it. Jesus in this parable makes it clear that this is not the case.

The first two parables in today’s long Gospel, about the lost coin and the lost sheep, are less problematic. They involve no conflicting relationships. In the third one, the elder son turned the story around and made it about himself. He couldn’t see beyond that.

All three parables make same point, “There is more joy over one repentant sinner.” That is why Christ came.

Hmm, one repentant sinner... So it could be about us after all!

September 7, 2013

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

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

About 3,350 years ago an Egyptian Pharaoh named Akhenaten decided to make worship of the Sun God the only religion in Egypt. He destroyed images of other gods and fired their priests, imposing an uncompromising monotheism.

It makes sense really. Every morning a star we call the sun rises. Where have the other stars gone? You can almost hear the sun saying, “Don’t bother with those other puny stars. They’re cute but useless. I’m the only star that matters to you. I give you light. I give you heat. Where would you be without me? I am numero uno, the real star of the show known as earth.”

Psalm 19 reflects in part a similar fascination with the sun.

[At the utmost bounds of the world God] has placed a tent for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run its course.
At the end of the sky is the rising of the sun;
to the furthest end of the sky is its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.

When each one of us rises, a similar phenomenon occurs. Maybe we don’t think of ourselves as numero uno in the universe, but each of us really wants and needs to be the star in someone’s life. This usually occurs in families. Spouses are supposed to be the light of each other’s life, likewise parents and kids, at least for a significant period of time; friends can assume that role as well.

Losing that “star status” is devastating. Worse still is the fear of or resentment at losing it. This can lead to seriously dysfunctional situations. In an old Ann Landers column a teenager wrote an open letter to her parents, complaining that her Dad’s promotion forced her to move away in her junior year from the high school, where she had been quite a star. She concluded with: “I hate you, Mom and Dad, for doing this to me. I will never forgive you as long as I live.”

When Jesus said we need to “hate” spouses, parents and children, this is definitely not what he meant! What he is saying is that he has to be the first, he has to be the sun outshining all the other stars.

Yes, his claim is outrageous. But in fact he is the only one who has the right to make it. It’s like the 2nd and 3rd steps of AA. “A power greater than ourselves” was acknowledged, and only then was it possible to make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

That’s the point of today’s first reading. We cannot rely on ourselves alone. We need God’s wisdom.

Saint Paul was generally not shy about imposing his authority, but in the second reading he wisely chooses not to do so. He sends the slave Onesimus back to his master, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother.” It’s clear that this “brother” is not the object of hatred; he is now “beloved” precisely because he has become a Christian.

The Third Eucharistic Prayer uses the biblical turn of phrase, “from the rising of the sun to it’s setting.” Jesus is the one sun that never sets. No other star even comes close.

September 1, 2013

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

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

(Click here for today’s readings)

I lived a total of twenty-three years outside of the USA, mostly in an international community of Europeans, South Americans, Africans, and Asians. You can imagine the puzzlement of many of them when they heard American presidents and others constantly refer to the US as the “Greatest nation on earth,” and “Leader of the free world.”

That we are a great and influential nation, no one could doubt. But that doesn’t make us better than anyone else.

We aren’t alone in this arrogance. The French traditionally claim to be the greatest thinkers, and of course they have the best wines, chefs, etc. Italians claim the greatest artists, and of course they also have the best wines, chefs, etc. Ireland prides itself on being the land of saints and scholars. The list goes on.

Should we go around saying we are the worst nation on earth? Of course not. There is such a thing as honest and healthy pride.

We all understand what false humility is, and we know that that Jesus is not promoting it in today’s Gospel. But we also understand what false pride is, and can see exactly what Jesus thinks of that.

The last part of this Gospel text is easily missed. Jesus takes his teaching a step further. It’s not enough to have humility and not consider ourselves better. We ought to associate with those who are naturally humble because life has humbled them.

That’s the real challenge in today’s Gospel. How can we respond to it?

The obvious choice is to be involved in an activity like serving community dinners, soup kitchens, etc. Even then, do we just distribute the food to those in need, or do we sit down and eat with them once the serving is done?

Other possibilities exist. You might have a neighbor or friend who is widowed or divorced or fallen on hard times and feeling desperately alone. Jesus mentions specifically the physically handicapped who, in his world, had no income but what they could get by begging, with no hope of improving their lot.

Today’s second reading declares in a solemn and poetic way just how blessed and privileged we Christians are. The first reading tells us, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are.”

We may be better off than others in many ways. That doesn’t make us better than anyone else. The willingness to reach out to others is what makes us better, not by comparison to anyone else, but “better than ourselves,” better than we might otherwise be, as persons, as Christians.