February 17, 2014

Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

The Gospel has always been counter-cultural, from the time of Jesus to our own day. In no place is this more obvious than today’s Gospel text. Turn the other cheek? Never, no way, no how.

The same applies to giving up more than your adversary demands, or doubling troublesome obligations.

And yet, Jesus tell us that this is the way to be perfect! The first reading uses the term “holy,” but somehow the meaning seems to be the same.

So, if that’s what it takes, do we really want to be perfect, do we really want to be holy?

And even if we could bring ourselves to do these things, how could we avoid resentment at the humiliation and loss of face? How would we be able to deal with it?

There is plenty of resentment out there, around us and within us. There is plenty of frustration and anger behind it. These affect almost every sphere of life: political, personal, family, authority issues, justice, etc.

Think of the greatest source of anger and frustration in your life. Think of the persons or groups that you see as the cause. Now, stop and say a prayer for them.

Really? Yes, really! You might well feel resistance to doing so. Resentment is such a powerful force. It is part of our natural defensive instinct. It has a preventive side as well, when we are on our guard not to be hurt or taken advantage of.

St. Paul offers a great clue to overcoming this resistance. We are a temple, the Holy Spirit’s dwelling.

What if we had a special bulletin board in our church where people could say every nasty thing about the people they hate? Would that be in any way appropriate? Neither is it appropriate in our heart and soul, God’s temple. There would be a kind of defilement in both cases.

And remember: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

When Jesus told his disciples to observe the Law in even the smallest detail, the scribes and Pharisees must have been pleased. That’s exactly what they had been saying for generations, and they lived by that principle themselves.

But then Jesus adds: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, the Law is good, but it is a minimum. He gives four examples, and in the coming weeks we will see more, contrasting the Law’s requirements with Jesus’ expectations. Good enough isn’t good enough!

Much later, in Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes the same point: "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” He follows this up with a diatribe so horrific, so fierce that you will never hear it in the Sunday readings: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!... Blind guides!... Blind fools!... Serpents, brood of vipers!”

The first reading reminds us that we have a choice to make between good and evil. In our time, good has become synonymous in this country with legal. Legal has become synonymous with Constitutional. Constitutional has become synonymous with free.

Freedom is a great good. It is splendidly celebrated in Norman Rockwell’s “Four freedoms:” from fear, from want, of speech, of worship. But freedom is not the only good, not the only norm. It is, like the law, a minimum, a condition or foundation for accomplishing or promoting greater good.

Freedom to engage in a certain behavior does not guarantee that the behavior is good. On the contrary, just as it is possible to abuse power for one’s one advantage, so too with freedom. It’s a powerful temptation.

Isaiah 5: 20-21 has a diatribe just as ferocious as the one quoted above. It reads in part: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own sight, and prudent in their own esteem!”

St. Paul in the second reading evokes wisdom also, God’s wisdom. When Catholics quote God’s wisdom expressed in the commandments and the moral principles of the Scriptures and of the Church, we are openly mocked. The search for truth has been trumped by the desire for freedom.

This does not apply only to the issues constantly highlighted in the media. It bears on the everyday choices that each one of us makes. Our motives are easily tainted. I may have the right to do something; that doesn’t mean it is always right to do it. Jesus expects more, as in the case of being reconciled before leaving our gift on the altar.

Before us are life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose shall be given us.

Whichever we choose shall be given us. It behooves us to choose wisely and well.

February 8, 2014

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

Jesus conjures up two images in today’s famous Gospel passage that, on the surface, do not make sense. One is obvious: you wouldn’t light a lamp and then hide it. What would be the point?

The other is the idea that salt could lose its flavor. That doesn’t make sense, either. Sodium chloride is a chemical compound. It’s either sodium chloride or it isn’t. Various explanations have been offered to explain why Jesus would say such a thing. Here is mine.

Both images imply the word “suppose.” For example, suppose that in a storm you lost power and someone lit a hurricane lantern and then put it in a closet and closed the door. That would be foolish.

Suppose salt could lose its flavor. For example, if someone puts salt and sugar in the same container, the salt, for all practical purposes, would lose its taste. That would be a foolish thing to do. Both salt and sugar would become useless.

St. Paul says a strange thing, too, namely that he prefers foolishness to wisdom. Three times in today’s second reading he insists that he does not rely on wisdom in his preaching. In the previous chapter of 1 Corinthians he writes: “Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” and “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Remember that Paul preached the Gospel in a predominantly Greek culture, where wisdom (philosophy) was held in especially high esteem. In his Letter to the Romans he writes: “While claiming to be wise, they (the Greeks) became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”

The Greek word Paul uses for foolish is “moros,” which came into the English language eventually as the now politically incorrect word “moron.”

It’s a funny thing. Jesus uses the same word as Paul, “foolish,” in this Gospel. Where? About the salt! The same Greek word meaning foolish about persons meant “tasteless” in the context of food. “Insipid” might work for both, in the sense of boring, the opposite of exciting.

The reading from Isaiah directs us to the other image: letting our light shine. Twice he says if we devote ourselves to the cause of a just society, then our light will shine. One of the most brilliant shining examples in our lifetime was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Both images, salt and light, make me think of first fervor. We get excited about someone or something and we think: it will always be this way. It isn’t necessarily so. Most of 1 Corinthians addresses this issue in one way or another. Remember also the Parable of the Sower, where the seed that fell on shallow, rocky soil, sprang up quickly and then dried up.

February 1, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 2014, Year A

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

Every couple of years I like to read my One Year Bible. This is one of those years. Just this past Friday, I read the following in Exodus 13: “Consecrate to me every firstborn.” Every firstborn animal had to be sacrificed to God. A donkey could be “ransomed” with a sheep; and “Every human firstborn of your sons you must ransom.” Remember that Moses was leading God’s people to Canaan, a land where child sacrifice was not unheard of. God was stating emphatically: DON’T DO THAT!

The “purification” mentioned in the beginning of today’s Gospel refers to the period after childbirth when a woman could not even enter the temple, not because she was in any way “dirty,” but because she had incurred ritual “uncleanness” due to loss of blood. After that time, she would offer a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon; or, if she couldn’t afford a lamb, two turtledoves or pigeons.

These are two different rites in the Old Testament, but by the time of Jesus they seem to have been combined into one.

There are two surprises here, ironies if you will, that are easy to miss. First, Mary, who was full of grace, never tainted by any sin, not even original sin, had to be purified, to go through a ritual of purification. Secondly, Jesus, who came to ransom us, first had to be ransomed himself! The Redeemer had to be redeemed—bought and paid for, so to speak.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that our ransom was paid by Christ, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life... to expiate the sins of the people.”

The consequences in our life of faith are obvious.

First, we need to recognize our need of redemption. The first two of the Twelve Steps of AA offer a good example: acknowledging our “powerlessness;” and “a power greater than ourselves.”

Then, we need to recognize the gift of redemption. The word “amazing” is overworked today, but this is truly the gift we sing of as “Amazing Grace.”

So far so good. But wait! There’s more! Only, we won’t like it. We need to accept purification. This is a sometimes painful process (which is perhaps one of the reasons why people do not avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation) Confession or otherwise). It can be a trial by fire, as in the removal of impurities from gold. In this context there is an interesting passage in 1 Peter 1, 6-7: “In this [promise of salvation] you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Simeon in today’s Gospel gave thanks that he had seen the salvation, the savior. Anna spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. Both acknowledged the need and the gift. But Simeon also spoke to Mary about a sword!

When in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are asking not to be put to the test. Yes, it is wise not to count on our own strength. But then again, we don’t have to. As Job says in a very famous text: I know that my Redeemer lives. That’s all the strength we need!