October 23, 2014

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

Christ answers the Pharisees
(Click here for today’s readings

The Pharisees are at it again, putting Jesus to the test, but this time they seem to be off their game. They had to know what to expect. The answer was obvious. In fact, in Luke’s version of this episode, it is the Scribe, not Jesus, who gives this very answer.

Even the addition of the “Second Greatest Commandment” in Jesus’ reply could not have come as much of a surprise. Apparently this pairing may not have been rare among rabbis in Jesus’ day. Again, in Luke’s version, the Scribe himself includes it.

Note that neither the question nor the answer implies that other commandments could be neglected. All the commandments were to be observed with equal care. Jesus simply notes that the Two Great Commandments are the foundation for all the rest. The first reading illustrates this fact with unambiguous examples.

It is a curious fact that the Commandment to love God is given differently in the three Gospels that quote it. Here in Matthew, we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Mark has heart. soul, mind, and strength, while Luke changes the order to heart, soul, strength and mind.

Stranger still, none of these corresponds exactly to the original Hebrew. It reads: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” No mention of “mind” at all.

Scholars naturally have their theories to explain these variations. They are interesting but ultimately irrelevant. The insistent repetition of the word “all” makes it obvious that the commandment is meant to be all-inclusive.

The word “wrath” shows up in the first two readings. God’s wrath will flare up against those who wrong aliens, orphans and widows, or treat the poor unkindly. Jesus, writes St. Paul, will deliver us “from the coming wrath,” that is, the judgment, a theme Paul develops at greater length in his letter to the Romans.

What does wrath have to do with those who keep the Two Great Commandments? Living in love of God and neighbor, observing in sincerity the laws that depend on those two, becomes so natural that wrath is not even a speck on the horizon.

St. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their full commitment to the faith of Christ, since they turned from idols “to serve the living God.” The context makes it clear that they have not held back, but have become “a model for all believers.”

Would that this could be said of us!

October 18, 2014

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already passed two “tests”— spot quizzes, if you like —concocted by his adversaries. Apparently they haven’t learned their lesson. In their malice they have come back, only to be confounded once again.

The issue wasn’t just whether one ought to pay taxes. It had to do with the Imperial Tax, the tribute levied on peoples subject to the Roman empire. The moneys raised were not for services provided, but to keep the people in subjection and enrich the empire. It was certainly perceived as an unjust tax, an unlawful tax.

We can relate to that. In our own experience, the law is everywhere. It is intended to guarantee our rights and protect our freedom. But we like some laws better than others, depending on the extent to which they affect our property and our freedom.

Here is an interesting case in point. There was an article in last Monday’s local paper on a shooting range in Vermont, near the Connecticut River. The noise can be heard, loud and clear and all day long, across the river in New Hampshire. We would all agree that the right to bear arms does not bestow the right to disturb your neighbors in their own home; nor does the right to tranquility in one’s own home violate the right to bear arms. Nevertheless, the situation has had a polarizing effect, to say the least, and it will probably be quite some time before a solution is found that will be both “lawful” and just.

The second half of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians says that we must repay to God what belongs to God. Now there was such a thing as a “temple tax,” but it would be ludicrous to think Jesus meant that.

Very often this passage is interpreted as applying to situations where civil law and Church teaching are in conflict. It is even used sometimes as a sort of club to beat Christian politicians into submission. I cannot believe that is what Jesus intended.

There is a challenge in this text, certainly. But if we look at the context of the overall relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, it is a prophetic challenge, much broader than the political sphere. Twice in the first reading God says, “I am the Lord, there is no other.” The Pharisees and company seem to have forgotten that, setting themselves up as legislator, police, judge and jury.

The challenge, then, is much more along the lines of the words of St. Paul in the second reading, the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.” This is not first and foremost about life in the political sphere, but it is certainly not divorced from the political sphere either.

If we are to return to God what belongs to God, let our starting point be the attitude of Psalm 116: “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?... My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all his people.”

What vows? In Jesus’ world, the commitment to the two Great Commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. In our Christian and Catholic world, the baptismal promises: rejecting Satan and espousing the faith as a way of life. It doesn’t stop on the day of our baptism, does it?

No. It’s everywhere, every day. We  must repay to God what belongs to God, in our personal life, our social life, our professional life and, yes, even our political life.

October 12, 2014

Homily for the 28th 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)

When people become very old, others will often ask them the secret to a long life. George Burns, who died at 100, supposedly said, “If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn't ask me, I'd still have to say it.

Here are a few other secrets of longevity from less famous persons.
A woman aged 116: “Mind your own business and don’t eat junk food. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, work hard and love what you do.”

A man aged 115: “Friends, a good cigar, drinking lots of good water, no alcohol, staying positive and lots of singing will keep you alive for a long time.”

A man aged 108: “My secret to a long, healthy life is to always keep working. It keeps me busy and happy, and gives me a reason to stay alive.”

A lady named Katherine Knauss Sullivan was 96 when her mother, Sara Knauss, died at the age of 119. She once said of her mother: “She’s a very tranquil person and nothing fazes her. That’s why she’s living this long.”

St. Paul had a secret, too, not to a long life, but to a contented life. It might well work for a long life, too. He writes: “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.”

That is a good philosophy of life, similar to the other quotations. But he adds another element, which shifts the perspective entirely: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

This shows the difference between wisdom and faith. They are not incompatible, but they are not the same. The popular saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” is a good example. Is it wisdom, based on the experience of the ages? or faith, based on trust in divine Providence?

A philosopher will say in a time of trouble, “This, too, shall pass.” A believer will say, as in our reading from Isaiah, “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove.” The end result is the same. The difference in outlook could not be greater.

As Christians, ours is a life of faith. Note the two elements in that statement: life, and faith. We are not called just to have faith, but to live it. We are not asked just to live good lives, but lives that bespeak our faith in Jesus Christ.

In his Letter to the Philippians, after listing all the advantages he had as an upstanding member of the Jewish community before his conversion, St. Paul writes, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-8)

I often think that the anecdotal ending of today’s Gospel, about the wedding garment, refers to that faith. There are many things that might attract a person to any Christian Church—the music, the preaching, the ritual, the outreach programs, the fellowship. These are all good. But without a genuine personal faith, what are they?

The parable is emphatic. Without that wedding garment, we may belong to a Christian community, but that’s not quite the same as belonging to a community of believers.

October 2, 2014

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 5, 2014, Year A

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

You’ve seen the three “wise monkeys,” representing the injunctions to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” We find a similar idea in a passage from Isaiah, which describes the person who “walks righteously and speaks honestly” as one “who stops his ears so as not to hear of bloodshed, who closes his eyes so as not to look on evil.” (Is 33:15)

St. Paul expresses very nearly the same thought today in his letter to the Philippians when he recommends that they focus on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, worthy of praise.” By implication, we are encouraged to turn our thoughts away from the opposites of all these things. This kind of placid spirit is appealing, easy to take.

Unfortunately (or maybe not), the reading from St. Paul comes sandwiched between two much more challenging readings. First, the Prophet Isaiah is far from placid as, through him, God complains about his “friend” whose professionally cultivated vineyard produced wild grapes. And Jesus is likewise far from placid as he warns the chief priests and elders what lies in store for them because of their failure to deliver the fruits expected of them.

We could, of course, “stop our ears” and “close our eyes” to these unpleasant sayings. Is that what St. Paul proposes? No. Neither does Isaiah 33:15. Neither do the monkeys.

The point is to have nothing to do with evil, to refuse to listen to any proposal of evildoing, to turn away from temptation. It is not an invitation to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the evil that is around us and shelter ourselves from anything unpleasant.

The parable of the wicked tenants, like many of the parables, is a warning directed originally to a specific audience but preserved in the Scriptures as a cautionary tale for each generation of believers. We may say the same of Isaiah’s image of the vineyard.

In the latter case, we are expected to produce good fruits in proportion to all the care that God has expended on us. In the former, we are expected to make a return to God from what he has entrusted to us. (Homework: compare and contrast this with the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.)

This means we actually need to keep our eyes and ears open, to be aware of the evil (and the good) in our world, and to speak out when necessary. We don’t all have to become investigative reporters. We don’t all have the prophetic vocation of Isaiah. But we may not, must not simply yield to the temptation seek our own tranquillity in the midst of the chaos, violence and injustice that surround us and affect so many persons near and far. (Even cloistered Monk and Nuns don’t do that. They separate themselves from the world, not for their own comfort, but in order to devote themselve to a life of intense prayer for the world.)

Now just so we don’t become distraught at this prospect, let me point out that there is a sort of double sandwich in today’s readings. Besides the order of the three readings, the passage I summarized above from the Letter to the Philippians is itself contained between two references to God and peace: first, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” and then, “The God of peace will be with you.”

I am reminded of Micah 5:4, “He shall be peace.” To be in a positive relationship with God is to have genuine peace, and vice versa, almost as if they were one and the same. We must do whatever we can to restore that peace if it has been lost, or protect it where  it has been endangered.

This is not mere peace and quiet. It gives us courage and confidence to face the world and its evils. If the God of peace is with us and the peace of God indeed guards our hearts and minds, we may find that we have—again in Paul’s words—“no anxiety at all.”