26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

Today’s readings remind us that sin is like a weight that just pulls us down, but charity, even in the smallest details, buoys us up and liberates us from those sinful attachments that threaten to drown us for good.

Just as the Lord poured out his Spirit abundantly on the elders in today’s First Reading, so he wants to pour out a Spirit of charity on all believers. The Holy Spirit is not easy to track by radar at times. He’s seen in what believers do when inspired by him. The two elders who decided to “skip” the meeting where also chosen to help Moses lead the people in the desert, so the Spirit of the Lord descended on them too. This reading was chosen today because it alludes to the first part of today’s Gospel, when someone not directly in Jesus’ immediate group of disciples is casting out demons in his name. Our Lord knows that someone is trying to help him, not hinder him. Any good done in his name will lead others to him.

St. James in the Second Reading warns those who’ve profited at the expense of others that any gain at the expense of charity is the deepest loss for them. The “millstone” for the unjust wealthy in the Second Reading is the wealth they accumulated and hoarded at the expense of others. The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is a period of final purification from earthly attachments before a soul passes into the glory of Heaven (see Catechism 1472). The unjust wealthy will die unable to detach themselves from the very riches and lifestyle that is decaying and passing away before their eyes. If they’d used their wealth for the good of others they’d have done a far greater good for themselves in the bargain. That’s just good “business.” What they saw as gain was really their deepest loss.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord teaches us about the power of charity and the gravity of sin. Something as simple as offering a cup of water in acknowledgement of Christ is pleasing and powerful in his eyes. This should re-dimension the power of charity in our own lives. It doesn’t mean being minimalist—just sticking with a refreshments table—but being generous, aware of the power of charity on a greater scale to move hardened hearts, jaded cultures, and a cynical society. Charity provides enough “buoyancy” to keep us afloat and more: it lifts us up and breaks the chains of sin in our lives. Our Lord also warns us about the gravity of sin. Sin puts a spiritual millstone around our necks that one day will drown us in our bankrupt lifestyle unless we seek his help to liberate us. When we find ourselves in a situation of spiritual life and death a radical response is necessary to survive: it may feel like we’re hacking away a part of ourselves, but in that moment that piece of us to which we’re attached could cost us our spiritual life, because we want to hang onto it at the expense of our soul. Let’s ask Our Lord today to help us make a radical response in the face of our sins and return to the path of charity in order to unleash its power for others.

If the Mafia is infamous fitting people for “cement overshoes,” it’s even more tragic to realize that our sinful attachments are like putting on those shoes ourselves, pouring in the cement, and jumping off a pier all by ourselves. The Spirit inspires us to take little steps to divest ourselves of those things that spiritually weigh us down. Our Lord doesn’t just leave us to try and strip off all this dead weight, especially if we’re drowning. He buoys us up with his grace and mercy. Ditch the dead weight before you start drowning.

Readings: Numbers 11:25–29; Psalm 19:8, 10, 12–14; James 5:1–6; Mark 9:38–43, 45, 47–48.

life preserver

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

In today’s Gospel Our Lord invites the apostles, and us, to revisit what we consider to be the path to greatness.

Today’s First Reading imagines the resentment of the wicked when faced with someone who follows the path of wisdom and tries to share it, a path they don’t follow. The wicked have decided to break with tradition and head out in a different direction, but the wise man teaches them that they haven’t taken a different path, but, rather, gone off the right path. In today’s culture we speak of respecting other outlooks and life styles, but that doesn’t mean not telling someone they’re about to walk off a cliff or ruin their life. However, we also experience, when we do try to intervene, or simple show a different way of living, the same attitude as the wicked in today’s First Reading: jealously, resentment, and a desire to teach a lesson and show them who’s really right.

St. James reminds us in today’s Second Reading that jealously and selfish ambition only lead to discord. James teaches us that outer conflicts stem from inner ones. Wars rarely remain within the confines of where they broke out; they always strive to spread and conquer new terrain in order to fuel their ambitions. Similarly, our selfish ambitions don’t just remain in our hearts or in our living rooms; they put us on a path to clashing with others pursuing their own selfish goals. As St. James reminds us today, that path only leads to frustration, because seeking vain things is seeking empty things, and if those things can never satisfy us, we will always be at conflict within ourselves and with others. It’s a recipe for endless conflict with no end in sight. Loving the world to the exclusion of God is a road to nowhere; if we set our sights on the world, we set our sights on something that ultimately will fade away.

Our Lord in today’s Gospel describes the path to greatness today as one of service, and not just any service: the humble service willing to lay down your life for the benefit of another. Even an ambitious person can seek to perform some service to achieve his ends. When Our Lord gives the example of serving a child, it’s like a cold bucket of water dumped on the disciples’ selfish ambitions. Babysitting is not high in anyone’s book in terms of a career, nor nanny, and, sadly, even in some circles of society the vocation to be a parent is avoided. But God reveals himself in terms of family relationships, and Our Lord tells us today to serve that child in his name in order to serve not only him, but Our Heavenly Father who sent him. No matter how great we become in the eyes of society we can never neglect even the least members of it, because our only ambition should be to serve. Nor can we forget that if we achieved anything in our life it was thanks to our parents.

In olden times when you met someone for the first time you’d introduce yourself with your names and the words, “At your service.” That seems to have disappeared from modern vocabulary unless you’re hired to do it. Why not do some small act of service this week for someone from whom you’ll get nothing material or self-interested out of it at all? Good friendships often start with disinterested love.

Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17–20; Psalm 54:3–8; James 3:16–4:3; Mark 9:30–37. See also 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

Today’s readings remind us that hearing something and listening to it are two different things.

In today’s First Reading, part of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, Our Lord reminds us that sometimes he needs to open our ears, just like he did to Peter in the Gospel today. Sometimes we can take that for granted, and if we don’t put it into action, soon we stop listening to God’s Word in our lives, and instead it is just more noise in our ears. The Suffering Servant takes the blows received for serving God, knowing that God is on his side and that his service has a greater meaning. He doesn’t complain or give God a hard time about what he’s suffering to fulfill his mission, because he knows the Lord is at his side. Our Lord also teaches his disciples in the Gospel today that the prophecy of the Suffering Servant refers to him. Suffering is part of Christian life, and that suffering leads to salvation.

In today’s Second Reading St. James reminds us that faith and works go hand in hand. They show we have not just heard Our Lord’s word but listened. The Word of God is a call to repentance and baptism, but it is also a call to action. As St. James reminds us today, listening to God’s Word leads us to action. If we remain passive, just hearing God’s word, our faith will remain weak and will not transform our life or anyone else’s. When our works reflect our faith it shows we’re listening.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord gives the disciples a pop quiz to see how much they’re listening. Peter is never shy about speaking up, and answers Jesus’ question straight away: you are the Christ. Peter has listened to the first part of the message. The disciples have taken a step closer to Our Lord, they’ve been active, they’ve been listening, and that has drawn them closer to Our Lord. The crowd, on the other hand, doesn’t need to do much more than be there. They’ve “heard” things about Jesus, they’re curious, but they haven’t tried to draw closer to him yet.

Jesus’ disciples have passed the first test, and Our Lord opens his heart to them and explains how salvation will work. It was time for another lesson. Our Lord is the fulfillment of all the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, and he reveals to his disciples something the Jews never would have imagined just by reading the Old Testament: the Messiah had to suffer and die to save the world. Peter’s response to this revelation is something that stirs up, to one degree or another, each of our hearts when the Lord opens our ears and we listen to him.

Peter couldn’t imagine that Jesus could do anything other than become a great military and political ruler. He was hearing, but he still needed to do a little more listening to Our Lord. After Our Lord had seen his disciples believed he was the Messiah, he opened his heart to them, and St. Peter spoke a little for all of them and basically said the Messiah didn’t act like Jesus said he would. Therefore, the disciples failed the second test. God had opened their ears, like the Suffering Servant in the First Reading, but, unlike the First Reading, they were rebelling about what they were hearing.

Jesus knew that this lesson, the lesson of the cross, was the most important lesson of Christian life. It’s so important a lesson that Jesus says something shocking to Peter when he tries to convince him not to take the path of suffering and the cross. He tells him he is thinking as men do, not as God does, and tells him he is like Satan: that little whisper in our ears that tells us that life should be lived without suffering, without crosses. Jesus backs up his lesson about the cross with a promise: whoever loses their life for Him and for the Gospel will save it. Everything we sacrifice in this world, big and small, will lead us to a life that is fuller and more fulfilling.

Isaiah’s prophecy in today’s First Reading also reminds us that we must forgive the injustice of our neighbor if we don’t want to be consumed by a sinful wrath that will cause our own condemnation. We have all experienced the temptation to nurse a grudge against someone and to be too angry to forgive. As we nurse a grudge we stop listening to our better judgment or the counsel of friends and family who are not fuming. Our anger drowns out good advice. Let’s not forget that Cain heard the Lord, but stopped listening to him when he slew Abel (see Genesis 4:1-10).

Readings: Isaiah 50:5–9a; Psalm 116:1–6, 8–9; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35. See also 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

Today’s readings remind us that if sin is messy Redemption involves some messiness and discomfort too. It’s through material realities that we fell, so it’s logical that Our Lord should establish material ways to redeem us, like the sacraments.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah describes a post-Eden world, crippled and thirsting for relief due to sin. The effects of sin go beyond those who committed them; they cripple and wound us all. As Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden the Lord told them a consequence of their sin would be the need to eke out an existence; instead if a plentiful garden the world had become a hostile wilderness and desert. Neither did they face a wild post-Fall world with all the strength they had before, sin wounded them and crippled them. The sign of the crippled healed and the lands bounteous once again were all signs of a Redemption to come in Christ.

In today’s Second Reading St. James reminds us that the vindication, understood as justice, and recompense describe by Isaiah would be an ongoing process that even believers after Baptism would have to remember. Dignity is not superficial. Many times it is not fashionable or stylish. Through Baptism everyone in the Church, rich or poor, has the dignity of being our brother or sister in Christ. Our Lord came to restore a dignity lost by sin, and as believers we strive to acknowledge that dignity in everyone, rich or poor, healthy or sick, baptized or not.

In today’s First Reading we are reminded that the Lord wants to heal us from our infirmities, but it’s likely that the Israelites never imagined Our Lord would want to come personally and do so. God wants to touch us and heal us; we see that in today’s Gospel. By modern standards it may seem distasteful that saliva is involved, but when we consider that every time we celebrate the Eucharist we are receiving Jesus’ body and blood, it’s not much of a stretch. God assumed a human nature because he wanted to come touch us and heal us through human nature. God still wants to touch us and heal us. Today he does so through the sacraments.

In each sacrament there are certain materials, certain expressions, certain dispositions of heart through which Our Lord reaches out and touches us and heals us or strengthens us. When we receive him in Holy Communion we touch God, who comes into our hearts and makes us more like him after he decided, out of sheer goodness, to assume a human nature and become like us. Let’s be thankful in receiving the Eucharist today that Our Lord wants to be close to us, wants to touch us. And let’s examine how our sacramental life is going: Mass, confession, etc., so that it really touches us and helps us to change for the better.

In today’s Gospel the Lord visibly works miracles, and he still does, invisibly, through the sacraments. The water poured on our heads at Baptism cleans our very souls. A few words and dispositions in Confession reconcile us with God and the Church. A little consecrated bread and wine are the Bread of Life. Let’s thank Our Lord this week for all the quiet miracles he continues to work under sacramental signs.

Readings: Isaiah 35:4–7a; Psalm 146:7–10; James 2:1–5; Mark 7:31–37. See also 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

Today’s readings remind us that the source if good and evil is the heart, not external things. The heart is our inner sanctum where we can be pure or defiled, and both conditions try to go beyond their confines to influence the lives of others.

In today’s First Reading we’re reminded that that the purpose of the Law is to enable us to grow closer to God and to show our intelligence and wisdom. In Jesus’ time the Pharisees had derived over six hundred rules and regulations from the Law, all derived from the Law spelled out in the Old Testament books (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, etc.). However, they had lost sight of the fundamentals: love for God and neighbor, not just ritual cleanliness. Moses reminds them today that the Law is to be followed so that they not only have intelligence and wisdom, but show it. Intelligence is something that shines from within. It’s not just the information we receive that counts, but how we process it and use it. Wisdom influences how we perceive the world. It makes us see causes, connections, and consequences, and our actions show or disprove that we are wise.

In today’s Second Reading St. James reminds us that in order to please God we should strive “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The “world” today believes that if something feels good, you should do it, but the world is also witness to how much destructive behavior comes from following that principle. We are wounded by original sin and our own sins; not everything as a result feels good that is good–addicts destroy themselves by trying to feel good. Lots of behavior turns into compulsive behavior that we can’t control: this is a stained heart that Our Lord wants to make clean again through love and mercy.

The Pharisees in Our Lord’s earthly time were focused on externals and had lost sight of the bigger picture. Our Lord reminds us in today’s Gospel that defilement comes from hearts and endangers other hearts, and we should strive to maintain purity of heart, not just ritual cleanliness. In today’s Gospel, using the example of dietary laws, Our Lord is teaching us that the “Devil made me do it” as an argument has no merit. The problem of evil has plagued man and philosophy almost since Creation, and a trend has always tried to blame God or other things as the cause of sin when all man needed to do was look in the mirror. The Lord created everything good and for the good, but his creatures freely chose to do evil instead: the fallen angels, starting with the Devil, and humanity, starting with Adam and Eve. If the world is a mess it is because we, sinners, made it so.

The dietary laws in Jesus’ time believed certain foods brought ritual contamination and, therefore, defiled a man, Mark makes a point of saying in his account that Jesus is teaching that there are no ritually impure foods. It’s a teaching that even the first disciples would struggle with as they realized that Christianity was meant to go beyond the Jewish world and culture. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve robbed us of something we, their descendants, couldn’t do without, and it is only thanks to the Redemption that their sin didn’t condemn us all to spiritual death. However, Adam and Eve aren’t to blame for all of it: we too have sinned and continue to sin. This sobering reality is not meant to discourage us; rather, it makes us realize that not only do we need Savior, but have one: Our Lord.

Our Lord gives a long list of things that come from defiled hearts and endanger other hearts, and they can all be traced back to someone going overboard in trying to feel “good” and dragging others into their behavior, even through their bad example. James in the Second Reading may have spoken of charity toward widows and orphans, but acting in this disordered way is also a lack of charity toward others, since it can lead them to spiritually ruin themselves. Let’s ask Our Lord to practice charity with all our heart, not only caring for others, but treating them with purity of heart and encouraging them to do the same. In that way we’ll please God and remain close to him.

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8; Psalm 15:2–5; James 1:17–18, 21b–22, 27; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23. See also 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.