31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (2)

Today’s readings teach us that God cares for everything he has created (and, except for Himself, he has created everything). More importantly, they teach us that the Lord not only cares for us as his creatures or his servants, but as his friends, whether we reciprocate that or not.

The First Reading today reminds us that God loves and cares for all he has created. God cares for those things since they are for our good. He made the sun so we could see and be warm, he made the dust so that we could clean our house and have something to do. If we had everything done for us, how boring that would be: we think if everything were easier, we’d be happier, but we’d just get really bored, because real happiness and satisfaction start in the world, and lead us to Heaven, where we will be completely happy by being with God. In the big things and the little things that happen in our lives, we know the reason for them is found in the plan God has for them and for us. It’s a plan to make us happy, and someday will make us completely happy.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that we have a big challenge and an important part in God’s plan. St. Paul tells the Christians at Thessalonica that he is praying for God to help us be worthy of our calling: to be his friends. Jesus told the apostles in the Last Supper, “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends.” God’s dream is that we be his friend. He shows his friendship through all the things he has created for our good, and he shows it by becoming man and living with us as Jesus, teaching us, and dying for us on the Cross. To be a friend with anyone, you have to know them first, and it is something that they have to show, and you have to show too. Our Lord has shown time and again that he is our friend.

Jesus was Zacchaeus’ friend from all eternity. Jesus created Zacchaeus to be his friend. Zacchaeus didn’t know Our Lord was his friend when he heard he was passing through Jericho in the Gospel today, but something inside him made him want to find out who Jesus was. It was a challenge to find out: the crowd was big, and nobody in the town liked him. Zacchaeus didn’t give up. He ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up a tall tree to get a better view. Jesus didn’t just walk by: he stopped dead in his tracks and looked up at Zacchaeus. At the start of the Gospel it said Jesus only intended to pass through Jericho and probably keep going to another town, but here he was, not just stopping and looking at Zacchaeus, but asking to stay in his house. Jesus said in another part of the Gospel to his disciples that when they visit a town, they should just stay at one house. When Jesus said, “come down quickly … I must stay at your house” to Zacchaeus, he was saying he was Zacchaeus’ friend.

Zacchaeus literally jumped for joy, because jumping is the only way you can quickly come down a tree – thankfully he didn’t break a leg. The people in the town couldn’t handle this. “He is going to stay in the house of a sinner?!” For them, Jesus was friends with a sinner. Jesus a friend of every sinner, even when they are not friends with him. Jesus wouldn’t deny his friendship with Zacchaeus, even though Zacchaeus did bad things. Zacchaeus had a chance to show he really wanted to be Jesus’ friend. He knew what everyone was thinking, and so he told everyone he would repay anything he’d stolen and give half of what he owned to the poor. Jesus rejoiced that his friend had changed his ways.

Today the crowd, whether wittingly or unwittingly, is not enabling Zacchaeus to see Our Lord, making Zacchaeus resort to drastic measures. There are those in the crowd who already dislike him for being a tax collector. Zacchaeus doesn’t care about appearing ridiculous; he just wants to see Jesus. Our Lord rewards him by standing up for him before the entire crowd. This doesn’t mean Zacchaeus was not a sinner. The crowd accuses him of it, and Our Lord himself says salvation has come to someone who was lost. If Zacchaeus had not managed to see Jesus, who knows what would have happened? When we size people up and find them lacking, or judge them, we mustn’t make that a pretext to write them off and not help them meet Our Lord. We shouldn’t close ranks and prevent them from drawing closer to the person for whom we’re together in the first place: Our Lord. Let’s not be shy about helping people draw closer to Jesus through us, no matter what they’ve done in the past.

Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 11:22–12:2; 145:1–2, 8–11, 13, 14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2; Luke 19:1–10. See also 33rd Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

In today’s readings we’re reminded that beyond the laws our faith proposes is the love with which we observe them and to which we’re called. Even if we begin simply observing them for other motives they pave the way for us to go beyond them and achieve what the Lord truly wants from us.

In today’s First Reading Moses promises the Israelites that if they are observant the Lord will bless them with a prosperous life. A running theme throughout the Old Testament is that Israel is blessed to the degree that it is faithful to the covenant they made with the Lord. Moses exhorts them today to see this as the secret to their success. Yet at the same time he takes it a step further: he exhorts them to love the Lord with everything they’ve got: unconditionally. The Law that comes from the covenant has the potential to pave the way to a deeper relationship with the Lord and with each other, if they have the right attitude in observing it.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that without Our Lord we are weak in maintaining a good relationship with God. The greatest representatives of Israel before God, the high priests, were limited by their mortality and their frailty, both consequences of sin. Our Lord brought a new representation and mediation with God unflawed by humanity’s past mistakes. He brought a redeemed humanity into the equation. As high priest he triumphed over human mortality and frailty by conquering sin and death, continuing in his priestly office forever. That mediation and strength pave the way for us to go beyond the law and achieve what the Lord really wants from us, the God who has it all: our unconditional love.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the end of a series of debates in Mark’s Gospel with the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and it ends on an encouraging note. After various attempts to exploit discussion on God’s word in order to score political points or discredit Our Lord we find a refreshing change of pace: a scribe who is actually interested in seeking the truth and who acknowledges when someone has helped him find it.

The scribes at the time were debating about what the hierarchy of all the precepts were within Mosaic Law. They had already determined 613 precepts of the Law: 248 commands and 365 prohibitions. Which were the most important? This debate was an inheritance of the expectations in today’s First Reading: faithful observance of the covenant with the Lord was the secret to success and prosperity. Yet they didn’t consider the fine print: Moses was describing a process, not just a fact: the Law was meant to take them somewhere, and to help them achieve something: love for God and for others. Our Lord responds to the scribe today with the fundamentals not only for the Jews, but for us. When he tells the scribe that the Lord must loved above all else he is repeating the first words of the Jews’ profession of faith, the Shema, taken from the book of Deuteronomy (part of which is today’s First Reading) and prayed by them every day. Their faith, and our faith, revolves entirely around the love of God. But Jesus connects this to another teaching from Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18): to love your neighbor as yourself. Connecting the two may have been a novelty for the Jews, but as Christians we know the two are closely linked: you can’t love God and not love your neighbor, or vice versa (cf. 1 John 4:20–21). Unconditional love for God and neighbor put every other precept into perspective.

It is achieving a deeper understanding of the love God has for us that enables us to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to truly love our neighbor. Loving is the greatest appreciation we can show to God for his love for us. The scribe in today’s Gospel rightly sees the superiority of love over many other religious practices. In fact, religious practices become exactly that due to the love behind them. When Our Lord encourages the scribe by saying he is not far from the Kingdom of God he is also encouraging us to remember that if we achieve love, often an arduous conquest, we’re one step away from every good thing Our Lord wishes for us and for the world.

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2–6; Psalm 18:2–4, 47, 51; Hebrews 7:23–28; Mark 12:28b–34.

31st Week in Ordinary Time, Monday, Year I

Today’s First Reading is a little confusing if it is not seen within the context of whom Paul has been speaking about: Israel. In the Acts of the Apostles we see Paul going to the Jews first to proclaim the Gospel, only to receive hostility. Paul then tells them they’ve rejected what Our Lord was offering them and would, therefore, share it with the Gentiles (see Acts 13:44–49). In today’s reading Paul describes the Jews’ loss as the Gentiles’ gain.

If the Jews had not rejected the Word, “disobeyed,” the opportunity of mercy would never have been presented to the Gentiles, who did accept the Word, becoming reconciled with God as a result. The wonders the Gospel did among the Gentiles gave the Jews an opportunity to re-think their disobedience and receive God’s mercy through the Gospel as well.

Many people who have returned to God tell the tale of how many twists and turns the path to mercy took in their lives. That’s not God’s fault, but ours. John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, encouraged us to “Make straight the way of the Lord” (see John 1:23). Let’s embrace his mercy and his way with all our heart.

Readings: Romans 11:29–36; Psalm 69:30–31, 33–34, 36; Luke 14:12–14.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

In today’s readings we’re reminded that our receptivity to a message should not be determined by our esteem or scorn for the messenger, but by whether that message is true. When we are the messengers we must also remember that anything we do to contradict the message hinders even the truest things we try to share.

In today’s First Reading the Lord laments the fact that his priests are playing favorites instead of carrying out the office entrusted to them. Priests are held to a high moral standard, even today, and when they don’t live up to it their lifestyle sends the wrong message and imparts the wrong teaching. Our Lord in today’s Gospel does not criticize the Pharisees so much for what they teach as much as for what they do. They themselves don’t do what they teach. Being revealed as a hypocrite is one of the most detestable things imaginable. A hypocrite transmits two contradictory messages and, even when one of them is true, he clouds the ability to get to the truth. The Lord today warns the priests who are showing partiality and hypocrisy that their blessings will become curses: when the truth is revealed about them an apparent blessing is revealed to be a lie for everyone to see.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul paints another portrait of a minister of God: a humble, caring, and loving messenger. Humility is about speaking the truth, no matter what the consequences. Paul’s actions show his sincerity in holding himself up as an example not only of a shepherd of souls, but of any believer. He has put the Lord’s invitation to be meek and humble of heart into practice, seeing his ministry as one akin to a nursing mother. Like the mother of a newborn he not only nourishes them on the Gospel, but offers them his very self. His motivations are not selfish: he cares for them because he loves them. Unlike the burdensome Pharisees Our Lord decries in today’s Gospel, he doesn’t seek to be a burden to anyone. In Acts it is mentioned that he practiced his livelihood (tent making) while carrying out his ministry (see Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35).

He didn’t seek out money, but was grateful when it was offered to help him help others (see Philippians 4:14-16). It wasn’t about the money. If any servant of Our Lord was just in it for the money they would probably change careers (see Paul’s “boast” in 2 Corinthians 11:16–33 if you want a job description). Paul received satisfaction from knowing that through his example the Thessalonians truly believed that he had shared the word of God with them and put it into practice as a result. Every servant of Our Lord couldn’t be happier if he helped someone in this way.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord makes an admonition to the disciples that for us has become a basic rule of thumb: practice what you preach. He also reminds us that with prestige and recognition come expectations. All believers are brothers because they all share one Father in Heaven, and they are all disciples because they follow the teachings of one Master, Christ. Through baptism we’ve all received an equal dignity in the eyes of God, and when any member of the Church forgets that, other members of the Church suffer through their bad example.

At the same time, Our Lord does not deny that the scribes and Pharisees whom he is criticizing have an authority that comes from Moses that is to be respected. Today there are some who are tempted to discard the preaching because certain preachers do not practice it. That’s not what Jesus teaches us. It’s sad when a preacher gets in the way of the message by putting himself first, but if he is preaching what has been handed down to us from Christ through the apostles and their successors, it is still a teaching that is necessary for us, because it is true. That’s the ultimate criterion for accepting anyone’s message: whether it is true or not. Prestige or infamy don’t change what’s true.

The core lesson today to bishops, priests, and deacons is to not let themselves get in the way of communicating the message: it’s not about ego, titles, or honors, but, rather, about communicating the message Our Lord has entrusted to the Church’s pastors through the centuries. This is a lesson for every believer: through our bad example we can hinder the spread of the Gospel, the message everyone needs to hear and believe. Our Lord also reminds us today that with prestige and recognition comes expectation: the expectations we have, but also the expectations of others. When we seek recognition or prestige for their own sake, climbing the social ladder, trying to get ahead in life, etc., at some point we come to the realization, if we’re fortunate, that we’re milking past glories instead of doing the things that’d merit recognition. That’s vainglory. Even if we don’t realize it we can be sure that others do. Jesus puts us on guard against resting on our laurels, as some scribes did, who focused on maintaining and increasing their prestige instead of helping people to understand God’s word, which is what they were trained to do, and what was expected of them. If we focus on giving the best of ourselves for the sake of others, receiving recognition for it or not doesn’t matter to us. This is a healthy way of keeping our accomplishments from getting to our heads.

It takes a lot of courage these days to share the Gospel, even when we do back it up with our Christian example. This shouldn’t discourage us. Even Our Lord faced people who detested what he was trying to say (“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”—John 6:60). Some believers take exception to Church teaching on a specific issue, but they fundamental question is whether what the Church teaches is true. When the Church presents us a with a difficult teaching on faith or morals our first response should be faith, not criticism. We don’t believe it is an opinion, but, rather, the truth. In faith we know that Our Lord entrusted his teaching on faith and morals to the Apostles, and that has been handed down to us. If we have a difficulty with that teaching we must first take it to him in prayer and then ask him to help us understand, not reject the messenger.

Readings: Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 2:8–10;1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13; Matthew 23:1–12.

31st Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday, Year II

In today’s First Reading Paul’s gratitude toward the Philippians shows the difference between material poverty, a situation, and spiritual poverty, a virtue. Paul acknowledges that he has experienced moments of plenty and moments of want, and those moments have not driven him to consider himself important or to consider himself victimized; what he has at his disposal is what he has. We can easily fall into the pitfall of not being content with the home, vehicle, or gadgets that we have, even if they were the latest model six months ago. We can also fall into an attitude of resentment when we’re struggling just to pay the bills and provide for those we love, or grow up in poverty when it seems that others always live in luxury. Both attitudes can spread to more spiritual goods, such as our relationships, if we let them. We can get attached to our things or the things of others and lose sight of the fact that everything we have has been given to us.

Paul shows the secret to facing prosperity or poverty: to see that Our Lord can work with both, if we work with him. Paul praises the Philippians as his benefactors because of the fruits of evangelization he has been able to reap through their material support. It not only helps them live spiritual poverty, but it helps advance the cause of the Gospel as well. If we seek to help and serve others, whether poor or rich, we are growing in spiritual poverty and seeking higher goods.

Take stock of what you have today and ask Our Lord to help you see what you truly need and what you can use to help and serve others.

Readings: Philippians 4:10–19; Psalm 112:1b–2, 5–6, 8a, 9; Luke 16:9–15. See also 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C and 31st Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday.