23 July 2017

Homily - 23 July 2017 - The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Just a few moments ago, we collected our various intentions and presented them together to the Father, praying the Lord to “increase the gifts of [his] grace” so that, we, his servants, will be “ever watchful in keeping [his] commands.”[1] This prayer, then, presumes two things about us: first, that we desire to keep his commands and, second, that we know what his commands are.

The commands of the Lord Jesus are not always easy, this we know, but they are always simple for they consist in one thing. The Lord Jesus summarized his commands, saying:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).

We might say that the first and second commandment are really the same because both require love, first to God and then to neighbor; we might also say that they are not separate commands, but one command, since the one flows directly from the other. To love God is to honor him, for it is right and just for the creature to worship the Creator. To love our neighbors is to desire and to work for what is for his or her true and lasting good. Loving in this way is not easy, but it is supremely simple.

The gifts of God’s grace might likewise be simply summarized in one principle gift, a gift named in the final line from the first reading: the “repentance of sins” (Wisdom 12:19). The reality of sin and its consequences have fallen rather out of fashion in recent years and some now even deny any deed or thought can really be sinful. Even within the confessional, too many go so far as to say, “I haven’t really done anything wrong,” and think themselves alright, being, in their own estimation, “a good person.” This is due, in no small part, to the subtlety of the evil one who sows while men sleep and pay little heed (cf. Matthew 13:25). It is also due to our own pride, for we do not like to acknowledge we are not always very lovable and that we fail to love God and neighbor in ways both great and small.
Let me illustrate the Devil’s subtlety with a personal anecdote. One warm summer day perhaps ten years ago, I was returning home from a visit with a few friends dressed in what we priests call “normal people” clothes (this will be important). I stopped at a gas station and after filling up went inside to pay. As soon as I walked through the door, the cashier said to me, “Will you watch the store? I need to use the restroom?” and with that she was gone. A bit taken aback, I did not quite know what to do.
As I waited for her to return, my eyes caught sight of a Snickers ice cream bar, one of the greatest delectables known to man. In my pride, a thought occurred to me: I could take that ice cream bar and nobody would ever know about it. I justified the thought in three ways: first, I was doing the cashier a favor and it is good to be rewarded; second, it was a hot day and the ice cream would cool me down; and, third, I was hungry, and we all know that “Snickers really satisfies.” My argumentation was perfectly logical, but it was wrong.

Certainly, it is good to be rewarded for kind acts (so long as we do not come to expect to be rewarded); it is good to be cooled on a hot day; and it is also good to have our hunger satisfied. However, it is never good to obtain attain any of this through an evil act, through sin. This is way of the evil one, who presents good things to us but suggests we obtain them through an immoral manner; “the end justifies the means” might well be the motto of Satan. I was tempted to obtain three goods by forsaking that which is the greater good, the moral law. (For the record, I did not take the Snickers ice cream bar, nor – as a self-imposed penance – did I buy one that day.)

The evil one continually roams the fields of the Father sowing his seeds. These weeds grow and seek to intertwine their roots among those of the wheat and slowly they poison it. Once poisoned, the wheat produces little or no fruit and is worthless, good only to be collected with “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers” and cast into the fire (Matthew 13:41).

It sometimes happens that we accept the lies of the evil one and give in to his subtle tricks; we sometimes live, act, and think more like weeds than like wheat. The roots of his weeds have grown and spread so far that many who think themselves wheat in the Father’s fields no longer acknowledge right and wrong; they do not keep the Father’s commands and - worse yet – they do not think them important, but see them as something for a bygone era. In his or her pride, the false wheat – the weed -does not acknowledge his or her sin, that in deeds and thoughts, in things done and not done, he or she has fallen short of the mark and has not produced the proper fruit.

Several years ago, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger rightly warned of this danger:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.[2]

How, then, do we distinguish the true from the false? How do we love truly and authentically?

We do so by “be[ing] ready to preserve the grace received from the day of our Baptism, continuing to nourish faith in the Lord that prevents evil from taking root.”[3] It was in Baptism that we rejected Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, yet this rejection must be made time and again throughout our lives. This requires a regular examination of our consciences with one simple question: When and how did I fail to love today?

When we begin to ask this question at the end of every day, our sin will become apparent to us and we will have “good ground for hope” because the Lord is “good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon [him]” (Wisdom 12:19; Psalm 86:9). Here we see that his kindness requires that we first call upon him, that we acknowledge our sin and pray, “Turn toward me, and have pity on me; give your strength to your servant” (Psalm 86:16). It is good for us to remember what Pope Francis has so often said: “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”[4]

All of this, of course, presupposes that we desire to be “fervent in hope, faith, and charity.”[5] Put another way, it presupposes that the primary goal of our lives is that we grow in holiness, that we be true and faithful friends of Jesus, that we produce much fruit and yield a rich harvest (cf. John 12:24). When we think of growing of holiness, we often grow somewhat uncomfortable because we think it is something beyond us and perhaps not even meant for us. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The Lord desires this for each of us. He desires that we be righteous and “shine like the sun in the kingdom of [our] Father” (Matthew 13:43)!

We should not be afraid of holiness or shy away from it; rather, we should desire it with all of our heart! It is only by continual growth in holiness that we will find the satisfaction and fulfillment of our every yearning. And it is only by using the Sacrament of Penance well and regularly that this continual growth can come about. 

Just as at the end of each day we should ask where we failed to love, at the beginning of each day we should ask for the strength to love. We should keep in mind and heart this advice of J.R.R. Tolkien: “To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (+grace), and if we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve.”[6]

[1] Roman Missal, Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 18 April 2005.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 17 July 2011.
[4] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 3.
[5] Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 326.

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