Monday, February 27, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46

Today’s Gospel reading is something Jesus taught very close to the end of His earthly ministry. It expands upon and extends the Sermon on the Mount. If we follow the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapters 5 - 7 (and elsewhere), then we will find ourselves among those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the imprisoned, and more. The corporal acts of mercy are part and parcel of Christian discipleship (i.e. being a learner and follower of Jesus). 

For those who reduce Christ to merely a moral teacher or spiritual do-gooder, today’s passage injects a healthy dose of reality. He is teaching authoritatively a very strict bifurcation of those who enter into rewards versus punishment. There is no wiggle room. No way to argue back to Him at the end of the age that we were too busy or simply unaware of what was expected of us. The Lord Himself is present among those who are in need of the mercies outlined. How we treat them is a direct outworking of our inner state, it corresponds 1:1 to the disposition of our hearts toward both God and each other. 

Brutal honesty: when I am self-absorbed, I don’t want to do anything for others. I only want to wallow in the ‘me’ of the moment. “I” become everything. I walk past the beggar, ignore the naked, and forget the suffering. Jesus’ teachings are hard, nay, impossible if we continually get in our own way. And that is quite often, which is a good reason why we return to them daily. We cannot l merely think ourselves into the Kingdom of heaven. We cannot live the Christian life, the daily walk with the Lord, from our armchairs.

Christianity is not a philosophical system or self-help program. It is a lived existence in communion with the living God. Empowered by ever-moving grace, we must get up out of the chair. We must walk. We must do things that require us to go beyond ourselves. It sounds self-righteous when we hear this from others, even priests or pastors. “How dare someone judge me? Who are they?!” However, Holy Scripture makes these things quite plain to us. We know it is absurd to shoot the messenger, even if we don’t like how they say it to us. Even if they are hypocritical themselves. Instead, let us explore the words of the messengers (e.g the Gospel evangelists, and clergymen), take them seriously, and try to think about other people the way Jesus tells us to think of them. Let us pray and ask God to open small doors of opportunity for the corporal works of mercy. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11

Today’s Gospel tells us about the temptation of Christ. After a period of fasting, Jesus is hungry. Naturally, this is the first place Satan tempts Him. “Turn these stones into bread.” Likewise, our temptations to sin come in the ways we can most rationalize them after the fact. And our sins often involve what we think of are little things that, if we really think about it, might not even be a sin. God made us physiologically to need energy. Certainly, Jesus has low blood sugar at this point. He has just fasted for so long! He has done something good for God, as we might say. Doesn’t He deserve to use some of His divine power to make something to eat for Himself? Just the same, don’t we deserve a little indulgence here or there, you know, since we’ve been so good? 

Besides convincing people he doesn’t exist, perhaps the most cunning move Satan has made is to convince people that he (or his minions) only show up in order to tempt us to monstrous sins, like clubbing our fellow traffic mate over the head. Yet, if we read today’s passage carefully, we can see that the first temptation is quite subtle. We don’t usually get tempted to hit someone with a hammer. But we are tempted to self-indulgence and justification of our sins. We are frequently tempted to think we deserve something we don’t. We are tempted to little cuts here and there against our neighbor; little micro-judgments that slowly accumulate into hatred within our souls until it eventually spills outward. We must realize that Satan hates us, and at the same time, he is playing the long game, as it were. He’s not just interested in your little white lie right now, he’s much more interested in your soul dying one day. 

How much more important, then, is it for us to heed the words of Jesus. In rebuking the first temptation, Jesus quotes (and thereby elevates) a teaching from the book of Deuteronomy. We do not live by bread alone. We must depend upon every ‘word’ that comes forth from the mouth of God. We read in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus is the very Logos (word) of God. Jesus Himself proceeds from the ‘mouth of God’ in the most profound sense. Being truly God, He speaks to us as God. We encounter Him as the living Word. We must depend more on Jesus, who proceeds from God, than the physical food we take. Certainly, without bread, we will die bodily. But without the bread from heaven, we will die a much longer and more painful death. It is this bread that Satan tempts us to discard. Twisting our minds to rationalize it away as something other than it is. 

Bodily death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. As it suppresses divine truth, modernity thinks otherwise, running in perpetual panic to stave off the nothingness to which they believe we all go. Of course, we absolutely must not reduce these physical needs to nothingness, either in ourselves or our fellow man. Rather, we rightly order them in a both/and, which follows upon the teaching of the Lord. We trust that God will care for us, and that we will receive food for the journey. Primarily in the Eucharist, and secondarily in physical nourishment. The former is of greater absolute importance than the latter.  

The more nourishment we receive from the Word of God, the stronger we become in the totality of our being, body and soul. From this, we are less susceptible to the temptations of the evil one. We will then not be hungry or thirsty for spiritual food and drink, and we thus will not let our hunger for purely bodily nourishment overpower us into indulgence. Further, we will hunger and thirst for the right things. For the righteousness of God, for the consummation of the Kingdom, and for beatitude.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Gospel Reflection Luke 5:27-32

St. Luke 5:27-32

Today’s Gospel reading tells us about the calling of St. Matthew (Levi). A Jewish tax collector in ancient Israel would have been the epitome of a social outcast. It was abhorrent to the Jewish people that some of their own would cooperate with a foreign, pagan occupier. Add to that the fact that such cooperation involved unjust and extortionist tax measures. Rome had to pay for their conquests somehow and it was usually from the nations they forced into subjugation 

For Jesus to call a tax collector to be one of His disciples is quite extraordinary when to even associate with such a person was considered practically defiling oneself (making unclean and unfit for Temple worship and sacrifice, to be outside the camp of Israel). The Pharisees are quick to jump on this. “We thought you were supposed to be a holy man of God,” we can imagine them thinking or perhaps even saying to Jesus. To top it off, Jesus even attends what seems to be quite a feast with Matthew’s crowd!

If we are honest, we can sympathize with the Pharisees here. What would we think if our priest or pastor was hanging out with a group of people who committed high treason against the United States? What would we think if we saw a friar sitting with drug addicts or alcoholics, having a good time? Our first response might be scandal. Again, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves. 

The major key to understanding Jesus’ action is found in the verse before today’s Gospel (in the order of the USCCB liturgical readings). Ezekiel 33:11 reads “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord, but rather in his conversion, that he may live.” When Jesus answers the Pharisees, we are to see that there is no limit to the love of God and no limitations on the call to repentance. The prophet Isaiah very clearly informs us that God is not like we are (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the absence of divine grace, our natural compassion and sympathy has limitations. God is not limited. 

We would most likely be scandalized by Jesus' conduct as the Pharisees were. This would cause us to miss something profound. Like the prodigal son, there is no one so far off from God that He forgets or forsakes them. Those who are sick, racked as we are with sin, hatred, bitterness, and the like are in desperate need of medicine. The medicinal grace of God is offered freely to all, no matter where they find themselves. Whether we are in a tax collectors booth in ancient Israel, on skid row in modern Los Angeles, or anywhere in between, the Lord is calling us to repentance. He is calling out for us with the cure for what ails us. As always, the question remains whether we will follow the example of Matthew and say ‘yes’ or turn away to our own devices.


Friday, February 24, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 9:14-15

 Today’s Gospel reading gives us a short snippet of dialogue between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist. Fasting seems to be one among only a few points of agreement between the Pharisees and the Baptizer. We know St. John the Baptist was an ascetic and his followers shared this life. Fasting was prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures (Is 58:1-9a, et. al.). Yet, for some reason Jesus’ disciples did not fast. In retrospect, the reason is made obvious to us by the Gospel Evangelists. However, at the time and context of this conversation, it was a worthwhile question. We must sometimes fight the tendency to look down our enlightened noses at biblical figures, like the twelve disciples of Jesus, who didn’t “know better.” We have the great benefit of the whole story in systematic form, infallible  interpretation, and millennia of lived tradition. 


To the question about fasting, Jesus reminds us that there is an appropriate time to fast. As well, there is an appropriate time to feast. Ecclesiastes chapter three  tells us there is a time for everything. A time to mourn, dance, weep, laugh. All of these are part of the human experience on this side of eternity. Since we are part of a symbiotic whole, our lives mirror that of nature; synced up with rhythmic cycles. Summer and winter. Seed time and harvest. Exertion and rest. Modern man has largely moved away from this realization, in the name of progress toward nothingness wrapped up in hedonistic comforts. Insodoing, he further alienating himself from his ancestors and his very nature. In a more colloquial sense, Christians sometimes speak of going through ‘seasons’ of life. Although frequently a platitude offered to quickly pivot what would otherwise be a meaningful conversation, there is a large kernel of truth in this. We all go through seasons. We mourn the death of a loved one who passes away. We feast when celebrating a wedding or the birth of a new child. The vissicitudes of life cannot be avoided. They must be embraced. The proverbial changing seasons are bound up with who and what we are.

The Bible tells us that we will one day attend a great feast. The marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). When we enter this feast, by God’s grace, things will be such that the cycles of tears and mourning will be no more. We will enjoy God forever. It is the earthly pilgrimage when we cycle through fasting so that we can better appreciate the blessing of the feast and therefore better understand the heavenly banquet we are called to attend one day. The perennial push/pull of life’s rhythms and seasons are part and parcel of our progress in holiness. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Gospel Reflection Luke 9:22-25

Jesus offers us more counter-intuitive words in today’s Gospel passage. What could be more fundamental than the instinct to save one’s own life? Especially in the face of grave danger.  How can that be wrong? Can we not help but live from the first-person perspective? Can we truly operate from anything but the “I”? 


The incredible stories of human survival against the odds and elements are awe-inspiring. Without a strong desire to survive, and to save their lives, the tales of Eddie Rickenbacker, Lou Zapanieri, and so many others may not have been told. Yet, I suspect that it was not merely a desire to survive for their own sake that those who continue through the crucible of human endurance forge ahead. Without a sense of the transcendent, without something to survive for, without something to look forward to, even the most iron will would melt. 

One of my favorite lines from The Chosen series comes from late in the first season when Jesus says to Simon (Peter) “Get used to different.” There is no more concise way to describe the teachings of Jesus. Different. Indeed, He spoke with the authority, and in the very person of, Almighty God. He spoke not as the scribes, Pharisees, and priests. As He looks forward to His passion, the Lord tells us that seeking to save our lives will cause us to forfeit them. The first instinct, self-preservation, is not the right direction ultimately. Like the Lord, our lives must be lived in an other-centric way. First, toward God. Our lives are not our own. Secondly, toward our fellow man. Without a sense of eternal destiny, neither of these is possible. 

To deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus no matter what happens to us requires a different perspective. Our entire orientation must be radically changed to the divine life. Toward that which is beyond this world.  It is only in this way that the temporal lives we live can be infused with ultimate meaning. We live our lives to the fullest when we live for others. When we take the focus away from us, as difficult as that might be most days, we live more. Counter-intuitive? Yes. True all the same.

Sin forces us to turn progressively inward. When we sin, it is because we choose to indulge instead of denying ourselves. The more we habitually deny that first inward turn, the freer we become to live and do as Christ taught. Our own power is insufficient to achieve this, however. We must humbly receive the grace of God. By God’s grace, the great saints, like Polycarp (who we remember today), were able to live Christ’s teaching to the end. They provide the model for us to follow in living out today’s Gospel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

In today’s gospel reading, we find three sections that correspond to each major aspect of Lent: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. 

What is interesting here, and possibly easy to overlook in our familiarity,  is that the Lord speaks of doing ‘righteous deeds’. In the biblical sense, righteousness is closely connected with justice and fairness. This term also speaks to divine approval. It is easy to see how these are linked together, especially when we think of the divine approval we receive by God’s grace through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Earlier in the beatitudes, Jesus tells us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are happy and will be satisfied. 

Yet, the more immediate context of Jesus' teaching here is justice and fairness to our fellow man. The way we act toward others has a direct correlation to our standing before God. The Church teaches the Corporal Works of Mercy, which present ways we might do the righteous deeds Jesus asks of us in today’s verse and elsewhere (cf Matthew 25). 

Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. To be just is to render to each, God and neighbor,  what is rightly due. It is the virtue that perfects the will. Thus, in the end (and yet again), Jesus is teaching something very radical. Especially to the modern, autonomous, and interiorly oriented self; our fellow man is rightly due something from us. In the most real sense possible, we have a profound obligation to our fellow man. And so we answer back to Cain that, indeed, we are our brothers' keeper. We are to be intimately concerned with our fellow man. Not just ‘sending them good vibes’ or thinking of them from time to time. We are concerned with our wallets, our time, and our focused prayer life. 

There is something else quite striking about the beginning of this passage, and it runs throughout each section. Jesus presupposes that those who follow Him are doing these things. He does not say “if you do righteous deeds” or “if you fast”. Instead, He says “when” you do these things. We should take this to mean that it is not really optional. At least for those who claim to follow Christ. The Sermon on the Mount most poignantly presents to us the heart of the Father. If we want to know God’s will, here it is in plain language. Do righteous deeds. Pray. Fast. 

Since there is nothing accidental in Sacred Scripture, we might also note the order of the practices Jesus illuminates. Righteous deeds come before prayer, followed by fasting. We should not overlook this as we proceed through the Lenten season. It might be that our prayer life will be enriched, and we will draw closer to God, by first thinking of others before we recess to our respective prayer closets and commence our fasts.