Thursday, September 19, 2019

25th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 16:1-13) Responsibility

In my hometown some years ago, a man took his own life, as sadly often happens.  He was a great family man, involved in his local parish, well known and respected and he had also become very wealthy. Everyone was shocked. After his death it was discovered that he had got much of his wealth through fraud and it was about to come to light. It seems he couldn’t face it and he took his own life. A terrible tragedy that no one would want to happen.

One of my sisters in-law, Claire, used to work as a stenographer (one of the people in court who records every word spoken in each case). She witnessed many court cases and I remember her saying that many of the cases of fraud and corruption, especially on a large scale, become so complicated that no one can follow them and they eventually get rejected. It seems that the bigger the crime the more likely you are to get away with it. One of the judges said to her one time, ‘If you want to get away with a crime, don’t steal something from Walmart (Dunnes Stores equivalent in the US), steal Walmart!’

We are used to hearing many stories of this kind of corruption and it is always so frustrating because there is usually little or nothing we can do about it. The last world economic crash came about because of greed and dishonesty. In the first reading, which was written about 800 years before Christ, the prophet Amos refers to the same problem: greed and corruption in order to gain money. They had the same problems back then. We are convinced that money will be the answer to our problems and yet the Lord tells us to be very careful with it, because it can easily lead us away from what is important.

Everyone will be held accountable for their actions when they come before God and that is good news, because it means that even if people get away with corruption now, they will not get away with it when they come before God.  If we are making any effort to live by the ways of God, then we have nothing to be afraid of. Jesus constantly assures us of God’s mercy, but those who deliberately use and abuse others, to gain wealth, will have to atone for it.

Recently I was watching a series on TV called Narcos, about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and El Chapo, two of the most notorious drug Lords in Columbia and Mexico. I stopped watching it after a while, because I found myself getting so angry at the brutality of these people and what they got away with, in order to gain money. Most of them just murdered their way to the top. When El Chapo was eventually caught—he is currently in prison in Colorado—he confessed to having been responsible for the deaths of between 2000 and 3000 people. I couldn’t help wondering what it will be like for these people when they come before God.

El Chapo's arrest
There is nothing wrong with having wealth—in case you think this is meant to make you feel guilty!—so long as we realize that we have a responsibility to use it properly. I have often heard it said from people who have done very well, ‘I worked hard for my money.’  No doubt they did, but the poor work hard too, but their circumstances are different. Many of them are trapped in the poverty cycle. They couldn’t afford education, so they can only get unskilled work, which means that they can’t afford to give their children a good education. They are trapped.

If you have done well, thank God for it, but remember, who gives us the opportunities, the health, the education, the ability, the intelligence? Everything is a gift from God. If God has blessed us in this way, we should be grateful, but it means that we also have a responsibility to use it well. Perhaps the Lord gave you money specifically to help people in various situations and that is where we must be careful to do exactly that. Money is a very useful tool, but it is only a tool, which we can use for good or evil. As people who try and follow the Lord we must be especially careful that we do not become slaves to money, or see money as an end in itself. It is a tool and we must use it wisely and this applies to me as a priest as much as everyone else. People are very generous with me as a priest and I have to be careful that I don’t just line my pockets instead of making good use of it. 

Wealth (if we have wealth) and talents have been entrusted to us for a reason. If we stay focused on the Lord, we will know how to use it wisely.

You cannot serve both God and money.’

Thursday, September 12, 2019

24th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 15:1-32) Return of the prodigal son. The Father carries our shame.

This mass that you are at today, may be the last mass you will ever attend. It may be the last mass I get to celebrate. None of us knows. Two weeks ago, one of our parishioners was at Sunday mass. He died that night. It was the last mass that he would ever attend. That is something to think about, because that is the reality for all of us.

The fact that Jesus taught using parables, is a great compliment to our intelligence. What I mean is this: to understand a parable you have to think about it. If you are searching for the truth in it, you will find it. This means that Jesus is inviting us to think about what he is saying, so that we will come to know what he is teaching us. He is not just speaking to us like children, but acknowledging our intelligence. He is inviting us to search for the truth.

In the first century, there was a tradition, that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would break a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him and he would be publicly shamed and humiliated.

In this story, the prodigal son, having squandered his inheritance, was now coming back to the community. For him to have asked for it in the first place was the equivalent of having wished his father dead to his face. He couldn’t have insulted his family more. Then he wastes all the hard-earned money his family had made. Now he is coming home to face total shame and humiliation, not just from the family, but from the whole community.

Then it says that the father ran to him. In middle eastern culture at that time, a man, would never, ever, run, because to do so he would have to hike up his tunic so that he wouldn’t trip, but this would show his bare legs and that would be considered shameful. So why did the father run? Not only because of his joy to see his son return, but also so that he would get to him before the rest of the community, so that he wouldn’t have to go through that shameful ceremony of being publicly humiliated and cut off from the people. The father was prepared to be shamed himself, in order to spare his son the humiliation. This is pointing directly to the shame that Jesus took on for us, dying on the cross, which was considered the most shameful way to die, in order that we might have the happiness God intended for us; the inheritance God wants for us.

What it says more than anything else, is that God has no interest in condemning us, only in bringing us back to himself and that is probably one of the most encouraging things that our faith teaches us. God has no interest in condemning us. God is willing to be shamed, in order that we might receive our inheritance, that is, heaven.

In the parable, when the father welcomes the son, notice how there are no words of condemnation, or accusation. All he does is welcome the son and celebrate. The fact that he put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, also meant that his place in the family was fully restored. Slaves did not wear sandals.

Then there is also the older son, who has been faithful, but is seething with resentment at the younger son and how he is now being treated. He is also very insulting to the father in the way he speaks to him. He does not address him with a title and he accuses him of favoritism. But the father is equally loving towards him.

The parable of the one lost sheep is the same. It is telling us that God will go to the ends of the earth to bring us home. God only wants our happiness and will do everything to help us reach it, except force us. God will never force us to do anything because He has given us free will. That means that we can lose the possibility of heaven. We have to be careful about how we live, because our actions have consequences. God will always forgive us if we ask for forgiveness, but we cannot just presume it.

If everyone automatically went to heaven, regardless of how they lived, then God would not be just. The Lord warns us many times that our actions have consequences and we need to take that seriously. God only wants our happiness and will do everything to reach it, but we must play our part too.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

23rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 14:25-33)) The need for forgiveness

Corrie Ten Boom
There is an extraordinary true story about a woman by the name of Corrie Ten Boom, a Protestant, living in Holland during the Second World War. She lived with her sister and father and they used to read the bible every evening after dinner. During the war as Holland was occupied by the Nazis and Jewish people began disappearing, they ended up hiding people in their home, although they didn’t set out to do this. Eventually they were caught and sent to one of the Concentration camps in Germany called Ravensbruck. Her sister and father both died there, but she survived and was eventually released.  

When she returned home she began working to help the many people who were so hurt by the war and she felt above all that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness. And so she did and she was invited to speak all over the country and then in other countries. While speaking in Germany one day, a man came up to her after her talk and thanked her for this message of forgiveness. He said, ‘It is good to know that Jesus forgives all our sins.’ She recognised him as one of the SS officers who had been in charge of their prison and who was responsible for the death of her father and sister. As he extended his hand to her, she found herself freezing up and unable to respond, but she realised that if she did not forgive this man then all her preaching would be meaningless. So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to forgive this man for her and finally she was able to put out her hand to him. The book is called The Hiding Place. She wrote:
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

One of the hardest things that any of us are faced with is trying to forgive people who have hurt us. Often the people who hurt us the most are the people closest to us. When people say to me that they are angry with someone, it nearly always indicates that they need to forgive that person. Let me try and clear up a few misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not.

Forgiveness is a decision of the will, as opposed to something we feel like doing. Most of us rarely feel like forgiving someone and if we were to wait until we actually felt like it, we would probably not forgive at all. When I forgive someone, I make a decision to forgive that person, because the Lord is asking me to, not because I feel like it. The reason why it is so important to do that is because when we forgive someone, we open up the door to God’s grace to help us begin to heal. If I refuse to forgive someone, I am blocking God from helping me to heal from the hurt. We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are angry with.

We may think that if I say I forgive someone I am saying that what they did doesn't matter. When we forgive we are not saying that, or that it no longer mattersd, or that the hurt is all gone. But when we refuse to forgive someone, we are the ones who suffer. The anger, hurt and resentment eats away at us inside. It is a terrible thing to meet people late in their life who have continually refused to forgive. You can see the bitterness in them and it is a sad sight to see. None of us want to end up like that. The good thing is that it is never too late to forgive.

It is easy to think that if I don’t forgive someone they will go on suffering because of what they did. The truth is that they may not even be aware of the hurt they caused us anymore. We are the ones who suffer. We are the ones who lose out. The first step in the process of healing from the hurt is to make the decision to forgive them and say the words. ‘Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to.’ It doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be alright, or that we will suddenly love that person. In fact we may need to say those words again and again, but slowly we begin to heal. When we make the decision to forgive, we allow God to heal us, because we are the ones who are injured.

All of us make mistakes and do wrong. We are well aware of that. I’m quite sure that all of us expect and hope that God will forgive us, but Jesus was very clear that we also need to forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves. Jesus gave some very strong stories about people who refused to forgive, finishing with the words: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from the heart’ (Matthew 18:35). In another place Jesus says:
If you come to the altar to make your offering and there remember that your brother has something against you. Go and be reconciled with your brother first. Then come and make your offering’ (Matthew 5:23-24). 

Even if it is the other person who has a problem with us, we are asked to at least be willing to reconcile, to reach out to them. If they don’t accept it, that is their problem, but we must not be the one to refuse to reconcile.

I remember the story of two brothers who lived in an apartment block next door to each other and they had a falling out over something. They refused to speak to each other and would have nothing to do with each other. Eventually one of them began to leave a small bag of candy outside the door of the other and then the other brother did something similar. It was their way of saying I forgive you and I’m sorry, even though no words were spoken.

We also need to forgive ourselves for the sins we have committed. So many people carry the guilt and shame of sins from years ago. If we have asked for forgiveness then God has forgiven us, because He has promised us that. By dying on Calvary Jesus won that forgiveness for us. All we have to do is ask for it and it is ours, no matter how terrible the sin was. God assures us of his forgiveness for anyone who asks. We will always carry the memory, because that is the damage done by the sin, but we have the freedom to know that we are forgiven.

Finally, remember the lady I mentioned at the beginning, Corrie Ten Boom. When she was faced with having to forgive the man responsible for the death of her sister and father, she found it nearly impossible, but she prayed for the grace and it was God who enabled her to do it. By our own strength it is often nearly impossible to forgive, but that is where we turn to the Lord and ask him to help us, and He does.

Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…