Love is the Measure of Faith

30th Sunday in O.T.; October 29, 2017

EX 22:20-26   Ps 18   1 Thes 1:5c-10   Mt 22:34-40

Deacon Jim McFadden

 

         Today’s Gospel reading reminds us in no uncertain terms that the whole of the Divine Law can be summed up in our love for God and neighbor. Matthew offers an account in which the Pharisees colluded to put Jesus to the test: of the 613 laws in the Torah, which of those is the greatest? Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy, Jesus referenced the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Dt 6:4). Jesus could have stopped there—I mean, who could argue with that? Yet, he adds something extraordinary that may not be readily apparent. He says, “And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). In this case Jesus did not invent the second commandment, but pulled it from the Book of Leviticus (19:18b). What’s so novel about this is that Jesus places these two commandments together—love for God and love of neighbor—revealing that they are in fact inseparable and complimentary.   Simply put, you cannot love God without loving your neighbor and you really can’t love your neighbor without loving God. Prior to his retirement, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), which offered a beautiful commentary on this topic.

Benedict was saying in effect that the visible sign that a Christian is in love with God is the concrete love he shows for his brothers and sisters. The Great Commandment to love God and neighbor is not at the top of the 613 commandments, but at the very center, because it is from the heart that is grounded in love that everything must go and to which everything must return and refer. Think about it: we are made in the image of God Who is Love; therefore, we are most human when we are in love and sharing that love with others.

In the first reading, the requirement to be holy, in the image of God who is holy, included the duty to care for the most vulnerable in our midst. The author specifically speaks of aliens, foreigners, orphans, and widows in the land. What this meant is that these people were very vulnerable and had a difficult time surviving, let alone flourishing. In most cultures of ancient times and, indeed, even today, foreigners were simply objects of contempt, often regarded being inferior.

Now, coming at the heart of the Old Testament, we have the astounding and revolutionary teaching to take care of the aliens, foreigners, and strangers, as well as orphans and widows.

Then we hear that we should have compassion for them. What is compassion? It is a fellow-feeling, to suffer with. We hear in Exodus that you were once aliens in the land of Egypt. Enter now into that space in which you were once a foreigner and stranger; you were once vulnerable. When you go to that space, you will stir up feelings of compassion for widows, orphans, and aliens—there is the biblical call.

To make the point even clearer, the author says that when the weak people are ignored, God becomes angry. When we hear that, don’t think of God as a petulant or disgruntled parent, but rather Someone who wants to set something right. It’s God’s passion to set right human relationships and, therefore, he has a compassion for the marginalized, which runs right through the biblical tradition to the time of Jesus, which then becomes part of the Church’s social justice tradition.

St. Ambrose of Milan who was influential in the conversion of St. Augustine, once said that if you have two coats in the closet, one belongs to you and the other belongs to the poor. This is the heart of our social teaching: the Church cares for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. How fully are we responding to this great demand as a member of the Church? Do we have compassion for the aliens and foreigners in our midst?

Do we stand alongside Pope Francis who has spoken out on immigration issues since the beginning of this papacy? Shortly after being installed as the Bishop of Rome, he said, “Migrants trust that they will encounter acceptance, solidarity, and help, that they will meet people who will sympathize with the distress and tragedy experienced by others, recognize the values and resources the latter have to offer, and are open to sharing humanly and materially with the needy and disadvantage” (Message for the 2013 World Day of Migrants and Refugees; October 12, 2012).

Matthew 25 makes very clear that we have the duty to care for the most vulnerable in our society even if they are aliens and foreigners because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus brings this Covenant law to fulfillment. How so? He has united in His person, in his flesh, both divinity and humanity, a single mystery of Love.

Now, in the light of the Incarnation, love is the measure of our faith, and faith is the soul of love. We can no longer separate a religious life, a pious life, from concrete service to brothers and sisters—to the real people we encounter who are in need. We can no longer divide prayer, encountering God in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, from listening to the other, accompanying them on their journey, and especially tending to their wounds. Once again, love is the measure of our faith! How much do you love? How much do you serve the weak and vulnerable? How is your faith? We have faith as we love. And faith is the soul of love. Amen.

 

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Whose Image Is on your Face?

29th Sunday in O.T.; October 22, 2017

Is 45:1,4-6   Ps 96   1 Thes 1:1-5b   Mt 22:15-21

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison & SJB

 

                        We’ve just heard one of the famous passages of the entire Gospel: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). It’s teasingly straightforward, so straightforward that it can’t be made simpler, and yet its meaning is not so obvious.

Take this expression: American Catholics. What is the adjective and what is the noun? It’s important that we get it right because one interpretation reflects our right relationship with God. A false interpretation lands us in idolatry. How so? Some years ago the Pew Research Foundation polled Catholics as to what had their ultimate allegiance—the nation or their Catholic faith—and 60% of those surveyed opted for their country over their faith. That’s idolatry because there is only one true God and the U.SA. is not God and, therefore, is not due our absolute allegiance, but only our relative commitment: ‘relative’ to what: relative to God’s purposes. And, when there is a conflict, we give God our ultimate due.

Before we unpack what the Gospel quote may mean, let’s turn to our first reading taken from (second) Book of Isaiah, which tells us that God is one, there is no other; there are no other gods other than the Lord. Nothing trumps God—even the powerful Cyrus. Emperor of the Persians, he was part of larger plan, namely Salvation History in which this non-believer would play a part in allow the Israelites to return home from their Babylonian Captivity. There is God and there are his creatures: therefore, only God can claim our absolute allegiance in which we surrender our whole heart and soul because he is the ground of our being and our destiny. He is the center of our lives and everything else, including our national allegiance, is secondary and relative to him and his purposes.

With this backdrop, let’s now look at the Gospel passage about the legitimacy of the tribute paid to Caesar which contains Jesus’ famous one-liner.   Jesus was being goaded by the Pharisees, who wanted to give him a religious exam in order to trip him up, to trap him. What is the trap? Would Jesus align himself with the foreign occupiers by accepting payment of taxes to Rome, and so offend the Jewish religious sensibilities or would he reject payment of taxes to Rome, which would be deemed seditious and potentially treasonous to the Roman occupiers.

In the past Jesus was very comfortable in avoiding questions designed to trap him, but in this case, regarding the source of authority he felt compelled to address the relationship between God and emperor, or church and state. This was a relevant and urgent question as it is today.

Jesus asked the questioners, therefore, to “show me the coin used for the tax,” and they showed him a denarius. Its image was most likely of Tiberius, who styled his coins to as “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus,” thereby attributing divinity both to his father and himself. When the Pharisees identify the coin as Caesar’s, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

            So, who is owed what? The tribute to Caesar must be paid because his image is on the coin. Give to Caesar what is his due: taxes are needed to run the country. But, for a human being we do not put Caesar’s image on our countenance. Rather, we carry in ourselves another image, that of God, and it is to him alone that each one owes his or her existence. Caesar doesn’t give us our being, but God alone does. That’s why God is due our absolute allegiance and not the state.

An anonymous writer of the Early Church put this beautifully: “The image of God is not impressed on gold, but on the human race. Caesar’s coin is gold, God’s coin is humanity…Therefore give your riches to Caesar but keep for God the unique innocence of our conscience, where God is contemplated….Caesar, in fact, asked that his image be on every coin, but God chose man, whom he created to reflect his glory” (Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42).

O.K., we give to Caesar his little denarius of that is what he wants, but that is not what really matters. But, here’s the key: in the ultimate scheme of things, everything belongs to God! Since God is the creator of all, everything belongs to God including Caesar!

Brothers and sisters, this calls for acknowledging and professing publicly—in the face of any kind of temporal power—that God alone is the Lord of mankind, that there is no other.

            That is why we (render) “to God the things that are God’s,” which means being docile to the Father’s will, devoting our lives to him and working for his kingdom of mercy, love, and peace.

So, People of God, who’s image is on your face? Caesar or God’s? If it’s God, then give God his due: namely, give him everything you are and everything you have. In so doing embrace the mission of the Church, which is exactly the same as Christ’s: to speak of God to all nations, to remember that he alone is due our allegiance because he, not Caesar, is our absolute sovereign, and to remind all, especially Christians who have been seduced by culture, who have lost sight of their true identity, of the right of God to what belongs to him, that is OUR VERY LIFE! Amen.

It’s Party Time!

28th Sunday in O.T.; Oct. 15, 2017

Is 25:6-10a   Ps 23   Phil 4:12-20   Mt 22:1-10

Deacon Jim McFadden

 

            Most of us like a good party. Today’s gospel focuses on a royal wedding party, which can tell us a lot about the Kingdom of God. A beautiful image used in Scripture is to describe Heaven as like a wedding celebration and royal feast given by the King for his newly wed-Son and bride. Just think of the best party you ever attended, then multiply that celebration a zillion times because Heaven is the feast of all feasts and the Lord of heaven and earth has sent each one of us a personal invitation to the most important banquet of all.

The prophet Isaiah envisions this future banquet in which “the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Is 25:6). But, it gets even better: “…He will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever.” Yes, the place of this Great Banquet is known not only for its food and wine, but for the universality of salvation and the conquering of death.

That’s why he doesn’t want us to hangout on the fringes or be a run-of-the-mill guest; no, there is something special going on here. You see, Jesus is the bridegroom and we, the Body of Christ, are his bride! That’s why our invitation is so special. And, this invitation has come at a huge cost because our Lord Jesus offered his life as an atoning sacrifice for all the bad things we’ve done in our life. He’s absorbed our sin, he became sin on our behalf, he died to it, and through the power of his Resurrection he has overcome both sin and death and has invited us to this incredible celebration. Why would Jesus do this? Why does he bother sending us this unique invitation? The only explanation that makes any sense is that God is in love with us. He gives everything He is for our good. All we have to do is to accept this invitation to be united with him her in now and in the heavenly Kingdom to come.

In our Gospel reading, we hear that perversely and sadly, some decline the invitation. Decline the invitation to eternal life? Decline the invitation to a life of communion, fellowship, and harmony which brings unsurpassed joy and peace. Who would want to decline that? Only those that are incredibly stupid or, as Jesus puts it more patiently and pastorally, “Father, forgive them because they know not what they do?”

I think that’s why the angry king ends up punishing those who refused his invitation and who mistreated his servants. It’s not that God is seeking revenge, but there are consequences for our choices. If we live out of our true identity as being imago Dei and a child of God, then we will be in Christ and will participate in Life authentically because Jesus is Life itself. But, if we refuse to live out of our True Self, and, instead, opt for the illusory False Self that runs amok in this institution, then we will drift away from Life as we slowly die inside.

There are two story lines in this parable. The king sent out the invitations well in advance to his subjects so that they could have plenty of time to prepare for the feast. Despite the invitation, the invited guests insult the king by refusing to come when it was time celebrate. They made light of the King’s request and put their own agenda ahead of him. They were basically saying to him that you are not the Center of my life, I am. My life revolves around my inflated ego and it does not orbit around you. Moreover, even though you are God, I’m going to act that I am in control and you’re not. Is this insulting to God or what! The King’s anger is justified when we openly refuse to give the honor that he is due. It’s not that God needs our praise and glory—God doesn’t need anything—but when we do honor him, we are simply submitting to the one who is Life itself. We’re opting for sanity over willful ignorance.

Brothers, this parable is very much in our face: while God wants us to share in the joy of his kingdom, there is a blunt warning about the consequences of refusing his Son, the Messiah, our Savior.

The second thread of the parable focuses on those who have no claim on the king and who would never have considered getting such an invitation. They may say to themselves, “I’ve done bad things; I’ve hurt people. I’m not worthy to enter the celebration.” Well, you’ve got that right, but you’ve got a lot of company because no one “deserves” to be invited. As we say prior to receiving Communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter into my roof, but only say the Word and my soul shall be healed.” The invitation is all about gratuitous grace—undeserved, unmerited, simply given out of unconditioned love. Grace is a free gift, but it comes with awesome responsibilities.

If you are going to accept the invitation, you have to come “dressed” for the party.   You have to come prepared. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian who died for his faith under Hitler’s Nazi regime, contrasts cheap grace with costly grace. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. …Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it follows us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

Brothers and sisters, God invites us to his banquet which you have received beginning with your Baptism and is being renewed every time you come to Holy Mass. He offers you the invitation so that you may share in his joy. Are you ready to feast at the Lord’s banquet table?