Sunday, September 21, 2014

Homily for 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 21, 2014
Matt 20: 1-16
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matt 20: 1).

The parable that Jesus tells today is usually called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  But the focus of the parable isn’t really on the workers; it’s on the owner of the vineyard.  At least one commentator aptly notes that it should really be called the Parable of the Compassionate Landowner.

1st, some context.  In the 2 passages in Matthew’s Gospel right before this parable, a rich young man has turned away from following Jesus, who apparently has told him that just keeping the commandments isn’t sufficient for salvation; he must give away his wealth and become totally reliant on God, like Jesus (19:16-22).  Jesus then remarks to his disciples, “It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (19:23)—an opinion that runs against everything that society believed then (and believes now).

Then the disciples question Jesus, particularly about the reward they might anticipate as his followers who have given up a lot of earthly goods.  He answers that they’ll be well rewarded with eternal life (19:27-29), and he concludes by saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30), linking all that to today’s parable.

That saying of Jesus announces that he’s turning things upside down.  In our 1st reading, we heard something similar from the prophet Isaiah:  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (55:8).  Jesus is reversing the way we are to judge everything in our lives.  It’s the same saying with which he ends our parable today, and it also appears in the middle of the parable when the vineyard owner instructs his steward to issue their pay to the laborers.  The parable illustrates the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says—“the kingdom of heaven is like this”—and the kingdom doesn’t work the way most of us think it should.

What happens in the parable?  A vineyard owner goes to the village marketplace looking for day laborers, as a contractor or landscaper might do today at the DB Community Center in Port Chester, off Mamaroneck Ave. near the A&P in Mamaroneck, on Union Ave. in New Rochelle, or in numerous other designated spots in our area.  This landowner needs a certain number of men for the day (only men and youths in 1st-century Palestine; the women are home baking bread, washing clothes, fetching water and firewood, tending the small children), and he hires that many, agreeing to pay them a denarius, a silver coin that was a common laborer’s standard wage for a day—a basic wage to meet a family’s essential needs for the next day.

But the landowner returns again and again to the market:  at midmorning, at noon, in midafternoon, and late in the afternoon.  This is not the usual practice.  In fact, it’s not usual that the landowner would be doing any of this hiring; that’s the job of the estate’s steward (the foreman in our translation).  Doesn’t the owner know how many men he’ll need for the day’s work—pruning the vines, hoeing the weeds, watering, or whatever?  If not, what kind of a businessman is he?

As we see, he’s not really a businessman but a philanthropist.  He goes out repeatedly not because he needs workers but because all those men need work.  They need their meager income to live on.  There’s no unemployment, no health insurance, no social security, no soup kitchen.  If they don’t work, their families may not eat tomorrow, and if they work only part of the day, their families may eat only a little.

The landowner, thus, is extremely compassionate, 1st, by returning 4 times to the market and offering work to these unfortunate men; 2d, by giving them work to do and not merely a handout, which, most of us understand, lessens one’s self-image; and 3d, as we hear, by paying all of them a full day’s wage, not out of “fairness” or justice or duty, but out of compassionate generosity.

Did those later workers earn a denarius?  Did they deserve one?

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like this.  There’s also a subtle change in the word used for the landowner that’s not reflected in our English translation.  In Matthew’s Greek text, vv. 1 and 11 use the word oikodespote, a head of household.  In the other places where our English text has “landowner,” Matthew’s Greek has simply “he”—except in v. 8, where, speaking to his steward or foreman, he is called kurios, “lord.”  Subtly, then, we’re being told that this is the Lord’s way of operating, or managing a “vineyard” called the kingdom of heaven.

What is that way, that way that turns things upside down?  Compassion for the needy—whether they’re needy in purely material terms (food, shelter, education, health care, personal safety) or needy in terms of grace, forgiveness, salvation.

Note too that the Lord goes personally to look for these needy men; he doesn’t send his steward.  Jesus looks for his people personally; he goes out looking for them, like the shepherd who loses one sheep (Matt 18:12-14); he doesn’t wait for them to come to him, doesn’t dismiss them, saying, “Too bad, but I have all the laborers I need.”  In another parable of the kingdom of heaven, a king sends his servants out far and wide to fill his banquet hall for his son’s wedding; he’s not satisfied till there’s no room left (Matt 22:1-10).

What do the laborers do to deserve such compassion?  Just show up; just answer the landowner’s invitation.  So we do need to do something to attain that reward we call the kingdom of heaven:  we have to say “yes” to Jesus, rather than telling him we don’t need him, like the rich young man who walked away from Jesus; we have to go where he wishes with our lives:  “You too go into my vineyard.”  But he’ll be generous with us far beyond our expectations or desserts.

What about the workers who “bore the day’s burden and the heat” and got only one denarius (20:12)?  For Matthew toward the end of the 1st century, perhaps they represent the Jewish people, who followed God and kept the Law for so long, and then saw the Gentiles, too, being invited suddenly to be saved by Christ’s grace and freely invited into the kingdom of heaven.  In our time, there are still people who look down on others and don’t think they’re worthy of God’s attention and mercy.

But the last shall be first.  Everyone’s welcome in God’s kingdom.  Just say “yes.”

Change at Salesiana Publishers

Change at Salesiana Publishers

Salesiana Publishers is the publication arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco in the U.S. For some years (in the 1970s-1990s) it went by the names Don Bosco Films & Filmstrips and Don Bosco Multimedia.

Since about 1995, SP has handled primarily books, pamphlets, and videos about St. John Bosco and the Salesian Family, and we have outsourced the fulfillment part of the business to a private company, SRM Distribution Services, located in Paramus, N.J.  They took orders (by phone, fax, or e-mail), filled them, billed them, collected payments, and made the bank deposits for us.

This month (Sept. 2014) SRM closed the business; it seems to have become a bit too much for the proprietors to handle.  We enjoyed collaborating with them for these 19 years.

Until some other arrangement is made, our customers may place orders directly to our office in New Rochelle thru Jo Ann Donahue during regular business hours (M-F, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.):

By phone: 914-636-4225

By fax: 914-636-4925

By e-mail:

We'll fill your orders as quickly and as competently as we can, as SRM did for us.

Update, Feb 20, 2015:  still unable to make fulfillment arrangement, and so filling orders from our editorial office,

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Homily for Feast of the Holy Cross

Homily for the
Feast of the Holy Cross
Sept. 14, 2008
Woodbadge Course, Putnam Valley

“You placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth, and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, thru Christ our Lord” (Preface).

Today’s feast is titled “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross”; in days of yore it was called “The Triumph of the Cross.”  It’s the feast of the triumphant lifting up of the cross, the glorification of the cross—not so much the cross itself, as Him who is fixed to it.  Thus it is a feast of the Lord Jesus, one of those occasional feasts that supplants our regular Sunday celebration in Ordinary Time.

The specific date, Sept. 14, commemorates 2 historic events and alludes to a 3d one.  According to the story—whether it’s embellished history, we’re not sure—on Sept. 14, 320, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, found and identified the cross on which Jesus had been crucified, and some years later, also on this date, that most sacred relic of our redemption was solemnly installed in the new basilica that Constantine had built on Mt. Calvary.  Early in the 7th century (not long before Mohammed’s followers changed everything in the Middle East), a Persian army invaded Jerusalem and carted off the cross along with other loot.  Then a Byzantine army pursued and defeated the Persians and got the cross back, which was triumphantly returned to its basilica.

Finding of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca
Still, our feast celebrates not St. Helena or a church or a victory of Christians over pagans; it doesn’t celebrate a piece of wood.  Rather, it celebrates what happened thru the instrumentality of that wood:  our redemption, effected by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and of course also by his resurrection on the 3d day, which turned death into life, defeat into victory.

The preface for today, from which I quoted at the beginning of the homily, emphasizes the paradox of the cross.  It alludes to the sin of our 1st parents, whom “the evil one conquered on a tree,” the tree with the forbidden fruit; the image is of the serpent twined around the tree, as we see in classical art and in cartoons.  The preface tells us how God used another tree—the cross—to conquer the evil one and save us.

In the ancient world death by crucifixion was the most painful and most degrading form of capital punishment.  It was reserved for rebels, pirates, highwaymen, the worst criminals, and couldn’t be inflicted upon Roman citizens; it was beneath their dignity, fit for slaves and 2d-rate peoples.  You can imagine the humiliation of being stripped naked—at least in a less exhibitionist culture than ours; the pain of being nailed to a cross by your wrists and feet (the nails going right thru the ulnar nerve, they tell us); the trauma of trying to breathe while hanging by your arms for hours, or even days, as is known to have happened at times.  Recall Pilate’s amazement that Jesus had died as quickly as he did (Mark 15:44), which probably was because he’d been so savagely scourged the previous evening.  No wonder that early Christian hymn that Paul quotes lauds Jesus for “humbling himself, becoming obedient even unto death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

Yet that humiliation, that suffering, that trauma, which the pagan world regarded (Paul says), and still regards, as foolishness (1 Cor 1:18,23), conquered Satan, won for mankind a victory over our sins and the condemnation that our sins deserve.

The preface proclaims that God “placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross.”  That “placing” can be read as an allusion to Moses’ placing the bronze serpent on a pole, as we heard in the 1st reading (Num 21:4-9) or, perhaps more appropriately, Abraham’s placing his beloved son Isaac on the woodpile atop the altar, preparing to sacrifice him (Gen 22:9).  We can’t really understand what God’s will involved regarding the suffering and death of Christ; certainly not a sadistic desire for blood atonement, but we can say at least a desire that his Son be faithful to the truth, proclaim forgiveness, offer God’s love to everyone, regardless of the consequences, and so Jesus was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” and his obedience “placed” him there.

The Crucifixion, by Giotto
“The salvation of the human race” was “on the wood of the cross.”  That “salvation” is the act of our redemption, effected thru Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s also Christ himself.  He is our salvation, our life, our resurrection, as the entrance antiphon proclaimed.  The cross killed him, but as the preface says, from that cross “life sprang forth again,” not only for him but for all who belong to him, who are incorporated into his Body, as we are thru our Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:15).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Homily for 23d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
23d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 7, 2014
Matt 18: 15-20
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matt 18: 15).

The gospels of the last 2 Sundays have been concerned with the foundations of Christ’s Church:  with its faith in Jesus the Christ; with its authority, especially as exercised by Peter; with its following a Christ who was crucified.

Today, too, the gospel is concerned with the Church:  with the Church calling us to conversion, with the Church reconciling us to God and to others, with the Church interceding with God.

On 1st reading, it may appear that Jesus’ words address private faults of concern to 2 individuals:  he dumps his dirty clothes on the floor and won’t put them into the hamper; she’s a nag; he wants to read all my e-mail; she takes forever to get ready to go out; I love my boyfriend, but he hates my cat (that one was in “Dear Abby” on Friday).

But on closer reading, we see that Jesus is concerned about more public matters, offenses that affect the community.  (One of the Greek words for community is ekklesia, which is in our text, translated as “church.”)  Altho many people take private issues of the sort to which I’ve already alluded to Abby or Judge Judy, we can’t really imagine that Jesus means they should be brought to community authority—“2 or 3 witnesses” (18:16) or “the church” (18:17).  So Jesus is speaking of bigger issues.

What sorts of issues might come under the rubric “sins against you” (the Greek text uses the singular form of you, which in older English we’d render as “thee” or “thou”), and still be issues of general concern?

We might imagine fraud or theft of some kind; St. Paul seems to allude to that in 1 Cor 6.  We might imagine gossip or slander harmful to someone’s reputation.  Listen to Pope Francis at his general audience on Aug. 27:

"Sometimes, in fact, our parishes, which are called to be places of sharing and communion, are sadly marked by envy, jealousy, resentment." "This is human, but it is not Christian!" the Pope said.
"How much gossip (goes on) in parishes," the Pope lamented. "We mustn't do it! I won't tell you to cut off your tongue. No. Not that. But do ask the Lord for the grace to not do it, all right?"

The refusal to gossip, in fact, is such an outstanding Christian virtue, it should make a person a saint overnight, the Pope said. He recalled the sterling reputation of an elderly woman who used to work in a parish in … Buenos Aires. People remembered her as someone who "'never talked badly of others, never gossiped, was always with a smile.' A woman like that can be canonized tomorrow! This is beautiful, this is a great example," he said to applause.
Conflict arises when people judge others; look only at others' defects, not their gifts; give more weight to differences than common ground; make themselves the top priority; and follow their own ambitions and points of view, he added. "In a Christian community, division is one of the gravest of sins because it turns it into a sign not of God's work, but of the devil, who, by definition, separates, ruins relationships and instills prejudice."[1]

We might imagine marital infidelity or other sexual immorality (see what Paul writes in 1 Cor 5).  Such sins are both personal and communal, damaging to individuals and to the community at large.  We might also imagine false teaching about faith or morals, altho in that instance we’ve already passed from “sins against you [singular]” to “you [plural].”

So Jesus teaches that those who sin against the community must be corrected, but with charity and with as little fuss as possible:  privately if possible; a little more publicly if necessary, with “2 or 3 witnesses.”  Witnesses to what?  Witnesses to the offensive behavior or false teaching; witnesses to the Church’s authentic faith and way of life.  E.g., various bishops say that they’ve spoken privately with certain politicians about their immoral and scandalous positions on certain public issues.  Our bishops have said that they would call out their fellow bishops if need be about how they address sexual abuses cases; whether they’re doing so privately, I don’t know, but I know of only one public instance involving an American bishop—Abp. Gomez’s sidelining of his L.A. predecessor, Cardinal Mahony.

Finally, Jesus would have the entire Church challenge or confront the offender:  “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church” (18:17).  In 1st-century terms, “church” means the local congregation, such as the church at Jerusalem or Corinth or Ephesus.  And today we ought still to look to the local Church, in New York or Tokyo or Paris, as the case may be, before going to the universal Church—the Pope and his curia.

So the Church has authority to judge the faith and the behavior of her members and determine whether they’re genuinely Christian.  Jesus goes one:  “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:17).  I.e., if he won’t repent, then he is to be removed from the fellowship of the community in some manner.  Some bishops have forbidden certain individuals to receive Holy Communion because of their scandalous public opinions.  Priests who engage in partisan politics or actively push women’s ordination have been sanctioned in various ways.

Jesus reinforces the authority of the Church by adding, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:18).  You’ll remember that those same words were addressed to Simon Peter individually 2 weeks ago (16:19).  Now they’re addressed to all the apostles, and by extension to the apostles’ successors.  The binding and loosing may refer to interpretations of Christ’s teachings, to Church laws, or to membership in the community.  Jesus hands to his Church a great share of his own authority.
“Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He calls them to conversion, and he welcomes their conversion.  So even if the Church must cast someone out of the community, we don’t consign them to hell!  We continue to invite them to return to the faith and the practice of the community, to treat them with the dignity due to every person, and to pray for them—which Jesus confirms with his words at the end of today’s gospel (18:19) even as he affirms his presence in the community (18:20).  The Church’s intercessory role for all of humanity is a vital part of her mission, of her exercising Jesus’ mission of reconciling everyone with God.

Note the repetition of “2 or 3” in this reference to prayer.  It hearkens back to the “2 or 3 witnesses” of someone’s fault.  As the first 2 or 3 testify to an individual about his failing, here 2 or 3 testify to God about their concern.

There’s one more thing to be said.  “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (18:15).  Whether we’re dealing with religious community, the family, the parish, or even our internal beliefs, are we humble enuf to listen to our brother or sister or relative or pastor or the Church’s authoritative teaching and to change our own behavior or our own opinions?  The call to conversion applies to me too!

                [1] Carol Glatz, “Pope: Being envious, mean-spirited may be human, but it's not Christian,” CNS Aug. 27, 2014.