Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Rembrandt Laborers in the Vineyard

Let’s imagine a Lebanese vineyard, with vines sagging with grapes for the harvest. The cool mornings of fall have arrived.

The owner of the vineyard has arisen before dawn. He, all his family, and his trusty steward have worked hard through the summer. The good weather has yielded a rich abundance of ripe grapes. Now an enormous amount of work needs doing, in short order. All the grapes must be picked and gathered, pressed, and trod.

So the owner is walking the road to the town square before sunrise. He meets a large group of men who themselves are on their way to the square. In the dim light, the owner stops the men and offers them the customary wage for a day’s work.

The owner hopes these men will work hard, and they do—but not quite as hard as he imagined they would. So, when the time comes for the workers’ first break of the day, the owner marches down the road again, to the square.

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Hoping in Christ for This Life Only?

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ… I Corinthians 15:19

el-grecost-paulFor this life only.

The life of tireless toil and struggle, as St. Paul described his ministry in the beginning of his letter to the Corinthians.

This life in which baptism is administered, with immeasurable attendant mystery, and the eye sees practically nothing of what actually happens.

This life in which the Church lives in a unity which no one can see, in which individual personality does not matter, but only Christ crucified for our sins.

This life, in which the wisdom of the wise amounts to so much foolishness in the face of God’s inscrutable mind.

This life, in which it is better to suffer injury than to seek justice according to the world’s norms, better not to eat than to do anything that could harm anyone else’s conscience, better not to marry, better to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.

By the time St. Paul has made all his pastoral demands on his Corinthian people, in the course of his lengthy letter, he hopes that they, too, would see the absurdity of hoping in Christ for this life only–the utter absurdity of the idea–and laugh out loud at it. Hoping in Christ for this life only?! Hah.

But we are not pitiable men. We have the sure and certain hope of a future resurrection. We look forward to sharing the undying life of the Son of God.

How to Handle the Blessed Sacrament

Penitent Magdalen de la Tour

There was a sinful woman in the city who learned that He was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37-38)

“If this man were a prophet, he would know what sort of person is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Touching the Body of Christ, with contrite love.

The Apostles saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. St. Paul got to see Him, even after the Ascension, because the Lord gave Paul a unique vision. They all saw a body they could touch. St. Thomas, we know, touched the Lord. And we cannot doubt that others did, too, even though He said to Mary Magdalen, “Do not hold onto me.” We cannot doubt that the Lord embraced His mother when He saw her on Easter Sunday. Nor can we doubt that St. Peter touched His risen Master, that the penitent fisherman bathed his Master’s shoulder with tears.

Long story short, sinners have touched Jesus all along—that is why He became man. His Incarnation is, in fact, the most intimate act of touching ever. God touching us, in the most interior center of our human nature, by Himself becoming one of us–the Almighty divine Person Who had hands and feet that could be pierced by nails.

Ecce Agnus DeiSo the gospel reading for today’s Holy Mass has to be our fundamental guide regarding how we dispose ourselves with respect to the Blessed Sacrament.

1. With total faith. Chances are, the weeping woman may not have had the word ‘Incarnation’ on her lips. But she knew with the eyes of faith that her all, her salvation, the love worth living and dying for, sat right here, at the table.

2. With contrition. Simon the Pharisee’s murmurings ring with unfathomable irony: ‘She’s a sinner, so if he were godly, he wouldn’t let her touch him.’ Au contraire, mon frère. He’s not just godly, He’s God. And He came to have mercy on sinners. He has made it abundantly clear that there is only one category of people He wants touching His Body, namely the contrite sinners who weep for joy, because we have found our Savior.

3. With hope. Complete, total, blind, and unbounded hope. The woman had no idea what exactly she hoped for. She simply knew that this man, whose Body sat right here, would make everything okay and more than okay.

Two Types of Perpetual Dissatisfaction

kirk cousins

“We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.” Luke 7:32

Two kinds of perpetual dissatisfaction: Holy unhappiness and un-holy unhappiness.

Life can be long and hard. Not all food tastes good. Not everyone who sings sings well. Some drivers evidence no concern for the fact that I am in a hurry. Not everyone knows or cares when it’s my birthday. Sometimes it rains when I’m supposed to go on a picnic.

Nonetheless: Every day I get to gaze upon the wonder of God’s creation. God gives me daily bread and, for today, keeps me out of a lonely, dusty grave. Interesting people and attractive opportunities beckon from just around the corner.

Un-holy unhappiness comes from not wanting to bother to lift up my eyes to everything the good God is trying to give me. Then all I can do is feel sorry for myself and spend my mental energy criticando la gente, even though I have a wooden beam in both of my own eyes.

All that said, the Lord proclaims that those who mourn are blessed, that those who weep now will laugh in the kingdom of God. Those who mourn and weep because this world is not God. And it is nowhere near what it should be, because of the sins of mankind. And I am nowhere near what I should be, because of my sins. Who could really be happy in this cloudy world, even if he or she owned everything–but did not have God?

I mean, like I was trying to say on Sunday: Sure, a guy can enjoy oneself kicking back and watching the Washington Redskins whip up on the poor Jacksonville Jaguars. A guy can enjoy seeing my man Kirk Cousins finally get his chance to show the world that he is the superior quarterback. Sure.

But it isn’t perfect; it isn’t heaven; it isn’t the be-all and end-all.

The only real be-all and end-all dwells on the other side of a veil. Only the power of Jesus Christ can penetrate the veil. None of us will really be satisfied until He catapults us through it, by His unimaginable spiritual power.

May God preserve us from un-holy unhappiness by stoking within us the fires of raging dissatisfaction with anything less than God.

Decision after Nain

The Lord Jesus worked a lot of miracles. By the time He raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, Christ had performed exorcisms, cured lepers and paralytics, and, of course, the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee.

Nain in Galilee

Nain in Galilee

But He had worked these miracles in and around the city of Capernaum, a good distance from where He grew up. The people of His hometown of Nazareth likely had not heard about these miracles, or, if they had, they were not inclined to believe that the young man they knew could actually be the Messiah. After all, He looked like them, had a beard like all the men did, wore the same tunic, robe, and sandals. He ate the same food, drank the same wine at weddings. Sure, He had a serenity and prayerfulness that certainly impressed you. But–a divine man with dusty feet? Come on.

The little town of Nain, however, sat just across the valley from Nazareth. If you climbed the tallest hill in Nazareth, you could see Nain in the distance.

So when the widow’s son got up from his funeral pallet, the townspeople of Nazareth had all certainly heard about it by sundown. They now had to confront this question: Is Jesus the Messiah? Is He the Son of God, come to save us from sin and death? Is He God made man, revealing the loving face of the heavenly Father and giving us hope for the Kingdom of God?

Well… Is He??

The Roman emperors did not make things easy on Christians during the 200’s. The Emperors kept going back and forth about whether or not you could practice the Christian faith without fines or imprisonment. Years, decades passed when you could go about your business and live openly as a Christian, and no one would bother you about it.

Then something bad would happen in Rome, and the emperor would blame the Christians–since we Christians do not offer pagan sacrifices, like the kind the Romans believed you had to offer to propitiate the gods.

So then the Christians of the Roman Empire faced a choice, not unlike the Nazerenes had faced two hundred years earlier. Is Jesus the Christ or isn’t He? Has He conquered death? Does He reign supreme in heaven? And if He does, can I betray Him?

Well?

Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian and countless other martyrs in Italy and North Africa knew the truth about Christ and chose to die rather than betray Him.

Now, chances are pretty good that, at least for today, we won’t have to choose whether or not to remain faithful to Christ in the face of certain death. But every day we face situations where we have to answer the question about who Jesus is and act in a way that reflects what we believe. May the martyrs give us grace and courage to be faithful.

bartolome de las casas

Bishop de las Casas

[...And here is last week's school-Mass homily, dear reader, which I neglected to publish:]

Five hundred years ago, European people began to move here to America, and also to Africa. Of course, they met the people who already lived here, and in Africa. Some of the Europeans began to say, these natives are so backwards that they don’t count as human beings. It’s okay for us to enslave them.

A bishop in Spain named Bartolome de las Casas said, ‘Oh, no! What we need to do is to try to teach these fellow human beings about Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the sacraments.’ The Pope backed up this position and decreed that the idea that the native peoples don’t count as human beings–this idea comes straight from the…Devil.

Unfortunately, a lot of rich traders did not listen to Bishop de las Casas or the pope. But one person who did listen was a young Catalonian Spaniard named Peter Claver.

He came to America to become a priest for the Africans who were being brought here as slaves. He called himself the ‘slave of the Africans,’ the slave of the slaves.

St. Peter Claver made picture books to teach the Africans about Jesus. Then he learned their language. He organized people to meet the over-crowded slave ships coming in from Africa and bring food and medicine to the people. St. Peter taught them how to participate in the Mass and how to go to Confession. After doing this tirelessly for decades, after baptizing more than 300,000 African people, St. Peter Claver died on September 8, exactly 360 years ago.

In the gospel we read about how power emanated from Christ. It still does–the power of true love and respect for our fellow man. Let’s draw close to the Lord like St. Peter Claver did, so that we can live with true compassion.

Why He Gives us More Days

I think I have mentioned before how the Lord gave me great gifts of faith when I was 22 years old. Faith in His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. And faith in the entire sacred ministry of the Catholic Church.

One question I had during my early days as a Catholic was the following. (Maybe it will sound strange. But it really boggled my mind for a while.)

Take for granted the fundamental fact that nothing happens, nothing exists at all, without God willing it. Then the question: Considering that Holy Baptism gives us the grace to get to heaven, why do we continue to live on earth after Baptism?

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Quick War-Speech Dental Exam

Our jovial dentist used to glide in after the hygienist finished. With his metal pick, he would wiggle each tooth to determine the solidity of its foundation. He could tell by touch if a cavity had developed.

If I might, I would like to touch the teeth of our Islamic State strategy, as outlined by the president last night.

Tooth #1, the pre-eminent, most-important tooth: Having cause for war with the Islamic State. Do we?

Do they pose an immediate danger to our people? I don’t know, really. But it seems like they do, much more than any other terrorist organization ever has.

Flag_of_Islamic_State_of_Iraq.svgBut another legitimate question, by way of establishing casus belli might be: Is the Islamic state demonstrably guilty of crimes against humanity? If the decent people of the world tolerate these crimes, could we reasonably hope for peace in our time? Would not the innocent victims have legitimate cause to reproach us? Yes, no, and yes appear to be the answers to these questions.

The most solid grounds for war, then, are not necessarily the matter of a direct threat to U.S. citizens, even though that threat seems quite real. Rather, the unassailable cause, it seems to me, is the consensus among God-fearing people that to tolerate the crimes of these men would imply an abandonment of hope for a decent world to live in.

Now, I think this tooth would stand probing a little better if we explicitly listed the charges against al-Baghdadi and his collaborators. (I believe that the UN has done so already, at least in a preliminary fashion.) We should demand that the accused give themselves up and stand trial before a legitimate court of law, which could include Muslim judges. Then, when they fail to hand themselves over, we stipulate that our war aim is: To apprehend the criminals and their associates.

My quibbles notwithstanding, this tooth has no cavity. I am do dentist, no expert, but the crimes that have been committed—murder, enslavement, rape, attempted genocide, wholesale robbery of lands and goods—these crimes can be documented; they must be prosecuted; the guilty must be punished. If the defendants do not present themselves for trial, they forfeit the due protections of law and stand in peril of their lives. The decent people of the world would all agree on all this, I think it’s fair to say. We have proposed to go to war against genuine enemies of the human race. We have just cause.

Okay, tooth #2: “Iraqi partners.” The “inclusive” new Iraqi government. An effective Iraqi military.

The questions we need to ask in order to tap this tooth: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, at our hands, a decade ago, have the ‘Iraqi’ people acted in harmony as a nation? Has the Iraqi military shown genuine signs of decisive action, even at peril of life and limb, aimed at protecting all the people of the nation of Iraq?

That would be a negative, I think.

Can the blame for this be laid completely at the feet of Nouri al-Maliki’s choleric temperament?

Can a reasonable person expect the new, more phlegmatic Shia prime-minister, who has put together a government with Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in the same proportion as the old one (actually, there are apparently more Shias in the government now than there were under al-Maliki), who has yet to appoint a defense minister—can a reasonable individual expect Prime Minister Abadi to unify the nation of Iraq successfully and orient the military, in time to address the crimes that have been committed, before the victims of those crimes fall into despair?

This tooth has a very large cavity.

Tooth #3
. “Partners in Syria.” In an interview in early August, President Obama himself said that the moderate opposition in Syria had never really come together. He said that the idea that arming rebels in Syria could make a difference “has always been a fantasy.”

WeAreNWe have a policy of regarding Assad as an ‘illegitimate leader.’ Nonetheless, under international law, he has the right to refuse us access to Syrian airspace. Who has consistently championed President Assad’s prerogatives? Russia. Without Russia on our side in this war, we lose the diplomatic tool of the UN Security Council. (Not to mention all the constructive help which Russia could, and probably would, give us.) Without the UN endorsing our actions, we will have serious problems retaining allies. Fighting IS without Russia will make it much harder to win. Big, big cavity.

Tooth #4. “Partners in the region.” On August 15, the United Nations Security Council adopted a strongly worded, militarily toothless resolution against Islamic State. Today, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates agreed on the ‘Jeddah Communique,’ which confirmed their commitment to the UN resolution. The Jeddah communique includes no mention of military commitment. Turkey did not sign on. Syria, of course, was not invited.

This tooth appears to have a cavity. If the only fighting we need from our ‘partners in the region’ is the implementation of financial sanctions and travel restrictions, then we’re good. Maybe.

But: If we are not going to march—which the president says we won’t; only bombs from above—if we are not going to march; if we cannot reasonably expect Iraq to march anytime soon; if there really isn’t anyone in Syria who we could expect to march against IS in any kind of commensurate force; and if no one in the Gulf Cooperation Council, nor Lebanon, nor Jordan, nor Egypt, nor Turkey intends to march—then who is going to march? Who will march to apprehend the criminals in time to save the victims from despair?

st-augustineI do not think the plan, as it stands, has the prospect of success. The more I think about it, the more feckless it appears. Which renders it unjust, since a legitimate casus belli must be implemented with a war plan that enjoys the solid probability of success.

I think the plan as outlined by the president will lead to dangerous diplomatic strains and to the deaths and injuries of many innocent people. Our airstrikes will cause greater animosity against the U.S. and more terrorism.

The huge military elephant in the room is of course Israel, way too touchy a subject to be mentioned by the president or Secretary Kerry, I guess, at this point. But who can fail to imagine a scenario in which IS attacks Israel? Then we will have a wide Middle-East war, and we will inevitably lose ‘partners.’

Operating in Syria without authorization from Assad, coupled with all our saber-rattling over Ukraine, we could wind up at war with Russia.

Grim scenarios, indeed. I would welcome anyone with better information to talk me down off this particular ledge.

Anyway, it seems to me that it would be better to open our borders to the refugees who would prefer to come here, and welcome them in the U.S. Then await a more propitious moment for making war against IS—a moment when we have a genuine international military coalition organized and we are prepared to fight a real war with our own troops involved, so as to minimize airstrikes, which always cause unintended casualties and just make things worse.

The Measurer

The measure with which you measure will in turn be measured out to you. Luke 6:38

One God reigns. One Christ has offered the perfect sacrifice to atone for all human evil. One Holy Spirit binds all of mankind in a single destiny of eternal love. One just Judge will dispose all things rightly at the final account.

scales_of_justiceA Christian knows that death is not the worst thing. Death certainly ain’t good. We would rather not have to deal with it. Nor do we particularly like parting with our comfort and convenience. But worse than anything, worse even than death is: damnation. Worse by far than death: sin.

President has referred to the terrorist militants as ‘nihilists.’ Maybe that’s true. Genuine nihilism means believing that there really is no measure for our actions. There is no judgment. There is simply doing. Conscience is nothing but irrational, superstitious timidity.

Everything within us rebels at such a conception of things. No. Someone measures. Someone sees, knows; someone with a greater mind, greater penetration, and a genuinely comprehensive plan for everything. He has our measure. Moral and immoral are truly different. Right and wrong are truly different—not just in our cowardly minds, but in the scale that balances all things.

The measure of all things transcend our minds, of course—if it didn’t, then we really could be the ultimate measurers. But we know perfectly well that we are not. Our neighbors teach us that every day. My own point-of-view takes in such a small part of the landscape. Only one mind can conceive the entire pilgrim journey of Mother Earth and everything moving on her.

Nonetheless, the great Measurer has opened the door for us, so we can see into the unfathomable righteousness of His judgment. Continue reading

Minding the Immigrants and Refugees

Blessed are you who suffer, who hunger, who mourn. Luke 6

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_AngelicoTackling the profound mystery of these statements requires much more wisdom than I possess. But one thing leaps right off the page, even for an obtuse person like myself.

The Lord Jesus thought about the suffering people, the hungry people, the people in mourning. And He spent time with them and talked with them.

Inhuman cruelty can and does sneak up while we have our noses buried in our smartphones.

Like our neighbors who have to live without the basic benefits of citizenship—benefits we take for granted. Like looking to police officers for help. Like having our children apply for scholarships to go to college. Like having some recourse if we are exploited in the workplace, or abused, or fired unjustly, or cheated in a business transaction. Like having the possibility of defending our rights and claims in a court of law.

Right here in the beautiful counties of our parish cluster, we have plenty of neighbors who do not enjoy these basic prerogatives. We know from interacting with them that they themselves are no lawbreakers. What kind of country has this become, when the arrival of thousands of innocent children at our border becomes a reason not to treat Latin Americans more fairly? The children came armed with their perfect innocence and desperation, and our reaction is: Well, now we know we need to build higher walls and deport more people?

obama-prayingOr, while we fiddle with getting our Netflix subscriptions, another inhuman cruelty sneaks up: a jihad that enforces its will with a reign of terror that would have made the Nazi high command blush. Somehow a million+ refugees from Islamic State, with no roof over their heads, no schools, no businesses, no churches—snuck up on us somehow.

Those who suffer and mourn, who hunger and thirst. The Lord Jesus paid attention to them. If the books of the four holy gospels smell of one thing, they smell of the poor and the desperate. Christ had them on His mind. He has them on His mind. If they are not on our minds, then we are not sharing in the mind of Christ.

A decade ago we launched a war against Saddam Hussein. We fought the war in an earnest manner, I guess, basically. But we fought it for a false reason.

Now the groaning of all the Syrian and Iraqi refugees gives us a compelling and just reason to launch a war. But, to my mind, we seem a million miles away from being prepared to fight it in an earnest manner, a just manner. The legitimate reason for taking up arms is totally out-of-focus—namely, addressing the wrongs done to the countless innocents. And we appear to be incapable of learning this simple lesson of history: We cannot engineer our will from the air. That does not work; it just makes things worse and more complicated, and innocent people die. “Boots on the ground” is a stupid euphemism for actually fighting a war.

Are we justified in attacking the Islamic State? Is the Pope Catholic? Are we justified in imagining totally unrealistic scenarios in which we don’t have to fight the war, but just have to drop bombs from a convenient distance? No way.

May God help the leaders of the world to do what is right and just, in an honest way. Our job is to keep the suffering in mind, and pray like mad.

Song for Our Lady’s Birthday

immac-concepAdam lay ybounden
Bounden in a bond;
Foure thousand winter,
Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took,
As clerkes finden
Written in here book.

Never had the apple,
The apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our lady,
A been Hevene Queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen
Deo gratias!

(middle English carol)