Thief in the Night (I Advent Homily)

(written 11/29/2019)

If the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.  (Matthew 24:43)

Petty thefts occurred every night in ancient Israel. Most people lived in small homes made of mud bricks. Your roof served as the bedroom. A thief could quietly claw a hole in the mud at the foundation of the house, crawl inside, and steal your valuables as you slept. Then you wake up in the morning, climb down the ladder to start making breakfast, and all your pots and pans have disappeared! Not to mention your figs and wine. [Spanish]

In this parable, the thief who breaks into the house represents… The Lord. The Son of Man. The Messiah. God’s anointed. Maybe that seems strange, God stealing things. Doesn’t mean thou shalt not steal no longer counts as a commandment. Thou still shalt not steal. But God will come like a thief. To steal what?

paul simonMaybe that’s our question for Advent. What does baby Jesus come at midnight to steal from us? Little baby Whose birthday comes in three weeks and three days, the Son of Man. He came suddenly into this world, during the night–to steal something.

To answer this question, let’s consider this: One image appears repeatedly in the first reading and psalm of today’s Holy Mass. The Temple of the Lord, the house of Jacob, the house of David, the great stronghold of the city of Jerusalem: not a mud-hut susceptible to burglars. Rather, a fortress of peace.

May peace be within your walls! …From His holy mountain, God will instruct us in His ways, and we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! Peace.

We might complain that the western world has lost the Christian faith and no longer knows the reason for the season. But everyone knows—even the “Nones,” who say they have no religion—everyone knows: Christmas means peace. The newborn child comes to Bethlehem as the Prince of Peace. God Almighty, the awesome, the terrifyingly holy: He has come to the world as a defenseless baby, armed not with spears and arrows, or flaming thunderbolts, but only with ‘eyes as clear as centuries.’ (That’s from a Paul Simon song.)

What does He come to steal, this gentle baby Son of Man? Doesn’t His arrival, in and of itself, steal our pretexts for hating each other? Doesn’t He take away our reasons for violence? Doesn’t baby Jesus invade our little egos, so as to clear out all the self-serving nonsense that we keep stored in there, the stuff inside me that sets me against my neighbor?

I may find myself desperately attached to the idea of myself as a bigshot. I may base my entire worldview on “us good people” vs. “those dirty people.” Maybe I have convinced myself that I deserve all the fanciest new voice-activated gadgets, like the little canister that I can talk to and make my lawn-sprinklers come on, at my command. And I’ve decided I will use it against my annoying mailman.

st-augustine
St. Augustine

But the little baby of Bethlehem comes to dig into us, into the little mud-huts of our souls, and steal every self-aggrandizing delusion out of our egos. When I contemplate the Prince of Peace, laid in an animals’ manger; when I reflect that this is God Almighty: my sense of my bigshot self has to go out the window.

I meditate on Our Lady nursing the cooing baby, and I have to recognize: God has acted with this kind of peaceful compassion towards me. Even though I certainly don’t deserve it. Even though God really has every right to distrust me or even smack me in the face. Instead He comes in peace.

So how can I hate my neighbor? How can I lash out at that bad driver? How can I continue to pile up loot and chase after silly trifles, without giving a thought to other peoples’ struggles?

The Prince of Peace came to turn enemies into friends. St. Augustine described how we will, please God, sing Alleluia together, in heaven. Here’s how the saint put it:

O, what a happy alleluia there–how carefree, how safe from all opposition, where nobody will be an enemy, where no one will ever cease to be a friend!

A very clever thief, this baby. We contemplate Him, born of a penniless mother, in a stable with the animals. The bottomless peace of His humble birth steals every pretext I could possibly come up with to harbor resentment in my heart. He fleeces my soul of all the empty pride I have piled up there, the lies and half-truths that make me think I’m better than so-and-so. Just by being born in Bethlehem, the Son of Man steals all that from me and carries it away like a thief in the night.

Then, all we have left is: His divine love. These little mud-huts we have for souls can become His everlasting Temple, the stronghold of God’s peace.

Will He Find Justice?

last-judgment

When the Son of Man comes, will He find justice on earth? Will he find the virtuous fairly rewarded and criminals punished proportionately for their crimes? Will He find the world’s goods equitably distributed among honest people living in harmony? Will He find people communicating discreetly, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, working out their problems gently, helping each other generously, rising above petty antagonisms with serene mutual respect? Will He find all this when He comes again? [Spanish]

The persistent widow in the parable sought justice. She had a legal claim. She had a case against someone who had cheated her.

scales_of_justiceThe judge owed her a hearing. He owed her an investigation into the facts. He owed her his labor as an agent of justice. Why, after all, would we have judges in the first place, if they don’t hold hearings, investigate facts, apply laws, and render just verdicts?

But this judge would not. He wasn’t ashamed to admit to himself that he had no principles. Maybe a powerful friend appointed him a judge as a personal favor, even though he had no intention whatsoever of fulfilling his duties. Or maybe he had grown slothful over a long career of frustrating failure. Maybe he started out as an enterprising young idealist. But year after year, he heard witnesses lie. Year after year, he tried to apply laws fairly, only to have the politicians change the laws for the benefit of cronies. Maybe, year after year, real justice eluded his grasp. So he gave up. Maybe that’s what happened.

Either way–either from the beginning, or after much disappointment—this judge had grown lazy, lazy to the bone.

So the dramatic confrontation ensued. The widow presents her claim. The judge ignores her suit. She grows angry. He ignores her some more. She seethes with righteous indignation. She brandishes her walker. ‘Your Honor, either you hold a hearing, as the law requires, or I will give you two black eyes, so help me God.’

Jaded and cynical and checked-out as he is, the judge knows that the widow has a right to be angry. He knows that people should not defraud widows, and if they do, they should have to answer for it. The judge hardly believes in justice on earth anymore—if he ever did—but he knows that man’s desire for justice, man’s desire for truth—he knows that these desires will never vanish from the human soul. So he has to do something for this widow, or she will break one of his kneecaps with her cane.

Frankfurt School Adorno Horkheimer
Frankfurt Schoolers Horkheimer and Adorno

One school of 20th-century agnosticism held that you couldn’t believe in God, because there’s too much injustice on earth. What kind of God would allow it? But, on the other hand, the same school of thought also held that you couldn’t reject the existence of God, either. Because if you did, you would try to establish perfect justice by human means alone. And trying to do that, history has shown, only makes things worse. The most cold-blooded murderer is the atheist bent on establishing the perfect human society.

The answer to this righteous agnosticism is our faith in Christ’s Final Judgment. We do not believe in some vague god who ignores all the injustice on earth. We believe in Christ crucified, crucified for the sins of mankind. And we believe that He—the crucified Christ, the truly innocent and righteous One Who suffered for us—we believe that He will come again and set everything to rights.

To quote Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on Christian hope:

This innocent sufferer [Jesus Christ] has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive. There is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an ‘undoing’ of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope.

The question of justice constitutes the strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life. In connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word, the necessity for Christ’s return becomes fully convincing.

If Christ is not coming again, then when will our desire for justice get satisfied? When will all the wrongs get righted? And if He will not come, then why bother trying to do right in the meantime? If Christ does not bring justice, then no one ever will, because our human attempts always fall short.

But He is coming again. That’s not really in question. The question is: When He comes, will He find us praying and hoping, longing for justice, like the widow who never gave up?

Hustle Like the Dishonest Steward

old-booksMost gospel commentators agree: Of all the Lord Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Dishonest Steward is the hardest to understand.

First-century Palestine had a corrupt farming economy. Absentee landlords. Exploitative sub-leasing arrangements. Dishonesty at every level.

The Lord addressed the Parable of the Dishonest Steward to His disciples. This is not a parable about converting from serious sin to a life of obedience to God’s commandments, like the parable of the Prodigal Son we read at Sunday Mass last week. The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is for people who are already trying to follow Christ to heaven.

In other words: dishonesty and double-dealing are bad, we know that. That’s not the point here. The thing we have to focus on is this: this steward thought quickly and acted practically. He honestly identified his own difficult situation. He took decisive action to prevent personal disaster.

So, with this parable, the good Lord asks us to think of the worldly people we know, the people bent on seeking pleasure or wealth or fame. Their goals are not worthy. And yet look at how energetically and how cleverly they pursue them! Look at their dexterity and skill!

Meanwhile, you so-called disciples of Mine say that you are committed to living for My glory, You say you seek heaven–something infinitely more worth seeking than what the children of the world are after. And yet you sit around slack-jawed and passive, like Homer Simpson staring at the tv.

homer1

How can we mope around clueless and idle, while Satan’s servants are filled with uncanny zeal? We should be a hundred times more creative, more resourceful, more realistic, more prudent in rendering faithful service to God than the children of this world are in chasing after the shadows of selfishness and greed.

The Lord added: I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Throughout His life and ministry, Christ certainly preached the message, “God is love.” No doubt about it. That God is love was Christ’s message. But He also preached another message, which went hand-in-hand with the “God is love” thing. We have to open our ears to this other dimension of Christ’s teaching, too. God is love. True. But guess what else? Life is short.

Don’t be a woolgathering, slack-jawed, passive disciple. Be a disciple who is more clever than the cleverest Las-Vegas hustler. Because everything we have in our hands now, everything about which we even can be clever now–it will all pass away. Everything we see or touch now will pass away. Life on earth will end. And only our acts of genuine love will endure. Only the pure love we share with God and our neighbor will endure. Everything else is just so much straw.

It’s not a sin to have a million dollars. The sin would be to think that a million dollars will do me any good after I die–which I will soon do. It’s not a sin to hold power and influence in this world. The sin would be to think that I have any power over death and judgment. Death and judgment will come when they will come, whether I like it or not.

Let’s use a Las-Vegas metaphor. God holds the cards. All the cards are His. He deals me a hand to play in this short life. And He tells me, “Son, play your hand to win friends for eternal life. Play your hand so that when the game is over–which it will be, very soon–the other players will say of you, ‘That’s a kind person. That’s a God-fearing person. That’s a person who listens before he speaks and gives with no thought of taking.’”

The steward in the parable thought of his future, and it put the present into perspective. The Lord asks us to do the same. Life is short. Pray hard. Love. Let go of everything else.

Patron Saint

 

ars ceiling
Inside the Basilica in Ars, France

Rich in what matters to God. (Luke 12:21) [Spanish]

Here’s a quote from a preacher who died 160 years ago Sunday:

Man by himself is nothing, but with the Holy Spirit he is very great. Man is all earthly and all animal; nothing but the Holy Spirit can elevate his mind, and raise it on high. Why were the saints so detached from the earth? Because they let themselves be led by the Holy Spirit.

One hundred sixty years ago Sunday, the Rev. Father John Vianney breathed his last, in Ars, France.

The French Revolution broke out when he was a toddler. The government prohibited the celebration of Holy Mass. Thirteen-year-old John Vianney received First Communion at a Mass celebrated by an underground priest, in a remote farm house. They blocked the windows so no one could see the altar candles burning inside.

Napoleon Bonaparte re-established the Church in France three years later. As a teenager, John Vianney revered as his heroes the priests who had risked their lives to keep the faith going in France.

st-john-vianney-confessionJohn left his farm to get an education so he could become a priest. He had trouble with the books, but he got ordained. Three years later, he became the pastor of the obscure country town of Ars. At that time, only a handful of old women ever came to the parish church.

Father Vianney would remain there as pastor for 41 years. For four decades, he gave relentlessly strict sermons.

Does everyone know St. John Vianney’s great claim to fame? His reputation as an insightful and holy confessor began to spread throughout the country. People began to come from all over, to go to confession to him. So Father Vianney wound up hearing confessions for 18 hours a day.

The train company had to open a special window at the Lyon train station to sell tickets for the train to the little farm town of Ars. An average of 20,000 penitents came every year.

The priest lived on a few boiled potatoes per week and just a couple hours sleep each night. He said His Mass, recited his breviary, taught catechism, and visited the sick daily; he preached on Sundays and Solemnities. And he heard thousands upon thousands upon thousands of confessions.

When Father Vianney finally died at age 73, they preserved the parish church and rectory just as it was. They encased the little church in a basilica, to hold the saint’s tomb. The pope proclaimed St. John Vianney the patron saint of parish priests.

I had a chance to make a pilgrimage to Ars shortly before I was ordained. I was a transitional deacon, so I got to hold the chalice at Mass. It was a chalice used by the saint himself.

Because of St. John Vianney’s selfless pastoral love, devotees of the saint have a special devotion to his heart. They keep his heart in a separate reliquary, in a small chapel outside the basilica. The Knights of Columbus sponsored a tour of St. John Vianney’s heart through the US this past year. Anyone get a chance to visit the relic? The closest it came was Alexandria, VA.

During my seminarian years, the austerity of St. John Vianney’s life mystified and frightened me. Subsisting on a meager weekly portion of boiled potatoes. And hardly any sleep.

st-john-vianneyBut then I, too, got ordained. And started hearing confessions. I realized: the saint didn’t live like that for its own sake. He just had a lot of people lined up, waiting to reconcile with God—and he didn’t want to keep them waiting any longer than he absolutely had to.

“Rich in what matters to God.”

St. John Vianney simply did not care about anything other than God and the salvation of souls. Nothing else interested him or distracted him. He prayed, “Lord, grant the conversion of my parish. I am willing to suffer whatever you wish.”

Now, I myself can eat more tamales in one day than the number of potatoes St. John Vianney ate in a week. I get up early—but nowhere near as early as he did. You do not have a very holy priest. But I can honestly say: nothing interests me more than all of us getting to heaven together.

“The eyes of the world see no farther than this life, but the eyes of the Christian see deep into eternity.” A quote from St. John Vianney’s instruction to his people about the Holy Spirit. He went on:

“The Holy Spirit is like a man with a carriage and a horse, who wants to take us to Paris. We only have to say Yes, and get in. It is an easy matter to say Yes. Well, the Holy Spirit wants to take us to heaven. We have only to say Yes and let Him take us there.”

“Understand” the Mystery of Faith

Representation_of_the_Sower's_parableJesus Christ is Himself the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, and the Bread of heaven.

He unites us and gives us the hope of genuine communion with God and among ourselves.

In the Person of Jesus Christ, we encounter the divine Love, the very inner-mystery of God.

The Lord says: He who has ears ought to hear this. Which means pretty much everybody. Ought to hear that Jesus lives, that He makes everything right with His infinite rightness, that in His Church we find mercy and love and heaven.

The Lord says: Receive this Word of God, and understand it. That’s the seed that falls on good soil.

Understand it? What does He mean? Since, in fact, we receive the Word of God with faith. We neither see nor know the tri-une and incarnate God. So how can we possibly understand Him?

Short answer: We cannot and do not understand God during this pilgrimage. But that’s not the ‘understanding’ of which the Lord speaks.

He means: Understand everything else by the light of the truth in which we believe. Start with Christ. By the light of His divine truth, understand everything else.

We believe in Him. So we don’t give up on loving each other, no matter how impossible it might seem to do that. We believe in Christ. So we untiringly seek the truth in every situation, even the apparently hopelessly complicated ones. We believe in Jesus. So we hope for good things to come, even when everything seems hopeless.

The country and the Church only seem to be confused and divided beyond repair. They are not, in fact. Because Jesus reigns. By cleaving to Him, we will be able to help make things better.

That’s the spiritual gift of understanding. We understand: what may seem hopeless is not, in fact, hopeless. What may seem to contradict our faith in God, does not, in fact, contradict it.

It just gives us a chance to believe better, hope more deeply, and love more generously.

Good-Samaritan Homily

Rembrandt Good Samaritan

Sometimes we think we are cruising invincibly down the highway of life. Hundreds of facebook friends, constantly liking our posts. A good job, stellar performance evaluations. Maybe even an attractive spouse, plus kids with high g.p.a.’s and plenty of soccer trophies. [Spanish]

But the highway of life can take a sudden turn, and I can find myself staring at a lonely and dangerous stretch of road.

I think we can imagine that the scholar of the law who took part in the conversation we hear in the gospel at Sunday Mass–he fancied himself as cruising down the highway of a good and righteous life. So he found the parable of the Good Samaritan rather jarring.

The Law of Moses orders us servants of God to love our neighbors. So the scholar had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” After all, the world teems with countless “neighbors.” God cannot possibly expect me to love them all!

I must make some selections, thought the scholar to himself. I must have some criterion by which to distinguish the ‘in’ from the ‘out’ crowd. ‘In’ people talk like I do, apply good standards of personal hygiene, watch the same cable-news network as I watch, and have high-functioning kids like mine.

But the Lord turned the tables on him.

…Anyone ever taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? How about this:  Anyone ever see the original Star Wars movie? Near the beginning, R2D2 went looking for Obi Wan Kenobi. The little droid escaped from the Skywalker farm on Tatooine and wandered into the dusty hills, where the Sand People could ambush you. That is what the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is like. Seriously. Winding, lonesome, dusty. Creepy.

Dr. Martin Luther KingMartin Luther King, Jr., described the road, when he preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan:

“The Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing.”

Anyway, by throwing the parable of the Good Samaritan at the young scholar, Jesus seems to have been saying to him and to us: You want to find a way to choose your neighbors. You think you have a lot to offer, and everybody wants a piece. But: you could wind up needing a neighbor. Then the question you will have is: Who will have the kindness to help me? Who will think of me as their neighbor then?

And the answer of course is: The one who doesn’t fuss and get choosy about who his neighbors are. He will help. The one who doesn’t have too much pride, too much self-importance, to notice the woebegone people. The one who keeps his humble eyes open, and who simply cannot stand to see a fellow human being suffering.

Seems to me that, for us, the most important spiritual lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is: identifying myself with the man who got robbed and left half-dead. If all we do is try to copy the Good Samaritan, we could wind up right where the scholar of the law started, when he initially posed his question. He was thinking: I’m fine. I can offer so much as a neighbor, I need to start vetting the applicants.

No. I could be the poor soul by the side of the road. Actually, I am the poor soul, wounded and nearly lost. Desperation stares me in the face. I could get gravely ill tomorrow. My home and possessions could float away in a flood. Some hoodlum could steal my car. My friends could say, “You know, you’re annoying. We don’t like you anymore.”

And then there’s this: Even if my car is currently purring its way down the highway of life at an impressive little clip, I have to recognize that this road will end. Eventually the doorbell will ring, and it won’t be opportunity knocking. It will be Mr. Grim M. Reaper.

What good neighbor will come to my aid then?  What good Samaritan will help me?

I quoted a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King earlier. Anyone know when he gave that one, the one I quoted?  The evening of April 3, 1968. In Memphis. Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky.

So let’s identify with the Good Samaritan in this way:  It’s not for me to apply a selection process to qualify my neighbors. My job is to love everyone in front of me, especially the ones who suffer.

The Prodigal Son

Bartolome Murillo Hijo Prodigo
“La despedida del hijo pródigo” by Bartolome Murillo

The son asked for his inheritance, and the father let him go. Maybe the young man sought adventure. He wanted to see, to experience, to know about the world.

If going off for an adventure were a sin in and of itself, then the father would not have allowed it. But he gave his son the money. ‘You are a free man, my son. Go as you wish. The world is yours.’

This father, perhaps, knows something of the world himself. He knows that the world is dangerous. And hard to navigate all by yourself.  But also beautiful and full of enchanting mysteries.

How can we not like the adventuresome son? He starts out full of himself, to be sure. He’s insensitive to the feelings of his father and brother.  He is tragically unrealistic about himself. But he has courage. He has energy. This world has something to offer, if only we go looking for it!  Let’s have some fun!

Likable, yes. But what’s missing? Self-respect. The one thing he doesn’t see is that the most wonderful place in the wonderful world is his own home.

Let’s imagine the prodigal son in the first tavern he comes to, along the road. Someone there says to him, ‘Hey, you’re a barrel of laughs, buddy.  But aren’t you…aren’t you Lord Such-a-one’s son? The most noble, gracious, and beneficent man in this country—isn’t he your father? Don’t you and your brother stand to inherit the great estate?

‘Gosh, here you are carousing with us. But couldn’t you have champagne and music right there at home? I remember reading in the paper that you were supposed to marry Lady So-and-so—beautiful, virtuous, mysterious, and demure.

‘Isn’t that who you are, buddy?’

Murillo Prodigal Son Among Cortesans
Murillo’s “La disipación del hijo pródigo”

So the son crept out of that tavern and proceeded to travel farther away, to find a place where no one would know his family.

Our rebellion: The heavenly Father built this house for us, full of light—this world. We get to share the house with people who really are not so altogether annoying–each other. This house has order and peace, because our heavenly Father governs it. He gives us what we need.

Above all, He gives us a certain hope: Everything that we want, the desire that grips us in a way we can’t even understand: We will have it. We will be satisfied.  The real adventure of this life starts with faith. We salute God’s sun every morning. We do our daily work, say our prayers, and love our neighbors—we do this, in this pilgrim life, and then all will be wonderfully well, forever, in the life to come.

We can see where the son got his prodigality. The father himself gives with prodigal generosity–lavishly, extravagantly.

But somewhere deep in the darkest basement of our souls, a sinister voice whispers: ‘You don’t deserve it.  It’s too good for you. You aren’t really a prince of this realm. Take a walk, and find your own kind. In the gutter.’

In the end, the adventuresome son’s money ran out. In the sty with the unclean beasts, he thought to himself: ‘What kind of adventure is this?’ The world runs its course, and its pleasures do not satisfy.

But the lovable young man still had one thing left: himself. He paused. He stopped. He found a moment of silence and truth. And he saw into the center of himself, where he finally found the true basis of his self-respect: a compass pointing to his father.

goodshepherdThe compass had always been there; the son just hadn’t looked at it. He had ruined himself by seeking pleasures that were beneath him. But now he took notice of the inner compass, and he remembered that his home stood waiting for him. He could still find shelter under his father’s beautiful roof. And he finally understood that his own home really was the most wonderful place in the world.

Here’s a question. Where is the image of Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?  Aren’t the parables supposed to include an image of Christ?  After all, we see Christ clearly enough in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which can also be found in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ is the shepherd.

But where is Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Christ crucified actually lights up the parable of the Prodigal Son so that we can see what’s there. We see the lordly father, so prodigally generous that he won’t even listen to his son’s entire confession of sin. Instead, he just starts the music and pours champagne, because he has his son back home again.

How do we know that this unfathomably gracious and loving father is our Father? How is the face of the infinitely merciful heavenly Father revealed? One way: Christ crucified. Christ crucified is the light that shows us that the prodigal son’s father is our Father.

Yes, You’re Right, Lord, But

Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. (Luke 13:8)

figWe hear the gardener say these words at the end of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, which we read at Holy Mass on Sunday. [Spanish]

“Sir, leave the barren tree one more year.”  Now, to whom does the gardener say this?  Who is the “sir?”  Also, what’s an “orchard?”  What’s the difference between an orchard and “the woods?”

Someone planted an orchard.  An “orchard” means:  trees growing according to a plan, for a purpose: to produce fruit.  The trees in an orchard stand where they stand not randomly, but by design.

So this “sir” of “Sir, leave it for this year also” is the mastermind.  He planted the orchard in the first place.  Therefore, he has a right to make judgments.  He compares the situation as it stands with His original plan. And he says, “I have sought fruit from this fig tree and found none. Cut it down.”

Rightly does he say this!  Fig trees ought to bear figs.  Just like chewing gum ought to be chewy.  Or like unleaded gas pumps at a gas station ought to give you unleaded gas–and not diesel, or a Slurpee. Imagine if you swiped your credit card, started pumping gas, and Blue Raspberry Slurpee came out of the nozzle. You would curse that fig tree, to be sure.

Likewise, human beings ought to do good and avoid evil.  What else have we been put on this earth for?  For me to neglect to do good, or to choose to do evil, or both—that makes as much sense as wrapping up a rock and calling it chewing gum.  Or putting Cherry Coke in the big underground tank below the gas station where the unleaded fuel belongs.

The one who planted the garden says:  Fig trees, bear fruit!  Human beings:  Worship your Maker.  Love your neighbor.  Speak truth.  Honor who you came from.  Don’t kill, cheat, or steal.  Don’t be lustful or materialistic.

orchardThe cosmos we inhabit is not some kind of wild woods that grew up haphazardly with no purpose.  This is an orchard, planted according to the design of Someone infinitely wiser than we are.

But let’s listen to the gardener.  “Sir,” says the gardener, “I see your point.  This fig tree appears to be a failure.  Indeed, we find no figs here, as we ought to find.  But…”

But.  This is an amazing But. In this parable, someone speaks up to the One Who knows all and governs all. This gardener stands before the tribunal of absolute Truth and Justice. And the gardener has the temerity to say, “Yes, you’re right, but…”

How about a little more time?  How about another chance?  How about we don’t give up just yet?  How about the possibility that things could change for the better?

This gardener has two amazing qualities. 1. He gently but confidently asserts himself to the owner. 2. The gardener has the tenderness of a grandparent, a tutor, and a coach, all rolled into one.  He obviously thinks nothing of extra work.  This gardener must already work tirelessly all day, every day, in this orchard—watering, weeding, pruning, raking mulch. And he’s offering to do extra, to save this one lame tree.

Rembrandt Moses Ten CommandmentsWhen the master says, ‘Cut it down,’ the gardener knows this is a fair and reasonable judgment.  But he himself—the gardener—doesn’t want to judge.  Not yet; not now. Let’s wait…

Do good; avoid evil.  Love and worship God.  Love your neighbor.  Do not gossip.  Do not insult people.  Do unto others as you would have them do to you.  Give to the poor.  Keep the Sabbath.  Anchor your mind in God alone. The rules guide us to what is best for us.  If we suffer because we disobey them, we have only ourselves to blame.  We know better than to break God’s laws.

But! There is a but! We are weak. We get confused. We listen to bad advice sometimes. We watch the wrong t.v. shows. We get ourselves emotionally worked-up about something, and we make a bad decision.  Then we’re too cowardly to admit the truth, even to ourselves.

Were the Roman centurions in first-century Jerusalem of a different species from us? Were the people gathered in the courtyard outside Pilate’s tribunal a different kind of human being than we are?

They thought they had it right. But they were utterly confused and utterly wrong. They took Christ for a blasphemer, a revolutionary, an evil-doer. They convinced themselves that they acted to protect peace, to protect the nation, to protect true religion.  And they crucified the innocent divine Lamb.

As He died, He said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”  Give them another chance.

Parable of the Tenants

sistine isaiahWhat did the vineyard owner do to deserve the tenants’ violent rebellion?

Which means: What did the good Lord do, to deserve the ancient Israelites violent rebellion? What did the ancient prophets say, which provoked the people to persecute and kill them?

Things like, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall be holy as the Lord Himself is holy.” “Circumcise not just your foreskins, but your hearts.”

How about prophecies of the Messiah? “A virgin shall bear a son to be called Emmanuel.” “My servant shall not clamor or crush the bruised wick. He shall be pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins… We had all gone astray, but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.”

Or prophecies of the heavenly Jerusalem? “The gates of the city shall be the tribes of Israel, and the name of the city shall be: The Lord is there.” “Your dead will live; their bodies shall rise. Let those who live in the dust wake up and shout for joy. The dew shall be a dew of light.”

They prophesied, and bore witness to, the pure religion, the pure beauty, the pure self-sacrifice, and the pure divine triumph of the Christ. For this, the prophets suffered. At the hands of the complacent, the self-indulgent, the dishonest, the avaricious, the proud, and the desperately ego-centric.

But the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord Jesus can and will unite us with Himself, so that we can give to God our share of the produce, at the proper time. Then the prophecies of the new Jerusalem will come true, in us.

Seeds and Bubbles and Lists

The farmer sows the seeds. Then he proceeds to continue living in his own little bubble of life—eating, drinking, sleeping, laboring appropriately. Over time his plants grow. The farmer doesn’t know how.

We all live in our own little bubbles of life. What makes the farmer in the parable pious and fruitful? He knows he lives in his own little bubble. He knows that, outside the limits of his puny perceptions, God does great things.

alanis-morissette-27121At mid-day every day he pauses and declares: ‘Here are the crops God gives me, growing in the soil He gave me, thanks to the sun and the rain He has given me. All according to His design, and by His power! Praise Him! Now: time for lunch.’

The trend among American bishops these days is: Release a list of all the priests accused of sexual abuse in my diocese. In the ‘American bishop bubble’ this amounts to major drama these days. ‘Look! Openness! We’re actually willing to discuss these things! See!’

Meanwhile, outside the highly insulated bishop bubble, the rest of us are like: ‘Okay. Fine. Good for you. Do your thing. Let’s hope it’s all fair and true. Let’s hope it does more good than harm.’

Sexual predators try to create an impenetrable bubble, to swallow up the victim. Alanis Morissette completely nailed it in her song “Hands Clean.”

If it weren’t for your maturity, none of this would have happened. If you weren’t so wise beyond your years, I would have been able to control myself… This could get messy… Don’t go telling everybody. Overlook this supposed crime.

There’s more. It’s agony to listen to. Because it is so real.

Jesus Christ came and died to liberate us from such bubbles of enslavement and degradation. He came to free us, and unite us again with the indomitably life-giving mystery of God.

Christ’s grace comes from heaven to pop the noxious bubbles and get us out into some clean air. We still live in our bubbles of highly limited perception. It takes a lifetime to get free of them completely. But at least, with the grace of Christ, we can live like the steady farmer. We can see that God has plans of love and growth for us, even though we don’t always understand those plans.