What to do when Jesus talks tough.

Matthew 22:1-14 (28th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

A while ago I was visiting a new school when the fire alarm went off. The sound of the alarm was incredibly loud, much more piercing than I remembered when I was a student. Even if you covered your ears the sound was so uncomfortable that you couldn't stay in the building. Later on I asked why the alarm was so loud. I learned that all new fire alarms are like that. In the past, alarms would warn people that there was a fire, but some just ignored it and stayed in the building. The purpose of the new alarm was to not only warn people but force them to take action and leave the building. In today’s Gospel, as was the case for the past several weeks, Jesus uses some incredibly strong language. It seems so out of character. Jesus, however, is speaking like this to provoke a similar response as the fire alarms. More than warning us, He uses such strong language to jar us and compel us to take action. Before we can appreciate the danger Jesus warns us against, we need to appreciate the indescribable good that is offered to us.

source, Ben Shumin
God calls all of us to be part of His kingdom. Since “God is love” (1 John 4:16), the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom in which love of God and neighbour, reigns supreme. This kingdom begins here on earth and continues forever in heaven -- “the endless moment of love” (YouCat #158). The YouCat describes heaven in this way:
If you have ever observed a couple looking at each other lovingly or seen a baby nursing who looks for his mother’s eyes as though it wanted to store up every smile forever, then you have some inkling of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is something of such incredible beauty, that its wonder can only be captured in parables. Jesus explains that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, an event which epitomizes love, union, peace and joy. The parable explains that all are invited to this wedding banquet. First the servants, which represent the prophets, are sent to summon the invited guests. The invited guests represent the chief priests, elders and others in good standing in the community of Israel.  Next, the servants are sent into the streets to summon everyone the find, the good and the bad alike. The message is clear. Rich, poor, sinner, or saint, God wants all to be a part of His wonderful heavenly kingdom, both now and for all eternity.

Though all are invited, we need to freely choose to be a part of the kingdom, God forces no one. God's kingdom is one of love and love can never be coerced. Imagine if someone walked up to you dragging behind him four dogs on a leash and said, “look how much my dogs love me, they follow me everywhere I go.”  The statement is ridiculous because the dogs have no choice; there is not love. Jesus’ parable makes it clear that though all are invited, our entrance into the kingdom of heaven is not automatic. We must respond to the invitation. Though some accept the invitation, others reject it in three different ways. 1) Some ignore the invitation, keeping busy with their work. Today it is very tempting to push God out of our lives because we are to busy with other things. 2) Others violently reject the invitation. Now, as was the time with Jesus, people strongly reject God, Jesus and their kingdom of love, peace and mercy by living lives of hatred, violence and greed. 3) Finally, one arrives at the banquet but is rejected because he is not wearing a wedding garment. This detail, which can seem quite confusing, is very significant. This wedding garment symbolizes conversion. Jesus explains that the acceptance of God’s invitation into His kingdom involves more than merely saying “yes”. When we truly chose to be part of the kingdom of heaven, which is God’s love, we begin to change our lives. As the YouCat explains, “The ‘Kingdom of God’ begins in those who allow themselves to be transformed by God’s love” (YouCat 89).

Jesus vigorously warns us regarding what rejecting God’s invitation to His kingdom entails. Here, Jesus’ language becomes quite startling. To those invited guests who mistreated and killed the king’s messengers, we read that: “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Later we read the fate of the one who appear at the banquet without the wedding garment. “Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”  The way Jesus is speaking seems so harsh, jarring and uncharacteristic. Jesus, however, has a good reason for doing this: He is sounding the fire alarm. We need to appreciate what it means to reject God’s invitation to enter His kingdom. If we reject this, we chose to separate ourselves from God both now and for all eternity. Of our own free will, we choose to be in a place where there is no love, goodness, happiness or joy. Simply, we choose hell for ourselves. If a parent sees their child reaching towards a hot element on the stove, they might call to warn the child first. If the child doesn't listen, the parent will shout. If the child still doesn't listen, the parent will run to the child and remove the child from danger. With His strong language, Jesus is trying to protect us from harm. Just like that those new fire alarms, Jesus isn't just trying to warn us of danger, He is trying to compel us to take action.

Jesus has sounded the alarm out love and for our own good. We have two options: cover our ears or take action. Which will be your choice?

One way to get people back to Church

Matthew 21:33-43 (27th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Recently I watched a panel on the news discuss the question of "why religion is no longer relevant". They offered different reasons explaining why many people no longer prayed, went to Church or even believed in God, including “science makes belief in God obsolete” or “belief in God was just an idea used to control people and is no longer needed.” Watching the discussion, I became frustrated; I wanted to jump through the TV and join the debate myself! The question the panel was discussing is valid and  by no means new. The reality is that people have always, for one reason or another, chosen to exclude God from their lives. The question is, what can we personally do about it? The Gospel of this Sunday provides a clear answer.

Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is a presents Salvation History, which is the story of how God has interacted with humanity, in the form of an allegory. Like any allegory, each character or element in the story corresponds to some reality. We need to unpack this parable in order to properly understand its message. A landowner built a vineyard. Jesus roots his parable in the image from the prophet Isaiah we find in the first reading. God is the landowner. The vineyard is Israel, a people God chose and formed to think, act and love like Him. Since the time of Jesus, the vineyard also refers to the Church. We are the People of God.  The landowner protected the the vineyard with a hedge and watchtower. This means that God always watches over His People and protects them. Since the purpose of the vineyard was to produce wine, the owner placed in it a wine-press. He then leased it to tenants and went on a journey. We, the tenants are meant to produce something, we have a purpose and mission. After some time, the landowner sends servants to gather in the the produce. These servants represent the prophets and leaders that God who who challenge and encourage us to do the mission God has given us. The tenants, however, brutally reject these messengers. Throughout history, we too often reject those God has sent who call us to conversion. Finally, the landowner sends his son, who the tenants seize, drag out of the vineyard and kill. This son is Jesus Christ, who was dragged out out of Jerusalem and crucified on Calvary. This, of course, was not the end of the story. Jesus did not remain in the tomb, but rose again, taking control of the vineyard.

Christ and Saint Mina. 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt, now in the Louvre, source
This parable reveals to us, the People of God, our role in Salvation History. Notice that the tenants were not told to hang out in the vineyard, sit on lawn chairs and relax while eating grapes! No, the tenants were supposed to produce wine. The landowner sends his servants and ultimately his son to ensure this happens. When the tenants still refuse to do their job, the vineyard is given to other tenants who will follow through. We have been given a mission. Like wine, our lives are meant to be something good and enticing.  When we live as Jesus wants, by striving to become holy, we should become like magnets. People should see our joy and peace and desire to have the same thing in their lives. Simply by the way we live as followers of Jesus, we should draw people closer to God. In carrying out this mission, we do not act as God’s puppets. We are tenants. God trusts us and gives us freedom. It is a privilege to be able to participate in God’s work of salvation. Though we are not puppets, we are also not in charge. In killing the landowner’s son, the tenants wanted to take control of the vineyard for themselves. Humanity’s great temptation is to push God out of the picture and try to take control of nature and civilization. We want to make the rules and say what we should be doing with our lives. The reality is that we are tenants, all we have is a gift from God: nature, our bodies, our mind, our creativity and our talents. We are given these things in order to fulfill God’s mission. If we refuse to carry it out, He will find other people who will do so.

We need to face the fact that one reason why numerous people exclude Jesus and the Church from their lives is because we are not living lives that draw people closer to God. Going back to that panel I heard on the news, we could say that some people find religion irrelevant because we, the vineyard's tenants, are not producing abundant wine. How do we convince people that God is relevant and they should follow Jesus? The parable of the vineyard gives a clear answer: live a holy life. Arguing and finger-wagging will not get people to go to Church or to pray. Consider saints such as St. Francis or Mother Teresa who produced such great wine in their life. In their lives people saw a glimpse of Jesus and were drawn to follow him. Do our lives have the same effect on people? Jesus’ parable of the vineyard provokes us to answer a simple question, “does the way I live attract people closer to Jesus and the Church or not?” Bl. John Henry Newman composed a beautiful prayer called Radiating Christ. It expresses in a beautiful way the desire we should have to produce in our lives good wine that draws people closer to God. Today let us ask God for the strength to do this.

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance wherever I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly, that my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!
Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine.
It will be you, shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me.
Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,
the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.

Conversion, holiness and the search for true beauty

Matthew 28-32 (26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Le rire (The laugh) by Eugène Bataille, 1883, source
We spend a lot of time and money looking good on the outside. Globally, “beauty” is a $160 billion-a-year industry, encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, health clubs, cosmetic surgery and diet pills. According to the Economist, Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do an education. Canadians spend $5 billion-a-year on cosmetics alone. Taken in moderation, there is nothing wrong with caring for how we look physically. Unfortunately, we often invest far more time, money and effort on improving our bodies - which eventually get old, die and decay - in comparison to the attention we give on developing our spiritual or inner beauty, a beauty we will carry with us for all eternity. Jesus calls each of us to develop this true beauty by growing in holiness and becoming saints. In the parable of the two sons and the vineyard, we are presented with two very different responses to this invitation.   

At times we give mere lip service to Jesus’ call to grow in holiness and become saints. When this happens, we are like the second son who who said he would go to the vineyard but never went. Jesus identifies this son with religious authorities who claim to be great religious leaders, refuse to follow Jesus. We can fall into the same trap. When I was living in Rome I used to visit an elderly couple. In their house I saw so many pictures saints, including Padre Pio - this is Italy after-all.  As the saying goes, “not everyone in Italy believes in God, but everyone believes in Padre Pio!” I said to them once that they must be fervent Catholics.  They said of course, they were 100% Catholic! Then the old lady came close to me, pointed her finger in my face, and said,“listen we are more Catholic than you!”. So I asked what Church they went to.  Their response was “oh, we haven't been to mass in 20 years”.  Just identifying ourselves as Catholic, whether it for cultural or other reasons, isn’t enough. When we simply try to do the bare minimum in our spiritual life and not take any steps to grow in holiness, we give lip service to Jesus’ call.

Like the first son in the parable, we are to have an attitude of conversion. He initially said no to serving, but then had a change of heart and went to do his father’s will.  Jesus explains that the tax collectors and prostitutes fit into this category. Their actions were a sign they had said no to living as God commanded. Unlike the religious leaders, however, when they met Jesus they experienced a conversion and chose to follow Him. We should follow their example. Sometimes conversion involves a change from a bad life to a good one. For example, I once met a middle-aged man who has a shaved head and arms covered in tattoos. Some years ago he had a dramatic conversion that caused him to leave a life of crime and sin. He now spends most of his time serving the poor. Another type of conversion - also extremely important but unfortunately not enough emphasized - is from living a good life to living a better life. We find a famous example in the life of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer. As a teenager she chose to follow Jesus and was already living a good life. At the same time, however, she had certain weaknesses such as an immoderate interest in popular fiction about knights and chivalry, as well as an excessive care for her physical appearance. These things held her back from following Christ. One day, she had a conversion, choosing to follow Jesus more closely and live a better life, breaking some of her bad habits and spending more time in prayer.

As followers of Jesus, our lives should be marked by an attitude of ongoing conversion. Ongoing conversion is nothing other than a desire to grow in inner beauty. We should always desire to change, transforming ourselves to become more and more like Jesus. In short, we should want to become saints!   If this desire is lacking, something is amiss in our spiritual lives. Love is always dynamic, it is always growing. When we follow Jesus, there is no level ground, we are either moving up or moving down. We can consider three degrees of moral conversion.
  1. First degree: conversion from mortal sin. Mortal sin is a freely chosen rejection of God. For example, murder, adultery, hatred, blasphemy, and grave injustice. If one continues in this rejection, it ends in freely chosen eternal disaster. This conversion is a dramatic 180 degree change from a life that leads away from God to one where we desire to be in relationship with Him and follow His commandments.
  2. Second degree: conversion from willed venial sins. Though venial sins do not destroy our relationship or love with God and neighbor, they do wound it. Examples include gossip, overeating, rudeness and impatience. In this conversion, we recognize our faults, desire to change and make steps to do so.
  3. Third degree: living as the saints did, loving God and neighbour without limit. This involves giving oneself beyond the call of duty and going all the way for God. The spiritual writer, Fr. Thomas Dubay explains that at “this stage of growth these individuals are not simply rather better than ordinary good folk - they are vastly superior in sheer goodness”.
Though each of us is weak and our lives very much a “work in progress”, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are all called to this third degree of conversion.

Holiness, which is true, eternal beauty, is something worth spending time and effort to develop. Let us not be like the second brother in the parable who did not take this call to conversion seriously. Today lets spend some effort on looking good on the inside. Try to identify one area in your life you want to work on. Perhaps it is one bad habit you want to root out or one virtue you want to develop. Let us make ongoing conversion a way of life and becoming saints our greatest dream. For, as the french novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”