Bridging Over the Chasm

This past Sunday we proclaimed the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We could analyze the parable in a very academic way, or we can let it be a new invitation to reflect on one of Jesus’ favorite topics, the poor. I believe preaching about poverty is difficult, for many reasons, but today I am thinking of two. First, we may tune out because we have heard Jesus telling us to help the poor so often, and we may think we already “know” about that. Second, because it is just difficult to help the poor. Whether we are talking about poverty in a given city, or poverty at the global level, it is difficult to find solutions.

I have my own parable, a man whose name is Terry who comes often on Sunday and stays at the door of the church. I give him food and money, and I invite him to come and celebrate Mass with us, but he won’t. Helping him would take more than the food or the cash I give him—but that’s all he wants, and that’s all I think I can really offer. What I do with him is charity—which alleviates and it is helpful, but limited. My point is that it is difficult to help the poor.

But the parable invites us to reflect about our relationship to the poor and to poverty. It is an important reflection because, in Jesus’ opinion, our salvation is at stake. The very wealthy man goes to hell because he did not do anything for Lazarus—not just because he was wealthy. He has removed any shred of dignity from Lazarus’ humanity. For instance, he never addresses Lazarus directly, Lazarus is not good enough for him. Even after death, while experiencing torment, he asks Abraham to tell Lazarus what to do. Between the rich man and the poor man, there is a chasm, Jesus says, an abyss, a hole. One that we need to climb out of. Where are we in climbing out of this hole?

Some are just like the man in the parable—at the very bottom. They just ignore the poor. They do not care. They may think it is not their responsibility, and many may even blame the poor for their fate. The parable gives Lazarus a name, but it does not tell us why he is poor, or whether he “deserved” being poor or not, that is hardly the point. I want to think that most people who come to Mass at our parishes do not feel this way.

Others, and I believe this is where many people I know fall—including myself—are concerned about the poor and poverty, but we do not know exactly what to do about it. We can individually help a little, as I try to do with Terry. Some will calm their consciences with a bit of help, but that assistance helps the giver more than the one who receives it, who will continue being poor. It applies to institutions also. Many Catholic parishes do a lot of very worthy charitable work—a praiseworthy work that, like my donations to Terry, do not even begin to address poverty, they just alleviate it. Do not get me wrong, this is a lot better than nothing. But it does not take us out of the hole. Perhaps we can start by giving more, helping more…knowing that it may never be enough. I believe Jesus is inviting us, as always, to go further.

I want to propose that we could do more to get out of the hole. I believe Jesus invites us to take a step forward, beyond good intentions and concern that does not translate in effective action. Like the administrator of last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus encourages us to be shrewd about poverty. I think about my parish: we are not that large, but we have lots of talented professionals, people with tremendous abilities. For the faith community I shepherd, this gospel is an invitation to reflect creatively on what we want to do for the poor. Thinking and praying together, we can come up with a new, creative, original ministry that would really address the roots of poverty in our city.

As Sacred Heart is approaching its 100th Anniversary celebration, I believe our future as an effective, gospel-like community of faith may depend on this. I believe we need this creative, original ministry, something we can do well. To this purpose, we will organize a series of listening sessions to discern together what that ministry should be. It may take work, and resources, but as a pastor, I would rather fundraise money for this than for a roof. We need a bridge more than we need a cover.


Stay Shrewd

Most Bibles give titles to the different stories we read, sometimes with good criteria, sometimes with appalling lack of accuracy. These titles are a modern addition to the text. The traditional title for last Sunday’s gospel is “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward.” I do not think that is the right title. Would Jesus give us a dishonest person as an example to follow? I propose another adjective: dishonest or not, the steward is shrewd. I believe this is a much better title: The Parable of the Shrewd Steward.

Shrewd is an interesting word, very lively. My first encounter with the word did not happen until I had been in the United States for some 15 years. I was attending the Mass of Thanksgiving of a priest of my Community—Juan Manuel Camacho. He was giving a thank you speech at the end of the Mass. He thanked different people for different things. When it came to me, he said he had learned from my shrewdness. Not knowing what the word meant, I sat there not really sure if I had been publicly insulted, or praised.

If you go to a dictionary—which is what I did afterwards then, and now as I prepare for the homily—you may find two entries for the word, two definitions in dynamic tension. The first one: shifty, slicky, dishonest, deceiving, cunning… I felt very offended! The second one: smart, clever, astute, sharp in practical matters… That’s much better, and actually, I think it defines perfectly the attitude of the steward of the parable upon receiving life-shattering news.

Jesus gives this steward as an example for his disciples to follow. He cannot be telling us to follow the example of dishonesty, but he is certainly telling us to follow the example of shrewdness. See these four things that, in his shrewdness, the steward does:

First: He is told that he is going to be fired and he does not spend much time in doing what we often do in the same situation. He does not feel pity for himself, or spend energies complaining about the unfairness of the situation. He does not go back to appeal to the master’s decision. He immediately focuses on what is going to be his next move.

Second: Whatever the next move is going to be, he bases it on a profound knowledge of himself. He reflects on his inability to dig and his unwillingness to beg. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and his next move will be based on this self-awareness. On the contrary, we all know people who insist on doing precisely what they really have no talent to do, neglecting great activities that would be much more fitting to their talents. (Here I want to add that I see this happening all the time in the only business I can talk about with any degree of knowledge: in parishes, with volunteers, it happens all the time. You will often find the most anti-social person in the parish “welcoming” people to Mass as an usher, when perhaps the person is great with finances, or with facility management…something to think about.)

Third: He decides and sets what is the most important priority in his life. He anchors the rest of his life on what he has decided is the most important thing for him: he wants to be welcomed in people’s houses. That’s the pivot to his next move. Not only does he anchor to a priority, as we often fail to do, but also he chooses “the better part”: what is important for him is in the arena of human relationships, he simply wants to have friends.

Fourth: Knowing himself and his priority, he designs a plan (we preached at the beginning of the year about the need to strategize in life) and he goes about it. Is he “dishonest” about it? What we know is that at the end of the parable, the master congratulates him, and Jesus calls his attitude “prudent,” so do the math (pun intended, if you remember the parable.)

Jesus concludes his teaching by comparing the shrewdness of the steward with the often missing lack of astuteness of the “children of the light.” We need to be “clever, astute, smart in practical matters,” if we are serious about our lives in general and about our faith in particular: thinking about our next move, anchored to our priority, with a strategy on how to go about it. So: follow Jesus, stay shrewd.

PS: This is the blog’s 100th post, thank you for making it possible through your following. 


The Lost Parables

The Holy Father suggested recently that Catholic homilies should not last more than 8 minutes. It was one of those weekends when that is not an easy task, because there would be so much to say about this package of three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. At Sacred Heart, we decided for once to opt for the optional shorter reading of the gospel which deals with the two first parables. We thought we could do that, and still include the Prodigal Son in the homily, as we know the parable well and we preached on it not long ago.

One of the things we need to do when we read about Jesus saying something is to see who he is addressing. Sometimes it is the crowds; sometimes the disciples or, more specifically, the apostles; sometimes, like this Sunday, Jesus addresses the Pharisees. We have said it many a time: the Pharisees was a religious and social group that based its understanding of faith on the strict observance of numerous laws. Jesus often clashes with them on principle, but also because they had the reputation to be very good at telling people what to do, but not do it themselves. Jesus would also clash with them in terms of their corruption, their need to be recognized, and their insensitivity towards the marginalized.

To them, Jesus addresses these three parables. They are lessons on the way God loves and forgives us—because there is a connection between the way we love and the way we forgive.

The parables teach us that God loves us without condition, the same way that God forgives without us having to do anything for it. God loves and forgives taking the initiative, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, who interrupts his son when he is explaining his actions. Interestingly enough, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is widely misunderstood. Many of us believe that we have to fulfill a penance to be given absolution. That is not true: absolution is not given under any condition because we reflect the unconditional love Jesus tells us about today (and if we do not fulfill the penance, we know the first sin we have to confess next time…)

The parables teach us that God loves and forgives us with joy. The shepherd, the woman looking for the coin, certainly the father in the prodigal son, they all rejoice and celebrate when recovering what had been lost. This is in contrast to our usually gloomy experience of forgiveness—sacramental or not.

The parables also teach us that love and forgiveness come with a price, with a risk. Forgiving and loving make us vulnerable. Any of these topics could have been the core of a useful homily in itself, but they also speak about something we have to learn, namely God’s preference for the lost. This preference for the lost should have consequences for us, as Church, as parish/particular faith community, and also as individuals.

As Church, how many times have we been like Pharisees at heart – very much into judgement, and telling people what to do, failing to do it ourselves, obsessing excessively over rules. This papacy will be remembered as one that tried to open the doors to those who may have felt abandoned, lost. The reform of the annulment process, the proclamation of the year of Mercy, or the willingness to discuss the issue of the reception of communion for the divorced and remarried, are examples of this reach to the poor. The Holy Father has pushed the doors of the Church open with the stern opposition of many individuals in high places.

As parish community, any parish community, we have to spend more energies on reaching out to the (so-called) lost, instead of spending all our energies in making those who are there happy. It takes the kind of risk-taking of the shepherd in the first parable, to go out to those who are not in the pews, trusting that the ones that are already there will join forces in the concern for the lost instead of complaining that their needs are not being fulfilled. This does not mean to neglect the care and nurturing of our parishioners, but there is a fine line that we often cross when out of fear of losing those we have we end up pampering them, under-preaching, and becoming a service-providing company instead of a community of empowered disciples sent out on a mission.

Finally, in our own lives, we can reflect about our own lost ones. People we lost, perhaps because we were unable to forgive a wrongdoing, or just because we grew apart over time. It is a risk, and it takes courage, but perhaps following these parables, it is a convenient time to reach out.






Aiming at the Moon (23rd Sunday in OT)

Jesus was not about success, at least not in terms of numbers. In several passages of the gospel, when too many are following him, he stops, turns around and reminds the crowds that following him comes at a cost. He was right, as he will die almost alone, and the crowds will have a role in his apparent demise.

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship: hate your family, carry your own cross, give up all your possessions. What do we do with this radical message that we obviously are not going to suddenly follow? How do Christians of the 21st century heed this very strong message, when we have families, responsibilities, jobs, etc.? We tend to stay in what’s comfortable, in our familiar habits, even in the way we practice our faith. But Jesus reminds us that being his disciple has a cost.

To tell good, church-going people that we may not be doing enough to call ourselves disciples of Jesus is not a popular theme. Think about this: Can you imagine a priest actually preaching what Jesus preached, which is exactly what the preacher is supposed to do?

The first thing we should do is not to parse the gospel, as we often do when its message is inconvenient for us. We just rationalize and think that Jesus really did not say that. The verse in the gospel that reads, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Matthew 19:24) comes to mind. We attempt to parse the meaning of “rich” so that we end up diluting what Jesus actually said.

We can also realize that to follow completely Jesus’ radical call  in today’s gospel is not impossible; some people do it. We call them saints, and we have plenty of examples in history. But the saints are not relics of the past. As we were preaching this gospel, the Church was canonizing a contemporary of ours, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, someone who followed radically the call of Jesus to total discipleship–despite the doubts and the sense of abandonment that we now know she felt for a large part of her adult life.

So, what can we do? We are not going to wake up tomorrow and follow this call radically. But we should not convince ourselves that just doing a few things, like praying a little bit, coming to Mass every Sunday, being polite to others, etc., is enough. All these things are good, but Jesus tells us it takes more than that to be his disciple. What I suggest we can do is to begin by looking at all the areas in our lives and see where we could be more gospel-like.

For instance, Jesus mentions possessions, and I am certainly not ready to give up everything I own tomorrow… but I can take a serious, prayerful look at the way I manage my finances, at the way I spend my money and consider changes that set me in the direction to which Jesus refers. Can I give more to the poor? Can I cut some expenses that only feed some unnecessary need? Can I temper my need to acquire more meaningless things?

Another area where we can start heeding Jesus’ radical message is in the way we treat other people. While most do well with family members, for instance, Jesus asks us to reconsider all our relationships under the bright light of the gospel. The second reading this past weekend, from Paul’s letter to Philemon, is an example of that. Paul is asking Philemon to welcome back his fleeing former slave, Onesimus, for the sake of the gospel Philemon says he believes. We can start doing this and reconsider our relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, even the enemy, as we have heard so many times.

In summary, we have tamed the radical message of Christ, but instead of dismissing it because it is impossible to follow, we decide to begin to apply it in some areas of our lives. Maybe we start and we find unexpected happiness and fulfillment, and we decide that it is worthy to continue doing it and doing it more. It is like a spiritual aiming at the moon kind of thing: at least, if we fail, we will find ourselves falling in the stars.