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Humility Trumps Good Works

“God have mercy on me a sinner.”  (Luke 18:14)

These are the words of the tax collector in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

It’s a parable about prayer, self-righteousness, humility, and justification. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee prayed about himself.  “’God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me a sinner.’”

Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified before God, but not the Pharisee. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14) 

This parable challenges us as Christians, who attend church every Sunday, generally follow the rules, don’t regularly commit significant sins and lead a fairly decent life.  Like the Pharisee, it is so easy to let our pride sneak in and become self-righteous, justifying ourselves by comparing our actions to the apparent sinful ways of others. 

I say to myself that I don’t steal from others nor do them physical harm.  I don’t commit sexual sins. But yet, right below the surface is my tendency to be critical and judgmental of others, get angry over some personal slight, and seek recognition for my self-perceived accomplishments.  

Jesus asks, “Where is your heart?” When we lose sight of our dependence on God and grow proud of our accomplishments, we become like the Pharisee.  We stumble in our journey toward God and open ourselves to the very conduct we proudly claim we are avoiding.

Even St. Paul had to acknowledge the sinful nature that hovers right outside our daily lives when he said, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)

Only by acknowledging our tendency toward our sinful nature are we able to maintain a humility that recognizes our dependency on staying close to God and receiving his grace.  “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9)

What actions help you to remain humble?

Paradise for a Thief and Us

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23: 43) 

Quite a remarkable promise by Jesus to a thief as they both hung on a cross!   

While nearly all who stood by and watched the crucifixion of Jesus were ridiculing, mocking and challenging him, only the good thief acknowledged who Jesus was, came to his defense, and asked to be remembered in his kingdom.  Church tradition tells us his name was Dismas.

The passers-by hurled abuse at Jesus.  The rulers and soldiers sneered at him saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.”  Even the other thief said, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us.” (Luke 23:35, 39)

Out of this harangue and overcoming the difficulty of speaking while hanging from a cross, Dismas chastises the other thief, “Have you no fear of God?  We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”  Jesus responds with his extraordinary promise, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!”  (Luke 23:40-43)

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in his book, Life of Christ, observes that this was the only word spoken to the cross that was not a reproach.  “The conduct of everyone around the Cross was the negation of the very faith the good thief manifested; yet he believed when others disbelieved.”

If a thief, who right before he dies acknowledges Jesus as Lord, comes to his defense, and asks to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom, is promised paradise that very day, how much more should we rejoice in this same promise if we are daily repenting of our sins and acknowledging Jesus as Lord in our prayer, words, and actions!  

God’s love for us and willingness to forgive are so great that his promise of paradise extends to the very last moment and breath of life.

Are you willing to acknowledge and defend Jesus to receive the promise? 

The Alpha and the Omega

Jesus says, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him.”  And then later he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 6:43; 14:6)

It all sounds a bit circular, but Jesus is saying that our salvation begins and ends with the Father, and Jesus is the means to assist us in completing the journey.  He shows us the way, the truth, and the life in returning us to the one who created each of us in the first place.

At the same time Jesus invites us to join in the effort of outreach by the Father and him to others.  Looking back on my life I can see people who cooperated with Jesus in reaching out to me: my parents, a young priest who befriended me when I was a teenager, a church friend who kept inviting me to various spirit related events as we were raising our young family, and the Holy Spirit who broke through the distractions in my life to introduce me in a new way to the person of Jesus.   

Whether we return to God, our creator depends not only on God’s grace, but also our choices to accept the means he has provided through Jesus and others.   

The Father is the Alpha and the Omega.  Everything starts with him and everything ends with him.  He is the source of our creation.  He is the point from which we begin our journey of existence and life, and he is the intended destination.  He created our inner being before our physical being was born.  He gives us a life to live and a free will to choose whether our destination will involve returning to him for eternity or being separated from him for eternity.

Gospel singer Andre Crouch recorded a song many years ago with the chorus:

“Jesus is the answer,

For the world today.

Above him there’s no other

He’s the only way.”

Jesus says: “Learn from me.” (Mt. 11:29) “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15) “Don’t be afraid.” (Mt. 17:7) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt. 5:8) “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4, 5) “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23) “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mt. 4:19) “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  (Mt. 28: 20)

The Father is the source for all that exists, including we who are made in his image and likeness.  Jesus is the way to the source, which is our intended destiny.  So simple, but yet so profound!

How have you responded to Jesus’ invitations to the Father?

Emily’s Smile and the Face of God

“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:4)

Have you ever been confronted with so-called medical facts that seem to deny a higher spiritual reality?

We had that experience with the birth of our daughter Emily, who was born with Down syndrome. I will never forget the meeting with the geneticist after Emily was born.  He spent an entire hour telling us about all the things that Emily would never be able to do, including, “She will never be able to read.”

His professional training and protocols blinded him from seeing a larger reality involving God’s perspective.  To the geneticist, Emily was imperfect, but to God she is flawless, part of his grand scheme to teach the rest of us about him and what really counts. 

Emily was born with an inclination to love.  Her first reaction when meeting others is to hug them.   She has no guile.  She is not calculating.  She is not likely to offend God as we have all done.  I have learned as much about God and his ways from Emily as any sermon, teaching or spiritual writing.

On a Sunday morning a number of years ago, I happened to be serving as a Eucharistic Minister in our church and it just happened that I was stationed on the aisle that my wife and Emily were coming down.  When Emily saw that it was I who would be serving her communion, she broke out with that big, beautiful smile of hers, started rushing toward me, cupping her hands to receive the Body of Christ, and exclaimed, “Daddy!”  My heart melted, and then I thought, isn’t that how God would like all of us to approach him – with absolute love and joy, not worrying about what others might think. 

Yesterday we celebrated Emily’s 36th birthday.  The geneticist got it completely wrong.  Emily did learn to read.  She has an incredible sense of time, remembering the birthdays of all our family — siblings, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and thirteen nephews and nieces.  She knows what day to take out the trash.  She has a great sense of direction.  If I go a different direction on the way to church or to some other place she has been before, she corrects me.  Until COVID, she worked at a bakery and catering business from 9 to 2 every day for 12 years.  

Emily was not a genetic accident.   Medical science tells us that the extra chromosome that gives rise to Down syndrome is present in one out of every 700+ conceptions.  Children born with Down syndrome are not a genetic accident.  They are part of God’s plan to demonstrate his love, humility, and purity of heart.  When I see Emily’s smile, I see the face of God.

How tragic that our culture considers abortion a solution to the extra chromosome when the extra chromosome is really an opportunity to see the face of God.

Do you look for God’s presence in all people, particularly those with disabilities?

God’s Restrained Announcement

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  “He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5)

We have just celebrated the most important event of our Christian faith – Jesus’ resurrection.  Yet, as significant as it is for us and human history, God was rather restrained in bringing it to people’s attention.

There was no proclamation from a choir of angels  as at Jesus’ birth announcing that “A Savior has been born unto you.” (Luke 2:11)  In fact, God let Jesus’ followers kind of stumble into what had happened. On the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, we have a couple of angels asking the above question to the women who had come to anoint Jesus’ body.

The angels went on to explain that Jesus had risen from the dead just as he said he would, but the women did not understand.  For them, the only conceivable explanation was that someone had taken Jesus’ body.  Peter and John, upon hearing the women’s report had a foot race to the tomb only to find that the linens which Jesus had been wrapped in were neatly folded in two different places.  Neither did they understand, although Luke reports that Jesus did appear later to Peter. (Luke 24:34) 

Jesus also appears to Mary Magdalene, and two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but there was no recognition of who he was until he called Mary by name and broke bread in front of the disciples.  In spite of all the times that Jesus told the disciples before his crucifixion that he had to suffer death and rise from the dead, they did not understand. 

Why?  It was not until they had personally encountered the risen Jesus and were anointed with the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost that they began to fully comprehend what Jesus’ resurrection meant for them and human history.  St. Paul reports that Jesus appeared to more than 500 at one time. (1 Cor. 5:6) 

The resurrection radically changed how the apostles and early Christians lived and modeled their lives.

Like the disciples and the early Christians, we too, need to personally experience the presence of the risen Jesus and the anointing of the Holy Spirit before we can comprehend the effect of his resurrection on our lives.  No announcement, no teaching by itself will get the job done.

That was true for me 45 years ago on an October evening when I had a personal encounter with Jesus. Through God’s grace and the power of his Holy Spirit he opened my mind and heart to the reality of his risen presence in my life.

Have you met the risen Jesus and experienced the outpouring of his Holy Spirit?

Jesus Fixing Our Mistakes

Have you ever experienced someone fixing a problem that you created?  That is what Jesus did for one of his disciples when the disciple cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest.

“When his followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’  And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.”  (Luke 22:49-51)

John’s gospel identifies Peter as the one who struck with his sword, and Malchus as the name of the high priest’s servant. 

It was God’s will for Jesus to be arrested and crucified, which was necessary for the atonement of our sins and Jesus’ subsequent resurrection to demonstrate God’s victory and authority over evil.  Peter’s actions, though well intentioned, were mistakenly getting in the way of God’s will for Jesus and his plan for the salvation of all of mankind. 

Jesus reverses Peter’s mistake with a miracle in touching Malcus’ ear and totally restoring it.  This is a miracle that doesn’t get a lot of commentary, but think of its impact on Peter and Malchus.   For Peter, Jesus is not only reprimanding him for resorting to violence, but miraculously healing the enemy.  It may have kept Peter from being arrested for attacking the high priest’s servant. 

Imagine if you are Malchus.  Your task is to arrest Jesus whom you have been told is an enemy of the Jewish religion and Israel.  One of Jesus’ followers attacks you with a sword and cuts off your ear.  Then this Jesus, your supposed enemy, reaches out, touches your ear, and heals it.  One moment it is hanging there, bleeding, about to fall off, and the next moment it is completely restored.  One moment your adversaries are acting as you would expect them to act, and the next moment, Jesus, the object of your arrest, is reaching out not to do you harm, but to undo the harm done by one of his followers. 

How can Malchus not be affected?  Since John mentions him by name in his gospel, it is likely that he later became a follower of Jesus and familiar to John.

We all make mistakes, and sometimes a friend, spouse or colleague is able to step in and take action to minimize the consequences.  A work colleague spots a mistake we have made in a report and corrects it before it gets submitted to the boss; or a friend saves us the embarrassment of not remembering the name of an acquaintance in a social situation.

When we make mistakes, we are fortunate that we can go to Jesus and ask for his help to remedy the mistake.  If our mistake involves a sin, we can ask him to forgive us.  If our mistake has offended someone, we can ask him for the grace to seek reconciliation, and to prepare the heart of the person with whom we need to be reconciled.

During this Holy Week, ask Jesus to help you fix a mistake you may have made with someone. 

Needed: Workers for the Harvest

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Mt. 9:37; Luke 10:2)

Both Matthew and Luke report this statement of Jesus as he sends out the disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God.  Part of God’s plan is to have his followers share with others about their experience with Jesus and the kingdom of God.  He calls them as laborers in his harvest. 

What happens to a crop that is not harvested?  It lies in the field to rot or be eaten by birds and animals.  Its intended purpose is not fulfilled.  If a grain of wheat, for example, is not gathered and ground into flour to make bread, its purpose and destiny are never realized. 

The same thing can happen with people if their hearts and souls do not embrace their creator and his purpose and destiny for their lives.  God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5) 

Like Jeremiah, God has created each of us as a unique human being, distinct from one another, with unique gifts and talents designed for us to carry out his specific will.  His destiny for each of us is that we would come to know him as our creator and choose to embrace him and follow his will.  If our heart and soul are not harvested for him, we will likely stray from our purpose and destiny. 

Fortunately, there have been many harvesters in my life including my parents, a priest who guided me in my Catholic faith when I was a teenager, my wife whose example and words prompted me to go deeper in my relationship with God, and various Christian friends who have called me on to be more faithful and fervent in my walk. 

The more important question is whether I have served as a harvester for others.  Hopefully, I have had an impact on my wife as she has on me and on my children as well.  Hopefully, I have acted on opportunities to talk or pray with friends or work colleagues as they have occurred over the years. 

I am reminded of one incident many years ago when my secretary suggested that a women in our legal department talk to me about her intention to have an abortion.  I listened at length to all of the difficult circumstances she was facing.  I didn’t tell her what she should do, but commented that the baby she was carrying was a real person with little arms and legs to whom God had already assigned a soul.  I offered to pray with her, and we prayed that God would give her wisdom and courage in making her decision.  A couple of weeks later she came by to say that she was going to have the baby, and later she decided to raise the baby as a single mother. 

Sixteen years later she told me at a reception for my retirement that her son would not be alive today if it were not for that conversation.  While I don’t know if she became Christian, I do know she chose life for her son, and perhaps two souls were harvested for God.

How have you been a laborer for the harvest?

Separation from the Poor

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linens and dined sumptuously each day.  And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”  (Luke 16:19-21)

Both died.  Lazarus was taken by angels to Abraham’s side, while the rich man ended up in hell.  In torment, the rich man asked Abraham to let Lazarus come and dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue.  Abraham reminded the rich man that in life he had received good things and Lazarus only bad things, but now Lazarus was being comforted, and the rich man was in torment.  Furthermore, there was a great chasm, separating them that neither could cross.

In this parable, it did not appear that the rich man had violated any of the Ten Commandments as set out in Exodus 20 or Jewish law.  But he may have violated Jesus’ commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich.  It was his indifference. Even though Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, the rich man never noticed him each day as he passed by.  The rich man had let his wealth and way of life separate him from the people in need of his day.

By historical standards, many of us in America today would likely be considered rich.  We do not want for food, shelter or clothing.  We have employment that enables us to live in a home we have purchased and provide for our families. 

Our circumstances may have the effect of separating us from people like Lazarus.  They still exist, but we don’t see them.  We do not see them in our neighborhoods.  We don’t see them at work or in our churches.  There may be the occasional homeless person begging at an intersection or Metro stop.  But for the most part, unless we take some affirmative action to step outside of our circumstances, our default response tends to separate us from the very poor of our world.

When I read this story I struggle with how much my life is separated from those in need, and the consequences that can result if I do not seek to remedy that separation. 

So, we write checks and give used clothes to various organizations assisting the poor.  I keep some dollars handy in the console of my car for the homeless soliciting at an intersection.  I volunteer in the Chaplain’s office at the county jail, and before COVID, took communion on occasion to the sick and elderly.   But do these things fulfill the King’s message in the Parable of The Judgment of the Nations?

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

Do your life’s circumstances separate you from the poor, and if so, what can you do about it?

Jesus’ Yoke Lightens the Burden of Cancer

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This invitation from Jesus may be one of the most loving and grace-filled invitations of all time.    

Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church in the 16th Century, says that the yoke that Jesus is talking about is the first and greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”  Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self, is the yoke Jesus invites us to put on.

Years ago, my wife and I purchased an ox yoke which we found in the attic of a Maine antique store.  It is massive, made of solid oak.  Its beam is more than a yard in length with a girth of six inches.  It is heavy to lift.  In contrast to an ox yoke that holds two animals together for purposes of pulling a wagon or plow, Jesus’ yoke is not heavy or burdensome.

Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and light.  It is not a burden to carry.  In fact, when we choose to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self, whatever other burdens we may be carrying become lighter

In November, I learned that my prostate cancer had returned in the form of a tumor in my pelvic area.  I had had a prostatectomy fifteen years earlier, followed by three years of hormone therapy and then several years of undetectable PSA, a blood test that measures the presence of prostate cancer.  I am currently undergoing proton radiation five days a week for seven and half weeks. 

While all of this is a burden, it has been lightened by the yoke of Jesus and his Holy Spirit in the form of numerous and faithful prayers from family and many Christian friends from our church, the People of Praise, a Christian community to which we belong, Christians in Commerce/WorkLight, a workplace ministry in which I participate, and other acquaintances.  The pastor of our church also administered the sacrament of anointing and healing to me.     

My burden has been further lightened by the personal care of my doctors and technicians, and the advances in medical technology which also come from God when medical scientists discover the mysteries of God’s creation of the human body.  The PSMA scan that detected my tumor was just approved by the FDA last May and can find tumors many times smaller than a typical CT scan.  Proton radiation is a more advanced form of radiation that is supposed to have fewer side effects and does less damage to the surrounding tissue and organs.

The yoke of Jesus can bring healing, trust and peace through his special presence, and through the prayers and support of family and friends.  Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you, family and friends.  Thank you, doctors and technicians. 

Do you have a burden that the yoke of Jesus could lighten? 

Peer Ministry – Part of God’s Plan

“Praise be to the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.” (2 Co. 1:3-4)

St. Paul is suggesting that whatever comfort we have received from God for troubles we have experienced, we can offer that same comfort to others who are experiencing similar troubles.  This is a form of peer ministry.  We all have the opportunity to be peer ministers.

God personally ordained peer ministry when he decided to become one of us in the person of Jesus.  He experienced all of the trials, pain, sorrows and joys of our human condition, and showed us how to understand and live our lives.  He set both the precedent and the model for peer ministry.

While there are many examples of peer ministries such as Alcoholics Anonymous and various Christian outreaches to high school and college students, there is also the personal peer ministry arising out of the personal challenges we have experienced that we can share with others who are experiencing similar challenges. 

Our daughter Emily was born with Down syndrome and serious heart complications.  The first year was very challenging with all of her medical issues, but we also began to experience the blessings of her big beautiful smile, her unconditional love, and her purity of heart.  Over the years we have been able to share our experience of dealing with both the challenges and the blessings with numerous couples who have given birth to children with Down syndrome. 

We have also experienced the friendship and community of other families who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  You won’t find a group of people more loving, compassionate, supportive, and committed to one another.   Several years ago, some of these parents joined together and helped establish one of the first special education programs in the United States for a Catholic high school in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. 

These same parents then created a non-profit organization by the name of Porto Charities to raise funds to support inclusive Catholic education in diocesan schools.  To date, there are similar programs in all four of the diocesan high schools and thirteen of approximately thirty elementary parish schools.  It is the Bishop’s objective for every diocesan school to be able to offer an inclusive education for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.   

Someone who is struggling with a particular problem is more open to hear from another who has experienced the same problem and understands what they are going through.  Add God’s love to that experience and you have a peer ministry. 

What kind of trial in your life have you experienced that enables you to support someone going through a similar trial?