Engaging the Gospel – Mark 6:1-6

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B): Gospel – Mark 6:1-6

While last Sunday’s Gospel revealed the power of faith, today’s Gospel presents us with its empty opposite – hardness of heart resulting in a lack of faith.

Jesus is amazed at the lack of faith among the people of His own town of Nazareth, who take offense at Him. Having known Him and His family for years, they cannot reconcile the ordinariness of Jesus’ life with His profound teaching and His performing mighty deeds:

During the greater part of His life, Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor…The obedience of Christ in the daily routine of His hidden life was already inaugurating His work of restoring what the disobedience of Adam had destroyed. The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life.

–Catechism paragraphs 531-533.

Like the people of Nazareth, we can find pretexts for ignoring, or even rejecting, the Lord’s message when it strikes us as difficult or inconvenient. But we would then be refusing God’s gift, denying the truth, and lying to ourselves:

God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth…Since God is true, the members of His people are called to live in the truth. In Jesus Christ, the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest.

–paragraphs 2465-66.

God offers us the gift of faith (153), but we must respond of our own free will to embrace it (154-55), and we must persevere lest we lose our faith (162).

“The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith,” and also implies how we can sin against faith. One of these sins is willful doubt, which “disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief…If deliberately cultivated, doubt can lead to spiritual blindness” (2088).

That kind of spiritual blindness was on display at Nazareth, preventing the people from receiving what the Lord wanted to give them.

Question for reflection: When have preconceptions hardened my heart?

The True Meaning of Freedom

Too often in our society, freedom is taken to mean the ability to do whatever we want. But if we follow that illusion, we end up being unhappy.

In reality, freedom isn’t about being free from all constraints; rather, freedom is about being free for something, the ability to choose the good.

God gave us the gift of free will to choose Him and to live in accordance with His will for us. Because He created us, He knows what is best for us, what behavior contributes to our human flourishing and happiness.

This moral law is encoded within our very being as human persons. Whenever we flout the moral law in the name of “freedom,” we go against the truth of God’s design for us and actually deliver ourselves up to slavery to sin.

But Jesus liberates us from bondage to sin, gives us true freedom, and empowers us to live in His friendship. As disciples, we are called to follow Jesus in freely giving ourselves for the good of others.

St John Paul II explains this beautifully in Veritatis Splendor: “Human freedom…is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly” (86).

Our “freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth” (64).

Jesus is “the living, personal summation of perfect freedom in total obedience to the will of God.” Through contemplation of Jesus on the Cross, we grasp “the full meaning of freedom: the gift of self in service to God and one’s brethren” (87).

Engaging the Gospel – Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year B): Gospel – John 15:9-17

“Jesus makes charity the new commandment” (Catechism paragraph 1823). “The Lord asks us to love as He does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ Himself” (1825).

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Benedict XVI explores Jesus’ call to love:

God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, He makes us see and experience His love, and since He has ‘loved us first,’ love can also blossom as a response within us.

Moreover, “love is not merely a sentiment,” but rather involves our will and intellect as well:

The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.

…in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ…Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God Who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others.

Deus Caritas Est, 17-18.

And by living in accordance with this love, as Benedict explains, we find our joy:

God wants us to share in His own divine and eternal joy, and He helps us to see that the deepest meaning and value of our lives lie in being accepted, welcomed and loved by Him…God offers us an unconditional acceptance which enables us to say: ‘I am loved; I have a place in the world and in history; I am personally loved by God. If God accepts me and loves me and I am sure of this, then I know clearly and with certainty that it is a good thing that I am alive.’

…God wants us to be happy. That is why he gave us specific directions for the journey of life: the commandments. If we observe them, we will find the path to life and happiness. At first glance, they might seem to be a list of prohibitions and an obstacle to our freedom. But if we study them more closely, we see in the light of Christ’s message that the commandments are a set of essential and valuable rules leading to a happy life in accordance with God’s plan. How often, on the other hand, do we see that choosing to build our lives apart from God and His will brings disappointment, sadness and a sense of failure…

Christians are men and women who are truly happy because they know that they are not alone. They know that God is always holding them in His hands.

Message for World Youth Day 2012

Question for reflection: In what ways do I try to radiate God’s love and joy to others?

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 21:33-43

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Matthew 21:33-43

The first reading from Isaiah, and Jesus’ parable in the Gospel, both employ the imagery of a vineyard to illustrate a common theme: our failure to respond generously to God’s nurturing attention.

Just as the landowner makes every effort on behalf of his vineyard, symbolic of Israel, so does God continually lavish His gifts and graces upon us.

“God loved His people first,” establishing His covenant, and revealing His Commandments to seal our relationship with Him.

As a result, our “moral existence is a response to the Lord’s loving initiative” (Catechism paragraphs 2060-62), an honoring of our “fundamental duties” toward God and neighbor (2072).

But the wayward tenants in the Gospel refuse to meet their just obligations, despite the repeated calls of the landowner’s servants – the prophets – and even His own Son, Jesus. Their violent reaction is a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Passion and Death, which Jesus addresses directly to His listeners.

As Benedict XVI notes:

The audience knows he is saying to them: Just as the Prophets were abused and killed, so now you want to kill me: I’m talking about you and about me.

…But the Lord always speaks in the present and with an eye to the future. He is also speaking with us and about us.

If we open our eyes, isn’t what is said in the parable actually a description of our present world? Isn’t this precisely the logic of the modern age, of our age?

Let us declare that God is dead, then we ourselves will be God…At last we can do what we please. We get rid of God…

The “vineyard” belongs to us. What happens to man and the world next? We are already beginning to see it…

–Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, p. 257.

Question for reflection: How do I respond when challenged by a truth I may not want to hear?

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 11:25-30

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Matthew 11:25-30

Take Jesus’ yoke upon you and find rest

Jesus presents us with paradoxes in Sunday’s Gospel. Revelation comes to the “little ones,” not to those who deem themselves wise, and by taking the Lord’s yoke upon us, we actually find true rest in Him.

These statements are integrally related: to accept the Kingdom of God, we must have a “humble and trusting heart” (Catechism paragraphs 544, 2785).

This truth contradicts our contemporary culture, which promotes pride of mind and heart. The culture often denies objective standards of morality and claims that we can fashion individual ideas of right and wrong to suit ourselves.

As St. John Paul II has observed, such moral relativism is essentially “a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, Who guides man with the moral law” (The Splendor of Truth 84).

“God, Who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love,” He teaches us what is good by giving us the commandments (35).

We are authentically free, not when we try to deny the truth of God’s word, but when we embrace God’s will and choose the good (35, 84).

Jesus Himself shows us the way: “The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness” (Catechism paragraph 459). “His exclamation, ‘Yes, Father!’ expresses the depth of His heart…this loving adherence of His human heart to the mystery of the will of the Father” (2603).

Question for reflection: When have I found peace in surrendering to the Lord?

Cultivate Purity of Heart

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2514-57:

  • With our nature wounded by original sin, we are given to “concupiscence,” an immoderate desire that goes beyond the bounds of reason, and thereby predisposes us to commit sin.
  • If our hearts are dominated by concupiscence, whether toward physical pleasure or material goods, then we cannot open ourselves up to God; this is why we must put a proper check on our worldly desires, so that we are free to allow God to fill us with His desires – the far superior desires of the Spirit.
  • For this reason, God counsels us to keep a strict guard over our desires; the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” together identify the roots of sin and prepare us for spiritual growth.
  • Jesus calls us to purity of heart, including chastity, charity toward others, and a love for the truths of the faith; although God gives us grace to help us, we must also cooperate with Him by waging a spiritual battle against our unruly flesh.
  • We must strive for purity of heart by praying consistently for the gift of chastity, disciplining ourselves not to indulge in impure thoughts, and avoiding situations (real or virtual) that tempt us or cause us to fall.
  • Modesty is a prerequisite for purity, for it recognizes and safeguards the dignity of the human person; while this relates primarily to how we dress, modesty also pertains to feelings and emotions; we should avoid all forms of “entertainment” in which people’s lives are exploited or belittled for our amusement.
  • Just as sexual sins originate in the thoughts of the heart, so do sins against the right use of goods; excessive desire for material things gives rise to the sins of greed and avarice, which can lead us to steal, defraud, or otherwise deprive others of their rightful goods.
  • Envy is a sin because it causes us to grieve or regret the good fortune of others; if we want grave harm to befall someone more fortunate, then envy becomes a mortal sin.
  • As an antidote to the allurements of wealth, Jesus calls us to prefer Him to all things, and exercise a radical trust in divine Providence; through this poverty of heart, we learn to rely on God, not on material possessions.
  • When we cultivate purity and poverty of heart, we become more attuned to God and take our joy in Him; thus the Commandments come full circle, for now we are truly loving God above all.

Live Your Faith

Training for sports has much in common with training for the spiritual life. To achieve your goals as an athlete, you have to put in the time, the discipline, the dedication, to master the fundamentals. If you skip practice, slack off, and let things slide, your performance deteriorates.

Similarly, the spiritual life demands that we pay attention to the fundamentals: daily prayer, the sacraments, and striving to live a moral life.

An essential part of our training regimen is a regular examination of conscience. Only by recognizing our weaknesses, and getting to their roots in our flawed desires, can we work with God to improve our performance on the spiritual playing field.