Fr. Kelly

Our Sunday Journal is a brief reflection on the scripture readings of the day by Father Kelly, a senior priest in the Diocese of Saginaw.

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Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 22:15-21
October 22, 2017

In order to get a sense of what is going on in today’s Gospel, think about what’s going on in our country today.

For example, when it was announced that Andrew Jackson’s portrait would no longer appear on the face of the $20 bill and would be replaced with a picture of Harriet Tubman, the news was celebrated as a social victory by some Americans. Others were infuriated, declaring that they would not use the bill once minted. People’s reactions were motivated by a number of varied beliefs and opinions which fueled emotions. The point is that the image on the $20 bill became one of the battles in the multi-front cultural war that is raging in and dividing our nation today.

The sociopolitical climate of Judea during Jesus’s time was very similar. There were many factions within the Jewish people as they were struggling to maintain a national identity while occupied by Rome, which had forcibly incorporated the Promised Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem into the Empire. In today’s Gospel, it’s almost surprising that two factions that would be expected to be on opposite sides of an issue appear to have joined together in a conspiracy against Jesus. This is telling of how Jesus was in the eye of the cultural and political storm.

Apparently, neither the religious Pharisees nor the royal Herodians had the nerve to do the job themselves. They primed in advance underlings who, today, we would call “pundits,” sent to engage The Lord in a discussion when they were not truly interested in discovering what was right and true and good. What they were looking for was hard evidence to use against Jesus. Taxation being a hot button issue, they chose to put Him on the spot, asking whether a faithful Jew should give financial support to Rome.

It’s key to an understanding of this passage, however, to know that more offensive to religious Jews than the obligation to pay taxes was the only acceptable means of doing so. The tax bill could only be paid with Roman coinage. An image of Caesar, who was considered a god by the Romans, was on one side of the coin, and the image of another pagan god was on the flipside. For a religious Jew, there were not two sides to the same coin. Both sides contained a pagan image which was contrary to the Hebraic Law. So then, just as some Americans would prefer to forego including $20 bills in their folding money if the currency had a picture of Harriet Tubman, Jewish people felt that it would be sinful for them to touch these pagan images…which they would have to do in order to pay the tax. This was not just a matter of politics; this was about blasphemy.

So, the well-trained pundits felt that they had Jesus painted into a corner with their question about taxes. If He were to suggest that it was unlawful to pay taxes with the offensive coinage, He would be in trouble with Rome. Had He suggested that taxes are an obligation citizens cannot avoid, He would have been encouraging people to break religious law by using the pagan coin, leaving Him open to charges of blasphemy.

Ironically, the hard evidence of blasphemy was in the pockets of the people looking to accuse Jesus. The Lord asked THEM to produce the coin…and THEY DID. The accusers were guilty of the very offense they were trying to accuse Jesus of.

Of course, we know something they were ignorant about. These “pundits” and the people who sent them were so blinded by the cultural storm that was raging in their country that they did not recognize The Messiah. A far more grievous offense against God than possession of the forbidden, two-faced coin was the two faces with which they stood before the Son of God. Of course, Jesus saw right through the false sincerity with which they asked the trick question.

The most obvious lesson to be learned from this encounter is the reality that people of faith need to live in this world and deal with things such as taxes, civil laws and authorities, politics, and cultural conflicts. God understands this.

But at the same time, Christians are called to strive to live ABOVE the material world. Even as we deal with the issues of our day and age, our focus should always be to the future when the Kingdom of God has arrived in its fullness.

That is the point of the second part of Jesus’s masterful response to the trick question. And so, we turn to our Second Reading where St. Paul tells us just what it is that is due and owing to God…work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So how does a good Christian enter into the multi-front cultural war that is raging in our nation today? We must stay faithful to God’s will and God’s way set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our motivation for all we say and do must be love…not victory…but love. And, no matter how desperate things become, we should never lose hope that, at the appointed time, Jesus will return in all of His glory…and the cultural wars of the ages will come to an end…and ALL WILL BE ALL!

In other words, far more important than the image on our coins is the face we show to the world. When people see faith, hope, and love on our faces…they see Christ…and only in Christ will there be peace!

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 22:1-14
October 15, 2017

The Readings on this 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, take me back several years to the early and tragic death of a celebrity.

St. Paul’s self-description in our Second Reading (Phil 2:12-14, 19-20) tells us that he knew “how to live in humble circumstances.” But, Paul goes on to say that he also knew “how to live with abundance.” The celebrity came from humble circumstances but went on to accumulate a significant fortune. That’s where the similarity breaks down.

Paul explains: I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me.The celebrity’s extremely public life, leads one to assume that she looked other places for strength, than to Christ. Destructive things like alcohol and drugs seemed to have been where she turned at times when she was feeling fragile, weak, or vulnerable. Rather than enabling her to do great things like St. Paul, her source of strength brought about her untimely death.

The celebrity’s flamboyant life, lived out very much in the public eye caused her death to be highly newsworthy. The Christian funeral service attracted the full force of the press and excerpts were widely broadcast on television. There was a circus atmosphere to the service, which only added to the sadness. Possibly the thing that was most distressful about the entire thing, at least for Catholic Christians, was the pall that was draped over the casket. It was shiny, pink satin with pink “feather boas” hanging down the sides.

Whoever planned this celebrity funeral must have been present at, and taken notice of, the rich symbols we use during a Mass of Christian Burial. But they could not possibly have understood the meaning behind the symbols; at least not the meaning of the pall. Maybe it was intended to conceal the harsh reality of a casket with something “glitzy.” Possibly the pink satin and the feathers worked well with the over all color scheme of the funeral. Or, more likely the color and fabrics were among the celebrity’s favorite things…speaking to who she was and what she was all about. If however, this stylized pall was intended to be a “Christian symbol”, it missed the mark.

The pall is placed over the lifeless earthly body at the beginning of the Funeral Mass. When possible this is done at, or near the Baptismal Font, where the body is blessed with the Living Waters. The white pall, speaks to something that occurred in the past. It brings to mind the white garment that babies are dressed in at infant baptism, or the clothing change of adults emerging from the font at the Easter Vigil (they are encouraged to enter dressed in black and after Baptism change into white). The funeral pall speaks to the reality that in Baptism, we “put on Christ.”

At the same time, the pall directs our attention to the ultimate and endless future. It evokes the hope for all Christians who have tried to live their lives in a way befitting of someone “clothed in Christ Jesus.” When we leave time and enter into eternity, the pall…which some might consider to be a funeral garment…in a real sense, is a “wedding garment. It speaks to the truth that the “required dress” for the heavenly banquet is Christ.

It’s hard to imagine that the choreographer of the celebrity’s funeral had even the slightest comprehension of the meaning of the funeral pall, or the spiritual reality that this garment represents. Is there any time in our lives when we need more strength, then when we breathe our last breath? Our strength to step out of time and into Eternal Peace comes from Christ…definitely not the things that pink satin and feather boas represent.

Think of it this way. Even a stranger can identify the bride at a wedding reception. On that day when you stand at the entry to eternity, will you be easily recognized as “an invited guest?”

A more sobering, but critically important question for self reflection is this: Which is most fitting to me…pink satin and feathers…or the pure, white funeral pall?

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 21:33-43
October 8, 2017

Last week, another high-ranking government official lost his prestigious and powerful White House position because he apparently chartered expensive private jets to transport him around the country at taxpayers’ expense. The House Oversight Committee is said to be looking into other officials who might have violated the public trust in the same fashion.

Shocking? It shouldn’t be!

In fact, the folks most taken aback by the investigations are probably those being investigated. With power comes privilege…RIGHT? So what is the issue here? These guys are doing important work for the country. Why should they have to fly the friendly skies in the unfriendly seats that most taxpayers sit in?

Dial this down a little. Why shouldn’t I use the company car to run my personal errands? What’s the harm in picking up the check for my buddies and turning it in as a business expense? No one is going to miss this…a new supply just came in, and we’re running low at home. It really is pretty easy to justify our actions, whether we are pocketing paper clips or jetting around like rock stars. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be…at least until Christ returns to set things right. Power and prestige seeks privilege without concern to what is right and just.

The religious leaders who listened on as Jesus told the parable about the murderous tenants knew He was talking about them because they were guilty of violating their master’s trust. Of course, they took offense to the parable, adding this to the growing list of indictable offenses against the Lord.

It seems that the Apostles and disciples didn’t recognize this story as the foretelling of His own death and the tragic end to life as they knew it. However, it’s a historic fact, however, that about 30 years after The Crucifixion, Roman legions descended upon The Holy City, destroying the Temple, reducing a proud nation to a refugee people, and leaving Jerusalem in ruin. In short, their abuse of power and the abuse of trust that God placed in them cost the Scribes and Pharisees and the High Priest himself their jobs.

Think of it this way:

In the beginning, God gave humankind enormous power and prestige. Not only were we created in the image and likeness of God, but God entrusted to us, for our use and enjoyment, all the rest of creation. God imposed few restrictions or conditions on our “tenancy.” Certainly, we are called to remember that all good things come from and continue to belong to God. That knowledge, in and of itself, should motivate feelings of gratitude and an eagerness to use what has been entrusted to us in a way that is pleasing to The Creator.

However, power and prestige somehow leave us susceptible to a spiritual amnesia! As we get more comfortable with privileges…large and small…we begin to take them for granted. This leaves us in danger of forgetting that we are only tenants living off the largess of a kind and loving Owner.

Losing sight of who we are, we quickly forget about the conditions and restrictions on our use and enjoyment of those things that rightly belong to God. Compliance with our lease becomes more and more difficult and excuses and defenses easier and easier to dream up. Few move from paper clips to chartered jets, but, at one time or another, most fail to give God what is due and owing. No matter how big or small the violation, it is still detrimental to our spiritual lives to lose sight of the truth that all good things come from and belong to God.

On God’s part, there is the expectation that we use what has been lent to us in a way that benefits all creation. Those are the terms of the lease!

So the question of the week is: “How good a tenant am I?”

You certainly do not want to be served with a spiritual eviction notice!

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 21:28-32
October 1, 2017

It probably would have been a good idea for me to take this weekend off.

I say that because a preacher should practice what they preach. On this 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, I confess, I find that hard to do…practice what I am about to preach. You see, I am “a grumbler.”

Like many firstborn, I was the first to be enlisted to do household chores. Take care of your little sister! Come and dry the dishes, please! The lawn needs mowing!

Now, I’m not quite certain just when it was that the “grumbling” began, but most likely about the time that I realized that my siblings had reached the age when they were equally as capable as myself, but I was always the one to be called upon. I suspect as well that the “grumbling” intensified as the younger ones learned how to “excuse themselves” from either pitching in or for failing to do what they agreed to do. I know for a fact that the “grumbling” reached a feverish pitch when it became clear to me that they always got away with it…and I ended up doing what they said they would do.

So, I’m probably not the best person to preach on this set of Readings because personal experience has left me defensive of the kid that spent his whole day in the vineyard while his brother went his merry way. And my feelings are definitely not unique. Any confessor will tell you that at the top of the list of most frequently confessed sins is the frustration and resentment that responsible children feel over the way siblings seem to “get away with it.” Equally annoying is how parents seem to accept the excuses and pass on the work to the one they can count on. Why wouldn’t we grumble?

Had He asked for your opinion, how would you have answered the Lord? What do you think? Which of the two did his father’s will?

If we’re being honest, we “grumblers” would probably say: “neither!” We know the dark feelings that erupt into “grumbling”…as we trudge off to the vineyard to get the job done. Deep in our hearts, we know that our labors are somehow tainted by our bad attitudes. As for the kid who says: Sure, Dad…I’ll go spend the day in the vineyard, only to blow it off…how can that be doing his father’s will?

Which of the two did his father’s will? Isn’t the correct answer: “neither?” Or is the correct answer to Jesus’s question: It’s not for me to say.

That certainly seems to be the correct answer if we carry forward the lesson from last Sunday. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts…and God’s ways are not our ways! Moreover, last week seemed to be a cautionary lesson against judging others…and even about the futility in grumbling and complaining.

In our First Reading this week, God echoes back to us the complaint we so often raise: This isn’t fair! Read on and you’ll hear Ezekiel warn about that kind of attitude, encouraging change. The Gospel itself concludes with a call to change. And the change we are encouraged to consider is laid out plainly in the Second Reading.

Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus!

If, then, I have to practice what I preach…I need to change my attitude, forego the grumbling, and get the job done, without looking over my shoulder to see what the other guy is doing. How about you?

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 20:1-16A
September 24, 2017

One doesn’t have to search too far in the Old Testament in order to find a conflict between what Israel considered in its “national best interest” and what God was asking of the Chosen People. Over and over again, we see how human thoughts do not always track God’s thoughts or ways. And each and every time Israel moved away from God’s plan, pursuing what seemed at the time to be the most advantageous direction for their interests, there was a stiff price to pay. Thankfully, each and every time they repented, God proved to be most generous in forgiving.

The remarkable thing is that they never seemed to learn from their mistakes. And each and every time, the culprit that motived the national misstep seemed to be a sense of entitlement. In other words, they found themselves in deep trouble when, in a selfish or self-serving manner, they claimed a vested interest in something that, in God’s way of thinking, should be a universal interest. Theologian Monika Hellwig put it this way: Our notions of justice are petty and self-serving when compared with Divine justice.

The Readings for this 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time would be a perfect lens to send to Washington D.C. as our nation’s leaders struggle with a wide range of social justice issues, searching for what is in our “national best interest,” immigration and border security at the top of the list.

Granted, the barbaric terrorist attacks have caused most western nations to close in on themselves. With every new report of a bombing or shooting, the terrorist alert is elevated. It certainly seems that it is in the “national best interest” to secure the borders and track down and deport anyone who is already in residence who poses a realistic threat to homeland security.

In this country, the hot topic of debate these days is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This law has become a political ping pong ball…that our leaders keep bouncing back and forth with no reasonable solution in sight. So-called “dreamers,” thought to number about 800,000, are those who entered this country illegally as minors. While there are undoubtedly some bad guys among them, the vast majority of these young people aspire only to “the American dream” of a decent standard of living.

Those who oppose more lenient immigration laws certainly raise solid arguments about what is in the “national best interest.” Still, one must wonder whether an underlying reason to resist an open door policy for “properly vetted” folks seeking nothing more than a better way of life is motivated by something other than concern over terrorism. Just possibly, the dreams of “the dreamers” appear to challenge the dreams of those who came first. When we claim vested interest in anything, arguing that it is unjust to threaten what rightfully belongs to us…we are thinking like human beings and not like God. When we claim exclusive right to anything that God intended for universal good…in other words, for everyone…we are in danger.

With His parable about the workers in the vineyard and the surprisingly generous landowner, Jesus is not attempting to frame an immigration policy. What this story lesson does underscore, however, is God’s message delivered by Isaiah the Prophet.

God’s ways are not our ways…and our ways get us into trouble as a nation, a Church, a family…when a sense of “vested interest” or “entitlement” or “superiority” or “worthiness” clouds our thinking and prevents us from seeing that our BEST INTEREST is when our thoughts and actions track with God’s plan for what is fair and just…even when it seems to threaten our thoughts and dreams of how things should be.

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