This is Sanctity of Life Sunday.
The biggest life issue now is, of course, the killing of unborn children. This stands out for
- The huge number of victims, tens of millions, many times that of any genocide that I
- It is direct killing of the innocent. That is different in kind from capital punishment,
from killing in a just war, or from the indirect killing that accompanies many activities
(driving carelessly is wrong, and has resulted in deaths, but it is not the same as directly
intending to kill).
- Proponents have set apart a group they classify as untermenchen (a term used in
Germany in the early 20
th century, it referred to humans they consider lesser, and therefore
not as entitled to protection). This has been done in the past to Native Americans, to Jews,
to African Americans, and other groups. It is a tool used for the greatest human atrocities.
Some have even referred to unborn children as “non-living fetal tissue.” Where is the
science behind that?
That said, it is essential that we not neglect other areas where the sanctity of life needs to be
affirmed. Many see the lives of the elderly, the disabled and the infirm to be of less value,
and advocate for euthanasia. We must recognize that their lives are precious, and not only
protect them from being killed, but make sure they are not marginalized or forgotten.
We have a constant need to care for the hungry, the homeless, and those trapped in
poverty. There is room to disagree about how, but no room to say that it is not our
We must do something about human trafficking. I don’t know what, but we must do
The Catholic Church has long accepted capital punishment as a proper tool of law
enforcement, but, starting with Pope Saint John Paul II and continuing with Pope Francis,
there has been a movement away. There is a strong body of thought that suggests it does not
help deter crime, and with proper incarceration, it would not be necessary to protect
people. I suggest we can be a better society if we hold precious even the lives of vicious
murderers. That said, I have a very hard time being patient with those who say it is
contradictory to oppose abortion and favor capital punishment. How come I never hear
people saying that if we favor incarcerating criminals, we must therefore favor the
legalization of kidnapping? Honestly.
I recently listened to Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence. He speaks of the
“thingification” of other people, in which they are considered not in terms of their dignity,
their needs, their thoughts or their feelings, but only how they affect us. They are seen not
as people, but as things, as objects. Celeste Headlee in her excellent book We Need to Talk:
How to Have Conversations that Matter, mentions that studies show that empathy is on the
decline. It is easy to figure that the widespread use of social media rather than personal
contact makes things worse. The enormous use of pornography has to be a huge factor. I
see a lot of conversation showing contempt for people who disagree. That can’t help. How
do we build empathy in our society?
Final thought: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could
do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of
Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at
Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the
Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow
we begin good old Ordinary Time.
When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying
baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again
in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is
beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark
10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536).
John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without
being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism.
Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of
preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of
Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the
work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16).
This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What
about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called
limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never
been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and
said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on
us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is
not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have
not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see
getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they
drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the
practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people
being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people
that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of
the most heart-breaking things about being a priest.
How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out.
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!
How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).”
Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is
meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their
meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us,
holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our
faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus
Shock gets deep into this.
A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?”
It has been said that the task of a prophet is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable.” Reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, we see he can start with some fierce
“get your act together” talk, and then switches. Starting around chapter 40, he is talking to a
people in exile who are beaten down and discouraged and telling them wonderful things about
the tender love of God. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful and moving language in the
Bible about the tender love of God, and much of the imagery will be picked up in the New
God loves us very much, and in that love calls us to be the best we can be, what we were
created to be, and sometimes that means we need to hear things that are hard to hear.
Some people are alienated from the Church because they received hard sayings when they
needed comfort, and they were beaten down and fell into despair. We can try hard to avoid
that, but it is going to happen sometime.
There are others who are mad at the Church because they needed to hear something hard but
believed they should only receive comfort. Jesus was not shy about saying fierce things when
it was appropriate (see Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 23; Matthew 25:41-45, John 6, etc.).
Some have drifted away from the Church because they have only received happy messages
and have never been challenged (how long would you keep going to a gym that had
Styrofoam weights that took no effort to lift? It would be more comfortable but wouldn’t
accomplish anything worthwhile). Eventually people decide they have better things to do
with their time.
A pivotal question for all of us, then, would be: How ready are we to hear and respond to hard
sayings? This question is trickier than it sounds.
Some people want more “fire and brimstone,” but are quite sure that it should all be directed
to other people. Some people spend a lot of time talking about what terrible people they are,
but if you point out a specific behavior that perhaps they should examine and change, they get
M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled” talked about some people who were
neurotic and believed that everything was their fault, and some people with a character
disorder who believed that nothing was their fault. There will always be people who tell us
we are wrong, and there will always be people who tell us we are right. If we are too afraid to
stand by our beliefs and decisions we will be paralyzed, and if we are too certain we are right,
we will never learn anything new. Discernment and balance is needed. If, when we were
younger, we received harsh and unproductive criticism, we will find it extremely painful to
learn that we are wrong, and the temptation will be strong to rationalize our position and reject
any negative feedback. If learning we are wrong is not an occasion for great agony, but
opportunity to learn and grow, we can be much more open. Jesus was very patient and gentle
with those who were willing to look at themselves honestly and change their ways, no matter
how bad their sins had been. His anger was for those who were sure they didn’t need to
change, but only other people.
How is God calling us to learn from our current situation? How is God calling us to respond?
Now we begin Advent, and advent is about waiting for something that is coming. One of the
things Christians wait for is surrendering more completely to God. Someone once said that the
Christian journey is essentially the gradual realization which one of us is God and which one of
One of the big issues in the Bible, perhaps the big issue is: who’s in charge. We are quick to say
God is in charge, but human beings (you know how we get), can be almost as quick to try to keep
control, to do it our way and not God’s.
There is a fierce ban on idolatry. It is not because God hates statues (we see He doesn’t in the
mandate to have two gold cherubim made for the ark of the covenant in Exodus 25:18-20 and in
the command to make a bronze serpent in Numbers 21:7-9). Idolatry was about having something
one could possess and control. If one had this statue, one believed he possessed the god and had
a certain power over him. This would not work with the God of Israel.
It is not just about statues. It became a problem with the temple. We see the people thought they
would be protected because the temple was in Jerusalem. “Do not put your trust in these
deceptive words: ‘The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!’
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deed; if each of you deals justly with your
neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed
innocent blood in this place or follow after other gods to your harm, only then will I let you
continue to dwell in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors long ago and forever (Jeremiah
The Scriptures corrected people for attempting to bribe God. We see in Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1, for
example, people thought if they offered sacrifices, they could live how they wanted without
concern for how God wanted to correct them. The temptation is to think that we decide what we
will do for God, and we are therefore entitled to get certain things our way in return. In “The
Screwtape Letters” the devil teaches his nephew a trick, to encourage a person to think that if he
sacrifices for a time, he is entitled to have things go his way next time, and when that doesn’t
happen, to feel cheated, betrayed by God. Then he falls into despair. There have always been
people who take Bible texts and try to figure out when Jesus is coming again and when all this
will end. This gives them a sense that we only need to deal with this a little longer, and then
everything will be fine. This, in spite of that fact that Jesus tells us very clearly in our Gospel that
we will not know, and must be ready at any time (Mark 13:32-37). People often say, “Things
have to turn around soon” and “We can’t take much more of this.” We don’t know what we can
take until it happens. We don’t know when things will change. I’m hoping as fiercely as anybody
for the current troubles to be over, but we don’t know what the future will bring, and Jesus warns
us against that illusion. He tells the story of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. A man has
accumulated a lot of wealth, and thinks he is going to live how he wants to live for a good while,
and he is in control. Then the hammer drops: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of
you; and these things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus it will be with
someone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” It is good to
be prudent, to save money and manage it intelligently, but we remember that is not our ultimate
security. It can be lost in an instant. Our ultimate security is our relationship with God.
As we face the challenges of life, there are always two questions to focus on: “What does God
want me to learn from this?” and “How is God calling me to respond?”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ public teaching closes with three parables about the Last
Judgement, and we will be reading them from now until Advent. It would probably be a
good thing to think about the Last Day on a regular basis given that is where we are all
headed, and this is the most pivotal day of our existence. If we have a good day on that
day, none of our bad days will matter. If it is a bad day, none of our good days will
matter. Reading through the New Testament leaves me with a strong sense that we can’t
take this day for granted; we are not called to live in fear, but neither can we be complacent
(see, for example, Matthew 7: 13-14, 21-23; I Corinthians 9:27).
Our Gospel today speaks of bridesmaids who are phronimos (wise /shrew /prudent /clever/
cunning/crafty) and bring extra oil for their oil lamps. This echoes Jesus’ teaching that a
man who is phronimos will build his house on rock rather than sand (Matthew 7:24-27) in
the Sermon on the Mount. Both speak of the importance of enduring. It is one thing to start
out with enthusiasm. It is quite another to continue through obstacles, persecutions,
disappointments, failures, and all the things that come with being a disciple. In Matthew
chapter 10, Jesus warns that there will be persecution, sometimes from the people closest to
us, but the one who “holds out to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:22).”
Last Friday we did the Gospel reading about the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13).” He
finagled himself a severance package by using (misusing?) his power as steward. Jesus said
that the master commended him for being phronimos, and said, “For the children of this
world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than the children of light
(see Luke: 16:8).” As we read on, we see Him calling us to use our resources well for the
sake of the Kingdom, knowing that we will not always have the chance to do so.
There are countless stories of people who have left the practice of the faith because they
were mad at the Pope, the bishop, the pastor, other parishioners, etc. Others left the practice
of the faith because they did not believe Church teaching, or someone had sat down with
them and showed them some Bible verses that convinced them that the teaching of the
Church was wrong. I would suggest that in each of these cases, they did not have enough oil
for their lamps; they did not build their houses on a firm enough foundation. We were
warned there would be challenges of all kinds, coming from the world or the faith
community, and we are called to navigate these treacherous waters.
In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus sends the disciples forth and tells them not to bring “gold or
silver, or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or
walking stick (see Matt 10:9-10).” Extra oil for our lamps, then, would not necessarily
mean material supplies. “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be
phronimos as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16).”
Lately, many have expressed frustration about things that are happening in the Church and
things that are happening in the government. Some are tempted to despair or panic. It
would suggest reflecting on these texts, as well as the whole of Matthew 10 and then Luke
14:25-33. These suggest we were warned from the beginning that our journey as disciples
could entail all sorts of trials (all sorts!). That does not make it easy, but it does tell us that
this is part of what it means to be Christian, and our faithfulness now is more important
than anything that happens around us.
Dear Folks,We have all been told that life is not fair. This phrase has been used in various ways. Some say it to say they don’t care that your rights and your dignity are getting violated. It can alsobe an acceptance of the complexity of life. There are many factors that affect our lives that we did not choose, and it seems that sometimes we get handed the dirty end of the stick. Other people seem to have it easier, and we see people giving them slack like they don’t seem to give us. Ever had that feeling?Our Gospel today (Matthew 20:1-16a) deals with the issue of envy, and people who seem to be handed a better deal. This is a common problem in life, and in the early Christian community there was the issue of pagans who became Christian. Some of the Jewish Christians were perhaps thinking, “We have been doing the hard work of trying to follow God’s commandments for generations while these people have been worshipping false gods and practicing drunken, perverted debauchery all this time, and now in the Church they are equal to us? What gives?” You know how we human beings get. St. Paul was dealing with that question in Romans, and he said, “But who indeed are you, ahuman being to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the samelump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one (Romans 9:20-21)?” St. Paul is remembering the text “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you ourpotter: we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:7).”
But how we perceive things doesn’t give the whole picture. I think life is like running an obstacle course with a backpack. We can feel how heavy our own backpack is, but we don’tknow how heavy everyone else’s is. We can perhaps make an educated guess by how they look, but we might be horribly wrong. At the end of the course we get to see how heavyeveryone’s backpack is, and there could be some surprises. We might find out that some people we thought weren’t trying very hard were actually carrying a much heavier load, andwere actually working harder than we were, even though they did not get as far as fast. Perhaps some people we envied for their situation were carrying a much heavier load thanwe thought. We might have thought that ours was one of the heaviest but find out that many had heavier. On the other hand, we might find that ours was heavier than a great manypeople’s, and we accomplished greater things than we thought.We know that sometimes it is a journey to accept that, and that can mean asking the very questions of God why He is doing what seems so wrong. Intellectually, we know He isright (always), but parts of our minds have not yet accepted that. We turn to the great school of prayer, the Psalms. We see “I will say to God, my rock: ‘Why do you forget me? Why must I go about mourning with the enemy oppressing me?’(Psalm 42:10).”Of course, the journey is to go from there to recognizing and rejoicing in God’s wisdom andprovidence. I suggest a meditation on Psalm 73 to follow that journey.The goal is to move more and more to embrace the situation we are given, and from here to do what we can to make things better, to be as faithful to God’s call as possible. The morewe are focused on that, the less and less we will worry about how our situation compares with others’ situations. That will save us time and energy. Growing in faith means realizing more and more that God knows what He is doing.Blessings,Fr. Jim