here http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092511.cfm Thanks as always for reading and your comments and feedback!
Some of you may have heard of the popular Catholic-Christian songwriter Matt Maher. He’s written a number of albums that are religious in nature and seem to fit well both at Mass and just to listen on your iPod. Over the last couple of years of celebrating Mass on a college campus where we favor Christian contemporary music over traditional hymns, I’ve really become a fan of Maher’s. So I was happy to hear a few weeks ago that he had a new album debuting.
Trying to find out about it, I did what all you hip kids do, I went to google to find out when the new album was coming out. As I typed Matt Maher in the search line, the auto-fill in and search results instantly popped a headline I didn’t expect “Matt Maher sentenced for manslaughter.” Yeah, didn’t expect that headline to pop up. So of course my curiosity was peaked and I clicked the link (is it any wonder my ADHD is out of control and I can’t get anyting done)
Well as you might have guessed - it was a different person who happened to share the same name. This Matt Maher had quite a different story. Just a little over 2 years ago, Matthew Maher had been drinking, got into a car, was driving home at a high rate of speed on the Atlantic City Expressway. Matthew struck the vehicle of 55 year-old Hort Kap, husband and father of six children, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Matt was arrested and charged with aggravated manslaughter. He was eventually sentenced to 5 years 5 months in prison, in which he must serve 85 percent of his time.
Prior to going to prison, Matt presented the story of his life called,"I'm That Guy" to over 34 schools in three months reaching over 7,000 students. In this powerful testimony of how “decisions determine destiny” Matt explains that he was "That Guy" who grew up achieving in every area of his life. He was a role model, active in his community, excelled in academics and athletics, earned himself a full scholarship to Temple University, and eventually signed a professional contract as a soccer player. Now he is "That Guy," a drunk driver, who killed an innocent man and who now resides in prison.
It’s sad that such a tragedy had to make Matt Maher realize a truth that he should have known – that drunk driving kills innocent people... That it wrecks many lives and families. It’s sad reading his website where there’s updates from jail. Where he’s sitting in a cell every night. And you know the depth of his remorse when he said in an interview "If they told me I could leave prison tomorrow, I would refuse because God is teaching me so much and I have more to learn."
Watching videos, you see Matt breaking down as he apologizes to the family face to face in court. You start to tear up as you see Mr. Kap’s son hug Matt in a sign of forgiveness. And as you read on his website, Matthew has said that he will dedicate himself to honoring the memory of his victim, by telling this story about choices, consequences and how our actions can change countless lives--for the good or bad.
In a similar way, Jesus is talking about the same thing - how our actions can change lives, specifically our own life – for the good and bad. And not just for consequences that can wind up with someone being in jail, or hurt, or killed - but for all eternity.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells this brief story about two brothers are asked to do something. The Father asks them to go take care of his vineyard. The one says no, feels bad and then decides to go. The other says yes and then decides not to. Jesus uses this minor story to get to a bigger issue. He is worried about the religious experts and their salvation. Because after this brief story, he quickly refers to the fact that prostitutes and tax collectors (who were doing more than a civil service of collecting money for the government – they were helping the enemy Romans in suppressing their own people AND basically stealing from their own people by charging a little bit extra that they could pocket themselves) when they heard the word of God preached from John the Baptist, they made a radical change in their life. They had a conversion of heart. The religious experts didn’t. They dismissed the teaching of John assuming they “knew” God well enough that they didn’t need his prophetic calls. They were now having that same arrogant indifference towards not a prophet, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So Jesus is worried that a great tragedy is unfolding. That if they continue to chose to be blind to His presence, if they continue to be deaf to His words, they’re making a terrible choice that can result in a tragedy – them missing being a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
You and I need to constantly be reminded that the call to repentance, the call to conversion, the call to turn away from sin is something we need to hear over and over because the devil is not going to cease trying to tempt us. There’s never going to be a time where we have completely overcome them. Jesus knows that - it’s why that parable is somewhat comforting, because neither son really acts appropriately. The correct response to the Father’s command should have been “Yes Father” in word and in action. Yet, Jesus moves past the failures on both of the sons parts to highlight the one who had the change of heart.
For Matthew Maher, he can probably recall a number of bad choices that resulted in the tragedy he has to live with. The decision to drive to wherever he was going to party, the decision to have that extra drink or two, that choice to get behind the car and drive home. And as he replays those decisions and choices, he’s left with having responsibility for what he did, knowing that while he is doing something good now, he can’t change those choices and undo the damage he’s done to his life, or bring back the life that his actions killed.
For you and I, our story is still unfolding. There are choices and decisions we are confronted with every day that will either bring us closer or further away from the Lord. Jesus hasn’t given up on us. Our Loving Father looks at us, His sons and daughters, hoping that we will learn this lesson, and avoid a tragedy in the making.
You have to feel bad for “The Situation.” If you’re unaware, that’s a person. Mike “the situation” whatever his last name... a cast member of the horrific “Jersey Shore.” He and his cast mates over the summer were in a sense targeted by the clothing chain Abercrombie and Fitch who offered them money to stop wearing their clothes in public because, they claimed, that the people from Jersey Shore are bad examples and they didn’t want to associate their brand with the antics of these individuals or this show. Who can blame them? Being Italian and from Jersey, I cringe at any association with them (even though, truth be told, I still haven’t watched an episode - this is all coming from watching the opening credits and getting disgusted once and reading about their antics).
Anyway, call me conspiracy minded, but something didn’t seem right about the whole story. First off, as much as I think the show is trash, it is one of the most popular television programs for people aged 18-29 year olds - the exact group of people that Abercrombie and Fitch try to market to buying their clothes. And in case anyone forgot, Abercrombie and Fitch just a few years ago had their own controversy when they were published a clothes catalog that had young men and women barely wearing any clothes. So it’s not like they’ve seemed to be overly concerned about taking the high moral ground in terms of decency in recent years.
Well sure enough, the NY Times did an article pointing out that this was a clever marketing technique to gain the public’s attention. In an era where product placement in movies and TV has become a common an effective way of advertising products - clothes, sodas, whatever – the idea that Abercrombie and Fitch did – offering to pay someone to stop wearing the product was a completely different approach. Now people, especially potential customers and fans of the show were asking “would the Situation take the deal?” They would watch episodes (most of which were filmed months ago) looking to see if he wore that label or not. There would be back and forth between company executives and the cast member in interviews on the topic. Coincidently, all of which took place in August - a slow news month, what just so happens to be the time when people are heading to the shopping centers and malls for“Back to School” sales.
It’s safe to say that Abercrombie and Fitch simply wanted to get people’s attention. Which they did in a very clever way.
It seems harder and harder to grab people’s attention. Which is why today’s Gospel is so interesting. 2,000 years later, Jesus’ story, this parable he offers every time it’s proclaimed stirs people up and gets them talking. Which is one of the main purposes of a parable. To present something in a dramatic way that it captures your imagination to get to the deeper message.
So think about what we just heard - this landowner, he goes out hires people at the start of the day, then at 9:00, noon, three o’clock, and then at five o’clock and pays them all the same salary at quitting time, which is 6:00. So just imagine that - imagine you got a job the last week of the summer. You couldn’t or wouldn’t or weren’t able to find anything since May. But that last week of August you did and you got paid the same amount as your friends who’ve worked since May. If that happened to you, if say for example, Abercrombie and Fitch or Hollister did that, that would definitely get a lot of people’s attention. And most likely many would be arguing about how fair this was or not.
In the example of the Gospel story, Jesus makes a valid point (shocking I know, that I’m going to agree with Jesus) - it’s the landowners money, it’s his right to do as he sees fit.... He’s not being unfair to one group over the other. But we can’t shake it that it still feels like its unfair though, doesn’t it? If you’re the one working since 6 am, and you see these people walking in at 5 pm and you both walk out at 6 pm with the same wage, wouldn’t you be slightly ticked off?
The parable is doing what it’s designed to do – get our attention in a very dramatic way. And what does Jesus want us to pay attention to? A couple of things. The first thing is that God is incredibly generous. That His Love for us isn’t determined by the length of time we’re in His vineyard. He simply offers that invitation to us to come. And once we’re there, he treats us as if we had been there all along.
The second point is often missed as we argue over how employee relations would go-over in this story – but to me seems even more important, or beautiful. And that is that God never stops looking for us. He is constantly coming after us. Longing for us to come and be a part of his vineyard. In the parable it is the landowner who isn’t satisfied with going out once at the break of day... No, he keeps looking for late comers. Going out to find people throughout the day who are finally ready to seek Him out. What we learn is that the most important thing isn’t when we find him it’s that we eventually do.
Because in the parable, the people at the start of the day were seeking one thing - a job. They wanted to work. They wanted security. They wanted to know they would be able to survive, provide for their loved ones. And they are blessed to find that was readily available. What was it that had prevented those who would come along later? Who knows:
maybe they were lazy;
maybe they looked for a job in the wrong place;
Maybe they believed lies about themselves and felt “no one would hire me” or “they’re going to hire someone else instead of me.”
Whatever it was – something prevented them from showing up earlier. For them, the joy they must’ve experienced to realize that no, they weren’t too late... to see that the generous landowner was still hiring, was still interested in them, that he truly wanted them...
What makes this even more beautiful is when we realize this is more than just a story about employment. Those of us who were blessed to be born and raised Catholic-Christians, we can’t forget how blessed it is that we’ve known the truth of those words from the first reading to– seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. Jesus wants us to see how we are renewed in those blessings when we find a newcomers has found their way here. We are to rejoice when those who’ve wandered away come back. And we should want to tell others, the landowner, the Loving Father hasn’t given up on those still lost, still afraid, still telling themselves lies like “God doesn’t want me” or “I can’t go there, I’m not holy enough” or the other opposite extreme “I don’t want to go there - they’re a bunch of hypocrites.” Because the truth of the matter is all of us are blessed to be here, not because of anything we’ve done, but because God has sought us first.
Jesus had a way of getting peoples attention long before Abercrombie and Fitch and The Situation. Now that he has it, are we willing to share it with those in desperate need of it themselves?
I KNOW – But...
I know what you’re saying is true – but I don’t, I can’t, I won’t do it...
Ever found yourself saying or thinking that? The “I know, but’s”
I know I need to get 8 hours of sleep... But I got to get this project done.
I know I shouldn’t carry a debt on my credit card.... But I need a car for work, what choice do I have?
I know I shouldn’t be texting while driving, but I’m careful, I’ll make sure nothing happens.
There are times and examples where I know what is being said is true, is valid, is important. But - either I don’t do it, I can’t do it or I won’t do it for some reason (legitimate or illegitimate) The thing is, no matter how valid the reason, it doesn’t change how true the thing is we’re dismissing.
I know I should keep up with my assignments all semester, but the reading is so boring – that’s not going to change the fact that at the end of the semester you’re going to be expected to have done it.
I was thinking about the “I know - buts”, how many of them we have in our lives. And I think for many of us, Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel would end up in that category too. Look at what’s happened. Jesus is asked a straight forward question by Peter “how many times must we forgive?” Notice that Peter’s specific too, he says that this was a wrong done by a brother. So he’s not talking about some bad thing done by a person he could care less about... this was someone close to him, someone he called a brother, so it’s personal, and the hurt is greater. I wonder if he had someone specific in mind. Has to be Judas, right?
Peter probably thinks he’s being overly generous in proposing 7 times (which considering Jewish rabbis taught at the time that you were to forgive only 3 times, he was being generous). So what Jesus says had to have taken them by surprise - 77 times. Towards the end of that passage, Jesus reveals he’s not interested in how many times, but rather that everyone must forgive one another from their hearts.
Whenever this or similar passages reflecting the same sentiment come up, I’m sure I’m not the only person who puts it in the context of our own lives and have an “I KNOW – BUT” all ready: I know Jesus, BUT - that cousin was so hurtful to my mother what he did was unforgivable... I know Jesus, BUT that ex-friend, deserves that pre-fix – of “EX” because, well she knows why... We all know somebody who said something, did something that makes us want to ignore these words of wisdom, find a loophole that we can say to Jesus how we believe His words are good and true, they just don’t count in this case.
Even more challenging, that this Gospel should fall on this day, this year, of all days and years - this 10th Anniversary of 9/11 - especially for those of us living 15 miles from the destruction; who’ve had loved ones perish both on that day and the days since because of that awful day. Our collective memories bring back so much of the pain that was experienced that day. A day of so much loss, loss of life, loss of security, loss of peace.
Because of how unprecedented all of that was and still is; Because of the thousands of innocent men and women who were simply living life and disappeared in such a horrific way; Because of the understandable thirst for justice; Because of our need as a nation to protect ourselves and defend ourselves, there’s a strong temptation that many fall into saying I KNOW JESUS DOESN’T EXPECT US TO FORGIVE THOSE WHO DID THIS. We don’t even need the “but” in this “I know, but” example.
I’ve struggled myself with it, and I know I’m not alone on that. Talking with families who had to prepare for heart-wrenching funerals... Speaking with men and women who worked in rescue operations that became recovery operations far too soon... Seeing loved ones preparing to go to distant lands and continuing to risk their lives in battle...Even just driving around this area, 10 years later you still feel the absence of those two twin towers in the skyline... (I don’t know how many times I’ve said “it just doesn’t look right” maybe that’s why I’m still disappointed that we’re not rebuilding them, if for no other reason, to help me deny what happened and pretend to go back to life as usual) All of these things make a good case for us to excuse ourselves from Jesus’ words.
I know Jesus I’m supposed to forgive, But I’m still angry... It still hurts... it’s just not right that this happened. And that’s not even having personally lost a family member or friend. That’s just coming from the pain I felt for parishioners who I loved and cared about who were suffering. That’s just coming from the pain of having friends who are cops and firefighters and military and rescue workers who were down there or who’s lives have been changed forever because of that day. That’s just coming from the collective pain and anger we’ve all felt to various degrees in these past 10 years.
Yet Jesus turns it around on us. He doesn’t just usher in some hard command, ordering us under obedience to listen -or else... Because here’s the thing, as we hear these challenging words from the Gospel on this solemn day of remembrance, he has his own “I KNOW - But.” Jesus says to us - I KNOW...
I know how hard it can be to even consider forgiveness when you’ve been so hurt.
I know how painful it can be.
I know how unfair it seems.
I know that it even seems illogical or that you’re opening yourself up to be hurt again.
I know you will most likely get hurt again.
Jesus says I know all of that -
BUT - if you don’t learn to forgive- then something worse happens.
Your heart gets hardened;
Your soul gets weighed down;
Your mind will never find the peace you’ve been searching for - which only multiplies the evil that has already hurt you and the anger you’ve experienced.
Jesus says to us I know all that, but that’s why I came. That’s why I offered myself up, suffered the torture, the death on the cross for you. And in rising from the dead, He speaks with an authority of which there is no equal. He assures us that he is with us as we try to live out His command. He invites us to trust that the only thing we truly need to know is him and to leave the "buts" behind ( no pun intended). If we can do that, we will find that his grace enables us to attempt what seems impossible to imagine... to learn to forgive.
A week ago, we were preparing for the worst. It appeared that Hurricane Irene was gearing up the coast for a direct hit on New York City as a Category 1 or 2 storm. Some predictions said we should expect 18 hours of driving rain with sustained winds of over 85 miles per hour. The nightmare scenarios that meteorologists painted caused a lot of fear and concern. It also brought about widespread evacuations, from the Jersey Shore to parts of New York City, which for many residents was a first.
For a variety of reasons, some who were told to evacuate were hesitant, resistant, even defiant to heed the warnings. And for those in authority, given the responsibility to care for their fellow citizens, they tried a variety of approaches to get people to listen. Along the shoreline, an official said something along the lines of “if you ignore these warnings, know that once the tropical force winds and rains hit, we will not come to your aid if there’s an emergency.” In Cape May County NJ they tried a different approach, saying “if you choose not to heed the evacuation order, we ask that you do one thing. Get an index card, write your name and social security number on it, put it in your left shoe before you put your shoes on so that we can identify your body.” Mayor Bloomberg in New York City tried reasoning and laying out the penalties and fines you could receive if you ignored the warning. While Governor Chris Christie was less subtle, and characteristically blunt as reporters showed him pictures of people soaking up some sun and surfers enjoying the rough tide yelling “GET THE HELL OFF THE BEACH.” (In some parts of the country that would’ve been considered profane, by Jersey standards, that’s considered tame)
Fortunately, all of these messages eventually seemed to sink in. For the most part people evacuated. Temporary emergency shelters opened at University campuses throughout the area, people went to stay with friends and relatives in areas away from the storm, neighbors checked on one another. Considering the dire predictions of what could have happened, for the most part, the worst fears of death and injury didn’t happen. All because people heeded the warnings.
The readings today pretty pointedly tell us that each one of us are responsible for one another, not just when a category 2 hurricane is coming at us, but for something far more important, our souls and our eternal lives. In both the first reading and the gospel, there is clearly an order that we are to give warnings to one another when we see one another is going “the wrong way” (away from God), when our brother (or sister) sins.
Most of us feel uncomfortable when we hear that. We have been conditioned to “mind our own business.” Look at what happens when the Church tries to speak these ancient, eternal truths whether it be about the destruction of human life in abortion or the destruction of human families with attacks on marriage. The Church is accused of trying to “impose” it’s will, mocked for being out of date or out of touch; and it’s own failures and sins are recounted as reasons that people shouldn’t listen to the Church (kind of interesting that some of the same people who can recognize there are absolute rights and wrongs about things when it comes to the Church, fail to see that anywhere else in society).
Just seeing how the Church is treated, that can intimidate us personally to say things to one another. To say to your husband or wife that they need to forgive that relative; to say to that friend they have to stop that affair they are having and work on their marriage; to say to that colleague they have to stop stealing from the company; To say to your buddies they shouldn’t be drinking or doing drugs; to say to your best friend they shouldn’t be sleeping with their girlfriend; to say to that roommate they shouldnt be stealing from the book store; to say to that classmate - they have to stop cheating.
Just hearing those general examples, more than likely thoughts start to stir — uncomfortable ones because we can fill in those general illustrations with names, faces and real-life examples. And we don’t like that. Fear of our own sinfulness and our own failures mixed with a mis-reading of Jesus’ command to “not judge one another” paralyzes us into inaction. We try to put it in a more “positive” perspective telling ourselves “but Jesus says we are to love one another.”
Love isn’t about being nice. Love can be difficult. It often times is. That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he said in the Second Reading - “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
God calls us not simply to strive for righteousness, to obey his laws, to seek his forgiveness and trust in his mercy when we fail, but to be “watchmen” who look out for one another; to be brothers and sisters who love one another enough to be concerned for one another. Not just to evacuate and make sure people have the supplies and material things they need when a crisis like a hurricane is approaching - but for more important things like our salvation, our eternal lives. To, warn one another to get the hell off of the roads to hell we find ourselves on.