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Archive for October 2nd, 2017

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Memories:  the Measure of a Life

[Today’s post is a sermon on Matthew 21: 28-32, which I delivered at Saint John’s Abbey on 1 October, 2017.]

I seldom think of The New Yorker Magazine as the go-to place for theological reflection.  Better-known for its subtle cartoons, its thoughtful essays, and the ads for luxury items I couldn’t possibly afford, I just don’t think of it as a purveyor of religious insight.

But of course I’m wrong to assume that, as one of my favorite cartoons recently reminded me.  It’s a cartoon that definitely relies on some exposure to Catholic liturgy, and it shows two guys chatting away in the middle of the torments of hell.  Each laments his own fate, and each makes the case that his own suffering is worse than the other’s. It’s a contest in self-pity, but ultimately one guy wins with this bit of undeniable logic.  Looking his companion squarely in the eye, he reminds him that “at least you have memories.  All my sins were sins of omission.”

IMG_4531Those familiar with one form of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass can appreciate the pickle in which these two guys found themselves.  In that opening rite of the liturgy we confess what we have done and what we have failed to do — the sins of commission and the sins of omission.  And if such distinctions seem nit-picky to some people, consider this.  They do in fact get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s an admission, first of all, that we do sin.  We do wrong to one another; and sometimes it’s a matter of holding back when we should have acted.

Who’s to say which is worse — doing the evil we do, or failing to do the good we are capable of doing.  But both sins have something in common.  Both testify that we are not people of integrity.  Both say we are people who do not translate our fundamental belief into lived reality.  From that perspective it doesn’t really matter whether we commit sins of omission or commission; because in both cases we are not who we say we are.  In both cases we are destined to join that conversation in hell with the two convicted sinners.

That bit of background may help in our appreciation of the parable that we’ve just heard from the gospel of St. Matthew.  The story of the two sons is one of those classic conundrums that Jesus delighted in putting to people, and it’s a conundrum because each son exhibits some less than admirable as well as some noble qualities.

The first son, when asked by the father to go and work in the vineyard, basically told his father to take a hike.  He was not going to go.  But he gave it some thought, and he went.  So the son is guilty of disrespect and I suppose is also guilty of lying.  He said he wouldn’t work and then he worked.  But it was his considered response and action that ultimately win our sympathy.  He’s a good guy after all.

IMG_4546The second son, on the other hand, said all the right things.  He respected his father and showed to all and sundry that he was obedient.  But then his actions in fact told his father to take a hike.  He had no intention of going to the vineyard.

So just like his first audience, Jesus asks this of us.  Which son is worthy and which one is not?  And more precisely, in whose sandals do we find ourselves standing when push comes to shove?

It’s not wrong to reduce this parable to a matter of obedience or disobedience, but there’s something deeper here.  That becomes evident when Jesus launches into a comparison between the tax-collectors and prostitutes on the one hand, and the scribes and scholars of the law on the other.  On a scale of uprightness, the religious experts win hands down.  But this is not a matter of obedience or disobedience.  This is all about hypocrisy.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes are far worse when it comes to the gravity of their sins, while the upright people are guilty of little more than peccadillos.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes make no bones about their sinful ways;  but their repentance is authentic.  They are sinners and they freely admit it.  They are who they say they are.  But they also know who they want to become.

By contrast, the religious leaders need no such radical conversion.  They’ve committed no grave sins; they’ve lived upright lives; they’ve done nothing blameworthy.  Even so, they may have been obedient and upright, but to put a positive spin on it, Jesus hints that they have done little or nothing of value at all.  They have nothing to show for their lives.  They are not who they say they are, and for Jesus hypocrisy is the gravest sin of all.

IMG_4568Jesus offers this parable for us to chew on for our own reflection.  He’s not interested in beating us up or making us feel guilty about what we’ve done and what we continue to do.  Nor does he delight in wringing out of us a confession of the good we failed to do when the chips were down.  All that is secondary to the real issue he wants us to think about.  Are we really who we say we are?  Can people count on us to translate our beliefs into action?  Or are we all talk and no action?  Or as some like to say in Texas, are we all hat and no cattle?

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day I don’t want to be the guy in hell who has nothing of value to recall from a life lived on the sidelines.  Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and commit a bunch of sins so that we’ll have lots of good memories in hell.  Rather, Jesus asks something far simpler than that.  He asks that we strive to be who we say we are.  He asks that we love God and love our neighbor and figure out how that translates into a life well-lived.  And he reminds us that if we want memories of a life well-lived, the time to make those memories is today, not tomorrow.

Notes

+On 25 September I took part in the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Among those in attendance were Mr. Bob Shafer, retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations;  Fra Tom Mulligan of Chicago and Fra Nicola Tegoni of New York.  Mr. Joseph S. Micallef and Steven Kennedy, both members of the Order of Malta, rounded out the contingent of members of Malta in attendance.

+On 30 September I attended the football game with Bethel University, which Saint John’s hosted.  The good guys won, 21-13.

IMG_4569+On October 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.  I don’t know what a “typical Sunday” would be for me, but my day went something like this.  I got up at 4 am and finished my sermon for the Mass.  Then I attended morning prayer at 7 am.  Presided at Mass at 10:30 am.  Went to lunch with the community at noon.  At lunch I happened to sit with Brother Isidore, who among other things described his competition with the squirrels to gather black walnuts on the abbey grounds.  He shells and sells them in the abbey gift shop.  This fall he has collected 250 pounds so far.  The squirrels are not entirely happy, but there’s plenty for everyone.  In the afternoon I got some exercise and then watched as Fr. Lew loaded honeycombs into the honey-extracting machine.  I didn’t stay to watch, since it is pretty much like looking at the spin cycle on the washing machine.  Then I presided at Sunday vespers, and at the end of that I threw my alb in the washing machine.  The aroma of incense pervaded it, and I did not want that in my closet.  After dinner I finished my blog and then went to bed.  That’s one monk’s schedule on a Sunday.  Not terribly glamourous, but a great day nonetheless.

+Given the turmoil in Catalonia, I decided to adorn today’s post with photos I took of the medieval cathedral in Barcelona.  Barcelona was the port of entry on my very first visit to Spain, when I went to do dissertation research.  I’ve loved the place ever since and feel not a little distressed by the current situation there.

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