Sunday, September 22, 2013

You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

A very young Bob Dylan

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 22, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 16: 1-13.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2013]


You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls


But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief


You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name


You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks


You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir


Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed


You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray [if it’s yours truly you may call me Fr. Ray!]
You may call me anything but no matter what you say


You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


Thank you, Bob Dylan, for helping me to explain this very difficult gospel passage we just heard from Luke 16 with the lyrics from one of your songs. 

Many Scripture scholars and preachers will tell you, my brothers and sisters, that this story of the dishonest steward is the most difficult parable of Jesus to interpret. 

And I’m inclined to agree with them!

One of the reasons for the difficulty, according to Scripture scholar William Barclay, is that there are at least four different lessons attached to it.

The first has to do with the passion and dedication of Christians compared to the passion and dedication of worldly people; the second concerns the use of material possessions; the third is that a person’s way of fulfilling a small task indicates his fitness or unfitness to perform a greater task; and the fourth is that no slave can serve two masters.

Sounds like four separate themes, does it not?—four separate, disconnected lessons.

Well, not really.  There is at least one idea, one theme, one word that connects all these different lessons—and it’s the very same idea that stands behind the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song that I quoted to you a few moments ago.

The word is COMMITMENT!

These four lessons—and the song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”—have to do with our commitment to Jesus Christ and the teachings of his Gospel.

Take the first.  Jesus says, “The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with this generation than are the children of light.”  Professor Barclay says the following about that verse: “[This] means that, if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as the man of the world is in his attempt to attain money and comfort, he would be a much better man.  If only men would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do the things which concern their business, they would be much better men.  Over and over again, a man will expend twenty times the amount of time and money and effort on his pleasure, his hobby, his garden, his sport as he does on his church.  Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.”

In other words, the COMMITMENT of believers to Jesus and his Gospel is usually far less than the commitment of worldly people to gaining and enjoying—and promoting—the things of this world.

Just look at how committed the worldly people in the secular press are right now to turning Pope Francis into a liberal.  They’re trying to do that almost every day by misrepresenting the things he says or by pulling them out of context. 

If only more Catholic parents were as committed to the religious education and development of their children!  Ask Chris Magowan or any other director of religious education and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that to many Catholic parents these days religious education is no more than an afterthought.  We had registration for CCD here at St. Pius on THREE WEEKENDS in late August and early September.  And yet, do you know how many calls we got in the last few weeks from parents asking, “Gee, when is CCD registration?”

Obviously those parents are in church a lot!  Obviously their commitment to Jesus and his Church runs deep!

Do you know how often young people say to me, “Fr. Ray, we’d like to go to church on Sundays, but we’re too busy.”?

They—and their parents—have any and every excuse for not being there.  Their absence is ultimately rooted in a very weak and flimsy commitment.

This idea of commitment also stands behind the other three lessons in the parable.  The second, about the proper use of money and material possessions, is found in these words of Jesus: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  (The word “dishonest,” by the way, is used there to describe earthly wealth because, unfortunately, earthly wealth can lead some people to dishonesty.  At least, that’s the interpretation of the term given in a footnote of the New American Bible.

But I think there a lot of merit to it.)

As Catholic Christians, our COMMITMENT to Jesus and his Gospel needs to go beyond words: it’s supposed to be evident in the way we use all the “stuff” God has blessed our lives with: in our generosity to our parish; in our concern for those in need.  Those are ways to “make friends for [ourselves] with dishonest wealth.”

Which leads directly to the third lesson, found in these words of our Lord: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.  If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?  If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?”

In other words, our COMMITMENT (there’s that word again!) to using our earthly wealth in the proper way will influence whether or not we receive the true and everlasting wealth of heaven!

Which means you can’t serve two masters in this life (lesson four)!  When all is said and done and everything else is stripped away, either we’re in the state of grace or we aren’t (that’s true of each of us; that’s true of every single human person).  Either our COMMITMENT is to Jesus and his Gospel, or it’s to the things of this world and to the Prince of this world.

And that’s why Dylan wrote and sang those words we heard a few moments ago:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

May each and every one of us, always and everywhere, serve the Lord—and only the Lord!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Does the Story of the Prodigal Son End with a Meal?

Guercino's Return of the Prodigal Son (1619)

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 15, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 15: 1-32.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2013]


Why does the story of the prodigal son end with a meal?

First and foremost, the parable is about God’s forgiveness.  But if that had been the only message Jesus intended to give us here, wouldn’t it have made more sense to conclude the story with the father kissing and embracing his repentant son?  That’s probably how a Hollywood producer would have ended it: the two men would have tearfully embraced, with some syrupy music playing in the background; then the credits would have rolled and the scene would have faded out.

So why the meal?

I’m convinced it’s because Jesus was also trying to teach us something here about the Eucharist: specifically, the importance and necessity of receiving the Eucharist worthily!

I say that because the meal the prodigal son shared with his dad when he came back home was more than just an occasion for some nice conversation and some good food: it was also a joyous celebration of UNITY (or, more accurately, it was a joyous celebration of the reunification of a merciful father and his repentant son).  To coin a theological expression, the son had just been restored to “the state of grace,” and so it was his privilege to eat at his father’s table once again.

And isn’t this precisely what the Church teaches about receiving the Eucharist?  Remember what St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11: “A man should examine himself first [i.e., to determine if he’s in the state of grace]; only then should he eat of the [Eucharistic] bread and drink of the cup.” 

Based on these words of St. Paul, the Church teaches that if we have committed a mortal sin (such as missing Mass on a Sunday or holy day without good reason, or harboring intense hatred for another human being, or sexual activity outside of marriage—either heterosexual or homosexual; with another person or with oneself), we should not come to the Lord’s table until we’ve been reconciled with the heavenly Father.  And the ordinary way for this reconciliation to take place after Baptism is through the sacrament of Confession.

This important teaching is reflected in the parable itself.  As the story begins, the younger son is clearly a member of the family in good standing.  What his father said to his older brother later on could have been said to him at the beginning: “Son, you are with me always and everything I have is yours.”  That’s the way it is spiritually for all Catholics who are in the state of grace: they are members of God’s family in good standing, and all the sacramental graces which come through the Church are available to them.

But, unfortunately, this younger boy wasn’t content to remain where he was.

I remember asking the teenagers at youth group one night to share with me their thoughts on this parable—and some of them had very perceptive insights!  When I read to them the line about the younger son’s departure, I said, “What’s the significance of the word ‘all’ in that text?  It says there that the boy took all his belongings and went to a distant country.”  One of the teens raised his hand and answered, “Obviously, Fr. Ray, he wasn’t planning to come back—ever.”  I said, “That’s right.  This young man was cutting himself off completely from his family.”

Spiritually, that’s exactly what mortal sin is: it’s a sin whereby we sever our bond of friendship with God, and cut ourselves off from all the sacramental graces which come through our spiritual family, the Church. 

We are spiritually “dead,” as this prodigal son was “dead.”

But the interesting thing is that we still remain a member of “the Family”; we still remain a member of the Church, albeit an estranged member. 

This is something that people in mortal sin often forget, and it sometimes keeps them from coming back to the Lord: they think they’re “too far gone.”  And wasn’t that precisely the thought that almost kept the prodigal son from coming back to his father in the parable?  He was convinced he had been disowned by his dad.  He thought he was so disconnected from his family that the only way he could possibly return was as a servant.  But when his father greeted him with love and mercy, the boy realized that he was still his father’s son (and that he always had been his father’s son). 

And so it is with every serious sinner who returns to the heavenly Father in the sacrament of Confession: that person is immediately welcomed back, and his status in the Family of God (i.e., the Church) is immediately restored.

Then—and only then—is the “prodigal Catholic” able to come to the Lord’s table and receive the Holy Eucharist worthily once again, just as the prodigal son was able to sit down and eat with his father only after he had been forgiven.

Which brings us, finally, to the situation of the older brother at the end of the story.  Instead of rejoicing and joining in the festivities, he appears to have committed a mortal sin himself, because suddenly he’s the one who’s not able to share the meal with his dad and family!  We are told that when he heard about his brother’s return and about the banquet his father had prepared, “he became angry and . . . refused to enter the house.”  It seems that his anger against his younger brother was so intense that it made him incapable of partaking in the family meal.  The words of St. John in his first letter come to mind here: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”  From all external indications, that seems to be where the older boy was at.  

And what does the father do?  Does he say to him (as he could have), “You spoiled brat!  You ungrateful kid!  Get out of my sight!”? 

No!  Amazingly, the father humbles himself by coming out to his stubborn son and PLEADING with him!  He pleads with him to let go of his anger and be reunited with his brother and family.

If we ever commit a mortal sin (which I pray we never do; but if it ever happens) and we’re hesitant about our repentance, I think it would be good for us to imagine a similar scene in our mind.  We should imagine Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior physically walking up to us and pleading with us to repent and go to Confession.  I don’t know about you, but I would find it very hard to refuse the pleading—the begging—of God himself. 

When President Abraham Lincoln was asked how he intended to treat the rebellious southerners who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, he answered by saying, “I will treat them as if they had never been away."

When repentant Catholics receive absolution in the confessional, that’s precisely how God our heavenly Father pledges to treat them.  That’s the good news—and that’s why they can come to his table once again and receive his Son’s Body and Blood worthily, as if they had never been away.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Eating the Evil Elephants of this World “One Bite at a Time”


(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 8, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2013]


“How do you eat an elephant?” so the old question goes.

The classic answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.”

Which gives us an important insight as to how major changes—both good and bad—usually happen in the world.

In 1990, for example, according to an article I read the other day in the Harvard Magazine online, “roughly seventy-five percent of Americans deemed homosexual acts immoral, only twenty-nine percent supported gay adoptions, and only ten percent to twenty percent backed gay marriage.”

Well, we’ve come a long way in twenty-three years, haven’t we?  Actually, I think it’s more accurate to say that we’ve “fallen a long way into the pit of immorality” in the twenty-three years since that survey was done.

But it didn’t happen instantaneously, did it?

The change in public opinion on this particular issue was slow, and steady, and incremental.  The “elephant” of opposition to homosexual acts, in other words, was devoured “one bite at a time”.

Much of it was orchestrated (at least in the physical dimension of things) by the media and the entertainment industry.  For example, according to professor Gary Gates from UCLA (a recognized expert on the subject), only 1.7 percent of Americans identify themselves as gay or lesbian—but you’d never know that from the number of openly gay characters on primetime television these days.  You’d think it was about thirty to forty percent of the population.

Which is precisely what they want you to think!

Another bite of the elephant!

And have you noticed that on these programs the characters who openly oppose homosexual activity are always mean and nasty and vulgar—and, of course, religious!

Trust me, that’s not a coincidence; it’s just another bite of the elephant.

And you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the strategy.  It’s the strategy that led to the full legalization and acceptance of contraception and abortion in the 1960s and 70s; and, given its recent success with gay marriage, this strategy will no doubt eventually lead to the acceptance and legalization of things like polygamy and group marriage (because if marriage isn’t between one man and one woman, why can’t you have two men and one woman, or three men and five women?).

This is the bad news—which I always like to give before I share the good news!

And yes, there is some good news here.  The good news is that this philosophy of “incrementalism”—of working for change by eating the elephant (so to speak) one bite at a time—can also be used (and often has been used) to achieve positive changes in our society and world.

Take, for example, racism.  Has racism been completely eliminated from American society in 2013?  No, it hasn’t.  Like any other sin, it will never be totally eradicated until the end of time.

But things are certainly a lot better, generally speaking, in most places than they were 50 years ago when Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Efforts have been made—especially by religiously motivated Christians like Rev. Dr. King—to attack the problem incrementally, by slowly changing people’s hearts on the matter.

And some credit for this positive shift can also go to people in the media (and that’s noteworthy because normally I don’t give them credit for much!).

So the “elephant” of racism is by no means “fully eaten” in this country, but that elephant is certainly a lot “thinner” than it was in 1963!

In a famous passage from his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II indicated that this “eating-the-elephant-one-bite-at-a-time” approach is sometimes acceptable in trying to reverse laws that presently allow abortion.  He said that when it’s not possible to change such an unjust law all at once, it can be permissible to support a law that will serve to limit the number of abortions (as they did in Texas recently when they outlawed all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy).  Obviously that’s not where pro-life efforts should end, but it is a valid way to approach the problem when it’s not possible to pass a Constitutional amendment supporting life.

Now why do I speak about all this today?

Well very simply it’s because all that I’ve just said can help us to understand the phenomenon of human slavery, which is the issue at the center of today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.

This, by the way, is a problem that’s still with us!  The forced enslavement of human beings is definitely not a phenomenon that’s totally consigned to the past.  We just call it by different names nowadays, like “human trafficking.”

Sometimes it’s said that the New Testament (and especially this Letter to Philemon) supports slavery, but that’s not true.  In fact, we need to clear about it: the Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the practice of human slavery!  Quite oppositely, many popes—including Eugene IV and Paul III who lived at the time when the slave trade was in high gear—have vigorously condemned it.  So does the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church—in paragraph 2414, to be exact!

Now, have individual Catholics and other Christians—including some members of the clergy—supported slavery over the centuries?  Of course!  It’s just like today: we have Catholic laypeople and even some Catholic priests who support a lot of things that the Church officially condemns!  You know the list of those things, I’m sure.    

Regarding the writers of the New Testament, remember that they were members of a religion that was quickly made illegal in the Roman Empire.  Consequently they had no power to change existing laws regarding slavery (or anything else for that matter!).  They had no choice but to tolerate the legal situation as it was, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts incrementally (one “bite” at a time)—which is precisely what you see illustrated so beautifully in this Letter to Philemon. 

But to understand this you need to see the letter in its historical context!

To summarize the situation: Onesimus was Philemon’s slave.  Philemon was a wealthy Colossian man who had become a believer in Christ through St. Paul’s missionary efforts.  Now he probably had slaves long before his conversion—as many wealthy people did back then.  Like it or not, slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon in the ancient world—although Christian slave owners were told by St. Paul in Colossians 4 and Ephesians 6 to treat their slaves with fairness and kindness (which was an extremely radical idea for the time!).

Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process!  That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ.  (Paul at the time was in prison.)  The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.  

Does this mean that St. Paul approved of slavery? 

Not at all!  In fact, it’s quite clear from what he says in this letter that he detested it!  You can sum up Paul’s message in this way.  He said to Philemon, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ.  But I’m not going to do that.  I want you to do the right thing of your own free will.  I want you to choose to act virtuously here.  So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it might be—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you.  But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith.  He’s also my spiritual child now.  And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord.  So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave.  And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me.  As his father and friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

Let me conclude my homily now by inviting you to apply this idea to the situations you are currently facing in your life.  We all have “elephants”—problems—in our personal lives that we need to get rid of, especially concerning our relationships with other people.  It might be an “elephant of anger” against a coworker who offended you; it might be an “elephant of unforgiveness” against a spouse or relative who betrayed you.  There are lots of possibilities.  It’s highly unlikely that your relationship with this other person can be made right in a single instant.  That’s not the way it usually works.  Things normally improve incrementally, over time, by taking positive steps to address the problem.

So I ask you to spend a little time during this coming week identifying your problems—your personal “elephants”.  And then, of course, ask the Lord to help you to see what he wants you to do to start devouring them.