Sunday, October 24, 2021

Bartimaeus and ‘Choice’

 

 


(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 24, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2021]

 

What do you learn about Bartimaeus from the following statements?

  • Bartimaeus chose.
  • Bartimaeus chose again. 
  • And he chose again. 
  • And he chose again. 
  • And in the midst of all this, he chose once more.

What have you just learned about Bartimaeus?

“Not much, Fr. Ray.” 

That’s right!  That’s exactly right.  You’ve been told that he made 5 decisions, but that’s it.

Before you could learn anything substantial about Bartimaeus, you’d need to know WHAT he chose!  Was it good or was it evil?  Was it something harmful or something helpful?  Was it a sinful act or a virtuous act?

If you had a 3-year-old son, and I said to you: “Your 3-year-old son was standing near the edge of a cliff today, and he chose,” you wouldn’t know whether to scream in horror or jump for joy, would you?  But if I said, “Your 3-year-old son was standing near the edge of a cliff today, and he chose to turn away and walk to safety,” now you’d know how to react, because you’d realize that he had made the RIGHT choice.

“Fr. Ray, this is common sense.” 

Well, in that case, it only proves the old adage, “Common sense is not so common.”  Because right now in our society it’s considered a sign of brilliance and enlightenment if you say, “I believe in the right to choose”—and leave it at that.  

Like some presidents do.

If this is all common sense, then why don’t more people ask what should be the obvious follow-up question: “Choose what?”  “Okay sir, you’re for ‘choice.’  So am I.  I’m for making the right choice in every situation.  What choice are you for?  That’s what matters.  Is it, perhaps, the choice to live an immoral lifestyle or the choice to kill innocent human beings: the pre-born child, the mentally handicapped person, the terminally ill cancer patient?  Could that be why you choose not to finish your sentences?  When I say, ‘I believe in the right to choose,’ I always tell people what the choice is that I support, because I only support GOOD choices.  I’m not ashamed—or afraid—to finish my sentences.”

I indicated at the beginning of my homily that Bartimaeus made at least 5 choices on the day he encountered our Lord.  Thankfully, they were 5 very good choices.  And please note: if he had not made any one of these 5, he would not have been healed by Jesus!  He would have ended the day as he began it—as a blind beggar.

St. Mark tells us the story:

“As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.”  Someone then told him that Jesus was passing by.  At that moment, he made his first choice: THE CHOICE TO CRY OUT.  He could have easily chosen to remain silent; he certainly had that option.  But had he done so, he never would have met Jesus.  And if he had not met Jesus, he would not have been healed.

St. Mark goes on: “On hearing it was Jesus of Nazareth, [Bartimaeus] began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”  Which brings us to good choice #2: THE CHOICE TO GO AGAINST PUBLIC OPINION.  You see, if you had polled all the people in the crowd at that moment and asked them, “What should Mr. Bartimaeus do now?” most would have said, “He should close his mouth and keep quiet!”  We know that because St. Mark tells us, “And many rebuked [Bartimaeus], telling him to be silent.  But he kept calling out all the more, ‘Son of David, have pity on me.’”  Good for you Bartimaeus!  We need more people like you in the world today: people who are willing to disregard the polls and do—and stand up for—the right thing!

St. Mark continues: “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’  So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’  He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.”  Here we encounter good choice #3: THE CHOICE TO OBEY JESUS.  Our Lord said, “Come,” and Bartimaeus did.

Once the blind man was in our Lord’s presence, he made his 4th good choice: THE CHOICE TO EXPRESS HIS NEED TO JESUS IN AN HONEST PRAYER OF PETITION.  As St. Mark tells us, “Jesus said to him . . . ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  The blind man replied to him, ‘Master, I want to see.’”

Jesus gives him his sight immediately, based on these 4 choices and choice #5, which was the one which stood behind the others.  I’m talking about THE DECISION OF BARTIMAEUS TO PUT HIS FAITH IN JESUS.  That choice motivated and inspired the other 4 I just mentioned.  Jesus recognized this and commended Bartimaeus for it when he said, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”  In other words, “Your choice to put your faith in me has made you well.”

Many people today are fond of telling us they’re “pro-choice.”  Among other things, the story of Bartimaeus teaches us that this term—“pro-choice”—is absolutely, positively meaningless when it’s used in isolation (as it normally is!).  First and foremost, the quality of a choice is determined by the goodness or badness of the object chosen.  When the choice, for example, is to lie or cheat or steal or fornicate or kill babies in the womb, then to be pro-choice is actually to be pro-evil, because the object being chosen is evil.  The only time it’s acceptable to be “pro-choice,” is when the object of the choice happens to be good: the choice to love, the choice to forgive, the choice to respect human life from natural conception to natural death.

Bartimaeus was blessed by Jesus because he made the right choices, and ONLY because he made the right choices!  May we—as individuals and as a nation—experience the countless blessings of the Lord for the very same reason.  

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Rich Young Man: A Spiritual Minimalist



(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 10, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13;Mark 10:17-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2021]

 

Imagine a great baseball pitcher like Chris Sale of the Red Sox or Gerrit Cole of the Yankees saying this at the beginning of a baseball season: “I think I’ll go out this year and try to win 10 games.  I don’t need any more victories than that.  If I win 10 games, the team will definitely keep me on the roster, and I’ll get to keep my multi-million dollar contract.”

Imagine a parent saying this: “I think I’ll feed my children only one meal today.  They should be able to survive on that.”

Imagine a student saying this on his first day of medical school: “It doesn’t matter how much homework they give me during the next 4 years: I intend to study only one hour per day.  That will have to suffice.  I have too many other activities that I’m involved in.  Besides, I’m pretty smart, so I should be able to pass all the courses.”

My brothers and sisters, those are 3 examples of what might be called “minimalistic thinking.”  And they’re all hard to imagine, aren’t they?  Chris Sale or Gerrit Cole setting out to win only ten games a year; a parent thinking it’s acceptable to feed his children one meal per day; a medical student who believes an hour a day is enough for his studies.

“Fr. Ray, that would never happen!”

Correct!

And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make!  In most areas of life (such as education, family responsibilities, and even athletics), we do not advocate—nor do we tolerate—minimalism.  For example, if Chris Sale told the management of the Red Sox that his goal was to win only 10 games next year, you can be sure that he’d be put on the “trading block” immediately! If a parent intentionally fed his children only one meal per day, those children would be taken away from him by the state—and rightly so!  And I don’t know about you, but I’d never want to go to a doctor who had been so casual and irresponsible about his studies in med school!  I’d be worried that he’d kill me instead of curing me!

But I ask you this morning: If minimalism is so unacceptable when it comes to education, sports, family life, etc., why is it tolerated so often in the area of spirituality?

Let’s be honest about it, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters—i.e., to matters of the soul—many people today are quite content to be minimalists!!!  As they go through this life, the crucial questions are not: How can I be the person God wants me to be?  How can I be holier and more virtuous?  How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?

The key questions for them are: How much can I get away with and still not go to hell?  What’s the absolute minimum I need to do as a Catholic?  What are my obligations to God and others?

Cardinal John Henry Newman once put it this way: he said that the key issue for many people is not, “How can I please God in my life?”—rather it’s “How can I please myself without displeasing the Lord?”

This is the ever-present temptation to be a “spiritual minimalist!”—and we all face it, constantly (whether we realize it or not).

Which brings us to the rich young man who met Jesus in this Gospel scene from Mark 10.

Do you know what’s very interesting about this story?  It’s the fact that we don’t understand the exact nature of the young man’s question until his interaction with Jesus is over and he walks away.

The Bible tells us that he came up to our Lord one day, knelt down, and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now at first glance, it appears that this boy had the right attitude.  With his simple question, he seemed to be asking Jesus all the right things: “Good teacher, how can I be the person God wants me to be?  How can I be holier and more virtuous?  How can I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect?”

But when our Lord challenged him to go the extra mile by selling his possessions, giving to the poor and becoming a disciple, the truth suddenly became clear: at heart, this young man was a minimalist!  Thus, when he said to the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” what he really meant was, “Jesus, have I done enough yet?  I’ve been a great guy—Moses would be proud of me—I’ve kept the rules throughout my life!  Is that sufficient for entry into your kingdom? Or do I need to jump through a few more hoops beforehand?”

He was obviously hoping that Jesus would pat him on the back and say, “No more hoops for you, my friend.  Sit back and relax.  You’re in!  Congratulations!”

That’s not the attitude that the great saints had.  They were different!  Think of someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Mother Teresa was who she was—and is where she is—simply because she was NOT a minimalist when it came to matters of the soul, when it came to serving Jesus Christ and living for him.  She certainly was not a minimalist when it came to prayer.  It’s said that she prayed for 3 or 4 hours a day!  And when she wasn’t praying, she was normally serving Christ in the sick and the dying on the streets of Calcutta.

Her attitude was not (to quote Cardinal Newman), “How can I please myself today without displeasing God?”  Her attitude was, “How can I please God today in my life?  How can I be the best version of myself?  How can I be the person—the disciple of Jesus Christ—that God wants me to be?”

By the grace of God, may Mother Teresa’s attitude become our attitude—and always be our attitude—so that we will someday be where she now is.

 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

How To Keep From Getting A Millstone-Necktie

Good for grinding, but bad for neckties!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 24, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2021]


Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Thus the title of this homily is, “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”! 

Jesus explicitly says here that leading others into sin is the underlying problem: it’s the reason a person deserves to take a dip in the ocean with a millstone tied firmly around his neck.  So, obviously, that’s where our focus needs to be this morning: on the ways we can lead others (consciously or unconsciously) into sin.

One way, certainly, that this can be done is through our actions.  We can cause other people to sin by setting them a bad example, or by bringing them into situations where we know they will be severely tempted to do what’s wrong (like teenagers who take their friends to parties where their friends will be tempted to drink and engage in other immoral activities).

But another way we can lead people into sin is through our WORDS: by the things we say to them; by the instruction and advice we give them.

And that’s the point I challenge you to reflect on today:  What kinds of things do you say to others?  In other words, what type of advice and counsel do you give on a daily basis to your children, to other members of your family, to your co-workers, and to your friends?

Are you telling these people the right things—the good things they need to hear: things that will lead them closer to Christ and his kingdom?

Or are you telling them things that will lead them in the opposite direction and get you a millstone-necktie?

Consider some of the “pearls” of advice that are frequently given in our culture these days—sometimes by intelligent, well-meaning people.  When they say these lines, they think they’re helping others, but they aren’t.  They’re actually harming them by encouraging them—or by giving them permission—to sin!

For example: 

  • “All religions are pretty much the same.  They all basically teach the same things.”  Has someone ever told you that before?  This very common saying can easily lead someone into sin because it gives the person permission to shop around for a religion that he or she finds appealing.  And since we all like to follow the path of least resistance, religions that “appeal” are usually those that condone immoral behavior!  They’re religions that reject moral codes like the 10 Commandments.
  • “Everybody’s doing it, so don’t be too concerned.”  That type of advice can make a person complacent in a sin they’ve already committed; or it can make a person more likely to commit a sin that they’ve been able to avoid so far.
  • “It’s your body, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.”  As we all know, since the 1960s that line has been used to justify everything from abortion to contraception to physician-assisted suicide—and now to transgenderism.  Consequently, in the last 50 or 60 years it has obtained millstone-neckties for many people here in our country and around the world.
  • “You don’t need to go to Mass every week; sometimes you’ve got other things to do that are more important.”  Believe it not, many children have come to me in Confession over the years, and they have told me that their parents use that line on them all the time—sometimes almost every weekend!  Another common saying with a similar message is this one: “You don’t need to go to Confession; you don’t do anything wrong.  Besides, you’re not as bad as so-and-so.”
  • “The Church is old fashioned.”  Variations of this saying are: “The Church needs to get with the times,” or “The Church needs to change and update her moral teaching”.  I think it should be pretty obvious as to how those lines could lead another person into sin: if what the Church teaches is out of date, then obviously you can tune out the Church and live by your own rules.
  • “Even though it’s bad, you can handle it.  It won’t affect you.”  This is the line that “assures” people that they can view pornography, or abuse alcohol or drugs and then stop whenever they want to.  But, as people who are involved with 12-step programs will tell you, that’s not the way it usually works.
  • “Worry about your own needs; let others take care of themselves.”  Jesus says in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, you do to me.”  Our Lord makes it clear in that chapter that we will be judged at the end of our lives by our charity, as well as by our faith.  The problem is, if you follow the advice of those who tell you to worry only about your own needs, you won’t be very charitable.  And that sin—if it’s serious enough—will have eternal ramifications.   

The title of this homily, as I mentioned earlier, is “How to keep from getting a millstone-necktie”.  At this point, it should be clear: To keep from getting a necktie of stone, we must not lead others into sin either by our actions OR BY OUR WORDS!  And we must be very careful about the latter, because words are very powerful.  By our words we can point others to heaven, and by our words we have the potential to point others in the opposite direction. 

“But, Father Ray, I’ve said some of those lines you mentioned a few moments ago.  I’ve said them to my friends and relatives and co-workers.  I thought I was helping them.  I’ve also said other things to people that have encouraged them to do what’s wrong.”

Well, that is a problem—a very big problem—according to what Jesus says in this passage from Mark 9.

But fortunately it has a very simple solution.  The solution is twofold.  Step 1 involves a conversation.  The conversation I’m referring to needs to begin in this way: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”; and it needs to include this line: “I ask God’s forgiveness today because I have said and done things that have led my brothers and sisters into temptation and also into sin.”

Step 2 comes afterward; it comes after absolution is given.  And it’s just as important as step 1.  It involves going out and trying to undo the damage we’ve caused (to the extent that we can).  That means we must admit we were wrong and correct the things we’ve said.  I know that’s difficult to do, and it’s certainly humbling—but in the end it’s extremely rewarding.  It’s rewarding because it helps us to get rid of our millstone-necktie for good; and it’s rewarding because it puts us—and those we love—squarely on the road to heaven, which I’ve been told is a place where everyone has beautiful white robes, and no one wears neckties! 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Divided Mind is a Terrible Thing

 


(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 12, 202 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.
  Read Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-9; James  2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35.)

[For the audio version of this file, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2021]

 

They say that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.  But in today’s gospel story Peter shows us that a divided mind is simply a terrible thing!

Peter had a divided mind at Caesarea Philippi 2,000 years ago.  That was his problem.  There Jesus asked him point blank—in front of all the other apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s answer was clear and Holy Spirit inspired: “You are the Christ.”  Today we listened to St. Mark’s account of the story.  St. Matthew in his version includes Jesus’ response to this profession of faith by Peter.  Our Lord said, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”  On this point, Peter was definitely thinking “the thoughts of God.”  But, sad to say, it didn’t take him very long to begin thinking other thoughts—specifically “the thoughts of men.”  And it’s here that we encounter the division within his mind.  Of course, looking at it all from our perspective 2000 years after the fact, we can be tempted to say, “How could Peter have been so blind to the truth about Jesus?  How could he have made this monumental blunder?”  The answer is: Very easily! 

After Peter had made his profession of faith, St. Mark tells us, “[Jesus] began to teach [him and the other apostles] that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”  Now that may make perfect sense to us, but it didn’t make any sense to Peter—and for good reason!  Almost all the Jews of the day expected the Messiah to be a great warrior-king, who would conquer the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former political and economic greatness.  They didn’t expect a suffering Messiah who would die and rise from the dead to reconcile the entire world to God—even though that type of Messiah had been prophesied in passages like the one we heard in today’s first reading from Isaiah 50.  In fact, if you had taken a poll in first century Palestine on this issue, nearly 100% would have said they expected a warrior-king Messiah, not a suffering God-man Messiah.  And, of course, they would have been wrong!  (It just goes to show what most polls are worth!)

Given that background, I think Peter’s reaction is quite understandable.  After all, he was just following the majority, expert opinion of his day.  And so, when Jesus began to speak about his passion and death Peter predictably responded, “Not you Jesus!  Never!  You’re the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; you’re the anointed one of God—that can’t happen to you!”  To that Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.  You’re thinking the thoughts of men, not the thoughts of God.”

A divided mind is a terrible thing.  Just ask Peter! 

But you know what, my brothers and sisters?  Our minds also can and do become divided at times.  Even in very holy people, the thoughts of men constantly do battle with the thoughts of God.  And every time we let the thoughts of men win the day, we are led into sin.  Now let’s be clear about it: the thoughts of men in the year 2021 don’t all have to do with the identity of the Messiah.  Some do involve religion, but they also extend into every other area of life.  Let me share with you today a few examples of the more common thoughts of men which pervade our modern culture.  As I read these to you ask yourself: Have I ever believed any of these things?  Do I believe any of these things?

 

1.    Some human lives are worth more than others.  Another way to say that is that some human lives MATTER more than others.  (That’s the thought of men which stands behind every crime against innocent human life.  It’s the thought of men that stands behind a lot of the violence we’ve seen in our major cities in the last year and a half.  It’s the thought of men that stands behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  It’s also the thought of men that Hitler believed.)

2.    It’s my body, and I’ll do whatever I want with it.

3.    The moral character of our leaders doesn’t matter; what’s important is the economy—or their position on climate change. 

4.    Certain actions like lying, cheating and stealing are only bad if a person gets caught.

5.    Tolerance is a virtue.  (Can you imagine someone saying that to Jesus?  “Hey Jesus, stop criticizing the sins of the Pharisees!  Live and let live, man.  Don’t you know that tolerance is a virtue?”  And you think Peter got reprimanded?  I would love to have heard Jesus’ response to that one!)

6.    My sin is between God and me—period.

7.    Whatever it is, it’s okay as long as it happens between consenting adults, and nobody gets hurt.

8.    Animals and human beings are of equal value.

9.    Reality is whatever I say it is.  If I want to be a boy on Monday, a girl on Tuesday and some combination thereof on Thursday through Sunday that’s my business and you have nothing to say about it.

 

It took me about two minutes to think of those thoughts of men.  That’s because there are so many of them to choose from.  They’re literally everywhere; we’re bombarded with them many, many times each day!

So, what can we do?  Are we doomed to have these thoughts of men ruin our lives here on earth, and destroy our chances at eternal life?  OF COURSE NOT!  Jesus has won the victory over every evil thought, word and deed.  But we must allow that victory to be made manifest in us.  And how do we do that?  The answer is in Romans 12, verse 2.  There St. Paul writes, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”  To think the thoughts of God—in other words the thoughts God wants us to think on any and every issue—we need to allow the Lord to work on our minds, to form them and to change them whenever they need to be changed.  This means we’ve got to spend time with Jesus each day in prayer; we’ve got to read his word and let its message soak in; we’ve got to read good spiritual writings which convey to us God’s truth, and we’ve got to receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance worthily and frequently.  Getting our minds renewed requires effort on our part.  It’s not a magical phenomenon. 

I’ll conclude today with this observation.  St. Peter has two letters attributed to him in the New Testament.  Read the first one sometime soon.  There you’ll find something which might surprise you after hearing today’s gospel story. I say that because there you’ll find a beautiful, profound teaching on the sufferings of Christ, and on the positive value of our sufferings.  Now remember, this was written by the same Peter who got all upset at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus mentioned the Cross.  So, what happened to him between that event and the time he wrote this letter?  Very simply, during the intervening years, he allowed the grace of God to work on his mind and change it, so that the thoughts of God concerning the Cross eventually became the thoughts of Peter.  At Caesarea Philippi, his divided mind had been a terrible thing; but now the division in his mind had been healed, and that was a wonderful thing!  May we allow the grace of God to touch our minds in the very same way.