Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Turning Point in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: When He Finally Took Responsibility for His Actions!

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 21, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.) [For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2004] Just when you think you’ve heard it all . . . The United States House of Representatives last week passed the so-called “Cheeseburger Bill,” which is designed to prevent "frivolous lawsuits [arising from obesity claims] against the manufacturers, distributors or sellers of food or nonalcoholic beverage products". The reason this bill is being considered in Congress is that certain people have sued (or are planning to sue) fast food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King—all because they claim that those companies are somehow responsible for making them fat! Can you believe it? “Let me get this straight, sir, you’re saying that Ronald MacDonald held your mouth open last Thursday afternoon and shoved seven Big Macs down your throat? It makes perfect sense to me.” “Yes, ma’am, it must have been terrible when Colonel Sanders held that gun to your head the other day and made you eat those 27 pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two large orders of fries and 3 milk shakes! Wow! What a frightful ordeal! How did you survive?” Unbelievable! At this point, I wish to issue a formal apology to the young people here present: I am sorry—I am truly sorry—that so many adults in this country are unwilling to take responsibility for what they freely choose to put into their mouths! I’m really sorry that so many supposedly mature men and women have given you (and are giving you) such a terrible example of what it means to be personally responsible for your actions. Fr. Peter Mongeon spoke about this problem at our parish mission few weeks ago, and it obviously runs deep! Think about it: if so many people are finding it difficult to take personal responsibility for what they eat, how much more difficult will it be for them to take personal responsibility for their sins? Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel story: the parable of the prodigal son (or the parable of the forgiving father, as some like to call it). Most of us know the details: selfish junior takes the money and runs! He takes everything his dad was saving up for him, and he gets out of town as quickly as possible. At first, he’s happier than a pig in mud (pardon the pun)—“Now I can do what I want; now I can live my own life; now I’m finally free of my father and his silly rules!” And so life becomes one big party: wine, women and song, 7 days a week! But in the midst of all this “freedom,” junior somehow forgets what his math teacher taught him back in grade school: he forgets how to subtract! He doesn’t remember that if you take money out of your bank account every day and never put anything back into it, you eventually end up with zero—nothing—nada—niente! The reality of the situation finally hits him one day as he’s sitting in the local pigsty eating lunch with Porky Pig and his friends—but by then it’s too late. Of course, the story does have a happy ending: the boy is eventually reconciled to his father. But we need to understand that this heartwarming and wonderful ending would never have occurred without the pivotal moment—what I would call the “turning point” of the story! Let me read the key verses to you: “Coming to his senses [the son] thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’” This was the moment when the younger son finally took personal responsibility for his actions! He admitted his guilt, and he resolved to do something about the terrible situation that he had gotten himself into. If he had never done this—if he had never looked into his own heart and faced the reality of his own sinfulness—he probably would have spent the rest of his life in that smelly pigsty, blaming everything and everyone else, including his father: “It’s my dad’s fault. He never should have given me that money. He should have known I was too young and couldn’t handle it. He should have said, ‘No’! Good fathers say ‘No’ to their children out of love, don’t they? Well, why didn’t my father say that to me? It’s because he’s irresponsible. He’s negligent. He doesn’t care!” And let me tell you, if he had lived in modern-day America, this boy would probably have found a greedy lawyer somewhere who would have helped him sue his dad! And the scary thing is, in some courtrooms in this country he would have won! He would have won big! To his credit, the prodigal son resisted the temptation to point fingers elsewhere: he didn’t blame daddy; he didn’t blame his big brother back home; he didn’t blame bad luck or the weak economy! He blamed himself! When things go wrong in your life, what do you normally do? How do you tend to respond in those situations? Husbands, when you have disagreement with your wife, is it always (or almost always) her fault? I could ask the same question of you wives with respect to your husbands. When you young people have a conflict with your parents, or with your brothers and sisters, or with your teachers, is it always “their fault?” When your boss drives you crazy at work, is it always “his” problem? Do you ever ask yourself, “What am I doing to contribute to the conflict? What can I change about myself to make things better?” “But, Fr. Ray, it’s 90% his fault?” Maybe so. But even if the other person is 90% in the wrong, we can still address the 10% that’s our responsibility—the 10% that we’re throwing into the mix to make the situation worse. That, of course, is the hard way to go. It’s much easier to focus on the 90% that the other guy needs to deal with. At those moments, when we’re tempted to focus exclusively on the sins and failings of others, let’s strive to remember one of the most important lessons of the parable of the prodigal son. If we remember this particular lesson and take it to heart, it will have two positive effects. First of all, it will lead us into the confessional more frequently; and secondly, it will motivate us to work on improving our own attitudes and our own behavior in situations of conflict with others. The lesson can be expressed very simply in the form of an equation: responsibility + repentance = reconciliation and rejoicing. The prodigal son took responsibility for his licentious lifestyle and then repented of his sins. And what happened? When he arrived home he was welcomed by his dad with open arms, and they had a big party to celebrate the event. His acceptance of personal responsibility plus his repentance for his sins led to reconciliation with his father—and ultimately to an experience of rejoicing. (Responsibility + repentance = reconciliation and rejoicing.) May that happen for each of us in our relationship with God the Father—and in our relationships with our earthly brothers and sisters.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Does Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ Portray Pontius Pilate In A Positive Way?

"I am personally opposed, but . . . "

(Third Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 14, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 13: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2004]

One of the most controversial aspects of Mel Gibson’s movie on the Passion concerns his portrayal of Pontius Pilate. Certain critics of the film are saying that Gibson has “whitewashed” the Roman procurator and portrayed him in a positive light, while at the same time making the religious leaders of the Jews seem almost demonic. Here’s how one reviewer put it: “Gibson's movie all but absolves [Pilate] of any crimes—suggesting that [he] did everything he could to avoid a death sentence, that he condemned Jesus only after being relentlessly browbeaten by the Jewish high priests.”

As I see it, there are two issues in this controversy that need to be addressed. First of all, is it true? Does Gibson actually depict Pilate in a favorable way? And secondly: Why are so many of these secular movie critics insisting that he does? Why are they so adamant about it?

Take the first: Is it true? Does Gibson portray Pilate in a favorable way—as an innocent victim of circumstances beyond his control?

I don’t believe he does. In fact, I think the Pilate of this film is almost exactly like the Pilate of the four Gospels. And that, by the way, is not a compliment!

For example, consider today’s Gospel story from Luke, chapter 13. It speaks about a horrid event that took place during the ministry of Jesus: Pilate had some Galileans murdered, and then he mixed their blood with the blood of the animals they were offering in sacrifice. Now, as grotesque as it may sound, that was actually rather typical of Pilate’s behavior as procurator. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, tells us that he also had some Samaritans murdered on Mt. Gerazim when they were engaged in a religious service. On another occasion, Pilate killed a number of Jews who voiced their disapproval when he stole money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from all this that Pilate was a man consumed with power. He greatly enjoyed flaunting his authority in the face of others. He did it with our Lord during the Passion, when he said to him, “Don’t you know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Gibson, by the way, includes that line in his film.

It’s also clear from Scripture—and the movie—that Pilate was a skeptic. When Jesus said to him, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice,” the procurator immediately responded, “Truth, what is that?”

The Pilate of Scripture—and Gibson’s movie—was also a moral weakling. He was a spineless wimp! He knew Jesus was innocent, but he didn’t have the guts to acquit him and let him go. And so he ended up becoming the poster-boy for all those men and women throughout history who have said “I am personally opposed, but . . .” In the Gospel of Matthew we read, “Pilate called for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just man. The responsibility is yours.” Let me now modify that line for you ever so slightly: “Pilate called for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring, ‘I am personally opposed to the death of Jesus of Nazareth, but . . . he will be crucified anyway.’”

And he was.

Pilate wasn’t interested in doing what was right; he was interested in saving his political skin and looking good in the eyes of Caesar.

Please hear that, all you so-called “Catholic” politicians who have sold your souls to the pro-abortion lobby, and the gay-rights movement, and the pornographic industry in this country—and who try to hide behind the line, “I am personally opposed, but . . .”

Didn’t John Kerry—who claims to be Catholic—just say that the other day with respect to “gay marriage?”

Pontius Pilate would have been proud of him, no doubt about it.

I’ve just mentioned several of Pilate’s negative personal qualities—all of which are clearly observable in Mel Gibson’s movie. Which brings us back to the first question I posed: Does “The Passion of the Christ” portray the Roman procurator in a positive light?

No, it definitely does not! That should be obvious by now.

But that still leaves the second question unanswered: Why are so many secular critics insisting that the movie does cast a positive light on this morally bankrupt man?

Simple: It’s because Pontius Pilate in this film—and in the Bible—is a person who possesses many of the qualities that they admire! He embodies the very vices that they mistakenly call virtues!

In Scripture and in the movie, for example, Pilate is a skeptic. But, lest we forget, many of these film critics are also skeptics! They have little or no faith, and they think those of us who do are unenlightened, irrational fools!

Pilate is a morally-weak, spineless wimp—and these critics, in many instances, are just like him!

“Oh, they must be so ashamed of themselves, Fr. Ray!”

No—not at all! Believe it or not, they’re proud of it! They’re happy to be wishy-washy! In fact, they think the greatest thing you can possibly say about a person is that he or she is “non-judgmental!”

Pilate condemned Jesus to death, but he hid behind the line, “I am personally opposed.” Many of these people do the very same thing when it comes to abortion and a host of other social evils. They say, “I’m personally opposed; I would never do that myself, but I still think it should be legal!”

Pilate thought politics and power were more important than morality, and so do many of these critics! In our culture right now, they are among the most politically-correct of the politically-correct!

You see, the sad truth is that Pontius Pilate embraced the very same value system that most of these secular movie critics embrace. Although they would never admit it, Pilate was the kind of person they would consider a good role model! So of course they think Gibson is portraying him in a positive light in his film!

Their reaction is totally understandable.

Where do you stand—those of you who have seen the movie? With these secular movie critics?

Personally, I stand with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—and Mel!

Sunday, March 07, 2004

What is our relationship to the Jews?

(Second Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 7, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Genesis 15:5-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36).

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2004]

On Ash Wednesday afternoon, I saw Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion of the Christ. It was an intense, powerful, and deeply spiritual experience. The most appropriate word to describe it: AWESOME! And yes, it was bloody and violent—as it should have been! Because that’s the way it was! This was a Roman execution, and Roman executions were notoriously barbaric. Ask any reputable historian. When they scourged you, for example, they didn’t give you a set number of lashes with a nice, smooth whip. (That would have been much too kind.) They used a cat-o’-nine-tails, with pieces of bone attached to the end of each strand, which was designed to tear pieces of your flesh off. And they didn’t give you 40 lashes or some other specified number (those were rules that the Jews had when they scourged criminals). Roman scourgings were limitless! They whipped you and humiliated you until they felt like stopping, or until you were dead—whichever came first.

As I watched the film the other day, one thought kept running through my mind: “Thank you Lord, for loving me so much that you were willing to go through all this for the forgiveness of my stinking, rotten sins.”

It’s gratitude—not anger—that should fill the heart of everyone who sees this movie. This is what God did for you! This was the price he was willing to pay to save your soul from eternal death.

Of course, we’ve all heard the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at Mel Gibson—and, by extension, at anyone who supports his cinematic effort. It’s my contention that those who are making these charges are either ignorant of the Gospel message (which says that Jesus came to save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike)—or they’re worried: they’re worried that some people will see this film and actually convert to Christianity. They’re afraid that more men and women will finally begin to take Jesus and his message seriously! And that they do not want!

By the way, why aren’t they also telling us that this movie is anti-Italian? If it’s anti-Semitic, it’s even more anti-Italian, since the Romans are the real brutes in the story! Shouldn’t those of us with our roots in Italy be deeply offended?

Well, of course not. This movie is neither anti-Italian, nor is it anti-Semitic. How could it be? It’s based on the 4 Gospels, 3 of which were written by Jews!

But all this talk of anti-Semitism does raise an important question that needs to be addressed: What exactly is our relationship to the Jews? What is our relationship, as Catholics and Christians, to the Jewish people?

Providentially, that issue is touched upon in our Scripture readings this morning, specifically our first reading and Gospel.

In this story from Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abram, and the two engage in a rather strange ceremony (at least it’s strange from our perspective): several animals are cut in half and a smoking fire pot (which signifies the presence of God) passes through the dead carcasses. (Abram no doubt also walked through them.) Now what was that all about? Well, this was actually a common way for two parties in the ancient world to bind themselves to a covenant. By passing through animals that had been cut in half, the parties in the covenant were each saying, “I swear that I will be faithful to this agreement. And if I’m not faithful—if I break this covenant in any way—may I be split in two like these animals!”

Obviously, it was a very serious ceremony.

But what’s most important for us to note here is God’s covenantal promise to Abram. He says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram thus becomes the father of what will eventually become the nation of Israel. But then, in chapter 17, God changes his name to Abraham and says, “I am [now] making you the father of a host of nations.” Here the spiritual fatherhood of Abraham is extended to the Gentiles (i.e., to you and me). This is why St. Paul called Abraham, “our father in faith” in Romans 4. We give Abraham that same title in the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

So what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that, spiritually speaking, we are Semites! God chose the nation of Israel to be the instrument through which he would reconcile the whole world to himself! When God told Abraham he would be the father of many nations, Abraham didn’t fully understand what that meant—but we do! Because the Church (which extends over the whole world) is the earthly fulfillment of that promise!

Here’s how the new Catechism expresses it, in paragraph 60: “The people descended from Abraham would be the trustees of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church. They [the Israelites] would be the root onto which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe.”

Imagine a tree that had a brain and was able to think for itself. Can you imagine that tree hating its own roots? I can’t. But that’s precisely what an anti-Semitic Christian does: he hates his own spiritual roots! Have we had people like this in the Church during our 2,000 year history? Unfortunately, we have; we must admit that. And, sad to say, there are still some walking around as we speak. That’s horrible, and it should not be!

The Catechism calls the Jewish people our “’elder brethren’ in the faith of Abraham.” (#63) All Christians need to understand that important truth.

There’s one more passage of the Catechism that I want to quote this morning. This text will help us to understand the event we heard about in today’s Gospel, the Transfiguration. It’s from paragraph 781:
“[God] chose the Israelite race to be his own people and established a covenant with it. He gradually instructed this people. . . . All these things, however, happened as a preparation for and figure of that new and perfect covenant which was to be ratified in Christ . . . the New Covenant in his blood; he called together a race made up of Jews and Gentiles which would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit.”

This was precisely what Jesus was trying to teach Peter, James and John when he took them up Mt. Tabor and was transfigured before their eyes. It was not a coincidence that Moses and Elijah appeared with him during that event and were conversing with him about his upcoming passion, death and resurrection. Moses and Elijah were central figures in the Old Testament. They were part of the process by which (as the Catechism says) God was preparing his people for the New Covenant he would establish through the blood of Christ. If Peter, James, and John had any doubts that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, those doubts were erased after the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah, by their presence and conversation, testified to them that Jesus was the Messiah, the one they and all of Israel had been awaiting for so many centuries!

We all know that many Jews have not accepted their true Messiah and his Gospel message. But God wants them to! And how is that supposed to happen? Through people like us! God wants us to witness to the truth of his Son’s Gospel by the faith we profess, and—just as importantly—by the love we show to others, to Jew and Gentile alike. And what a golden opportunity we Christians have to evangelize with the release of this movie! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been asked lots of questions about the Catholic faith in recent days.

All of a sudden, Jesus and what he did for us are big topics of conversation—sometimes in unexpected places.

I heard Don Imus (of all people) talking about Gibson’s movie and its message the other day on his morning radio show. In the afternoon, as I was driving along in my car, I heard Mike and the Mad Dog discussing theological issues on WFAN in New York. For an entire half hour, basketball and baseball took a back seat to religion on their program.

Let’s not waste the many opportunities God is giving us these days to be witnesses to the truth. The salvation of souls, at least to some extent, depends on our willingness to step out and courageously share our faith—like Mel Gibson courageously shared his faith in making this movie!

Let me conclude this morning with a special prayer for the Jewish people. This is a prayer that’s said in every Catholic Church on Good Friday, during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. May it be our common prayer today:

Almighty and eternal God,
Long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity.
Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own
may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.