Sunday, September 27, 2020

It’s Not About Where You Start, It’s About Where You Finish!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 27, 2020 at St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-9; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2020]

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

That’s the message that I believe the Lord has for us today in these Scripture readings—and especially in this gospel passage from Matthew 21.

This is a spiritual truth, incidentally, that applies to many areas of life.  For example, why is it that sports movies like “Rocky” and “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” (the basketball film) are so appealing?  Why do people like them so much?

It’s because the main characters all “finish” in a better place than they “start”.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable about two sons.  The first starts in disobedience, but he ends up finishing in obedience (“A man had two sons.  He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’  He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went.”); the second son, on the other hand, starts off in obedience, but he ends up finishing in disobedience (“The man came to the other son and gave him the same order.  He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.”).

 Jesus told this story to the chief priests and elders of the people to warn them that even though they had started off in faithfulness to God by accepting the truth the Lord had revealed through Moses, they were in danger of eventually finishing in hell, because they were rejecting him—and because they had already rejected his predecessor, John the Baptist!  Whereas many tax collectors, prostitutes and other people who had started off in serious sin (at the beginning of John’s ministry) were now on their way to finishing in the Lord’s eternal and glorious kingdom!

 It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

This is the same message we encounter in today’s first reading from Ezekiel 18, where the prophet says (and here I’m paraphrasing his words): “If a person who starts off living a virtuous life turns away from his virtue and sins seriously—and he remains in that spiritual condition—he will lose his soul.  But if that same person (or anyone else in the state of mortal sin) turns away from that sin—and finishes his life in the state of grace—he will be saved for all eternity!  He shall surely live, he shall not die.”

Now some of you may be thinking, “Thank you, Father Ray, but all of this is quite clear and quite obvious!”

To which I would respond, “Well, it might be clear and obvious to you, but it’s definitely NOT clear and obvious to a lot of other people!”

There are many in our world right now (and even many in the Church!) who believe that everyone (with the possible exception of a few bad guys like Hitler and Stalin) will finish in the kingdom, regardless of what sins they have on their souls when they finish their earthly lives.

According to Jesus, that’s a mistaken idea that can literally have eternal consequences.

But the denial of this truth about starting and finishing can also affect us in other ways.  For example, why do so many people take their own lives these days?  Why do so many despair?

It’s ultimately because they don’t believe they can finish in a better place (emotionally and spiritually) than they’re starting in at the present moment!

So everything appears hopeless—even though it isn’t.

Here’s a lie that’s straight out of the pit of hell: “You can’t possibly finish in a better place than you’re starting in right now.”

Satan whispers that lie into the ears of those who are on the verge of despair.  He whispers it into the ears of women who have had abortions; he whispers it into the ears of all those who have committed serious sins that they regret and are deeply ashamed of.

And the tragedy is that many of the men and women in these situations believe the devil!

That’s why some of them stay away from confession—and stop praying—and give up the practice of their Catholic faith. 

They think, “Well, what’s the use?  I am what I am; I’ve done what I’ve done—and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I ask you, my brothers and sisters, what would have happened to Saul of Tarsus if he had thought that about himself after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and made him aware of his sins?

I know one thing for sure: he never would have become Saint Paul!

What would have happened to Augustine, the womanizer and playboy, if he had thought that about himself and his sinful situation?

I’m not exactly sure, but I can guarantee you that he never would have become Saint Augustine!

Like the first son in the story, Saul and Augustine understood that even though they had started in deep sin they could finish somewhere else—somewhere a lot better!

I mention all this today, my brothers and sisters, because, when you stop and think about it, at this precise moment we’re all starting the rest of our lives here on this earth.  As the old saying goes, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

And we’re all starting this journey from different places.  We each have our own set of fears and character flaws—and sins.  Some of us may be starting with mortal sins and some very deep regrets.

Well, unfortunately, we can’t control where we’re starting from—because we can’t change the past.

But by the grace of God WE can control where we finish—even if we’re starting from a very bad place!

And the key to doing that is, believe it or not, the virtue of humility.

The last stanza of today’s responsorial psalm (psalm 25) reads: “Good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way.  He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.”

The first son in this parable finished well because he was humble.  THAT was the reason!

Here we have to read between the lines a little bit. Why did he change his mind and go into the vineyard to work? 

It’s because he was wrong and because he was humble enough to admit that to himself!

At some point after he left his dad, he obviously thought to himself, “You know what?—you were wrong to say what you said to your father today!  You should go and do what he told you to do.”  THAT’S HUMILITY.

It takes humility to admit you’re wrong.  It takes humility to acknowledge that you’ve sinned.  It takes humility to go before a priest in a confessional and honestly admit to him the evil you’ve done and the good you haven’t done.

Humility is a very powerful virtue—one that we should pray for every day; because it’s the virtue that can take a person from the worst starting point imaginable, to the place where we all want to finish.

Which is great news, my brothers and sisters, because, when all is said and done, where we started from won’t matter at all.  But where we finish will matter—FOREVER!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Reward Will Be the Same, But People’s Capacity to Enjoy the Reward Will Be Different!

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 19-20, 2020 at St. Mary’s Church, Carolina, and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-18; Philippians 1:20-27; Matthew 20:1-16a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2020]


The reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different.

This is a very important truth for us to keep in mind when we’re trying to understand the parable we just heard from Matthew 20, this well-known story of the workers in the vineyard.

First of all, however, we need to make a crucial distinction: we need to distinguish between the primary meaning of this parable as it was told by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, and the legitimate—but secondary—application of the parable that people very often make. 

The primary meaning of this story is that Gentiles, through God’s saving grace, have the same opportunity to go to heaven that Jews have.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  Here’s how one Bible commentary explains it:

This parable is addressed to the Jewish people, whom God called at an early hour, centuries ago.  Now the Gentiles are also being called—with an equal right to form part of a new people of God, the Church.  In both cases it is a matter of a gratuitous, unmerited, invitation; therefore, those who were the ‘first’ to receive the call have no grounds for complaining when God calls the ‘last’ and gives them the same reward. . . . Jesus leaves no doubt that although he calls us to follow different ways, all receive the same reward—heaven.”  (Navarre Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, page 173.)

This brings us to the secondary application of the story, which is where people often get confused.  Let me frame the issue in this way: From the way the story is told, it seems that non-believers who convert and get baptized on their deathbeds—and lapsed Catholics who make a good and sincere confession right before they die—get the best of both worlds (so to speak).  They live their entire lives doing what they want and having a good old time, but in the end they get the same heavenly reward that someone like Mother Teresa gets!

So people read this text and say, “Why should I make the effort to know, love and serve God every day?  Why should I try to be holy and obedient to the Lord in all things?  Why should I fight the good fight and run the race and keep the faith?  What difference does it make?  According to what Jesus says here I can do whatever I want for my entire life, convert at the end, and I’ll get the same reward as the great saints who served God faithfully for their entire lives!”

Ah yes, but these good people are forgetting one thing—one very important thing; as I said a few moments ago, the reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different. 

Everyone, in other words, who dies in the state of grace will eventually get into the eternal kingdom of God—even if their conversion (or re-version to Christ) happened at the “11th hour” of their life.  So the “reward” of every saved person will be the same: heaven.  But the capacity of a particular person—me, for example, to experience God and his blessings in the kingdom will be greater or lesser, depending on the level of holiness I attained during my earthly life. 

Jesus indicated this when he talked about “the least” and “the greatest” in the kingdom of heaven, and when he spoke about the seat at his right hand and the seat at his left hand in his Father’s kingdom.  We also see an indication of it in John 14, where our Lord said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

St. Augustine described this situation by, in effect, comparing our souls to different sized containers.  Pope Emeritus Benedict alluded to this idea of Augustine in one of his encyclicals when he wrote: “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.  [As St. Augustine says,] ‘By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him].’”  

By following the advice that Isaiah gives us in today’s first reading and seeking the Lord faithfully through prayer and through the sacraments; by living in faith and performing acts of selfless charity; by growing closer to Jesus Christ and becoming more like him—that is to say, by growing in holiness each day—we increase our capacity for God

That’s Augustine’s point here.

This means that someone who has a conversion on his deathbed will probably have a much smaller capacity for God in heaven than a great saint like Mother Teresa—or even compared to an ordinary Christian who grew in faith and in holiness for many years on earth.

The person who has a conversion at the end of his life will probably have a capacity for God in heaven that’s the size of a thimble.  Comparatively speaking, the ordinary, holy Christian will have a capacity for God that’s the size of a pint or quart; whereas the great saints of the Church like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa will be like gallons! 

Now the interesting thing is, in heaven everyone will be full: everyone will be full of God and his grace!  But the fullness experienced by the thimble-sized soul will be a lot different than the fullness experienced by the gallon-sized soul of the saint!  

So yes, the reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different.

I was trying to think of another earthly analogy that I could use to conclude my homily today and drive home this point, and what came to me was the following example: 

Imagine two men, John and Bill, who work for the same company.  One day the boss calls them into his office and says, “Gentlemen, you’ve done excellent work lately, and to show my appreciation I’m going to give you my two tickets to this Sunday’s Patriots’ game.  [Obviously this was before the COVID19 crisis!] I’m going out of town this weekend, so I can’t use them.  Here they are.  Enjoy!—they’re great seats, on the 50 yard line, ten rows up.”

John and Bill say, “Thank you very much, sir!” and they immediately make plans to go to the game. 

Here now is a little essential background information on these two men: 

John has been a Patriots’ fan for as long as he can remember—ever since he was a little boy 60 years ago.  He’s been loyal to the team in good times and in bad—which includes the mid-1960s, when the Patriots were one of the worst teams in the old AFL.  He watches every game; he knows the statistics of all the key players; he has Patriots memorabilia all over his house!

Bill also is a Patriots’ fan—although he’s only been one for a couple of years.  One reason for that is that he’s originally from Australia, where “football” means something very different than it does here in the United States.  In fact, he’s still learning about our game.  For example, the last time he watched a game of American football on television, the punter punted the ball out of the end zone and Bill thought the man had just kicked a field goal!

So I ask you, in all likelihood which of these two men will enjoy Sunday’s Patriots’ game more?  Which one will have the capacity—the ability—to enjoy it more?

The answer, of course, is John.  Because John has been a faithful follower of the Pats for so many years; because he knows the game of football so well and has persevered with his team through thick and thin, HIS CAPACITY TO ENJOY THIS REWARD FROM HIS BOSS WILL BE MUCH, MUCH GREATER THAN BILL’S, since Bill barely knows what an American football is!

But notice—both men will have the same experience—the exact same experience; both will have the same reward from their boss—a free ticket to this game.  

Their reward will be the same, but their capacity to enjoy the reward will be different!

And that’s the way it will be for souls in heaven.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Ten Good Reasons to Forgive

(Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 13, 2020 at St. Mary's Church, Carolina, and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 27:30-28:9; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2020]

About a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bishop Kenneth Angell of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont (and formerly of the Diocese of Providence), wrote the following lines in a magazine article:

The Lord says that we have to love him first and foremost.  But we have to love our brothers and sisters as well, including the people who committed this terrible act.  Acts of terrorism are evil, but we have to love those who committed this evil—and that is hard to do.  I suppose I’ve preached that my entire priesthood.  And I’ve tried to live it, but when it comes to something like this, it’s difficult.Yet we know that this is what the Lord wants of us: We have to forgive those that perpetrated this terrible violence against our country.  We have to say, “Lord, they know not what they do, and so we forgive them.” 

Bishop Angell’s brother, David, and his sister-in-law, Lynn, were among those killed on American Airlines Flight 11 (one of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center)—which means he wrote these words about a situation that had affected his life on the personal level.  He was not just offering some pious advice for the rest of us to follow.

Peter said to Jesus in today’s Gospel text from Matthew 18, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?  As many as seven times?”   Peter obviously thought he was being generous!

Jesus answered him, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  (Which, in today’s terminology, means “as often as necessary!”) 

Forgiveness, unfortunately, is a much-misunderstood concept.  Some think that it means we must condone whatever evil was done to us; others think it means that we’re supposed to pretend that nothing bad ever happened in the first place; still others believe that if they forgive, they must automatically dispense with justice (thus, if we forgive a known terrorist who’s on the loose (like Osama bin Laden was for so many years), we should stop trying to find him and let him go free); and, finally, there are those who believe that forgiveness is always a “once-and-for-all” decision.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong!—although the people in the last group have it half-right: forgiveness is a decision!  It’s an act of the will, not an emotion!  And, in some cases, it must be a daily or even hourly decision: once is not enough!

But exactly why should we do it?  Why should we make this difficult choice to forgive one another?

Glad you asked.  Here are ten short reasons why.  (You may be able to think of others, but these are the ones that came to me in preparation for this homily)—

  1. We should forgive, because of how much we have been forgiven.  Many people have an unreal assessment of themselves: they think they’re God’s gift to the world, because they’re not like all those bad folks “out there.”  Consequently, they don’t have a true sense of how much God has forgiven them in their lives.  They take his mercy for granted.  Now that was precisely the problem with the unmerciful servant in today’s Gospel parable, was it not?  He had no sense of how much he had been forgiven; thus, he wasn’t ready to show any mercy to his fellow servant.

  2. We should forgive, because of how much the Lord WILL forgive us.  God is ready, willing, and able to forgive every sin—including the ones we haven’t even committed yet!

  3. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, we won’t be forgiven and we risk eternal damnation!  Aside from being sorry for our sins, this seems to be the one condition the Lord puts on our receiving his pardon.  In today’s first reading from Sirach, we were told that the Lord remembers the sins of the vengeful “in detail.”  And Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”

  4. We should forgive, because Jesus did.  (He even went so far as to forgive his murderers!)  As Christians, we say we want to imitate Jesus, do we not?  Well, here’s a great opportunity to do that on a daily basis!

  5. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, “the torturers” will come.  In this parable it says that the unforgiving servant was turned over to “the torturers.”  I heard one commentator say that the modern day “torturers” are things like anger and depression and resentment.  I think there’s a lot of truth in that!  Unforgiveness ultimately makes us miserable.

  6. We should forgive, because our loved ones will have to bear the consequences of our unforgiveness.  It should be obvious: if we are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness, and the like, we will take it out on the people we love the most—our family, and our close friends.  It almost always happens that way.

  7. We should forgive, because it contributes to our own sanctification, and can bring other people to conversion.  When Charlie Osburn, the Catholic lay evangelist, forgave the man who had molested his children, the molester had a conversion, and returned to the Church and the sacraments before he died.  And, in the process, Charlie himself grew closer to the Lord and stronger in his faith.

  8. We should forgive, because it frees us to move on with our life.  Unforgiveness keeps us trapped in the past; it keeps us focused on the evil that happened to us “way back when.”—which can keep us from doing God’s will in the present moment and moving forward in life.

  9. We should forgive, because there can be negative physical consequences—as well as spiritual and emotional consequences—to unforgiveness.  Sirach says, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”  I’ve known many people who have experienced physical healings after they’ve made the hard decision to forgive.  Their unforgiveness was making them sick—literally!
  10. And, finally, we should forgive others, because it’s very good practice for forgiving ourselves!  Some of us may have great difficulty forgiving ourselves for things we’ve done in the past—even after we’ve taken those matters to Confession!  Well, if we develop the habit of forgiving the sinners “out there” who hurt us every day, maybe it will become a little easier for us to forgive the sinner we see in the mirror every morning.

Those are my ten good reasons to forgive.  Of course, the real question is, “Are those ten reasons good enough for you?”  I pray that they are, and that they will motivate each of us to respond to God’s grace every day by forgiving others—even our worst enemies.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Going to God with the Solution versus Going to God with the Problem

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 6, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2020]

One day a man named John is deeply offended by his friend Bill.  John goes before the Lord and prays in this fashion: “Dear God, you know everything.  You know what Bill did to me.  You know how his words and actions have hurt me.  So change him; please change him.  Make him realize what he's done.  Make him come to me and apologize.  Thank you, God.  Amen.”

The very same day a woman named Mary is deeply offended by her friend Jane.  She also decides to pray, but her prayer is a little different than John's.  (See if you can determine the difference.)  She says, “Dear God, you know everything.  You know how deeply I’ve been hurt.  But I’m not sure what I should do about it.  Should I confront Jane?  Should I wait for her to apologize?  Should I pretend that the whole incident never happened?  Should I break off my friendship with her completely?  Lord, help me to see how you want me to deal with this very unpleasant situation.  Amen.”

Now it's interesting, on the following Sunday, both John and Mary go to church, and the gospel that's read on that occasion is the one all of you heard this morning: Matthew, chapter 18, verses 15 to 20.  The question is, who is more likely to take the message of this gospel to heart and actually put it into practice—John or Mary?  The answer is Mary.  And you can find the reason for that in the prayers they uttered beforehand.  Yes, both of them went to the Lord in the midst of their difficulties—that's true.  But they approached God in very different ways—which is the key point.  John went to God with the solution.  Mary went to God with the problem. Before John ever spoke a word of his prayer he already had everything figured out in his own mind.  He thought he knew exactly what had to happen for things to get straightened out with Bill.  So his prayer basically consisted of giving God orders.  In effect he said, “Ok Lord, here's the scoop—this is the solution to the problem.  Bill is a dirty, rotten scoundrel and he's got to change.  Which is your job, God; you change him.  Make him realize what he's done to poor, innocent me!  Make him come to me and apologize—and we'll all live happily ever after.  Thank you God.  Amen.”

So here comes the Lord, the very next Sunday, speaking to John directly and clearly in this gospel text, giving him concrete guidelines on how to deal with Bill.  Jesus says there, “If your brother should commit some wrong against you, do this—and if that doesn't work, do this—and if that doesn't work, do this—and if that doesn't work, do this.”  I think it's safe to say that those words would probably go in one of John's ears and right out the other.  He wouldn't pay any attention to the Lord's solution to his problem, because he's already got his own.

Notice how different Mary was—as illustrated in her prayer.  She had the very same problem as John, but she went to the Lord asking him for the answer, asking him for guidance, asking him for HIS solution.  The basic thrust of her prayer was, “Dear God, this is the problem I’m facing, and I’m not sure how to deal with it.  Help me to see what I need to do to handle it properly.  Help me to see what I need to do to be reconciled with my friend.” 

So I think it should be obvious, when she goes to church the following Sunday and hears this gospel passage proclaimed, in all likelihood she’ll respond by saying, “Thank you, Lord, this is just what I needed to hear.  These are the guidelines I need to follow to get my relationship with Jane back in order.”  And then, if she's really smart, Mary will go to someone (perhaps her parish priest) for a little spiritual direction, in order to figure out how to apply these principles of Jesus to her particular situation. 

I share this with you today because I think it’s very common for people to go to God like John did: with the solution and not the problem.  I've certainly been guilty of this; I'm sure we all have.  We say, “Lord, this is what I want—this is what I need—this is what I think you should do.”  And we never go any further than that.  So we never receive (and put into practice) the solution God may try to give us through a text of Scripture at Mass, or through the words of another person, or through some other means. We don't hear it, because our minds and hearts are closed.  We think we’ve already got it all figured out.

The challenge is to go to the Lord with the attitude of Mary: putting the problem confidently in his hands, and allowing him to give us his solution.  Because the fact of the matter is, my brothers and sisters, God’s solution is at least as good as ours is—always!  And, most of the time, it is much, much better.