The Gospel reading for Simon and Jude comes up on a fairly regular basis. Basically, if it is an apostle’s feast, and the apostle has no other reference in the New Testament, this is the Gospel used. It is the Gospel for the anonymous apostle. We honor them because Jesus called them and they responded, even though they may not have any particular deed to their names while on earth. So even though we have no other particular reading for them, we remember Jesus’ call and their response—which is no small thing.
Often, we see in society a concern with making a name for oneself or making history. We might be tempted to ask what we will do that will still matter in the generations to come, and lament if we cannot come up with any answer. Simon and Jude, as well as the other “anonymous apostles,” and all the other saints both canonized and not, remind us that anonymity is not a bad thing, and that there is more to life than history. Over the course of their apostolic ministry, Simon and Jude must have brought many people to Jesus, even though it never made the books. Their lives were not contentious, their deaths were not dramatic (though tradition holds that they were martyred), but for those who became Christian because of them, their existence was a God-send.
Jesus is now asking something else of the Pharisees (and us) in today’s Gospel: not just vigilance about when the Master will return, or vigilance about what we do with what the Master has given, but vigilance about the times in which we live. We are to watch the world around us, but not just as disinterested observers. We watch as people who are impacted by the world around us. The whole reason Jesus’ audience would learn to gauge the weather by the sky or predict rain based on the wind was because their lives depended on it. Farmers, sailors, and countless others needed to know if the next day’s weather would be good or bad because that was their whole world.
Our own lives likewise depend on the times in which we live—be the times good or bad. The world we live in will impact us, and impact our relationship with Jesus. We do not need to try and accept it all as good or condemn it all as bad, any more than the farmer condemns all rain as good or all sunlight as bad. The farmer knows his fields and knows his crops. He knows when to put up a tarp, and knows when to let the rain fall. That is our task as we go through the world—we must know our souls, know the times we live in, and know what the one is doing to the other. Does this trend help or hinder my growth in faith, hope, and charity? Today, Jesus tells us not to accept everything we see or condemn everything we see, but to assess everything we see.
Jesus today makes what may be among His most enigmatic statements in the whole of the Gospels—which is no small task. The One we know as the Prince of Peace has declared He is not here to bring us peace (cf. Lk. 12:51). There are many implications for what Jesus is saying, one of which is that He is not interested in facile agreement. What we may think of as peace—superficial co-existence—is not on Jesus’ agenda. He will not simply paper over differences. Rather than “live and let live” or “agree to disagree,” if there are disagreements, they will come out, and they will matter.
What is true of the world is often true within our own hearts. If Jesus will come and point out the division in the world, He will come and point out the division in our own hearts as well. As we progress in the spiritual life, we may become more aware of the division that exists in our hearts as we realize that Christianity is not just something that makes us feel good, but makes actual demands of us—demands which can grate against our old habits and preferences. Jesus will certainly triumph in the world, but He will not triumph in our hearts unless we let Him. And so we pray the prayer of the man in Mark’s gospel (9:24): “Lord, I believe—help thou my unbelief!”
Jesus again assures us of the need for vigilance in today’s Gospel. And once again, He presents us with a parable to underscore the importance of being ready for the Master’s return. Today, however, He goes a little deeper. Jesus emphasizes not just the importance of being awake when the Master returns, but of taking care of what the Master has given us as stewards. A good steward who has been given good things and wonderful people will treat all well—which means treating them as the Master would want, rather than personal preference. The bad steward does as he pleases with things and people.
The parable today raises the question: by what standard do we treat the things and people in our lives? Do we use them as we ourselves would prefer, or do we consider the Master who gave us all this to begin with? Even the most well-intentioned standard, if it is not what the Master would like, is still doing as we please—it is making ourselves into masters, instead of stewards. A common phrase on social media when acknowledging the good in one’s life is to include the tag “blessed.” This phrase gets at an important truth—the good we have in life has been given to us by God. Now we must ask ourselves why God has given us these good things—to what end should we put them, and by whose standard should we use them?
Jesus tells us that we need to be vigilant as we await the Last Judgment. But why do we need to be vigilant? We are supposed to wait for God as a servant awaits his master. The verse before the Gospel today, from elsewhere in Luke, even tells us “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36). This might make even less sense to us—why would we need to be vigilant or worried about how we are when we stand before Jesus? Is He not merciful? Is He not our friend and brother?
Jesus is all this and more. And that is why we must be vigilant. If I have promised to meet my dear friend somewhere for dinner, I am going to do my best to be on time. I am sure that my friend will forgive me if I am a little late, but I still do not want to disappoint my friend. I want to do right by my friend so that I can look him in the eye when I see him and stand before him. Because I do not take our friendship for granted, I want to act like the true friend that I claim to be. Because I value our friendship, I am vigilant. And if I am vigilant as I prepare to meet and stand before my friend here on earth, I am going to be all the more vigilant as I prepare to meet and stand before Jesus, my friend in Heaven.
Jesus’ statement on detachment from worldly goods can ring very true to us today. Especially in these last two months, we have had a number of reminders of how temporary the treasures we store up for ourselves here on earth can be. In Houston and the surrounding areas, Hurricane Harvey left substantial flooding and many people without the treasures they stored up over the course of a lifetime. Likewise with the wildfires around Los Angeles in September and north of San Francisco last week. As the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. The things we have in this life will not be of much use in the next one.
Yet there are more ways to be tempted than just through material things. St. Ignatius notes that after things, the Devil will tempt us through worldly honors, and then pride. If we think to ourselves “I can have everything or nothing, as long as others think well of me,” that is still a treasure we hold onto here that we can’t take with us. If we think to ourselves “all that matters is that I myself think I am doing what is right, and that I believe in myself,” even that will not do us much good in the life to come. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “the men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” There are many things that we need to detach ourselves from here on earth, and many things that we can’t take with us. Our main concern should be what God is asking of us, and what God thinks about us and our actions.
At the start of the Gospel, there is a great chasm between the duplicity of the Pharisees and the honesty of Jesus. The Pharisees plot and conspire to trap Jesus up, but they begin their public questioning of Him by saying “we know you are a truthful man.” What’s more, Jesus knows that they are being dishonest as they speak to Him, and calls them out on their hypocrisy. But then He still answers their question, even in their sinfulness and dishonesty. Jesus calls them out for their sin, but still answers their question and shows them something of God.
Like the Pharisees, we have plenty of sins that Jesus can call us out on. Just last week, we were shown once again the extent of sexual harassment in our society. Before that, we were shown once again how violent we can be. Before that, we were reminded once again of the hateful rhetoric that we can throw at each other in public discourse. And the list of sins goes on. Generally speaking, any time we see a Gospel passage where Jesus squares off against the Pharisees, it will be more helpful if we think of ourselves as being on the side of the Pharisees, even if (or perhaps especially if) we think that Jesus is right. But this still gives us hope.
We have hope because Jesus never gave up on the Pharisees. St. Paul was a Pharisee, and became one of the greatest apostles. Jesus sees the Pharisees today, and does not give up on them. He will tell them when their questions are dishonest and in bad faith, but He will never begrudge them an answer. Likewise, Jesus will always speak with us. Jesus does not come to us because we are so magnificently good, but because we are so desperately needing help. And Jesus will never give up on us. Jesus will come to us and speak with us, even as He points out our sins. And so even when we are behaving just like the Pharisees, we still have hope.
Saturday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
The Church is not just something that has sacraments. The Church herself is a sacrament. She is formed by the sacraments given to her by Christ, and made into one great sacrament for all the world to see. A key attribute of a sacrament, though, is that it refers to a reality beyond itself. The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus denounces in today’s gospel, however, do not point to anything greater. They do not strive for goodness that people might recognize God’s goodness, or show people love in order for them to experience God’s love. What they do, they do for themselves.
If we are to avoid the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus condemns in today’s gospel (cf. Mt. 23:5), we need to point people to God. And as Pope Benedict noted in his 2009 Christmas homily, “God’s sign is His humility. God’s sign is that He makes Himself small; He becomes a child; He lets us touch Him and He asks for our love.” God is worthy of every title, but He sets them aside to come be with us. If we wish to truly show God to other people, this is likewise our mission–to set aside every title, every claim to greatness and strength, and then go to be with others. In being small, we can be a great sacrament of God.
Memorial of St. Louis
For St. Louis, love of God and neighbor was not just a matter of passively receiving them with no objections, but actively working to welcome them into your life. In a letter to his son on how to be king, Louis exhorted his son not to just sit absent-mindedly in church, but to actively listen to God’s voice. In matters of justice, St. Louis told his son to “always side with the poor rather than the rich, until you are certain of the truth.” St. Louis walked the corridors of power long enough to know how people try to flatter and deceive. He could not just passively accept what people told him, but had to actively listen to find the truth, and actively discern to hear God.
The work of St. Louis in medieval France is our work today. People still deceive. There is still injustice. There are still empty words, empty gestures, distracting thoughts–all sorts of things that can keep us from loving God and serving justice. We need to make our thoughts count, our words count, our actions count. And we also need to make our listening count–how we listen to God and how we listen to others, especially the poorest. The more our reception of God and neighbor is not just passive acceptance, but active welcome, the more we can truly be said to love God and neighbor with all our strength.
Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle
Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel) might never have become a saint were it not for Philip. In the gospel for his feast today, upon first hearing of Jesus, he asks “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46) He was effectively insulting Jesus, calling Him a small-town rube. Just another person from the sticks who claims that He’s found religion. But Philip tells Bartholomew to go to Jesus and see for himself. Bartholomew not only likes what he sees, but falls in love with what he sees. He not only falls in love with what he sees, but he eventually dies for what he sees.
All of us have dismissed Jesus or tried to put Him in a box at some point or another. As a general rule, if following Jesus is a way of changing everyone around us but not ourselves, of transforming the whole world but not our own hearts, we have boxed Jesus in. Bartholomew dismissed Jesus at first, but was able to change thanks to Philip’s encouragement. Our friends are often the best ones to help us overcome the limitations of our thinking. We need to grow in how we think about Jesus, just as much as Bartholomew did. We need others to encourage us to grow in our Christian faith. And for that we need our friends.