Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Nineteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
August 11, 2013
Wis 18:6-9, Heb 11:1-2.8-19, Lk 12:32-48
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here:
Growing in faith during the Year of Faith
During the grace of this Year of Faith, the Lord wants to help each of us grow in faith, which is the most important way any human being can grow. The Year of Faith began ten months ago today, and hence today is an excellent opportunity for us to examine whether since last October 11 we have responded to that divine assistance to grow in faith. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the greatest American Catholic preacher of all time, used to say that there are no plateaus in the life of faith. Either we’re going uphill or we’re sliding downhill. Either our faith is increasing or it’s decreasing. It never stays the same. Faith, as Pope Benedict reminded us as we began this holy year, is a life-long journey, a pilgrimage following the Lord each day. If we’re not moving on that journey, if we’re instead staying where we were yesterday, our faith isn’t growing. In a pilgrimage, we know, there’s always exertion involved. God comes each day to guide us, to teach us, to nourish us, to accompany us, but we need to get up from where we are and follow him to where he wants to lead us. We have to give him a blank check to change us any way he knows we need.
Out of all the Sundays throughout the Year of Faith, today’s readings are the most powerful we’ll find on how to live by faith. In the Gospel, Jesus describes the characteristics of a faithful and wise disciple, the type of disciple he wants each of us to be. In the second reading, the Letter to the Hebrews defines faith for us and then describes it in a powerful, unforgettable, way in the life of the one we call our “father in faith.” Let’s listen attentively to what God teaches us today about the journey on which he seeks to guide us to become more and more like Abraham, more and more like the wise and faithful steward he praises.
The Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward
In the Gospel, Jesus depicts the life of faith as living each day as we would live if he were visibly right at our side. He says that the faithful person is one whose heart desires the “inexhaustible treasure” of heaven and begins even now to seek to amass that treasure with “money bags… that do not wear out,” using our lives and our belongings for others. He says that the faithful person is always ready for a journey, with loins girt and and the lamp of his heart burning with love awaiting the Lord, ready to open “immediately” when he comes and knocks. We can think of waiting for someone we really love to arrive and how prompt we are to head to the door in those circumstances. The faithful person, likewise, seeks to be always vigilant for God’s coming, so that he may respond promptly when and however he knocks on the door of our heart, maintaining this loving, longing alertness even in the “second or third watch” of the night. The faithful disciple guards his heart, lest any intruders or thieves find ways to break in. She will be always found “at work,” being a trustworthy steward of the Lord’s gifts. In short, the faithful disciple acts in the Lord’s supposed absence just as if the Lord were physically and visibly present. Jesus promises that all such servants will be “blessed.”
This is an incredible lesson for us about how to live by faith. One of the greatest principles of the desert fathers, the early Christian monks who went out into the desert to pray, was “anamnesis,” literally “unforgetting.” They realized that one of the principal ways the devil seeks to attack our faith is by getting us to forget God’s presence, because the enemy of our human nature recognizes that if we knew God were present, helping us, loving us, with us, few of us would ever choose against him. And so he first seeks to get us to forget about God so that he can then tempt us in God’s apparent absence.
Jesus in the Gospel today describes what happens when we forget God. He tells of a servant who says, “My master is delayed in coming,” and then thinks he can do anything he wants in the meantime. He begins to beat the servants, to pig out, and to get smashed — to hurt others and live for his pleasures alone, abusing the talents and opportunities the Lord has given him. These are all behaviors he would never engage in if the master were there. Such a servant thinks he will always have time to change his behavior “later,” to tidy things up, to get his act together before he has to render an accounting. Such a steward is, plainly, unfaithful, just as unfaithful as a husband or wife would be if they cheated on a spouse in that spouse’s absence. Eventually that unfaithful servant will be caught off-guard, not because the Master wants to ambush him or catch him “red-handed,” but because the more one gets used to thinking the return won’t occur today, the more one is not prepared to answer immediately the knock of the Master, the less ready one will be on that day the master does come.
Unforgetting Jesus’ presence in day-to-day life
In this Year of Faith, it’s key for us to make some practical applications of what Jesus describes to us about our day. Are we alert for his presence, with lamps burning, and loins girt to let him lead us on a journey to deeper faith each day? Or do we forget about him most of the day, most of the week, and most of our life?
One test of this, I think, is to see how we would spend our day if we could actually see Jesus with all of our senses, if we could “unforget” him, and continually to be sensitive to his presence. I’m convinced that few of us would never choose to sin, because we would recognize that such a choice would be to say “give me Barabbas” instead of “give me Christ,” and most of us — I hope out of love, but if not out of a holy fear — would never choose against the Lord. We would never get drunk in his presence, we would never curse in his presence, we would never hurt others in his presence.
But far beyond not choosing against him if we could see him, I think there’s an even more important application of this principle of faithful unforgetting. It has to do with our other ordinary day-to-day choices and whether we’re faithful stewards of the time God has given us. So many of us waste so much time on frivolities — game shows, reruns, soap-operas, talk shows, surfing the web and other distractions — when we could be using that time to grow in faith and to serve God and others with love. I can’t believe any of us would say to Jesus if we were conscious of his presence knocking on the door of our heart, “Jesus, thanks for coming by. Let’s spend the next half-hour watching Wheel of Fortune.” If we knew he was with us, few of us would say, “Jesus, let’s spend the whole night watching the Red Sox play the Kansas City Royals.” Neither of these choices would be sinful, but neither would be a good investment of the gift of our time, the gift of Jesus’ presence. Jesus says where our treasure is, there will our heart be, and one of the ways we determine where our treasure is to see how we spend our time. If we were more aware of his presence, we would seek to prioritize what he prioritizes, to talk about what he wants to discuss, to do with him what he seeks to do through us. Trusting in his help, we would stop wasting so much of the gift of time he has given us, and begin really to grow in faith by leaps and bounds. We would begin to discuss with him what he was revealed to us in Sacred Scripture, to converse with him in prayer, to love others together with him, to come with him to worship the Father, to seek to introduce him to our friends and family and try to facilitate their coming to have their entire life changed by him.
This Year of Faith is intended to bring about this type of relationship, so that all of us become full-time disciples, with hearts treasuring what God treasures, burning with love for him, and aware of his presence.
The definition and description of faith in Hebrews
Our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews describes for us in greater detail what faith is and what distinguishes a life of faith. It says, “Faith is the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” The faithful person is one who is certain that the promises made by the Lord will be fulfilled (cf: Lk 1:45) because faith already gives us a down payment in the present of our future treasure. It’s an embryonic participation in the full life of the blessed we hope to enjoy forever. Faith gives us, as Pope Francis wrote in the encyclical Lumen Fidei last month, a new vision. Even though we can’t see them, the Letter to the Hebrews says, we’re totally convinced about the invisible realities of faith. The faithful person, therefore, is fully assured of God’s holy presence even if he can’t see, hear or feel him. He’s totally confident that the Lord has already given him a foretaste of his true treasure and therefore unhesitatingly places his value in the truths of faith more than in any other security.
The Letter to the Hebrews then goes on to describe what it defines about faith in the life of various Old Testament heroes. Today it describes for us how Abraham, our father in faith, lived with the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, how he “unforgot” God and based his entire life on the Lord’s promises.
Abraham was so sure in the Lord’s promises, so convinced in the reality of who God is and therefore in the content of what God promised him, that, at 75 years old, he packed up his entire livelihood and moved to a far away land that God had vowed to show him eventually. God didn’t reveal to him the destination, whether it would be a Newport Mansion or an abandoned house in Detroit, and he certainly didn’t reveal to him that he would have to fight for the land as a senior citizen. Abraham, nevertheless, packed up all his belongings and went on the journey of faith trusting that God would lead him.
As I like to say, God never tells us, “Stay exactly as you are. Don’t move. Don’t change.” Rather he’s always challenging us to come follow him, to go more deeply, to grow, even in ways that are uncomfortable.
Thinking of God’s asking a senior citizen to pack up and move brings to mind how many seniors eventually need to move out of their homes to a smaller home or even to a nursing home when their loved ones can no longer give them 24/7 care. I’ve seen many respond with faith to these circumstances, but many others respond very poorly, refusing to go from the place of so many happy memories to a new place, even though the Lord will be with them.
Likewise, we’re seeing that God is asking many Catholics, young and old, to make a similar journey during the time of many parish mergers. Catholics are being asked in faith to leave the place of so many beautiful spiritual memories to go to a new parish and continue the worship there. Some make this transition with faith, knowing that God is accompanying them, others resist, wanting everything to stay the same.
The point of the call of Abraham to leave Ur is that God never ceases to continue calling us on the journey of faith, even when we’re old, and we should be always remain ready, with our loins girt, read for the pilgrimage — including for the stage of that journey that requires the most faith of all, the transitus to eternall life. .
But leaving Ur was just the beginning with Abraham’s journey of faith. God promised the childless, aged Abraham that he would make him through Sarah the father of many nations, something that because of their ages was basically a biological impossibility. He brought Abraham outside and had him look into the heavens and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” What the participants in our Parish Summer Bible Camp learned on Friday, however, was that he had Abraham do this during daylight, not during nighttime, as most of us would think. Abraham couldn’t see the stars during daylight, but he, like we do, know that they’re there. He had to look with faith to his future generations.
And the Lord tested him even further with regard to this promise. A 75 year old is not like an 18 year old who thinks he may never die. A senior is well aware of his mortality. Every illness can be interpreted as a harbinger of the end. And yet God made Abraham wait 25 years for the fulfillment of that promise. It would have been very easy for Abraham to lose hope, to think that he was deceived. He was tempted once to name someone else his heir and Sarah lost hope and had him sleep with her maid so that he could become a father. But for the most part Abraham continued to have the assurance of what is hoped for, the conviction of things he couldn’t see. And Isaac was born when he was 100 and Sarah 91.
But as tough as that 25 year test was, it wasn’t even the toughest one God had in mind for Abraham. 13 years later, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the son of the promise, the son through whom he would become the father of many nations, on Mt. Moriah. For most people that would have been the last straw. God was asking him to do something that at first sight seemed a contradiction of everything he had revealed up until that point; in fact, something everyone with a well-formed conscience would recognize as wrong. But Abraham loaded up his beloved son with the wood for the sacrifice and headed out to Mt. Moriah. And Abraham with faith was just about ready to carry out that oblation until the angel of God stopped him. Abraham did all of this, believing, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us today, that if God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, it must be so that God could raise Isaac from the dead (v. 19). He believed in God’s goodness and power so much that even if he were to kill his son, he knew that God would give him back.
These episodes show us what truth faith is. It is a trust in God above all other things and, a result of that confidence, in what he is asking Because we believe in God, we have an absolute assurance of what is hoped for, a deep and abiding conviction of things not seen.
How God constantly challenges us to grow in faith, like he did Abraham
In this Year of Faith, we’re called to grow in that trust in God that we see in Abraham. God is constantly challenging us, like he challenged him, to leave our comfort zones, to trust in his word even if it seems to violate what we already know, to be willing to sacrifice even our greatest loves for the sake of Him knowing that in his goodness God loves our loved ones even more than we do and will always, in one way or the other, bring life and enormous good out of those sacrifices.
He’s given all of us big challenges to help us to grow in faith over the last year or so. For me, he asked me to leave St. Anthony’s in New Bedford where I had worked for 7 years. I used to pinch myself each day when I would celebrate Mass in what I believe is the most beautiful Church building in New England. I had made a lot of friends there and loved the people and many of them loved me. After a rough couple of years worrying about where the money would come from, the parish had gone from $150,000 in debt to about a half-million in the bank, such that I no longer had to worry about money. The people loved the Mass and sang with gusto. They came to confession. They turned out in huge numbers for adult education opportunities. We built up a food pantry such that was feeding 400 families a week and teeming with talented, dedicated volunteers. And then God asked me to leave that Ur of the Chaldees 13 miles away, to come here and to start over. It wasn’t easy to leave. It wasn’t easy at all here in the early beginning, especially when, frankly, I went from a place where people treated me with reverence to a place in which I was a heavily criticized sign of contradiction, where sometimes rather than rejoicing at the end of Mass I would have to brace myself for some people treating me as if I were morally evil I sang Mass parts or preached longer than they wanted to listen, and where my friends in Fall River were telling me the nasty judgments my new parishioners were saying about me to them, unaware they knew me. But as challenging as the transition was, looking back, I can see so many ways in which this transition has been a great gift to me to help me grow in faith through serving you and getting to you and your faith, and my gratitude to God grows by the day.
Likewise, I know that the transitions that the Lord has asked of you over the last year have been even more challenging. The first was a change in pastors when Fr. Chretien retired, from a priest who had known you well in good likes like baptisms and weddings and other celebrations as well as accompanied you in the difficulties of illness and funerals, to a priest who didn’t know you and with whom you’d have to start again to build a relationship. The second was a transition from a parish you loved and with which you were familiar to a new reality, whether it was the reality of a new parish identity like those at Notre Dame experienced or whether it was a new identity coupled to moving from a beautiful parish you loved at Immaculate Conception. And then there have been changes and challenges in getting to know new spiritual brothers and sisters, and many new ways of doing things. But I hope that looking back over the course of the last year, you’ll see how through all of those challenges allowed for by a loving God have been opportunities for you to grow in faith, to grow in your trust in God who still serves and loves us, even if the name of the parish has changed, the Church building has changed, the priest serving you has changed, and a handful of other things have changed. Each of these transitions have been opportunities so that we might trust in God like Abraham and through that growth in faith become fathers of faith, and mothers of faith, heroes of faith, for those after us. I urge you to continue to take advantage of these tests of faith so that during this Year of Faith, all our faith may grow.
The great reward for the gift of faith
Jesus wants to help us grow in faith this year, so that we, aware of his presence at every moment, may become good and faithful disciples and help him lead others to faith. He wishes to say to each of us what he said of the Canaanite woman in the Gospel, “Great is your faith!,” and this year he wants to give us all the assistance he knows we need to become men and women, boys and girls, of great faith, for whom our faith is the defining reality of our life. For those who live in faith in this way, whom Jesus finds “watchful and ready,” Jesus promises that when he will “have them sit down to eat and … come to serve them.” And today we get a downpayment on that reality for which we hope. As we have come here today out of faith, the Lord has come to meet us and won’t let our faith go unrewarded. He is about to “gird himself with an apron” as he did during the Last Supper, and feed us with the food of everlasting life.
The readings for the Mass today were:
that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith,
they might have courage.
Your people awaited the salvation of the just
and the destruction of their foes.
For when you punished our adversaries,
in this you glorified us whom you had summoned.
For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.
PS 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Blessed the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
HEB 11:1-2, 8-19
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and evidence of things not seen.
Because of it the ancients were well attested.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God.
By faith he received power to generate,
even though he was past the normal age
—and Sarah herself was sterile—
for he thought that the one who had made the promise was
So it was that there came forth from one man,
himself as good as dead,
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.
All these died in faith.
They did not receive what had been promised
but saw it and greeted it from afar
and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth,
for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.
If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come,
they would have had opportunity to return.
But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.
Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared a city for them.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son,
of whom it was said,
“Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.”
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”
And the Lord replied,
“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward
whom the master will put in charge of his servants
to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.
Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant
in charge of all his property.
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful.
That servant who knew his master’s will
but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will
shall be beaten severely;
and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will
but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating
shall be beaten only lightly.
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”