The Work the Lord Wants of Us, 21st Wednesday (II), August 27, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Monica
August 27, 2014
2 Thess 3:6-10.16-18, Ps 128, Mt 23:27-32

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s first reading, St. Paul helps us to ponder the importance of work. The Thessalonians thought end of the world was coming so that they had stopped working. Paul called them to imitate him in his hard work, who, after spending all day preaching the Gospel and helping those who were coming to him, would spend his nights doing the arduous work of tent making so that he would show everyone else by his diligence the importance of the virtue of hard work in their lives.
  • We remember that work was part of God’s plans from the beginning. At the beginning of time, even before the Fall, God had given us a three-fold vocation to work: to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over all creatures and to increase and multiply. After the Fall, this work would be toilsome, we’d do it with sweat on our brows and women would have pains in childbirth, but work itself would remain an essential element of the redemption. The reason for that is because by our work we cooperate with God in making ourselves. There are always two dimension to work, something that’s distinguished in most romance languages by two different expressions “to do” or “to make”: to take the Latin terms, the first is facere (fare in Italian, faire in French, hacer in Spanish, fazer in Portuguese), which means transitively to make something like a desk or a chair; the second is agere (agire in Italian, agir in French and Portuguese, actuar in Spanish), which means intransitively to make oneself in the process of making something. When we work well, seeking to do things as well as we can, to finish on time, we build ourselves up in virtue. When we work poorly, not concerned with the final product or who will use it, when we’re lazy, we injure our character. One of the early doctors of the Church said that we are our parents through our actions and the habits they form, and one of the most powerful means of that type of generation happens through our work. That’s why St. Paul insists upon it as he does.
  • St. Paul stresses something very important that we need to under well in its various applications: “If anyone is unwilling to work, he shouldn’t eat.” Notice, first, what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t state that if someone can’t work because of a serious disability or because she is an infant or is 114 years old, that person shouldn’t eat. Nor does he say that if someone has been laid off and despite searching every day for a job still hasn’t found one, that that person shouldn’t eat. He says, “If anyone is unwilling to work.”  That’s the issue. We should all be willing to work and when we have the capacity to work, we should be striving to do so. This is true even for someone who is rich and strictly speaking doesn’t have to work in order to have food on the table.  This is true also for those who are retired. It’s not a time for decades of vacation wasting time watching soap operas or obsessing about golf. Those who are retired can be grateful they no longer have to work with the intensity and pressure they once did, but they should be using their time to do another type of work, to do good, to help others, to volunteer, to care for those in need, to build up their parish or their community, to tutor and to pass on wisdom.
  • St. Paul’s words on not enabling and feeding someone “unwilling to work” are very important for us to hear in our culture, because in many places our culture is changing. Whereas once people looked to America as the place of the American dream, where by hard work someone who is poor can become rich and enrich the lives of others, today it is becoming increasingly in many places a culture of the handout, where people who can work try not to, in order to live off of the work of others, where some try to enter our country not to work but in order to get welfare, free health care, free education and everything else free, where some hope to get a minor injury on the job so that they can apply for disability and start collecting, where others who are hurt without trying to get hurt nevertheless take advantage of a leg injury to collect for the whole rest of their life while they would still be capable of lots of other types of work, where an 18-year-old kid told me last year that he was hoping to get laid off so that he could collect unemployment. I saw something last week on one of the news sites that said — it’s hard for me to believe — that more people of working age are not working in the United States now than are working. And it’s changing the fiber of our country. This isn’t a rich/poor issue, it’s not a Democrat/Republican issue, it’s a moral/immoral issue. Our country was built on hard work of generations and if the present generations just want to live off of the hard work of their forbears, rather than imitate it and build upon it, then our country will weaken from within from the vice of indolence. God calls us to work and to sanctify that work, sanctifying ourselves and others through that work. These are important thoughts to ponder as we approach Labor Day on Monday.
  • That brings us to the second point. One of the most important forms of work that we are called to by to engage in our sanctification in response to God’s grace. The Psalm tells us today, “Blessed are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways! For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork.” The Lord wants us all to eat the fruit of the hard work of reverentially walking in his ways, of following his paths, of crossing the road as he does with self-sacrificial love. Growth in a life of faith is hard work. It’s hard to be faithful to prayer. It’s hard work to get involved in charitable activity. It’s a challenge to continue studying the faith. Sometimes getting through a homily may feel like a workout. It’s harder to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to pray for those who persecute us, to conquer our fears and defend the faith when it’s attacked or to share it in season and out of season. But when we do the sometimes strenuous work of walking in the Lord’s ways, God promises us that we will eat the fruit of that handiwork, and not just experience the joy that comes from hard work here on earth, but enjoy it forever at the eternal banquet.
  • This is a path that the Scribes and the Pharisees whom Jesus denounces in his sixth and seventh (the first three were on Monday, the middle two yesterday) woes in today’s Gospel did not take. He called them hypocrites (actors) for pretending to walk in God’s ways but actually walking in their own ways and leading others into the pit with them. He uses two images today. He compares them to the whitewashed tombs that would be on the sides of the roads every Spring. Since if one touched a tomb the person would be ritually impure for the triennial pilgrimages up to Jerusalem, the Jews would whitewash all the tombs along the road side so that someone couldn’t possibly bump into them by accident. In the sunshine they could be quite beautiful, but inside, Jesus says, they still had filth, decay and dead bones. That’s what the Scribes and Pharisees were like, he said. They seemed to be stunningly pious on the outside, but inside they were filled with death, duplicity and evil-doing. He illustrated the point by the last of the seven woes, pointing out that on the outside they claim to want to venerate the prophets God had sent, lamenting that their ancestors had rejected and killed the Prophets, but on the inside they were preparing to do the same to Jesus, “to fill up what [their] ancestors measured out.” To return to the work analogy, the Scribes and the Pharisees on the outside seemed to work very hard in observing all of the minutiae of the law, but what they were doing was similar to the work of an employee who’s always at his desk, always typing on the keyboard, always seeming to work hard, but instead of accomplishing the company’s business, is wasting the company’s time by typing our personal emails rather than doing what he’s getting paid to do.
  • The saints are the ones who, in contrast to the Scribes and Pharisees and in imitation of St. Paul, really do God’s work. Today we have one of the most endearing saints in history. I was privileged on Friday night to stop by her tomb in Rome to pray through her intercession in anticipation of today’s feast. Her work was to be a good wife and a good mother, and she worked very hard and many years at this task, long after many would have given up. As a Christian wife, her chief role was to sanctify her husband Patricius, who was a violent and dissolute pagan named Patricius. Though he was rich, he could not take Monica’s generosity to the poor. Though she was as faithful and loving to him as she sought to be toward God, he constantly chastised her piety. If all of that was not hard enough to bear, her cantankerous mother-in-law lived with them and daily multiplied the insults. All of this could have driven Monica to divorce and despair, but instead it propelled her to even greater devotion to God and them. For 17 years, she joined her sufferings to prayers for their conversion. Eventually, the power of God’s grace and the example of her Christian virtues penetrated their hardened hearts and they both received baptism. For her husband it was just in time — he died a holy death less than a year later. But that work as a wife was just a warm-up for her work as a mother. The oldest of her three children, Augustine, was then a brilliant teenage rhetoric student living away from home in Carthage. She hoped that he would follow the example of his father’s conversion, but, instead, especially after his fathers death, he went full-steam in the opposite direction. He joined the Manichean heretics. He invited a woman to cohabitate with him and fathered a child out-of-wedlock. When he would come home, he would intentionally blaspheme so much that Monica prevented him from eating or sleeping at home until the budding rhetorician learned to discipline his tongue. Monica prayed unceasingly for her son’s conversion. She fasted. She got friends to intercede. She arranged for priests to argue with him. She flooded her bed and various churches with her tears. When Augustine decided he was going to Rome, Monica, fearing lest he never convert, decided to go with him. While waiting in port before their departure across the Mediterranean, however, Augustine lied to his mother about the departure time and left without her, caring so little about her as to leave his own mother helpless in a busy metropolis, without any word as to his whereabouts. But she didn’t “quit her job,” she didn’t give up. A bishop, seeing her weeping, assured her on behalf of God, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” So she boarded a ship to Rome to look for Augustine there. She eventually received word that he was among the rhetoricians in Milan, and that’s where she and the Good Shepherd at last found their lost sheep. Thanks to the help of the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, who captivated Augustine first by his oratory and then by his faith and charity, Augustine renounced Manicheanism, accepted the Christian faith, made a promise of celibacy and received the gift of baptism at the age of 32. Mother and son decided to return home to Africa, but Monica would not make it. She took ill in the Roman port of Ostia and was soon on her deathbed. Augustine was now the one full of tears, but Monica replied, “Son, my hopes in this world are now fulfilled. All I wished to live for was that I might see you a Catholic and a child of heaven. God has granted me more than this in making you despise earthly felicity and consecrate yourself to his service.” What a beautiful testimony of a mother’s chief work, and she rejoiced not just at his baptism but that he had decided to become a celibate to serve God.
  • As her other son was weeping that she would die outside of her native Africa making it impossible for them to bury her in her native land, she said, “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” What a powerful preparation that thought is for Mass. Little did she know at the time that her son Augustine would become a priest and a bishop and be able to celebrate Mass for her at that altar. Little did she know that ordained son would keep the fourth commandment by honoring his mother’s faith and tears by eventually becoming one of the most famous Christian theologians of all time. But perhaps most of all, little did she grasp that today, 1627 years later, we would all be remembering her at the altar of the Lord in a continent that no one during her age would have even guessed existence. And all of this happened because she was faithful to her work as a spouse and a mother, even when it was excruciating. All of this happened because she feared the Lord and walked in his ways. All of this happened because she was full on the inside not with dead men’s bones but the living Jesus Christ whose blood she sought not to shed but to swallow in Holy Communion. It was here at Mass where she would bring her ceaseless prayers and where God responded in a way far greater to her good work than she could have ever imagined. Today as we come forward to pray at this Mass, which involves God’s grace and the “work of human hands,” as we pray that this sacrifice, Jesus’ and ours will be acceptable to the Father, we pray in a special way through St. Monica’s intercession not only for the work we have to do today but for all our own wayward family members, that through our persevering prayers, patience and tears for them, God may make us holy like he made Monica a saint through the prays she made without ceasing for her husband, mother-in-law and son.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
2 THES 3:6-10, 16-18

We instruct you, brothers and sisters,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to shun any brother
who walks in a disorderly way
and not according to the tradition they received from us.
For you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked,
so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that
if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.May the Lord of peace himself
give you peace at all times and in every way.
The Lord be with all of you.This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s.
This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 128:1-2, 4-5

R. (1) Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.

Gospel
MT 23:27-32

Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You build the tombs of the prophets
and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’
Thus you bear witness against yourselves
that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
now fill up what your ancestors measured out!”