The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Genesis 18:20-32  +  Colossians 2:12-14  +  Luke 11:1-13
July 24, 2016

“What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?”

When my younger brother and I were little, we got into a fight one day while playing football.  In the midst of this fight my two front teeth were chipped, and they still are today.  So I always think of brother whenever I brush or floss.  It’s odd:  the connections that stick in our minds.

But discord is part and parcel of life in this fallen world.  The great British writer G. K. Chesterton once said that Original Sin is the simplest Christian dogma to prove:  all you have to do is pick up the newspaper (or in our day, click on a news app…).

Yet most of us can prove the dogma of Original Sin even more easily, by looking closer to home.  Discord marks our lives from our youngest days.  Just think how many hours a parent spends as a referee, a judge, and even at times a warden.

Yet regardless of whether it’s in the back yard, the town square, or the halls of government, discord that goes unchecked degenerates into chaos.  By contrast, as Christians we are called to unity.  Remember what Jesus said at the Last Supper.  He said these words to God the Father about His disciples:  “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”[1]  Jesus’ words here show us that unity and love go hand in glove.

Throughout the three years of His public ministry, Jesus told His disciples simply to love God, and to love their neighbor.  That sums up everything He taught.  We can consider these two great commands in terms of being called to greater unity.  After all, to love God is to be united with God, and to love one’s neighbor, taken to its ultimate conclusion, means that all of mankind finds unity with each other, forming a family of all God’s children.  Clearly, both are tall orders.

Yet if we in our own day find this hard, we shouldn’t feel too bad.  After all, God’s People have always struggled with these two great commands of love.  Today’s First Reading, after all, is about Sodom and Gomorrah.  In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes to assure the Colossians that “even when [they] were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of [their] flesh, God brought [them] to life along with” the Risen Christ.  That’s the key to unity:  real, lasting unity only comes through Christ, and this is true of every type of relationship in this world here below.

Among the various human relationships, none can possibly be more intimate than that of husband and wife.  Marriage is the measure against which we can compare all other types of relationships on earth.  So since love and unity go hand in glove, it’s not surprising that when Jesus talks about the lack of love in marriage, He talks about the lack of unity.  To give a specific example, when Jesus is questioned about what’s wrong with divorce, He holds up the teaching from the Old Testament that insists that “He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’.[2]  The two becoming one—this unity—is at the heart of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

But this unity can be broken not only by divorce.  Much more common in our Western culture is a sin that is praised by some—strangely enough—as an act of responsibility and even prudence:  that is, the mortal sin of artificial contraception.

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This weekend the Church in the United States begins a week of focusing on her teachings about planning a family.  The theme for this year’s focus is:  “Love, Mercy, Life—Opening the Heart of Marriage.”  The Church’s teachings, enriched so greatly over the past decades by St. John Paul the Great, show how planning a family according to natural means is not only morally good for the wife herself, for the husband himself, and for their marriage relationship.  Planning a family according to natural means also has medical benefits, while artificial means of contraception are showing, more and more over time, how much harm can come from choosing what is artificial over what is natural.  You’ve seen and heard this in commercials promoting artificial contraception:  they spend at least as much time with warnings about side effects as they do about the claimed benefits of their products.

More and more people are realizing that they deserve better.  Many are realizing that that “something better” comes from God Himself, in the very design by which God created man and woman.  Some are realizing how God’s plan for love is taught so clearly by the leaders of the Church.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, last year released an encyclical letter about Mother Nature (as we sometimes call her) and about man’s stewardship of nature.  This stewardship extends to the nature of one’s own body.  It’s ironic how many people there are who spend all sorts of money on organic milk, specially raised chickens, and soy burgers, but then turn around and poison their bodies with chemicals that either contracept or destroy new human life.

Last year on March 19—the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the Bishop of Wichita issued new guidelines for Marriage preparation within the diocese.  The bishop called for every engaged couple to have instruction in Natural Family Planning as part of their preparation for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

Why is there more and more emphasis in the Church supporting natural forms of family planning?  There are many reasons, but we have to be honest that one reason is having cold water splashed on our faces by the secular culture that surrounds us.  As the secular culture itself continues to fragment, and as more broken homes lead to more broken lives and to more crime, poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness, the leaders of the Church realize that all of us need to get back to the basics.  The Church needs to go back to the heart of things in order to recover a way of life that has been mocked and abused in our secular culture for too long:  a life of modesty, purity, and chastity.

Many in our culture are only waking up now to the hard truth about the consequences of believing that it’s beneficial—or at least, acceptable—for a couple to separate the act of marital love from the openness of that act to life.  Many in our culture are only realizing now what happens when, for decades, a culture claims that this marital act has no intrinsic connection to child-bearing.  Many are only realizing now that a culture that claims that marriage doesn’t have to be open to the bearing of children, is a culture that is free to define marriage in any way.

The secular culture is never going to be convinced of the truth of what the Church teaches unless the Church’s members live the Church’s beliefs concerning Marriage and family life.  The leaders of our Church—that is, all those bishops and priests whom God has called through Holy Orders to be spiritual fathers—have to lead by example those called to be parents through Holy Matrimony.  Jesus talks about such an example in the brief parables He gives in today’s Gospel passage.

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Jesus asks us two rhetorical questions about fathers.  These questions point to the natural goodness of even fallen human fathers.  “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?”  Even you fathers “who are wicked”, Jesus says, “know how to give good gifts to your children”.  And then Jesus makes His final point, asking:  “how much more will the Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

Jesus does not teach us to ask God the Father for “a fish” or “an egg”, as we might rightly ask our earthly father.  Jesus teaches us to beg God the Father for the Gift of the Holy Spirit.  But the life of every sinner shows the truth that at times, you and I simply do not want the Holy Spirit.  We don’t want Him in our hearts, minds, or souls.  Of course, if you or I were asked if this were the case, we most likely would deny it.  But the facts of our sinful lives show the contrary.

Why do we not want (and therefore, not pray for) the Holy Spirit to dwell within us?  There are many reasons, but one of the most likely is because we know—at least instinctually—what happens when we accept the Holy Spirit.  What happens is that the Holy Spirit works to transform us into the likeness of God the Son.  So if you ask for, and then receive, the Holy Spirit into your heart, mind and soul, your life will become animated by the Spirit of Jesus and His Father.

But if this happens—if Christ is living in you through the Power of the Holy Spirit—Christ will journey through your very life towards Calvary, so that you might know His Resurrection.  He won’t take you in any other direction except along that path.  About the two opposing paths that you can take through life, Jesus states clearly:  “‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many.  How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.’”[3]  So choose life.  Choose a natural form of planning a family, that demands from spouses that they grow in the moral virtues.  Choose to accept God the Father’s Gift of the Holy Spirit, Who in the Creed we profess to be “the Lord, the Giver of Life”.

We’ve accepted the secular culture’s claim that divorcing the act of physical union from an openness to conception bears no consequences.  But the consequences are mounting all around us.  The solution to a culture that canonizes barrenness, material acquisitions, and immediate satisfaction of every desire for comfort, is the Way of our Good Shepherd:  the narrow way on which we are led by the Holy Spirit.

As a Christian, you can never kid yourself into thinking that this Way of Jesus is easy, broad and comfortable.  But then, as Jesus shows us on the Cross and offers us in the Eucharist, God made you so that others might have life, and have it to the full.

[1] John 17:22-23.
[2] Matthew 19:4-5, quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24.
[3] Matthew 7:13-14.