The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Wis 18:6-9  +  Heb 11:1-2,8-19  +  Lk 12:32-48
August 7, 2016

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much….”

When Jesus says these words about us, two questions immediately pop up.  And they’re intertwined.  First, what has Jesus entrusted us with?  Second, what therefore will be required of us?

Each of us, naturally, has been given the gift of life.  You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Smile:  your mom chose life!”  In our day and age, this is not a gift that we ought to take for granted.  But still, when we thank God each day for the gift of life, what exactly are we giving thanks for?

Human life has two parts to it:  body and soul.  Like the lower forms of animals, we have bodies, which entail hunger and physical pain, but also the pleasures of eating a good meal and the process of physical healing, whether that process is slow or rapid.  Like animals, but unlike the angels and, of course, God, we humans age.  A few years ago my dog and I had an experience that reminded me of this.

One day, Johann and I were walking outside, and as we passed around the front entrance of church, Johann ran up the steps to visit with two girls who were playing at the top of the steps.  I’d guess that one was about six years old, and the other five.

As the girls were visiting with Johann, the older one pointed out how Johann has a white stripe that runs through his black fur, starting right at his neck.  I explained to the girls  that one of the reasons why I picked Johann from his litter was this black and white.  Pointing to the white on my black priest’s collar, I said, “It’s just like my shirt!”  And the five-year-old chimed in, “And just like your hair!”  (That’s when I knew I was no longer a young priest.)

Someone once said that getting old is not for sissies.  If anyone showed us the truth in that saying, it was St. John Paul II.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, who works at the Vatican, wrote a book titled God or Nothing.  In this book he speaks at length about St. John Paul II’s life and death.  The Cardinal insists that St. John Paul the Great’s life was founded on “the three pillars of his interior life, which were the Cross, the Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin, Crux, Hostia, et Virgo.  Perhaps the most obvious of these three in St. John Paul’s entire life was the Cross.  One example would be the suffering that marked the end of his earthly life.

Those without faith might have advised Pope John Paul to resign from the papacy because of his decline of physical health.  Can you imagine a Public Relations firm from New York or Los Angeles advising a corporate CEO to remain in office while so physically disabled?  To those who see life through the eyes of the world, Pope John Paul in his final days displayed all that undermines worldly power and leadership.  Were worldly leaders to listen to St. Paul, they could not make either heads or tails of his preaching that:  “…we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”[1]

But Saint John Paul the Great saw his final illnesses and infirmities as opportunities to conform his self more closely to Jesus on the Cross, and through his papal office to share this gift with the Church, and even also with those in the world outside the Church, whether or not they understood this as gift.

Those with faith perceived this gift from the Pope by means of faith, a light shining upon and from within the man Karol Wojtyla.  Regarding St. John Paul’s gift of himself at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, allow me to quote Cardinal Sarah at greater length:

“I think that his last moments on earth were a sort of unwritten encyclical.  The pope was carrying the Gospel in his broken body, which was more luminous than ever.  While his sickness was leading him to the gates of eternity, he had to make his last Way of the Cross, on that Good Friday in 2005, in his private chapel.  We could see him only from the back.  Deprived of all physical strength, he was literally fastened to the Cross, as though to invite us to focus, no longer on him, but on the ‘sign’ that reveals God and His love.

“That Good Friday summed up the whole life of John Paul II, who wanted to be totally configured to Christ and to live in profound communion with [Christ’s] sufferings, to be conformed to Him in His death….

“On Sunday, March 27, 2005 [Easter Sunday], he had already entered into the silence of the ‘passage’ that prepares for the rising of new life.  That day he wanted to speak a few final words to us from his window, but not a word came out of his mouth.  He had entered into the silence of God.”[2]

So even at the end of his life—even when his body was at its weakest—St. John Paul II showed the Church and the world what the gift of human life is all about.

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Unlike the lower animals, we humans can find meaning even in suffering and pain, and we can discover this meaning only through our souls.  Our human nature has two parts:  body and soul.  The human soul is the means through which we can, if we choose, to rise above being merely an animal.  “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much….”  God has entrusted each of us with a human soul, and that’s not a gift to be underestimated.[3]

“In the beginning”, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….’”  In those words spoken by God Himself, we start to see how much God has entrusted each of us with, in giving each of us a human soul.  The human soul is given to a person at the moment of his or her conception:  that moment when the human body starts to exist from the gifts given by the father and mother.  But while the human body comes from a child’s parents, the human soul comes directly from God at that moment of conception.  So what about that soul:  what kind of gift is it that God gave each of us at the moment of conception?

If there’s a single word that sums up the power, the meaning, and the aim of the human soul, it’s:  “transcendence”.  The human soul allows man to transcend himself.  There’s nothing more boring, numbing, and deadly than to live for oneself.  Unfortunately, the message of the world around us is to do just that:  to live for oneself.  But Christ calls us to live for others, and the powers of the human soul, when animated by God’s grace, allow us to live for others, and to rejoice in doing so.

Here is what God requires of us:  to transcend ourselves in living for others, both the others who are our neighbors, and the Other who is God.  Living for others means loving those others.  This is a high bar, of course, that God has set for us.  Everything that’s sinful in us inclines us to live for ourselves, because living for ourselves is so much more comfortable.  But God did not make us for comfort.  If you doubt that, look at the crucifix.  As a saint once said, “The crucifix is the true answer to every heresy.”

The fathers of the Church at the Second Vatican Council declared that “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”[4]  In other words, “Look at the crucifix.”  If you want to know what it means to be human; if you want to know what man is meant for; if you want to know the antidote to human misery, selfishness, and frustration with the meaningless of living the good life of comfort:  look at the crucifix.

The soul is a vessel of grace.  Grace is the power of God’s life that makes us strong enough to clear that very high bar that God has set for us:  the bar of living for others instead of for ourselves.  “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much….”  God has entrusted each of us with soul and body in order to offer those up each day for others.  The crucifix shows us how.  The Eucharist gives us the strength to do so.

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:7.

[2] God or Nothing, 94.

[3] Nonetheless, the “human body [also] shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’:  it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit” [CCC 364, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 15:44-45].

[4] Gaudium et Spes 22§1, quoted in CCC 359.