The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Wisdom 9:13-18  +  Philemon 9-10,12-17  +  Luke 14:25-33
September 4, 2016

“…when things are in Heaven, who can search them out?”

In the middle of a forest, two hunters were suddenly confronted by a huge, mean bear, followed by Mama Bear and Baby Bear.  In their fear, all of the hunters’ attempts to shoot the bears were unsuccessful.  Finally, the hunters turned and ran as fast as they could.  They reached the edge of a very steep cliff.  Seeing no way out, the first hunter got down on his knees, raised his arms, and exclaimed, “Dear God! Please make these bears ‘religious’!”

The sky darkened.  Lightning flashed across the sky.  Just a few feet short of the hunters, Papa Bear came to an abrupt stop, fell to its knees, looked up into the sky and folded its paws together.  Mama Bear and Baby Bear followed suit, and the three bears began praying in whispered voices.

The first hunter turned to his hunting partner and cried, “Our prayers were answered!”  The second hunter said, “It’s amazing!  But what do you think the bears are praying?”  The first hunter shook his head, “I don’t know; why don’t we listen in?”  And so they tiptoed a little closer, and as they strained their ears, they heard the bears praying, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive….”

It’s funny how our prayers can be answered without solving our real problem.  In other words, we need to be careful what we pray for, because we may just get what we pray for… like the hunters.  Now, you may never have faced the hunters’ predicament, but I imagine that—at some point—you have experienced a disconnect between what you pray for, and what happens afterwards in your life.

Part of this confusion comes from knowing what to pray for.  Knowing what to pray for demands from us the virtue of prudence.  Today’s First Reading addresses this challenge, asking rhetorically:  “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?  For the deliberation of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.”

So to “fine tune” our prayers, so that they’re more effective, here’s a question for you.  But be careful, because it’s a trick question:  “When we pray, should we pray for a good thing?”  The answer is “Yes… and No.”  “Yes” is the answer that most people would give if they were asked this question.  And most people would be right.  But they would also be wrong.  Our Scripture passages today explain why In giving us examples of, and in describing, the virtue of prudence.

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To most persons—we have to be honest—the virtue of prudence does not seem the most compelling of the Christian virtues.  After all, it’s not as simple as the virtue of humility, or as bold as the virtue of courage, or as sublime as the virtue of charity.  To be honest, as virtues go, prudence sort of seems like oatmeal.

Prudence is actually the explanation for that “No” answer.  If someone were to ask you, “Should you pray for a good thing?”, then you should answer “No!”… and prudence is the reason.  The definition of prudence shows us why we should not pray for just a good thing.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prudence enables us to do two things:  first, to see our “true good” in a given circumstance; and second, to choose the means to reach this “true good”.[1]  But what is this “true good”?  This “true good” is not just the good as opposed to the bad.  The true good… is the best good, out of many good choices.  The true good… is the best good, chosen from among many good choices.  This is what the virtue of prudence is all about.

When we are little, our parents teach us to make moral choices by recognizing right from wrong; good from bad; what is holy from what is evil.  This is the first stage of moral wisdom.  This is the foundation of making moral choices.  It’s essential that we understand that difference.  In fact, to put it bluntly, this difference is the difference between Heaven and hell.  But as a Christian, you have to build upon that foundation.

The foundation of Christian morality is about good versus bad.  We build on that by hearing God call us beyond only choosing what is good.  God wants us to do far more:  He wants us to choose what is best over and above what is merely good.  It’s in this sense that God does not want you to choose a good thing:  God wants you to choose the best thing.  “Good” is not good enough.  Only “the best” is good enough for God, and for you.

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In our Western culture since the end of the Second World War, many people have, in their physical lives—that is, regarding material things—moved beyond struggling for what is good over what is bad.  As an example, think about the stories you’ve heard from parents or grandparents or others about what life was like during the Great Depression, or even earlier.  What was life like?

Go back in time 100 years.  How much money did the average Christian have at this time?  Not much.  And what did the average Christian a hundred years ago spend that money on?  He spent that money on bread, milk and vegetables for his family to eat (unless he lived on a farm, in which case money was likely spent on seed and equipment).  He might have spent that money on clothing and shoes, and on shelter for his family.  And after those sorts of basic necessities were paid for, how much money was left over?  For most persons, little to nothing.

So a hundred years ago, it was easy for the average Christian to make good moral choices about spending money, because the choices were between good and bad:  survival, or destitution.  When you have only two choices, and those choices are “survive” or “perish”, that’s an easy choice to make.

People today face far more difficult choices in regard to spending, difficult because they have so many choices.  Modern people drown in the number of good choices that they have to make.  Nonetheless, God calls modern people to choose not just any good thing.  God calls Christians today to choose the best good thing in any situation.  That takes a lot more time, energy, and discernment in prayer.  This is why, in general, poor people are happier than rich people.  This is one reason why it’s “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”[2]

Now this example—of choices about spending money—is just one example of exercising the virtue of prudence.  There are other examples where we have many good choices and are tempted to think that as long as we make any old good choice, we are being faithful.  But God calls us to more.  In regard to a vocation in life, or a job, or how we spend a spare afternoon, God calls us not just to make a good choice, but to make the best choice in those circumstances.

Consider another setting for making moral choices:  parenting.  Of all the struggles that parents face—and they face many, given that their children are surrounded today by a corrupt culture—one of the hardest struggles is to instill the virtue of prudence into the lives of their children.  Humility, on the other hand, is far easier for children to acquire, because life itself has a way of teaching you humility.  All of us who are adults have learned many lessons about humility over the years:  some people call it the “school of hard knocks”.  In any case, the virtue of prudence doesn’t force its way into your life as humility does.

Here’s another difference between humility and prudence for parents to keep in mind.  After humility, prudence is the second-most foundational virtue.  Where humility is the mother of all the other virtues, the Catechism uses a striking image to describe prudence:  the Catechism calls prudence the “charioteer” of all the other virtues.  In other words, you can think of prudence as being… the “inner ear” of the Body of Christ.  As your inner ear controls your body’s sense of balance, so prudence controls the balance of your soul, including the balance of your moral choices.  You could be the strongest football player, the most graceful ballerina, the most agile sprinter in the world… but if that one little part of your inner ear doesn’t work, the football player, the ballerina, and sprinter… and you… will fall flat on your face.  Everyone needs a sense of balance, and not just physical balance, but even more so moral balance.  Other virtues may be more powerful, and even more important, but without prudence, they won’t do you any good.

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If you’re older than the age of forty, you may remember the election of Pope John Paul II, on October 16, 1978.  It was an historic choice that the cardinals made in electing him.  He helped bring change not only to the world through the fall of communist nations, but also within the Church by strengthening an authentic vision of what the Second Vatican Council had called for.  He ushered in changes that re-inforced, re-strengthened, and re-emphasized many of the best aspects of our Catholic Tradition.

And yet, in spite of his grand role on the world stage, he was—at heart—a very simple man.  The rosary played a major role in his life.  It was a part of his daily prayer.  And in regard to the Rosary, he instituted a change to show more clearly how Scriptural the Rosary is.  He added a new set of five Mysteries called the “Luminous Mysteries”, or “Mysteries of Light”, so called because they shed light on who Jesus is.

The Fifth Mystery of Light commemorates and event that took place on the night before Jesus’ death.  The Fifth Mystery of Light is the “brightest” of these mysteries:  it sheds the most brilliant light on the question of who Jesus is.  This same mystery—that is, the Institution of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—is what we’re in the midst of this morning.  It’s the greatest of these Mysteries of Light, because in it, we see all the virtues.  Families, please recognize that the “true good” that will make your family strong, and each member of your family strong, is found in bringing your family to this “greatest good” that Jesus has given to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


[1] So prudence guides both our human intellect (in seeing the “true good”), and our human will (in choosing the “true good.  Prudence is really the most practical of all the virtues, because it guides the marriage of our intellect and will in daily life.

[2] Mark 10:25.