The 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4  +  2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14  +  Luke 17:5-10
October 2, 2016

“Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the Lord who made us.”

The Little Flower, whose feast day the Church celebrated yesterday, is sometimes known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, after the town in France that she was from.  But the religious name that she took when she entered the cloistered Carmelite convent is more telling.  Her name in religious life was “Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus”.

For the Little Flower, the significance of her name in religion was illustrated by a particular Gospel story.  It’s found in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew.  The “disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’  And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.’”[1]

Now when the Little Flower taught her doctrine called the “Little Way”, she explained that the word “little” unlocks the mystery of walking her “Little Way”.  One manner in which this key comes into play regards those words of Jesus about entering the kingdom of Heaven.  St. Thérèse explained that we must turn and become like little children to enter the kingdom of Heaven:  not Third Graders, or Kindergartners, but little children.

Reflect on the way that a little child looks upon her father.  When a little child looks upon her father, she neither knows nor cares “whether he is rich or poor, plain [looking] or handsome, stupid or clever, but [instead] sees only one thing—father”.[2]  Likewise, to the Little Flower, the truth that God is the Creator of the entire universe with its billions of galaxies; the truth that God is omnipotent, able to destroy all creation with a metaphorical snap of His fingers, and to re-create it once again with another snap;  the truth that God is Omniscient, knowing not only where every sub-atomic particle is at every moment, but also every secret thought of every human person:  all of these manifestations of God’s greatness mean nothing to the little child.

The little child cares only that God is her Father.  She cares that He loves her, in all her littleness.  Her focus is the relationship between two persons:  herself and her father.  Maybe each of us needs to consider how we think of God—whether in grand or little terms—in order to ask how better to turn and become His little children.

How strong this relationship was between the Little Flower and her heavenly Father is “expressed in a scene during her life in [the Carmelite cloister].  One of the Sisters, wishing to speak with her, knocked at the door of her cell and, on entering, found… Thérèse sewing, with a rapt expression on her face. ‘What are you thinking of?’ asked the Sister.  St. Thérèse replied:  ‘I was meditating on the Our Father.  It is so wonderful to be able to call God “Our Father”.’  As she said it, tears came into her eyes. … It takes the simplicity of a saint to realize the Fatherhood of God so intimately as to be unable to get beyond the first two words of the” Our Father.[3]

In walking the Little Way of St. Thérèse, and focusing on God as our Father, one of the truths about this Father that comes to the fore is the primacy of His love for us.  The primacy of God the Father’s love is especially important to focus on in a culture like ours.  Children are at risk of believing that it’s their accomplishments that earn them God’s love.  As Christians we must combat this way of thinking, for the sake of our own spiritual lives as well as for those of our children.  This primacy of God the Father’s love is taught in Scripture especially by Saint John, the Beloved Disciple.  In his first Letter, St. John proclaims the truth about the nature of love.  He proclaims, “In this is love:  not that we have loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son as expiation for our sins.”[4]

God’s love is primary.  His love precedes, not only our love for Him.  His love precedes our very selves.  Consider a different example.  What if God, one hundred years ago back in the year 1916, were to tell you that you had to earn the right to be conceived by your parents and born?  What could you possibly do in order to earn the right to be conceived and born?  Obviously, it’s a ridiculous question.  A hundred years you did not exist, so how could God say anything to you?  More importantly, if you didn’t exist, how could you possibly do anything so as to earn the right to be conceived and born?  You cannot do anything, until you are.  Only God could give you the immortal soul by which you came to exist, and you did nothing to earn that gift.  Even less, then, could you possibly do anything to earn God’s love, because His love is an even greater gift than human life.  Human life is human life, but God’s love is a share in divine life.

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The Little Way of St. Thérèse is very simple, and it’s very beautiful because of its simplicity.  I’ve mentioned already three keys to her Little Way, in their order of importance:  (1) “little”:  we have to be little; (2) “Father”:  our focus is on God the Father; and (3) “primary”:  the Father’s love for you is primary, before even your existence, much less any effort of yours to love the Father in return.  But there’s a final key to the Little Way that we also need to consider.

Going back to that favorite Gospel story of the Little Flower, recall what Jesus said on that occasion, when He put that child in their midst.  His words are well known.  You’ve likely heard those words hundreds of times.  But there’s a kernel within Jesus’ words there that’s often overlooked, or even forgotten.  Jesus doesn’t simply say that you must become like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven.  What He actually says is that must turn and become like children [to] enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Now, maybe that doesn’t seem like an important point.  What does Jesus mean when He insists that you must first turn, and then become like children?  In fact, the answer demands a lot from us.

If we have to first turn before becoming like children, what is it that we must turn away from?  The first possible answer that might occur to us is “sin”:  we must turn away from sin and become like little children.  But in fact, it’s more than that.

What we have to turn away from is the stance from which all sin grows.  This stance—this stand against God—runs contrary to all three of the keys that St. Thérèse teaches us.  This stance is not little:  it stands instead upon a belief of one’s own greatness.  Nor does this stance relate to the Father:  it stands instead upon a belief in self-reliance and independence.  Nor does this stance rest on the primacy of the Father’s love:  it stands instead upon a belief in justifying oneself.

Mercy is the gift we accept when we turn away from the stand of self-greatness, self-reliance, and self-justification.  Mercy is the heart of that turning that Jesus demands from us, if we are to become little children.  Mercy is the key that unlocks the human heart from within.

Once a person has opened his heart to the gift of mercy, God is free to pour His love into that person’s life.  But when someone stands fast, turned away from God, that person’s heart remains tight shut, and God respects that decision.  In this sense, mercy is God’s primary gift of love.  Mercy is not primary in importance, a fact which we can understand better when we reflect on the truth that in Heaven, God does not bestow mercy upon His beloved saints.  God has even greater gifts of love in store for us, but mercy is primary in order of fallen human nature.  “In the beginning”, when God created Adam and Eve, God had no intention ever of bestowing the gift of mercy upon anyone.  But in the face of human sin, God chose to make Himself little in becoming man, in showing the Father’s love through the self-sacrifice of the eternal Son.

A child who doesn’t know that he’s loved at his worst, will never accept the gifts that will make him his best.  God’s gift of mercy reveals to you God’s own heart, and the saving truth that God does not love you in spite of your sins, but right through your sins.


[1] Matthew 18:1-3.

[2] Vernon Johnson, Spiritual Childhood: The Spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 11.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] 1 John 4:10.