Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Solomon's Request

Today's First Reading comes from 1 Kings chapter 3. Solomon has recently become the king of Israel after the death of his father, David. He is still quite young, but he has already made his kingdom secure by outsmarting and eliminating his rivals. Solomon does not, however, feel completely secure within himself. He still doubts his abilities and his wisdom. 

One night God appears to Solomon in a dream and tells the king to ask Him for something. Solomon can ask for anything he wants. God gives him no direction, no suggestions, not event a hint. The king can choose power, wealth, fame, honor, glory, material possessions, wives, success in war, a long life for himself, the lives of his enemies, anything. 

What would you request if you were in Solomon's place?

Solomon probably takes a moment to weigh his options, but soon he answers God in a rather surprising way. First, he recognizes how he got to be king in the first place. God was responsible for that, Solomon knows. God is the One Who made sure that he followed his father to the throne. 

Where has God placed you at this moment in your life? Why do you think He wants you here?

Second, the king expresses his self-doubt. I'm young, he tells God, and I don't always know how to act. Now here's some humility coming from this powerful king. He understands his weak points, and he realizes that he needs help. 

Are you a humble person? Why or why not?

Third, Solomon articulates his position in relation to God. He is God's servant, placed in the midst of God's chosen people to lead in God's name and according to God's will. This is a gargantuan task, for as Solomon says, the people are so many that they cannot be counted. While Solomon is probably exaggerating a bit here, he is clearly overwhelmed by his role as God's representative. 

How do you represent God in various areas of your life?

Considering all of these realizations, Solomon knows exactly what he needs to ask for from God. Give me, please, he says, an understanding heart. Based on the various meanings of the Hebrew word for “understanding,” this heart is a heart that listens carefully to everything around it, that comprehends the interior nature of events and people, that discerns right from wrong, that is obedient to God's law, and that witnesses to and proclaims what is right. 

Do you have an understanding heart?

Why does Solomon want this understanding heart? He longs to be able to judge the people rightly and know right from wrong. He wants to know God's objective moral law and then apply that law to the moral choices he must make each and every day. What's more, as king, he must also evaluate other people's moral choices. 

Do you know and accept God's objective moral law? How do you apply it in your daily life?

Solomon ends his prayer with a question: “For who is able to govern this vast people of Yours?” He is implying, of course, that while he has been called to do so, there is no way he can rule Israel on his own. The people are God's people. Solomon must be God's king and allow God to rule through him. Having an understanding heart, which is a gift directly from God, is one of the ways in which Solomon can accomplish his overwhelming task.

How is God working through you? 

God is pleased with Solomon's request. In a way, Solomon has passed a test. He has asked for the right thing. Rejecting worldly treasures and power, he has zeroed in on exactly what God had been hoping he would choose. Because Solomon has done this, God grants his prayer. He gives him the longed for understanding heart, a wise heart, a heart unlike anyone else's, but God doesn't stop there. He gives Solomon everything else besides, everything that he didn't ask for: wealth, honor, and, if Solomon walks in His ways, a long life.

Do you trust God to give you everything you need?

When Solomon wakes up, the first thing he does is travel to Jerusalem and worship God before the ark of the covenant. This is an expression of trust and gratitude for God's great work in his life and for the gifts God has lavished on him.

How do you worship God? Is your worship from the heart or merely a routine?

Spend some time this week rereading Solomon's prayer and God's response, meditating on the reflection questions, and asking God for your heart's desire.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Parables of the Kingdom

In today's Gospel, we listen as Jesus relates three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) that He has come establish on earth. We Catholics understand that this Kingdom is already mysteriously present in the Catholic Church, but it has not yet reached its fullness. It is partial and mixed now, but it will be perfect at the end of time. Let's look closely at what Jesus has to say about the Kingdom. 

In His first parable, He tells the story of a farmer who sowed a nice crop of wheat in his field, but later that night, his enemy arrived and planted weeds among the wheat. The farmer and his servants were shocked when the crop began to grow and they discovered that they were getting a lot more than their expected wheat. But the farmer was wise. When his servants asked him if they could pull out the weeds, he told them to wait because they might end up pulling out the wheat, too. At harvest time, he assured them, it would be easy to separate the weeds from the wheat. They would just need to be patient until then.

Isn't that true of the Kingdom of Heaven as it is present in the Church today? People are often angry at the Church, forgetting Jesus' message that it is filled with both weeds and wheat for now. The Church itself is holy, but certainly its members on earth are weak and often sinful. We should not, therefore, be shocked when we hear of scandals and trials. Jesus has warned us that such things will exist. The enemy has planted his weeds, and for now the Lord tolerates them. But at the end of time, when He returns, He will separate the weeds from the wheat, and then the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church, will be perfect. We have to learn to be patient and, as much as we can, try to turn the weeds into wheat though our prayers and our love.

We can also apply this parable to ourselves as individuals. Isn't it true that there are both weeds and wheat inside of us? We soar to the heights of prayer. We drop to the depths of sin. We can be gentle, loving, and kind and then turn around and be resentful, snappish, and angry. At one moment, our lives can seem perfect. In the next, the bottom drops out, and we flounder in frustration and near despair. Weeds and wheat. Our lives here on earth are full of both.

In His second parable, Jesus explains that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Mustard seeds are very, very tiny, so small as to seem insignificant and unable to produce any real effects. But plant one and prepare to be surprised! The bush that appears from that little bitty seed is huge, so big that, as Jesus says, birds can make their nests in it. What a contrast between that small seed and its large result!

Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Church, started out very, very small, just a handful of men and women in an insignificant outpost of the Roman empire. But Christianity spread rapidly. On the first Pentecost, only fifty days after Jesus' Resurrection, the apostles baptized three thousand people, and before too many more years had passed, the faith had made its way across the Roman empire from one end to the other and even beyond. Today, the Church is present in nearly every country on earth. Talk about growth!

Even in our own lives, we sometimes see mustard seeds grow into huge bushes. A little act of kindness, for instance, can have far-reaching effects, beyond what we are even aware of. We need to make sure that we are continually planting little mustard seeds of God's love wherever we go and trusting in Him to make them grow according to His will.

In his third parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast that a woman uses to leaven dough. Yeast are tiny creatures, but they are very active. They can make a flat mixture of flour, water, and other ingredients rise into a great puffy dough that, when baked, is a tender, light, delicious bread. They are pretty powerful little things! The Kingdom of Heaven is like that, too. Like we said before, it started out small, but it is so powerful that it has spread through the entire world and made it rise up from darkness and expand into the light. 

We, too, can rise up from darkness and expand into the light if only we open our hearts to the power of the Kingdom of Heaven and allow Jesus to work like leaven in our lives. 

Jesus, in Your parables, You teach us the secrets of Your Kingdom. Open our minds and hearts to Your teaching that by meditating on it, we may grow ever closer to You and take our proper place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Preparing the Soil

Today's readings confront us with a very important question: How do you prepare the soil of your heart to fruitfully receive the seed God wants to plant in it? 

In the First Reading, God tells us through the prophet Isaiah that He will send out His Word to the earth. Just as the snow and rain water the land and bring it to life, God's Word will go forth to produce fruit. God promises that it will not return to Him empty.

We learn in the Gospel, however, the fruitfulness of the Word will depend upon the condition of the ground on which it falls. Take a moment and reread Jesus' parable of the sower and the explanation He gives His disciples.

The sower, of course, is God. The seed is His Word, which comes to us in the Scriptures, in prayer, in our interactions with other people, in the Church's teachings and those of the saints, and especially in the Eucharist and the other sacraments. The ground is our hearts. 

What is the current condition of your ground, of your heart? Do you hear the Word but lack understanding and allow the enemy to snatch the seed away? Do you receive the Word with joy at first but lose interest as soon as the going gets tough? Do you allow the cares of life or the pleasures of riches to choke the Word? Or do you prepare the soil of your heart so that the seed of the Word falls on rich ground and can produce abundant fruit?

Most of us have experienced all of these conditions at various stages of our lives, but our goal should always be to prepare the soil of our hearts so that God's Word can find a home in us and reach out through us to everyone we meet. How do we prepare the soil of our hearts? 

1. Pray, pray, pray. We will never be ready to allow God's Word to bear fruit in us if we don't open ourselves to Him and strengthen our relationship with Him. This is the primary purpose of prayer. Remember, we don't pray so much to get something as to get Someone.

2. Go to Mass every week and more often if possible. This is essential. Mass is the highest worship we can offer to God, and in the Eucharist, we receive God Himself, Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

3. Read good spiritual books. The Bible is a must, but you should also dig into the writings of the saints and of modern Catholic theologians and writers like Scott Hahn, Brant Pitre, Edward Sri, Peter Kreeft, and others.

4. Strive to form your conscience and make good moral choices in thought, word, and deed. Sin corrupts the soil of our hearts, and we need to avoid it as much as we can. When we do sin, we must learn how to recognize that we've gone astray and get back on the right path through repentance and Confession.

5. Avoid negative influences, whether they are people, television shows, movies, music choices, websites, books, magazines, or whatever. When you make poor choices in these areas, you risk contaminating the soil of your heart.

6. Be sure to set your priorities. God and your relationship with Him should take first place in your life, followed by your family and friends. Everything else needs to be relegated to its proper place in the hierarchy.

Jesus, please help us cultivate the ground of our hearts so that we may receive You and bear fruit a hundred fold. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Humble King

In today's First Reading, the prophet Zechariah paints a portrait of the Messiah Who is to come. He will be a king, but not just any king. He will be humble king. He will arrive in Jerusalem riding a lowly donkey rather than a majestic warhorse. He will be meek, in Hebrew ānî, which refers to someone who is poor, lowly, afflicted, and needy. This King identifies with the poorest of the poor, those who are oppressed and have little to sustain them. 

This humble King, the prophet continues, will be a just savior, and He will bring peace to Jerusalem and beyond. He will not assume His throne by violence or force. In fact, He will banish the weapons of war, the chariot, the horse, the warrior's bow. Then He will reign in peace, and His dominion will stretch across the world all the way to the ends of the earth. 

The Psalm tells us about a few more of our humble King's characteristics. He is gracious, merciful, and kind. He does not get angry quickly with His people but is good and compassionate toward them. His humility allows Him to be patient with their failings and faults. He remains ever faithful and always holy, and He stoops down to gently lift those who have fallen and those who bow beneath their heavy burdens.

This humble King is, of course, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In today's Gospel, Jesus tells all of us who labor and carry heavy burdens to come to Him, and He will give us rest. He knows what it's like to work hard and bear a heavy load. As a human being Himself, He understands how we feel. He, too, carried a burden, a yoke. 

As God, however, He offers us a marvelous opportunity. We can accept His yoke, which, He says, is easy and light. From our King, we can learn how to be meek and humble of heart, just as He is. We can learn to let go of our troubles and cares and lean upon Him for support. Through intimacy with Him, our humble King, we, too, can grow in humility and love. 

Jesus, our humble King, make us humble like You. Help us to lay our burdens at Your feet and take up Your yoke, for with You, any burden can become easy and light. Amen.