Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

The following is a homily for the twenty fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

If you could do me a favor and remind me to never to go into business with Jesus, that would be great. Can you imagine an employer doing this today? Of course the ones who worked all day were upset: this is an instant lawsuit. “We’re out working here all day in the heat and you give us the same amount of money as someone who worked for an hour??” God does say in the first reading “my ways are not your ways…” and we can clearly see that. This is not how you run a good business.

Sadly, I’m guessing that all of us can relate to these workers.I know that I do! I’ve lived this experience over and over in my life. When I was in high school, I worked in a restaurant bussing tables. I would work as hard as I could, trying to be clean and efficient, set the table as fast as I could so that customers didn’t have to wait, but you don’t get paid by the table. You get paid by the hour, and so some bussers would take their good old time, do half the work as me, and get paid the same amount.
in high school and college, I had to do group projects. The absolute worst, right? Of course, I did 80% of the work while the others did almost nothing, and at the end of the day, we all got the same grade. Ridiculous! Frankly, it still goes on in my friar life. I’ve had days where I’m working from sunrise to sunset, working my butt off, and I get an unexpected call to visit a sick person in the hospital on the other side of the county… only to find out that the hospital called the others priests and they just didn’t pick up the phone. Why am I doing your work for you?

Hearing this passage today, it’s hard to make sense of what Jesus is saying. It just seems like an injustice to us. So what do we make of it?

Obviously, this is not a business manual, it is a parable. And the focus of the story isn’t the workers who who labored all day, it’s the business owner. It’s important to remember in stories like these that they are told to a specific people for a specific lesson. They use langue they can understand—work, farming, family life—not to actually give practical advice, but to reach something much deeper. In this case, Jesus is speaking to the disciples not Pharisees; this is an internal message to those who already believe. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole was written as a catechism for a largely Jewish community of Christians, not Gentiles; again, an internal message to people who would have been very familiar with God for a long time.

And what is that message? Put simply, that Gentile Christian converts are just as important to God as the Jewish ones.

You see, for thousands of years, the Jewish people had remained faithful to God. They were there from the beginning of the day, sweating and straining in the heat, all because God offered them a just wage. He made a covenant with them: obey my laws, serve me, and I will grant you salvation. Seems like an incredible deal, right? But then, after two or three thousand years, along come these Gentiles, these Johnny-come-latelys, relaxing all day, having lunch in the comfort of their homes while the other workers were eating, showing up at 5 o’clock just before the end of the day, accepting the faith just before they thought the end of the world is coming… and what do they get? The exact same wage the first workers got. The exact same salvation the Jews got.

Jesus tells this parable, Matthew makes it a focal point for his Gospel, because there were Jewish Christians in the community that were grumbling about the new converts. Why, when we’ve been here the whole time, do we get the same reward as those people who just showed up?! They are envious. Even though they get a just wage, even though they get exactly what they wanted, they look at their fellow Christians with disdain and resentment, as their enemy. All they’re focused on is what they don’t have, what they think they deserve, and they’re missing the true wonder of God: God is generous beyond belief.

This is a God who, first, let’s remember, gives a just wage to those who have nothing, who called them and saved them even when they didn’t deserve it. This is a God who doesn’t just send his servants, not just an angel to send a message—he could be at home sipping lemonade, relaxing on the couch—no, he goes himself to get the workers, the living God comes to us in human flesh—He has a personal connection and responsibility to his workers. And then, he doesn’t do what is expected, what is calculated, but gives what is extraordinary—above and beyond what is just. This is a tremendously gracious God, a generous God, caring deeply about his people and showering gifts on them that they do not deserve.

The only reason that the first workers can complain, the only way you or I  feel cheated in these situations, is because we compare ourselves to others. Think about it. The Jews, the first workers, were given an incredible gift. Before anyone else, they were blessed with the assurance of salvation, with meaningful work. While others wandered through life not knowing God, not knowing the meaning of it all, being “unemployed” and unsure how they would make it, they were blessed with exactly what they needed. The fact that others now get what they need doesn’t take away from the original blessing.

I honestly liked working in a restaurant, I liked working hard. If given the option to be lazy, I wouldn’t have taken it because it was fulfilling work, and I was paid well to do it. I got to do what I liked AND I got paid? Incredible.

Generally speaking, I have always liked school, put in a lot of effort, and have gotten good grades. Group project or not, that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got. You’re telling me that I only have to do 80% of the work and still get a good grade? How is that not a blessing!

And I can’t even imagine ignoring a sick call. I want to work. I love to minister, to celebrate the sacraments. I want to be incredibly busy, to work so hard that at the end of the day I collapse in my bed absolutely exhausted. I get to anoint someone who is sick, comfort them in their last moments of life? That’s amazing.

In all of these cases, everyone got just want they needed, not what they thought they deserved. None of us are cheated, we’re not owed any more. Had there been no other workers all day, they would have went away happy with a full day’s work. They would have felt blessed to have the opportunity to work when others were unemployed. It is only when they see someone being more generous to another person that they complain. If we have what we want, if we have agree to what is good and just, then in a sense, it doesn’t matter how others live or what agreements they make, we have what is good for us.

If I opened up my wallet and gave you a $20 bill—assuming I had a $20 bill—you would be happy, would you not? Free money is always good. You would see that as a generous gift, something you did not deserve and yet got anyway. But what if, right after that, I turned the person sitting next to you and have them $1000? All of the sudden, you feel cheated. All of the sudden you feel envious. All of the sudden that gift of $20 doesn’t seem so generous anymore and I have to ask… WHY? What has changed about your $20? What has caused you to go from being overjoyed with your gift to angry and feeling cheated?

As much as we may identify with the first workers, there is something absolutely ridiculous about them. The only way that this makes of envy is when we forget that those other workers are on the same team. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, sons and daughters of the same God. The only way that envy makes sense is if we care more about this life than we do about heaven. The only way that envy makes sense is if we forget that everything we have is already a gift.

God is offering you blessings, love, salvation. That is incredible. Don’t be envious when he also offers it to others and might ask less of them. Maybe they can’t handle as much as you. Maybe they are weaker than you. Maybe, in someone else’s story, you’re the one who showed up late and God more than another person. Maybe it’s not even about you or them, but about the generosity of God. Are you envious because God is generous? I hope not. Because this generosity applies to us all. No matter how much anyone else has, no matter who much you think you should have, remember this: you don’t even deserve what you do have. The point is not that some people have greater gifts from God than you… it’s that everything you have is gift, and it is all you need. Be content with what you have, and be thankful for God’s generosity. God’s ways truly are not our ways, and that is reason for thanks.

The following is a homily for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

In 1977, a military dictator rigged the election to become the president of El Salvador. As you can imagine, many people did not take too kindly to this, and so they protested, leading to violence on the part of the government. Peaceful protesters were attacked, went missing, or faced massacres. Eventually, people began fighting back with violence of their own, and by 1979, El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war. From 1979 to 1981 around 30,000 civilians were killed by army death squads of their own government.

Where was the Church in this very Catholic country while all this was happening? Well, silent, at first. The archbishop, Oscar Romero, believed that neither side was entirely free from blame, and thought it best to stay out of politics. He knew that he could not criticize the government like you can here. To speak out against this violence would surely mean getting killed himself, and it just wasn’t worth it.

But then his eyes were opened. A priest friend of his was assassinated. Faithful Catholics, peacefully protesting violence, went missing. He saw atrocities with his own eyes and could no longer remain silent. He began a weekly radio show condemning the violence. Taking the side of the poor and marginalized, he spoke out against the evil that he saw from the government, the violations of human rights being committed in his streets. He preached comfort to the afflicted and affliction the comfortable. Oscar Romero was truly a modern-day prophet: someone who spoke the truth of the Gospel without fear… and he was ultimately killed for it. While celebrating mass in 1980, he was assassinated.

In our Gospel today, we get the first of four predictions of Jesus’ passion in Matthew. He tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be persecuted by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, that he will be killed and raised on the third day. In one sense, he knows this because he is God. I mean, right? If he’s truly divine, then he has to have a sense of the eternal plan set by the father, that he is going to die for the sins of humanity. God knows all. But I suspect that he knew this on a human level as well, that he just knew it in his bones, an intuition that can’t be questioned. Having studied the prophets, he knew what happened to those who questioned authority. He knew what happened when you went after the rich and powerful. Proclaiming to the masses, “Blessed are the poor” and “woe to the rich,” calling the religious elites hypocrites while dining with sinners and prostitutes… these were not ways to make friends with the rich and powerful. These were ways to get killed. Jesus knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Jeremiah knew this.

As much as we may say we like prophets, as much as our world needs prophets, there is nothing glamorous about being a prophet. Romero experienced death threats. Jesus suffered his agony in the garden. Jeremiah was ridiculed. In our first reading today he writes, “You duped me Lord.” He is not happy with God. Having preached the word, having told the people to stop acting unjustly, doing just what God asked of him, he is laughed at and mocked. This is not the life anyone wants. And so he says, “I will not mention him. I will speak in his name no more.” He tries to quit God. The pain, the upheaval is too much. Being a prophet has brought nothing but derision.

But he can’t. He just can’t. Speaking about the word of God, he says, “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” As much pain as he faces, as awful as his life is as a prophet, what choice does he have? He knows that this is the truth whether it’s comfortable or not. The spirit wells up in him and he can’t not decry the injustice he sees. Such is the fate for the prophets. Jeremiah knew he would be mocked. Jesus knew he would suffer. Oscar Romero knew that he would be assassinated eventually. But they kept preaching. When you see the world turning from God, how can you stay silent?

What a question for us all: When we see the world turning from God, how can we stay silent? 

We have this horrible norm in this culture, an unwritten rule in our society, that you never talk about religion or politics in mixed company. It’s just not polite, right? You would never bring up something like, say, abortion among your friends. 50 millions abortions happen worldwide each year, 50 million defenseless human beings are killed each year, but it’s just too controversial a topic to bring up. It’s better to stick to easier topics.

The same goes for racism. Hot button issue these days. Is it “black lives matter” or “all lives matter”? Probably best to avoid it altogether. Otherwise, you might find yourself talking about how redlining districts left African Americans excluded from certain neighborhoods, paying higher interest rates, and forced into bad schools. You might get into a discussion about the prison industrial complex, how people of color are systematically disenfranchised in society, exploited at every level of the criminal justice system and so forced into modern-day slavery, and that, that is surely going to upset some people. Ahmaud Arbery? Breanna Taylor? Jacob Blake? George Floyd? Philando Castille? Eric Garner? Trayvon Martin? Woo. You should probably just forget those names because there is NO chance you could bring them up without people getting angry at you.

I mean, really, the list is a long one of things you want to avoid. The 80 million refugees worldwide fleeing violence. The rising temperature of the earth and our continued overuse of resources. Voter suppression. Predatory lenders. The death penalty. Human trafficking in the porn industry. If you care about your well-being, these are not things that you want to talk about. Taking a stance on these things, devoting your life to ridding the world of them, they could turn your friends against you, cost you your job, bring shame upon your family, maybe even get you killed. If you care about saving your life, then the best thing to do is stay silent and ignore that these things are happening.

There’s just one problem: Jesus says to us today, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… Take up your cross and follow me.” St. Paul reminds us that if we want to be disciples of Christ, then we must not conform ourselves to this age, but as he says, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” 

Being a prophet is not a fun existence. Calling out injustice, standing up to the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor and marginalized… that’s not going to lead to a comfortable, happy existence. But I guess I just have to wonder: what other choice do you have? Speaking the truth may bring some discomfort to our lives, but does that mean we’d rather ignore the truth? Hide from it? Deny it?

It’s true that it is not polite to talk about religion or politics in mixed company, but maybe being polite isn’t our highest goal. Maybe what matters more to us than being polite is the life and dignity of the poor, the rights of the disenfranchised, the love of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and maybe, just maybe, these things matter so much to us that we’re willing to stand for them even if it might turn people away from us. Not uncharitably. Not hatefully. But also not worried about disturbing people. Sometimes, when the world likes what is bad, it needs to be disturbed.

Jeremiah thought so. Jesus knew this to be true. Oscar Romero preached it loud and clear on his radio show: “That is what the church wants: to disturb people’s consciences and to provoke a crisis in their lives. A church that does not provoke crisis, a gospel that does not disturb, a word of God that does not rankle, a word of God that does not touch the concrete sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what kind of gospel is that? Just nice, pious considerations that bother nobody—that’s the way many people would like our preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny subject so as not to bother anyone or cause conflict and difficulty, shed no light on the reality in which they live.”

Being a prophet is not an easy life. It will most likely bring you hardship. But I ask you: as disciples of Christ, those who know the truth of the Gospel and see the world broken as it is, what other choice do you have? “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… Take up your cross and follow me.”

The following is a homily for the twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

So… Let’s be honest: today’s Gospel is a challenging one. If you were to meet someone who wasn’t a Christian, who had never heard of Jesus, this would probably not be the first passage you would show them. Unlike the merciful, humble, all-knowing God that we usually know him to be, what we get here appears to be a man who ignores someone in need, calls her a dog, and then all of the sudden changes his mind.

Not exactly a shining moment for Jesus. Not exactly a comfortable passage for us. So what do we make of this?

If you’ll indulge me for a minutes, I’d like to share parallel story that might help understand what’s going on here. In 2005 there was a basketball movie called Coach Carter. Based on a true story, it’s about a successful businessman, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is asked to come back to coach the high school basketball team where he used to be a star, only the school has taken a horrible turn in 20 years. There’s gang violence and drugs, the players are skipping class and getting suspended. They’re just a disrespectful bunch of teens going nowhere in their lives. On the first day, he lays down the law—you will attend class, you will get good grades, you will act like men and respect each other. One player swears at him, tries to punch him, and ultimately quits the team. He leaves in disgrace.

Here’s where the story starts to parallel our Gospel. A few weeks later, he tries to come back. His life is a mess, he needs help, he just wants to play basketball. He shows up to practice and begs the coach, “What do I have to do to play?” It’s a moment of vulnerability, of humility. He comes to apologize. What does the coach do? He ignores him. “You quit. You’re not welcome here.” But he doesn’t leave. He stays right there, waiting. The coach turns around and says, “Okay. You can get back on the team. But you owe me 2500 pushups and 1000 sprints. Oh, and you have to do it by Friday.” An impossible task. The boy’s face looks sad. But he doesn’t leave. He puts down his bag, takes off his jacket, and starts doing pushups, starts running up and down the court. As the week goes on, he continues to work, and the coach does nothing but belittle him. “Give up. You’ll never make it. You’re embarrassing yourself.” But he doesn’t. He puts himself through pain and humiliation, he continues to work. There is a determination in him that no one has seen before—he is not going to leave until he’s accepted back.

At first, the coach looks like an absolute jerk. How could you treat a high schooler like this? But as we know from this coach, he’s a good man. He’s not doing this out of ego, not because he actually thinks the boy is worthless and will fail, but precisely because he wants to challenge him: show me that you’re serious. Show me what I know you can do, that you can commit yourself to something and work hard. Show me that you’re the man I know you can be. In one sense, the coach is saying, “Prove to me that you’ve changed.”

But it’s more than that. In a more important sense, what he’s saying is, “Prove to yourself that you’ve changed. I know you can do it, but do you know?” Up til now all we’ve seen is a kid messing around with gangs, skipping class, causing fights, quitting when things get hard. He’s afraid. To let him right back on the team might be fine, it’s what he wants, but it doesn’t address the real problem: he lives a destructive life because he doesn’t believe in himself. He’s never actually overcome a challenge—he just runs from them. In ignoring the playing, giving him an impossible task, putting every obstacle in his way, the coach was letting the player see for himself: yeah, I am committed to this. I can work hard. I can believe in myself even when others don’t. This could not have been accomplished by merely letting him back on the team the first time he asked. Sometimes the person we have to convince the most, the one who have to forgive above all, is ourselves. Am I really sorry? Can I do this? Are things going to be different this time around? He’s got to prove it to himself.

But do you know what? There’s even more than that going on here. You see, treating the player like this and forcing him to show his true colors wasn’t just about proving it to the coach or to himself—it was also about proving it to the other players. 

The thing we often forget in these situations is that it’s not just about the person who leaves and comes back, it’s also about those who stayed and followed the rules the whole time. Had the coach just let the player back immediately, without showing his commitment, the other players may not have accepted him, they may have felt slighted, they might have learned that you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter.

But he does, and it pays off. You see, as hard as this player worked, Friday came but it wasn’t enough. He was 500 pushups and 80 sprints short. The coach told him he couldn’t play, “please leave the gym.” He starts walking away, but one of the other players calls out, “I’ll do pushups for him. You said we’re a team. If one person struggles, we all struggle. One player triumphs, we all triumph, right?” And so he does pushups. And another does sprints. And then all of the sudden the whole team is working for him, helping him up, welcoming him back to the team. This would not have happened had the coach let him play the first time he asked.

Although seemingly harsh at first, what this coach did was what everyone needed. The player needed to prove to the coach, prove to himself, prove to his teammates that he was for real, that he wasn’t going to desert them this time. And he did. He was tested, but didn’t give up. 

In an odd way (and certainly long-winded way), that is precisely what is on display today in our Gospel.

Remember who the Canaanites were. They were people who lived among the Israelites for centuries, people who rejected the God of Israel, who went to war with them. While the woman herself might be “innocent,” what she represents is a people of infidelity and violence, someone who can’t be trusted. She represents a major enemy to their faith.

And so she asked for help, and Jesus ignores her. She asks again and the disciples tell her to leave. She asks a third time and Jesus insults her. And so we ask again, why does Jesus do this? Because he actually hates her and doesn’t want to help her? Not in the least. 

From the very beginning, from the start of his ministry, we know that Jesus has come first for the people of Israel, but through them he has been sent to save everyone. This is precisely what we see in the first reading from Isaiah. He wants nothing more than for her and all her people to come back, to love God, to be faithful, to be a part of this team. 

But her people have shown time and again that they are not faithful, that they don’t love God. Can he be sure that she’s going to be faithful this time? Just like the coach, he has to test her. He has to get beneath her request and see if she’s really serious. His actions do not show someone who hates a person and then is convinced to love them, it shows a person saying, “I love you and want you back, but I need you to prove to me, prove to yourself, prove to my disciples, that this time will be different. Do you seriously want this? Are you willing to endure some pain? Are you willing to work? Are you willing to be persistent?”

What we see is that the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Just like the basketball player, she doesn’t leave when ignored; she doesn’t cower when judged; she doesn’t run away when challenged. She shows that her faith is the most important thing in the whole world, that she’s willing to do anything to be accepted, to have her daughter healed. 

She proves to Jesus that her hopes for her are real; she proves to herself that her faith is more than words; she proves to the disciples that foreigners can have faith, that they should accept her as one of their own.

Her witness of faith, just like the basketball player’s determination, offers us an example to follow today. How often we go to God in prayer and say, “Lord I love you. Lord I want to follow you. Lord I want your help.” It’s easy to say these words, to go to God when we need something. But how true is that faith? How much do we trust that God hears us? Unfortunately, there are times when we will not hear anything at first. It will seem like God is ignoring us. Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or will we walk away? There are times when even the Church will get in our way, when disciples of Christ—the bishops, priests like me, your fellow parishioners—will discourage you, act uncharitably towards you. Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or or will we walk away? Heck, there might even be times when we feel that God is rejecting us, that there is no place for us in the Church. In those times, will we still have faith? Will we stay and wait, trusting in God, or will we walk away?

Today, be like the Canaanite woman. Be like this high school basketball player. Let your faith, your persistence, your love, your entire lives prove to God, prove to yourself, and prove to your brothers and sisters in Christ that what you want more than anything else in life is Jesus Christ.

If you’re interested in watching the scene I described, it can be found here: 

The following is a homily for the seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Our readings today play heavily on the idea of desire. In a dream, God tells Solomon to ask for anything that he wants, to make known the thing that he wants most in the whole world; our Gospel tells of multiple people finding something of great worth, fulfilling a deep desire. Having heard these passages today, we might find ourselves daydreaming, digging deep into the recesses of hearts wondering, “What would I ask for? What do I want above all else?” And that’s great. It’s a fascinating question for sure, one that would serve us all well to ask in prayer, that might reveal a bit about who we are and where we’re going.

Yes, we could spend our morning fantasizing about what we want, but I’m not sure that that would the most fruitful use of our time. You see, so often, we get stuck fantasizing about a perfect world, stuck dreaming about what we really want, that we fail to do anything about it. We think and we wish and we hope for a better life, but it never goes anywhere beyond thoughts and wishes and hopes. Sometimes, sadly, what we truly want is right before us, right within our grasp, being offered to us by God… but we are unwilling to make any sacrifices to get it.

In our Gospel today, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to people finding a treasure of great worth, things that they desire above all else. They are not just happy to find them, not just hopeful that these things will one day be theirs: they go out of their way to get them. Without hesitation, the passage says that they sell all that they have to get it. “Take my money, I don’t care. I must have that.” They know how much they want that thing, how insufficient their life will be without it, and so they give up everything to get it. “What good is having all my stuff if I don’t have that?” Sometimes, to get what we really want, to get the greatest things, we have to sacrifice even some of the good things.

It reminds me of a time when I worked at a parish in Virginia about an hour outside of DC. One of the employees, of all things, was a former rockstar. Literally. For years he had toured the country playing music; he had multiple record deals, songs that appeared on major television shows; he even had music videos of his band on YouTube, professionally produced stuff. He never reached universal stardom, you’ve probably never heard of him or his band, but the man had lived the dream. He was a legit rockstar, making a living doing what so many people can only fantasize about.

Which, if you’re me, naturally raises the question: what the heck are you doing here? This was a talented guy who was still pretty young, still loved to make music—working a part-time job at a small parish 3000 miles from home. What are you doing here?

Turns out, rockstars have a certain appeal to women—who knew?—and he met the love of his life. This woman was even more talented than him in her field, and she got offered a once-in-a-lifetime job, something, believe it or not, that is even cooler than being a rockstar… that required them to move from LA to DC… that required him to essentially hang up his career.

And so that’s what he did. He moved to a place where he didn’t know anyone, where there is no music scene, where continuing to live as a rockstar simply wasn’t possible. He did this not because he wanted to give up music—he loved it. He did this not because his wife forced him against his will—they came to the decision together. No, he did willingly, even with some joy, because his wife was the most important thing in his life, not his music. Her happiness, not his career, was what he loved most. As good as his life was before, as much as he loved playing in a band in LA, it wasn’t as great as his wife and kids.

He had found the pearl of great price, and he was willing to sell all he had to get it. What good is holding onto all this good stuff if we let the great get away.

When you put it that way, what Jesus is talking about today seems immensely simple. If you were to have on one side everything we own, everything about us, everything we could ever do, and on the other side you were to have the Kingdom of Heaven—an existence of total bliss, eternity loving and serving God—the decision would be really easy, right? We would all pick door number two. Without question! You can have all my stuff. You can have everything to my name. Take my life! I don’t care. Give me the Kingdom! When you put them side to side, when you see the great treasure next to everything that is ours, there is no real comparison. 

And yet, when I look at my own life—maybe it’s true for you as well—I find myself passively picking door number one. I profess with my lips that all I want is God, that all I want is to live in heaven forever… all the while clinging to stuff that doesn’t really matter. Every single day I am offered the choice between the true treasure of a life with Christ and what I already have, and almost every single day I find myself unwilling to make a sacrifice, unwilling to sell all that I have to get it.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be possessions or money. Those things, eh, who cares to me. I’m a Franciscan. You can’t tempt me with stuff. But do you know what you can tempt me with? Success. Reputation. What people think about me. There’s something about being good at stuff, winning, having things turn out just the way that I planned that I struggle to sell, that I find myself clinging to from time to time. The treasure is right in front of me and Jesus is saying, “Come, follow me, and I’ll give you the greatest joy you’ll ever know. All you have to do is give up your reputation, your need to be liked, and rest in the success of the cross. Sell all you have and this will be yours.” How simple, right? Who needs control when Jesus is leading the way. And yet, I cling to it.

Maybe you’re like that as well. Or maybe… maybe the thing you cling to and refuse to sell isn’t money, isn’t success, but is actually your need to be in control, to make your own decisions. Maybe, it’s your desire for safety and comfort. Maybe it’s your constant need to be right and inability to admit fault, to say you’re sorry. Maybe it’s the grudges you hold, the anger you carry with you for past hurts. Maybe it’s your fear of the unknown. 

While many preachers will look at these readings today and ask you to think about what you truly desire, I think there’s a far more important question to tackle here: what is it that gets in the way of what you desire? What is it that you cling to, that you refuse to sell, that keeps you from your most prized treasure?

Our Lord may not come to us in a dream and tell us to ask for anything we want, but he is offering us the greatest gift we could ever imagine: eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. This gift is free, but it does have a cost. It does take some sacrifice. Sell all you have and receive the gift God is offering us.

The following is a homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.

As someone who grew up in the suburbs, I have to admit that it is very rare that Jesus’ parables about farming or herding sheep ever touch on anything I have ever experienced, but today is an exception. When I was in my first year with the friars, our director took the whole group of students for a day of service on a farm. Not exactly my idea of a good time, but hey, whatever floats your boat. It was an organic farm, meaning it didn’t use chemicals of any kind, and so every field had to be hand-picked for weeds. Which is what we did… for about six hours. Again… not my idea of a good time.

Besides the fact that we were on our hands and knees all day, a tiring task in itself, what made the job particularly difficult was that the leaves of the weeds looked almost identical to the leaves of the carrots we were supposed to be protecting. I cannot stress this enough… we were not good at this. For every five weeds we pulled up, we accidentally uprooted a carrot, often irreparably damaging the plant . As hard as we worked, I’m pretty sure we did more damage to the field than the weeds themselves. Especially when you consider the fact that one of the friars just gave up and started pulling out the carrots and eating them… we were probably better off just not doing anything. Which… is probably why we weren’t invited back.

It’s because of that experience that I get what Jesus is talking about today. I understand how easy it is to mistake the good from the bad, and to hurt the very thing you are trying to save. I understand the frustration and horror of accidentally doing harm to the good plants.

Of course, the purpose of Jesus’ parable is not to give farming advice; his care is not for the actual wheat. He’s talking about people. He’s using an experience that the people knew well, the difficulty and frustration and even shame of uprooting what is actually good, the loss of of something important, to warn his followers about the dangers of judging people too quickly. “You think it’s frustrating to accidentally ruin a good crop? Yeah, well, it’s far worse when you incorrectly judge a good person for bad and ruin their life.”

Even if you’ve never had an experience like this weeding plants, I’m sure each and every one of us knows what it’s like to misjudge someone, to think we know who someone is only to be proved wrong. 

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to catch our mistakes, to eventually see the person we judged in a different light and find that they are actually quite a good person. Lucky for my sisters and I, this is what happened with my parents—the first time my mom met my dad, she thought he was a buffoon. Really. Everyone thought he was so funny and she couldn’t stand him. And knowing my dad, he probably deserved this judgment, but imagine if she would have stuck to her first impression, judged him quickly and moved on. I wouldn’t be here.

When I entered the friars, I thought one of my classmates was incredibly immature. I couldn’t stand to be around him, and I wondered what he was even doing in the friars. It made me angry, actually, that the friars would accept someone like this. I looked down on him and wanted nothing to do with him. That was, until we moved into the same house and I got to know him a bit more. I saw the person he was under that goofy exterior, and realized that I could not have been more wrong. This was a really good man. A thoughtful man. Oddly enough, a mature man that I respected, and I enjoyed living with him immensely. How easy it would have been to dismiss him, how sad if that’s how our relationship ended.

Unfortunately, this is the case too often in our lives. We make judgments of others, we dismiss them, we say that they are dead to us because of who they are or what they did, and a relationship is broken. Unfortunately, as we well know, permanent harm is done to our families, to our communities, to our world, because of a misunderstanding, because someone jumped to a conclusion that wasn’t correct.

This week in the United States, we have seen the gravest example of this on display as three federal inmates were executed in four days, the first in 17 years. Three men were put death by our government, uprooted from the field before the harvest because they were believed to be weeds. And maybe they were. I don’t know.

What I do know is that we have shown time and again that we can be wrong, that in our pursuit to get the weeds we actually uproot the wheat, we actually kill innocent people. 

In 1983 a convenience store was robbed and the clerk was stabbed to death. Police arrested a man matching the description of the killer walking a few blocks away carrying $149 in cash. A witness, viewing the man through a windshield from the other side of the street said it was him, and he was executed a few years later. No knife was found, the man had no criminal record, and he gave testimony that it was another guy who looked very similar to him, a man who later was arrested for stabbing someone with a knife matching the murder weapon. In 2012, Columbia University completed a six year study of the case, determining that he was innocent.

In 1981, a 17-year old was accused of raping and killing a nun who lived across the street from him—a heinous act for sure. He was executed for this crime, but DNA evidence later showed that he was innocent, and another man confessed to the crime. A 17 year old boy, falsely accused and killed.

These are not uncommon stories. Since 1973, this country has exonerated 170 people from death row. 170 people who were tried in a court of law, found guilty, and sentenced to death, only to find out later that they were innocent. That’s more than 10% of the executions. And those are only the ones that we know about. How many more are wrongly accused? How many innocent people have we mistakenly put to death, weeding out the wheat by mistake?

This is a question that should trouble us as Catholics. Admittedly, for centuries, the Catholic Church did allow the death penalty. It was never a good thing, never to be done our of vengeance, always a lesser of evils that we tolerated. We believed that it was necessary for the defense of society, could quicken the rehabilitation of the guilty, served as a deterrence to crime, and offered retributive justice to those who were harmed. For centuries, popes and saints recognized it as a necessary evil that could produce some good. We believed that we could be a good judge of human beings, that we could remove the weed without touching the what.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. We are not very good at playing judge; we are not as just as God in our judgments. As our understanding of capital punishment began to grow over the years, as we reflected more on this Gospel passage, we began to see that the benefits we once held to were not as great as we once thought, and the evil it inflicted was just too intolerable. In 1992, St. John Paul II promulgated an updated teaching. In the revision of the catechism, he stated that there was only one legitimate justification for capital punishment: the defense of society. As pope, he continued to teach that, when the common good was in question, if there was a risk that the killer could get loose and kill again, the state had a responsibility to protect its people. But as he wrote later, “Such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Very rare, if not practically nonexistent.

Which brings us to pope Francis, who, just two years ago, adjusted the teaching once more. While many expressed their anger towards him, believing that he changed years of Church teaching, all he did was close the loophole: there is no longer any exception for this. The death penalty is a moral evil that should be avoided in all cases.

Effectively, for the vast majority of the world, his words have added nothing to what the Church had already taught as a result of John Paul II. For places like the United States, well-developed countries with effective penal systems, the possibility of defending capital punishment as a faithful Catholic ended in 1992, not 2018. 

But really, the possibility of actually supporting or insisting on the death penalty, ended with Jesus. It may have taken a while to get there, but we know now that we have no right to take a life because it it not our life to take; because Jesus told us to wait until the harvest; because we’re not very good at it. As Christians, there has never been a time in our history in which the death penalty was a desirable outcome, never been a time when seeking revenge, blood lust, or happiness at another’s death was acceptable. Regardless of what any recent popes have taught, we are still a people of peace and mercy, a people who recognize the wonderful gift of life, a people who do everything in our power to protect it. 

As much justification as we might find for taking another’s life in the Old Testament, let’s never forget that we have been ratified to a new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, a man who tells us not to judge, a man who tells us to show mercy and forgiveness, a man who knows all too well what it means to be killed for a crime he didn’t commit. May we always be on the side of Jesus, and not his executioners.