Sunday August 26, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 66:18-21) Reading II (Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13)
Gospel (St. Luke 13:22-30)
In the first reading today in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear something that would absolutely shock the Jewish people. That is, God would gather from all the nations a people that would be His own. And more shocking than that is that He would even make some of these priests and Levites and they would be clean. He says, "Just as the people bring their offerings to the Lord in clean vessels, so will these people be." For the people of Israel to think that a Gentile would be clean and that a Gentile could be a priest is something that would be absolutely out of the question. Yet, this was the prophecy that the prophet Isaiah made and, of course, we see that completely fulfilled. Our Lord tells the people the exact same thing in the Gospel reading: "There will be many people who will come from the east and the west and the north and the south and they will recline at table in the Kingdom of God, while you yourselves will be left on the outside."
Now, for those of us who have been baptized, we have become clean vessels. Saint Paul reminds us, however, that the treasure we have "is carried in earthen vessels." This is something that reminds us of how weak the vessel is - it is very breakable. For the Jewish people there were two types of vessels: There were stone vessels and then there were clay vessels, the earthen vessels. Stone vessels were always clean, you could not make them unclean. But the earthen vessels could be made unclean. So Saint Paul reminds us that the treasure that we carry, which is the grace of God and the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity, is carried in an earthen vessel. We have been made clean, but we can become unclean.
We cannot sit back and think that we are guaranteed salvation just because we have a belief in Jesus. The Lord makes that very clear when He says, "Try to enter by the narrow way." Then He tells us that many will not be strong enough and that when the day comes for judgment many people are going to say: "But we ate and drank with You. You preached in our streets." And He will say: "I do not know where you come from. I do not know who you are." Those would not be happy words to hear on the Day of Judgment.
Would Our Lord be able to say that about us? Would we have to stand before the Lord on Judgment Day and try to convince Him that He ought to remember who we are? "Remember, Lord, I put aside a little bit of time once a week to come to Mass. I did not pay any attention when I was there, but I was there, wasn't I? I ate and drank with You, right?" He will say: "I do not know who you are."
The greatest commandment says: "Love God with your whole heart and soul and strength." Not - "Put aside 45 minutes on Sunday morning and say that you have fulfilled everything that is necessary for the love of God." Would we have to stand before the Lord and say, "But didn't I hear that priest preaching every week? Didn't You preach in our streets, weren't You there with us?" He will say: "Did you live the message that you heard? It does not matter if you heard it or not, it is a question of whether you lived it. Did it mean anything to you? You heard the Gospel preached every single week, did it change your life? What kind of an impact did it have? Did it change you so that you became more like Me? Can I see My reflection in you? You, who are made in My image and likeness? You, who were made to glorify God in your words and in your actions? Can I see that in you?" That is the question He is going to ask on the Day of Judgment. Not - "Did you simply show up for Mass and go through the external motions?" But - "What effect has this had internally? Has it changed you?"
The day that we were made clean was the day of our baptism. And so we were changed. Now what He is looking for is not simply that there was a change one day, but that you lived that change. Did you live as a member of Jesus Christ? Did you live your life as a person who is righteous, who is clean, a person who has shunned the ways of sin and has accepted the ways of Jesus Christ and sought to live those out in your life?
You can look very simply at one particular point that Saint Paul mentions in his Letter to the Hebrews to see if you are living according to the way of Christ. He tells us never to forget the words that God addresses to us as His children. He says, "Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, because He addresses us as His own sons and daughters. For the Lord says that every son He receives, He disciplines." So you can ask yourself: "Is the Lord purifying me?"
Remember that we are earthen vessels not stone vessels. Thanks be to God, because the prophet Ezekiel reminds us that if we have hearts of stone we are in trouble; God will change those to hearts of flesh. But the earthen vessel, as I mentioned, can also be made unclean so God has to continually be purifying it until it is made perfect. All you need to do is look at your life and ask: "Is God purifying me? Do I recognize the discipline of God in my life? Are there difficulties and trials and purifications in my life? How am I reacting to those? Do I complain and shake my fist at God and tell Him to knock it off and ask, 'What have I done to You that You are doing this to me?' Or do I recognize that this is the discipline of God because He loves me; because He is purifying me so that I can love Him more; because any area within me in this earthen vessel that is so easily breakable needs to be purified so that I can become more perfect? Do I see it that way? That God, out of love for me so that I can love Him more, is purifying me through suffering, through the struggles and the difficulties of my life? Am I accepting those things or do I shun them?"
Now sadly, if you are like most Americans, if we are really honest we would have to say: "God has tried to purify me but I do not really cooperate. In fact, if I was truly honest with myself, if I am like most people in this country I would have to admit that I shun completely the purification of the Lord and instead I seek consolation." Again, you can see the dichotomy and ask yourself: "How do I deal with what the Lord gives to me? Do I run away from it? Do I try to find something to make myself feel better?"
That can take many forms. That can take the form of sitting for long periods of time in front of the TV set doing absolutely nothing. It can mean sitting in front of the Internet trying to find something to make ourselves feel better and get our mind onto something else. It can take the form of going out and spending more money, trying to find some new thing that will make me happier: new clothes, more makeup, or whatever it may be that is going to make me feel good about myself. It could be looking for pleasure in any kind of manner. Whatever it might be, we all have our ways of running away from the Lord.
But the ultimate question still is "Is the Lord trying to purify you?" because that is what it comes down to. If there is not some kind of spiritual suffering, if there is not the discipline of the Lord in your life, then the only conclusion that you can come to is either that God does not recognize you as His own son or daughter or He has given up on you. You see, what it comes down to is that we have to see these things with spiritual eyes. Most of us, as I already mentioned, when God disciplines us and purifies us, kick and scream and complain and we wonder why He is doing this to us.
All you have to do is look at your own family. If you are a parent, you can ask yourself if you discipline your children. If so, why? Did your children kick and scream when you said, "You must eat your broccoli. You must take a bath. You must clean your room. You must take care of these things. You may not do these things."? Maybe you even had to put them in their room or you gave them a spanking and they did not like it. They complained; they whined; they kicked; they screamed; and yet, you don't back down as a parent. Why? It is because you love them. Why do you think God would be any different? If He loves you and you are His child and you are doing things that are not good, things that are sinful or at least imperfect, He says, "I do not want you to do that anymore. Stop that!" And He disciplines you. We kick and scream just like our little children do, but God, out of love for us, does not back away.
Now there comes a point when your kids are teenagers and they become so belligerent, they are so disobedient, and they decide that they are going to go against what you have taught, that you stop trying to discipline them. Instead, all you can do is pray because to discipline them at that point, if they have become that belligerent, becomes a self-defeating exercise and they only get worse. God does the exact same thing. Sometimes when our kids are older and they get into their early twenties and thirties and there is nothing that we are going to be able to do to try to convince them, we simply have to let them go. How heartbreaking that is for a parent. If our heavenly Father has simply let us go our own way, if God lets you do whatever it is that you want to do and He does not discipline you when you do things that are wrong, then you had better worry.
If you are trying, on the other hand, to enter through the narrow gate, if you are saying, "I want to do God's Will," and you stray from the path a little bit, the Lord is going to put you back on the path. He is going to take you by the hand and pull you back. If you stray quite a way, He might have to smack you a few times to get you back on track - but that is because He loves you. Do not look at Him and say, "But I am trying to get through there, leave me alone!" If he left you alone, He would have allowed you to stray. Instead, out of love, He gently pushes you back onto the path so that you will be able to enter through that narrow gate.
That is the part that we need to look at. Out of love, God has made us clean. He has called us from all the nations - we are the Gentiles. We were not Jewish people, most of us; we were the Gentiles. We were the ones that were not expected to be part of God's temple. But God has made us His own and we cannot sit back arrogantly and say, "Because God has made me His own son or daughter, I am free. I can do whatever I want. I am in! The door is always open!" No. Because we are His sons and daughters, He will discipline us because He loves us. He has gathered all of us from the east and the west and He invites us to the table of God's children in Heaven, but the choice of whether or not we are going to sit at table with Him is entirely up to us.
There is only one way that we can gauge our progress, and that is to ask the simple question: Is God purifying us? Is He disciplining us? Is He treating us as His own sons and daughters? Or has He given up and let us go our own way? If we want to truly do God's Will, it is to be a 24 hour a day job. We are to be His children; to act like His children; to become truly one with Him; to radiate the image of God in our lives and to allow God in all things to purify us - to perfect us so we will truly be the sons and daughters of Almighty God .
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.