ALL ABOUT CHOICES (17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A)

Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52

Imagine you get a blank cheque from the world’s richest man and he tells you that you can fill in any amount you so desire; how much will you fill in? Or imagine you are taken to Shoprite and told to pick anything you want, quantity not being an issue; what will you pick? I am very certain your mind is doing a marathon now, and you may be feeling lost at the thought of such possibilities. It is going to be a tough choice to make really, as a million thoughts will flash through your mind in seconds. These scenarios I have painted are meant to help us understand fully, what Solomon was faced with as we heard in our first reading when God told him, “Ask what I shall give you.” Imagine the owner of the whole universe telling you to ask anything and it shall be yours! It was a tough decision, a tough choice for Solomon to make; it was not as simple as it is when we read about it today.

Indeed, life is full of choices. Some are simple choices, some are tough, yet, we must choose. And indeed, at every step of the way through life, we are making choices, either actively or passively. The parables of Jesus in today’s gospel reading also present us with the reality of making choices. Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a field of treasure and a pearl of great value that people found. They had to choose between taking the risk of selling all they owned to lay hands on those treasures or keeping their resources and forfeiting the treasures. According to Jesus’ parable, they chose to let go of all in order to possess the rich treasure of the kingdom of God. In the third parable of the dragnet in the gospel reading, Jesus says at the end of time, just as fishermen choose the good fishes and throw away the bad ones, so will God separate the righteous from the unrighteous. From today’s liturgy of the Word, we shall draw two lessons for our reflection.

  • Whether we spend eternity in heaven or hell is our choice

In the parables of Jesus, he said the kingdom of heaven is like a field of great treasure and like a pearl of great value. Those who found it had to choose whether to pay the price and possess it or not. Here therefore, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is a choice that we have to make, but a choice that comes at a price, and only those who choose to pay the price can have possession of it.

The price we have to pay are the things we have to give up that, clinging to them will prevent us from gaining entrance to that kingdom. Due to the eternal value of that kingdom, no price is too great to pay for it, so it will be foolish to choose against paying the price. And Jesus warns, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mk 8:36).

If we can make sacrifices for earthly, temporal things and comfort, we should be more willing and ready to make sacrifices for our eternity. Ultimately however, the choice is ours! Those who choose to pay the price shall inherit the treasure of eternal life in heaven; those who choose otherwise shall have to bear the pain of eternal damnation in hell. But as for God, he has placed before us life and death, blessings and curses, and he has cautioned and advised us to choose life (cf. Deut 30:19). What then will your choice be?

  • At the end of time, God will choose who enters heaven or not

In the third parable in our gospel reading (the parable of the dragnet), Jesus says as fishermen separate the good fish from the bad, so shall God separate the righteous people from evil people at the end of time. He repeats a similar point in the parable of the last judgment when he said God shall separate people as shepherds separate goats from sheep (cf. Mat 25:31-46). In last week’s gospel reading about the weeds and wheat, we also read that the reapers shall separate the wheat from the weeds. All these are about choices – choosing the good from the bad.

There is however, an interesting side to this choice that God will make: we are the ones who will make the choice for God; he shall only give us the reward of the choices that we have made during our lifetime. As God clearly states through the prophet Ezekiel, he “has no pleasure in the death of a sinner but would rather see him turn from his evil ways and live” (cf. Ezk 33:11). So if we choose to do good while we live here on earth, God shall choose us like the good fish, the sheep and the wheat. If however, our choices here on earth are evil, sinful choices, then we shall be cast out as the bad fish, the goats and the weeds. And Jesus says “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” at that time, meaning that there will be painful regrets. But then, it will be too late to make amends.

We must always keep in mind therefore, that day by day, we are making choices for heaven or for hell, and at the end of time, God shall crown us with the reward of the choices we have made. In the final analysis, whether we spend eternity in heaven or in hell shall be all about the choices we make, hence, let us choose wisely. We pray for the grace to always make the right choices; and may God also grant us the courage to make the necessary sacrifices needed to win us eternal life in heaven. Amen

WHILE MEN WERE SLEEPING…(16TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A)

By: Rev. Fr. Sylvanus Ameh

Readings: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43

The creation story in the book of Genesis tells us that when God created the universe and all that is in it, including man, he saw that they were all very good. The third chapter of the same book narrates how sin came into the world through the trickery of Satan. On account of that sin, God placed punishment on man, the devil, and the soil. From that time on, sin has become a constant factor in the lives of all human beings who have to struggle to always rise above it. It is important to state that the devil succeeded to trick Adam and Eve into sin because they let their guards down, taking their eyes off of the instructions of God and placing them on the distractive attractions placed before them by Satan.

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells three parables that are very instructive. The first parable is of particular relevance for this homily. In it, Jesus narrates something similar to the creation story. The farmer sowed good seeds (just as God created the world to be good); the good seeds are the sons of God (as Adam and Eve were good children of God before they sinned); the enemy (Satan) sowed weeds in the farm (same as he planted sin in the world according to the creation story); the harvest time is the day of reckoning (the same way God came calling for Adam in the garden of Eden); and there was the reward of casting the weeds into the furnace of fire (just as God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden). Of great importance in that parable is what Jesus said, that the weeds were planted “while men were sleeping.” What does this mean?

According to a theory of epistemology and psychology, the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) at birth, and we learn by sense impressions made on our minds. The implication of this theory is that the things we get to know, whether good or bad are picked up as we grow. As we see in the parable of Jesus and the creation story above, God created us good, but evil comes in along the way. Again, as Jesus said, this happens while men are sleeping. Therefore, “while men were sleeping” simply means when people are not alert; when people drop their guard; when people become too lax; when people no longer pay attention. In spirituality, “while men were sleeping” also means when people become lukewarm. Thus, “sleeping”, in the context Jesus used it, is not an act but a state, especially a state of negligence and carelessness.

While this message of caution from Jesus is of great importance for all of us, I would like in this homily, to address it more to parents as it concerns the upbringing of their children. Without fear of error, I can confidently say that a lot has and is still going wrong with parenting in our generation. It is said that a society is a reflection of the families that make it up. Looking at the nature of our society today, what conclusions then do we draw about our families? Of a fact, many parents have slept and are still sleeping when it comes to the proper and godly raising of their children. Many have abdicated their parental responsibilities to their relatives, maids, friends, neighbours and their children’s school teachers. Some have become absentee parents their children get to see only once in a while. Some have themselves become bad examples for their children. Worse still, some are present in the life of the children, but they either consciously or negligently teach their children erroneous things or indulge them when they err. When any of these happens, room is created for the “enemy” to sow weeds where there should be good seed.

It has become a common but disheartening sight today to see children from Christian homes who know little to nothing about their faith other than they are Christians and they go to church on Sundays. It is very worrisome to see children of Catholic families who cannot properly make the sign of the cross, let alone correctly say basic Catholic prayers. Many Christian, Catholic parents today consider is a burden to send their kids for catechism of two hours in a week, but have no problem engaging them in several hours of academic and other forms of lessons, forgetting that as they seek to give their children a firm foundation for this life, so should they give them a firm foundation for eternal life, “for what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul (Mk 8:36). Many Christian children today, due to the “sleep” of their parents, neither know nor can recite simple scriptural verses or correctly sing simple Christian songs but can mime the complete lyrics of some ungodly songs without error. Parents, wake up! While you are busy sleeping on your Christian parental responsibilities, the devil is sowing weeds into the lives of your children, and when the day of reckoning comes, the consequences will be disastrous.

While parents are in deep spiritual slumber, the devil is sowing weeds in the lives of their children…

To all of you parents, the word of God speaks to you to stay awake, to stay vigilant, to not sleep, to not neglect your responsibilities as parents, to raise your children in the way they should go (Prov 22:6), to jealously guard and nurture the good seed that God put in them from the beginning, and to ensure that they are ready to be harvested into the kingdom of God when the time comes. You need to constantly stay awake and be on guard because you do not know when or how the devil will sneak into your children’s lives to sow the weed of ungodliness. Jesus already gives us a forewarning when he said “if the house owner knew when the thief would come, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into (Mat 24:43). The sad truth however is that many parents today are even the ones opening the door for the thief with their own hands, and they give him a spare key. As we can learn from the other two parables of Jesus about the mustard seed and the leaven, all that is needed could be just a small amount of negativity planted in the heart as seed, and that tiny little seed can produce massive results. This means therefore, that you must take nothing for granted. The same is also applicable to us all. Sin is usually like a snowball that starts small and rolls into a massive ball.

Today therefore, Jesus challenges us to not let our guards down, as our enemy, the devil, is prowling round, looking for good hearts to plant evil seeds (1 Pet 5:8), so we pray for the grace to be wise enough not to give him a chance. Amen.

Statues of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary Beheaded in US Parishes

In a recent wave of attacks and vandalism on Catholic church buildings, properties and sacred images in different parts of the United States of America, a statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd was toppled and beheaded on Tuesday night, 14th July, or early Wednesday morning, 15th July, in Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Southwest Miami-Dade County.

According to a Catholic News Agency report, “On Wednesday morning, the statue was discovered knocked over and missing his head. Fr. Edvaldo DaSilva, the parochial vicar at Good Shepherd Church, told local media that he did not believe the damage could be accidental, as the pedestal’s screws had been tampered with.”

The act of vandalism was immediately reported to the police, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami has asked that the investigation be treated as a hate crime.

In a similar attack over the weekend, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was attacked, knocked over and beheaded at a parish in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which, according to the Catholic News Agency, is the third reported incident against a statue of Mary occurring in the same weekend. The outdoor statue was located at St. Stephen Parish, Chattanooga, and the incident occurred on Saturday, 11th July.

While the reasons for these and other similar attacks in Boston, Brooklyn, Florida and California which include vandalism and arson are not known, it is obvious that the Catholic Church in the United States has become the target of some persons or groups, which, if not nipped in the bud, can degenerate into attacks on both parishioners and church personnel. We are indeed in perilous times and must seek the face of the Lord Jesus to protect his Church. Our comfort should be in the words of Jesus that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. Pray for the Church in the US.

PONDER OR BE PLUNDERED (15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A)

By: Rev. Fr. AMEH Sylvanus

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 64; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

With very forceful imageries, the first and gospel readings of today’s Mass speak to us about the Word of God. Through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, God compares his Word to the rain that does not leave the sky and return midway. Once it is sent, it must fulfill its mission. Jesus, using the familiar imagery of a sower, likens the Word of God to seeds scattered for sowing and falling on different soil. The seed (word) is the same, the source of it is the same, but the nature of the soil on which each seed (word) falls determines the fruitfulness or otherwise of it. However, if we put God’s declaration in the first reading side by side Jesus’ parable in the gospel reading, one thing that stands clear is that once the seed (Word) leaves the source, it must hit the soil and produce effect(s). So, as Hebrews 4:12 says, “The Word of God is (always) alive and active.”

In Jesus’ parable in the gospel, he gives reasons why the word does not bear fruit in some of those who receive it. For one group (along the path), they hear the word, do not understand it and do not seek for deeper knowledge, so one small devil confuses them and takes the word away from them. For another (on rocky soil), they accept the word led by their emotions, not their reason, so they do not think of the implications of their decision. Some even cry and promise repentance, but alas, that is a surface repentance which has no root; some make pledges upon hearing a word until time for fulfilling the promise comes, then they falter. For this reason, the word has no root in them and it evaporates once that emotion has passed and a thing challenges them. There are also those who know the implications of accepting the word, but the word has rivals in them (the thorns). They are neither here nor there; they are unwilling to let go of the things the word demands of them to sacrifice. They are unwilling to let go of the lies, the cheating, the unfaithfulness, the drunkenness, the fornication, the adultery, the pornography and masturbation; they are undecided whether or not to fully accept the word and let go of the anger, the envy, the jealousy, the backbiting and the selfishness. So this rivalry, prolonged for some time, kills the word and it yields no fruit in them. Besides all of these issues, Jesus also squarely puts the blame at their doorstep when he said “this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes have closed.” The immediate implication of this statement of Jesus is that we are responsible for the effectiveness or otherwise of the word of God in our lives. This is not however, to rule out completely, the help of the Holy Spirit in the whole process, but we must note that the Holy Spirit will only help us if we open ourselves to his help. And then finally, there are those (the good soil) who hear the word of God, ponder on it, understand it and bear fruit in different measures.

It is interesting to note that for all the other three unproductive soils (hearts/lives), the solution is one and the same: pondering on the word of God. If you do not ponder on the word of God, you will be plundered of the word of God. This is why Psalm 1:3 makes it clear that those who ponder on the word of God day and night are like trees planted beside flowing waters, yielding their fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade. Interestingly also, there is a word of God that addresses each of the different hearts described by Jesus in the gospel reading. To those who hear the word but do not understand, 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to show yourselves approved unto God.” No one gets to fully understand anything without committing to studying it; in the same vein, no one gets to understand the word of God and its demands without committing to studying it. For those who are led by emotion, Luke 14:28-30 admonishes, using the analogy of a man who wants to build, to first count the cost. To the third group who are choked by the cares of this world, 1 John 2:17 says “the world and all that is in it passing away”, therefore, “what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his life?” (Mk 8:36) 

Today, dear friends, let us ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

  • What is my relationship with the word of God?
  • Is the word of God a priority in my life?
  • What is my reaction when I hear the word of God?
  • How much of the word do I have in me?
  • How much of God’s written word do I know?
  • How much time do I give to it, especially to studying it?

We will also need to ask ourselves how fruitful we are on account of God’s word. Spiritual growth and fruitfulness is close to impossible without a relationship with the word of God. We see this clearly demonstrated in the parable Jesus told in our gospel text. It is important we also note that apart from spiritual fruitfulness, the word of God also gives us all-round fruitfulness: medical, social, financial, emotional, etc. With the word of God, we can speak fruitfulness into any and every area of our lives, for there is power in the word of God. Unfortunately however, many do not know this because they do not read and ponder on the word of God. Little wonder God said through the prophet Hosea that his people are perishing for lack of knowledge, knowledge that is available for their taking (Hos 4:6). Hear me, child of God, and hear me again: If you do not ponder on the word of God, you will be plundered of the word of God and lose the benefits of all its power in/to your life. The devil knows that the day you give room to the word of God to truly bear seed in your life, that day, he loses his grip on you, so he will do everything to keep you away from it. Jesus says with a little faith, you can move mountains and Romans 10:17 says “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Do you now see the connection why the devil will fight to prevent you from getting rooted in the word? Be wise!

 The challenge before us today therefore, is to devote more time to studying God’s word and bearing the fruit of it thereof. It is my prayer that we do not take this matter lightly, but that by our commitment to God’s word, He may water our lives and make us fruitful. Amen

THE SPIRIT vs THE FLESH (HOMILY FOR 14TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A)

By: Rev. Fr. AMEH Sylvanus

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9,11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

“…for if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

One consciousness that scripture puts in our minds as believers is the fact that there is a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil, each trying to control the human person. These are also depicted as the spirit and the flesh. The force of good (Spirit) is of God, while the force of evil (flesh) is of the devil. The writings of Saint Paul, more than any other book of the bible, teach this truth severally. One example is the second reading of today’s Mass. In it, Saint Paul reminds us that by virtue of our union with Christ, especially through baptism, we are no longer people of the flesh but have become people of the Spirit. This does not mean that we no longer live in the flesh, but rather, that we are not controlled by the desires of the flesh. This is somewhat another rendition of what Jesus says of his disciples, that though they are in the world, they do not belong to the world (Jn 17:16) or as Saint Paul says elsewhere, that we must not be conformed to the standards of this world (Rom 12:2).

Specifically, today’s second reading says “if you live according to the works of the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” To understand what this means, we must first know what the works of the flesh are. The bible gives us an answer in Galatian 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness (sexual impurity such as pornography and masturbation), lewdness (vulgarity, profanity), idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, anger, selfishness, dissensions, heresies (factions), envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries (merry making), and the like; … those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Opposed to these works of the flesh are the works of the Spirit, which we popularly refer to as the fruits of the Holy Spirit. That same book of Galatians again gives us answers as to what the works of the Spirit are.

Galatians 5:22-23 says But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness (generosity), faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law. 

Note: Words in parenthesis are mine

Something striking that stands out from these opposing lists of the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit is that both of them have implications for this life and the afterlife. As the second reading says, the works of the flesh produces death, and the works of the Spirit produces life. And a close look at the listed works will show that it is true. The word of God cannot lie!

In the gospel reading, Jesus says “come to me, you who are overburdened and I will give you rest…Take my yoke, and you will find rest for your souls.” When we understand this statement of Jesus in the light of this second reading, then we shall see how powerful and comforting this invitation is. Hear me and hear me well, child of God, if you are living by the works of the flesh, whether you realize it or not, there is a heavy burden on you. The good news however, is that Jesus has promised to give you rest if you come to him. The yoke of Jesus is what we have listed as the fruits of the Spirit. Anyone who lives by them shall indeed find rest for his/her soul. This is something that only the simple of heart can understand, and when we humble ourselves under the power of the Holy Spirit, then we shall understand and appreciate this truth. And as Jesus also says in the gospel reading, God has hidden this simple truth from the learned (arrogant) and revealed them to infants (humble). What this means therefore is that for repentance to happen, humility is required.

Today therefore, let us check ourselves, brethren. Take your Bible and list out these opposing works (of the flesh and of the Spirit). Truthfully look at the list and see how many of each you can identify in your life. For each of the works of the flesh you identify, ask God to give you the grace and courage to eliminate if from your life. If you are able to sincerely do this, then, as Jesus says in the gospel reading, you will find rest, not only for your souls but also for your physical, mental, social and emotional life.

We pray that God may grant us the grace of true repentance as we strive to replace the works of the flesh with the works/fruits of the Spirit. Amen