21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached August 25, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

As the parish priest of St. Peter’s I am here chiefly for the salvation of your souls. That is what the priesthood is about.

As story is told about St. John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. As he was arriving in the small French village of Ars, where he would remain for more than 40 years, he came upon a boy and said to him, “Show me the way to Ars and I will show you the way to heaven.”

The parish priest is to lead the people to heaven by keeping them united to the flock of Christ, which is the Church, by handing on the teaching of Jesus Christ, and by communicating the very life of Christ in the sacraments.

The parish priest lives for the salvation of souls, but unfortunately many do not seem to care much for the salvation of their own souls. Some seem to take salvation for granted, while others seem to be just plain negligent.

Sometimes a doctor prescribes some medicine, but the patient – out of pure negligence – never bothers to get the prescription filled. Or sometimes the doctor prescribes a particular diet, but the patient thinks it too troublesome to follow the diet. Sometimes someone who is sick doesn’t even bother going to the doctor because he doesn’t care much about his health. Sometimes it is a matter of despair, “What can the doctor do for me anyway?”

Well, when it comes to bodily health, the worst that can happen is that we will die and we will all die someday anyway. When it comes to the soul, the consequences of negligence or unbelief are much more severe. It means being cast out of the kingdom of God, cast into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth for all eternity.

Now when it comes to trusting medical doctors, they do not know everything and they can fail us. Jesus Christ, the Doctor of our salvation, for his part will never fail us; he merits our absolute belief and our complete confidence.

In today’s Gospel someone who belongs visibly to the people of God, just as like those who are at Mass today, asks Jesus if only a few will be saved. Jesus tells him not to take salvation for granted. People who do not presently belong to the people of God will enter the kingdom and be saved, while some who appear to belong will be cast out.

Let me give you a visible sign of what Jesus is talking about – a visible sign because we cannot judge a person’s heart or know where, in the end, he will be.

I am a convert and was baptized only at age 20; you could say that I came from the west for the purpose of reclining that the table with the saints. Please God, by his mercy, I will persevere to the end and be saved. Here in this city there are people who were baptized as children and were raised as Catholics, but are now nowhere to be found. For the time being they have visibly left; please God, by his mercy, they will return before being cast out altogether.

Jesus tells us not to take things for granted. It is not enough to have had an experience of Jesus, as the people of his time experienced him eating and drinking with them and teaching in their streets. Jesus tells them and us, Strive to enter through the narrow gate.

What is this ‘narrow gate’? It is the Cross. Jesus said, If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Lk 9:23-24)

This is also the teaching of today’s 2nd reading. We want to think of ourselves as children of God, but do we really want to embrace all that requires of us? We heard today, whom the Lord loves he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. All the trials and sufferings of life are the ‘discipline’ of the Lord, by which he instructs us and makes us worthy to be his children.

Mother Teresa once said:

“Suffering has to come because if you look at the cross, he has got his head bending down — he wants to kiss you — and he has both hands open wide — he wants to embrace you. He has his heart opened wide to receive you. Then when you feel miserable inside, look at the cross and you will know what is happening. Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you. Do you understand, brothers, sisters, or whoever you may be? Suffering, pain, humiliation — this is the kiss of Jesus. At times you come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you. I once told this to a lady who was suffering very much. She answered, ‘Tell Jesus not to kiss me — to stop kissing me.’ That suffering has to come that came in the life of Our Lady, that came in the life of Jesus — it has to come in our life also. Only never put on a long face. Suffering is a gift from God. It is between you and Jesus alone inside.” (Quoted by Fr. Michael Gaitley, Day 15, 33 Days to Morning Glory)

Through the Cross comes the resurrection; only through the Cross.

The Blessed Virgin Mary stood by the Cross of Jesus and she was the only one who then believed; she is the only one who believed that Jesus was the Son of God, offering his life as a sacrifice for our sins, and that he would rise again from the dead to give us eternal life.

She is the only one who understood what Jesus was doing and said in her heart, “Yes. Amen. So be it.” She is the one who can teach us the secret of standing at the foot of the Cross.

From the Cross, Jesus gave Mary to us as our Mother, and she always stands by us, when we find ourselves brought near to the Cross. She always stands by us and helps us to believe, to hope, and to love. She helps us to smile at the foot of the Cross and receive the gift of forgiveness and life pouring forth from the wounded heart of Jesus. She teaches us to receive Jesus’ kiss and his embrace – and to return it.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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