Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A
One of my favourite television shows of all time was Kung Fu. It was on in the early 70s and told the story of a man who was half American and half Chinese who wandered the Wild West looking for his brother. The main character was Kwai Chang Caine. He was orphaned at a young age and raised by monks in a Shaolin monastery in China. While he was there, he learned about life, goodness, and nonviolence. He studied the great philosophers and was often challenged by his teachers with difficult moral and philosophical questions. He also studied the martial arts, and despite his nonviolent disposition, he always seemed to be kicking or throwing someone around (always in self-defense, of course).
I enjoyed many things about the show, but one of the most amazing things was the way that Caine always had a sensible answer or solution for every situation. It could be a conflict between people, a physical challenge, or a personal crisis in someone’s life. He was able to speak and act with great wisdom, even in situations that were new and unfamiliar to him. I was always impressed by that.
Now you’re probably saying that Kwai Chang Caine had some very talented Hollywood writers coming up with his wise sayings and actions – and of course, you’re right. But I think we all know someone who is wise – who can look at nearly any situation, and find a solution that makes sense.
How do they do that? How did they develop the wisdom to know how to respond to all the circumstances life throws at them? They can’t anticipate each and every problem and work out a solution in advance. Responding to life with wisdom takes more than a formula.
This is part of what St. Paul is telling us in the second reading today. Many of the people of his time thought that if they just followed the list of rules that were set by their religious leaders, they would have everything necessary for a good relationship with God. These were rules related to eating, washing, worshiping, and other things, and they followed these rules like a formula. St. Paul said: “…no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law…” He wasn’t telling them to ignore the law, he was telling them that to maintain their relationship with God – to be saved – they needed to do more than simply follow a set of rules. He said: “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Beyond following the set of rules, they had to have faith in Jesus – and that meant following Jesus’ teachings. And Jesus didn’t typically say: “Don’t eat pork. Wash yourself in a certain way before you eat.” He didn’t make a list of things that we should and shouldn’t do to our neighbours, he said: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” He didn’t give us strict guidelines about how we should use money. He said: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” He told us that our relationship with God must go beyond the formula. We have to see the bigger picture.
St. Paul understood that all of us damage our relationship with God through sin, but he says that the relationship can be repaired through Jesus. He said: “…Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” You notice he says that our redemption is a gift – it’s not something we earned. But we have to respond to this gift – and we respond through Jesus – not by following a list of rules.
I spoke about Kwai Chang Caine, and how he always seemed to know what to do in a conflict – not by following a set of rules, but by wisdom. Our relationship with God is always challenged. We can look at temptation to sin as a conflict – as a challenge to our relationship with God. So how do we respond when we are tempted? St. Paul is telling us that we probably won’t get very far looking at a rule book. How do we know what to do?
Caine was in the monastery in China for many years. His teachers made sure he understood the “big ideas” – the philosophy. And then they challenged him with specific situations – testing to see if he was able to apply the “big ideas” in a way that made sense. I said that you all probably know someone who is wise, and who is able to find solutions to a variety of problems. If you know such a person, that person is probably old (not necessarily, but probably). Why is that? An older person would have faced many difficult situations in their life. If they’ve learned from those situations, they would have developed some of their own “big ideas,” and figured out how to use what they learned from one situation to solve another problem. The key elements are experience, time, and an ability to learn.
Jesus took this one step further in the Gospel. He was also talking about our relationship with God, and what will happen at the end of our lives. He says that many people will come to him at the end of their lives and say: “I did many wonderful things – surely I belong in heaven.” And Jesus will say: “I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.” Just like St. Paul, he’s saying that there must be something more than just doing things – there must be faith in Jesus.
But you notice that even though Jesus says that actions aren’t enough – we have to have faith – he also says that we MUST act on our faith. He said that if people hear his Word and don’t act on it, it’s like building a house on sand – there’s no foundation. If they hear his Word and act on it, they will be like a person who built a house on a foundation of rock. We have to hear the Word of Jesus and we have to act on it. The Word is our foundation.
But how will we know the right actions? You remember that Caine studied for years in the Shaolin monastery, and that the wise person you know learned from the many experiences in their life. These were the foundations of rock that they used to make the right decisions. Jesus tells us that the way to know the right actions is: “…to hear these words” – his words. And if we really hear them, then we will act on them, and our actions will withstand rain, wind, and floods.
So how do we really hear the words of Jesus – these words that will give us a foundation of rock – that will help us to make wise choices in our lives – in all aspects of our lives? I want to give you some very practical ways that you can build your foundation. None of them involve traveling to monasteries in China, and you don’t have to be old.
The first is prayer. You can read or recite prayers, or you can just take time to realize that you are in the presence of God: just be aware of his power in your life at that moment. We should pray every day.
Jesus gave us his words, and they can be found in the Bible. I think most of us own a Bible. If you don’t, you should. If you go to buy one, remember that in Canada, we use the New Revised Standard Version – and make sure it’s a Catholic Bible. Now I sometimes have trouble figuring out what some of the things in the Bible mean, so I have a study Bible. It has a little description of each of the books, and at the bottom of each page, it has notes to explain some of the difficult parts. But just like owning a set of barbell weights doesn’t make you strong, owning a Bible will not build your foundation – unless you use it. St. Paul said today: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
You can focus your Bible reading on the weekend readings. There’s a website (http://www.usccb.org/nab) and there are books that will show you the readings for each weekend and for the daily masses as well. If you want to read a brief reflection on those readings, there’s a website you can go to: (http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/daily.html).
The Bible is our primary source of wisdom as Catholics.
There are other sources. If you go to a religious bookstore, or even Chapters, you’ll find books on specific areas of our faith and others that are more general. There’s a book called Catholicism for Dummies, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism. I’ve read the Compete Idiot’s Guide and enjoyed it. There are books on the lives of the saints. I’m currently reading a book on the lives of the doctors of the Church. Father Paul has spoken often about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the shorter, easier-reading version called the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
There are many websites in addition to the ones I mentioned earlier. There is a website for the Vatican. Father Paul mentions this one often (http://www.vatican.va). There is a website for the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops (http://www.cccb.ca). And, of course, there’s a website for the Archdiocese of Edmonton (http://www.edmontoncatholic-church.com).
By the way, all of these titles and websites will be available on the parish website. Just click on the homily for the ninth Sunday in ordinary time and you will find them.
I’ve given you a very incomplete list, but I wanted to give you some practical ideas – some starting points. There are many other sources of wisdom for us as Catholics. And keep in mind that I’m not talking today about knowledge – about knowing things – I’m talking about wisdom – the big ideas that guide our lives – the big ideas that should be a part of our lives beyond the walls of the church.
This wisdom is our rock – our foundation. Build it.