Tax Collectors and Sinners

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time (Cycle II), November 5, 2020. The audio is available here.


“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Friends, consider the scene at the beginning of today’s Gospel. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus because they wanted to listen to Him. Interesting group of people, isn’t it? Tax collectors and sinners. St. Luke manages to suggest in four neat words the great mass of unwashed deplorables, the hoi polloi of Israel and Judea, the kind of people Ted Hughes describes rather more colorfully in his translation of Bacchus and Pentheus:

“Children and their teachers, laborers, bankers,
Mothers and grandmothers, merchants, agents,
Prostitutes, politicians, police,
Scavengers and accountants, lawyers and burglars,
Builders, layabouts, tradesmen, con-men,
Scoundrels, tax-collectors, academicians,
Physicians, morticians, musicians, magicians,
The idle rich and the laughing mob!”

“Bacchus and Pentheus,” trans. Ted Hughes, in Tales from Ovid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), 68-75

These came to hear the Gospel, the word of life from the lips of the one that some in the crowd whispered excitedly was the “Christ,” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But the scribes and Pharisees, the religious élite, draw back. They stand apart from the crowds. These are not their kind of people, after all. And they whisper to one another something altogether different than the crowds, something they mean to be a condemnation of the whole phenomenon of the prophet from Nazareth: “This man, this Jesus, welcomes these sinners!”

If he were a prophet, if he were from God, he would reject them. If he were truly the Son of God, he would be with us. Are we not the teachers of the people? Are we not righteous? Do we not keep the law, fast, tithe, purify our hands? By the very fact that he welcomes them, he rejects us. And if he rejects us, then he rejects the covenant, the temple, the law—he places himself against God!

The seeds of their condemnation of Jesus before Pilate are already planted here in whispers.

For the Pharisees and scribes, after all, the line was clear. Those who do what the law commands are righteous and worthy of reward. Those who do not are wicked and deserving of punishment.

What the Pharisees and the scribes fail to see is that the line was not drawn between these worthy people of God and those tax collectors and sinners. The line is drawn down the center of every human heart. And here is the fundamental difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the sinners from whom they draw back: the Pharisees are confident in their flesh, that is, in their Jewish bloodline, in the mark of the circumcision which made them members of the people of God, in their tribe, in their status, in righteousness based on the law.

Who could accuse them of any sin? In the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that according to the law, “I was blameless,” and we have no reason to doubt that the Pharisees could say the same. What reason do they have to repent and believe in the Gospel of this preacher from Nazareth? They can stand tall before God and man on the strength of their own conduct.

Not so these sinners. The tax collectors were considered sell-outs and traitors to their own people, more Romans than Jews. These people coming to hear Jesus have no status. They have no dignity. But they see more clearly than the Pharisees, whose deadly pride and self-righteousness has made them blind: this man is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The Pharisees have confidence in themselves. The sinners can only have confidence in Him.

Dear Christian people, what the scribes and Pharisees whispered with horror and resentment, we proclaim with boundless joy. This man, Jesus, true God and true Man, welcomes sinners!

He does not welcome sin. He cannot, any more than light can welcome darkness: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is that “light from light, true God from true God,” who goes forth into the world in search of sinners to call us to repentance and bring us back to life. Like the woman in the parable who lights a lamp and overturns the house to find her one lost coin, Jesus is that light who comes forth from God and moves heaven and earth to find one lost soul, that Good Shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one whom he has lost. Unlike the Pharisees, this God never writes anyone off as a lost cause: He goes after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.

Imagine the look on the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus turns to them and says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine ‘righteous people’ who have no need of repentance!”

They know he means them. They know he is saying that one of these poor sinners, if he only repents and believes in the Gospel, if he puts his trust in Jesus, the very “face of the Father’s mercy” (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §1) and “goes and sins no more,” is a greater joy to God and all His angels and saints than ninety-nine stiff-necked, self-righteous Pharisees. And they hate him for it. One day, they will kill him for it.

But dear friends, we love him for it. Because we are among that crowd of sinners, you and I. We “do not put our confidence in the flesh”; we know we are not blameless; we cannot come to God proud of our own merits. We are the poor and broken ones who come before Him often uncertainly, with our eyes lowered. We have been wounded before. We have been rejected. We know our faults all too well. We worry that we are not good enough for God—or at least that He would prefer to spend His time with holier, better, more perfect people than the likes of us.

But this God of ours does not demand that we be perfect to approach Him. He waits for us with patience. If we are lost, he comes in search of us. And when we draw near at last to listen to Him, He says to us again: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Live Not By Lies

This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. John Paul II, October 22, 2020. The audio is available here.


The Rule of Saint Benedict begins with this question. “‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’ If you hear this and your answer is ‘I do,’ God then directs these words to you: ‘If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace.”

Yet Our Lord in today’s Gospel asks us a very different question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” And before we can answer, “yes, Lord, of course!”—”No, I tell you, but rather division.” 

These are difficult, challenging words. 

What we must understand first is that where there is truth, there is always division. Truth is the light which shines through the fog and the darkness of the world, exposing the shadows of error and deception and revealing the shape of things as they really are. But as St. John says, “the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” So wherever the truth is proclaimed, it is a sword which separates not only what is from what is not, but those who believe it and live by it from those who prefer to live by useful, comfortable, familiar lies. It is, in fact, a bright line drawn down the middle of our households, our families, our society, our nation, our Church, and even (if we are honest) our own hearts.

Of course, truth is more than just a set of propositions to be believed. Truth is, in fact, a person. “Ego sum via, veritas et vita,” says the Lord: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And as our Holy Father of happy memory, St. John Paul the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, taught us in his encyclical entitled The Splendor of Truth: “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone’ (Jn 1:9), [we] become ‘light in the Lord’ and ‘children of light’ (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).”

Ah, but now at once we see what it means that the Lord came not “to establish peace … but rather division.” The truth which Jesus Is and was sent to reveal—the truth, for example, that we are made in God’s image, male and female; that we belong to Him; that we are not autonomous and self-sufficient, masters of our own little lives and destinies, but creatures made by the hand of a great Creator, sinners in need of redemption and sheep in urgent danger from the wolves; that God who loves us wills to save us; that we are faced with a grave and urgent choice, whether we are for Him or against Him!— that truth not only divides; it crucifies. “For the hearts of men preferred darkness to light.” 

And so St. Simeon, holding the Christ child in his arms, prophesied to Mary that this baby God was “a sign which shall be contradicted” (Lk  2:34), spoken against.

Now, the disciple is not greater than the master. If we follow the truth, the narrow way which is Christ, we too shall be contradicted. We must expect to be mocked, misunderstood, rejected and abused, to suffer separation even from loved ones, to face slanderous and vile insults and worse from a world which hates us because it hated Him first (cf. Jn 15:18). 

Very well: fiat. Let it be done! But if we leave it at that, it looks like a bleak and lonely road indeed. “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” So listen again now to the Lord’s words at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

That urgent fire in the heart of Jesus which he longed to set loose upon the world is the Holy Spirit, that Spirit Who so inflamed the apostles at Pentecost that they went fearlessly to the ends of the earth and gladly accepted martyrdom for the splendor of the truth they proclaimed. That’s why Saint Paul prays that “the Father … may grant you, in accord with the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit.” We need the Holy Spirit, not only to make us strong enough to proclaim the truth and live by the truth, not even just to reveal the truth to us, “the length and breadth and height and depth,” but to transform us into the truth of who we are.

We are indeed made for peace, but that peace comes only from living in the truth of who God is and who we are, and becoming through obedience who we are meant to be. 

To seek and strive after that peace means to seek and strive after and live by the whole truth of Christ. We must “live not by lies”: not by the lies of the world, not by the lies of the Devil, not even by the lies which make up our false selves. We must renounce all such lies, be divided from them, to live in the truth. And only obedience to the truth, in the end, will set us free to live the life of God. 

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Thou spirit of truth. Come and teach us all things. Come, transform us. Come, unite us to yourself.

Like a Thief in the Night

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Monica, August 27, 2020. The audio is available here.


“Behold, I am coming like a thief,” says the Lord to St. John. “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed” (Rev 16:15).

And again: “If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rev 3:3).

How striking, that Our Blessed Lord now compares Himself to a thief! Let us take care to understand him rightly. The thief of souls, after all, is the Devil, who climbs into the sheepfold “to steal and slaughter and destroy” (Jn 10:10). He comes in the dead of night while the hired men are sleeping; they leave the sheep and run away at his approach (v. 12). But Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, comes so that His sheep “might have life and have it more abundantly.” He “lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).  

It should surprise us that our Shepherd now tells us He is coming “like a thief.” Indeed, the whole point is to surprise us. St. Augustine says, “The Lord comes in two ways. At the end of the world he will come to all generally; likewise, he comes to each man at his own end, namely in death … and he wished both to be uncertain.” St. Jerome adds, “The Lord wished to set down an uncertain end … so that man would always be awaiting it.” “Stay awake! For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:42,44).

“Christ, therefore, compares Himself to a thief, not as regards the act of stealing, but as regards silence and secrecy” (Cornelius a Lapide). 

But why does the Lord will to keep us in suspense? Why will “neither the day nor the hour” be revealed until the Son of Man appears (Mt 25:13)? Why will the rightful King of Heaven and Earth return at His Second Coming to claim His kingdom “like a thief” rather than the conqueror He Is?

One possible answer, proposed by the great Scripture commentator Cornelius a Lapide, is so “that the uncertainty may be a keen and never-failing stimulus to us in the practice of every virtue. For … if men knew when they were most likely to die, at that time only would they seek to repent, and they would make a show of diligence around that hour. Therefore, in order that they might be diligent, not only at that time, but continuously, throughout their lives … God caused them not to know the day or hour.”

This is true, and profitable to remember. “Time flies; keep death before your eyes.” As a wise old priest I know told me not long ago, “I don’t have any more time to waste.” Neither do I. Neither do you, no matter our age, our health, our plans for the future. In the same vein, a traditional Catholic prayer worthy of daily meditation reminds us:

“Remember, Christian soul, 
that thou has this day, and every day of thy life: 
God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to repent of,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death, perhaps, to suffer,
Judgment to undergo.”

But something, perhaps, is missing from this sober interpretation. Let us consider one small detail, easily overlooked, from the Lord’s revelation to St. John: “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready.” Recall the parable we heard last week about the man who comes to the marriage feast without his wedding garment. This garment represents nothing other than charity, that garment which every Christian is to put on over all his other virtues and good works, which binds them all together. 

We cannot enter eternal life if we are not clothed in charity. Therefore, the Lord reminds us again today of the urgent need not only to stay awake and keep watch “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), but to remain in His love (Jn 15:9), dressed in the spotless white garment of salvation, ready for the summons to the wedding feast! 

This, in fact, is the difference between the anxious fear of the servant, striving for perfection because he is afraid that his Lord will catch him in some fault and reject him when He comes, and the longing of the Bride for her Bridegroom, who seeks to make herself pure and spotless for her Beloved—not because she fears rejection, but because her love for Him spurs her on to nothing less. 

She it is who cries out with such wild joy in the Canticle of Canticles: “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. Behold, he stands behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices!” (Cant 2:8-9). 

And this is the voice of the Lord, who comes “like a thief,” peering in through her window in the dead of night: “Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For winter is now past, the rain is over and gone …  Show me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face is beautiful” (Cant 2:10-11, 14). 

Why does the Lord keep us in the dark? To spur us on to practice virtue and seek perfection, yes, but perhaps also to inspire in us a greater desire for His coming. 

“At the end of life,” says St. John of the Cross, “we will be judged on love alone.”

Listen to the words of Saint Monica at the end of her earthly life. “Son,” she said to her dear Augustine, whose conversion she had won by many tears and long years of suffering, “as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect … so what am I doing here?” (Confessions, IX, 10) 

In my short time here at St. Mary’s, I have met already several faithful, older people who have asked me the same question. Just five days after she posed it, Saint Monica passed from this world into the eternal life to come. Perhaps the Lord was waiting only for this last, most perfect sigh of the saintly mother’s heart: the realization that she wanted nothing now but Him alone.

“After telling about her death, her sorrowing son adds: We did not think that hers was a death which it was seemly to mark with repining, or tears, or lamentations, seeing that she died not sorrowfully … because we knew what her life had been, her faith unfeigned, her sure and certain hope.” (Roman Breviary at Matins, third lesson on the Feast of St. Monica)

Let us, then, dear friends of Christ, taking Saint Monica as our model, stay awake, and wait upon the Lord, clothed in the garment of charity and fired by love’s urgent longings, so that when He comes and knocks, at a day and hour we cannot now predict, we may be ready at once to open the door and go away with Him. “Truly, the LORD is waiting to be gracious to you; truly, he shall rise to show you mercy. For the LORD is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isa 30:18) 

The Wedding Garment

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Bernard, August 20, 2020. The audio is available here.


“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt 22,1). There is “a great mystery” echoing in these words: do you hear it? “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5,32), the great mystery of the love of the Bridegroom and the Bride thrilling through the very heart of God and down through the history of creation and salvation. For who else can this beloved son of the king be, the Son for whom His Father prepares a joyful wedding feast, but Our Lord Jesus Christ? And who else can His bride be but the Church, whom He “loved” so much that he “handed himself over for her to sanctify her … that he might present to himself the Church in splendor” (Eph 5,25-26), St. Paul says, as His own spouse?

In his magnificent poem, “Romance of the Creation,” St. John of the Cross, the great poet of divine love, imagines an eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son:

“I wish to give You, My dear Son,
To cherish you, a lovely bride,
And one who for Your worth will merit
To live forever by Our side.

And she will eat bread at our table
The selfsame bread on which I’ve fed:
That she may know the worth and value
Of the Son whom I have bred,
And there enjoy with Me forever
The grace and glory that You shed.

‘Thanks to You, Almighty Father,’
The Son made answer to the Sire,
‘To the wife that You shall give Me
I shall give My lustrous fire,

‘That by its brightness she may witness
How infinite My Father’s worth
And how My being from Your being
In every way derived its birth.

‘I’ll hold her on My arm reclining
And with Your love will burn her so
That with an endless joy and wonder
Your loving kindness she may know.’

‘Let it be done, then,’ said the Father,
‘For your love’s surpassing worth.’
And the moment he pronounced it
Was the creation of the Earth.”

The poem continues to describe in dazzling splendor the creation of the heavens and the earth, the stars, the oceans, the heavenly hierarchy of angels – last of all, the human race. And this is the wedding which the eternal Father has prepared for His Only Son: the union of our humble human nature with His own divine glory:

“Then, to a deathless music sounding,
Bride to Bridegroom will be pressed,
Because He is the crown and headpiece
Of the Bride that He possessed.

To her beauty all the members
Of the just He will enlace
To form the body of the Bride
When taken into His embrace.

Tenderly in His arms He’ll take her
With all the force that God can give
And draw her nearer to the Father
All in one unison to live.

There with the single, same rejoicing
With which God revels, she will thrill,
Revelling with the Son, the Father,
And He who issues from Their will,

Each one living in the other;
samely loved, clothed, fed, and shod.
She, absorbed in Him forever,
She will live the Life of God.”

Dear friends of Christ, realize the height of the glory for which you were made, and to which we are all invited! The Father sent His servants, the apostles and prophets, and in the end His Son, to gather us in to the feast – not only to witness this union – but to become the Bride. Little and lowly though we are, we were made from all eternity for union with God. 

It was for this that you were clothed in white on the day of your baptism and instructed to “keep it spotless until you arrive at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may be rewarded with everlasting life” (Rite for Baptism of Children).  And this white wedding garment signifies nothing else than charity, as the Apostle says: “Over all these [virtues and good works] put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Love is a bond; it unites the lover with the beloved. And it is love, and only love, which will unite us to God. 

Now we understand why this poor man who came improperly attired to the wedding is punished so harshly by the king. It’s not a matter of violating the dress code. “He [who] enters in to the wedding feast, but without the wedding garment,” says Gregory the Great, “has faith … but not charity” (Catena Aurea). I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you to hear that there are many in the Church, in the pews, even in the seminaries and the holy priesthood, who have faith, but lack love. Faith is good and necessary, indeed indispensable—by faith we come to believe in the love God has for us—but as the Apostle teaches, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing“ (1 Cor 13:2). Faith is a means to an end; it is a stepping stone to charity. In heaven, faith and hope will pass away; love alone, “the greatest of these,” remains forever, because love alone unites us to God.

“Many are called, but few are chosen,” says the Lord. All are invited, we might say, but some do not wish to come. Others come only so far, but lack the resolve to come all the way: “I will answer the invitation and come into the hall, into the Church, but I will not put on the garment of charity which Our Lord offers.”  Why? 

Here Saint Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, may be of some help to us. The Church honors Saint Bernard with the title of “Doctor Caritatis,” the Doctor or teacher of charity. Saint Bernard distinguishes four stages of the growth of love in us; we might call them four steps in putting on the garment of charity.

In the first stage, which he calls “carnal love,” we are drawn to the love of Our Creator simply by considering all the gifts He has freely given us, His creatures: free will, self-awareness, hearts capable of loving, an intellect to comprehend the truth, the beauty of the world, the love of our families. One need not even be a Christian to love God with this kind of love. But it is more about the gifts than the Giver.

In the second stage, as we come to know God better by faith, we begin to love Him for what more He can do for us. This is the way children in the faith love the Lord. Saint Bernard calls this stage “mercenary love” because it remains self-interested: “It is weak, for if this hope [of gain] is removed, the love may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return.”

But gradually, over long experience and many trials and failures, our love is purified. We begin to love God with what St. Bernard  calls “filial love,” that is, as sons and daughters love their Father, for His own sake, because He is good and beautiful, trustworthy and true. This is more and more an unselfish love, indeed a self-forgetful love, for the more our hearts are occupied in loving God, the more they expand and take on the dimensions of His love. This is the love that regards our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. This is the love of great martyrs and saints. 

Yet there is even a fourth stage of the growth of love in us. Saint Bernard simply calls it “pure love.” The characteristic of the fourth and most perfect stage of love is that we “learn to love ourselves for God’s sake. This is to love the self that God desires, to love God’s will for the self: and so it means the final purging of the will from self-aggrandizement and desire for control. It is ‘to be emptied out of oneself, to be brought almost to nothing’ (X. 27), to accept the reality of God as entirely definitive of one’s identity. The self has no other will than God’s. Its only prayer is: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Dr. Margaret Turek, Notes on Monastic Spirituality)

You may notice this is precisely the opposite of our culture’s present obsession with self-care and self-esteem. The wisdom of the world holds that we must love and provide for ourselves before we can love anybody else. So long as we continue to make the anxious cravings of our hearts the primary object of our concern, our love remains weak and imperfect. The wisdom of God, which is folly and a stumbling block to the world, but to us our salvation and our hope, is that if we are ever to learn to love ourselves in truth, we must first fall in love with God in a quite absolute way, such that we abandon everything to Him. In the beauty of His eyes, we will see ourselves reflected, and come to love ourselves there, as He loves us.

“This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” Yes, the ideal is high, and this is why many refuse. It is one thing to believe, another to surrender oneself to a love as demanding and all-consuming as this. But if we strive to advance in love and place our trust in Him, throwing ourselves confidently on His mercy as often as we fail, the Father looks on our feeble efforts with great tenderness and will soon lift us up to the heights of perfection. And the reward for which we strive is the greatest of all, the only reward any lover worth the name has ever sought: to possess the Beloved and to be possessed by Him forever. 

Lord Jesus, in your Most Holy Name, grant that every one of us gathered here today in your Church may come to the wedding banquet clothed in the garment of pure love. May all of us, whom you have called, find the way to light, to love, to life.