On the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, we continue with John’s Gospel and the Bread of Life discussion, with many of the disciples finding Jesus’ call to be nourished on his body and blood as tough to swallow. And they leave him. Peter speaks for the others: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Most of the first readings this week are from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book in the New Testament. The letters are affectionate and frank reminders of the humiliation and challenges that Paul met in preaching to this community he loved so much. These readings are a wonderful reminder that the letters of Paul were just that – letters to teach, encourage and support early communities of Christians.
Matthew’s Gospel this week includes stories of Jesus strongly challenging the Pharisees. He saw how they made people’s lives so difficult by their insistence on the rules and appearances while neglecting mercy and good faith. He chides them for paying attention to the extraneous and not the message: “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!” His criticism grows stronger: “On the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” Jesus teaches about preparation: “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” In the parable of the ten maidens who go out to meet the bridegroom, many of the women did not prepare for the meeting and do not have enough oil for their lamps and Jesus says again, “Stay awake.” Except for this year’s special readings, Saturday’s gospel is the dramatic story of the three servants who are given resources by their master and rewarded or punished for what they did with the resources they had.
The old Baltimore Catechism defined Prayer as “raising the mind and heart to God.” It reminds us that prayer is not simply saying words to God, or even thinking over religious things in our heads. Real prayer becomes a matter of the heart. We understand prayer best when we think of it as a relationship. Growing in prayer is to grow in love, in intimacy, in a type of communication that is “heart to heart.” So, on the human level, if we have a difficult time receiving love or in surrendering our self-absorption and giving love or if we just haven’t had much experience of being intimate and vulnerable with another human being, then it will be difficult for us to do that with God. Conversely, anything we can do to develop our relationship skills, to de-selfish ourselves and practice accepting love and loving generously will help us grow in our relationship with God. Praying can often become easier, more personal and intimate.
This week, we can go from hearing these wonderful readings to listening to Jesus with our hearts. It is great to begin this week asking for the grace to reflect throughout the day on how we will enter “the narrow gate,” by how we go about our day, interact with people, or return home from work. Then we can reflect on how we can humble ourselves and what that means for our day-to-day choices.
We could ask for the grace to go deeper than the externals and rules and get to the heart of our faith – loving others with the same compassion and love that Jesus shows us. For some of us, it might be extremely helpful this week to take the word “awake” and to carry it all day long. “Help me stay awake, Lord: to be alert and attentive, focused and reflective today. It will be busy, but I ask that you help me be consciously aware that you will be with me all day.” We may want to ask, “Lord, let me be conscious of the many gifts and blessings you have given me. Let me reflect upon how I use each gift gratefully and for others. Let me really see today if there are gifts that I am neglecting, squandering, or simply are afraid to use. Then, give me the courage to give you thanks and to be a good steward of your gifts.”
As we prepare for Sunday, we can begin to reflect upon giving up the honors in our lives. We can begin each day praying, “Lord, help me humble myself today, put myself last in caring for my family, in doing my job with a more selfless sense of service. Help me forgive people who aren’t performing well or behaving well. Help me see the way you give me life in this surrender, in this freedom to spend brief moments today in talking with you, friend-to-friend, in heart-felt connection with you, for others.”
Have a great week!