These reflections were admittedly written with a vocational discernment perspective. That is, they were written thinking first of those men, particularly younger men, who have not yet chosen a permanent state in life. Thus, the details of married life, or the priesthood, or life relationships are treated rather generally. The idea was certainly not to write a textbook that would advise all Catholic men in the practical details of their day to day life. For that, the author is poorly qualified. Rather, the details contained here focus primarily on the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and what every man has in common when he tries to make a return to the Lord. On this subject, I myself claim some expertise. In short, I only claim the credentials that I myself stand in need of a savior, and have come to find out who that Savior is. These reflections for Catholic men really have no greater point than to give a glimpse of how great a salvation has been offered to all men, and women, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Last summer I joked that I would write a book for our newly ordained transitional deacon, about what it is like to be a young priest in Vermont. A number of events since then have turned that jocose idea into this, a series of reflections about what it is like to live as a devout Catholic man in our world. If you are a Catholic man, or have the desire to follow Christ, then these reflections are for you. It doesn’t matter where a man lives, or what he does in his life; his life is described in Sacred Scripture. Every man is described in Sacred Scripture, from the worst of sinners to the greatest of saints. The comparison between the two is really in our minds and thoughts all the time. Every good man wants to become a better man. Every man who has the virtue of honesty, or hard work, or responsibility, or chastity, or gratitude, realizes that he needs that virtue, and needs it as much as possible, because he sees his own shortcomings. We could even say that the man who has a great moral fault, but who admits to that fault, already has some of the virtue needed to overcome it. Otherwise there would be no way of acknowledging that such a fault had to be overcome in the first place. It is the man who knows he needs a savior who is close to finding the salvation that the Lord Jesus has to offer.
Let us start with a man who was both a sinner and a saint at different times. You know the story of the king of Israel, David. He was anointed to be king because of his pure heart and his faithful spirit and strength. He slew the giant Goliath. He suffered unjust persecution from the corrupted and jealous king Saul. He finally ascended to the throne and united the Kingdom of Israel. He received the incredible promise from God that one of his descendants would always and forever sit on the throne of Israel. And then, after all of this, he committed adultery, and murdered Bathsheba’s husband to cover up his sin (2 Sam. 11). What was God’s response? God sent Nathan to tell David a story. The man in the story had to entertain a friend. The man of the story was rich, with hundreds of sheep, and yet he stole the one sheep of a poor man to prepare the meal. The man in the story was condemned by David for his callous crime. And then Nathan proclaimed that the man in the story was David. Nathan’s words could almost be heard re-echoed over all the sins of men.
2 Samuel 12:1-7. The LORD sent Nathan to David, and when he came to him, he said: “Judge this case for me! In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. She shared the little food he had and drank from his cup and slept in his bosom. She was like a daughter to him. Now, the rich man received a visitor, but he would not take from his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the wayfarer who had come to him. Instead he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and made a meal of it for his visitor.” David grew very angry with that man and said to Nathan: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this merits death! He shall restore the ewe lamb fourfold because he has done this and has had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David: “You are that man!”
“You are that man.” The words were a stinging condemnation. Those words could have been used by any of the prophets of the Old Testament. They could have been written large across the foreheads of every sinner from Solomon to John the Baptist. And they could have been used often by the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “You are that man, that sinner, that adulterer, that sloth, that embezzler, that pornographer, that murderer!” My brothers in Christ what a consolation it is that we have a Savior. Of all the people that could accuse us, we have been accused by the one person who wants to forgive. Jesus Christ says to us, “you are that man that I shed my blood for.” “You are the man to whom I have offered complete and total forgiveness.” A new story, a new parable, has been given. In so many parables Jesus described “a man.” In so many of those parables, our salvation is found in saying “You are that man.” “I am that man.”
The parable of the prodigal son
Let us take the words of the Prophet Nathan and consider how they were spoken to us in the scriptures. Here is a parable even more well known than Nathan’s parable to David.
Luke 15:11-16. A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
To describe the prodigal son, let me borrow a description of St. Francis of Assisi, before his conversion to Christ. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, himself a Franciscan, once called him “a self-absorbed entertainment addicted rich kid.” It took Francis quite a while to “grow up.” Likewise with the prodigal son; what type of man is he? He loves the social scene and the night life. He can’t get enough of a good time. He doesn’t see why anyone should save money. Money is to be spent to enjoy life and “make the best of it.” If his older brother is right the prodigal wanted money just as much to be a chick magnet (see Luke 15:30). And so the prodigal demands all his money, preferring pleasure even over having a father! “Give me MY share of the inheritance!” This is like saying to the father, “I wish you were already dead, old man; I don’t love you, and I hate this family and this home and this farm; so just give me the money and get this stupid so-called life over with.” A self-absorbed entertainment addicted rich kid. You know how his life will unfold in the parable. Experience in the school of hard knocks will eventually teach him how good he had it.
What do you think of the accusation that the older son makes against his prodigal brother? Is it farfetched to say that much money went into womanizing and sex? If we think of the prodigal son as a young man is his 20s or 30s, it is hard in our modern day to think of a similar example without imagining a man indulging in his fair share of lust. Here we might note a particular word use in the parable about the infidelity of the prodigal son. When he had used up his money on prostitutes (according to the accusation of the older brother) the parable says he “joined himself” to one of the landowners. The words have a romantic and marital connotation. A man of purity and integrity would only “join himself” to a holy cause. In particular a married man has exclusively “joined himself” to his wife and family as his most virtuous endeavor. But this sinful son had “joined himself” to many women, and even more fleeting causes, and had subsequently suffered the consequences. The only option left for “joining” was a swine farmer. Sexual impurity is a slow corrosive on one’s fulfillment in life. It might not bring about immediate disaster. But it is guaranteed to bring about misery.
Is this parable merely a condemnation of the more obvious sins of youthful passion? No. Because the older brother of the prodigal son is also a sinner.
Luke 15:27-29. The servant said to the older brother, “your younger brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”
He is the ungrateful, self-righteous type. He is the self-made man who does not need God. His sins are presumption and ambition. He resents the work his father has given him to do in the family business. Only, his greed and anger are more subtle than the younger brother’s. He hates his own brother, yet probably envies him slightly at the same time, wishing to have all of the inheritance. He is the unmerciful and unforgiving Pharisee whom Jesus spoke of various times.
Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector?
Luke 18:10-14. He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is almost the prodigal son all over again. Which is more of an insult to the Heavenly Father? The profligacy of the younger son, of the ingratitude and presumption of the older son? All men are in the same boat when compared to our Lord: sinners.
The Gospels paint men in just as sinful a picture as any women. When I hear the stories of the sinful or desperate women that came to Jesus in his ministry, it occurs to me that these accounts might be used as an accusation that the Gospels are sexist. “All examples of poor pitiful sinners are women,” someone might claim, “and men are the righteous ones who don’t need to ‘get it together.’” I imagine this accusation; and then I search the scriptures to see how wrong it is. The truth be told, there are more examples of sinful men in the Gospels; the prodigal son and his older brother; the wicked vineyard tenants (Mt 21:33-41); the boys possessed by demons, or deathly ill, subjected to the devil’s power; both Judas and St. Peter (although one repented and became a saint); the two thieves crucified with Jesus, on his left and on his right. Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons; the Gerasene man was possessed by a whole legion of demons, not just seven (Mark 5:1-17). The men who begged Jesus to come work miracles (e.g. the centurion in Luke 17:1-10, the official in John 4:46-53), they seemed composed and more diplomatic than some of the women who sought out Jesus (Luke 7:36-50, Mark 7:25-30). Rest assured any apparent composure of these men who petitioned Jesus for a miracle was a front. It was out of the mercy of Christ that he granted the miracles, not because these men had presented themselves more worthily than the women who made similar petitions. What good is such a front when real courage is needed? Go to Calvary and compare the number of men brave enough to stand at the scene of the crucifixion to the number of women. Without furthering this comparison, we could simply say that the men in the Gospels need to “get it together” just as much as the women. For our part we can be glad that Jesus’ teaching more often spoke about sinful men than about sinful women. For, as we have said, Jesus Christ says to us, “you are that man that I shed my blood for.” “You are the man to whom I have offered complete and total forgiveness.”
The Parable of the Forgiving King
Jesus told a parable which spoke of the incredible forgiveness that he has offered to sinners. He did so as a commentary on the prayer which he taught us to say: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Read the parable in Matthew Chapter 18. You know the punchline.
Matt 18:21-35. Then Peter asked Jesus, “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’”
The meaning of the parable is clear. Jesus is the King. The debt forgiven is our doubt of sin. The full pardon was offered when he died on the cross. The man who refuses to forgive his neighbor has thrown that great gift back in the face of the King, thus incurring and even greater debt of sin. How great is the forgiveness that Jesus offered to men it the first place? According to Jesus, the first man’s debt in the parable, the “huge amount,” is said to be a “myriad of talents.” A myriad was the greatest number in the common vocabulary of the Jesus’ day: ten thousand. A talent was the most valuable piece of currency: a whole year’s wage in one silver or gold coin (if you had a good job). Jesus described the biggest kind of debt he could in common terms. It would be as if we said a man owed millions and billions of dollars. Is this a realistic comparison for the “debt of sin”?
Here again we can consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is an almost comical comparison looking back at the two pictures of repentance; the two extremes are so unlikely. But this shows the complete tragedy of sin. We could put it in a modern day analogy. Imagine two men go to confession. The first says to the priest, “bless me father for I have sinned; I’ve broken every commandment, more than you could count. Yes. Put me down for everything in the book, because I will never have time to list them all!” The second says, “bless me father… I haven’t committed any sins lately and I have pretty much become a living saint. The Blessed Virgin Mary and I are always on the same page now, completely in touch with the Holy Spirit. But give me a blessing and I’ll pray for you and for all the other people in line!” It amuses us. It is such a parody that we could not imagine anyone seriously saying something like either of these men. And yet our Lord insisted that we think of ourselves much like the first man. What if we confess “I haven’t broken any of the ten commandments, except I could love God a little more and do better with the First Commandment…” Is that all? You have them all down except the first? The first is the biggest and most important. We could almost say “you were just one Hail Mary away from heaven when you died. No big deal. Hell won’t be that bad for you!” Sin is a tragedy. The incredible thing is that the parable of the forgiving king does not even qualify as hyperbole in its description of the weight of sin. It is understatement. A mortal sin committed against the Creator of the universe incurs a debt greater than we could put into human words. A myriad of talents, millions and billions of dollars, does not do justice to its gravity. The beautiful thing, on the other side of the coin, is that the parable barely describes the immense grace offered by Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). His forgiveness is more than enough to make up the debt, for any man who will accept it. The weight of mortal sin may be understated, but our human words understate the grace of God even more. Just as it would have been nothing for the king to forgive even this huge amount, it is nothing for God to rectify the situation of the sinner. His grace is limitless. It should completely change the way men go about their lives. They should be so grateful to have a forgiving Lord. They should make good on a new kind of debt, a debt of gratitude. With God’s grace, the debt of gratitude is in fact repaid easily, through daily installments of love.
The parable of the talents
The Lord’s forgiveness is not merely a debt being removed from our account. It is essentially a positive gift to us. In truth, God has not merely wiped out the debt. He as given us a spiritual currency, something positively precious and valuable so that the debt can be repaid. He has given us, by his grace, the means to make a return to him with our faithful loyalty, and our service, which is an exercise of the greatest divine virtue: love. This is not a sentimental word. It is a responsibility and a privilege at the same time. It is the summation of every vocation.
In order to show the privileges and salvific opportunity that God has given us, our Lord used to tell another parable about silver or gold talents, entrusted to ten servants of a king. In Matthew and Luke you will hear different versions of the story with similar themes. Let us look at Matthew’s first. Here Jesus points out that not all are given the same gifts, but each is given talents to match the responsibilities laid upon him by the Lord. As a man of God, do not worry so much about which or how many talents have been given you. Know that they are given for a reason by a Master who knows you better than you know yourself. Then, if you want the satisfaction of a job well done, do not think so much about your abilities, but think about the Master you are serving. Read the parable and be impressed by such a great Lord:
Matt 25:14-30. The Kingdom of God will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one; to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, “Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.” His master said to him, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, “Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.” His master said to him, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.” His master said to him in reply, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Note the following things. The parable prioritizes the spiritual greatly above the material. Virtue is more important than money. This was emphasized by our Lord in many parables. Note that the master considers large amounts of money to be “small matters.” How so? As we said, a talent of gold or silver was worth more than the average man’s yearly wage. Say $50,000 to $100,000 in our day, maybe more. Is that not a big deal? But look again at the master’s words to the man who was given five talents and who returned with a sum equivalent, in our terms, to almost a million dollars. “You were faithful in small matters.” Small matters! We serve a Master for whom “big money” is something trivial. It is a mere test, a preliminary. The saying is true, “you can’t take it with you when you go.” The Lord Jesus told another parable precisely with this point. Remember well the concluding words.
Luke 12:16-21. Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry”’ But God said to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared to whom will they belong?” Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.
What matters to God, the spiritual, is valued greatly above the material. Knowing this, we see another wonderful quality of the Lord which we should imitate. Our Lord is demanding without being greedy. See how the master in the parable of the talents used to send his men to harvest in fields where they had not even planted any seed. Such a mission would have been extremely taxing compared to the amount of stray wheat they might find. Did the master demand this because of a desire to squeeze every last bit of profit out of his land and his workers? No. We have already established that he considered the money to be trivial. It was for the good of the workers, and for the principle of service that he demanded such things. So a Catholic man should have passion and zeal, but not be greedy. He should be demanding of himself, and work hard, but unselfishly. He may even task other people with very difficult service for a holy cause. But not for the money. For the Lord.
Let us look now at the way Jesus told the story in the Gospel of Luke. Here all the men have the same equivalent of one talent, and the difference is in their attitude and commitment.
Luke 19:13-26. He called ten of his servants and gave them ten gold coins and told them, “Engage in trade with these until I return.” When he returned after obtaining the kingship, he had the servants called to whom he had given the money, to learn what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, “Sir, your gold coin has earned ten additional ones.” He replied, “Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came and reported, “Your gold coin, sir, has earned five more.” And to this servant too he said, “You, take charge of five cities.” Then the other servant came and said, “Sir, here is your gold coin; I kept it stored away in a handkerchief for I was afraid of you, because you are a demanding person; you take up what you did not lay down and you harvest what you did not plant.” He said to him, “With your own words I shall condemn you, you wicked servant. You knew I was a demanding person, taking up what I did not lay down and harvesting what I did not plant; why did you not put my money in a bank? Then on my return I would have collected it with interest.” And to those standing by he said, “Take the gold coin from him and give it to the servant who has ten.” But they said to him, “Sir, he has ten gold coins.” “I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
At least one of the men here succumbs to the nagging doubt, “I only have this once talent, this one chance; what if I invest my time and energy and it doesn’t work out?” Men face fears in contemplating big vocational decisions in live. “My girlfriend wants to be married and have a family, but I’m not prepared for that.” “I think I’m called to the priesthood, but it’s such a big decision.” “There is some major decision for my work, family, or marriage situation, but I am putting it off because it is just too much to deal with.” There is here a likeness yet a major difference between humility and distrust. The humble man does not want to tempt God by taking on a task for which he is not yet prepared. But his distrust of self will give way to an even greater trust in God. But the man who does not trust God blocks out God’s voice because he trusts his own judgment more than the Holy Spirit. How does one know the difference between the two? Ask these questions sincerely and honestly. “Am I hesitant because there is some concrete prerequisite that I would need before I could fulfill this task or this vocation? Or rather am I hesitant because I am afraid I will have to sacrifice too much personally for the Lord for this?” The responsibilities of any vocation can cost much in human terms. But here is where the last characteristic of the master of the parable should grab hold of our minds and change our ultimate perspective. As we saw even in Matthew 25, this is a master who gives responsibilities as rewards, and he considers his own happiness as the greatest of rewards! It might seem that he is the most conceited and self-serving person ever. Is his reward only to task the servant with even more to do? Such a question is asked by modern men who do not believe in the goodness of God. The desire of a secularized society is always to enjoy as many benefits as possible without added responsibilities: the enjoyment of sex without the lifetime commitment of children; the luxury of a good salary without the demands of working overtime; the benefits of retirement without the responsibilities to earn one’s living each day. Our Lord sees things differently. All of these commitments may cost us some enjoyment humanly speaking. All of these commitments will, in turn, give us even greater joy in the Holy Spirit, with the assurance of an eternal reward. What master can pay his servants with his own happiness? How could a human being say “come share in your master’s joy”? He is no ordinary master. He is God. Do you have the faith that our Lord sought when gave the parables, a faith which believes that the joy of the Lord is worth every earthly sacrifice that his calling asks of us? If so then you have been given something positive and precious, something no amount of work could earn or money could buy. You already have the valuable gold or silver coin in your hand, and when you start to serve the Master with it, it will be impossible for you to fail. Look for examples of men who have found their joy by accepting the responsibilities of their vocation. Consider the great satisfaction of choosing the path which may be risky in human terms, but which will lead to divine blessings that are incomparably greater than any benefit measured in human terms.
Humble service and faithful stewardship
The Lord has given us something so great as a share in his joy through eternal life, a gift more precious than any talent. We are to serve the Lord then, and those He has placed in our lives. This is how we make a return for the valuable gift of faith and salvation. The service is precisely to “love God and neighbor.” The key is to have the attitude that our service is not a great accomplishment (humility), but that we do it out of great love. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus gave a parable about humble servants.
Luke 17:5-10. And the apostles said to the Lord “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’ Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished?’ Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
Let us remember that even the Master we serve is a humble master; a master who cares for his servants. We can love him as we serve him, because he himself is like the centurion who cared for his servant.
Luke 7:2-10. A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was precious to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave. They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
The centurion was a humble man who served God and neighbor in a great way. His words were so honest and virtuous in this incident that the Church adopted them as a prayer at the most sacred moment of preparing for Holy Communion at Mass. What an honor given to him for his humble service. God must be greatly glorifying this centurion in heaven even now.
Before we move on to one other parable which will guide our love God and neighbor, let us dwell on the words of the centurion and on the gift of Holy Communion for a moment. This greatest of gifts, Holy Communion, is the summation of the immense grace offered by Christ. It is really the thing which, at one and the same time, imposes that debt of gratitude upon us, and also gives us the means to pay that debt. Receiving Holy Communion with the words of the centurion is the ultimate tribute to the humble service of Jesus Christ. You know one way that men acknowledge their humble Master in this great gift? The humble reception of Holy Communion. Consider the image of receiving communion on your knees. This is not literally advised except where there is an altar rail or kneelers set out in the church for communicants. Yet the image represents a great spiritual disposition. I was giving communion once at a youth retreat. Many people received our Lord on the tongue. Those who received in the hand also received very reverently. One of my parishioners, there present, would receive last each day, and kneel. This retreat he was not the only to do so. The experience spoke to me; young men; receiving on their knees; not just one or two; five of them; in a row. It made me wonder if men should receive communion on their knees more often. It should at least make us pray the centurion’s words more sincerely, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Recall that Jesus gave the parable of the humble servants after he had been asked to increase the faith of the disciples. Go back and see that he joined this parable with the saying of the mustard seed, a symbol of smallness, meekness, and humility. Receiving the Lord on one’s knees does not make one a humble man in itself, even if one did it each Sunday at Mass. But the disposition represented by this idea is an essential. The humble man will, figuratively speaking, go to his knees before the Lord each day in the way he lives and prays.
The centurion’s example of humility is essential to love God and neighbor. Jesus revealed other essential qualities of this love with parables about stewardship. Here is a parable he told about the need have honesty and generosity amidst one’s responsibilities.
Luke 16:1-8. A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, “What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.” The steward said to himself “What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?” He replied. “One hundred measures of olive oil.” He said to him, “Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.” Then to another he said, “And you, how much do you owe?” He replied. “One hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Here is your promissory note. Write one for eighty.” And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
A steward held a powerful position in a household or kingdom. He was the business manager. He had authority to buy and sell the master’s property even. It could be lucrative, because he could keep up to 50% of the profits from his dealings with the master’s goods. The conversion of the dishonest steward, who had previously stolen the master’s 50% of the profits for himself and maybe even spent down capital in selfish pursuits, came at the moment when finally he was generous. He finally cut a discount, and forfeited the greedy profit that would have been his if he kept his stewardship, the 50%. In human terms he learned that making honest friends, by being a generous upright man, was worth much more than a dishonest fortune. He relinquished some of his power and greed. He found that his benefit was found in benefiting another man. His benefit was found in being humble.
What is a steward? A steward is someone who is given responsibility for something that he does not own. That is why St. Paul says the first quality, that a steward must have, is honesty (1 Cor. 4:2). He must be trusted with the valuable thing that is entrusted to him by the owner. Jesus told the parable of the dishonest steward to show that there are things more valuable than money in this life. God wishes to entrust things to us as stewards which are more valuable than any sum of money. How has God placed men as stewards? In the example of marriage and family life, even if a husband and wife are left without the ability to have biological children, still, because of their lifelong commitment in marriage, they have become spiritual stewards of the family, as a God-given institution. Therefore the family has been entrusted to a husband or a father in a special way, as something that he does not own. In the example of the priesthood, St. Paul described the role of a priest explicitly as a stewardship: priests are to be “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Clearly the “Mysteries of God” are not owned by a priest; he is only their steward. We will come back to both of these descriptions soon. Let us say for now that God has given “fatherhood” as a special vocation of stewardship: either spiritual fatherhood or literal fatherhood. The thing of value that the man does not own but for which he bears responsibility is either the family or the Church.
Before we consider further the vocations of stewardship that men hold, a word about the relation of men and women in scripture is appropriate. St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7 that women are “the weaker sex.” Scripture here should be taken with some saintly common sense. It is misconstruing to say this should be understood in an emotional or psychological way. It is certainly offering a physical description. On average, men will overpower women in terms of mere stature: size, or physical strength. The exceptions, such as the occasional female athlete outdoing her male counterpart, almost “prove the rule” as the saying goes. So what if women are generally weaker than men in the sense of physical strength? In the ancient world of agriculture the ability to prosper was dependent on the strength to perform manual labor. The more that humanity has responded to its God-given vocation – to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it – the more society has the potential to be transcend from this “inequality.” We should note that the blessing of modern education, which has allowed so many women to advance in technological skills, is rooted in Christianity’s patrimony to universities and schools. With this technological progress, however, come new forms of exploitation: from pornography and human trafficking, to general societal abandonment of family values. How then should the remaining “inequalities” in society be considered according to the Gospel? If men have power to shape any particular situation, to influence others, they must recognize that the only authority allotted to them by Christ is that of a steward. They must recognize that any power a person possesses, whether it be physical, social, financial, etc. does not mean any superiority in dignity. This is the case for every man or women on the face of this earth. Chivalry is the virtue of honoring what is physically weaker and smaller – out of imitation of God himself! It is the homage paid to the humility of God, who “chooses the weak to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). There is, then, a Godly way that the strong should serve the weak, because God himself will punish every steward who abuses what God has allowed to fall under his persuasion. St. Peter is getting at this when he says “husbands should live with their wives in understanding, showing honor to the weaker female sex, since we are joint heirs of the gift of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). In his day it was necessary to express this in such a way. In our day, the core principal of his exhortation is repeated by insisting that all people are to serve God and neighbor with the strengths they have been given.
The unredeemed world has never figured out the riddle that Jesus presented. The riddle is the question, how can one exercise power by giving up? How can one lead by serving? How can a steward not be corrupted? How can one be a king and servant? How can authority be affirmed, and power not be abused? “How is it that the Son of Man must suffer and die?” When we hear Jesus’ words about power, in any sense of the word, the Christian acknowledges Christ as the one to whom all things are subjected (1 Cor. 15:27). He is the Lord to whom all power and dominion are given (Rev. 5:13). All earthly power therefore is temporary and accountable to Christ. Our secular society equates power with privilege. In the true scheme of things, seen in the Biblical light of Christ, power is equated with responsibility to God, very often, responsibility for other people; that is, responsibility to other people, for God’s sake. Men must realize the only authority they are given in this life is that of a steward. God owns the Church. God owns the family. God has even purchased the lives of each married spouse through the blood of his Son. (1 Cor. 6:20). Whatever kind of strength (or strengths) he has given to men in these societies, He has commanded them to use it so as to serve Him as trustworthy stewards of the things He values so much.
Family and Church
A word then on how this might be applied to the two fatherly vocations of men: family and church. In the case of the family, husbands could be described as stewards as described above. A husband’s wife and family are a gift from God. Marriage and family come from God and ultimately belong to God. It is not merely one’s own family for which a husband and father is responsible. It is really God’s own family. In the tradition of the Church, the family has literally been claimed by God. Fathers must have a reverent stewardship for their families. This is the perspective that is needed whenever a man thinks of the scriptures where it somehow implies that a wife and children owe “obedience” to a father. This is not personal, and it does not mean that a husband owns any rights over his wife or family. It means precisely that he is responsible to God for them. He must be “a servant of Christ and steward of the family.” What this looks like in practice is different in each family situation. Where a husband does not have a biological family, his stewardship will naturally extend in a spiritual way to others, very much like the spiritual fatherhood of a priest. The difference is that it might not extend through a parish or a church community, but rather through a social sphere carved out by his relationship with his wife, wherever they live.
So many people have gotten tripped up asking the “should” question. What “should” the authorities of a husband or a wife be? What “should” the responsibilities of each be? It would be better to ask, “what ‘can’ be done by each?” And then, more importantly, what can be done with the abilities that God has entrusted to each spouse? When it comes to marital responsibilities, a helpful exhortation these days is that they are not shared 50/50, but 100/100, each giving their all. Above all it should be 100% responsible to Christ; because, even though each man’s family situation is different, every family has been purchased by Christ, by the grace of the mystery of redemption.
Consider all of this in the following paraphrase of Ephesians 5:21-33.
Every person, married or unmarried has been given their own gifts and responsibilities, and each must fulfill their own responsibilities without usurping those of others, as a way of serving Christ, the loving savior. Yes, wives and mothers put their gifts at the service of their husband and family. Yes, the Lord has given a husband and father responsibilities which cannot be fulfilled by his wife. Remember then that Christ disavowed himself of every possession for the good of his family the Church, which is to say, for the salvation of its members. As gratefully, therefore, as the Church receives the gifts and graces of the Lord Jesus, a husband and father should be encouraged in his stewardship for his family, which he fulfills with whatever abilities God has given him. Husbands and fathers must do everything that they can for their wife and family out of Christlike love, putting their gifts to whatever task Christ calls them. Christ gave them an example of sacrifice when he “handed himself over for the Church, to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word.” He paid for the holiness of the Church that he might make her his bride, united so closely that they are as one body. So a husband is one flesh with his wife, and loving her is the only Christlike way that he can fulfill himself in the service of Christ. If he loves her he will love his family. Both husbands and wives fulfill their responsibilities for their family with the gifts God has given them, as a stewardship, the wife understanding and encouraging his family responsibilities, the husband loving his wife and family, as himself.
Because, the family has been purchased by Christ, by the grace of the mystery of redemption.
In the case of the Church, a priest is a spiritual father-figure for his people, entrusted with a stewardship. What is the valuable thing that is entrusted to a priest all the while belonging to God? The mysteries of salvation; that is, the message of the Gospel, since the priest is responsible for its proclamation; and the sacraments of the Church, since they are literally described as “mysteries” in the Church’s Tradition. A priest must be trustworthy because he has the temptation to misuse the greatness of God’s property that has been put into his hands. He could squander it like the dishonest steward, using his spiritual power and status in a parish for his own benefit and enjoyment. He could literally seek after financial wealth, trading the holiest of things for paltry earthly goods. Or he could pretend that the parish and people belong to him personally, as if God placed them there so that the priest’s own desires and expectations would always be fulfilled.
A priest must love the Church like a husband loves his wife and family. Many people outside the Church see the all-male Catholic priesthood as a prejudiced system of male dominance over women. Perhaps they do not know what our Lord said about authority and stewardship. Or perhaps they are pointing out that some priests have forgotten what our Lord said about authority and stewardship. If every priest were a living saint, no one would question whether Christ had left us a broken, faulty, or prejudiced system of priesthood. Yet, despite the unsaintliness of some clergy (the author of these reflections included) if one sees things with the eyes of faith, the priesthood should be acknowledged as one of the best institutions on earth.
The sacrament of Holy Orders places a man within the ranks of a hierarchy. It makes him like the centurion, who described himself as “subject to authority, with people subject to me.” But the scriptures vehemently insist that the greatest factor in salvation is not authority, but charity. Glory comes not from hierarchy, but from virtue. This should be evident within the ranks of Holy Orders. And this principle of grace is not confined to the clergy; it runs throughout the entire Body of Christ, to all the elect, and is even proved through the souls who have forever turned their back on God. Just like earthly pleasures and earthly possessions, all earthly authority is temporary; glory is eternal. For myself, I can say I know a good number of lay men and lay women, who, while I outrank them in hierarchy, as a priest, will soon enough (or already) outrank me in glory, when we are with the Lord. God will not be mocked, and one can never accuse him of injustice from seeming to play favorites. He has revealed to all people (who have the faith to accept it) the scales on which he will judge the merits of souls, and those scales read “faith, hope, and charity.” A priest is a steward with fatherly responsibilities for the Church and the people of God. But even here authority is accountable to charity. Yes, there is the scandal of men who neglect grace, and who lack faith, hope and love. There is also the example of many men who have put on the virtues of Christ. Above all there is the example of our Lord himself, the fulfillment of every priest, the fulfillment of every family, and father, and husband.
I hope this has provided the slightest inspiration to see the message that Scripture presents for a Catholic man, and every man who wishes to serve God by living rightly. There are many more parables that could speak directly to men. I have not even touched on some of my favorites. But I encourage the reader to meditate upon them at some other time. Go read about the men Jesus described in the Gospels. You will find how the words of the prophet Nathan, in strange and grace filled ways, have turned from condemnation to salvation. Are you a man who has received Christ as your savior? Read Matthew 20:1-16. The guy who showed up for one hour of work and was paid as if he had been on the job for the whole day? You are that man. Go back and read Matthew 18:23-35. The guy who owed millions of dollars and was forgiven the whole debt? You are that man. Read Matt 22:11-14. The man who was invited to a tremendous royal wedding feast and only given the smallest responsibility to borrow a garment for the occasion? You are that man. Read Luke 10:25-37. The man who owed his life to a foreigner whom he previously had despised? You are that man. In the Old Testament the accusation “you are that man” stood as an indictment of guilt, just as it was used to convict David of his sins. In the New Testament, for the man of the Church, who has come to know the Savior Jesus Christ, the situation of that man has changed drastically. Now he is the man of the promise. His only debt is to love. He is the beneficiary of grace. He is a son of God, whose life has been changed by Christ, the Son of God.