18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Published: July 31, 2016

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily during the Arkansas Catholic Charismatic Conference at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock on Sunday, July 31, 2016.

Bishop Taylor

Friday night I returned from a pilgrimage to Guatemala during which we commemorated the 35th anniversary of the death of Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who stayed with his flock and died for the faith during Guatemala's civil war.

I presided at the vigil Mass on Wednesday of this week and the Gospel reading was, quite fittingly, the parables in which Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a treasure buried in a field and a pearl of great price, both of which are worth sacrificing everything to obtain.

In today's Gospel of the rich fool, which happened to be the Gospel for my first Mass as a priest 36 years ago, we have the opposite scenario: a man who puts his trust in the things of this world. And here Jesus unpacks for us the difference between the true riches of the Kingdom of God and the false riches of the kingdom of this world.

There is an old proverb that says that "money is like seawater, the more a person drinks, the thirstier he becomes." So long as a person centers his life on his own struggles for self-sufficiency and forgets those in need, and the God who has made all this possible, his desire will always be to get more. This attitude, against which we all have to struggle, is the very reverse of Christianity.

A fitting warning for all of us, especially a newly ordained priest and a message that has marked my ministry ever since. Today's Gospel of the rich fool starts with the younger of two brothers complaining that the older brother refuses to give him his share of their inheritance. The elder brother would rather leave the inheritance undivided — such joint ownership was highly esteemed in those days.

The younger brother has other ideas though, and so he appeals to Jesus. Jesus for his part, however, refuses to give a decision, primarily because he considered the possession of property to be irrelevant to the message of the coming of the kingdom that he had come to proclaim — not evil, simply of no importance.

What IS important is our relationship with God — riches can affect that relationship, and it is this danger that Jesus is warning us about.

And so to make his point of how riches can harm our relationship with God, Jesus tells us the parable of the rich fool. There was a farmer whose land was so fertile that it produced more grain than his barns could hold. He became proud in his self-sufficiency and built even bigger silos for his grain and for all the riches he was able to buy with that grain.

He felt more and more self-sufficient, and saw himself as the self-made man — he got to where he was by his own hard work, rags to riches — he laid back plenty for a good retirement, looking forward to many years of the "good life" — eating, drinking, being merry.

Jesus calls this man a "fool". Why? He sounds to me like a responsible provider for his family, a man in control of his destiny. Why does Jesus call this man a fool? The reason this man is a fool is because he let the very riches that God had given him separate him from God.

In his feelings of self-sufficiency, he counts his prosperity to be the result of his own hard work — in practice he denies God's existence. In his planning for his future retirement, the "good life" that he thought lay before him, he forgot to take God, and those whom he could use his riches to help, into account, and this blindness was due to the fact that he had made himself (not God or the needs of his neighbor) but himself the measure of all things.

There is an old proverb that says that "money is like sea-water, the more a person drinks, the thirstier he becomes." So long as a person centers his life on his own struggles for self-sufficiency and forgets those in need, and the God who has made all this possible, his desire will always be to get more. This attitude, against which we all have to struggle, is the very reverse of Christianity.

And this is why the witness of Father Rother is so powerful to me. He was a priest of my home Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and I met him only once when I was less than a year ordained and only two months before his death, but my life has been intertwined with his ever since.

He had served our mission parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala for 13 years and remained there during their darkest days. He said the shepherd cannot run when the wolf threatens the flock. In time 16 of his catechists and around 300 of his parishioners were killed by paramilitary death squads sponsored by the Guatemalan military, and he knew that they might well come for him too, but he remained and died a brutal death.

His funeral in Oklahoma City fell on Aug. 3, which was coincidentally the first anniversary of my first Mass. And then a few months later, I received into my rectory at Sacred Heart Parish in Oklahoma City, the only eyewitness to the events of Father Rother's death.

He stayed with me until I found a family in the parish with whom he could live. Oklahoma City continued to staff the parish there after his death and I visited the parish three times in the 1980s. Later, I was put in charge of his cause of canonization and interviewed many people in Guatemala regarding his life starting in 2007.

I would be happy to share with you his whole story, but it would be far too long for a homily even for Charismatics who say they like long homilies. But suffice it to say that from all of this, I think I know Father Rother pretty well and I can tell you that, using the images in today's Gospel compared to last Wednesday's Gospel, Father Rother was no rich fool.

Instead, he found his treasure buried in a field by Lake Atitlán and he sold everything he had to buy that field. He had been searching for a fine pearl and when he found it in Guatemala, he gave everything he had to acquire it. Jesus was that great treasure and it was the Jesus that he encountered in Guatemala that he found his role in God's plan. He gave his heart to Jesus and to the people entrusted to his care and they gave their hearts to him.  

And this is how it must be for any of us who truly wants to share the life of the Kingdom of God, regarding which Jesus makes two points:

1.) The kingdom is greater than we could possibly imagine, a treasure worth everything we have, a pearl worth sacrificing everything to acquire, everything that the rich fool was stockpiling in his barns; and 2.) To share in this kingdom, we have to respond with all our heart and soul, with everything we have and are.

For Father Rother, this meant leaving his family and friends, everything that was familiar and coming to Guatemala. In Father Rother's mind, his parishioners were a treasure worth dying for. Which is another way of saying that for him, Jesus — Kingdom of God — was a treasure worth dying for.

As it also should be for us — even though for you and me this may mean something else. The sacrificial love with which I try to live my vocation as a priest and bishop, the sacrificial love with which you try to live your vocation as parents raising children, and some of you grandparents raising children, the sacrificial love with which young people consider what role God has for them in his plan.

But in every case it means entering into a deep relationship with Jesus and finding in him, and in the kingdom he came to establish, the greatest treasure in our life. And then placing ourselves fully into his hands.

Thirty-five years ago the Church was enduring severe persecution. More than a dozen priests were killed in Guatemala, many by death squads like Fathe

Rother, as were hundreds of catechists and thousands of simple people who were innocent victims of the violence of those days. At that time there were those who sought to find treasure in the bloody field of war against the government and others in the bloody field of military repression and even genocide, but there was no treasure to be found in those fields — only hatred, fear and destruction.

The only treasure available is in the field of justice and peace, in the field of respect and mercy, in the field of forgiveness, reconciliation and — if necessary — non-violent resistance to evil.

In other words, the only treasure available is in the field of the Kingdom of God, for which Father Rother gave his life. This kingdom is greater than we could possibly imagine and certainly greater than any human government even under the best of circumstances. And it is a treasure that, like Fr. Rother, we too must be willing to sacrifice everything to acquire.