Tuesday, July 12, 2022


Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves;
so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.
Matthew 10:16

A very vivid picture came to mind when I read the opening lines of today’s gospel. “I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves.” When I was a young boy, growing up down in St. Theresa parish, I remember seeing my pastor (the word means “shepherd”) walking through the cemetery where I will be buried someday, carrying buckets of feed for his flock of sheep that grazed there. It wasn’t just about his love for cute lambs, he was actually a very clever country pastor. He was able to keep the cemetery mowed without having to pay for a lawnmower or hired help. Secondly, every August when we had our parish fund-raising picnic, mutton (older sheep) was on the menu. I can see him walking in front of his flock like the good shepherd he was!

The day came when he decided to give up his practice of raising sheep because wild dogs, not wolves, were constantly decimated the flock by killing the young lambs. The wild dogs would invade the cemetery at night and rip the young lambs apart and eat them.

Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves.

Jesus, no doubt, had heard similar stories about fierce wolves decimating flocks from the shepherds who lived where he lived. It was such a powerful image that he used it to warn the apostles that he was sending out as missionaries. He seems to say to them, “It’s dangerous out there! There will be enemies out to get you who will try to rip you to shreds! You need to be as simple as doves, but as clever as snakes.”

In the gospel story of the good shepherd, there are two possible Greek words for “good” – "agathos" and "kalos." “Agathos” means “good” as in “morally good” as in “the goodness of a simple as dove.”

“Kalos” means “good” as well, but it is a different kind of “good.” It is the word one would use when referring to someone who was a “good pianist.” When we talk about a “good” pianist, we are not referring to their moral goodness, but their competence at working the keys. “Kalos” is close to the word “shrewd,” as in “shrewd as a serpent.”

It is this second word “kalos” that is used for the “Good Shepherd.” A “good” shepherd is one who is "good at shepherding," a shepherd who is “shrewed” enough to know where the water and grass are and “shrewd” enough to fight off a wolf attack. “Kalos” is not about piety. It’s about know-how!

I wrote a book for seminarians back when I was teaching them at Saint Meinrad. It was called THE SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP OF A PARISH PRIEST: ON BEING GOOD AND GOOD AT IT. Much of what I had to say could be applied to anyone involved in ministry. In ministry, you have to be more than “holy,” you also need to be “competent.” You need to be as “simple as a dove” as well as “shrewd as a serpent.” I use to say to them, “If you want to be a “good” shepherd after you are ordained,” it will require more than being “pious” or “holy,” you have to be “competent” and “good at” what you do. You can’t just sit under a palm tree and glow with golden light, you have to have the competence to find grass and water for the flock as well as be able to fight off a wolf attack!

Like my old pastor growing up, I told those future pastors that they needed to be holy and clever, good and good at it! I used to point out to them the big seal on the terrazzo floor in front of the main entrance to the seminary building. It has two Latin words – “sanctitate et scientia,” meaning “holiness and know-how!”

Sunday, July 10, 2022


This command that I give you today is not mysterious
and remote. You do not have to search the heavens or
cross the sea looking for it. No, it is very near to you.
It is in your mouth and in your heart. You only need
to carry it out.
Deuteronomy 30


Religion! Can’t live with it and can’t live without it! Religion! Wears you out and gives you life! Religion! So complicated and yet so simple! 


Some of us who bother with religion these days, often feel like the great prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah tried his best to be faithful, tried to do what God had called him to do, but he ended up so frustrated with all this “God-stuff” that he screams at God in frustration, “You suckered me into this stupid mess and I fell it!” If he had been a country music writer, he would have surely written the famous song that goes, “Take this job and shove it. I ain’t workin’ here no more!” Like many other saints, before and after him, he was close enough to God to get up in his face and vent his frustration. St. Theresa of Avila, patron saint of liberated women, is said to have let God have it in her convent chapel one time after a disastrous trip, “Listen, God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many!”  She was feisty, and her trials were many, so I believe she probably did that pretty often!


Over the years, many believers have worked through their frustrations with religion and remained faithful, in spite of their deep disappointment. Many have gone on to become great reformers in the church. Others have been God’s “fair weather friends,” dropping out and moving on when the going got tough.  Many among us don’t even give God the time of day!


Jesus, himself, was known for his frustration with the organized religion of his day. The ancient Jewish religion, that he knew and loved, had become so tedious, so complicated, so twisted and so burdensome that he actually went on a rampage outside the temple in Jerusalem, whip in hand, kicking over the tables of the money-changers and screaming in frustration.  


In another place, looking at how worn-down the average God-loving person of his day was, Jesus cried out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome and I will refresh you. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” The “yoke and burden” he was talking about was the “yoke and burden” of an overly complicated religion that was crushing the people that it was supposed to lift up. “The ease and lightness” that Jesus offered, in contrast, was the “ease and lightness” of a heart given completely to God and the simple service offered to one’s neighbor.  Just what had happened to the religion that Jesus knew and loved? Where did it take such a wrong turn?  Let’s see if I can explain it a little!


Let’s start with the fact that the Ten Commandments were the heart of the Jewish faith and practice. Jesus’s spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people of old, had struggled to live by them for centuries. However, over time, living them in community had led to an immensely complicated set of rule books, guidelines and ethical codes.  When Jesus was asked which of all those rules and regulations was the most important, he cut through all those layers of complication and said, “love your God and your neighbor as yourself with your whole heart! If you do that, you will fulfill the whole law.” If you simply do that, you don’t need so many written laws.


Sadly, the Scribes and Pharisees are back in our lifetime! Today’s self-styled “reformers” are not calling us to heart-felt conversion and they are not calling us back to the basics with a convincing voice, they are simply pulling old religious costumes and furniture out of the closet. dusting off the old rule books and straining gnats while they swallow camels! They don’t even seem to know what the real basics are!


Jesus was right! Pope Francis is right! What the Church needs right now is not more gnat-straining legalism! We need inspiration and that inspiration will only come from a church focused on living the essentials of our faith. I cannot stress the need for living the essentials enough. Personally, I am more interested in inspiring people to live the ten commandments than in defending a marble replica of two stone tablets on a courthouse lawn! The problem is not that we have too few copies of the Ten Commandments around. The problem is that building shrines to the Ten Commandments will never substitute for living them. If we as a church were living them, they would be enshrined in us – “in our hearts” as the first reading today puts it!


In our first reading today, God tells Moses, the People of God and us, “My commands are written on your hearts. All you have to do is carry them out.” We keep forgetting that - over and over and over again!


There is an old story, a favorite of mine, one I have told many times. It is similar to the Adam and Eve story about losing the Garden of Eden. In my story, the first man and woman lose the secret of happiness. As punishment, three angels meet to decide what to do with the secret of happiness so that human beings would never find it again. One angel suggested that they hide it among the stars. The idea was rejected out of fear that someday humans would go to the stars and find it. A second angel suggested that they hide it deep in the earth. That idea was rejected, as well, out of fear that someday human would dig down and find it. The third angel suggested that they hide the secret to happiness deep within human beings themselves. The idea was agreed on because the angels knew that human beings would never think to look there. And so, even to this day, the secret to human happiness remains undiscovered within human beings themselves.  


Jesus did not come to destroy organized religion, but to reform it, one heart at a time. The “church,” no matter how defective it is sometimes, can never become an enemy for Christians because it is the Body of Christ in the world. Christianity will always be messy because it is a communal religion. Those who choose the “just me and Jesus” brand of religion don’t actually know Jesus all that well. Jesus told the assembled church when he left this world, “I will be with you always and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and yes, because it is made up of human beings, it is always in need of reform.  The reform of people is always about calling them back to religious basics. The reform of church structures begins with the hearts of people changing first - not the other way around! Changed people, change things.