Saved by Grace Alone

(And the role of the Commandments)

This story is told about Franz Josef, one of the Habsburg Emperors. He was returning from a military campaign and sought refuge in monastery. He sent a soldier before him to announce his coming. "The Emperor Franz Josef seeks lodging in your monastery. Prepare a place for him."

The guest master replied, "There is no room for him."

When the soldier reported this to the emperor, he was furious. He approached the monastery surrounded by his military escort. He called out the guest master and said, "Do you not know who I am? Ruler of the Austro-Hugarian Empire. I demand to spend the night here."

The guest master looked at the emperor in his splendid clothes. Around him were the soldiers with their weapons, but the monk held his ground. "There is no room for you here," he told him.

One of the soldiers drew his sword and said, "Sir, shall I kill this insolent monk?"

The emperor paused. Then he said to the monk, "No, I did not tell you who I really am. I am Franz Josef, a sinner."

The monk said, "Come in, there is room for you here."

Jesus tells us today that the kingdom of heaven is like a great wedding banquet. But there is no place for the proud. The beggars, the crippled, the lame and the blind will enter first.

I'm going to be real honest with you this Sunday. I hope no one will take any personal offense because what I am going to say is not directed at any particular family, but to a general situation in our society. Something which makes me squirm are funeral eulogies. A member of the family will stand up and recount some of the nice things the deceased person did. Fair enough--to say something negative about the dead is impolite. Still the negatives have their way of slipping out, but that is not what bothers me. What I object to is the inevitable conclusion. At the end the eulogizer will say something to the effect that because the person did all these beautiful things, he is surely in heaven.

Jesus makes it clear that we cannot get to heaven by our so called "good works." The fact that you were a good mother or that you worked hard to send your kids to college will not get you into heaven. As a priest I cannot start thinking that because of all the Masses I've said, confessions I have heard, people I've helped, that I have earned a place at the heavenly banquet. It does not work that way. We won't be saved by coming to Jesus with our hands full. Just the opposite: the only way we can come before him is with empty hands.

We are saved by sheer grace. To some people this sounds like a Protestant doctrine. They might have the idea that Martin Luther taught "grace" but the Catholic Church taught "works." That is not true. The doctrine of grace has been part of the Catholic teaching right from the beginning. The Catechism sums up this long tradition in the following words: "Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers in the divine nature and eternal life." (#1996). The Catechism goes on to explain that when we talk about good works or "merit," even then we must give the credit to God. "Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man's collaboration. Man's merit is due to God." (2025)

All of this is really a matter of simple logic. If we have even the slightest glimpse of who God is, we must conclude that we dust before him. The initiative is on his side. Even our free response belongs to him. In our relationship with God, humility is the key.

But how do we become humble? We can't do it by sitting around thinking what miserable wretches we are. "How could I have been so stupid? If people only knew the real me." All that might be true, but it usually won't get us that far. A better way to humility is by trying to respond to God's grace. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves, attempt to do his will. That almost always involves humbling oneself.

Let me give you an example from last Saturday nite. I was sitting at my computer when I heard a car crash. Well, I snapped in my clerical collar and started going to the scene of the accident. On the way I was thinking about the opening sequence in the movie "The Apostle," how the preacher Sonny Dewey came upon an automobile wreck. He goes with his Bible and talks to the victim who is seriously injured. Sonny invites him to accept Jesus and he does, right before he dies.

I thought to myself that perhaps I would do something like Sonny did. When I got there I saw that the car was flipped over, badly mangled. I approached a girl who was part of the rescue crew. I started to say to her, "I'm a Catholic priest..."

She said to me, "Step back. I don't have time to talk to you now." So much for my daydream about the being the Sonny Dewey of White Center. I have to admit I was put out, even a bit humiliated.

But you know, anyone who takes up the apostolate has to expect humiliations. The only way to avoid them is to stay in your room. A lot of people give up the apostolate because of those humiliations. How many people start out as lectors or eucharistic ministers, but then somebody says something to them! It may not be a direct insult, but they feel puzzled, confused by the comment. It seems like a put down. Because of that they throw in the towel. What is sad is not just abandoning the apostolate, but missing an opportunity to grow in grace.

It is not easy being an apostle of Jesus in our present culture. We live in a society which constantly looks down on "religious people." Humiliations are part and parcel of trying to be a servant of Jesus today. They come even from our fellow Christians.

But the put downs, the humiliations of the apostolate can also be an advantage if we take them in the right way. To return to the car accident. I did finally find out that no one had been killed or even seriously injured. In a sense the girl that told me step to one side was acting quite correctly. She may not have been super-polite, but she was, as they say, "just doing her job." I'm the same as everyone else. I don't like put downs, even deserved ones, but they are part of Jesus plan for each one of us. When we take up the apostolate, we also take up the cross.

Humility is the key to salvation. We are saved by grace, not works. But I do not want to give anyone a false impression. We are not a lawless people. We recognize the importance of keeping the commandments. Jesus makes it clear that the person who flat out ignores the commandments will not be saved, will not go to heaven.

I want to mention a couple of commandments because they have been in the news--and some people might be confused. In fact, the crisis in the White House is essentially about understanding the commandments. At first glance it seems like only one commandment is in question--the sixth, which says, "You shall not commit adultery." (Or to put it positively, the expression of sexual intimacy is to be used only in marriage.) But that was not the only commandment broken. In fact breaking one usually leads to violating another. In this case, "You shall not lie." Marital infidelity leads to deceit and lying. And there is also a commandment which says, "You shall not steal." A married guy carrying on with another woman is taking something that does not belong to him. And she is doing the same. It is a form of stealing.

Now there's one more commandment here. It may not be so obvious, perhaps because it involves all the rest of us. But it is so important, "Honor your father and your mother." You might ask what that has to do with the White House. Let me explain. When we are under our parents' authority, one of the ways we honor them is by letting them know what is going on in our lives. Children should not keep secrets from their parents. But it does not work the other way. None of us has the right to pry into our parents' lives. The Bible makes it clear there are consequences for doing so. Now what applies to our parents, also in some way does to civil authorities. I think that is why most Americans are highly uncomfortable with all the stuff being told about the President. We need more discreet ways of dealing with such matters.

Let me give you an example, perhaps a little humorous. Suppose you take your children over with you to visit your mom. They are all excited about seeing Grandma. You go to the cupboard looking for a glass. You reach back into the top shelf and instead of getting a glass, you discover a bottle of Jack Daniels. What do you do? Do you take the bottle of whiskey and show it to the kids? "Look what I found in Grandma's cupboard!" I don't think so. We do not have a right to tell other people's faults even when they are true. The Catechism calls this the sin of detraction--destroying someones good name which is their most precious possession. What is called for is discretion, a virtue which is important to recover in our families, our country--and our parish.

This is not some small matter. In talking about the commandments we are talking about eternal life, having a seat at the heavenly banquet. "If you want eternal life, keep the commandments," Jesus says. But he also tells us that entrance ultimately depends on humility. Hopefully when we have our turn before the Lord, none of us will be so foolish as to demand entrance. Like Emperor Franz Josef, we need to drop pretenses and say, "Lord, you know me better than I do. You know who I am--a sinner."

And that we might hear from him. "My child, come in. There is room for you here."


Lutheran-Catholic Declaration on Justification

From Archives (22nd Sunday, Year C):

2013: Why Are We Here?
2010: The Key to the Narrow Gate
2007: The Beauty of Humility
2004: Arrogance and Vainglory
2001: The Guest List
1998: Saved by Grace Alone

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(August 2010)

Personal Reflection on New Roman Missal English-Language Translation

My Vocation Story (23 minute video, made at Everett Serra Club on August 14, 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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Parish Picture Album

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

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KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)

A Homilist's Prayer