Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary

Dear Friends,

In our second reading we heard that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  St. Paul even boasts of his weakness so that God’s power is all the more perfect and apparent.  I have a story about a man who was very weak, but in that weakness God’s power and glory shined.  His name is Matthew Talbot.

Matthew Talbot was an Irishman born in Dublin in 1856.  His parents were very poor, and he was the second of twelve children.  Most everyone in his family was an alcoholic.  At the age of twelve, as was the custom, Matthew left school and began working to help support his family.  His first job was in a store that sold wine.  It wasn’t long before he was sampling the wine in the backroom.  At age sixteen he got a job with the Port and Dock Board where he worked among the whiskey stores.  While still a teenager Matthew Talbot was a confirmed alcoholic

When drunk he became very hot tempered, he got into fights, and swore heavily.  He spent most if not all his paychecks at the bars and pubs of Dublin.   And if he didn’t have enough money, he would buy drinks on credit or sell his possession, selling anything that might get enough money to buy just even one drink.  And if desperate enough he would even steal.  His mother begged him to stop drinking but he refused.   

After drinking for sixteen years Matthew finally lost his own self-respect.  One day when he was totally broke, he loitered on a street corner waiting for his friends who were leaving work.  It was payday and he was hoping that one of them would buy him a drink.  None of them did.  No one offered him a drink.  Feeling rejected he went home and publicly resolved to his mother, “I’m going to take the pledge, and I’m not going to drink anymore.”   His mother smiled and told him, “Go, in God’s name, but don’t take the pledge unless you’re going to keep it.”   As Matthew was leaving the house she called out, “May God give you strength to keep it. May God give you grace to keep it.”

After leaving the house Matthew went straight to Church and confession and took the pledge not to drink for three months.  The next day he went to Mass and received Holy Communion, something he hadn’t done in years.  From that moment on in 1884 when he was 28 years old, Matthew became a new man.  After he had successfully fulfilled his pledge for three months, he made a lifelong pledge never to drink again. 

And he never did. But it wasn’t easy he told his sister, “Never look down on a man, who cannot give up the drink, it’s easier to get out of hell.”  But with the grace of God, he maintained his sobriety for the next forty years of his life.  He found strength in prayer, Mass every day before work, the Eucharist, Confession and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He studied his faith and read the great spiritual masters.  And he got a new job away from the whiskey.   With this new job in a lumber yard he paid all of his debts and became very generous with the poor, keeping almost nothing of his paycheck.  The converted Matthew never swore, was good humored and friendly to everyone. 

At the age of 69 as Matthew was walking to Church he collapsed and died.  In his coat they found a note that read, “Three things I cannot escape:  the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the stroke of death.  In company, guard your tongue.  In your family, guard your temper.  When alone guard your thoughts.”  After his death Matthew was recognized as one possessing heroic virtue, something with God’s grace that he has grown into. At this time Matthew Talbot has been declared venerable by the Church.  He’s on his way to canonization.  In Matthew Talbot’s weakness God’s power and glory shined.

In our second reading from St. Paul, we heard that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  St. Paul even boasts of his weakness so that God’s power is all the more perfect and apparent.  As we know St Paul was not perfect, no saint is perfect.  They are human beings, just like us, and they faced problems, hardship, suffering, and temptation, just like us.  It was their very challenges their thorns, their crosses, and their failings that God used to make them into saints.  That’s what St Paul is telling us in today’s Second Reading.  He says that although God has given him extraordinary mystical experiences, God has also given him a “thorn in his flesh.”  Paul prayed repeatedly for God to remove this thorn, but God refused, in order “to keep him from being too elated.”  To keep him humble.

Our 2nd Reading throughout the centuries has raised two questions for theologians.   First question, what was St. Paul’s thorn?  Bible scholars have a few theories. It may have been:   A physical ailment of some sort; headaches, fevers, or a problem with his eyes. Or a particular temptation, like lust or greed. Or the discouragement he constantly felt from being rejected by his Jewish people. Or it may also have been his fiery temperament, which always seemed to get him into trouble. Whatever it was, it was a continual source of pain and irritation to St Paul.  It did not go away.

Second question: why didn’t God take this thorn away? St Paul tells us that it continually reminded him of his human weakness, inspiring him to depend more fully on God’s grace.  To trust.  He was weak, he needed God’s grace. Our thorns, whatever they may be, are not signs of God’s anger or displeasure, but signs that he is teaching us, as he taught St Paul, true wisdom, the wisdom of humility and trust in God.  God permits thorns for a reason.   His wisdom and power can turn even crucifixions into resurrections.

We experience interior peace and freedom that our Lord wants for us when we learn to accept our limitations, the thorns that God permits in our lives.  This was not an easy thing for St Paul.  It was only after many years of suffering and working for Christ’s Kingdom that he was able to write this beautiful sentence:  “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

As we know accepting limitations and the thorns that God permits are not easy for us either. It is possible, however, if we truly become men and women of prayer.  Prayer connects us to the source of all wisdom and strength, prayer connects us to God himself.  In the midst of his pain, St Paul turned to prayer: “Three times I begged the Lord about this…” he writes in today’s Second Reading.  And through his prayer God spoke to his heart, telling him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Prayer keeps our faith healthy, and only a healthy faith makes visible the hidden wisdom of God.

In today’s Gospel, St Mark tells us that Jesus “was not able to work any mighty deed” in Nazareth, “because of their lack of faith.  If we make prayer a high priority, if we are like Venerable Matthew Talbot making prayer, Mass, the Eucharist, confession and devotion to the BVM, if we make all these a priority we will never lack in faith, and God will be able to work many mighty deeds in our lives, even in the midst of our thorns.  Each of us is weak in some way; we have a thorn, a cross, a temptation and it’s there in that weakness where we will meet our Lord.  It’s in that weakness where He will grace us and make us a saint. 

May our Lord never be amazed by our lack of faith. 

Peace and all good,

Fr. Christopher J. Ankley