Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“How your life is spent”

Fr. Jim Reinhart 

21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME - Year C  - Luke 13:22-30



Long before the antidiscrimination laws, Mrs. Rosenberg was stranded one night at a fashionable resort on Cape Cod, one that did not admit Jews. The desk clerk looked at his book and said, “Sorry, no room. The hotel is full.”


The lady said, “But your sign says that you have vacancies.” The desk clerk stammered a bit and finally said, “Look, you know that we do not admit Jews. Please try the other side of town.” Mrs. Rosenberg stiffened. “I’ll have you know I have converted to your religion.”


The desk clerk replied, “Oh, yeah? Let me give you a little quiz. How was Jesus born?” “He was born to a virgin named Mary in a little town called Bethlehem,” she replied. “Very good,” the clerk said. “Tell me more.” “He was born in a manger.” “That’s right,” said the clerk. “And why was he born in a manger?” Mrs. Rosenberg said loudly, “Because some idiot behind a hotel desk wouldn’t give a Jewish lady a room for the night.  


There is the story of the evangelical conference. A man was late and arrived to find a huge auditorium packed to the brim until he spotted a chair way up front. He slowly edged his way up so as not to disturb the speaker; he leaned over to the woman next to it and whispered, “Is this chair saved?” She whispered back, “No, but we’re praying for it.”


So ends the issue about who's saved and who’s not, who's in and who’s out.   It’s a fruitless and irrelevant question-rightly ignored by Jesus. Since God calls every human being to salvation, the real issue is not numbers or trying to find out if I will be in the final count. But, how do we embrace God’s invitation and calculate the cost?


Matthew tells us, “as long as you did it for the least of my brothers, you did it for me” - OR NOT. The crucial question is how did you spend yourself in service to others?  Claiming you shared a few drinks is not going to cut it.


Someone who went beyond empty words and foolish numbers is an alcoholic by the name of Matt Talbot;  an Irishman was born in 1856 to very poor Irish working-class people.  At age 12 took his first job and his first drink.  It wasn’t long before the 12-year-old was coming home drunk.  Not unlike today’s drunken 14-year-olds getting off the train to go to teen night.


Matt later went to work at a brickyard and proved to be a good worker.  Now in his late teens with steady pay he headed for one of Dublin’s 2,000 pubs.  Alcoholism was a major problem in Ireland and a record from 1865 showed that the police arrested some 16,000 Dubliners for drunkenness, a third of them women.


The laborers were paid in the pubs and so the paycheck seldom left there. Matt Talbot was in the forefront wasting his pay on drink.  His addiction was such that sometimes he sold his boots or his shirt for a drink.  To feed his habit, he once stole a fiddle from a blind man who earned his living playing in the streets.


No one knew then that alcoholism was an illness, a terrible craving arising from a complex disease involving heredity, emotional factors, and the makeup of the brain.  Way back in 1784  Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia wrote a pamphlet  suggesting that alcoholism was an illness rather than a moral failing, but  it took nearly 2 centuries, 1958, for the American Medical Association to finally get around to that opinion.


One Saturday night Matt and his hard drinking brothers went to the local pub they were broke but expected their drinking buddies to treat them.  They didn’t.   Matt was so angry that he left in a huff, trudged home and told his mother that he was so mad he was going to take the pledge and stop drinking.  His mother said,   “Go in God’s name, but don’t take it, unless you intend to keep it.”


Keep it he did.   From that point on he never took another drink. Withdrawal, nausea, and all the horrible aftermath followed but Matt held fast.   They didn’t have AA or Al-Anon or the 12 steps in those days.  No friends of a New York stockbroker and the Ohio surgeon who founded AA in 1935 were around. Matt had to go it alone. But not quite - He had God and a devotion to Mary.


Up to this point Matt had been a nominal Catholic (after all, alcohol was his God and the bar was his altar), but after his conversion, he drew close to God. He started going to daily mass.  He would kneel on the steps a half-hour before church opened.  He made the Stations of the Cross, prayed the rosary daily, and gave much of his money to the poor.  He followed ancient penitential practices, like sleeping on a plank instead of a mattress, and he found a wise spiritual director in a Msgr. Michael Hickey.  He did this for years. A reformed alcoholic on the streets of Dublin, he had no time and less patience about who is saved or not.  Prayer and service were his concerns.


Matt had a heart and kidney condition and at age 69, on Trinity Sunday, 1925, on his way to church he fell in the street and died. He was given the last rites, taken to the hospital, but having only a rosary and a prayer book on him no one knew who he was until his sister identified him. When his body was undressed at the hospital it was found that he was wearing chains, an old form of Irish monastic asceticism. People at the hospital were astounded and soon word got out. People heard of the chains got interested in him and stories of his Holiness spread eventually to the Vatican.  He is now venerable Matt Talbot.


Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And Jesus said, “it’s a non-question, for people will come from the East and the West, from the North and the South, from Cape Cod and Dublin, and will recline at table in the kingdom. You’ve been invited. How you respond, how your life is spent, not saved, is the only issue. End of discussion.” End of homily.

Note:  The title of this post is ours.  The homilist is pastor of three small parishes in and near Campbellsville, KY, USA.