A former student who’s served our nation in the United States Army since his graduation 15 years ago texted me the other night. He explained he was doing an “18.6 mile timed march starting at midnight.” He was required to wear a 25-pound pack and complete the march in under 4 hours and 35 minutes. He was writing asking for prayers but also because he knows I’ve always been fascinated by these feats. Mainly because, growing up, I always struggled with weight and health issues, which made me dismiss most physical things and athletic opportunities as impossible. Thankfully, having met and worked with some people over the years, I’ve been able to do things I never imagined, like run a mile – let alone run it in what’s considered a “good” time. So I’m still intrigued by these different physical and mental challenges that people endure, whether for recreation like an Ironman triathlon or for something like joining various military special forces.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 8, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
A few years ago, a Navy Seal shared his incredibly memorable experiences. To even be accepted as a prospect, you have to run a mile and a half in under 11 minutes, which is fantastic for most people. But that’s just the entry level as they encounter grueling and increasingly harder challenges that are a part of their 12 weeks of training to become this warrior.
The training moves quickly from running a mile and a half to a 50-meter swim underwater that’s so difficult and dangerous that their instructors swim above the recruits to monitor them in the event someone should pass out. Another part of the training involves a 7-mile run while wearing 40 pounds of gear. They must also alternate and carry a fellow teammate for a mile to help prepare for a potential emergency rescue out in the field. It’s something few will succeed at. This one man’s class started with 200 candidates, and in the end, only 21 would eventually become Navy Seals.
Interestingly, his perspective was what makes the difference is more than just being in incredible physical shape. What was essential was the candidate’s mind and heart; did they have the mindset to go all the way? To explain, he shared one pivotal moment from the final week of training, aptly called Hell Week. That week is make or break time – the instructors work the recruits non-stop. They get something like 3 hours of sleep the entire week – while undergoing all kinds of tests: Running, swimming, and experiencing terrible extremes in weather. They endure a “Drown Proofing” exercise where their feet are tied together, their hands tied behind their backs – and like that, they are to swim fifty meters, retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with their teeth, and bob up and down a bunch of times.
The instructors remind them, over and over again, throughout this entire week, that they can quit at any time. There’s a giant bell with them that, at any moment, they can go and ring and that would be it: they can go home immediately. So, at this one point, they had just finished another one of these torturous exercises. They were all standing at attention, and the instructors said, “Okay, the next thing we’re going to do, go grab your gear, and we’ll go for a nice 5-mile run.” At that, the guy said you heard “DING” – one guy quit, and then another “DING” – and then a third “DING”. They lost three guys at just that moment, the most they had all week. Moments after the last guy quit, the instructor said, “Just kidding, we’re going to go have lunch.”
Can you imagine? I know that would’ve been me – one of the dings would’ve been me. It sounded just so cruel. And in the moment, it probably was. But in retrospect, they learn it’s part of the whole test. It’s part of this process… In that moment, they showed they didn’t have the mindset of a SEAL. Because the thing was, those who quit at that point weren’t even willing to take one step to give it a try. They made that decision solely in their minds that they couldn’t do anymore, they wouldn’t even attempt to go any further. Once they had done that, there wasn’t anything else that could be done. It was just another example that – What you think, how you think, is one of the most critical factors in determining who you are.
That’s not just a truth in becoming a Navy Seal or in our personal lives, but it’s a truth in the spiritual life. In today’s Gospel, let’s look at this parable Jesus gives us, which is one of the most dramatic ones Jesus offers. Biblical commentators will point out that the Chief Priests, Jewish Elders, and all those responsible for Jerusalem and the Temple knew that Jesus was, in fact, pointedly calling them out, and this would be the final straw that set into motion Jesus’ unjust arrest, trial, Passion, and Death. But the Gospels aren’t history books, so this Word of God is also meant for us to wrestle with. So let’s engage it and reflect on the story again:
This landowner has given the tenants use of his land. And it’s good land – it’s been cared for, maintained. All the tools necessary for good produce are there. The tenants who’ve leased this land benefitted from it, and enjoyed all that was right at their disposal – they don’t simply refuse to pay the owner what was owed him. They mistreat they kill those who were sent to remind them of their obligations. They go even further and kill the owner’s son.
But what about the thinking that was into those actions? Self-centered thoughts turned into thoughts of jealousy, envy, and entitlement. They used those thoughts to justify themselves and how they could excuse themselves from their legitimate obligations simply by refusing to fulfill them. When messengers arrived to remind them this isn’t your land, you owe the landowner something – the tenants’ thoughts turned vicious, killing those messengers. Once you’ve believed your own lies, believing even more delusional ones becomes easier. We see this when they convince themselves that they could eliminate the son that the owner will go away and they could carry on as they pleased. All of these self-centered thoughts led them to believe they could do whatever they wished and helped determine who they were: a murderous, wretched group of people.
Jesus gives us this parable, hoping it might trigger some introspection: What are the thoughts in our minds and hearts? Do we recognize the gifts, the talents, the abilities the Lord has blessed us with? Do we know that even in this terrible economy, how incredibly fortunate we are compared to others worldwide who live in dire need and abject poverty? Do we consider even something like the gift of time 1,440 minutes a day and ask ourselves what we do with that gift? Do we see all of these things as blessings that we’ve been given – not something that any of us were entitled to or manufactured on our own – these and many other things were gifts given from our loving, generous landowner who desires us to make incredible vineyards right where we are.
St. Paul beautifully counseled us who find our hearts and minds conflicted by temptations. He reminds us that if we want the peace of God that surpasses all understanding to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, that’s not something we can simply possess – like we can pull out our Baptismal Certificates and expect it to be the case. He tells us it’s a matter of our minds and hearts – and what we are focused on. Let’s listen again to what St. Paul tells us:
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then, the God of peace will be with you.
Left on our own, we can become just as delusional as the wretched crew in the parable. We can believe the lies of the world that feeds this mentality that, if they even acknowledge God, dismiss him as a disinterested bystander. Jesus shatters that theory, not just in this parable but even more on the cross. In the cross, Jesus puts aside arguments, debates, words, and miracles and, in that act, makes a final appeal to the closed minds and hearts of humanity. Like the men training for the Navy Seals, the decision rests on us. Will we throw in the towel, ring the bell, and decide we can go no further, quit, and go off on our own? Or are we willing to go all the way with Christ? Knowing that the transformation to being the follower Jesus calls us to start with a decision in our minds.