Sunday, July 26, 2015

An Infinite Giver

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This week we embark upon the sixth chapter of John's gospel, which culminates in the "Bread of Life" discourse.  It is the most Eucharistic themed of Jesus' recorded sermons, wherein Jesus emphatically repeats that His flesh is true bread and His blood is true drink, and we must eat and drink of it in order to have eternal life (Jn 6:53-57).

But before Jesus makes this powerful statement, which would cause many of His followers to leave Him, John gives us the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  A great crowd has begun following Jesus, about five thousand in number, and they are hungry.  The only food available is five barley loaves and two fish.

Five loaves and two fish might be enough to feed five people but to feed five thousand with such a small amount is preposterous.  Yet this is precisely what Jesus does.  Moreover, Jesus does not only provide enough food for the crowd but He provides an abundance.  After the crowd had eaten their fill, we are told that twelve wicker baskets were filled with left overs -- that's more food than there had been to begin with!

Some who desire to whitewash the miracles out of the New Testament attempt to pass this episode off as a "miracle of sharing."  They suggest that the crowd was inspired by Jesus' teaching about generosity to bring out secret food they had been selfishly hiding away to share with their neighbors.  But the text does not support this.  To feed so many with so little is clearly impossible, yet Jesus not only does it but He does it to excess.  The crowd is so astonished that they proclaim Him a prophet, perhaps recalling the similar miracle Elisha performed in our first reading today (2 Kings 4:42-44).

But let's imagine this was simply a "miracle of sharing."  Let's suppose that people in the crowd had hidden food they were not willing to share, but suddenly had a change of heart and decided to be generous.  Imagine yourself there.  You give your food to your neighbor, who eats it and is satisfied (for the moment).  Then what?  What happens when that person gets hungry again and asks for more to eat?  You've already given all your food away.  You cannot give what you don't have.

Think for a moment if you gathered all the food stored in your home and decided to give it to those in need.  How many might that feed?  Twenty people?  Thirty?  What if you owned a grocery store and decided to donate your entire stock to a food pantry.  How many hundreds could eat off of your generous gift?  Now imagine the next day, when all those people are hungry again, and the food has all run out.  You gave all you had the day before.  You have nothing left to give.

Our problem is that we are finite beings, and that puts limits on how much we can offer to others.  It is not only our food supply that is limited.  Our time is limited.  Our energy is limited.  The best and most selfless thing we can offer to another is our very life, and even our lives are limited.  There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend, but you can only do it once.

I'm sure we all know people -- or perhaps have been that person ourselves -- who selflessly give of their love and energy to a friend in need, only to later get burned out, feeling dragged down, weary and spent.  We can give all we can and sometimes it is not enough.  We can empty ourselves out completely and yet there will always be more need.

But Jesus is different.  Jesus, the Divine Son of God, is infinite.  Jesus can give and keep giving and never deplete Himself, for He is God.  And God is Love.  And that's what Love does.  Love gives itself fully to the beloved.  Jesus does this perfectly, and does it with abundance.  Jesus gives from a supply that is never exhausted.  This is why later in this same chapter Jesus can say, "whoever comes to me will never hunger, whoever believes in me will never thirst" (Jn 6:35).

We can give and give until we have nothing left.  But Jesus is a well that cannot run dry.  Jesus is different.  That's why we need Jesus.

First of all, this capacity for infinite giving is why Jesus is able to die for our sins.  The sacrifice of one man is noble but hardly worthy to atone for the collective sins of all humanity throughout time.  But Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is of infinite merit.  It is an infinite gift poured out for us, made present to us anew at each celebration of the Eucharist.  When Jesus says he who eats of this bread (His flesh) will never hunger, He means it.  The leftover loaves are a sign of the abundance with which Christ wants to feed you.  He doesn't want to simply satisfy your hunger for the moment.  He wants to satisfy you eternally, with abundance, in heaven.

Secondly, when we drink from this well that cannot run dry, we replenish ourselves for the service of others.  Jesus calls us to serve one another, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, to preach the kingdom and teach the world about His love.  That's exhausting work!  If we try to do it all apart from Jesus Christ, we will soon find ourselves spent, used up, and burned out.  We will find that we have only given the world our self, and there is only so much of our self to go around.

It may damage your ego to hear it, but the truth is that the world doesn't need you, least of all an exhausted and empty you.  Who the world needs is Jesus Christ.  You can bring Christ to them.

Renew yourself in Christ.  Fill yourself with His Spirit.  Eat His flesh and drink His blood.  He will come alive in you.  Then go love the world.  Because then it will not be only your own limited self that you offer, but the infinite Christ who lives within you, Christ who gives without limit.  Drink from the well that never runs dry.  Let Him overflow in your life to renew those around you, as well.  Like the loaves and fishes, Jesus will multiply all you have to give, and do so in abundance.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sheep Without a Shepherd

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I was baptized at 23 years old.  When people ask what I was before I became a Catholic, I say, "heathen."  That's not the response most expect, but it's the truth.

Heathen is one of those words best defined by what it is not.  A heathen is a person who does not belong to a widely recognized religion such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.  That was me before I became a Christian.  I didn't belong to any religion, but I still had an innate desire to seek out truth and meaning.  Though I did not recognize it at the time, I was also seeking beauty and love.  It's when I found these things in the Catholic Church that I became a convert.

As with so many words in our language, heathen has ancient origins that shed additional light on its meaning.  The Old English word hÇ£then meant "one who inhabits open country" (i.e. lives in the heath).  I thought about this original meaning as I read about the "sheep without a shepherd" in today's gospel (Mark 6:30-34).

I keep sheep, and this often affords some insight into scripture passages that use a sheep metaphor. Sheep are simple animals with simple needs.  They need grass to eat, water to drink, and a shady spot to find refuge from the heat.  A good shepherd supplies those needs to them.  Those who raise sheep often remark that their real job is growing grass, because most of a their effort goes into making sure the sheep have healthy pastures on which to feed.

Sheep without a shepherd have the same needs, but they must wander about the open country looking for food and water on their own.  In other words, they are heathens.

Mankind shares in the physical needs of the animals but we also have spiritual needs.  Our minds long for truth.  Our hearts long for love.  Our souls long for beauty.  A good shepherd will help us to satisfy those needs.  Without a shepherd, we are also heathens, roaming the wild country, trying to fulfill those longings on our own.

It is often said we live in a post-Christian society.  Post-Christian is another one of those words defined by what it is not -- no longer Christian in any meaningful way, but not really anything else either.  It is a heathen society.  And so most of us are sheep without a shepherd, wandering about in this spiritual wilderness trying to find truth, love and beauty.

We only have to tune into the news to be reminder of what a spiritual wilderness it is.  This past week Cecile Richards publicly apologized for the "tone" used by a Planned Parenthood executive when discussing the dismemberment of babies.  The murder of innocents is not considered as offensive as an inappropriate tone.  Meanwhile there is another shooting on a military base, more ideologically inspired violence.  One act of murder is "terrorism," while another is a "reproductive right."  Where is truth in any of this?  Where is love?

When we do hear truth from our leaders it is like finding an oasis in the desert -- refreshing, but also a bitter reminder of just how dry our wilderness has become.  Our president says what should be obvious to anyone: drugging someone and having sex with them against their will is rape.  Vanity Fair called his statement "striking."  What I find striking was how many other media outlets used the term "weighed in" to describe the president's statement, as if the definition of rape were a matter of opinion.  Meanwhile, a television show that glorifies violent sex is nominated for twenty-four Emmy awards.

I think back on my heathen days and how I would have responded to all we see about us today.  Same sex marriage?  People should be allowed to do what they want.  Abortion?  That's a sensitive issue, best left for the woman to decide.  Pornography?  What's the harm!  Sadomasochism?  Whatever floats your boat!  Truth?  Goodness?  All in the eye of the beholder.

Yes, I was open minded.  But as G. K. Chesterton wrote in his autobiography, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Jesus offers solid truth, beauty and love.  For the mind and soul open to Him, this is nourishing food indeed.  Today's gospel describes people "coming and going in great numbers," looking for Jesus and what He had to offer.  Jesus "was moved for pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things."

One of the great gifts Jesus left His Church was the authority to teach in His name.  It is the mission of the Church today to venture into the wilderness of our society, to find and feed the lost sheep who hunger for His truth.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Good of Detachment

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Think for a moment about what you might pack for a weekend trip if you were instructed to "pack light" and "only bring what you need."  I bet you'd still bring at least one change of clothing for each day, a toiletry bag with toothbrush and other personal items, perhaps a book to read, and of course your cell phone, tablet, and requisite chargers.  Not to mention cash for food and other travel expenses, and/or a credit card for when the cash runs out.  That's what I'd bring and I pride myself on travelling light.

If this is what we consider the bare minimum, why would Jesus send the Apostles out to proclaim the Kingdom with only a walking stick and a pair of sandals?  He didn't even allow them to take food or money, or even a sack to carry anything in that they might find along the way.  For such an important mission, why wouldn't our Lord send them out better equipped?

It turns out, the Apostles had all they needed.  They had God with them, and their lack of material goods only served to heighten their reliance upon Him.

This is a common theme in the New Testament.  It is why St. Paul could write that "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10), for in his weakness he was more reliant upon God.  It is why Jesus could say "blessed are the poor" in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3), and why Christ warned that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Mk 10:25).

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting we view the material world as did the Manicheans of the fourth century did, who believed all physical matter was evil and only the spiritual was good.  The Church condemned that heresy long ago.  If we recall the first chapter of Genesis we know that God is the author of all creation, and He sees it all as good.  We, too, are to see God's creation as good.

But as good as the things of this world are, no created good can ever equal the ultimate, uncreated good which is God.  And this is where we get into trouble.  We can forget about God's goodness and learn to rely too much on material comforts.  Think of how many of the deadly sins involve the quest for physical comforts, physical pleasures, or physical wealth.  Any time we look to one of these as the source of our happiness, we forget that only God can make us ultimately happy, and so condemn ourselves to dissatisfaction, despair, and (if left unrepented) damnation.

This is why so many of the saints spoke of the importance of being detached from things of this world: not because they are evil, but because they can serve to distract us from the ultimate Good.  St. Therese of Lisieux wrote that "it is only after we have detached ourselves from every creature that we find Jesus."

Many are familiar with the great poverty of St. Francis of Asisi.  Many also know that he did not begin his life in poverty.  He was the son of a wealthy merchant, but renounced publicly all of his wealth and possessions, including the clothing on his back.  Francis did not renounce all worldly possessions because he thought poverty in and of itself was good.  He renounced them because he wanted nothing that would distract him from his love of Jesus.

We look upon those today who enter into religious orders and take a vow of poverty with admiration.  They follow the example of saints like Francis in their asceticism.  Those of us who remain in the world shake our heads and think, "That's too hard, I could never do that."  The truth is the reverse.  The reason why some people take vows of poverty is that they look at the richness of the world and say, "That's too hard, I could never do that."  From their perspective, they have chosen the easy path.  Having renounced the goods of the world, it is easier for them to remain mindful of their dependence upon God.

Spiritually speaking, those of us who remain in the world with our accumulated wealth (great or small) have it hard.  We also need to be mindful of our dependence upon God.  We also need to resist the temptations of greed, gluttony, lust and sloth.  We also need to listen for God's still, small voice in our hearts.  But how easy it is to forget all of things in a world of Facebook, Netflix, Wal-Mart and Amazon?  We can easily become distracted by the things we possess, and obsessed with the things we desire.

I am not saying every Christian needs to be like St. Francis and give away all their goods, even the clothing on their backs.  But every Christian does need to learn to value God above all things.  For some of us, especially those God has called to help him proclaim the Kingdom, that means removing all other distractions.

St. Philip Neri said, "Give me ten truly detached men, and I will convert the world with them."  It is for this reason Jesus sends the Apostles out with only a walking staff and a pair of sandals.  By becoming detached from the goods of the world, they learn to become attached to the good of God's love for them.  May we, too, learn this attachment and nourish it in our lives.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Catholic Deacon

St. Stephen, first martyr, and deacon.
Many of my friends know that I am currently in formation to become a deacon.  Many of my Protestant friends have deacons in their own churches who serve a somewhat different role than the Catholic deacon.  From what I gather, in some denominations being a deacon is like serving on a board of directors or what we might call the parish council in a Catholic parish.  My friends with this sort of "deacon" at their church are understandably surprised when they learn I am required to be in formation for several years, or that I won't be able to remarry should my wife predecease me.

There also seems to be some confusion about how the process works among some of my Catholic friends.  Shortly after I began formation I was congratulated by a woman after Mass one Sunday for being ordained a deacon.  I laughed and told her ordination was years off, and I'd make sure she knew about it.

Because of this confusion, I thought I would give a glimpse into the formation process and hopefully give people a greater appreciation for the role of the deacon in the life of the Church.

In the Catholic Church, a deacon is an ordained member of the clergy.  In other words, a deacon receives the sacrament of Holy Orders.  There are three orders in the Catholic hierarchy -- deacon, priest and bishop.  Ordained Catholic ministers enter the clerical state with ordination to the diaconate.  Some deacons are later ordained priests, just as some priests are later ordained bishops.  But a bishop does not cease to be a priest, nor does a priest cease to be a deacon.  In that sense, all Catholic clergy are deacons.

And just as with priests and bishops, the sacrament of Holy Orders leaves an indelible mark on a deacon's soul (as does Baptism and Confirmation).  This means once ordained, a deacon is always a deacon, even if he retires or is no longer in active ministry.

The word comes from the Greek diakonos, which means "servant."  It is appropriate that the first and most basic order of ministry in the Catholic Church is the ministry of service.

Yes.  St. Paul talks about the qualities a deacon should have in 1 Tim 3:8-13.  We see the first deacons being ordained for service in Acts 6:1-7.  They were selected to help with food distribution.  But immediately after in Acts 6:8-15 we see one of those deacons, St. Stephen, being martyred for preaching the gospel.  In the rest of Acts we find deacons preaching and baptizing, which is a ministry deacons carry on today.

The most visible role of deacons in the Catholic Church is their liturgical role at Mass, most notably proclaiming the gospel and sometimes preaching homilies.  A deacon can also perform baptisms and officiate at weddings and funerals.  But this is only a small part of a deacon's ministry.  Most deacons are assigned other ministries.  Prison and hospital ministries are perhaps the most well known, but some deacons serve as youth ministers, airport chaplains, spiritual directors, work with homeless shelters, and more.  Most deacons receive no financial compensation for their ministry and so must also work a full time job.

Apart from certain liturgical roles, yes, a lay person can do pretty much anything a deacon can do.  This only underscores the fact that what is important about the deacon is not what he does, but who he is.  The deacon is an icon of Christ the Servant in the world.

Newly ordained Roman Catholic deacons being congratulated
by their fellow deacons.  Diocese of Greensburg.
Sacramentally speaking, there is no difference.  There is only one order of the diaconate, not two.  In the Roman Rite, some men are ordained deacons who also intend to be ordained priests.  We call these transitional deacons.  Other men (most of whom are married) are ordained deacons with no intention of being later ordained a priest.  We call these permanent deacons.  But they are ordained to the same diaconate.  In the various Eastern Rites, no such distinction is made.

Yes.  Celibacy is not a universal requirement for Catholic clergy, although it is expected of any clergy should their wives predecease them.  In different times and places there have been different disciplines regarding celibacy among the clergy.  As it stands today, in the Roman Rite, married men may be ordained to the diaconate, but not to the presbyteriate (priesthood) or episcopacy (bishop).  In the various Eastern Rites, married men may be ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood, but only celibate men are ordained bishops.  In all places and times, however, the Church has maintained a strict discipline of not allowing marriage after ordination.  So for any ordained married clergy, including permanent deacons, if their wives should die before them they are expected to remain celibate.  (Another interesting tidbit: before a married man can be ordained as a deacon, he must have his wife's express written consent).

Deacons are obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours at least twice daily.  The Liturgy of the Hours is the daily prayer of the Church, centered largely around the psalms but containing other scripture readings, prayers and hymns.  Deacons may preside at public celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Yes.  Yes it is.  (Though one should not discount the white martyrdom of enduring long parish council meetings).

St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr
Specific formation programs vary from diocese to diocese, although the US Council of Catholic Bishops has established standards in the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  All I can speak of is my experience in formation in the Diocese of Charlotte.  Our diocese requires completion of a Lay Ministry formation program before applying to be a candidate for the diaconate.  The Lay Ministry program consists of 150 class hours over a two year period.  Preparation for the diaconate itself consists of one year of Aspirancy (best described as a very intense discernment year), followed by a four year formation program.  In other words, it takes seven years altogether.  Aspiring deacon candidates have to pass a physical exam and go through psychological screening.

At the time of this writing, I am at the end of the first year of formation, meaning I have three more years to go before (God willing) ordination as a deacon.  To give some idea as to what the formation process involves, this coming year we will meet roughly every other weekend from the end of August to the beginning of June (with some time off for Christmas).  In addition to our in-person sessions, there is an ongoing distance learning component, regular reading and writing assignments, and prayer obligations.  Topics covered include scripture, canon law, theology, philosophy, church history and liturgy. We are expected to meet regularly with a spiritual director as well as an assigned deacon mentor, and to participate in many of the ministries we may be called upon to engage in as deacons.

A man in diaconal formation goes through a series of liturgical rites along the way.  At the end of the first year of formation, he is formally accepted by his bishop as a candidate for ordination in the Rite of Candidacy.  At the end of the second year he is installed as a Lector.  At the end of the third year he is installed as an Acolyte.  And finally at the end of the fourth year he is ordained Deacon and enters the clerical state.

No.  There are men in formation with me currently with many educational backgrounds, from bachelors degrees to PhDs.  Some have graduate degrees in Theology or related studies. Some are working on a Theology degree in conjunction with formation (brave, foolhardy souls!).  But a degree is not required, and the formation program itself conveys no degree.  While there is a strong educational component to formation, it is less about teaching the candidates and more about helping to form them into more perfect icons of Christ the Servant.  Education in the faith is one part of that, along with prayer and discernment.

Deacons are clerics and so according to Canon Law they are to wear suitable ecclesial garb according to the norms issued by their bishop and in keeping with local custom.  Most Catholics are used to seeing priests in clerical dress most of the time (except when mowing the lawn or cleaning out the basement).  One must keep in mind, however, that most deacons work a full time job outside of the Church.  It wouldn't make sense to require deacons to wear clerical attire when working as an auto mechanic, a bank teller, or police officer.

Some people believe that deacons should not wear clerical garb because they may be mistaken for priests, or if they do, they should differentiate their attire somehow.  These concerns are unfounded, however.  It is clerical garb, not priestly garb, and is shared by all in the clerical state, be they deacon, priest or bishop.

In the United States, some bishops permit their deacons to wear clerical attire while others do not.  Here in the Diocese of Charlotte, our bishop allows deacons to wear clerical attire at their discretion if they believe it will enhance their ministry.  I think that is a wise policy.

A Ukrainian Greek Catholic deacon proclaiming the gospel.
In the Roman Rite, when speaking to a deacon you would call him "Deacon [Last Name]," unless you knew he preferred to be addressed as "Deacon [First Name]."  In writing, you would address a deacon as "Rev. Mr. [Last Name]," or (as I have sometimes seen), "Rev. Deacon [Last Name]."  In the Eastern Rites they generally address their deacons as "Father Deacon," which I think is rather nifty.  They also generally use the first name in the East.

First, talk with your family (especially your wife, if you are married).  Then talk with your pastor.  If there are deacons in your parish, you should talk with them, as well.  Do some reading about the diaconate.  A good place to start is 101 Questions & Answers on Deacons by William T. Ditewig.  And pray, pray, pray!


Sunday, July 5, 2015

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

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It is a well known truth that what is right is not always popular.  That's why G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1907 in the Illustrated London News, “Right is right even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong about it.”  Chesterton has been called the Apostle of Common Sense for his ability to succinctly point out obvious truths to a society largely blind to them.

Anyone with even a modicum of humility knows that he or she can be wrong (sometimes very wrong) about certain things.  Just as it is possible for individuals to be wrong, it is also possible for whole societies to be wrong, as well.  But misunderstanding the truth of a thing does not make it any less true; it only makes it misunderstood.

The Church reminds us of this reality today in our liturgical readings.  In our first reading from Ezekiel 2:2-5, the prophet Ezekiel is told by the Spirit of God to go preach to the Israelites "whether they heed or resist."  Their failure to receive the truth does not remove Ezekiel's duty to proclaim it.

In our second reading from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, St. Paul boasts of his weakness, "in order that the power of Christ may dwell with" him.  Paul's weakness only underscores the fact that what he preaches is not of himself but of Christ.  Anyone who ministers on behalf of Christ, most especially ordained ministers of the Church, know of their solemn duty not to teach their own opinions but to present faithfully the teachings of Christ -- even when, as our gospel reading reminds us -- the teachings of Christ are not popular.

Today's gospel (Mk 6:1-6) has Jesus preaching in His own home town, where rather than listen to His teaching, the people say, "Where did this man get all this? ... Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?"  In other words, Who do you think you are?  Why do you think you know any better than us?.

More and more moral teachings that used to be considered common sense are being treated with derision by our society.  I mentioned last week that every Protestant denomination once taught that contraception was a moral evil until the Anglican church altered its teaching in 1930. We forget just how much general public opinion has changed on this issue.  Society as a whole was so against contraception at the time that the Washington Post ran an editorial warning that the acceptance of it, "if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality" (March 22, 1931). Today the public sees contraception not only as permissible but as the responsible thing to do.

There is an ongoing shift in public opinion today regarding same-sex marriage.  As recently as 2008, President Obama said in an interview with MTV, "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage."  Likewise Hillary Clinton, in 2004, proclaimed her belief that marriage is "a sacred bond between a man and a woman."  Obvious, both of their positions have changed, as have the opinions of most Americans on this issue.

Public opinion can change for the better.  There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the owning of one human being by another was considered perfectly acceptable.  Today slavery is widely recognized as the moral evil that it is.

So which is right?  Which is wrong?  Either we, as a society, were right about these issues in the past but are now in error; or we were wrong about this issues in the past and are now correct; or there is no such thing as right or wrong, only shifting "societal norms."  Many today take the third stance.  But such moral relativism is dangerous, for it subjects us to the tyranny of majority opinion.  If good and evil are whatever the majority says they are, then there is no such thing as evil, and no such thing as goodness.

By contrast, the Church understands goodness and truth as things to be discovered, not invented. In this way, morality is like science.  Scientific fact does not depend on popular vote.  The world is round even if a majority believe it to be flat.  The earth revolves around the sun, even if it appears to most people that the sun moves around the earth.  Scientific debates are not settled by one side shouting louder than the other, but by correctly understanding the data.  A true scientist has no concern for how popular his or her findings may be, but only whether they are true.

The same holds true for the moral law.  It is not important whether our moral teachings are popular but whether they are true.  Sadly, I have seen Catholics this past week derided by their fellow Catholics for simply adhering to the constant and clear teachings of the Church.  I am sure they can identify with Jesus in today's gospel, rejected by His own friends and neighbors.  But the most amazing thing about our gospel today is how Jesus did not react.  I've read the gospel story several times now, and I don't see Jesus whining or complaining.  I don't find where it says Jesus pitched a fit, engaged in self-pity, or derided His neighbors for their intolerance.  No.  What did Jesus do?  The gospel says He cured sick people and laid hands on them.  The gospel says the people were offended by Him, and that probably broke His heart.  But He loved them and cared for them.  Without backing down one iota on the truth of His teaching, Jesus loved them.

May we be humble enough in our own day to follow our Lord's example.