Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear a delightful story from the Second Book of Kings about the concept of hospitality to a religious leader.
In this story, we encounter a prophet by the name of Elisha, the successor of the great prophet Elijah. One day, when Elisha visited the town of Shunem, a wealthy woman persuaded Elisha to dine with her at her home. The two became friends, so every time Elisha came to town, he would dine at her table.
After some time, the woman told her husband, “I know that Elisha is a holy man of God. Since he visits us often, let us arrange a little room on the roof and furnish it for him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp, so that when he comes to us he can stay there” (2 Kings 4: 9-10). And, that is exactly what the woman and her husband did.
When Elisha came to stay in the room, he decided that the woman should be rewarded for her generosity. So, after learning from his servant that the woman was getting on in years and did not have a son, Elisha promised her, “This time next year you will be fondling a baby son” (2 Kings 4: 16). And, indeed, this came to be.
Then, in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we hear Jesus tell us that we should warmly receive all people who serve the Lord. Furthermore, he promises that when we do honor his followers, we will be rewarded.
Before discussing some of the major points we can glean from today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, let’s look at the life of a man who served Catholic priests for many years. And for his service, he received the crown of martyrdom. His name was Nicholas Owen.
Nicholas Owen was born sometime in 1562 in Oxford, England. His father was a carpenter, and Nicholas learned that trade very well. Of his three brothers, two became Jesuit priests, and one became a printer and distributor of Catholic books.
When Nicholas lived, England had a set of penal laws that made being a Catholic priest a crime, and celebrating Mass was strictly forbidden. Aiding a Catholic priest was also considered to be a crime.
Nicholas, who was a small man, was affectionately called “Little John” or “Little Michael.” Once, a horse fell on him and broke his leg. Because the leg was set badly, he had a limp for the rest of his life.
Nicholas devoted his adult life to hiding Catholic priests, especially Jesuit priests. He did this by creating hiding places in homes of Catholics who wanted to support their priests. Nicholas always worked at night, and he always worked alone. No one would know, exactly, where the hiding places were in the homes except the owner. These secret rooms had to be big enough for the priests to have air, food, and drink for several days. Nicholas’ work was so masterful and clever, that even today nobody knows how many of these secret spaces still exist but are yet undiscovered.
Nicholas eventually became a Jesuit Brother and continued his work creating hiding spaces for priests throughout England. Among the priests he served was St. Edmund Campion.
English authorities eventually sent Brother Nicholas to the Tower of London where we he was tortured so violently, that he died sometime on the night of March 1 and 2 in 1606.
One of the priests for whom Brother Nicholas worked said of him, “I verily think no man can be said to have done more good for all those who labored in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.”
Pope Paul VI canonized Brother Nicholas Owen, along with 39 other martyrs of England and Wales, October 25, 1970. His feast day is March 22.
From the Scripture passages of today and St. Nicholas Owen’s story, we can learn many things. Here are just three.
First, today’s Scripture passage from the Old Testament and Gospel passages emphasize honoring – or serving – official representatives of God. In today’s world, that would refer to those who do official church work such as priests and other church ministers.
Second, though the Scripture and story of today emphasize serving God’s official representatives, we are called to serve all people, for all people are children of God. And if anyone should remember this, it is we, for our parish motto is, “Serving God by Serving Others.” And remember, “all people” includes our selves.
And third, we learn in the Scriptures that when we serve and honor others, we will receive a reward. Jesus, for example, says, “And whoever give only a cup of water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Matthew 10: 42). But although it is wonderful that God will reward us, that should never be our primary motive in serving others. Our primary motive should be doing God’s will.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be good to reflect on how we serve God by serving others.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: “St. Nicholas Owen,” in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Full Edition:
March, Revised by Teresa Rodriguez. Collegeville, MN: Burns & Oates/The Liturgical press, 1999, pp. 221-223.