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Posted by on Sep 19, 2021

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One

As people who live in a nation that is only a little over 200 years old, we Americans easily forget how long some traditions and histories of peoples actually are. A case in point is the history of the Jewish people. Their story goes back over 4,000 years. Lots of things happen in 4,000 years, including growth and change in understandings of how things are and how they were meant to be from the beginning.

In the past few weeks, we have heard readings from the writings of prophets and holy ones during the invasion of the Assyrians and, many years later, during the exile in Babylonia. The basic theme has been the same: God will protect those who are faithful to the covenant, the Law. When that faithfulness fails, God no longer protects the nation and disaster follows. A remnant of faithful people remain and God protects them and restores them to their land and freedom.

This week, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we jump much closer to the beginning of our Christian experience. The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt in Greek by an unknown Jewish author who was well-versed in the traditions and literature of his people. It dates to about fifty to one hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In the approximately 250 years before it was written, the Greeks conquered Israel and attempted to impose their own traditions and religion. It had been a time of great suffering and some heroic witness by faithful Jews. Independence was gained at last and Rome had not yet conquered Israel. At least part of the writings in this work are attributed to King Solomon, a ruler remembered for his great wisdom. Despite being written in Greek, it follows the patterns of Hebrew verse. It also includes a notion of life after death. This is a new idea for the time and not accepted by all the people.

A Call to Justice

The book begins with a call to Justice. Justice is not a question of punishment for misdeeds. In this context, Justice is a moral quality that is universal and refers to the way in which moral conduct relates to Wisdom. When behavior is good and honest, when people care for each other and those who are most vulnerable, then justice is present. Wisdom is also called discipline. All are called to live justly.

But a group of people reject the calls of justice. They basically express the idea stated by folks in another time and culture, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Why spend our lives looking out for others? We should live happily while we have the chance – get everything we can right now!

The only fly in the ointment is the example of the Just One(s) who try to live by the Law. These folks are also called son of God (child of God), meaning one who is so faithful to God as to be “like God.” They persist in openly living lives of faith and reminding others of the necessity to do so. They were a real pain to “the wicked” who preferred to live for themselves.

It is at this point that today’s reading picks up. (Wis 2:12, 170-20) The wicked ones decide to put the Just One to the test. Accuse him falsely. Torture him. Make fun of him. Condemn him to death. Kill him in the most shameful, personally embarrassing way possible. Find out in this way whether the Just One is truly gentle and patient. Find out also whether God will step in to take care of him!

The early church looked to this reading from Wisdom following Jesus’ death, seeing it as a prophecy of who he would be and what would happen to him. They saw the resurrection as fulfillment of the promise that God would take care of the Just One.

Jesus was also familiar with this prophecy and its history. He tried to warn his disciples that things were not going to go well for him. The Romans always condemned anyone who was called “messiah” among the people. Anyone who threatened the status quo would be seen as an enemy of Rome. St. Mark (Mk 9:30-37) describes Jesus’ efforts on the journey through Galilee to prepare his disciples for what was coming, but they were afraid to ask too many questions. Only after the resurrection did they begin to understand what he had said.

The inclusion of Jesus’ statement that the “Son of Man” would rise on the third day would not have been understood. “Son of Man” was another title of the coming messiah. The third day figuratively referred to the day when God would come to the rescue and make everything OK again. It was not only a question of a time period between 48 and 72 hours after an event had occurred. It was a much greater promise.

Then there was also the question of what they were discussing as they walked along with him. This was quite embarrassing, because they were doing a very human thing – trying to figure out which one of them was the best among them. Jesus put that to rest quickly. He stated flat out that only the one who was a servant to all, with the same lowly status as a child, could or would be the greatest. So much for worldly power and prestige. The one who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives the One who sent him.

Living in Wisdom and Justice

Early followers of Jesus did not find it easy to live as humbly and lovingly as he did. St. James addressed this problem in his letter (Jas 3:16-4:3). He noted that jealously and ambition are fundamental issues that cause disorder among people. Instead of living with these qualities, he describes wisdom and righteousness from above, which lead to peace. Purity, peaceability, gentleness, mercy, bearing good fruit – these are qualities that lead to peace in the community and within individuals.

St. James similarly describes the basis for wars and other conflicts as due to reliance on one’s passions rather than on wisdom. Those who ask God’s help based on their passions and personal self-interest will not receive a positive answer to their prayer, because they are asking for the wrong thing. The key to answered prayer is to ask for the right thing for the right reason.

Not an easy path … but one that can bring great and very positive change to a world.

How do I live in harmony and wisdom? What qualities do I need to favor in myself, so I can be gentle, merciful, kind, and wise? Where does self-care come into the equation? When must I say “NO” to demands that interfere with my ability to be loving, kind, and considerate?

In these times of great division and challenge, our answers to these questions will without a doubt ripple out into our world. Pray with me for wisdom.

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Posted by on Sep 12, 2021

Looking Good on Wood

Looking Good on Wood

The Babylonian Empire had replaced the Assyrians in conquering Israel by the time of the second author of the Book of Isaiah, whose work we hear today. The people had been taken to Babylonia and lived in exile there. Our first reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time was written early in their long exile. It is one of four “songs” of the Servant of the Lord, also called the Suffering Servant (Is 50:5-9a). This person is one who has been called by the Lord and formed to speak the Lord’s words. Today’s song is the third one. The Servant has had a rough time. He has listened and followed the Lord’s word. He has not sinned or turned against God in any way. Yet he has met opposition from those around him. He has been physically assaulted and insulted in many ways. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in trusting the Lord. He challenges his opponents to come before the Lord with him and see, trusting that because the Lord God is his help, none will prove him wrong.

Psalm 116 continues the theme. In time of trouble, the faithful one calls upon the Lord and the Lord responds. The faithful one is saved and “shall walk with the Lord in the land of the living.” In the time this psalm was written, the people did not believe in eternal life or heaven. The psalmist believed that after death all that remained was a shadowy netherworld from which no one could ever return. This psalm was one of praise for healing of a potentially mortal illness, but for Christians, it is also a reminder that the Lord God protects those who are faithful. “I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.” Christians extend the land of the living to eternal life, beyond that which we experience here and now.

St. Mark drew on the Suffering Servant prophecies in presenting the life of Jesus. In today’s reading, Jesus and his friends are on the road (Mk 8:27-35). Jesus asks them what they are hearing people say about him. Some think he is his cousin, John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Others think he might be Elijah, the prophet who was expected to return before the coming of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Chosen One. The Messiah would bring reconciliation between God and humanity. When Jesus asked them who they themselves thought he might be, Peter responded for them. “You are the Christ.” The word Christ as used here means the Anointed One, the Chosen One.

It seems rather incongruous that the very next thing we hear about Peter is when Jesus rebukes him, calling him Satan, meaning adversary or enemy. What is going on?

Jesus knew that he had enemies in high places. His teaching about the importance of caring for each other and for God’s “little ones” – those of any age who were unable to fend for themselves – was a threat to the wealthy and powerful leaders of his people and to the Roman conquerors. Rome did not deal gently with those it perceived to be a threat. Nevertheless, he was on his way to Jerusalem, called to speak the truth of God’s care for all to the leaders of his people as well. He warned his followers that it would not go well for him. Most likely he would be killed.

Peter and most others were expecting a messiah who would deliver the country from the Romans. Not someone who would be killed by them. What kind of a messiah would not lead the people to triumph over their enemies? God was on their side, so they would triumph militarily as they had in former ages. Besides, Jesus was his friend. What kind of friend would not try to protect the companion he loved and followed?

But Jesus knew that violent revolution would not bring true freedom. He was not called to be that kind of chosen one. That was not God’s way. St. Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This was written about 35-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so it is from the perspective of one who knew what had happened to Jesus. The people were experiencing persecution and rejection from their communities. It was not an easy thing to be a follower of Jesus. Mark’s words were intended to encourage the community and make it clear that Jesus was the one to whom the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah had pointed. This really was the one the Lord would raise up and whose faithfulness would be vindicated.

How does it all play out in everyday life for the believer? St. James speaks of this (Jas 2:14-18). Faith in the Lord is important. But for James, the proof of the pudding is in what people do, not in what they say. How do we respond to the poor in our midst? If we simply throw kind words but don’t include food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities, we are not living out our faith. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave those who hurt him. His followers must do the same. A life of faith requires commitment to sharing and serving those in need of help. The gifts and talents we have received must be shared.

Daniel Berrigan, SJ once said, “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

What wood will I need to look good on?

What am I called to do? Who am I called to help? What will my friends on social media think if I support an unpopular cause? Will my family support me or will they oppose my positions? Will they just write off what I say? Does it matter?

As we continue to live our daily lives, may we be ever more aware of the needs of those around us. May we choose to believe that they are trying hard and doing their best, even if they aren’t able to achieve “success” in the ways our family or friends would define it. May we meet them as companions in the journey, not as outsiders who intend to “save” them from their situation and then get on with our lives again. May we walk with the Lord in the land of the living, in all his many disguises.

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Posted by on Sep 5, 2021

Ears and Mouths Opened – What Do We Hear, Say and Do?

Ears and Mouths Opened – What Do We Hear, Say and Do?

Our readings for the Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time begin with an oracle. It was very common in the ancient world for prophets, priests, or priestesses to speak the words of the gods as oracles. Both the person through whom the message is delivered and the message itself were known as oracles. Oracles as messages were often difficult to understand or required some time and effort to unravel.

The book of Isaiah is believed to include the prophecies of three persons over an extended period in the history of Israel. This reading is from the first section, as the Assyrians are invading Israel from the north and have neared Jerusalem (Is 35:4-7a). The assault on Jerusalem failed, fulfilling the prophecy that God would step in and protect the people in the end. How or when the miraculous healings might be seen is not addressed.

This oracle is pronounced while it is still uncertain that anything will stop the enemy’s advance and the total conquest of the nation. Yet the prophet speaks the words of the Lord boldly. “Here is your God … he comes to save you.” Still, the signs of the coming of the Lord are not what might have been expected. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like a stag, the mute speak. These promises can be seen as purely metaphorical. Or they can be applied to the actions of Jesus over 700 years later. The writers of the Gospels and the people who witnessed these things happening in real life took them as confirmation of the authority of Jesus to speak in the name of the Lord.

St. Mark tells us today that Jesus traveled to the north, outside the area where Jews typically lived, to an area in Gentile lands where there were ten cities, the Decapolis. (Mk 7:31-37) People there had heard of Jesus and brought a man who was both deaf and mute (unable to speak), requesting that Jesus lay his hands on the man and heal him. Jesus often touched people as part of healing them. However, it was forbidden for good Jew to touch a Gentile (non-Jew). Doing so resulted in ritual impurity that required offering special sacrifices and purification rituals before one could again worship with others or be in community with them.

Jesus took the man aside and, disregarding the prohibition, he touched him. He put his fingers into the man’s ears, then spit on his own fingers and touched the man’s tongue. We would react with “Eww” at the thought of doing this, but saliva was commonly used in healing in that time and place. Jesus used saliva in other healings as well. After touching the ears and tongue of the man, Jesus looked up to heaven, groaned, and ordered, “Be opened.” The man’s ears were opened and he could hear. He also became able to speak clearly.

Jesus, as he usually did, ordered those who witnessed his actions not to tell anyone. But as usual, they proclaimed it to any who would listen. Familiar with the oracle of Isaiah, they noted that Jesus “makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” These things were known to be signs of God’s coming to rescue God’s people.

Jesus accepted people of all types who came to him for help or to learn from him. The same behavior is expected of those who are his disciples. St. James chides the people to whom he was writing for favoring those who appeared to be rich over those who obviously were poor. (Jas 2:1-5) This kind of response to those who joined the assembly for worship and community sharing was absolutely unacceptable for the followers of Jesus. He reminds them that God chose the poor to be the ones rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, the opposite of the values of their society and most others. He knew that those who depend totally on divine providence and the goodwill of others often have a deeper experience of God’s care than do those who might think their good fortune is the result of their own actions and worth.

This reading is especially noteworthy this year, since it falls on September 5, the Feast of St. Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was known for her dedication to caring for the poorest of the poor. When a man remarked that he would not do the work she was doing for all the money in the world, she informed him that she would not do it for that reason either. She did it because that was where and how she met and served Christ.

I won’t go into the story of Mother Teresa and her life here, but it’s worth considering in the light of today’s readings. If you’d like to know more about our family’s story of Mother Teresa’s work, take a look at http://blog.theologika.net/mother-teresa-love-is-left-alone/. Suffice it to say that Mother trusted deeply that when others knew of the needs of the people she served, they would find a way to help. She would simply inform them of the need, then sit quietly, with her hands in her lap, and wait for them to figure out how to meet it.

Our challenge today is similar to those faced in the time of Jesus and the early church, as well as those Mother Teresa faced. How do we respond to the needs of others? Do we see the faith of those left behind in our economy, our communities, and our world? Do we see Christ among them? Do we reach out in love? If we ourselves don’t have a lot resources to spare, we’re not off the hook. Who do we know and how can we work together to help?

We pray with the man Jesus healed today: Open our ears, Lord, so we can hear your voice. Then open our mouths too, so we can speak of the needs of our sisters and brothers here and around the world. Help us to respond to your love by sharing it in concrete ways with those we meet each day – rich or poor, native born or immigrant, man or woman.

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Posted by on Aug 28, 2021

Living in the Presence of the Lord

Living in the Presence of the Lord

I grew up in a Scouting family, with four younger brothers. Each month a new copy of Boys Life magazine arrived and we eagerly opened it to a page called “Think and Grin.” This was a collection of jokes and cartoons. Some were very obvious in meaning, others required a bit of thinking to understand the joke. But we all read them and usually then read them to our mother. She enjoyed them too, and especially she enjoyed the fact that we all, individually, read the very same jokes to her!

As I consider the readings for this Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, I am struck by the double meaning of a word. The first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, begins, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe…” (Dt 4:1-2,6-8)  The word in question is “hear.” For us, hearing refers to the physical act of perceiving the sound and understanding the meaning of the word. But for the people of Israel, it carried an additional meaning. That meaning was to “obey,” as in “take it to heart and live according to what is being said.” In essence, this set of instructions should be called “Hear and Do.”

The context for this reading is that the Law is being presented to the people. It is a codification of how people are to interact with their God and with each other. The rules and codes grew out of a particular cultural context – that of a Middle-Eastern pastoral people. It codified a more merciful response to misfortune or injury at the hand of others. Today we look at it and see it as rather brutal, but the notion of balancing the taking of an eye with the penalty of losing an eye was actually a great improvement over the prior way of killing an entire family or village if one individual maimed, insulted, or injured a member of another stronger group. Jewish law was heavily influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, a legal text from Babylonia written down around 1755-1758 B.C. which pioneered this more humane legal code.

The instructions from Deuteronomy include another important point. Nothing is to be added or taken away from the Law as it is being presented to the people. Following this Law will show the wisdom and intelligence of the Israelites, a people who are close to their God who, in turn, chooses to remain close to them.

As the years and centuries passed, many new situations arose and solutions were found that came to be treated as essential parts of the Law. The Law as it was known by the time of Jesus was far more complicated than it had been when first handed down in the Sinai desert, particularly in terms of purity regulations. What made a person “unclean” and therefore ritually impure and prohibited from participating in religious rituals? A large number of guidelines had been developed, including specific ways and times for washing hands, kettles, jugs, and beds that explained what was impure and what was necessary to restore purity.

When Jesus’ disciples were seen eating after visiting the marketplace without first washing their hands in the ritually required manner before eating, the Scribes and Pharisees objected. Scribes were those who studied the scriptures. Pharisees were another group that focused closely on observing all of the specific requirements of the Law. Jesus responded with some aggravation. (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) He quoted Isaiah the prophet who had noted that human requirements had been added to the commandments of God and God’s commandments were not being observed. “Their hearts are far from me…” Jesus declared, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.” It is only what comes from the heart, the depths of the human being, that can defile a person.

St. James echoes Jesus’ point in his letter to Jewish Christians. All good things come from God and are pure gift. There is never any change in God’s relationship with humans from God’s side of the deal. We have been willed into being and are to be a sort of first fruits of creation. From the human side, the critical thing is to be doers, not just hearers of the word of God. “Hear and Do” again!

What are we to do? Care for orphans and widows. Just for them? Why these two groups? When these words were first written, it was because without a man’s protection, anyone could and did do whatever they wanted to do to women and children. They had no social status and were the most vulnerable members of any community.

Today we have social and legal protections for women and children. Orphans and widows are not necessarily the most vulnerable people today, though we certainly have a responsibility as a community to provide loving support for them. But who else needs our care now? Refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, addicts, the unhoused, those with special needs. Many people still need a hand and a smile of welcome. How will we respond to them? How do I respond?

“Those who do justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) It was so three thousand years ago and it is so today. It’s all about our relationship with the Lord and each other. Hear and Do!

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Posted by on Aug 15, 2021

Layer upon layer of meaning for the Feast of the Assumption

Layer upon layer of meaning for the Feast of the Assumption

The Feast of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary pre-empts the usual celebration of the Sundays of Ordinary Time when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year. It is a feast that has been celebrated by the Church for many centuries, but it was only officially promulgated as a feast in 1950. The Assumption refers to the belief that Mary’s body was taken into heaven at the time of her death. In the Eastern Church, the feast is called the Dormition and the belief is that she when she died, she simply went to sleep and was taken, body and soul, into heaven.

The readings begin with one from the Book of Revelations (Rev 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab). This book is an example of apocalyptic literature, in which there are many layers of meaning. It is not to be taken literally, because the characters and events described are symbols of other realities. Numbers, colors, objects – all carried deeper meanings than their face value. Revelations was written during a time of persecution of the Christian community. Those for whom it was written understood it as an encouragement in time of trouble. Through all the suffering and trials, Christ and the Church would prevail, because God was on their side.

In today’s reading, first a sign appears in the heavens – a woman laboring to give birth. Then comes a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, ready to devour the child. There were said to be seven diadems on its seven heads, each of which had ten horns. Seven and ten were numbers signifying completeness and power. Horns are symbols of power. The diadems also referenced power. Red symbolizes war, destruction, and bloodshed. This dragon symbolized the forces of evil, arrayed against the woman and her child. The woman herself relates to two layers of meaning. She represents both Israel, from whom the savior would be born, and Mary, the Israelite mother who would give birth to Jesus and the church.  The child born and saved from the dragon was both Mary’s son, the Christ, and the community of believers who form his body today, the Church.

The triumph of the forces of good does not appear seamlessly in this story. There are many ups and downs, many triumphs and tribulations. However, the focus is on the ultimate victory of God, brought to fruition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the faithfulness of the Church. The inclusion of a woman in the mix, as the one giving birth, makes clear the importance of the feminine and of matter in the story of salvation. God is not one who despises matter or the feminine. God unites heaven and earth, male and female in the story of salvation.

The readings continue, with St. Paul reminding the people of Corinth that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ is the first of “those who have fallen asleep” and been raised to new life. (1 Cor 15:20-27) Death came through the first human, Adam. All humans die. Now, because Christ is the new Adam, all humans will rise as he did. This will happen at the end of time, when all enemies of life have been conquered, including death.

The role of women is again featured in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk1:39—56) In this story, a newly pregnant Mary leaves Nazareth shortly after her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel has informed her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, is having a baby and is now six months pregnant. This is a miracle because Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. Mary hurries to Elizabeth’s side to help her in the final months of the pregnancy.

When Mary approaches Elizabeth, her cousin cries out to her in the words we use in the Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The child in her womb had leapt with joy when Mary greeted Elizabeth. This child grew up to be the final prophet, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the one who was to come. Elizabeth praised Mary for believing the angel’s words and consenting to God’s request of her.

If you or I heard such a greeting, we might well focus on our good deed or we might be embarrassed and brush off the greeting as excessive. Mary responded differently. Her response takes the form of a Canticle, a song of praise to God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” This song is sung by the Church every evening as part of Evening Prayer. She sings of God’s great love and mercy throughout history, of the way the Lord comes to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty from their thrones. She rejoices that the Lord has always come to the aid of his servant Israel and remembers the promise made to Abraham and his children forever. We too are children of Abraham in faith. She sings our song.

On this, the feast of the Assumption, let us rejoice in the courage and faithfulness of Mary, a teenager who met an angel, believed the messenger of God, and accepted a role that would bring danger, hardship, and sorrow, but also joy as she shared the journey of Jesus’ life. She understands what it is to be a mother, a wife, a faithful woman. She is ready to help all who ask for aid.

See you at Mass.

P.S. Many years ago I wrote another blog post for the Feast of the Assumption. If you’re interested, you can find it at:  http://blog.theologika.net/feast-of-the-assumption/

Image: Dormition of Mary – unknown artist – public domain

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2021

Is It Ever Enough?

Is It Ever Enough?

Who among us has not had the experience of trying to do something special for another person and discovering that what we thought would be gratefully received and appreciated fell short in the eyes of the intended recipient? It might be something as simple as remembering a birthday or as momentous as arranging a trip to a fabulous vacation destination. But somehow, the recipient of our gift does not appreciate what has been given.

In the readings this week, the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we see something of this same sort happening. The Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt. They have miraculously crossed the Red Sea, with the entire Egyptian army in pursuit. They have traveled into the Sinai and now, two months after leaving Egypt, they find that food and water are not naturally abundant for a large group of people traveling together in a dry land. One of those DUH! moments. They begin to grumble and complain. At least in Egypt they had enough to eat and drink. They even had bread (an Egyptian invention when ovens were invented and wheat bread developed). Here in the desert, they didn’t know where their next food and water were going to be found.

Moses took their complaints to God, who responded by providing manna in the morning and quail in the evening for the people to eat. The manna fell from the sky each morning and the people were instruction to collect just enough for their own family for the day. The same rule applied to the quail which came in the evening for the hunters. Only on the sixth day were they allowed to harvest more than enough for one day, because nothing was to be collected on the seventh day. It was to be a day of rest.

When the manna fell the first day, the people asked, “What is this?” Moses responded, “This is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” (Ex 16:2-4, 12-15)

This gift of manna in the desert became one of the abiding themes in Jewish culture and history. The psalmist declares, “He commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven; he rained manna upon them for food and gave them heavenly bread.” (Ps 78).  The people fed by Jesus out in the countryside came to him when they had returned to the city and demanded a sign before they would be willing to believe that God had sent him to them: “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert…” Jn (6:24-35)

Jesus told those who searched for him in the city that they were to search for food that endures for eternal life, not everyday, ordinary food that spoils. The food that endures comes from the Father, just as the manna in the desert had come from God, not from Moses. The bread of God gives life to the world. Those who eat it will never hunger or thirst.

In this discourse, Jesus tells those with whom he is speaking, “I am the bread of life.” We’re used to hearing folks say, “I am.” “I am happy,” “I am sad,” “I am coming home soon,” etc. “I am” doesn’t mean anything significant in our ordinary speech. But in John’s Gospel, “I am” statements mean something important. This is the name of God. When Jesus says this, he makes clear that he speaks in the power and authority of God. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger” because he himself is the life-giving gift of God.

This new life from Jesus demands a different style of interaction and behavior from those who are his sisters and brothers. (Eph 4:17, 20-24) They no longer live as people who are only looking out for themselves and their own pleasure. They are now part of a community committed to living as members of the Body of Christ – those who eat the Bread from Heaven.

Is this gift from God enough for us? For you? For me? Will we eat of this bread of life? Will we believe and never thirst?

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Posted by on Jul 18, 2021

Shepherds – More than those who care for sheep

Shepherds – More than those who care for sheep

Popular imagination is based on the historical lived experience of a people. Religious imagery reflects that experience. So today, the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, shepherds (and by extension sheep) are showing up in many of the readings. The Hebrew people were descendants of Abram and Sara, a shepherd and his wife from Mesopotamia. They were pastoralists who traveled over a wide area of countryside, seeking the best pastures for their sheep and living from the work of their hands (and feet – with all that walking). God called Abram to a special relationship and promised to be his God through all generations.

When it came time for the Hebrew people to have kings, the second king was David, a shepherd boy chosen by God to be the successor of Saul. In the Hebrew Scriptures, shepherd is a term often applied to the kings of the land. Sometimes the kings were faithful to the Covenant and sometimes they were not. Either way, the prophets spoke of them as shepherds.

Jeremiah (23:1-6) could see that his people and their kingdom were going to fall when faced by the might of Babylon. But the reason for the coming disaster had nothing to do with military might or the skill of generals. Israel had prevailed against all odds in the past. The failure this time would be the result of the failure of the rulers to be true to the Covenant.

Jeremiah speaks of these rulers as shepherds who have misled and scattered the flock of the Lord. They are not caring for the people as they have been called to do. He cries out that the Lord will be faithful, despite the misdeeds of the rulers. He will gather those who are faithful from among the nations to which they have been exiled and appoint new, faithful shepherds to guide and protect his flock.

This prophesy concludes with the messianic promise of a new king from David’s line who will shepherd the people wisely and be known as “The Lord of Justice.”

The Twenty-third Psalm is rightly loved for its promise of the loving care of the Lord who acts as a shepherd for his flock. Not only does the shepherd guide and protect the flock, the shepherd honors those for whom he cares, even in the face of those who would hurt them. Goodness and kindness characterize the care of the shepherd. The sheep, all of us in his care, will dwell in the Lord’s house for years to come.

With the coming of Jesus and the welcoming of Gentiles into the flock of the Lord as well, the divisions between peoples of the world are broken down. (Eph 2:13-18) No longer is anyone to be excluded from the flock of the Lord of Justice. The divisions among the peoples of the world were destroyed by the cross. Through Jesus, we all have access to the Father in one Spirit. The shepherd now has called the sheep from around the world and united us into one flock.

The Gospel this week (Mk 6:30-34) continues last week’s story. Remember that Jesus sent out his followers to heal the sick and call people to repentance, to turn their lives back to God. This week they have returned. Mark calls them apostles now, those who have been sent. Jesus takes time to talk with them about their experience and invites them to take some time to rest, in a deserted place, away from regular life and the crowds of people who kept coming to hear and see him. However, they can’t get away on foot, so they get on the boat and head out onto the Sea of Galilee. Even that doesn’t work. The people see where they are going and walk there themselves, around the shore of the lake. When Jesus and his friends arrive, the crowds are already there.

Did Jesus get angry, get back on the boat and sail away? No. St. Mark tells us, “His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  He sat down and began to teach them. The shepherd had arrived. The Lord of Justice has come to his people.

Today we are challenged to be good shepherds to those sent to our care. It may be children, spouses, fellow workers, the old or the young, or people we meet on the street. How do we share the love of the Lord of Justice, the shepherd who truly cares for and loves his flock? And then, how do we rest in the green pastures to which that same Lord leads us, so we can be refreshed? Both outreach and times to rest and be renewed are essential.  Summer is a good time for both.

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B this year) begin with an event in the life of Amos the prophet (Am 7:12-15). A priest from the temple in Bethel named Amaziah essentially tells him, “Get lost!”

This might at first glance seem like a clash between the roles of priest and prophet. Anthropologists have noted these clashes in many societies. The priest’s role is to uphold the religious system and offer the necessary sacrifices to the local deity. The prophet’s role is to stand outside the gates and call for changes in the status quo when things get too unbearable for the poor and others outside the favored classes. Once the changes have been made in a society, the priestly class re-establishes a new status quo and all moves forward peacefully again.

To a certain extent this is what we see happening here. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The Promised Land has divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom is known as Israel. The southern is Judah. Bethel is in the northern kingdom which has been quite successful in expanding into lands we now know as Syria and Iraq. The nobles are doing very well personally. The religious leaders are also profiting from the elaborate religious ceremonies, including sacrifices to local gods of the conquered areas. The religious establishment is favoring the ruling class rather than reminding them to care for the poor as well, and that favor is being returned.

Roving bands of prophets move throughout the land, speaking in the style of oracles – using puzzling language and leaving people to figure out what the oracle means. These prophets earn their living as they move from place to place from people who want to know what the future will bring – much like “fortune tellers” today.

Amos is from Judah. He is a shepherd and “dresser of sycamores.” He is not a member of any band of prophets. He is a respectable man who earns a good living from his work. But God called him, instructing him to go to Israel (the northern kingdom) and call the rulers and people there back to the covenant. When Amos obeys, his message is not welcomed and Amaziah tells him to go home!

This might have been the end of the story, but Amos does not back down. He explains his professional background as nothing remotely resembling a prophet and makes it abundantly clear that he has been called by God to deliver the message. The very next sentence he speaks is: “Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The Book of Amos was the first prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It became something of a template for the prophets and prophetic books that followed, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The primary offense of the Kingdom of Israel? Failure to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, the conquered, and foreigners.

Psalm 85 puts it very clearly: kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth, while justice looks down from heaven. Justice, the right order of things, is based on kindness to each other. Only when the conditions of justice are met can there be peace and salvation.

The letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14) begins with a reminder of God’s blessings for those called to the community of believers. All things are summed up in Christ, according to God’s plan from before the world was created. We are chosen to be the adopted children of God, through his son, Jesus.

Finally, we see Jesus (Mk 6:7-13) sending out his twelve closest followers two by two to heal the sick and drive out “unclean spirits.” They are not to take anything but a pair of sandals with them on the journey. Their mission is not to the rich. Those who judge the importance of the messenger by appearances only would never give these messengers the time of day! But to those who welcome them and their message of repentance (turning back to God), healing of the sick and deliverance from demons is possible.

Remember, in those days what we know as mental illness was attributed to possession by evil spirits. This is not to say that such spirits don’t exist. They can cause a lot of trouble for any who listen to them. However, healing of the hurts, anger, frustration, and divisions that plague human relationships and can make mental illnesses worse is truly a form of driving out unclean spirits/demons too. When minds and hearts are healed, it can lead to obviously changed lives.

Kindness and truth, justice and peace – all are signs of the kingdom. May they characterize our lives in this coming week and into the years to come.

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Posted by on Jul 7, 2021

God Calls “Ordinary” People

God Calls “Ordinary” People

The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time speak to us of the experiences of three “ordinary” people. These three men were seen by their families and communities as just regular folks. No one expected them to be any different than the rest of their group. They would grow up, have a trade or role in the community, marry, have children, grow old, and die – just like everyone else!

But that was not to be. God had different plans for them. Blessedly, these men listened and responded to the call they received.

Ezekiel

Ezekiel (Ez 2:2-5) lived at a time when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians – a people who lived to the east in an area we now know as Iraq. He was a priest in Jerusalem and was captured early in the war. He was taken to Babylonia and no one would have expected anything good to come of that. Yet that misfortune was the start of something special. In Babylonia, the Spirit came to Ezekiel, setting him on his feet and sending him on a mission. The mission? To tell the people of Israel in exile there that God was still their God, despite their refusal while still in Israel to live by the ancient covenant and rules of their faith. He was to speak using very specific language, “Thus says the Lord God!” These words identified him as a prophet – one who spoke the word of God.

A prophet in the Bible is not one who foretells the future. The prophet is the one who speaks the word received from God. Typically, that word proclaimed by the prophet is not one the people want to hear. It calls them back to a life that might seem to be more restricted and controlled. Often the prophet meets great resistance. But for those communities who respond and obey the word proclaimed by the prophet, it can become a life leading to inner peace and to justice in the community and among the nations.

The Psalmist

Does this mean all is well for the prophet or for those who try to follow the Lord’s call? Not at all. The psalmist speaks  in Psalm 123 for those who have had their fill of the mockery and contempt heaped on them by people who have rejected the Lord’s ways. “Have pity on us, O Lord, have pity on us.” Show us your mercy and end this suffering! Enough already!

Saul of Tarsus – Paul

The second ordinary man is Saul of Tarsus. Saul was originally trained as a tent maker, but he had studied the Law and was a teacher in Jerusalem. He sincerely believed the followers of Jesus were unfaithful to their Jewish roots and traditions. They were the kind of folks who got everyone else in trouble – the kind of trouble that led to them being conquered by neighboring nations. Saul set out to arrest Jesus’ followers and root out this dangerous group. But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and called him personally to go out and tell the world the good news of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

Saul, now known by his Latin name as Paul, set out to do just that. He traveled all over the Middle East and Greece. Eventually he ended up in Rome and died as a martyr there. His letters are some of the first documents we have from the early Church, earlier even than the Gospels.

In today’s reading from his second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 12:7-10), Paul speaks of his weakness. He has received a tremendous gift in the experience of his calling, but he is still an ordinary guy. He battles physical and spiritual weaknesses just like everyone else does. He has asked to be relieved of these weaknesses, but that is not how grace works. The Lord’s gift of life and love works through the weakness of those who witness to him. Paul declares to the people of Corinth and to us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The same deal applies to us.

Jesus of Nazareth

Finally, we hear what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). He has had a tremendous experience of being called at his baptism in the Jordan River and the time in the desert. He has seen people healed of physical and psychological ailments at his touch. Yet when he goes home to his family and religious community, no one is willing to believe he should have anything to say to them. He is not a trained, certified religious teacher. He is a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. An “everyday Joe.”

In response, Jesus quotes a traditional saying: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” He was unable to work wonders or heal people at home, because they were not open to receive the gift he had to offer.

Prophets in our midst?

We look back on these men and their experience. How easy it would be to say, “I would never do that to a prophet that came to me!” Yet it is all too easy to overlook the gifts of those we love – the ordinary people who come to us with a word or insight that might well help us on our way to holiness.

Let’s pray today that we be open to the prophets in our midst. The ordinary folks who speak God’s word to us.

Photo: Michael and Marjorie Brewer – Two ordinary people of faith

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Posted by on Jun 27, 2021

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time begin with this surprising statement from the book of Wisdom (Wis 1:13). Furthermore, the world and its creatures are “wholesome” and justice (God’s design of the right order of things) “is undying.” Physical death is merely the result of the envy of the devil, not something that can stop God’s gift of life.

The Lord rescues his faithful ones, brings them up from the netherworld, changes mourning into dancing. We respond by giving thanks, in the words of the psalmist (Psalm 30).

St. Paul asks the community at Corinth and us as well, to share what we have with those in need. We the community respond to the gift of our Lord by sharing what we have received, just as Jesus, the Word of God, entered into our human experience and shared fully in it. As was the case of the Israelites in the desert, those who have much aren’t to have more than their share and those who have only a little ought not to end up with less than their fair share of the manna (or other gifts) needed for life.

Finally, St. Mark tells of two healings. Jairus, an official from the synagogue, asks Jesus to heal his child. Jesus goes immediately with him.

On the way to the child, in the hustle and bustle of the crowd, a woman who has suffered with a hemorrhage for twelve years touches his cloak. She is hoping for healing. Immediately power goes from him and she is healed. Jesus notices this and asks who touched him. The others are amazed. In such a crowd, lots of people were touching and bumping into him. But the woman comes to him, in great fear because she has broken several rules by touching him, and confesses what she has done. Jesus does not scold her. Instead, he tells her that her faith has saved her and that she may go in peace, cured of her affliction.

Jesus then continues to the home of Jairus, where the child now has died before Jesus reaches her. Yet Jesus takes her hand and tells her to get up. The original Greek words distinguish between what Jesus said and what she did. Our English version uses the same word, arise, for both what Jesus told the girl to do and her rising from death. But in the original, Jesus said she should “get up” and the child “arose,” the same term used to describe Jesus’ own Resurrection.

These readings speak of the great hope we share as Christians. It’s particularly relevant for me just now, as I have had to say goodbye to both my mother and father in these past 5 weeks. I find myself remembering another time when both loss and hope were very present in my life.

Birth and Death – Somewhat similar transitions

Almost 40 years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, my grandfather passed away in December and my father-in-law (who was only one year younger than my grandfather) in January was dying as well. He had cancer and it was a slower, more painful process than my grandfather’s passing. I asked God why death had to be so hard. The response surprised me. I was reminded that birth is not easy, either for the mother or for the child. The child is happy and at peace in the womb. Every need is met, even those unrecognized. Nothing has to be done. It’s warm, peaceful, pleasant. It might be getting a bit tight, but it’s still possible to stretch and move around. Who would want to get squeezed and pushed and forced through a narrow opening into a bright, cold, and unknown world! Yet that is what must happen for life to continue. And, oh what a gift life here on Earth is or can be for us. I don’t think there are very many of us who would willingly return to the womb after tasting the joys of life outside.

Death is not an end, it’s a new birth into a life of even greater beauty and freedom. Our bodies wear out and we move on to new ones. Sometimes it happens after a long life. Sometimes things happen that make it impossible for our bodies to work anymore, and we move on. But, hard as it is for those of us who remain, life continues. We rise to a new way of living. The limitations of our aging or injured bodies are removed and we share in the life of love of our loving parent in the great dance of life.

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living…”

We hold on to this promise.

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