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Posted by on Feb 25, 2024

Put to the Test by God

Put to the Test by God

The twelve-year-old boy rushed breathlessly into my classroom and came straight up to me with a question that had been on his mind for days. “He didn’t kill him, did he?” he demanded to know. He was the older son in a troubled family and had only consciously heard the first part of the story of God’s test of Abraham’s faith during Mass on the Sunday before our class. I’m sure the entire reading had been proclaimed, but he had not heard it. He had waited until we met on Thursday afternoon, worrying about this terrible command God had given to Abraham – to sacrifice his only son. How could this be? What kind of God would do such a thing? How could a good God require the killing of a child? He had been so shocked by the mere thought of God asking a man to kill his only son that he stopped hearing anything more right at that point. He had not heard the rest of the story at all and was deeply relieved when I assured him that in fact, God had not allowed any harm to come to Abraham’s child.

This story of the testing of Abraham (Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18) and many others like it are deeply troubling to us.  Why would anyone ever think that our God could or would demand the blood sacrifice of children? Why would Abraham have believed that about God?

One of the great challenges we humans face is to be able to conceive of a reality dramatically different from the one in which we live. How can we imagine a person who never loses his or her temper? How can it be possible always to be forgiven? Wouldn’t the fear of punishment be needed to force people to follow the rules? And how can anyone establish that fear without actually punishing someone severely and publicly for misbehavior?

When we listen to the readings from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it’s important that we realize we are looking back in time to a very different day and age. Additionally, we are looking from the perspective of a different culture, with different understandings of human behavior and the nature of God.

Abraham lived in a time in which all the people among whom he lived had their own local god or gods whom they believed guided and protected them. These gods were very much like the people who worshiped them: territorial, jealous, protective of those they considered to be their own, impatient, always demanding proof of the good will of others.

The gods of the peoples among whom Abraham and his family lived sometimes required the sacrifice of firstborn sons as proof of loyalty and obedience. They required families to prove their faith by sacrificing a child, typically a son because sons were seen as more valuable. It was rare for families not to have children, so this rule was not hard to enforce.

Abraham would have seen this practice and assumed that the God he first met back home in Mesopotamia would want the same kind of sacrifice from him. Blessedly for Abraham and all of us who follow in worshiping his God, this is not what God requires. Sometimes, we are asked to make tremendous sacrifices. Other times, what we are asked to sacrifice is not life-shaking or life-changing. Nevertheless, when we are asked to make a sacrifice, it is not something easy for us to do. If it were, it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice now, would it?

When Jesus was born, he was truly human and truly God. One hundred percent on both fronts! Not a demi-god – half human and half divine. Fully human. Fully divine. As a human, Jesus did not know everything. He learned like any child what was expected of him as a man. He lived like everyone else, not at all remarkable. Yet when he heard God’s voice at his baptism in the Jordan River, he knew all had changed in that moment. He began to understand how dramatically things had changed. The kingdom had come. His mission was to proclaim it to all who would listen.

Some people welcomed the news. Some were frightened by it. Some thought it too good to be true. Some worried that they would lose their positions of influence. Some probably worried that the Romans who ruled their country would again kill thousands of people for rebelling against the Empire. The notion that a prophet, anointed by God to preach the coming of God’s kingdom, would not be a threat to Roman power was unheard of. Of course they would see it as a threat! How could the threat be minimized?

Jesus needed to testify in Jerusalem to what had happened to him, to the leaders of his community, the priests and teachers at the temple. The kingdom of God was here now. It was essential for them to hear this good news. So he began his journey, teaching and healing as he went along. A group of people accompanied him. Some were with him for a long while and became close companions. Others came for a while and left when his words became frightening or impossible for them to believe.

One day, when he had become very aware of the danger of execution he would be facing in Jerusalem, he went up to a mountain top with three of his closest friends to pray. Mountain tops have often been places where God and humans have met. This day was the same. Jesus and his friends were visited by two historical figures: Moses who received the Law from God and Elijah the prophet who was carried away by a heavenly chariot at the end of his life. Jesus himself began to shine with an unearthly light, his clothes whiter than any bleach could make them. The disciples saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then they saw a cloud that came and cast a shadow over the mountain. God often appeared in a cloud and this was no exception. The voice that came from the cloud told them Jesus was his beloved son. They were to listen to him. (Mk 9:2-10)

Interestingly, God spoke similar words to Abraham about his son Isaac, referring to him as “your beloved son.” Abraham’s willingness to give all to God was rewarded with God’s returning of the son to him. An animal was offered in sacrifice instead of the child. (My young student was much relieved to hear that good news!)

When Jesus himself faced the decision whether to complete his mission and bring the good news to the authorities, risking his own death in the process, or to drop the whole thing and go back to being a village carpenter in Galilee, he chose to move forward and take the chance. It was not an easy choice and it cost him his life. But God his Father did not allow it all to end with that suffering and death. God brought Jesus through death to a return to life – a life that will never end, the life of the Trinity.

St. Paul and other early Christians explained that with the resurrection, God forgave all of us for the times we do not obey the divine will. Christ intercedes for us, because he is one of us and has lived a fully human life. He knows what it is to be human. (Rom 8:31b-34)

In a very real way, our God who created humans, was now not so totally envisioned in the human terms that cast him as if he were a jealous, controlling, person. Instead, he came to be known as one who understood and forgave all, because he had come to be one of us through the life of his son the Word of God, Jesus. God knows what it is to be human, so God can and will forgive all who ask for forgiveness. We are put to the test, but so is God. God never fails the test of love. God was even willing to go through with the sacrifice of his Son Jesus, so that all of us would know how much we are loved and could trust deeply in that love.

As we continue our journey through Lent this year, may we remember that God is truly with us on the journey. We are not alone. Our sacrifices, big and small, are noted. Our reaching out in love to those we meet along the way is an essential part of God’s plan for all of us. And God sees each of us as a beloved child.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent – Cycle B


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Posted by on Jul 23, 2023

To Weed or Not to Weed

To Weed or Not to Weed

When I was a girl, we had a big vegetable garden. The largest crop by far was the green beans. We all liked to eat them and we were a good-size family. Mom liked one particular variety of bush beans. She didn’t like pole beans, so we never grew them. The challenge with growing the beans was that there was a fungus in the soil that killed the beans if it got on the leaves. So, every year, when the soil was ready, we planted the seeds and watched the beans grow. As the beans sprouted, so did the weeds. Every year, just the same. As the bushes grew bigger and the beans began to grow, the weeds kept pace with them. That part of the garden looked a fright! But we never pulled the weeds as the beans were growing.

When the beans got big enough to harvest, we picked the first batch. It filled several washtubs and we all sat around the tubs of them on hot summer afternoons, cutting them to put into the jars for canning. We would eat those beans for the entire next year. A week or so later, a second picking would be ready and we again filled the washtubs with them for canning.  The difference was that after the second picking, we pulled out both the weeds and the bean bushes. There would not be another picking. By that time of the summer, the bushes were becoming infected and were going to die anyway.

I thought of this when I read the story Jesus told about the farmer who planted good wheat seed in his field and went home to a well-deserved rest. During the night, an enemy came and scattered weed seed in the field too. The scenario was not seen as outrageously improbable to Jesus’ audience. Family feuds were a part of life and such things would and could happen. With a grain crop, it can take a while before it becomes obvious that not everything growing in the field is the grain that was planted. An enemy who can ruin the crop would dishonor the farmer in the eyes of his peers. “How could he have planted weeds along with his wheat? Didn’t he know better? He must not be as good as we thought he was!”

When the treachery was discovered, the stalks of wheat and the stalks of the weeds were completely intermixed. The farmer would have had every right to take action against his enemy and the family of his enemy. At the very least, those who worked his fields expected that he would want them to pull the weeds out, so no one would see that they were growing among the good plants.

But the farmer took a different approach. Like Mom with the beans, he let the weeds continue to grow. Pulling them would have damaged the crop, because the stalks of the wheat would be trampled in the process of getting all the weeds out. Instead, he waited until the grain was ripe. Then the weeds could be pulled and destroyed. The wheat could be gathered and stored in the barn for use during the year.

Jesus explained to his disciples later that he himself, the Son of Man, was the farmer. The field is the world and the good seed represents the children of the kingdom. Those children of the kingdom can be led astray by others who are not of the kingdom, who deceive them and lead them to do evil. At the end of time, the children of the kingdom who have remained faithful “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The others will be like the weeds, destroyed as worthless instruments of hatred as were the weed seeds sowed by the farmer’s enemy.

This can be a rather frightening teaching. Would God really judge people so harshly and condemn the wrongdoer? What hope is there for any of us if that’s the way it is?

We get a hint of the answer in the book of Wisdom. This book was written sometime during the last hundred years before Christ. The author was probably Jewish, but Greek-speaking and possibly from Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was a great center of power and learning in the ancient world.

The author points out that God does not have to justify to anyone else actions He takes, because there are no other, or superior, gods. God’s own power is the source of justice. But that justice is not harsh. God’s mastery over everything leads to lenience to all. God teaches His people through mercy that they are to be kind and merciful themselves. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind…”

Those who choose to turn away from God and refuse to turn back and accept forgiveness, will remain separated, because God has given freedom to each person to choose how to respond. But God is merciful, and at the slightest turn toward the good, God will be waiting with open arms to welcome the one returning.

God is willing to wait, like the farmer with a field full of weeds, until each person, aided by the Spirit, turns to the Father of all, becoming part of the good harvest.

There’s a lesson for each of us here as well. When we are hurt or disappointed or embarrassed by someone else, we too have to decide whether to pull the weeds or patiently wait and hope that the situation will improve with time. Sometimes, things get better on their own. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, for our own safety, we have to pull the weeds – moving out of dangerous relationships or situations. But other times, we simply need to wait for someone to grow up or to realize that a change is needed. At that point, it’s better not to pull the weed and cut off the possibility of reconciliation.

Let’s pray this week for wisdom to know when to weed and when to wait as we deal with the good times and the challenging times of our lives.

Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A


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Posted by on Feb 12, 2023

Going Deeper with The Law

Going Deeper with The Law

In the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says several times, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you…” (Mt 5:17-37) Each of the things Jesus says takes the requirement farther than the original teaching from Mosaic Law seemed to go. It’s not enough to refrain from murdering someone, even getting angry and holding on to the anger is too much. It’s not enough not to be unfaithful to a spouse. Even harboring unfaithful thoughts is too much. It’s not enough not to swear a false oath. Don’t swear oaths at all. You really have no way to back it up.

We so often are tempted to split hairs. Well, she didn’t really say I couldn’t stop for ice cream on the way home, she just said to come home! Well, it’s only a little untruthful, what difference will that make? What right does he have to tell me what to do anyway? It won’t hurt anything to do it my way instead! And so we justify what we want to do, regardless of what is asked of us.

But Jesus wants us to look at the underlying meaning of the commandments. How do we live out the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. It’s in the spirit of the law that we learn the wisdom of God and choose life. He was very clear on this. He didn’t come to overturn the Law. He came to fulfill it.

Does that mean that we have to take everything we hear in scripture at face value, even if our culture is very different from Jesus’ culture? No. But we need to understand what the reasoning was for his teachings. For example, when he speaks of divorce, it is about a different social reality than we know today in our Western culture. In his time and culture, a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. Beyond that, once a woman was married, she was the responsibility of her husband’s family. Her family was no longer responsible to support her in any way. If her husband divorced her, there was no one to look out for her. She had no income, no home, no support. That’s why Jesus spoke of such women as having to commit adultery. It was the only way a lot of them could survive, but their survival method put them in violation of the letter and spirit of the law.

How about that business of gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand that causes us to sin? Not to be taken literally at all. But we need to act definitively sometimes to cut out the things from our lives that lead us to make the wrong choice or to go down the wrong road. If watching TV in the evening leads me to get angry with the baby who interrupts my watching, it’s not the baby’s fault. I need to cut out the TV watching. If having the computer in my bedroom leads me to watch YouTube rather than do my homework, maybe I need to keep and use the computer only in a public area of my home. If being around people who are smoking or drinking makes me want to do it too, or if I can’t resist their offers to join in, maybe I need to hang out with other people.

Sirach (15:15-20), long ago, presented a series of choices the Lord offers that ring true today. Fire or water? Life or death? Hang on to anger and revenge – you’ve chosen a fire that will eat at you and eventually destroy you. Choose water and you can be washed clean of the anger and other negative emotions – you are choosing life. Wisdom comes as we choose the path of life again and again over time. And sometimes, it comes as a result of having to turn from the wrong choices and the messes that have resulted when we made them. Turning from death to life.

God doesn’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do. That is a key reality of love. Freedom to choose. But God also doesn’t shield us from the consequences of our choices. God is simply there to help us pick up the pieces when we realize our mistake and make better choices the next time around. Then God gives us a big hug to let us know how much we are loved, even when we mess things up royally.

So, as we listen to the readings from Sirach, St. Paul (1 Cor 2:6-10), and the Gospel today, with all of these more demanding instructions, let’s remember that we are called to hear a deeper meaning to the rules. We’re to hear the meaning that seeks to call us to be our best selves and choose the path of life and love rather than sinking more deeply into the morass of anger, selfishness, deceit, and all that goes with them, all the while thinking we are keeping the rules as they are literally formulated. We are called to go deeper.

Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A


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Posted by on Oct 23, 2022

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

There is an old apocryphal story about a man who went to work one day and was treated harshly by his employer. The mistreatment was totally unwarranted and he rightly felt upset, angry, and short-tempered. When he returned home, he was still feeling very upset.

Something his wife said upset him further. It wasn’t anything aimed at him. He actually misunderstood what she was trying to tell him, because he was feeling so angry and hurt by what had happened earlier. So he yelled at his wife and accused her of incompetence in her homemaking and love for him because dinner was not ready when he arrived. The poor woman was justifiably upset by all of this. It was totally unexpected and unwarranted.

As she tried to refocus and get back to dinner preparations for the family, their child burst through the door, knocking over the water jug that was ready to be carried outside to water the plants. (Shall we say this was all taking place during a drought in California?) The water spilled over the floor and carpet. She was now going to have to pause the dinner preparations to get the mess cleaned up. This on top of her husband’s anger that dinner was going to be a few minutes late… She shouted angrily at the child for knocking over the water.

The child was stunned. The rapid entrance had been prompted by the excitement of seeing a beautiful bird in the yard and hurry to share this delight with Mom! Now it was all spoiled. The child felt stupid for knocking over the jug and unloved because of having done something clumsy.

The child retreated back outside where the dog was happily waiting to play. Instead of picking up the ball dropped at his feet by the dog, the child kicked the dog out of his way as he raced to his special calm-down hideaway.

All this upset resulted from the harsh treatment received at work from the hands of one person. The boss yelled at Dad and the dog got kicked, with lots of relationships harmed along the way.

Now, I hope nothing like this has ever happened to you. But I know that there have been times in my life when I was upset about something and passed that upset on to innocent people around me. What can be done to heal the harm done? Sometimes it’s possible to apologize or to catch and hold the child close letting them know how loved they are and how unfairly they have just been treated. But other times, the opportunity to apologize never comes. The person who was hurt never comes around again, to avoid the chance it will happen another time. Or the person moves or dies and the opportunity is lost.

I thought of this story as I read a commentary on Jesus’ story of the two men who went up to the temple to pray. (Lk 18:9-14) The first of the men was a religious leader and was proud of all his efforts and success in following the laws and traditions of his community. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity …” Luke includes a brief statement just before this quotation, telling us that the man “spoke this prayer to himself.” That little phrase, “to himself,” offers two possible meanings: 1) He spoke in a quiet voice, without the intention that anyone else would hear his words, or 2) he spoke these words in essence as a prayer to himself, rather than to God. Neither option is exactly praiseworthy, though the first is better than the second.

The other man was a tax collector. Tax collectors were not honest, respectable people who only insisted that people pay what they rightly owed to support their local community and the services they received as taxpayers – police, fire protection, schools, etc. In those times, tax collectors had a quota of money they had to collect from their fellow citizens to send to those at higher levels of government. Anything they collected above and beyond that base, they got to keep for themselves. The same was true at each level up the hierarchy, all the way to the Roman Emperor’s court! Everyday ordinary folks paid far higher taxes than what the Emperor demanded of them in tribute.

The tax collector stood off to the side, beating his breast and praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The term he used for merciful was not the one that we usually see translated as merciful. There is another word in Greek that means, to expiate or make atonement for what has been done by someone. This man recognized that he had done great harm in his life, harm which he would never be able to repair. Lives and hopes of ordinary people had been damaged or destroyed by his actions in ways he could never, ever undo. Only God can begin to repair the harm, and this is what he requested.

Jesus concluded, only the tax collector went home justified, on good terms with God. The tax collector recognized the cries of the oppressed that had arisen due to his actions. He begged and received forgiveness and he “went home justified.”

Sirach, a teacher of wisdom who wrote between 200 and 175 BCE, lived in Jerusalem. His actual name was Jesus, Son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, but the text’s original title appears to have been, Wisdom of the Son of Sirach. This title was later shortened to The Book of Sirach. Sirach includes many insights into how people should live with each other and with God, as well as praise of many of the great ancestors of Israel.

This wise teacher speaks of God’s justice and attentiveness to the cries of the oppressed (Sir 35:12-14, 16-18). He notes that the Lord does not play favorites. It doesn’t matter whether the person asking for help is rich or poor, well-born or from the lowest social class. The Lord hears all people’s voices and does not unduly favor anyone. Nevertheless, the Lord is neither deaf nor charmed by the social prestige of the petitioner. The one whose prayers are heard is the one who serves God willingly. The widow, the orphan, the oppressed are all heard. Their cries travel like arrows piercing the clouds and reaching to the ears of the Most High. The Lord “judges justly and affirms the right.”

The Lord hears the just when they cry out “and from all their distress he rescues them,” says the Psalmist (Ps 34)

As St. Paul neared his execution, he reflected on the life he had led since that fateful day when he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. (2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18) He speaks of his life as if it were a drink from a sacrificial ritual that would be poured out as part of the prayer at the end of the ritual. The sacrifice he has offered has been his life of faithful witness to what he learned. He has kept the faith that was entrusted to him and passed it on to all who were open to receive it. He does not blame those who didn’t turn up to serve as witnesses on his behalf during his trial. Rather, he asks the Lord to forgive them and gives thanks that he had a chance once again to witness to the resurrection before one more group of people who might not ever have heard the good news otherwise. His shepherd, Jesus, rescued him from “the lion’s mouth” of fear that might have held him back from testifying to what he had experienced. The Lord has been faithful in the past and Paul believes and trusts that His faithfulness will never fail.

Our daily lives bring many surprises. Some are wonderful. Some are awful. Sometimes we start the chain of events that lead to the poor dog getting kicked. Sometimes we are a part of the chain along the way to the poor dog. Sometimes we might even be in the position of that unfortunate animal. But like the tax collector, we can count on the Lord to help make things right again. The Lord hears the cries of all, without favoring any because of social status or ability to make contributions for beautiful monuments or other displays. He is present with those who are least able to protect themselves. He chases after the “lion” to snatch the “lamb” from its jaws, as King David boasted he had literally done as a shepherd boy.

Let us pray today that we too will have the courage to ask for the Lord’s help in difficult times, as well as when things seem to be going well. We need help in either situation, so that when ultimately we approach the Lord, we can have the courage to recognize our failings and ask his help to straighten up the messes we’ve made and heal the hurts we’ve inflicted on others. And if we are the one who has been hurt, we also pray for healing rather than vengeance or passing on injury to others. The poor dog in the story needs a break!

Readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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Posted by on Sep 11, 2022

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

“I will rise and go to my father.” (Lk 15:18)

Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you know was wrong and were hoping no one would notice? Perhaps you were embarrassed about it. Perhaps you were afraid of punishment. Perhaps you feared that what you had done could never be forgiven. Maybe you were a child and hid in a closet or out in the back yard for as long as you could, rather than face the parent whose anger or disappointment you feared. Maybe you simply didn’t respond to the letter or phone calls of the friend whom you had hurt.

Rejoice. You’re not alone. I think we all have had this kind of experience at least once in our lives. The peoples of the Bible had these kinds of experiences too. You are not alone, and you don’t have to stay in that frightened, embarrassed place forever.

Moses and the Israelites

Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses received the Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai and presented it to his people. Then Moses was called again to the mountain of the Lord. The book of Exodus devotes many chapters to the encounters of Moses with the Lord and the reception of the Law. This time when he went up the mountain, he again disappeared into the cloud at the top and did not return for many, many days – forty days in all! The people waiting at the foot of the mountain became afraid. What had happened to their leader, the one who faced Pharaoh, the one who led them across the Red Sea and through the desert? Had he died? They believed that anyone who saw the face of the Lord would die. Who would be their leader now? Who would be their representative to God? They had welcomed the proclamation of the Law from Moses and offered sacrifice to confirm their agreement to it before he left again. Why was he gone so long? Maybe what they needed was a god they could see and touch, like the ones of the peoples among whom they lived.

Aaron, brother of Moses, was approached by a group of them, asking him to help them find a god whom they could worship and who would protect them. Not knowing what had happened to his brother, Aaron ordered them to bring gold jewelry and coins. He melted them down and formed a calf from the gold. Calves were worshiped by many of the surrounding peoples as representations of their gods. The people rejoiced and began to worship the golden calf.

Up on the mountain, the Lord noticed what was happening and was not amused. “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.” (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14) The Lord was angry and proposed to Moses that he would simply destroy them all, then make a new nation for himself from the descendants of Moses. This would have been the right and just thing for a monarch or a god to do, according to the experience and traditions of the nations at that time, so that is the response ascribed to the Lord in this account.

However, Moses boldly spoke up and presented a different option, imploring, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people… Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” and the promise made to them. With this reminder, “the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

Did that settle the issue forever? No. There was much more to the story, as Moses descended from the mountain, broke the tablets on which the Lord had written the Law, punished the people who had rebelled, and again returned to the mountain top for another forty days, so the tablets could again be inscribed with the Law. The relationship between the Israelites and God continued to be rocky through the centuries, but God always remained merciful. There were times when things went very badly for Israel and they interpreted the suffering that came to them as punishment for having offended God. But when once again peace returned and all was well, they rejoiced in the mercy of their God, who never left them.

The Psalms often speak of the loving mercy of God, asking God to wipe out our offenses, cleanse us of sin, and open our mouths to proclaim his praise. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” (Ps 51)

St. Paul’s Experience

St. Paul also experienced mercy from the Lord. Paul was the Roman name of a pharisee named Saul who grew up in Tarsus. Tarsus was a Roman city in an area northwest of Syria. Saul was a Roman citizen because of his birth in Tarsus, but he was also a Jew. He had studied in Jerusalem and was greatly distressed by the teachings of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. When the authorities began to arrest Christians, Saul was totally in favor of wiping out this new, heretical group. In fact, he was a witness to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Those who were throwing the rocks at Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet for safekeeping as he looked on with approval.

Later, as the Christian community dispersed to other cities in the empire, Saul followed after them to Damascus, planning to arrest them, return them to Jerusalem, and witness their deaths. But the Lord had other plans for him.

On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul. Saul was totally blown away by the appearance of Jesus. Jesus instructed him to continue his journey to Damascus. There he met members of the Christian community and became one of them. Thus began his long journey as a follower of Jesus and apostle to the Gentiles.

Many years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, one of the men who had been converted by Paul’s teachings and had become a companion on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Tim 1:12-17) Paul spoke of his experience of having received mercy from the Lord, despite his earlier attempts to wipe out Jesus’ followers. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” It was through the mercy of God that Paul found a new meaning and way in life. A new kind of justice.

Jesus’ Stories of Forgiveness

Jesus embodied God’s approach to sinners. Sinners were anyone who did not live by Jewish Law and customs. As in any society, there are always folks who skirt the rules or refuse to follow them. Most people avoided contact with public sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth. But Jesus went out of his way to speak with them. This brought constant criticism from the religious authorities. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Eating with someone who was a sinner, who was ritually unclean, made a person also ritually unclean. It was a big deal.

In response to the criticism, Jesus told three stories. (Lk 15:1-32) The first was about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep. One of them got lost. The shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the missing one. When he found it, he returned to the rest of the flock and called his friends to celebrate with him because he had found the missing sheep. Jesus told his audience that in heaven, there will be much greater joy over the repentance of a sinner than over those who have always lived righteously. Like his listeners, we might wonder about the wisdom of leaving ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves. In practical terms, unless others were watching out for the flock, the rest of the sheep would probably be gone by the time the shepherd returned with the stray. But Jesus takes it for granted that a true shepherd would care about the missing one too.

Another example of God’s extravagance is that of the woman who had ten coins. When she lost one, she lit a lamp and cleaned the house carefully, looking for the coin. When she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her because the coin had been found. Having recently found a coin that I had dropped and been unable to find for several days, I can appreciate her delight. For me the coin was not a huge issue, but I had been wondering where it had managed to hide when I dropped it. For her, the coin was much more important. Important enough to burn expensive oil in the effort to find it. Jesus explained again that the angels rejoice when each sinner repents. The cost doesn’t matter to God and the angels rejoice.

The final story is one we often know as that of the Prodigal Son. It might also be called the story of the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father. A son requests his share of the family wealth, takes the money and spends it all on wild living. Then he finds himself without resources in a foreign land as drought and famine rage. Eventually he comes to his senses and declares, “I will rise and go to my father…” The son intends to ask for a job as a servant in the household, but his father, seeing him coming down the road, runs out to welcome him. He treats him as a much-loved son and restores his position in the household. A great celebration then begins, with no expense spared, to welcome the son back to the family.

The brother who had remained with his father is very hurt and angry at the way his father treats the one who had gone away and wasted the family resources. He refuses to enter the house and join the celebration, considering his father’s actions to be unfair. But the father of both young men explains, “now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.”

Like the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father in the story, we are loved and welcomed by our God, who is a parent to us. Sometimes we really make wrong choices. Sometimes we deliberately do what we know is wrong. Sometimes we don’t do what we know we should do. Like the Israelites in the desert, or Saul on the road to Damascus, or the young man who went off and spent his share of the family money, our actions can be very wrong. Yet God does not punish us. God doesn’t interfere with our free choice to turn away. But God always wants us to return, not to be afraid to come back. The circle of love is always open to receive us again. We just have to turn back and accept the big hug that God wants to give us. The justice of God is not something to be feared. The justice of God is extravagant mercy and love. Today, tomorrow, and always.

Thanks be to God!

Find the readings for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2022

Living Water – Drawing from Deep Wells

Living Water – Drawing from Deep Wells

Water – fresh, running water, drinkable water, water in the desert, water from a well, living water. Water and hearing the voice of the Lord are linked in today’s readings. 

On the Third Sunday of Lent, two different sets of readings may be used. For communities in which people are preparing for the Easter sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – the readings are those from Cycle A. There are three different Cycles of readings used in our liturgies. This allows us to hear more of scripture that is possible if only one set is ever used.

A ritual known as the Scrutinies is celebrated on the Third, Forth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. We join with those preparing to enter the Church in looking at our lives and examining areas in which we need a bit more help from the Lord to live our lives as witnesses to the love of God. The readings from Cycle A support the theme for the prayers and reflections that form these rituals.

This year, for celebrations of Mass that do not have the Scrutinies, the readings from Cycle C will be used. At Resurrection, for Sunday’s Zoom Mass, it will be the readings from Cycle A.

Moses and the Israelites in our first reading (Ex 17:3-7) are wandering in a desert – hungry and thirsty, remembering the days back in Egypt when they at least had something to eat and drink, even if they had to be slaves. Moses fears they will turn against him and possibly even kill him in their anger at being in a desert with nothing to drink. He turns to God in frustration – “What am I to do with this people!” And he hears the voice of the Lord (God) telling him to strike a rock with his staff – the same staff he used to part the waters of the sea and bring them back flowing over the pursuing Egyptians. When Moses strikes the rock, water pours forth. 

In our experience, this sounds totally improbable, outlandish even. But in that land, water hides within and behind rock formations. It is possible to break through the rock and find flowing water. That water sustained the Israelites and they were able to continue on their 40-year journey, wandering through the desert on the Sinai Peninsula before arriving at the Promised Land. 

St. John tells us of the time when Jesus stopped in a Samaritan town and met a woman at a well that had once been owned by the great patriarch, Jacob. (Jn 4:5-42) Jesus and his friends were hungry and thirsty. His friends went into town to buy some food. He stayed at the well. A woman approached the well. Based on the time of the day, he knew she was not a woman of good reputation. Most women came to the well early in the morning. They were busy with household activities around noon when this encounter took place. Possibly, this woman “worked” at night. She had been married many times. She was living with a man to whom she was not married. She was not a person respected by her community. She came to the well at a time when she did not expect to meet anyone there.

Jesus spoke with her, despite the fact he would have known she was not a respectable woman based on the time of day she had come to the well. He asked her for a drink of water. She was shocked and questioned his motives. Why would a good Jew speak to her, let alone ask her to get him some water from the well? Men didn’t speak to women whom they did not know in public places like a well. Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans.

As the woman and Jesus speak, she realizes that he is more than he appears. He speaks of giving her living water (another name for running water rather than water from a well). That seems totally off-the-wall to her. It doesn’t occur to her that he might be speaking of what we call the water of life, the life of and with God. Yet eventually, as they speak, she comes to recognize that he is sent by God and is a prophet. Water comes in many forms, it seems. Sometimes it’s a gift of new life possibilities. 

John tells us that Jesus and his disciples stayed in that town for two days. Jesus spent the time teaching the people of the kingdom of God. Many people came to believe in him when they heard his teaching. The waters of life flowed in their community, after first being offered to a woman whom no one respected, a woman who shared what she had discovered with the rest of her community.

St. Paul speaks to the Christians in Rome about the gift of peace with God to which we have access by our faith in Jesus (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8). We can hope in the glory of God, the love of God poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we don’t have to be perfect or even respectable for God to love us. God reached out to the people of that village in Samaria. God reached out to the people of Rome. God reached out to the Hebrew people in the desert. And God reaches out to us each day. Jesus came to us when we were imperfect. He lived and died as a truly human man. And in his life and death, the witness and integrity of his life became our model. Through his resurrection, we all have life and the possibility of reunion with our God.

In California this year, we continue to be very aware of water, including the lack of water. We are very short of rain. Water conservation and even rationing loom on the horizon. But the water of life, given by God, does not run short. There is plenty of that for all. It’s an abundant resource, just waiting for us to reach out in faith and tap into it.

As the Psalmist says, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” (Ps 95) Where do we hear God’s voice today? What is the living water we need? 

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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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Posted by on Feb 27, 2022

From the Fullness of the Heart

From the Fullness of the Heart

“From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45) 

On this Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the readings remind us that wisdom is not always evident in human affairs. This is a timely reminder as we deal with the reality of war in Ukraine. In the Diocese of Monterey, CA, Bishop Daniel Garcia has asked us to use a different set of Eucharistic prayers this Sunday than the usual ones. There are four ordinary Eucharistic prayers that are typically used on Sunday. But there are others that are for times of special need or celebration. Any of these can be used equally validly for the Mass. The prayers Bishop Garcia has asked be used are for times of war.

Ordinarily, there are readings that are used for each day’s Mass. We have three different sets of readings that are repeated over a period of three years. However, the Masses for special purposes or times may have their own set or sets of readings. I don’t know which ones will be used in parishes around the diocese or around the world today. However, I know which ones are the “usually scheduled” ones and another set that may be used. Fortunately, they have themes that make sense together. So, here are some thoughts about them.

The first of the regular readings is from the Book of Sirach (27:4-7). Sirach is one of the books of Wisdom literature in the Bible. It is not always included in Protestant Bibles. The book includes a collection of proverbs and observations of human behavior and its consequences. These are drawn from events and practices that would have been familiar to the people hearing them. Sirach notes that it is in times of upheaval and trial that strength is developed (as in the firing of pottery). When grain is shaken through a sieve, the grain becomes usable and the husks are removed. The reading concludes with the observation that until a person speaks, there is no way to know their character, so they should never be praised first!

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:54-58) continues the contrast of the earthly, mortal, corruptible world (described as clothes) with immortality. We have been hearing about various aspects of this for the past few weeks. It is to the realm of immortality that the promises of God pertain. Death is not the end. It is “swallowed up in victory,” a victory received through Jesus, Our Lord. Therefore, he calls upon his sisters and brothers in faith to be firm and steadfast in the work of the Lord. This labor from the heart will not be in vain.

In the final reading of the regular set, St. Luke continues the Sermon on the Plain (6:39-45). Jesus asks a series of questions of his listeners. “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” He also offers some commonsense observations. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit…” “People do not pick figs from thorn bushes…”

Jesus concludes this set of observations with the statement, “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

It seems to me that this is the heart of the matter. When we make choices based on the values of the world around us, we may find some success or admiration, but it will come for the wrong reasons. As we all know, beauty fades, styles change, success eventually ends. What is it that will remain? What will our families and friends remember about us as they prepare to lay us to our final rest?

Alternate readings for this day touch on many of the same themes. The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis (4:3-10) describes the result of envy and anger between two brothers. Both offer gifts to the Lord, but when Abel’s gift is burned the smoke goes up. When Cain’s gift is burned, the smoke goes down. Cain is angry that his gift was not received by the Lord. The Lord warns him about the danger of his anger, but he does not listen. He invites his brother to go out into the field with him. They quarrel and Abel is killed. The Lord comes looking for them and asks Cain where his brother is. Cain responds, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the Lord already knows. He tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out from the earth and banishes Cain from the land. Cain must travel to other lands and live among the people there.

(Note: this is not historical writing. This story is to help explain conflict among people and nations. Despite being one of only three sons named as children of Adam and Eve, there are peoples in other nations among whom he is to go to live. Not intended as historical fact! A story to teach us something important. An example of wisdom literature.)

St. James (4:1-10) warns the early Christian community of the dangers of envy and struggles for worldly pleasures. These are the source of anger, fights, quarrels, wars. These are not the signs of God’s friends. Indeed, they are signs of those opposed to God’s ways. “God resists the proud but bestows his favor on the lowly.” James calls the community to turn back to God with prayer and humility – to purify their hearts and be humble. Then the Lord will raise them on high.

Finally, St. Matthew, in his account of the Sermon on the Mount (5:20-24), presents Jesus’ teaching against anger. “You have heard the commandment … ‘You shall not commit murder.’ What I say to you is: everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.”

These are strong words. Those who are angry must reconcile with their opponents, their brothers and sisters, before bringing their gifts to the altar. It’s the reality of what is in our hearts that matters. It is in the heart that the Lord meets us and we meet the Lord.

And so, we return to our beginning verse, “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

May we remember this as we enter into Lent later this week. May we remember this as we watch the war in Ukraine and pray for peace. May we remember this as we deal with the ups and downs of our own lives in community, in family, in work and play.

“From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” May our words and actions be those of peace.

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Posted by on Feb 20, 2022

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)

St. Paul, in his first letter to the community in Corinth, provides a theme for the readings of the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. You will recall that there had been a great controversy in Corinth over the question of resurrection from the dead. Some said only Jesus rose, the rest of his followers would not rise. Others said only those who never died physically would have eternal life. Paul insisted that Jesus was the first human to rise, but he would not be the last. He is simply the “first fruit” of those who would rise. In the passage immediately before today’s reading, he speaks of the different kinds of bodies of various animals and of the transformation of seeds into grown plants. He explains that transformation from one type of body to another is common in nature and so should not be unreasonable to expect. Our earthly bodies, like those of the first human, Adam, will be transformed like those of the last Adam, Jesus, whose body became a spiritual one. This last Adam’s body was heavenly in origin.

Paul’s final statement in the set of parallel comparisons here between earthly physical humans and heavenly spiritual humans is a reminder of the great promise we have received from our Father. “We shall also bear the image of the heavenly one,” the risen Christ.

When and how does this transformation happen? Is there some sort of magic at the moment of death? What about those whose lives have not been exemplary but who have a great epiphany and die believing in the Good News of God’s love for all? Is it fair that they should have an equal share in the Kingdom? Can it really be true that the Kingdom is open to all? When does the Kingdom begin? Where is the Kingdom of God? Is it limited to our universe? Do we go somewhere else? So many, many questions have arisen since the Resurrection and first appearance of Jesus to his followers.

One thing is certain, none of us can earn an entrance into the Kingdom. That is critical to remember. No matter how well we live our lives, no matter whether we are blessed with earthly success and its trappings or are the poorest of the poor, none of us is guaranteed anything except the love of God. Yet the promise remains. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”

I suggest that the other readings this day offer a glimpse into this mystery.

Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel, the prophet and judge of Israel, at the request of the people. Israel had long been under attack by the Philistines who lived to the west of their land. The Judges, including Samuel, had led the defense of Israel. But surrounding peoples had kings and the Israelites believed they would be stronger with a King. Samuel, following the Lord’s instructions, anointed Saul as their king. Later, Saul fell out of favor with the Lord because he and his men took animals and other valuable things from one of the enemy peoples whom they battled. They had been instructed to destroy everything living, but they kept the valuable things for themselves.

Samuel was then instructed to anoint Saul’s successor. A shepherd boy named David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, was the one chosen as the Lord’s anointed to succeed Saul. Saul and David had a long history together, but as David became a popular leader in war against the Philistines and other enemies of Israel, Saul became jealous and decided to get rid of his rival. Saul didn’t know David had been anointed as next king already, and he didn’t want to take any chances his own sons would not succeed him.

As our story begins today, Saul has taken a break from the fight with the Philistines and gone after David in the desert of Ziph. (1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23) Saul has 3,000 men with him. David has about 600. David is badly outnumbered and things don’t look good.

Then one night, as Saul and his army slept, David and his men found where they were camping. David and Abishai slipped into the camp, into the very tent in which Saul and his soldiers were sleeping. Saul’s spear was thrust into the ground near his head, ready for use at the slightest danger.

Abishai whispered to David that he could easily kill Saul with one thrust of that spear. But David refused the offer. “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David and Abishai took the spear and a water jug from beside Saul’s head and left the tent. Amazingly, no one in the camp stirred.

David and his men retreated to a hillside far across the plain from where Saul and his men were camped. David called out at dawn to Saul and his men. He spoke to Saul as well in a section of the account that is not included in this reading. Saul invited him to come to the camp and offered not to hurt him, but David kept his distance. Instead, he replied “Here is the king’s spear. Let an attendant come over and get it … Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” Saul and his men retreated from chasing David. David and his men retreated into other territories and battled against enemies of Israel from the lands in which they were now living and raising families.

Eventually, David became King of Israel and established a dynasty of rulers. But those stories are for another time and place.

David’s refusal to harm his mortal enemy is the image that speaks to me today. This is the kind of behavior that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom as envisioned by Jesus and the early Christian community – a foretaste of the image of the heavenly kingdom and its inhabitants.

The Psalmist sings of the mercy and kindness of the Lord (Ps 103). The Lord’s willingness to forgive, heal ills, save his people from destruction and crown them with kindness and compassion. Again, a different response from the typical earthly human response to bad behavior or disobedience.

Finally we get to the Gospel, where St. Luke shares Jesus’ words with us. (Lk 6:27-38) This is a continuation of his instructions in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus has already spoken of what makes people blessed and warned of the dangers of having earthly success and acclaim. Now he gets specific about behavior.

His is a culture in which Honor and Shame are defining characteristics of human interaction and the social standing of individuals and families. Families, large extended families, are the fundamental social unit. Individual members matter little as individuals. Their importance is as members of the larger extended family. What each person says or does contributes to the perception of the family as honorable or not. Bad behavior or failure to respond to insults from others is shameful and reflects badly on the honor of the entire group. People are killed for behaving shamefully. Honor is a REALLY big deal.

Now along comes Jesus with a totally different set of expectations. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well…” These are totally counter-cultural expectations. It would be absolutely shameful not to respond in kind to an insult such as being slapped in the face. Conquering armies and occupying forces might strike a person with impunity, but an honorable person would only put up with that behavior because they are members of a conquered nation and then only from those soldiers and government officials. Whenever possible, efforts would be made to get even or overthrow them.

But Jesus changes the lens through which we are to look. Yes, humans would respond in kind, but God does not. He points out that even those far from the Kingdom forgive those who forgive them, love those who love them. Even sinners and Romans do that, for heaven’s sake! Those who are part of God’s kingdom must love their enemies and do good to them. They must lend without expectation of return. They must be merciful as their Father is merciful. It is in refusing to judge others and in forgiving and sharing generously that we become open to receive forgiveness and acceptance and everything else we truly need. As we learn to do this, the abundance of gifts which we will be able to receive from the Father will be unlimited – “good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Wow! Good news? Certainly worth pondering. The world might be a very different place if we all lived this way.

How open am I to trying to live this way? Does it matter if I’m the only one trying? If I live this way, would it be easier for others to live this way too? Can I remember a time when I received forgiveness that was totally unwarranted? How did I feel when that happened? Can I offer that tender gift to others now?

We bear the image of the earthly Adam/Eve, our first parents as humans. Now we are called by the Spirit to grow into the image of the second Adam, our brother Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, the heavenly one. Together we go – onward on the journey of transformation, bearing the image of the heavenly one.

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Posted by on Oct 17, 2021

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How many times do I have to tell you? Which of us has never heard this question addressed to us by an exasperated parent or teacher? Sometimes it’s an issue of not having paid attention. Sometimes it’s a question of not believing it applies to us. Sometimes it’s an issue of thinking that what is being said is too good to be true – or too bad to be believed.

Jesus had the same problem with his followers. In the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark tells us of a time when two of the disciples, James and John, approached Jesus with a confidential request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” (Mk 10:35-45) Jesus was flabbergasted (totally amazed) by their request. “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (To be baptized means to be plunged into something.)

Now Jesus has been telling his friends for a while already that he is going to Jerusalem and there he will be turned over to the authorities to be tortured and killed. No one can comprehend that this is really going to happen. I would guess they think he’s just a worrywart or exaggerating, but he was absolutely serious. This is why he asked James and John if they could do what he was going to have to do. They brashly assured him they would be able to do whatever he had to do, after all, what made him any more capable of dealing with whatever came than they were!

As it turns out, Jesus assures them, you will indeed drink from the same cup – face death for proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – and in fact, they later did die as martyrs (witnesses).

When the others caught wind of this conversation, they were incensed. Who do these guys think they are? As the anger and conflict among them grew, Jesus intervened. He told them once again what would be demanded of them as his followers. He spoke of the social reality that existed in the world of non-Jews, the Gentiles (Romans, Greeks, and other surrounding nations). Large numbers of people were slaves. Estimates are that 1/3 of the people were slaves. Most of the rest were not particularly well-off. Only the rulers and upper classes lived well. They considered themselves to be better than the rest and didn’t hesitate to abuse and take advantage of everyone below them. Slaves were seen and treated as less than human, despite the fact that anyone could be enslaved for something as out of their control as the loss of a family’s income that plunged them into debt. If a debt could not be paid, the whole family and their belongings could be sold to pay the debt!

Jesus spoke words at this point that echoed ones we all have heard so often. Mark doesn’t have him saying, “How many times do it have to tell you?” But there’s the same sense of that in what Jesus says. The disciples are told point blank that if they want to be great, they must behave as if they were slaves to all they meet. The reason for this is that he has not come to be a master. He has come to serve as if he were a slave and to give his life as a ransom. This is not the first time he has told them this. It won’t be the last. Eventually, he will show them, but that comes later…

Isaiah spoke many generations earlier of the mystery of the Suffering Servant who would give his life as an offering for sin, see his descendants in a long life, and be the channel through which the Lord’s will can be accomplished. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” (Is 53:10:11) This is from the fourth song of the suffering servant, the one most fully developed.

Jesus knew of these prophecies. He took them seriously, though many probably thought of them as more symbolic than realistic. Yet they fit into an ancient theme in Jewish history and thought. While the Israelites were traveling in the desert after they left Egypt, they were instructed to set up a tent for the Lord. Only certain people were allowed to enter the tent and only at certain times. If those conditions were not met, it could be fatal for the intruders and their families. Aaron, brother of Moses and priest ordained and authorized to offer sacrifices to the Lord, discovered this the hard way when two of his sons entered the tent and died. He was then required to offer a sacrifice of atonement for their actions or die himself. This is all described in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16.

Aaron’s sacrifice included the use of two male goats. One was sacrificed and offered to the Lord inside the tent. The other was symbolically loaded down with the guilt for the sins of his sons, himself, and all the people. Then that goat was driven out into the desert to die there, taking the sins of the people with it. This goat came to be known as the scapegoat, perhaps because it was sometimes known as the “escaping goat.” Each year after that, on a date set by the Lord for each year, the high priest was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. After the temple in Jerusalem was built, the very innermost court was called the Holy of Holies. The high priest was the only person allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifice of atonement there. The rest of the people were also to make sacrifices in their personal lives on that day. This tradition has continued to the present day, without the inclusion of temple sacrifices, on the Day of Atonement each fall.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah would be the one on whom the guilt of all would rest. His sacrifice would bring a restoration of the good relationship with the Lord for all the people.

This theme arises again in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:14-16). The author speaks of our great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens. This high priest does not need to offer a sacrifice for his sins and those of the people each year. Nor is he one who cannot understand human frailty and our tendency to sin, to miss the goal of acting lovingly. This high priest has shared everything there is to experience about being human, including suffering, loss, and death, but he has never sinned. Because our high priest is Jesus, we can approach the throne of God with absolute confidence, knowing we will be received with grace, mercy, and the help we need going forward.

So the question arises: Have I heard this time? Do I get it? Do I understand that I am not the one who will be in the driver’s seat? I am not to assume others will do my will. I am to be the one who seeks to meet the needs of my sisters and brothers, without demanding that they change or try to do things my way. Am I willing to serve as Jesus served? Am I willing to try to love as Jesus loved? Am I willing to learn to forgive as Jesus did?

The Kingdom of Love awaits. The ones who serve are the ones who will sit at the places of honor (figuratively, of course). Our Lord reaches out in service. As his followers, we are called to join him in doing the same.

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Posted by on Jul 23, 2020

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Wheat and the Weeds

By Dcn Patrick Conway

Each spring my wife and I like to get a couple of bags of California wildflower seeds and plant them in our yard. It’s exciting to see the sprouts coming up out of the ground, and there’s the anticipation of wondering what kind of flowers will be revealed.

We’ve learned, however, that the seeds we’ve put in the ground aren’t the only things that will grow in our flower beds. There are other seeds in the soil, as well as some that travel by air and take root. And the precious water that we put on the seeds that we want to grow also causes the unwanted ones to grow.

The problem is, when the flowers and the weeds are coming up out of the ground, we can’t tell the difference between the two. We’re not botanists! So we have to wait until everything is full-grown before we know the difference between the flowers and the weeds. And even then we may not be able to pull up the weeds, because their roots are intertwined with the flowers’ roots. And we’ve also learned that some flowers are late bloomers. We’ll think for sure that they’re weeds until suddenly, beautiful flowers appear. Good thing we didn’t pull them up!

Jesus uses these truths from nature in his parable of the wheat and weeds to teach us essential lessons about the spiritual life, or “the kingdom of heaven” as he calls it. And since this is one of the rare times when he explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples, like he did with the parable of the sower and the seed, we need to pay close attention to his explanation.

Jesus tells us that there are good people and evil people in the world. The good people are the ones who allow the good seed of God’s word to grow in them and to bear the flowers and fruit of loving and compassionate actions. The evil people are the ones who allow the bad seed of the devil, lies and suggestions to do evil, to grow in them and bear the thorns and poisonous fruits of destruction and death.

That is Jesus’s explanation of why and how there are good people and evil people in the world, a simple and straightforward statement. And since it comes directly from Jesus, we have to take it as truth, because he never lies to us.

Just one problem …

The problem is that historically as well as today, when Christians hear this, we often, if not usually, use it to justify our attacks on those whom we believe to be evil. It’s quite an ugly history, and sometimes it has taken the form of imprisonment, torture, and death, other times verbal condemnation and ostracization.

Anthropologists and others have studied this phenomenon, which some call the “scape-goating” mechanism in societies, in which the so-called righteous ones project their own inner evil on some group who are different and not as powerful, and they say, “These people are the problem! Let’s get rid of them! They’re all bad.”

We’ve seen that tragic story play out time and time again in various places around the world, including in our own country today, and always with destructive and deadly results.

And the irony of this is that the so-called righteous ones end up being the real evil ones, because they are not nurturing the seeds of God which cause us to bear the fruit of love for all people. Instead they nurture the divisive, destructive, and deadly seeds of the devil. Jesus comments on this in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” He’s talking to those who call him “Lord,” in other words, Christians. We always think that we’re the good people, but Jesus tells us that when we act like that, we are in fact the evil ones.

Our self-righteous Christian crusades against the so-called evil ones, whether they be military crusades or crusades of moral indignation, always end up making the world a worse place, not a better one.

And this always happen when we don’t listen to the commandment that is in the parable. We hear the explanation that there are good people and evil people in the world, but we miss the central commandment. And the commandment from Jesus is: “Don’t go around trying to attack and eliminate all those whom you believe to be the evil people in the world. You’ll end up destroying everyone, and you’ll end up being the evil people yourselves. I have a plan for getting rid of evil people, and my way is through love and conversion. For I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he live in my love and mercy forever.”

The commandment to us is simply to leave judgment and condemnation to God. We’re not competent in this area, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re not spiritual botanists who can tell a good plant from a weed. And you never know when a weed is going to turn out to be a beautiful flower.

And besides, the truth is that we ourselves have both wheat and weeds growing in the garden of our soul. If we are honest and humble, the Holy Spirit reveals to us both our goodness that God has planted in us, but also our sinfulness, planted by the enemy of our souls.

So what are we to do?

This is our work, the work of tending our own inner gardens, directed by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the courage and grace to change the things about ourselves that we can change, the humble peace that surpasses all understanding as we live with our faults and weaknesses, and the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we just have to put up with – in ourselves.

This is essential if we are to be true followers of Jesus and children of God – that we learn to love sinners, because that’s what Jesus does, that’s what God does – and the main sinner that we have to learn to love is ourselves.

One saint put it this way: We should be very patient and humble in putting up with the faults of others. After all, they have to put up with us.

If we don’t learn to love the sinner who is us, then we will never learn to love the sinners who are around us, which means that we will never learn to love anyone, because everyone is a sinner. And we will continue to think that we’re better than everyone else and to persecute those whom we believe to be the evil ones. Then we end up being the evil ones ourselves.

Let’s not do that. Let us follow the path of true Christianity and ask the Holy Spirit to show us ourselves as God sees us, “a mixture strange of good and ill” as the hymn says, to be merciful and patient with the sinner that we are, and to be merciful and patient with everyone else.

The great Saint Teresa of Avila, whom the Church calls a doctor of the soul, says this: “If we can endure with patience the suffering of being displeasing to ourselves, we will indeed be a pleasing place of refuge to our Lord.”

As we receive him in Holy and Loving Communion, may he and all sinners find in our humble hearts a pleasing place of refuge.

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Posted by on Nov 29, 2019

Knocking Over Stones and Setting Them Back Up Again

Knocking Over Stones and Setting Them Back Up Again

The day dawned overcast and cold. Snow was expected within a few days and the family had gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of our mother/grandmother/great-grandmother/sister/aunt. While all were there, a group of the men went outside to do some of the maintenance tasks that require more agility and strength — things like cleaning out gutters, washing windows, and so forth.

I watched from an upstairs bedroom, making beds and tidying up a bit. Some of the men were piling fallen leaves around the bases of the rose bushes in the back yard flower bed. A small child, a bit over 2 years old, was happily playing as the men worked. His father was keeping an eye on him while he worked.

Eventually the child noticed a stack of balanced rocks in the corner of the garden. He came closer to the rocks as I watched, fascinated with the way they were just standing there. I could tell he was going to knock them over by the way he approached and reached out towards them. I thought about opening the window quickly and calling out to him to stop, but I didn’t. I just watched. There would be no serious harm done if the rocks fell over.

Sure enough, the hand stretched out, the rocks were touched, and over they went. The child was a bit surprised. He hadn’t expected that to happen. But he wasn’t frightened or upset, just surprised. His father came over and squatted down beside him. Together they looked at the now fallen rocks and talked about what had happened. Then father picked up the first rock and laid it carefully on top of the larger stone that had been the base of the tower. The child reached to pick up the next one, and father helped him get it up and onto the first one. This continued until the entire stack of rocks had been rebuilt.

I’ve thought quite a bit about what I observed that morning. It could have ended so unhappily if father or anyone else had become upset about the results of the child’s curiosity. But everyone just took it in stride. A child had learned something about the world and gravity. He learned about putting uneven things together so that they stay balanced. And he learned that when he breaks something, he can help put it back together again. All very positive things to learn at a young age.

What did I see and learn?

I saw a beautiful example of how God observes our actions. Sometimes we reach out and touch things that will fall or break or should not be touched for another reason. Sometimes we do it deliberately. Sometimes accidentally. God does not interfere. God keeps watching as we learn what happens when we do that particular thing. God knows that we don’t always foresee the effects our actions will have. But God knows that we have to experience many things in order to learn.

I saw that when things have been broken and are put back together, they don’t always look the same. Sometimes they take a different shape or form. They are still beautiful, but in a different way.

I saw the wisdom of God in giving us family, friends, companions, and other people in this world. Like the father of my great-nephew, other people help us make things right again. They help us pick up the pieces of things that have fallen and maybe even been broken. Their acceptance allows us to learn without carrying a huge load of fear or shame around with us.

I saw a real-life example of reconciliation. Something was broken. Someone offered forgiveness. Together the broken was put back together for the enjoyment of the family community.

Putting the rocks back together in our lives

As we come to the end of our liturgical year and the beginning of a new one, it’s good to remember that our God watches us with great love, sending others to help us along the way. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest acts on behalf of God, offering forgiveness from both God and the  community, and helping us find ways to heal and repair what we have broken. In the penitential rite at the beginning of each celebration of Eucharist (Mass), we also ask for and receive God’s forgiveness. We ask each other to pray for us and help us in becoming more loving followers of Our Lord.

May we, like the little child I watched, always be open to learning new things in this coming year, trusting that when we make mistakes, others will help us see what has happened and help us to put things in order again. May we be forgiving of the mistakes of others, and quick to admit our own, asking forgiveness in turn. Together, like the father and son I watched, we journey through life on our way to our Father who watches with a smile as we work together to put the stones back into a new and still lovely order.




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Posted by on Jun 14, 2018

Resolving to do Better – Looking Forward – Examen: Fifth Point

Resolving to do Better – Looking Forward – Examen: Fifth Point

This seems like the easy part. I simply tell myself that I will do better next time. That’s okay as far as it goes, but how will I change? How can I change?

It’s all about hope.

Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ is known to Los Angeles gang members as “Father G” or simply “G”.  Fr. Boyle sees all their problems as arising from a “lethal absence of hope”. His response is to provide them with hope and jobs in Homeboy Industries. Terry Gross’s NPR interview with Fr. Boyle tells the story of how empathy renews and restores hope.

In his most recent book Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Fr. Boyle tells the story of what miracles empathy can work since it confers hope.


In God’s Presence, Conquering Addiction through Dance is the title of Elizabeth Delancy’s dissertation. It is a study of how black women have surmounted addiction by moving in God’s presence. Although, it is a little technical, it documents how this works. Resolving to do better is the key dynamic of reconciliation. It is the celebration of a brighter future. It is the combination of hope and optimism.

Hope conveys a certain practicality of steps that can be taken to move forward through crisis. Optimism is more expressive of a personality style. It expresses itself in positive emotions and actions. Hope and optimism are key foundations for our internal dialog, the messages we consciously hear and repeat within ourselves.  Sacramentality in dance, movement, writing, gesturing, and conversing is fundamental to the reunion of friends, the healing of relationships, and our life in God.

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Asking for Pardon / Getting Rid of Shame – Examen: Fourth Point

Asking for Pardon / Getting Rid of Shame – Examen: Fourth Point

According to Brené Brown

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

One of the key challenges in even looking at our behavior and our relationships is not guilt, but shame. Our thoughts and feelings can run off the rails and we think, “I did something bad. That means that I am bad.” Guilt becomes confused with shame. That’s why shame is such a big part of addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bullying. According to Brene Brown, shame for women is, “Do it all. Do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.” For men, shame is, “Do not be perceived of as weak.”

Shaming is something we see often with pets. When a dog misbehaves we are tempted to say, “Bad dog!” We don’t say,” You chewed my slipper. You did something wrong, but you are a good dog.”  However, that can be very confusing and threatening for the dog. According to animal behavior specialists, it is much clearer if we say, “No chew!” when the dog is chewing a slipper. “Good dog” should be an ongoing message that is conveyed by the way we handle the dog.

Invalidating or shaming others is a fundamentally evil act, since it contravenes God’s view of us and all creation as fundamentally good. For someone to take on the view that they are bad is to identify with evil, to identify with non-being. Some people can reject the notion that they are bad but respond by defining the people who are shaming them as fundamentally bad. Through this fundamental rejection of a person, we make them something completely apart from us. They are the other. This unfortunate behavior in ourselves and other primates makes it possible for us to destroy members of our own species and even our own families. David Eagleman explains in an episode of The Brain how genocide occurs when we turn off our empathy.

Asking for God’s pardon is an acknowledgement that we have not lived up to what we actually are. Yes, we have done something wrong, and we feel bad about what we have done, but we know that we are loved and good because God sees all that he has made and says that it is good.

The important thing in this step is not to get overwhelmed. Pick one area that you would like to work on in consultation with your spiritual director and reflect on it over time – or not.

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Asking for Clarity about my Sins and Feelings – Examen: Third Point

Asking for Clarity about my Sins and Feelings – Examen: Third Point

Pia Mellody, in her post on “Honesty and Accountability in Relationships,” underscores the core dynamic of human relationships that is also the core dynamic for our relationship with God.

If I am honest and accountable, I will keep my word and commitments, accepting responsibility for my behavior without trying to justify it based on another’s behavior. It is, of course, appropriate to confront the other’s behavior and to own our feelings about that behavior. It is very different to say, “When I witnessed this behavior, I had this feeling,” than to say, “Your behavior caused me to feel this or caused me to behave in this manner.” Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate. If my boundary system and self-discipline are so poor that I rage, demean, call names, etc., it is my responsibility to protect you from me. My emotional reaction to you or to a situation does not lessen my responsibility to be appropriate. Blaming and whining are close relatives. It is manipulation if I try to affect the outcome by blaming others or by trying to evoke pity so that I am not held accountable and consequences disappear.

Mellody provides a good check list for personal integrity and healthy relationships. Very often it is easy to look at various “failings.” I was rude. I was impatient. I had too many doughnuts. Yet, what is it that gets in the way of my being the person God made me to be? What keeps me from being whole, happy, and healthy?

Most of the time we focus on our individual actions or failures to act. However, the question is really about the nature of my relationship with myself, others, and God. A few of us can behave “perfectly” in terms of our manners and speech. But what is in our hearts?

Sometimes we focus on the notion of sacrificing our self for others. After all, didn’t Jesus do that? Aren’t we supposed to do that?  As the Divine Word Made Flesh, Jesus has his being in the healthiest of all relationships – pure relation. Jesus gives of himself by having compassion and empathy and serving others because of their own inherent dignity. He set limits and boundaries. Jesus took time for Himself. Jesus did not try to impress or control others. He was at peace within Himself and had close friends.

If we look carefully, we find that our unhappiness has to do with our relationships. Some types of dysfunctional relationships are called codependence. Mellody describes five symptoms of codepedence. They are signs of these unhealthy ways of relating to other people that keep us from realizing God’s Dream for Us.  These types of dysfunction can be very minor in ourselves and our relationships. However, most of our problems in life are all about relationship.


Wait a minute! Shouldn’t I be examining my conscience keeping the Ten Commandments and the Laws of the Church? That’s the big difference between going through a checklist of failings and offenses and understanding how I hang onto sin and misery that are the causes of these “listed” sins. I can focus on bad acts or good things left undone. The only problem with that approach is that I am not working on a healthy relationship with God and people in my life.

If we don’t pay attention to the health of our relationship with God and with others, we can become bitter, resentful, holier-than-thou, or worse. We can become self-satisfied and cut ourselves off from love and happiness. This is what Hell is. In the fire of our pain and hurt which we keep receiving and inflicting, all kinds of problems and addictions are rooted. Tragically, we often do this to our children and perpetuate the cycle. How holy, and righteous am I if I observe all the details of the religious law outwardly but all of my relationships are suffering, and I am cold and alone in my self-satisfaction? I am rejecting Christ.

St. Ignatius talks about temptation in the “guise of good.” In other words, people who are living fairly good lives can be tempted to do things that look good. St. Ignatius always advised moderation and encouraged people to take a closer look at their motivations and the effect of their outcomes. It may look like we are doing something good for someone, but are we really? Dysfunctional behavior can be motivated by the best of conscious intentions, but something else can be at work.

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Shawn M. Burn lists six signs of dysfunctional or codependent behavior:

  1. Have an excessive and unhealthy tendency to rescue and take responsibility for other people.
  2. Derive a sense of purpose and boost your self-esteem through extreme self-sacrifice to satisfy the needs of others.
  3. Choose to enter and stay in lengthy high-cost caregiving and rescuing relationships, despite the costs to you or others.
  4. Regularly try to engineer the change of troubled, addicted, or under-functioning people whose problems are far bigger than your abilities to fix them.
  5. Seem to attract low-functioning people looking for someone to take care of them so they can avoid adult responsibility or consequences or attract people in perpetual crisis unwilling to change their lives.
  6. Have a pattern of engaging in well-intentioned but ultimately unproductive, unhealthy helping behaviors, such as enabling. (This means helping people by making it easier or possible for them to engage in harmful behaviors such as helping an alcoholic get liquor.)
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