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Posted by on Sep 25, 2022

Habits and What We See – What Do I Notice?

Habits and What We See – What Do I Notice?

Walking or driving down the road, on a route I’ve been taking regularly for over thirty years, once in a while I’ll notice something out of the ordinary. It may be only a quick glimpse as I go by or it may be something I see up ahead and take a moment to observe as I approach and move past it. Yesterday it was a red-tail hawk that flew from the bluff up onto a lamp post. Tomorrow it may be something else. When this happens, I find myself wondering how many other things I might have missed seeing as I’ve gone along my way.

Researchers say that most of what we see never consciously registers. We get used to seeing things that haven’t changed from day to day. It’s only when something changes that we notice it.

The same can be all too true of our relationships with other people, whether family members, friends, or strangers. We come to expect certain behaviors and reactions from those we know. Our interactions are pre-established and based on a long history of encounters. We think we know the other person and nothing will be any different this time around, so we don’t notice the sometimes subtle cues that a change has occurred. Similarly, when we are always with people who have known us for a long time, we don’t get a lot of chances to become different persons with them. That’s one of the great advantages of moving to a different area for college or work, especially for young people. There’s a chance to discover new things about themselves and experiment with new activities and lifestyles.

This continuity of expectations with a family or community is a common human experience. It’s part of the formation and maintenance of cultures and traditions. As a general rule, it works pretty well. But not always… Social class, societal expectations, peer pressure, fear – all can lead to a certain amount of blindness to the presence and needs of those around us.

The land of Israel in ancient times was divided into areas populated by the descendants of Jacob and his son Joseph. Those who lived in one geographic and territorial area did not always pay much attention to what was happening in another one. As a result, when the northern lands were conquered by Assyria in around 721 BC, wealthy folks in the southern territories didn’t pay much attention. The wealthy continued their lives of luxury and ease. They ate food that was normally only used for sacrificial offerings, made music, used costly oils and perfumes, and generally lived the “good life.” Not much attention was wasted with concern for the fate of folks in the northern territories or the poor of their own land. Amos, a prophet in the southland, called to them with a serious warning that this was not going to last. “They shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.” (Am 6:1a, 4-7) Needless to say, this is exactly what happened to the southern kingdom as well, on more than one occasion.

Those who saw only what they expected to see, missed the signs of coming disaster. Those who did not care for the less fortunate, found themselves joining the latter in suffering. Those who fancied themselves to be singers and composers of great songs, like David, didn’t notice the themes of David’s psalms: justice for the poor, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, freedom for captives, protection for strangers …

Another person who didn’t see what was around him was the rich man in the story Jesus told to a group of Pharisees with whom he was speaking one day. This rich man was extremely wealthy. He wore purple linen clothing. Linen is a fine fabric and was not commonly used by ordinary folk for clothing. Purple is such a hard color to produce as a dye that typically only rulers wore it. It’s commonly used today, but not in those days. This mega-millionaire/billionaire ate lavishly each day and had everything he could ever want.

Another man, named Lazarus, is also featured in the story. Lazarus, whose name means “my God helps,” is extraordinarily poor. He lies beside the door of the rich man and would happily eat the scraps that fell on the floor from the table of the rich man, but even those are never offered to him. In fact, the only ones who seem to notice him are the dogs who come and lick his sores!

The rich man does not see Lazarus in any meaningful way. To the extent that he does notice him, he doesn’t care. Lazarus is just a regular feature of the world outside his door. Nothing worth notice here …

The position of the two changes upon their deaths. Abraham welcomes Lazarus, carried to him in the arms of angels. The rich man ends up in the netherworld, suffering greatly. Adding insult to injury, the rich man can see Lazarus with Abraham. Ever the practical man, and accustomed to getting what he wants, the rich man calls out to Abraham, asking that Lazarus be sent with a drop of water to ease his sufferings.

Notice that the rich man never noticed Lazarus in life, but he sees him in death. Abraham and Lazarus can see the rich man too. They could always see him. However, there’s a chasm between the two experiences of the afterlife. No matter how much they might want to help the rich man, they cannot do so. The rich man is still thinking primarily of his own comfort. He doesn’t apologize for mistreating Lazarus in life. He just asks for help for himself and assumes Lazarus is the one to provide it.

When Abraham explains that such help is not available to the rich man, the next request is that Lazarus be sent to the five brothers of the rich man, so they can be warned and avoid the same terrible fate. This is a bit of a step forward, at least he’s thinking of someone else. However, this is not to be. Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets already had spoken such words of warning. The brothers should listen to those words. Still not seeing his own relationship with Lazarus as one of brotherhood in God’s family, the rich man argues that surely his brothers would change their behavior if one who returned from the dead brought them a warning. Abraham responds, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will the be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Lk 16:19-31)

This story speaks to us too. Do we believe the words of the one who rose from the dead? How do our habits of seeing and not seeing impact our relationships with those around us?

We, like Timothy of old, are called to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11-16) St. Paul reminds his friend and us that this is not an easy pursuit. It will take time and commitment to live this way. Opposition will arise along the way. But the Lord Jesus will return as ruler when the time is right. The way we see others and the way we live our calling will depend at least in part on the habits we form as we live out our calling as followers of Jesus.

There is much to ponder here. Is the chasm really so deep that those who do not live lives of service and compassion cannot ever cross or that those like Abraham who can see across the chasm cannot reach out and help (which would likely be their normal response)? What about God’s willingness to forgive everything? Is it possible to be excluded from that forgiveness? Do we have to do anything to get that forgiveness? It can’t be demanded as a right or bought. What hope is there?

I read a book last spring that offers an intriguing peek at some of the issues raised by these bits of Scripture. The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, takes place in medieval times. It’s easy to read, geared towards middle school level readers. A boy whose origins are unknown, accompanies a ragtag traveler through Europe to Rome, searching for and stealing relics of St. Peter along the way. The actual identity of the traveler and the boy are revealed in hints and only very gradually as they travel. Not until the very end does the complete picture come together. I highly recommend it to any who are ready to open their eyes and ears to a glimpse of a complex truth as revealed in what seem like very ordinary, somewhat disreputable, earthly actors and their interaction.

For now, let’s be careful to keep our eyes open, to notice what’s around us all the time, not just new and different things. Smile at the folks you meet on the street. You may be the only one who does all day. Give a hand when you can. Even small things can make a big difference. Welcome newcomers. Help refugees. Notice the un-housed on the street and treat them with respect. Be patient with each other at home. Play with children. Laugh with those who laugh. Be present and quiet with those who mourn.

Habits take time to establish. Here’s hoping the ones we have at the end of our lives eliminate the great chasm between us and the bosom of Abraham. Let’s open our eyes and see the Lord’s presence here with us, today and always.

Readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

Reading these words, “something very near to you,” I find myself wondering, what is very near to me? What do I treasure most? What is a fundamental part of me that might not even be consciously mine? Do I even know what is very near to me?

As Moses and the Israelites approach the promised land after forty years of travels through the Sinai Peninsula and lands to the east of the Jordan River, he realizes that the time has come to pass the leadership of the community into younger hands. He is now old and the end of his days is at hand.

In this first reading for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Moses gives some final instructions and his final plea/dream to the people. “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord … and keep his commandments…” (Dt 30:10-14) He calls on them to return once again to the Lord, “with all your heart and all your soul.”

Early in their travels, Moses had gone up to the mountaintop and received the tablets containing the Law from the Lord God. He brought the Law down to the people and it became the foundation of their way of life and traditions. Sometimes they followed it well. Other times not. Always it was the basis of their agreement, their Covenant, with God.

As it becomes obvious that Moses will not be leading them when they enter the new land, they must have wondered, who will now bring the Law to us? Who will be the intermediary with God? Where will our leader need to go to find God and bring instructions to us?

Moses corrects the notion that the Law by which they live is something mysterious and remote that needs to be found in the sky or across the sea, or in some other far-off land. No one needs to travel far to retrieve and bring it back to the people so they will know how to live. He tells them, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

What is written in the Law?

St. Luke brings us a picture of what it means to live according to the Law. (Lk 10:25-37) A student of the Law, a person who had spent many years studying Jewish laws and tradition, asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went right back to basics. “What is written in the law?” The man responded with a condensed statement of Mosaic law. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

This answer was absolutely correct. No need to add anything more. No need to travel to the sky or across the sea. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus assured the man that nothing more would be needed.

Then came the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is one we all need to contemplate. Is my neighbor the person living next door, on my block, on the other side of the block, my village, my region of the country, my country? How far out do I need to go before those I meet cease to be my neighbor and I no longer need to love them?

Today we often hear, “There’s an app for that!” We might equally well say, “With Jesus, there’s a parable for that!”

Jesus told a story. There was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a mountainous area, with lots of bandits along the way. He was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead beside the road.

Two men passed by the wounded traveler, but moved to the opposite side of the road as they walked by him. Neither stopped. One was a priest, the other a Levite.

(Time out of the story for a bit of explanation. Priests were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who offered sacrifice in the temple. They were subject to strict rules of purity and behavior because they entered the most holy places. Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of the third son of Jacob and Leah. Levites assisted with services and worship at the temple, but were not priests. They filled roles that we would call musicians, song-leaders, acolytes, lectors, greeters, administrators, guards/guides, artists, designers, and so forth. They were held to higher standards of purity in obedience to the Law, but not as high as those for priests.)

So a priest and a Levite passed the man. The story doesn’t say whether they were on the way to Jerusalem or on the way back, but it really didn’t matter to Jesus. The point was that they were people who had higher than average position and responsibility in society and in worship, and they did not stop to help.

Another traveler came along the road. This person was from Samaria. Samaritans were hated by Jews. They were descended from some of the people who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their land had been conquered earlier and the survivors had adapted their religious beliefs and practices to include some of what came from the conquerors. They worshiped on mountaintops rather than in Jerusalem. Folks traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north tried to go around Samaria or spend as little time as possible there. These were not folks one would expect to find as heroes in a story told by a good Jew.

Yet this is exactly the person Jesus presents as the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the injured man and takes pity on him. He gives first aid, loads him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn. He cares for him there overnight, then leaves money for the innkeeper to continue caring for him, with a promise to reimburse any additional costs as he (the Samaritan) returns along the way.

Jesus asks a simple question, “Which one of these three … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is clear – the Samaritan who was merciful. Jesus agrees and adds, “Go and do likewise.”

The command of the Law was closer to the heart of the Samaritan in this case than to the other two travelers. Care for the one in need of help, whoever that is, trumps ritual purity and practice or other societal norms.

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

A hymn from the early church, shared by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, gives a hint of how this can be possible. (Col 1:15-20) “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” All things were created through him and for him, even the great principalities and powers of the spirit world. Everything is held together because of him. He’s the head of the church, his body. The fullness (God) dwelt in him, the human man, and reconciled all things through him. Peace between God and creation was achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

We are the body of Christ. We, the human members of the community. Jesus lives in us and we in and through him. Because of this, we have a real chance of living the law of love that he taught. The law that Moses says is “something very near to you” and Jesus presents as the foundation of loving a neighbor as ourselves.

Is living the law of love always easy? No. Is it always the popular thing to do? No. Is it always totally clear how to live? Not always, but there are hints if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Do our cultures and societies make this very easy? Not really. It’s much easier to love those who are like ourselves and with whom we share experiences, language, and culture. Do we have to love other folks anyway, even if we don’t like what we see? Yes. Can it just be an intellectual, “My heart goes out to you?” No. It must be practical.

“Go and do likewise.” “It is something very near to you … you have only to carry it out.”

Lord, help me to listen to your voice speaking through my heart. Help us to come together in loving service.

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