Tuesday, March 31, 2009

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know!

From Mount Hor, the people of Israel set out along the Red Sea Road, intending to bypass the land of Edom. They became cross and irritable, their patience worn out by the journey. They spoke out against Moses and against the LORD: “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken c9untry? There is no decent food, no fresh water. We can’t stomach this stuff any longer!

To punish them, the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them, and many of them died. Then the peo0ple came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke out against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, and beg him to take these snakes away.”

Moses prayed for the people. And God told him: “Make a snake, and mount it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole, as God had instructed him. Whenever anyone who had been bitten looked at the bronze snake was healed.
(Numbers 21:4-9)

Jesus spoke to the Pharisees: “I’m going away, and you’ll be looking for me, but you won’t find me, and you will die in your sins. Where I’m going, you can’t come.

The Pharisees said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means when he says, “Where I’m going, you can’t come”?

He said to them, “You belong to this world, but I belong to another world, a world above this one. That’s why I told you that you will die in your sins. If you won’t believe that I am who I say that I am, you will die in your sins.”

They asked him, “Well, who are you, then?”

He answered, “I have been telling you who I am from the outset. I have many things to say that concern you, and that condemn you. The one who sent me is trustworthy, and I am telling the world what I have heard from him.”

They didn’t believe that he was taking about his Father. So Jesus tried one more time. “When you lift up the Son of Man, you will know who I am, and you will know that there’s nothing I do that I haven’t been taught by my Father. The One who sent me stays with me. He never abandons me, because I always do what is pleasing to him. When he put it in those terms, many people came to believe in him.
(John 8:21-30)

Today’s readings have a common theme: In the First Reading, the people of Israel are healed from the bite of the poisonous snake when Moses lifts up a bronze serpent, and lifts it up on a pole (likely a shepherd’s crook). In the Gospel, Jesus tells the people that when he is lifted up, they will know who he is.

The verb that John uses in this gospel hypsothenai “to be lifted up” has two significant meanings, in the context of this gospel. It can mean “to be lifted up in crucifixion”, and “to be lifted up in resurrection”. Jesus knows that his death and resurrection are a part of the same process, two phases in the work he had been sent into this world to perform. “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it cannot bear fruit”, Jesus said in another place.

The Father is pleased with Jesus because he does what is pleasing to him. We have been taught since we were children that we will be lifted up into eternal joy if we do what is pleasing to God. But before we enter through those heavenly gates, we must accept to be humbled, so that we can rise again to the fullness of joy when we are lifted up into the presence of our Eternal Father.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Let whoever of you is sinless cast the first stone.

John 8:1-11 This short story was not originally part of any gospel. Without getting into to much detail, is written in narrative style, but the language is not typical as that of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Because it was recognized as inspired, it was included in the canon of Scripture, first tacked on to Luke and eventually, to John.

It could easily be done as a scènette, as the French would say, a brief one-act play: two principal characters, Jesus and the woman, and a small number of minor characters, only one of them with a speaking part.

A group of men, some young, some middle-aged, some elderly, all dressed in robes that identify them as Pharisees and Scribes, bring a woman before Jesus.

Spokesman: Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. The Law of Moses commands us to stone such women. What do you say?

Jesus looks at the spokesman, and the rest of the crowd, and at the woman. He kneels, and begins to trace words on the ground with his finger.

The crowd of Pharisees comes closer to watch what Jesus is doing. Jesus looks up:

Jesus: Let whoever of you is sinless cast the first stone.

Jesus begins writing again.

Then, one by one, they walk away, starting with the oldest of them. No one is left on the scene except Jesus and the woman.

Jesus stands and addresses the woman: Woman, where have they gone? Has anyone condemned you?

Woman: No one, sir.

Jesus: Neither do I. Go one your way. But, from now on, do not sin again.

Comment: Saint Augustine, commenting on this passage of Scripture, writes, “At the end, we are left only with misera et misericordia. “the pitiful woman, and mercy”. The Latin word misericordia derives from two other Latin words, a verb, misereor, to take pity, and cor, the heart. Misericordia, in Latin, misĂ©ricorde, in French means “heartfelt pity”. The accusers were relying on their heads, on logic. Jesus, on the other hand, was moved to pity by his loving heart.

Logic was on their side, or so they thought. Jesus was placed in an impossible situation: if he opted for mercy, he was contradicting the Law of Moses, which established death by stoning as the penalty for adultery (Cf. Deuteronomy 22). That would make him liable to the religious authorities. But if he said that the woman should be stoned, he would be subject to Roman law, which prohibited incitement to murder. Unable to speak without breaking either God’s law, or the statutes of the occupying forces, Jesus chooses to say nothing aloud, but instead, writes on the ground.

You ask what Jesus wrote. Answering that question poses another dilemma. If Jesus writes down the sins of the Pharisees and scribes, he would be breaking the eighth commandment, which prohibits not only lying, but calumny and slander, deliberately causing someone’s sins to be revealed. It is a popular response that question, but it is not something Jesus would do. The Father did not send him into the world to punish the world for sin, but to redeem us from it.

Whatever he wrote – I opt for the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses – they started walking away, starting with the eldest. None of them was left to accuse the woman. Neither did Jesus. “God so loved the world that He sent his only-begotten Son … that through him the world might be saved.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Christ Learned Obedience From What He Suffered.

The LORD says, “I am going to make a new covenant with my people”. A covenant is a solemn agreement. The old covenant was delivered to the people of Israel when Moses received the Tablets of the Law from the LORD on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). By the terms of this covenant, Israel would be the LORD’s people, and He would be their God. (Jeremiah 7:23). This covenant was celebrated in many ways, two of which are mentioned in Exodus 24: First, a lamb was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the altar, then, the people gathered together in their homes to enjoy the ritual meal: the main course was roast yearling lamb, and the other dishes were reminders of the Exodus from Egypt. The symbolism was the God and His people were one family.

It was six hundred years before the coming of Christ that Jeremiah first spoke about a “new covenant”. He contrasted the old covenant, inscribed on stone tablets, with the new covenant, written on the human heart. “Deep within their being, I will implant my law. I will write it on their hearts.”

At the Last Supper, according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples, and said , “Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body which will be given up for you.” Then he took the cup, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you, and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.”

In a few days, Jesus will be seen, “glorified”, not only by the Jews living outside of Israel, who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the “Pilgrimage Feast” of Passover, but by us as well. Jesus compares himself to the grain of wheat that must die to being just a grain of wheat, but will rise again as a new stalk, with many kernels and grains of wheat. This discourse also anticipates what Jesus will tell his disciples gathered in the Upper Room after washing their feet, before they share the paschal meal. Those who seek to follow Jesus must die to themselves, giving their lives to serve God’s people.

Jesus’ prayer is a prelude to his prayer of agony in the Olive Garden. His fidelity to his mission has cost him great pain and suffering, to the point of sweating blood. The hour of the supreme sacrifice is coming near.

There is an old saying that says, “What goes up, must come down”. For Jesus, what goes down into the tomb will rise again; the body that died for the sake of humankind will rise to new life, to be shared with humankind. The new covenant is a covenant of love, and love demands dying to selfishness in order to live in union with the other. Absent this gift of self, the Church would not be a community at all, but a collection of egos in competition and conflict with one another.

One last word, about the Second Reading: While he was living on the earth, anticipating his death, he offered up pleas and prayers to God, with loud cries and tears. He pleaded to be saved from death, because he honored God, God answered his prayer. Yet God did not save him from death. If he had, the Redemption would not have taken place. Instead, God gave to his only-begotten the reward of his obedience, granting him the grace to endure what he was subjected to, so that, by his sacrifice, he would become the fount of salvation for all who believe in him, and are obedient. Trust Jesus, and he will do likewise for you. If it is the will of the Father, your pain will be taken away. But, as Teresa de Avila, Rose de Lima, Therese de Lisieux and many others have learned, your cross will not be taken away, but you will be given the grace to endure it. This, as He said to the first mentioned of these saints, is the way he treats his closest friends. And you probably don’t need to be reminded what she said back to him!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

No, the Messiah will not come from Galilee.

In today’s gospel, John the Evangelist continues with the same theme as yesterday. People in the crowd who hear Jesus speak are thinking, “This is the Prophet”. Others go further, “He is the Messiah.” But others say, “No, the Messiah will not come from Galilee. Scripture says that he will be of David’s line, and will be born in Bethlehem, David’s city.” So, arguments arise because of Jesus. Some in the crowd even seek to have him arrested, but no one lays hands on him.

So, the Temple guards report the incident to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who ask, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one has ever talked the way he does”, is their answer. “Have you been duped by him, too? Have any of us Pharisees or the leaders of the people believed in him?” Then they say to themselves, “These crowds, who believe in him, are cursed!”

Then Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, who had come to speak with Jesus earlier, spoke up. “Does the Law condemn a man before hearing what he has to say for himself, and the judges determine what he has done?” They answered him, “You’re not from Galilee, are you? Look in the Scripture, and see that no prophet comes from Galilee.” (John 7:40-53)

How could it happen that the chief priests and the Pharisees, the leaders of the people, had the Messiah standing before them, preaching to the people, and not recognize him?

Put yourself in their position. Someone from the boondocks, from “pagan Galilee”, as the people of Jerusalem, who had no training in the Law of Moses, is preaching to the people, and they are starting to call him the Messiah. If you were responsible for interpreting God’s law to his people, or for making sure that God’s people worship Him in the way He prescribed, wouldn’t you want to find out what was going on?

As a priest and interpreter of the Law, if I were there at the Temple in Jerusalem, in the early spring, as the days grew longer, and the great Pilgrimage Feast of Passover approached, I would certainly want to look into what was going on, so that the people would not be led astray by a false prophet or a fake Messiah.

But then, I have to ask myself another question: If I had been there, would I be able to let go of my own notions of how I think the Messiah should act and speak? Would I be able to accept the grace that they certainly were given, to see the preacher from Nazareth with the eyes of faith?

Lord, we pray today for those who seek you but do not find you, because, like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, they are blinded by their own preconceived notions about you. And we pray, as well, for those priests and teachers of the Law in our own times, who turn away those who seek you with a sincere heart, because of their arrogant attitudes or because of their sinful behavior.

Friday, March 27, 2009

You Know Me, And You Know Where I'm From.

Jesus stayed in Galilee. He didn’t want to go to Judea, because the Leaders of the People were plotting to kill him. But Succoth was approaching. So, after the disciples had gone up to Jerusalem, he also went, but secretly.

Still, when Jesus arrived in the Holy City, people were saying, “Isn’t this the one they’re trying to kill? But now he’s speaking publicly, but no one is doing anything to stop him. Is it possible that the authorities think that he is the Messiah? But the Scriptures say that, when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he’s from; and we know where this man is from. Jesus, who was teaching in the Temple, cried out, “You know me, and you know where I’m from. I haven’t come on my own. I was sent by one who is true, and you don’t know him. I know him. He’s the one who sent me.” Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30)

Succoth, the Feast of Tents, is the third and last of the great Pilgrimage Feasts celebrated by the Jews. It occurs in early fall, late September or early October, according to the secular calendar. It is believed to have originated as a memorial to the forty years when the Hebrews wanted homeless through the desert, living in tents. It is a reminder that they once had no homeland, and no home. For nomads, the only home they have is a tent.

But, ever since their journey from Egypt ended in the fertile land west of the Jordan, the Jews have had a home. And, even though it had been many centuries since the Exodus, they identified themselves not according to the place where they lived, but according to their birthplace, just as the nomads do: Jesus of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, Joseph of Arimathea.

“We know where you’re from,” they said. “You’re the carpenter’s from Nazareth. But they really don’t know him at all. Nazareth is not the place where he was born, but the place where he grew up, after he and Mary and Joseph returned from exile in Egypt. For that matter, Jesus is not “of Bethlehem”, either. Jesus actually tells the truth about his origins, “I am from him who sent me”, he says. But they still don’t understand: He is from the Father.

Saint Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, wrote, “God became man, so that man might become God.” If we want to come to the Father, Jesus is the Way. If we seek to know the Father, Jesus is the Truth. If we want to spend eternity with the Father, Jesus is the Life.

Saint Augustine explains: “In God alone can we find blessedness, but we cannot see God. But in following Christ, whom we can see, we rise from the contemplation of Christ-man to Christ-God, and so to the Father, with whom Christ is one in his divinity. Cling to Christ, then, with all the strength of your will, all the understanding of your mind, all the love of your heart.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Your accuser will be Moses, in whom you place your hope.

Jesus said to the Jews: “If I were just speaking on my own account that would be an unreliable, self-serving witness. But there is another witness who can testify on my behalf, and his testimony is the truth. Furthermore, you have all seen and heard John the Baptist, and his testimony is reliable, as well.

There is really no need for me to appeal to mere human testimony. John was a lamp, burning brightly, and you were happy to rejoice in his light. But the testimony of the witness I speak of is even more reliable than John.

I am doing the work the Father gave me to complete, and the deeds I perform conform that the Father has sent me. It is He who sent me, and who confirms my mission. But you have never heard his voice, or seen him. His word does not remain in your memory, because you never take his messengers seriously. You study the Scriptures, because you think you can find eternal life in them. The Scriptures are all about me, and here I am, standing before you and speaking to you, but you aren’t willing to accept from me the life you say you are searching for.

I’m not interested with people’s approval. Why? Because I know you, and you don’t have God’s love in you. I came with authority for my Father, but you either dismiss me or avoid me. Yet, if someone else came along in his own name, you would accept him. How can you say you believe, since you accept praise from one another, and don’t seek true praise, which comes only from God?

But, don’t think I’m about to accuse you before my Father. Your accuser will be Moses, in whom you place your hope. But, if you believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me. If you don’t believe what he wrote, how can you believe what I say?

There seems to be something missing at the beginning of this gospel: a challenge, in the form of a question, from the Jews to Jesus: “Who bears witness to your claims?” Jesus cites four witnesses: John the Baptist, the works the Father entrusted to Jesus, the word of the Father himself, and the Scriptures. But they are blind to what they see, and deaf to what they hear. In another place, Jesus said of them, “And good enough for them, for if they saw with their eyes, and heard with their ears, they just might be converted!”

Lord, I am often blind and deaf to your presence in my day. I pray that you will forgive me, and heal me. Restore my sight and my hearing, so that I may able to recognize you at every moment of my day. Jesus, I realize that it is beyond my power to heal myself; I rely on your divine mercy. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hail Mary, Full Of Grace, The Lord Is With You!

The LORD spoke to Ahaz: Ask the LORD for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights. But Ahaz said: I can’t do that! I won’t make demands on the LORD!”
 Then the prophet Isaiah spoke to him: Listen here, ruler of the House of David! It’s bad enough for you to annoy your people; must you also annoy your God? Well, the LORD is going to give you a sign just the same. This is the sign: A girl who is still a virgin will become pregnant. She will give birth to a son, and she will name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us!” (Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10)

Brothers and sisters: It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

For this reason, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. You were not pleased with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, 'Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, O God.' "

First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:4-10)

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end."
 "How can this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
 The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "Let it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)

A student of language and literature, even one who knows nothing about the Scriptures, will recognize that the visit of an angel to Zechariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-20), and this passage, announcing the birth of Jesus, are the work of the same author. But a closer examination reveals that the two episodes are quite different one from the other. Zechariah was a temple priest, standing at the altar of incense, in the Holy of Holies within the Temple of Jerusalem. Mary was a country girl from Nazareth, about as far as you could get from the centers of power. There is also a difference in demeanor between them. Both ask similar questions; but the tone of voice is very different. Zachary asks “by what sign shall I know this”, as if asking for proof of the authenticity of the message. Mary’s concern is not about proof, but about process: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” If she were a modern teen, she might have said, “I accept. But I would like to know how this is going to happen.” The answer the angel gave to her is one she will gladly share with us. Gabriel’s greeting, “The Lord is with you” is one she will gladly share with all her children. Doing God’s will is not accomplished by any strength Mary possessed on her own. As it was with Mary, the vocation of every disciple of Jesus is to trust that despite all the failings, doubts, worries and fears you might have, God is with you!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Get Up, Take Your Bedroll, And Start Walking!

Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast. In the city, near the Sheep Gate, there was a pool called Bethesda in Hebrew, with five alcoves. In these alcoves were hundreds of sick people, some blind, some crippled, and some paralyzed. One man there had been ill for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying by the pool, and found out how long he had been there, he asked, “Do you want to get well?”

The invalid answered, “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred. While I’m struggling to get there, someone always gets to the water first.”

Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, and start walking.” The man was healed instantly. He picked up his bedroll, and walked away.

That day happened to be the Sabbath. When the Jews saw the man who had been healed, they stopped him and said, “Don’t you know that you can’t carry your bedroll on the Sabbath? It’s against the law. He told them, “The man who made me well told me to. He said, “Pick up your bedroll and start walking.” They asked him, “Who told you to take it up and start walking?” But the man didn’t know, because Jesus had slipped away into the crowd.

A while later, Jesus found the man in the Temple and said, “You are well! Don’t go back to a life of sin or something worse might happen to you.”

The man went back and told the Jews that it had been Jesus who made him well. That is why the Jews were out to get Jesus, because he did this sort of things on the Sabbath. (John 5:1-16)

“Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked. The man had been waiting to be healed for thirty-eight years. Every day for all that time he had tried to drag himself to the pool, but someone else always got there first. Of course, he wanted to be healed.

Then Jesus said, “Stand up!” Doesn’t that seem odd? Jesus is asking the man to do the very thing he is unable to do!

But, for some reason, the man listened to Jesus. After he had heard Jesus’ words, things began to happen. In a real sense, Jesus did not heal the paralyzed man. He spoke, but he didn’t act. The man listened, and his mind and will cooperated, and it happened. This miracle was not worked “on him”, but “with him”. Jesus was the director of the action. Jesus spoke, the paralyzed man heard and believed, and he walked. He was a full partner in his own healing.

Until today, the man lay in the alcove day and night, unless someone carried him to the water.  Now, having been healed by the Lord, he picks up his bedroll and walks back to the alcove. What sort of paraysis do you have? Or do I have?  How long will it take before I take Jesus up on his offer?  Will it take 38 years of paralysis before I can undestand that Jesus wants to heal me now, and all I have to do is allow him to? If I want to be healed by Our Lord, I have to be willing to do whatever he asks of me.  He tells us to rise, to lift ourselves up from our sloth, or our vanity, our greed, or our anger.  There is only one sort of person that Jesus cannot heal.  Not because Jesus lacks the power; but because that person doesn't really want to be healed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Go Home! Your Son Is Alive!

Today’s readings remind us of the relationship between faith, hope and healing. Hope is related to faith; the philosophers describe it as “belief in things yet unseen”. The prophet Isaiah gives us a vivid portrayal of hope for our world: God is going to renew the face of the earth. Jerusalem, after being destroyed by the Chaldeans, will be rebuilt. No longer will the sound of weeping be heard in the streets. No longer will any infants live only a few days. Men who are still alive at one hundred years old will be considered mere youths. Every family will have a house of their own, and will eat the food they plant in their own fields, and drink the wine from the grapes that grow in their own vineyards.

Today’s gospel begins on a negative note, as Jesus complains that prophets get no respect in their home towns. But when he leaves Jerusalem and returns to Galilee, where he was born, he is warmly welcomed by his neighbors, because they had seen the wonders he performed in the City during the Passover Festival. He went to Cana, where he had changed water into wine. He was met there by a “royal official”. It is not recorded whether this was a Roman official or a soldier in Herod’s army. Not that it would make much difference! Anyone in Herod’s employ would have been considered contemptible.

The official asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus’ response seems rather stark, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you won’t believe! “ It seems that Jesus is speaking not only to the official, but to the crowd, chiding them for the last of trust. But, the official perseveres, “Sir, come quickly, before my boy dies!” Jesus says, “Go home. Your son is alive.” While he was on his way back, some servants came to report that the boy would live. “The fever left him yesterday about one in the afternoon.” The father then remembered that it was at just that time Jesus had said, “Your son will live”.

A boy lives, because Jesus said the word. What word do you need to hear today? What word is God speaking to you, to your loved one, right now? What tracks in your memory banks would need to be erased so that there will be room enough in your heart and mind to record Jesus’ word and believe it?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

God So Loved The World!

We don’t often hear readings from the Books of Chronicles. They are a collection of historical accounts dealing not only with the events recorded in the Five Books of Moses, but especially with the history after those times, in particular, the captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the topic of today’s First Reading.

The Scripture reveals to us that Israel had grown slack in their worship according to the Law of Moses, and they had begun to engage in the cults of their neighbors. These practices not only alienated them from the one true God, but it made them a target for the powerful nation on their northern border to attack them, destroy the Temple, raze the city of Jerusalem to rubble, and carry off the people to captivity in Babylon – the nation whose capital sits between the Tigris and the Euphrates (we know it now as Baghdad).

But the history of the Middle East in those times is not all that different from current events. The nation to the north, the Persian Empire, (in their native language, Farsi, it is called Iran) noticed that the Babylonians were getting lax in the defense of their territory, and they carried out an invasion. Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia was inspired to claim that all of the kingdoms of the earth had been granted to him by God. And he ruled that all of the peoples taken captive by Babylon should be returned to their own land, where they would be free to worship whatever God or gods they chose. He even promised to rebuild the Temple of the God of Abraham in Jerusalem, and sent his own architects, engineers and a great deal of money to accomplish that task, which would take half a century.


Today’s Second Reading, a passage from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, does need much commentary; rather, it should be read slowly, meditatively, and even translated into our own words, so that we can at least begin to understand God’s message:

God is rich in mercy. Even when we are dead because of our sins, he brings us to life again in Christ; because of the great love God has for us, we are saved by grace.

God has even promised to raise us up with Jesus, and to give us a place with Christ in heaven. He has done this to show us the overwhelming bounty of his grace and his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

We have no right to boast about being God’s chosen people, because it is not our good deeds that save us, but God’s grace. Even when we fail to do good deeds, because of our weakness and self-centeredness, he “creates us anew” by his grace, won for us not by our own merits – we have none! – but by the merits of His only begotten Son.

This brings us to today’s Gospel, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus at night, recognizing that Jesus had come from God, and he asked what he must do to be saved.

Jesus told him he must be born again, of water and the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was puzzled, and wondered what Jesus meant. Jesus answered him by recalling an event in the desert of Sinai, when Moses raised up a serpent and everyone who looked upon the serpent was healed.

He said that the Son of Man (that is, himself) must be lifted up, so that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. Nicodemus seems confused by these words of Jesus. He has come secretly, in the dark of night, to hear Jesus teach; but instead of wisdom, all he gets is an invitation to believe in what he has not yet seen. For Jesus, it is wisdom; for Nicodemus, it is bewilderment. He is not yet ready to understand. We will have to wait a few more weeks for the rest of that story.

Today’s Gospel Reading, typically of John’s gospel, is not a parable, not a story, but a theological display. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, not merely to save the world from sin (I trust He will pardon me for that word “merely”) but to offer the people of the world to share eternal life, so that we might live forever. God doesn’t only want to save us from the darkness of sin, but to teach us to share the saving light of revelation. Not only are we saved from not knowing who we are, the children of light and of God, but we are saved for the purpose of sharing that light with others, and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth.

The gospel ends with one of John’s favorite themes: the conflict between darkness and light. Jesus is the Light of the World, a theme we will explore more fully in the Easter Vigil. He enlightens all those who see him and believe in him, but he also calls all of us to do those works which bring the light of God’s goodness and mercy to those who, without our presence, might remain in the darkness.

This little light of mine, I'm going to let let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine;
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Pharisee and The Tax Collector -- A One-Act Play

The scene: The Temple at Jerusalem
The players: A Pharisee, A Tax Collector, A Person not yet named

The Pharisee, dressed in fine and highly decorated robes, enters the scene, strides boldly to the front of the Temple, and stands before the Holy of Holies.

The Tax Collector, dressed in a simple robe of fine silk, enters the scene with his head bowed, and moves quietly to a position at the back of the temple, near the far corner.

The Pharisee: Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—greedy, dishonest, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I earn to the support of this Temple.

The Tax Collector: Lord, have mercy on me. I am a sinful man.

The stage lights lower, the curtain closes, and the Person not yet named enters, stands in front of the curtain, and addresses the audience:

Jesus Christ: Which of these two left the Temple justified? Not the Pharisee, but the Tax Collector. Why? Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Why does Jesus condemn the attitude of the Pharisee? Because the Pharisee is full of himself, unaware of the tension between what he is, and what he ought to be. The tax collector, on the other hand, is aware that his position – collecting money for the Romans, the army of occupation – is compromised, even if, unlike some of his ilk, he is not greedy or dishonest.

One of the most moving commentaries on this aspect of the life of the Christian in the world, regardless of one’s state of life, is the prayer which is offered by the celebrant at Mass, after the worshippers have prayed together the prayer which Jesus taught:

“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin, and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

Of all the commandments in the Law, which is the most important?

Today’s gospel is the last of three encounters in which Jesus is asked questions that can best be described as “tricky”. The first was with the Pharisees, about paying taxes to the Romans. Jesus answer their question: Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s. The second was with the Sadducees, about a man and his six brothers who all married the same woman, but none of them gave her a child. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus answered: God said “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am the God of the living, not of the dead.” They didn’t ask him any more questions.

Then came the third questioner, a scribe.

“Of all the commandments in the Law, which is the most important?” he asked.

"The most important one is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, rabbi," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. ________________________________________________

That last exchange was remarkably friendly, compared to the first two. The question was a much debated question among the scribes and teachers of the Law. On the one hand, they tended to split up the Law into hundreds and thousands of regulations; on the other hand, they tried to distill its essence and express it in as few words as possible.

The scribe came up with the typically tricky question. When Jesus answered, the scribe said, “Right on!” And he received a wonderful response, “You’re not far from the Kingdom.” We don’t enter the Kingdom by knowing all the right answers to the questions in the Catechism. That, as I used to hear in grade school, will get you a good grade in religion class.

The real test, the truly final exam is this:
Who am I?
Who is my neighbor?
Who is God?

Do I love myself?
Do I love my neighbor?
Do I love God? 

Do this, and you'll get a passing grade.
Do this with all your heart, mind and might, and you'll get highest honors -- sainthood! 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to take Mary into your home.

The word of the LORD came to Nathan the prophet: Go, give my servant David this message from me: When your life is over, and you rest with your ancestors, I will choose a child of your own flesh and blood as your heir, and I will grant him a kingdom that will last forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. Your house and your kingdom will last forever; your throne will endure for all eternity. (II Samuel 7: 4-5, 12-14, 16)

The promise God made to Abraham and his descendants, that he and his descendants would possess the whole world, was not based on the law, but on faith. The fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God, and accepting whatever he does. God’s promise is not something we deserve, something we can earn, but a gift, pure and simple. That is the only way the promise can be received, not only by those who keep the law, but those who have never heard of the law. Abraham is the father of us all. Not our father in the flesh, but our father in the faith.

Abraham was first called a father by God, and then he became a father in the flesh because he dared to trust God to do what only he could do, make something happen that seemed impossible. When everything was hopeless, Abraham continued to trust the word of God. He decided to live not on the basis of what he knew he couldn’t do, but rather on what God said that He would do. And so, he became the father of many nations, as we read in the scriptures. That is why his willingness to trust God’s word was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22)

This is how the birth of Jesus took place. His mother, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph. But before they lived together, Joseph discovered that she was pregnant. Joseph, a righteous man, was not willing to expose her to disgrace, and decided to divorce her quietly.

While he was trying to figure out a way to do that, Joseph had a dream, in which an angel of the LORD spoke to him: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to take Mary into your home. The child she is carrying was conceived through the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, since he will save his people from their sins. When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel had said, and took Mary into his home as his wife.
(Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24)

Back in the first half of the 20th century, and earlier, paintings of the Holy Family on Nazareth depicted Joseph with a grey beard and a fringe of grey hair. To make him look old, of course! On the other hand, it would be unimaginable to portray Mary as old, because older women are beyond the age of childbearing. There is something in our human nature that is invested in keeping Mary just barely this side of adulthood, and moving Joseph as far as possible to the far side of it.

We have molded Joseph to fit our notion of what a holy man should be. We should, instead, remold our image of him to fit the role he played in the history of salvation. When he decided to take the mother of the holy child into his home as his wife, and to raise her child as his own, it was necessary that the synagogue officials in Nazareth – the canon lawyers of the times – to find what he seemed to be admitting was at the very least, a plausible possibility. We need to restore Joseph’s manhood! We don’t seem to have a problem with that on May Day, the feast of Joseph the Worker. Not Joseph the Weak, the Ineffectual, the Impotent!

When Jesus spoke about his Father in heaven, he did so with tenderness and affection. Where did his human nature first experience the reality of the word “father”? From Joseph, of course! Joseph must have been a very successful role model of fatherhood!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the speech Moses gave to the people of Israel after he came down from the summit of Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. The message is not a threatening one, not “Disobey at your own risk!” but an encouraging one: Teach these precepts to the neighboring peoples, and you will make the earth a better place, the people a better race.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. “Not the smallest letter, or the tiniest stroke of a letter” will be erased. The earliest English translations were closer to the original, “Not a jot or a tittle”. The “jot” refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, yod, which looks rather like a comma. A tittle is part of a letter, like the dot on our letter I, or the accents on letters in French. To say that not a jot or a tittle would be removed from the Law is a sign of how immutable God’s Law is: it has never changed, from the Garden of Eden, to the teaching of the prophets, to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. But if Jesus was so insistent that the Law would never change or disappear, why was he unhappy with the Pharisees, who made it their mission to persuade people to observe the Law to the letter, even to the tiniest stroke of a letter?

We’re not going to hear “the rest of the story” tomorrow, because March 19, is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, with prayers and reading of its own. So it might be helpful to complete the account today.

Jesus said to his disciples: You’ve heard that our ancestors were told, “Don’t commit murder”, and “Whoever takes the life of another will be subject to judgment”. But I tell you that if you’re angry with your neighbor, or call your neighbor an idiot, you are liable to judgment. If you curse your neighbor, you are in danger of hellfire.

So, if you’re going to the Temple to present a sacrifice at the altar, and you remember that your neighbor has something against you, leave the sacrifice right there, go back and be reconciled to your neighbor, then come back and offer your sacrifice to God.

You’ve heard the commandment, “Don’t commit adultery,” I tell you, that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. In this saying, Jesus appears to be even more legalistic than the Pharisees. But, at another time, Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) So, what he just said is not heavier, but lighter, than the doctrine of the Pharisees?

Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” A law is not fulfilled when it is being observed to the letter, but when it serves the purpose for which it was enacted. If he had said, “Don’t bother with the details, just do the best you can”, he would have sounded like a reckless liberal, to use a modern phrase. But he still would have been talking about the letter, not the spirit of the Law. He would be in a different corner of the same box the Pharisees had put themselves in.

Jesus is “outside the box”. He goes beyond the external observance, and probes the heart. He sees that murder begins with hatred or anger, that adultery is the fruit of lust. Everything we do starts with an impulse, followed by a decision whether to act on that impulse, or to reject it. Jesus reminds us to focus not on the letter of the law, but on the intention of the heart. Our model is the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Love one another, as I have first loved you.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Often Do I Have To Forgive?

“How often do I have to forgive my brother?” It’s a question every mother has heard, usually from the mouth of her second child, less often from her first-born. In today’s gospel, it is the question raised by Peter, who adds his own estimate: “As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” That is the translation from the New American Bible. In the old Douay-Rheims translation, which was the only approved English bible here until the 1950s, Jesus answer was just a bit different: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

After answering Peter’s question, Jesus begins to tell a story comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to an earthly kingdom were the king had decided to settle accounts with folks who were indebted to him.

The first debtor owed 10,000 talents, which he was unable to repay. He begged the king, “Be patient with me”. The king took pity on him, and forgave the debt entirely.

But when the first debtor went out, he found a fellow who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him, and began to choke him. “Pay back every penny you own!” His fellow servant begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” But he refused. Instead, he had the man thrown into debtor’s prison for a term equal to the amount of the debt.

The other servants went to tell their master everything that had happened.

The master called the first servant in. “You wicked fellow! I canceled your debt because you asked me to. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your fellow servant, just I had for you. In his anger, the master turned him over to the jailors until the debt was completely repaid.


When this parable was subject to discussion at St. Michael’s High School in North Adams, the students asked me what amounts of money we would be talking about in U.S. currency. Since the value of the dollar is different from 35 years ago, and since the talent and the denarius are currency we’re not familiar with, the best course is to measure in terms of wages. A denarius was one day’s wage for a farm hand. One hundred denarii would amount to twenty weeks wages. A talent, on the other hand, was a much more significant amount of purchasing power. One talent was equivalent to 25 years wages. Ten thousand talents would be 2500 years wages. Let’s round that off at $12.5 million. The Attorney General of Massachusetts, a member of that religion class, would surely consider theft of that amount grand larceny.

Clearly, the purpose of Jesus in telling his disciples this parable is that we are infinitely indebted to God for sending His only begotten Son into our world to redeem us from the burden of our sinfulness. “Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son”, as we hear in the Exultet at the Easter Vigil.

R/ Remember your mercies O Lord.

Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
Teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
For you are God my savior. R/

Remember that your compassion, O Lord,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me
Because of your goodness, O Lord. R/

Good and upright is the LORD,
Thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
He teaches the humble his way. R/

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, is now
And ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Go Bathe In The River Seven Times, And You Will Be Healed.

Naaman was the commanding general of the armies of the King of Aram. He was held in high esteem, because under his leadership, Aram had won great victories over its foes. Unfortunately, Naaman was afflicted with a serious skin disease. It so happened that among the housemaids of Naaman’s wife was a young girl from Israel, who said to her mistress, “Oh, if only the master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed.”

When Naaman learned of this, he went to the King and told him what the Israelite girl had said. “Go to Israel then”, said the King. “I’ll give you a letter of introduction to the King of Israel.” So off he went, taking with him gifts of silver and gold, as well as ten fine ceremonial robes.

Naaman presented to the King of Israel this letter: “By these presents, you will know that I have sent my servant Naaman to you, to be healed of his disease.” When the King read the message, he was terribly upset, “Do they think that I have power over life and death, and can command that this man be healed? Or is the King of Aram trying to start a war against Israel?”

Elisha, in Samaria, heard what was happening, and sent word to the King, “Send him to me, and he will learn that there’s a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman and his retinue went up from Jerusalem to Samaria to meet the prophet. When he got there, Elisha sent him this message: “Go down to the River Jordan and bathe your body in the river seven times, and you will be healed.” Naaman was furious, “I thought he would come and meet me face to face, and call upon the name of his God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and heal it. The rivers in Damascus are a lot cleaner that any river in Israel. I should go home and bathe in them. At the very least, I’ll get clean.”

But his servants came to him and said, “If the prophet had asked you to something extraordinary, wouldn’t you have obeyed his orders? So, why not this simply “Go bathe in the river, and be cleansed?” So he did it. He went down to the Jordan, and bathed in it seven times, on the orders of the man of God. And his flesh became as smooth of as a baby’s skin, and he was good as new.

He went back to Jerusalem, he and his retinue, and said, “Now, I know that there is no God on earth, except in Israel.” (2 Kings, 5:1-15)

Jesus spoke to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Let me tell you something: No prophet is welcome in his home town. There were many lepers is Israel at the time of Elisha the prophet, but the only one healed was Naaman the Syrian.” When the people in the synagogue heard him say this, they were furious. They threw him out of town, and took him to a hilltop at the edge of the village. They intended to throw him headlong from the cliff. But he gave them the slip, and went on his way. (Luke 4:-24-30)

In Nazareth, Jesus was recognized a teacher, and he was called “rabbi”. It was not uncommon for him to make references to the Scriptures, and cite them in his teaching. Jesus also was known as a healer, a wonder worker. So, it is not surprising that he refers to the story of Naaman’s healing in his teaching to the people of his home town.

One aspect of the story I find especially interesting is the attitudes and reactions of the characters. The Israelite servant girl expresses simple faith and trust in the healing power of God. The King of Israel, on the other hand, is furious, and suspicious that the King of Aram is just looking for a fight. Naaman is disturbed that he had to come to the Jordan, when he could have taken a dip in the Abana or the Pharphar. Water is water, after all, and besides, the waste water treatment plants in Aram are more effective than those in Israel.

Especially significant, it seems to me, is the role that servants and slaves play in this drama. It was a serving girl in the household of Naaman’s wife who suggested that her master go to Israel to be healed. It was the servants that accompanied the general who persuaded him to follow the prescription of the prophet. It often seems, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospels, that the needy, the oppressed, the poor have better access to God than the people of means and privilege, perhaps because we tend to place our confidence in ourselves, and leave little room for trust in God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, said the Teacher, “for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” And it is evident from the gospel stories that it is more likely that the “poor in spirit” are also “poor indeed”.

Which brings us to the gospel! Jesus, who, in the words of Saint Paul, left his lofty place at the right hand of God and became a slave, challenges us, “Anyone who wishes to be great among you must become the servant of the others”. He chides the people of his home town for their lack of faith. He points out that widows, orphans, foreigners, even enemy generals, were healed by the prophets because they placed their faith, their trust, in God. It is too much for them! They drive him out of town and try to throw him off the cliff the town is built on!

There is a scripture in which Jesus says to one of ten lepers, “Your faith has healed you”. But, if we look closely at the context, we must consider fate of the other nine, who were not healed. Our faith cannot be in our own gifts, or in our ability to use the gifts God gives us. If that were the case, the King of Aram and the King of Israel would have been able to work wonders all by themselves, by using the power they possessed. No, what is needed is trust. “If you want to, you can heal me”, said another leper in the gospel. God wants each and every one of us to be spiritually healthy. On the other hand, Jesus also chooses to share the redemptive power of physical and emotional suffering with his sisters and brothers in this life, “in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.” “If this is the way you treat your friends …” (Do you ever wonder what Teresa's tone of voice was? I sure do!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Destroy This Temple, And In Three Days, I Will Raise It Up!

On any given Sunday during the year, and for that matter, on weekdays, the Scripture Readings are chosen to fit in with a particular theme. That is especially obvious in Advent and during the Christmas season, where the focus is on the coming of the Messiah, and during the Lenten Season, when there is a gradual increase in intensity as we approach Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and, ultimately, the Resurrection of the Lord from death to new life.

 Think about the people of Israel, who about three months ago were freed from slavery in Egypt, and now were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, while Moses climbed to the summit of the mountain to hear what the LORD God had to say to the people He calls His Own.
 If you pay attention to the commandments, they aren’t telling us to do anything unusual.

There is only one God in Heaven, and He is the only one you should worship. Don’t make idols in the shape of birds, or beasts or whales and fish, and worship them as if they were divine. They aren’t!

Have the utmost respect of the Name of the LORD. Be careful how you use it, not in anger as a curse, and not carelessly, as if it were meaningless.

Set one day out of every seven as a holy day, dedicated not to work but to worship. The LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it in six days, and rested on the seventh. His people should do likewise.

 Have the utmost respect for your parents. They were God’s partners in bring you life in this world, and opening for you the gateway to eternal life.
 Don’t take your neighbor’s life.

Don’t take your neighbor’s spouse.

Don’t take your neighbor’s property.

Don’t tell lies about your neighbor.

Don’t lust after your neighbor’s house, or spouse, or manservant, or maidservant, or ox, or ass, or anything else that doesn’t belong to you.
 For three days, before Moses went up to the summit of Sinai to have his meeting with the Lord, there had been loud claps of thunder, dazzling flashes of lightning and ear-piercing thunder that sounded like heavenly trumpet blasts.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus causes the same kind of commotion with his own voice. It’s the Passover season, and folks are coming to the temple to celebrate their freedom from bondage in Egypt. Animal sacrifices were a part of that ritual, and there were always folks in the Temple courtyard selling lambs, and sheep, oxen for those who could afford them and pigeons for those who couldn’t even afford the lambs and sheep. They had every reason to be there, and it’s no wonder that the people in general, and even the disciples of Jesus were taken aback by his behavior.

He took a length of rope, fashioned into a whip, and started chasing the animals and the folks selling them out of the Temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
 It wasn’t until years later, when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were putting together their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus that it all began to make sense. It was only then that the disciples recalled the words of the Scripture, "Zeal for your house consumes me." It was only after Jesus had risen from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, that they understood the sign he was showing them that day, "Tear down this Temple and in three days I'll put it back together." He wasn’t speaking about the Temple of Solomon that had been rebuilt at least three times since the son of David first built it. He was speaking of the “temple” of another “Son of David”, the temple of his own body. It was only then that they remembered what he had said, and began to believe what had been written about him in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as what he had said about himself.

“There are no coincidences in God’s plans”, so the saying goes. And it is certainly not coincidental that this sign of Jesus takes place in Jerusalem at the Temple at the beginning of the Paschal Season. Jesus is the Lamb, once slain, who lives forever. For Christ has ransomed us with his blood, and paid for us the price of Adam’s sin to our eternal Father. He has broken the chains of death and has risen triumphant from the grave.

But we are getting ahead of the story. This is only the Third Sunday of Lent, it will be four more weeks before the Exultet will be sung, and we will once again celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the pledge of our own rising to new life, and the promise of an eternity in Heaven with him.

Meanwhile, let us thank the Lord for the freedom he has given us, and for the boundaries he has set to guide us on our path toward him.

Let me close with a prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola that seems to fit the theme of the day:

O Lord, receive my freedom. Take my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and all that I am I have received from You. I give it all back to You, and ask that it be governed by your Will, not mine. Give me only your love and your grace; that will be riches enough for me, and I will ask for nothing more. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Your Brother Was Dead, And He Is Alive! He Was Lost, But He's Been Found!

Tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus, listening to his teaching. The Pharisees and Teachers of the law were not at all pleased. They grumbled: “He welcomes sinners, and shares meals with them, as if they were honorable people.” Their grumbling moved him to tell this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to his father, “Dad, I want what’s coming to me, and I want it right now!”

So the father divided up his property between his two sons. It wasn’t long after that, when the younger boy packed his bags and left to seek his fortune in a distant land. But, when he got there, he squandered everything he owned in a life of dissipation.

After he ran out of money, there was a famine in that country, and he found himself in dire straits. He hired himself out to one of the local landowners, who sent him out to his farm to feed the pigs. He was so famished that he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

That brought him to his senses. He said to himself, “All the farmhands who work for my father have three meals a day, but here am I starving to death. I’m going back to my father, and I’ll say to him: “Father, I’ve sinned against God, and against you. I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.” So he got up and started home to his father.

While he was still quite a ways off, his father saw him. He ran out, embraced the boy, and kissed him. The son started reciting the speech he had prepared, “Father, I’ve sinned against God, and against you. I don’t deserve to be called your son. “

But the father wasn’t paying any attention. He was calling out to the household staff: “Quick, bring clean clothes for him to wear. Put a ring with the family crest on his finger, and sandals on his feet. Then slaughter a grain-fed heifer and roasts it. We’re going to have a feast. I thought my son was dead, and here he is alive! I’d given him up for lost, but now he’s found. And the celebration began.

Now, the older son had been out in the field, and was coming home after his day’s work. As he came near the house, he could hear sounds of music and dancing. He called one of the houseboys and asked what was going on. “Your brother is home. Your father has ordered a feast, because he has him home, safe and sound.” 

The older brother got angry, and refused to enter the house. The father came out and tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t pay attention. He said, “How many years have I been here, doing whatever you asked, never giving you a moment of grief, and have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? But now this son of yours who has squandered your money on wicked women has shown up, and for him you slaughter the fatted calf!

The father said, “Son, don’t you understand? You’ve been with me all along, and everything I have is yours. But this is a time for rejoicing and celebration, since your brother was dead, and he is alive! He was lost, but he’s been found! (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)


This may be the best known and most loved of all of Jesus’ parables, but it appears only in the Gospel according to Luke. We usually call it “the parable of the prodigal son” but another way to look at it, is to consider the point of view of each of the three characters in the story: the younger son, the older son, and the father.

The younger son is looking for something he’s not getting at home. The older boy is helping with the management of the estate, and he will no doubt inherit it when the father passes from this life to the bosom of Abraham. “What’s left for me? I might as well go off and seek my own fortune elsewhere!” But when he went out into the real world, he found that he could not buy friendship and contentment by spending his share of his father’s estate. His loneliness drove him to “look for love in all the wrong places”, and nearly cost him his life.

The older boy has a different attitude, but is it a better one? He seems to have decided that he could win favor with his father by being “a good boy”. But in the end, he was not content, but resentful, especially when his younger brother returned and was welcomed home.

The father is the most interesting figure of all. He was not as moved by his older son’s service as he was by the younger boy’s repentance. The Merriam-Webster online defines “prodigal” as “lavish”. That being the case, we really ought to call this the parable of the prodigal father. He was prodigal in mercy and forgiveness. The father in this story is intended by Jesus to represent His Father. “He is rich in mercy, abounding in love. He does not keep the memory of our offenses, and does not punish us according to our sins.”

Remember the context of this parable. Jesus told this story while he was surrounded by a crowd of scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, who were complaining about his openness toward sinners. “He welcomes sinners and shares meals with them!” What a clear picture of the older brother! “I’ve been working like a slave for you! But you’ve never thrown a party for me!” But, the father responded, “But, all that is mine is yours!” The real reason he was so disturbed at the celebration of his brother’s return was that he really was looking forward to the day his father died, when it would all belong to him!

Be sober and watchful! If we’re not careful, it would be easy for any of us to imitate the older brother in the parable. We can become so intense about doing our duty that we forget to celebrate. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard because he knew how to celebrate. In fact, he described the kingdom of God as a banquet.

The story of the prodigal son – or is it the prodigal father? – offers us the opportunity to reflect on our own habits, and recognize our own failings, like one or the other of the sons in Luke’s Gospel – or, more likely, like each of them, at one time or another. Let us rather take our cue from the father in the parable. We cannot mirror divine perfection except in one aspect of God’s nature: Forgive, as the LORD has forgiven you. Forgive, as you would want the LORD to continue forgiving you.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Here Comes The Dreamer! Let's Kill Him!

Of all of his twelve sons, Jacob had a special place in his heart for Joseph, since he was born to him in his old age. He gave him the gift of a richly ornamented robe. When his brothers saw that, they hated Joseph, and would not speak a kind word to him.

One day, when his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, Jacob said to Joseph, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and the flocks, and bring the word back to me.”

So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them near Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and plotted to kill him. “Here comes the dreamer! Let’s kill him and throw him into a cistern. We can saw that a wild beast devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of Joseph’s dreams.”

When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue Joseph. “Let’s not take his life. Throw him into the cistern, if you must. But don’t kill him.” Reuben intended to rescue him later, and take him back to his father.

So they stripped him of his richly ornamented robe, and threw him into the cistern, which was empty and dry. As they sat down to their meal, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels laden down with spices, balm, and myrrh, which they were transporting down to Egypt.

Judah said to his brother, “What is to be gained by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay a hand on him. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood. So, when the caravan came by, the brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver. (Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28)


Jesus said to the Chief Priests and the Elders: “Listen to another parable. There once was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He planted a hedge around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some tenant farmers, and went off on a journey. When harvest time came near, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect the produce.

But the tenants seized the servants. They beat one, stoned another, and killed a third. He sent other servants, more than before, but the tenants treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son. “Surely, they will respect my son”, he said.

But, when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” So they took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

“Now tell me, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do with those tenants?”

They replied, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they answered, “and he will rent his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. The LORD has done this, and it is marvelous to behold.”

When the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21: 33-46)

It wasn’t very long ago that we read the story of Cain, who had taken his own brother’s life. In today’s First Reading, also from Genesis, we find that not much has changed between Adam and Abraham. We are still envious of our brother’s success, and fail to see the image of God in our neighbors.

But there is an even more profound, but subtle message in these readings. No matter how badly men behave, God’s love overcomes evil, and brings comfort to those who mourn. Finally, in today’s readings, we have three episodes concerning the loss of a son: Jacob’s loss of Joseph; the landowner’s loss of his son and heir: finally, the first murmurs of the conspiracy among the Scribes, Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law, which eventually brought Jesus to the cross, where he fulfilled his divine message.

So, gentle reader, where do you find yourself in these readings? Are we the envious brothers, ignoring their father’s deep affection for the son of his old age, and giving their brother up for dead? Or are we the repentant brothers, who reconcile ourselves with both the Father and the Son in our desire to be loved and to love in return. Do we reject the corner stone? Or do we set it as the keystone of a Church that welcomes all and loves all? Can we learn to love one another as God loves the Son, and the Son loves us?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who Do You Trust?

Today’s Scripture Readings are all about hope.

They who put their hope and their trust in the LORD are like a tree planted near the water that extends its roots toward the tree. When the heat comes, its leaves will stay green. Even if there is a drought during the summer, it will still yield fruit.

But those who trust their own flesh, or other people, instead of the LORD, are like the bushes that grow in the desert, that wither in the heat of the sun, or the plants that sprout on the shores of the Dead Sea, that are choked off for lack of fresh water.

The human heart can become desperately ill with deceit, and who can cure it? Only the LORD, who tests the mind and probes the heart. He will reward everyone according to the merit of their deeds.
(Jeremiah 17:5-10)

How blessed is one who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
Nor walk in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the company of scoffers.
But delights in the law of the LORD,
And meditates on his law, both day and night.

He is like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in due season,
And whose leaves never wither.
Whatever he does, prospers.

Not so the wicked,  not so!
They are like chaff that the winds drive away.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked vanishes. (Psalm I)

Once upon a time, there was a rich man, who dressed in fine linen and purple cloth, and dined splendidly every day. Lying at his gate, there was a poor man named Lazarus, who was covered with ulcers. He longed to eat the table scraps left over from the rich man’s meals.

Now, the poor man died, and was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. Then the rich man also died, and was buried. In Hades, where he was tormented, he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip his finger tip into water, and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.”

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you enjoyed the good life, while Lazarus had a miserable existence. Now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Not only that, but a great gulf exists between here and there, and no one can pass from here to you, and no one can cross from there to us.”

“Then, Father Abraham, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not end up in this place of torment.”

“They have Moses and the Prophets; they can listen to them.”

“But, Father Abraham, if someone goes to them from the dead, then they will repent!”

“If they pay no attention to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead!” (Luke 16:19-31)

Once upon a time, when I was in my teens, there was a very popular quiz show on the television, emceed by a young fellow from Omaha who was doing his first “gig” on the national networks. The young man’s name was Johnny Carson; the name of the quiz show is the theme of today’s readings: “Who do you trust?” The prophet Jeremiah, speaking the word of the LORD, characterizes two types of person: those who trust in the LORD, and those who place their trust in other people, or in their possessions, or in their flesh. (Think seven capital sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.) Wait, there’s one missing! Oh yes, Lust!

The conclusion of today’s First Reading tells us that the LORD will reward each of us according to the merit of our deeds. God invites us to put our trust in Him, so that, when the day comes to settle our accounts, our assets outweigh our debits, in the currency of grace. The way to achieve that goal is to do what God did in Jesus. As the poem often, if wrongly, attributed to Francis of Assisi reminds us: “It is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and it is dying to ourselves, that we are born to eternal life.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can You Drink From The Cup I'm Going To Drink From?

The scene: The road from Galilee to Jerusalem.

The cast: Jesus, of Nazareth; James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Salome, their mother
Ten other apostles.

Jesus: Listen carefully. We are going to Jerusalem. When we get there, the Son of Man will be betrayed by the Temple priests and the Doctors of the Law. They will sentence him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Romans. He will be mocked, whipped, and crucified. Then, on the third day, he will be raised up to life.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus.

Jesus: What can I do for you?

Salome: Give me your word that my boys will be awarded the highest places of honor in your kingdom, one at your right hand, the other at your left.

Jesus: You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re asking for. Are you capable of drinking from the cup that I’m going to drink from?

James and John: Why wouldn’t we be?

Jesus: I tell you, you will be drinking from my cup. As for places of honor, that’s not up to me; that’s my Father’s responsibility.

Upon hearing this, the other ten become indignant with the two brothers. Jesus turns to them.

Jesus: You’ve seen how godless rulers throw their weight around and how quickly a little power goes to their heads. That’s not the way it’s going to be among you. Rather, whoever seeks to be first among you must be the servant of the others. That is what the Son of Man has done: He has come not to be served, but to serve, and then, to give his life as a ransom for the many.

In Mark’s gospel, it is James and John who asked Jesus for important positions in his Kingdom. In Matthew, it is their mother, Salome, a kinswoman of Jesus’ mother Mary. It isn’t as clear in English as it is in the original Greek. “You (plural) don’t have the slightest idea what you’re asking for. Are you (plural) capable of drinking from the cup that I’m going to drink from?” He wasn’t speaking to Salome, but to her sons. And the other ten were not angry with her, but with them. Maybe they were hoping to have important positions when the Son of Man (a word that refers only to the Messiah) establishes his earthly kingdom. But, it would seem, all of them missed a key part of what Jesus was telling them. They would become the first major executives in the organization Jesus founded. But each of them would also drink from his cup. Only John would survive until his old age, the others would shed their blood for their faith.

All in all, there’s not that much difference between yesterday’s gospel and today’s. Except for one thing. James, John and the other ten all have high places in the Heavenly Kingdom of the Son of Man. As for the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, there is not sufficient evidence to make a judgment as to their ultimate destiny.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Practice What You Preach! Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

The scribes and Pharisees are the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. So, obey and practice whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example, because they don’t practice what they preach. They place unbearable burdens on the shoulders of the people, but they won’t lift a finger to help carry them.

“Everything they do is for show. They wear large prayer boxes on their arms, and long tassels on their robes. They love sitting at the head table at banquets, and in the seats of honor at the synagogues. They enjoy respectful greetings when the walk through the marketplaces, and being called 'Rabbi”.

As for you, don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi”. You have only one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. Don’t address anyone on earth as “Father”; for only God in heaven is your Father. Don’t let anyone call you “Teacher”, since you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. All those who exalt themselves will be humbled; and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Two of the sayings of Jesus in this gospel have entered the everyday vocabulary. One of them is usually repeated in the original: “Practice what you preach”. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing the contrary. They imposed strict observance of the Law of Moses on the people, but devised all sorts of exceptions for themselves. They did what they told other folks not to do, and hardly ever practiced what they preached. That is the reason that the word “Pharisee” is virtually synonymous with “hypocrite” in many people’s minds.

Jesus makes a clear distinction between what the Pharisees and the Scribes taught, and they way they behaved. “Obey and practice what they tell you, but don’t follow their example.” Or, more colloquially, “Do as they say, not as they do.”

One of the scripture reflections I read to “prime the pump” before I write these likens the attitude of the Pharisees with the attitude of Paul the Apostle, who said, “I don’t do the good I want, but I do the evil I don’t want to” (Romans 7:19). That’s no surprise, since Paul was himself a Pharisee. That didn’t stop Paul from preaching the good news. He bared his innermost self to us, in that passage from Romans. He tried to do his best, and he encourages us to do likewise.

Sincere religious leaders don’t judge sinners, but identify with them. Jesus himself, at the very beginning of his public ministry, went down to the Jordan and was baptized by John. It was after his baptism that Jesus met Andrew and John and invited them to become his first two disciples. But there are other religious leaders who have a different attitude. They can’t acknowledge their own sinfulness, so they project it onto others. Their zeal is fueled by self-loathing. Even when what they preach is literally correct, everything they say is spoiled by their hypocrisy. I know of an older priest who preached a retreat to a group of younger priests. He told them, “If you don’t love people, don’t preach! You may be able to express some truth, but it will be impossible for you to “speak the truth in love”. (Ephesians 4:15). Each of us can think of examples in our own lives when people who spoken their moral opinions boldly, but whose actions contradict their words.

The Pharisees are historical figures who flourished twenty centuries ago. Yet we read about them often in the Liturgy? Why? Because we really haven’t gone away at all!

Monday, March 9, 2009

LORD, do not deal with us according to our sins!

A Reading from the Book of the Prophet Daniel:

LORD, great and awesome God. You never waver in your commitment to be merciful to those who love you and obey you. But we have sinned against you in every way imaginable. We have ignored the clearly marked signs showing us the way we should go, and pointed out the dangers on the road. We have turned a deaf ear to the prophets who preached your Word to our leaders, our teachers, our parents, our priests and prophets and to all the people in our land.

LORD, you’ve done all you could, but all we have to show for our lives is guilt and shame. All of us: our political leaders, our religious leaders, our parents, ourselves. We have been exposed in our guilt, before the whole world. Deservedly so, because we have sinned.

LORD, in rebellion we have forfeited our rights, and if you exercise your justice, you could destroy us. When you told us how to live, through the teaching of your servants the prophets, we paid no attention. We defied their warnings and did what we pleased. And now, we’re paying the price for our disobedience.
A Psalm of David:

Response: LORD, do not deal with us according to our sins!

LORD, do not remember the wickedness of the past; but be merciful to us, for we have been brought low.

Help us, God our savior, for the glory of your name. Forgive us, and pardon our sins, for the sake of your own name.

LORD, we come before you like prisoners who have been condemned to death. Be merciful to us, since Mercy is your name. Then we, the people you have chosen to be your own, will be grateful to you forever. All generations to come will declare your praise.

Response: LORD, do not deal with us according to our sins!

A reading from the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus said to his disciples: Be merciful to others, since your Father is merciful to you. Don’t judge others, since you don’t want God to judge you. Don’t be unfair in dealing with others, since you want God to be fair in dealing with you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you. If you are generous with others, you can expect God to be generous with you. In brief, treat others in the same way you want God to treat you.  


I have heard, over the years, some of the most merciless of sermons about God’s mercy. “If we refuse mercy now, we will have to deal with justice in eternity.” Or, “A God who is all-merciful is an unjust God”. And the most egregious of all: “Mercy is not for those who sin and fear not, but for those who fear and sin not.”

Yet, doesn’t it seem that those conditions are written into today’s readings? “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged.” “Forgive, and you will be forgiven”. “The measure you mete out will be measured back to you”. These phrases certainly appear to say that if you do judge, you will be judged; if you withhold forgiveness, you will be refused forgiveness; God will only be as merciful to you as you are to others.

Think of it this way: If you don’t give, you won’t receive. The cup that measures what you can receive is the cup you use when you are giving. The vessel that holds the forgiveness you exercise is the vessel that will be used to hold the forgiveness you receive. If I refuse to give, or to forgive, I am acting according to my weak and sinful human nature, but I am ignoring the gift I received in baptism, which has been confirmed in me, and has nourished me, and has forgiven me in the other sacraments – received, confirmed, nourished and forgiven not because of anything I have deserved – or could deserve – but simply because God is merciful. God does not limit divine mercy; we limit our capacity to receive it, when we fail to be grateful for his gift, and especially when we deny it to others.

Not Judging Even Ourselves
The anxiety and grief you feel from realizing your nothingness is not pleasant; for although the cause is good, the effect is not. No, my dear daughter, this knowledge of our nothingness should not trouble us, but should have a soothing, humbling and chastening effect; it is self-esteem which makes us impatient at seeing ourselves as vile and abject. Come now, I entreat you by the love of him whom we both love, of Jesus Christ, to live consoled and peaceful in your weakness. “I glory in my weakness”, says the great Saint Paul, “so that the power of my Savior may dwell in me.” Yes, indeed! For our misery is a throne to make manifest the sovereign goodness of Our Lord. (St. Francis de Sales – Introduction to the Devout Life)