Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The LORD Lifts Up All Who Are Falling, And Raises Up Those Who Are Bowed Down.

Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 2:10b-16
Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.
Among men, who knows what pertains to the man
except his spirit that is within?
Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God
except the Spirit of God.
We have not received the spirit of the world
but the Spirit who is from God,
so that we may understand the things
freely given us by God.
And we speak about them not with words
taught by human wisdom,
but with words taught by the Spirit,
describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.

Now the natural man does not accept
what pertains to the Spirit of God,
for to him it is foolishness,
and he cannot understand it,
because it is judged spiritually.
The one who is spiritual, however,
can judge everything
but is not subject to judgment by anyone.

For “who has known the mind of the Lord,
so as to counsel him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
Here Paul discusses the true nature of the genuinely spiritual person. And the source of his spirituality is, not surprisingly, the Spirit of God. “The Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.” The Spirit does this not in order to know them better for the Spirit knows all things. Rather, he understands fully the depth of God’s nature and so is fully competent to reveal them to us.

And, just as only an individual person alone knows what is going on in the depths of one’s own heart, so only the depths of God can be known by God’s own Spirit.

What distinguishes the true followers of Christ is that they are not imbued by the spirit of the world around them. The ‘spirit of the world’ is that ‘wisdom of the age’ which is alienated from God and all he stands for. It is the attitude of ‘sinful nature’ as described in the Letter to the Romans (8:6-7). Instead, true followers have received the gift of God’s Spirit which helps us to understand the gifts, the love that is constantly being showered on us.

So Paul’s teaching is not, as he said before, based on philosophical speculations but comes in the way the Spirit communicates, that is, straight to the heart and not just in the mind.

In the verses which follow (including some which are not part of today’s reading) Paul explains why many fail to grasp true wisdom. It is because such wisdom is perceived by the spiritual (i.e. mature) Christian. The Corinthians, however, were unspiritual, worldly (infant) believers (3:1-4), and the proof of their immaturity was their division over their human leaders (3:3-4).

The unspiritual person is described as one who is closed to the working of the Spirit. The Greek term here is psychikos, a person who depends on his own natural resources, who, in the words of Romans 8:9, follows “mere natural instincts”. This person is dominated by the merely physical, worldly or natural life.

Such a person - and we have surely met him/her often - rejects the Gospel teaching as nonsense. In fact, he does not understand it because understanding only comes through being open to the promptings of the Spirit.

The spiritual person, on the other hand, “is able to judge the value of everything, and his own value is not to be judged by others”. The Spirit gives the follower of Christ deep insights into the meaning of life, it gives him a vision of what is really important. Paul himself, as a ‘spiritual’ man, is not to be judged by the Corinthians who are sensual and immature (not yet ready for solid food but only for milk).

Many a truly Spirit-guided person will, as Jesus and Paul were, be frequently criticised. He may be rejected and even removed altogether by exile or death. But, as long as he remains true to the guidance of the Spirit, he does not feel effectively judged by such people.

The Christian must never be arrogant or contemptuous of others; at the same time, he must not fear or hesitate to be in opposition to the conventional wisdom of his environment. In order to make sure of his integrity he must constantly discern the voice and the leading of God in all that he says and does.

Paul ends by asking a question posed by Isaiah: “Who can know the mind of the Lord, so who can teach him?” Paul answers by saying that, while we may not know the mind of God and still less dare to teach him, he does claim that he and many of the baptised “are those who have the mind of Christ”.

To have the “mind of Christ” is to see things the way Jesus sees them, to value things the way he values them, totally to share his vision of the meaning and goal of our lives. What exactly that mind of Christ is can be found in the lovely hymn that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11).

Let us pray today that we may be truly spiritual people who share and understand that mind of Christ.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 145
The Lord is just in all his ways.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
The Lord is just in all his ways.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your Kingdom
and speak of your might.
The Lord is just in all his ways.
Making known to men your might
and the glorious splendor of your Kingdom.
Your Kingdom is a Kingdom for all ages,
and your dominion endures through all generations.
The Lord is just in all his ways.
The LORD is faithful in all his words
and holy in all his works.
The LORD lifts up all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The Lord is just in all his ways.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 4:31-37
Jesus went down to Capernaum, a town of Galilee.
He taught them on the sabbath,
and they were astonished at his teaching
because he spoke with authority.
In the synagogue there was a man
with the spirit of an unclean demon,
and he cried out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!”
Then the demon threw the man down in front of them
and came out of him without doing him any harm.
They were all amazed and said to one another,
“What is there about his word?
For with authority and power
he commands the unclean spirits,
and they come out.”
And news of him spread everywhere
in the surrounding region.
Immediately after his mixed reception in Nazareth, Jesus moves on to Capernaum, a town on the north shore of Galilee, which was to be the base from which Jesus did much of his missionary work. As in Nazareth, he taught the people in the synagogue on the sabbath. Unlike in Nazareth, “his teaching made a deep impression” on the people because he spoke “with authority”. He did not quote other authorities, like the teachers of the law, because his authority was directly from God, it was his own.

At the same time, it was not the authority of domination. It was the authority of someone who has access to special knowledge, the authority of someone who speaks in his own name and not just on behalf of others, the authority of one who empowers others and makes them grow. (‘Authority’ comes from the Latin auctoritas, which in turn comes from the verb augere, to increase or augment).

And Jesus’ authority is not only in word and teaching. Right there in the synagogue as he speaks is a man possessed by an “unclean spirit”. The spirit speaks through the man. It speaks in fear of the power of Jesus. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” This title seems to indicate that the spirit recognises Jesus’ divine origin but not his Messiahship. There was a belief in those times that knowing the exact name of one’s opponent gave one power over him.

Jesus ordered the evil spirit of the man who was thrown to the ground but not hurt. The people are amazed. Exorcism was not new to them but they had never seen it done with such speed and effectiveness. They are astounded again at the power and authority of Jesus. They realise they are in the presence of someone very special, in fact, the “Holy One of God”.

Each one of us is given authority of some kind - as a parent, a teacher, our job responsibility… Let us make sure that we use it in such a way as to enhance the abilities of others rather than diminish them.*

The Irish Jesuits

Monday, August 30, 2010

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Native Place.

Monday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity
of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing
while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness
and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest
not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
Paul continues to explain the basis on which he was proclaiming Christ to the people of Corinth.

When he first arrived among them from Athens about the year 51 AD, he did not come as a polished orator with convincing arguments. Perhaps Apollos, a Jewish exile from the sophisticated society of Rome who became one of the leaders of the community, had led the Corinthians to place more emphasis on eloquence and intellectual arguments. Paul more than once acknowledges his weaknesses in this area. Was this the “sting of the flesh” which distressed him so much?

The only message Paul had to bring was that of Jesus Christ and him crucified. On the face of it, it did not look like a very encouraging message. Not one to attract followers in large numbers, especially given Paul’s acknowledged weakness as a persuasive speaker.

No wonder, then that he had come among them “in great fear and trembling” (a common biblical expression) for he had none of the eloquence which they might have expected and to which they were accustomed from the intellectuals of the day.

All Paul had to offer was the persuasiveness that came from “power of the Spirit”. He came to proclaim to them the “mystery of God”. ‘Mystery’ here is not so much something that is difficult to understand as a truth which had previously been hidden but is now made known to those who are ready to hear it. Greece at the time had its ‘mystery religions’ where the beliefs of the religion were only made known to initiates, something akin to some secret societies today. The ‘mystery’ here was the revelation about what God did for us through the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son made man - something that could never be discovered by the most sophisticated philosophers.

As Paul discovered in time, his deficiency was, in fact, his strength. All he had to offer was his personal knowledge and experience of Jesus as his crucified Lord and that was all that was needed. Paul was only the fragile “vessel of clay” through whom God did his work. As a powerful orator the focus would have been more on himself and his arguments. His message did not rest on human wisdom but on “the power of God” which was clearly visible even in his weaknesses.

What Paul says here is of great importance to us in communicating our faith to others. There are those who try to convince non-believers or those who have fallen away by piling on apologetic arguments and proofs of God’s existence or the validity of the Church’s teaching.

Ultimately, though, the only really effective way to lead people to Christ is by the sharing of our own experience of knowing him and by the witness of a life that is clearly influenced by the vision of the Gospel.

It is also consoling for us to realise that the success of our evangelising does not depend on our own abilities. As Paul would say elsewhere, “when I am weak then I am strongest of all”. It is not a matter of intellectual power but of our integrity which allows God’s truth and love to shine through us.

At the same time, as one commentator reminds us, this does not give preachers a licence to neglect study and preparation. Paul’s letters reveal a great deal of knowledge in many areas of learning, and his eloquence is apparent in his address before the Areopagus [in Athens] (see Acts 17:22-31). Paul’s point is that unless the Holy Spirit works in a listener’s heart, the wisdom and eloquence of a preacher are ineffective. Paul’s confidence as a preacher did not rest on intellectual and oratorical ability, as did that of the Greek orators.

Our communicating of Christ and his vision to others will also depend much more on the inner truth of our message than on our powers of persuasion.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 119
Lord, I love your commands
How I love your law, O LORD!
It is my meditation all the day.
Lord, I love your commands.
Your command has made me
wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
Lord, I love your commands.
I have more understanding
than all my teachers
when your decrees are my meditation.
Lord, I love your commands.
I have more discernment than the elders,
because I observe your precepts.
Lord, I love your commands.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
Lord, I love your commands.
From your ordinances I turn not away,
for you have instructed me.
Lord, I love your commands.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 4:16-30
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read
and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll
and found the passage where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

Rolling up the scroll,
he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words
that came from his mouth.
They also asked,
“Is this not the son of Joseph?”
He said to them,
“Surely you will quote me this proverb,
‘Physician, cure yourself,’
and say, ‘Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath
in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed,
but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But he passed through the midst of them and went away.
We begin today the reading of Luke’s gospel which will bring us up to the end of the Church year. We have already gone through Matthew and Mark and John’s gospel has been spread through various parts of the year, especially during the Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter seasons.

The gospel is a companion volume to the book of the Acts and the language and structure of these two books indicate that both were written by the same person. They are addressed to the same individual, Theophilus, and the second volume refers to the first.

Luke presents the works and teachings of Jesus that are especially important for understanding the way of salvation. Its scope is complete from the birth of Christ to his ascension. It appeals to both Jews and Gentiles.

However, we take up Luke’s gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ public life (chapter 4). After his baptism he had returned “in the power of the Spirit to Galilee”, the northern province of Palestine and his home province. Already people were talking about him everywhere.

Now, as our reading opens, we find him in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee and the place where he grew up. From the verses immediately preceding, it does not seem that Jesus actually began his ministry in Nazareth. The event described here may not have taken place until a year later. One suggestion (NIV Bible) is that all that is described in John’s gospel between 1:19 to 4:42 took place between the temptation in the desert and the moving north to Galilee (verses.13 and 14).

But Luke has arranged the structure of his gospel so that Jesus will begin his public life in Nazareth and will gradually proceed southwards towards his goal, Jerusalem, without turning back. In the other Synoptics he moves around Galilee in all directions and John suggests that he made a number of visits to Jerusalem during his public life.

The Jerusalem Bible suggests that our passage today actually combines three distinct parts:

the first, verses 16-22 (Jesus is honoured), occurring at the time indicated by Matthew 4:13;
the second, verses 23-24 (Jesus astonishing his audience), the visit of which Matthew and Mark speak;
the third, verses 25-30 (the life of Jesus threatened), not mentioned by Matthew or Mark and to be placed towards the end of the Galilean ministry.

In this way Luke presents an introductory tableau which is a summary and symbol of Christ’s great offer and of its contemptuous rejection by his own people.

As the reading opens we find Jesus in the town synagogue. It is a sabbath day. He gets up to read the scripture and comments on it. The ruler of the synagogue could authorise any adult Jew to read the scripture lesson. The passage he reads is full of significance. It comes from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus’ reading of it amounts to a manifesto or what we might call today a “mission statement”. ‘Books’ in those days were in the form of scrolls and the Scriptures were kept in a special place in the synagogue and given to the reader by an attendant. Jesus may have chosen the passage himself or it may have been assigned for that day.

But it is more than just a mission statement. As he reads it becomes clear that the whole statement is about Jesus himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This has already been confirmed during his baptism in the river Jordan when “the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove” and a voice was heard to say, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

“Because he has anointed me.” In saying this Jesus is making an unequivocal claim to be the Messiah or the Christ, the long-awaited liberating King of Israel. The word “Messiah”, translated into Greek as Christos, means someone who is anointed with oil. (We call the oil in baptism and confirmation ‘chrism’.) And a person was made king by having oil poured over his head. (We remember how David was anointed king.) Jesus, of course, was not literally anointed but had been figuratively ‘anointed’ by the coming of the Spirit on him in his baptism. ‘Anointing’ is our equivalent of ‘coronation’, symbolised by the putting of a crown on the new king.

Then comes the mission of this King:

To preach the gospel to the poor,
to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are hurt
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

There is nothing here of restoring the glories of Israel, nothing about conquering enemies and laying waste their lands. No, it is about letting the poor of this world hear the Good News of God’s love for them. It is about healing and reconciliation. It is about liberating those who are tied down by any form of enslavement. It is about helping people to see clearly the true meaning of life. It is about restoring wholeness to people’s lives and to societies. It is about the inauguration of the Kingdom by its King.

It is, in short, the whole picture of Jesus that will unfold in the pages of Luke, a gospel which focuses on the poor and vulnerable, a gospel of tenderness and compassion, a gospel of the Spirit and of joy, a gospel of prayer and healing.

It is about “proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord”. This refers to the Messianic age when salvation would be proclaimed. Isaiah in the original text is alluding to the Year of Jubilee, when every 50 years slaves were set free, debts were cancelled and ancestral lands were returned to the original family. Isaiah was thinking mainly of freedom from Babylonian captivity but Jesus was speaking of liberation across the board of human living.

And, as he finished the reading, Jesus put down the scroll and said that these things were now being fulfilled as they were hearing them.

And the townspeople who thought they knew him so well were overawed by the wisdom with which he spoke. This positive reaction to Jesus is a favourite theme in Luke. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they asked rhetorically. But they were wrong. He was not Joseph’s son; he was the son of Mary and of the Father, the divine Word sharing our ‘flesh’. (As suggested above, this event may have occurred on a second visit.)

And this in turn leads us to the third section of the reading which provides an unexpected turn of events and is more in harmony with the later part of Jesus’ public life. Jesus’ hearers were surprised at the way he spoke but they were not moved to change. After all, he was just the son of Joseph, and someone they knew so well could have nothing to say to them. At the same time Jesus says they, his own townspeople, must be wondering why he is not doing the things in Nazareth that he was doing in places like Capernaum.

Capernaum, apparently a sizeable town, was where Peter lived and Jesus made his house the centre out of which he did his missionary work in Galilee. A 5th century basilica now stands on the supposed site of the house and there is a 4th century synagogue quite near.

The reason for their non-acceptance is that they do not really accept him for what he is. He reminds them that prophets are seldom accepted in their own place. Familiarity blinds people to their message. “I know who he is and he has nothing to say to me.” Jesus then gives two rather provocative examples:

During a great famine in the time of the prophet Elijah he was sent to help not his fellow Israelites but a poor widow in Sarepta, near Sidon in non-Jewish territory. Sidon was one of the oldest Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast and about 33 kilometers north of Tyre. Later, Jesus would heal the daughter of a Gentile woman here.

And in the time of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel but he was sent to cure Naaman, a Gentile general from Syria.

God reaching out to Gentiles through his prophets sets the stage for the Gentiles to receive the message of the Prophet Jesus, which is so much a theme of Luke’s writings. But these remarks so angered the people of Nazareth that they dragged Jesus to the brow of a hill with the intention of throwing him down but he just walked through them. Whether he did this miraculously or from the sheer power of his personality is not clear. In any case, his time had not yet come.

Prophetic voices being rejected by their own is a phenomenon only too common in our own day. And it was something Jesus foretold would happen to his followers, simply for being his followers and proclaiming his vision of life. In the meantime, let us make Jesus’ mission statement our own. It is what being a Christian means.*

The Irish Jesuits

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Conduct Your Affairs With Humility, And You Will Find Favor With God.

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Psalm 68
God, in your goodness,
you have made a home for the poor.
The just rejoice and exult before God;
they are glad and rejoice.
Sing to God, chant praise to his name;
whose name is the LORD.
God, in your goodness,
you have made a home for the poor.
The father of orphans and the defender of widows
is God in his holy dwelling.
God gives a home to the forsaken;
he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.
God, in your goodness,
you have made a home for the poor.
A bountiful rain you showered down,
O God, upon your inheritance;
you restored the land when it languished;
your flock settled in it;
in your goodness, O God,
you provided it for the needy.
God, in your goodness,
you have made a home for the poor.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Reading II
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a
Brothers and sisters:
You have not approached
that which could be touched
and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness
and storm and a trumpet blast
and a voice speaking words
such that those who heard
begged that no message
be further addressed to them.
No, you have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God,
the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood
that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.

He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing
the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone
to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you
may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you
may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed
with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem
of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him,
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back
and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be
because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid
at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Those who assembled the Readings for Ordinary Time worked to match the first reading each Sunday to the Sunday Gospel, often to prepare the way for our hearing the Gospel. We can read the proverbs in this Sunday's reading from the Book of Sirach to help us hear the proverbs Jesus will offer the guests and the host at the dinner party portrayed in today's Gospel.

It is common in the Wisdom literature to praise humility. In fact, humility is one of the most valued qualities in our day in a friend, a spouse, a leader. We admire that rare, special quality of humility some people have. We find "know-it-all" characters, people who seem to talk down to everyone, or any form of arrogance quite unattractive. We all see in our everyday experience that a lack of humility is a key component in the breakdown of many relationships and the tragic downfall of many entertainment, sports, business, professional and political leaders. Upon reflection, we realize that humility rarely just comes naturally. It is often born and nurtured in an environment of faith and respect for others, and, quite often, it has come from some suffering. The word "humility" has its root in the Latin word "humus," which means "soil" or "earth." From this root meaning, "humility" gets its connotations of lowly or close to the earth, modest, rooted in reality, comfortable just being oneself. Quite literally, a humble person, like soil, has gone through a process which has involved some dying and transformation - a loss of ego and self-centered energy - and has grown to become a marvelously nurturing, for-others type of person.

Jesus looks around at this dinner party he's attending and observes guests jockeying for postion, "choosing the places of honor at the table." Jesus appeals to their own motivation and offers them a reflection on a very uncomfortable scenario. They could find themselves humiliated, quite humbled, if they had to take a lower postion at table because a highly honored person might arrive and be invited to take the place they had taken out of a lack of humility. The lesson: If we exalt (or falsely raise up) ourselves, we'll surely be humbled (or brought back down to earth). If, instead, we humble ourselves (or take our real position), then we will more likely be exalted (or recognized for our humility). For Jesus, the path to becoming humble is simple: act humbly. In relation to others, take the lower place. We can all try it out this week and discover many circumstances where it is so true, so helpful. We can practice being more humble with the primary relationships of our life - the people with whom we live - and then with the people with whom we work, and finally, in how we regard everyone with whom we interact.

The teaching of Jesus often takes a more serious turn, right near the end, and he delivers a message for us to chew on for some time. He offers us yet another path to life - to being his disciple and coming to the rewards of eternal life. Jesus addresses the host of this dinner party: "do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors." Why not? Shouldn't the host be free to invite whomever she or he wants and enjoy the "payback" that will surely come from inviting these kinds of guests? Of course, Jesus affirms that there will be a repayment for this kind of inviting. But, Jesus calls us - as the guests he has invited to be his disciples - to a different level of inviting, a different level of association.

"Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be
because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid
at the resurrection of the righteous."

Here's the heart of the Gospel for us. This is "great news" for us and our mission for living as his companions in a life of service for others. This is way beyond dinner inviting suggestions. Jesus is offering us communion with him in his mission, his mission from the Father. He is guiding all our choices, our very way of life, so that we include those he includes, we embrace those he embraces, we advocate for those he advocates for and we let ourselves be broken and given, as food, as banquet, for all those to whom he gives himself. And, he promises us that this communion with his very heart "will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Lord, as you help us be more humble each day this week, help us hear, to see those who are without, those who are wounded or broken, those who are blocked or afraid, those who are caught in unjust structures. And bless us all as a community of your followers until we can say together, "Of course, we must invite these to share in the table of blessings you have prepared for all your children, until no one is hungry or left out, persecuted or sick without care, until all human life is treated with respect and the sacred dignity you give to every person."

Andy Alexander, S.J.
Daily Reflection
Creighton University's Online Ministries

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Eyes Of The LORD Are Upon Those Who Fear Him, And Hope For His Kindness.

Memorial of Saint Augustine,
bishop and doctor of the Church
Reading I
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world
to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world
to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
as well as righteousness, sanctification,
and redemption,
so that, as it is written,
Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.
Today’s reading picks up from yesterday’s discussion about true wisdom in relation to the Cross of Christ and applies it to the Christian disciples of Corinth.

As a clear example and proof of the power of Christ’s weakness, Paul cites the Corinthian Christians themselves. They are living proof that salvation does not depend on merely human resources. If they experience salvation, the credit must go completely to the Lord.

Most of the early Christian converts did not come from the class of intellectuals, from the politically influential or from aristocratic families. By the standards of the world, they were not considered among the more intellectually gifted. This only emphasises the power of Christ’s message which the powerful were not able to overturn - and still cannot overturn.

God has called not the wise and the rich and the powerful to build his Kingdom but the poorly educated and the economically weak. He has chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. He has chosen “those who are nothing at all show up those who are everything”, Paul tells the Corinthians.

This does two things: it proves that the deeper wisdom is in the Way of Christ, while at the same time what the Christians do achieve is the work of God in them and not something they can personally boast about. “It is due to God that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God.” To recognise that wisdom we need the inspiration of God through his Spirit. These Christians, low down in the social scale, are the evidence of God’s power and greatness. God has become their wisdom, their virtue, their holiness and their freedom.

Later on, the might of kings and governments and “wise men” will be thrown against them but they will have a power within them that cannot be overcome. This has happened again and again down to our own day. Within our own lifetime, regimes have tried to obliterate the Christian way and have failed.

The committed Christian is possessed of a vision of life that opponents do not understand. It is a vision based on the search for truth and love and justice as the only weapons of power. Equipped with such transcendent weapons which originate in God they cannot but win out in the end.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 33
Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Blessed the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
From heaven the LORD looks down;
he sees all mankind.
Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
But see, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield,
For in him our hearts rejoice;
in his holy name we trust.
Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man going on a journey
called in his servants
and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents;
to another, two;
to a third, one–
to each according to his ability.
Then he went away.
Immediately the one who received five talents
went and traded with them,
and made another five.
Likewise, the one who received two
made another two.
But the man who received one
went off and dug a hole in the ground
and buried his master’s money.
After a long time
the master of those servants came back
and settled accounts with them.
The one who had received five talents
came forward bringing the additional five.
He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’
His master said to him,
‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received two talents
also came forward and said,
‘Master, you gave me two talents.
See, I have made two more.’
His master said to him,
‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received the one talent
came forward and said,
‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person,
harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off
and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply,
‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then
have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back
with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him
and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant
into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”
Eschatological discourse (concluded)

Today is our final reading from Matthew’s gospel and on Monday we will begin the reading of Luke’s gospel. Today also is also our last reading from the fifth and final discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

There are two great passages left – the parable of the talents and the description of the last judgement – but we will only be taking the first of these. Both deal with the final judgment and, like the parable of the bridesmaids, are warnings on how we are to prepare.

The parable speaks of an employer who, before he set off on a journey, entrusted his servants with large sums of money. He gave them different amounts according to their ability. One got five talents, one two and the third just one. A ‘talent’ was an enormous amount of money in the ancient world, so five talents was a veritable fortune. Originally, the term stood for a unit of weight, about 75 pounds or 30-something kilos and later for a unit of coinage, the value depending on the metal used. Actually, the current meaning of ‘talent’ comes from this parable.

The amount given out indicates the generosity of the employer. But the money was not for their own personal enjoyment. It was meant to be used productively.

The first two both traded actively with the money they had been given and doubled their original capital. The third man, however, buried his money in the ground (the most secure place in a pre-banking society).

When the employer came back, the first two presented their accounts. The employer was very pleased and they were entrusted with even more. To each he said, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”

Then the third man came along with his one talent. He had not traded with it because he was afraid he would lose his money. “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid… Here is your talent, have it back.” Ironically, he was the one who was given the least and from whom the least was expected. But even that little he failed to produce. Perhaps he even expected to be praised for his prudence.

The employer does not deny the charge of being a hard man, but he accuses the man of not having done even the least thing to increase his capital. He could have deposited or lent the money and got some interest. But he had absolutely nothing to show of his own.

The money is taken from him and given to the one who had five talents. Surprising? Unfair? Not really. This man had already shown he was a very good investment. And Jesus sums up: “To everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The word ‘talent’ which in biblical times referred to a huge amount of money now denotes a particular gift or ability with which a person is endowed. “He has a great talent for music; she has a great talent for design.” In that sense, we have all been endowed with talents in varying degrees or, to use a word which Paul prefers, ‘charisms’. In either case they indicate some distinctive ability which is to a large extent innate or God-given.

Everyone of us has been endowed in some way. And, as in the parable, some are greatly endowed and others less so. All that is asked is that we make use of that gift or those gifts to the best of our ability and not for ourselves alone (that is to bury them in the ground) but to build up the kingdom and make a positive contribution to the community to which we belong.

At the end we will be asked, as the men in the parable were, “How did you use the gifts I gave you and how productive were they in furthering the growth of the Kingdom?”

Today then is a day for us to identify what those gifts actually are. It is possible that some people have never given it much thought. They see their Christian life in rather passive terms, just looking after themselves, living in conformity to the commandments of God and the Church, fulfilling their ‘religious duties’, making sure to die “in the state of grace”. This, in effect, is to bury one’s talents.

Today’s gospel makes it very clear that far more is expected of us. We are expected to make an active and positive contribution to the work of the Kingdom and of the Christian community as the Body of Christ. In practice, that means taking an active part in our Church, in our parish and in making a contribution to the betterment of our society. So, it is very important for us to spend some time in reflecting on what are my unique ‘talents’ or gifts or abilities and then to ask how and to what end I am using them?

And the time to do that is today because, as we have been amply warned, we do not know when our ‘employer’ is coming back to check his accounts with us.

The end of today’s passage indicates that if we do not move forward, or are not productive, then we go backwards. We cannot remain static or purely passive in God’s service. To do nothing is not a possible option. The more we give and share with others from the resources we have the more we are personally enriched; on the other hand, to cling to our gifts and keep them just for ourselves is to become smaller in every way.*
St Augustine, Bishop and Doctor

Augustine was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), then a Roman city in North Africa. His mother, Monica, was a Berber and a devout Christian and his father, Patricius, a pagan. He was brought up as a Christian but not baptised. He studied rhetoric at the university in Carthage with the intention of becoming a lawyer. However, he gave up this idea and instead went into teaching and study. His study of philosophy, mostly of Plato, and later of Manichaeism over a period of nine years resulted in his effectively abandoning the Christian faith of his mother. Over a period of 15 years he lived with a mistress by whom he had a son, named Adeodatus (meaning, ‘a gift of God’). He left Africa and moved to Rome to teach rhetoric and later to Milan where he got a very prestigious professorship. It was at this point that he began to become disillusioned with Manichaeism and became interested in Neo-Platonism. He also came under the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. In the year 386, he was greatly inspired by reading the life of St Anthony, a desert Father. There is also the famous story of his hearing the voice of an unseen child, while sitting in his garden in Milan. The voice kept chanting, ‘Tolle, lege’ (‘Take and read’). He opened his Bible at random and the text he found happened to be from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (13:13-14). Augustine decided to give up his promising career, give up the idea of marriage, and become a Christian and a celibate priest. After a long interior conflict, which he graphically describes in his Confessions, Augustine was finally converted. Together with his son, Adeodatus, he was baptised by Ambrose at the Easter Vigil of 387 in Milan.

In 388, he returned to Africa, sold off his inheritance and gave it to the poor. He then set up a kind of monastery in his house. In 391 he was ordained a priest and, four years later, became coadjutor-bishop of Hippo. From 396, he was the sole bishop in the diocese. He left his monastery but continued to lead a monastic life in his bishop’s residence. He left a rule of life which was later adopted by what is known today as the Order of St Augustine (OSA). Augustine’s intellectual brilliance, broad education, passionate temperament, and deep mystical insight resulted in a personality of very special, if not unique, quality. His interpretation of Christian revelation revealed in his many writings probably has had more influence on Christian thinking than anyone since St Paul. Among his most famous works are his Confessions, Sermons on the Gospel and Letters of John, a treatise on the Trinity and, at the end of his life, his De Civitate Dei (The City of God). This last work deals with the opposition between Christianity and the ‘world’, occasioned by the invasions of the north European tribes and the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is regarded as the first Christian philosophy of history. Many other works were responses to controversies with Manicheans, Pelagians, or Donatists and led to the development of his thought on the Church, the Sacraments, and Grace. Few, if any, Christian writers have written with such depth on love (caritas) and on the Trinity.

While Augustine’s great influence on Christian thought has been mainly positive, his teaching on Predestination has come in for criticism. Perhaps due to his Manichean background which he never fully shook off and guilt about his own immoral past, he became almost obsessive about sin and evil. He would condemn unbaptised children and others to eternal damnation. He has also been criticised for his teaching on sex and marriage. Even sex within marriage was seen as a necessary evil and never completely without sin. At the same time he did emphasise, against the Manichaeans, the threefold good of marriage – family, sacrament and fidelity. Later Christian tradition also set aside his view that Original Sin is transmitted through sexual intercourse or that intercourse is tolerated only with the intention of having a child. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that, in a marriage, sexual intercourse is an important expression of love and union.

As a bishop, Augustine lived with his clergy a community life and was actively engaged in church administration, the care of the poor, preaching and writing and even acting as judge in civil as well as ecclesiastical cases. As bishop, he was an upholder of order in a time of political strife caused by the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

He died at Hippo on 28 August 430. At the time of his death, the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo. The cult of Augustine began very soon after his death and was widespread. His relics were first taken to Sardinia. Later Liutprand, king of the Lombards, enshrined his body at Pavia. He is usually depicted in episcopal vestments with pastoral staff but later artists also showed him with the emblem of a heart of fire.*

The Irish Jesuits

Friday, August 27, 2010

God's Foolishness Is Wiser Than Human Wisdom; God's Weakness, Stronger Than Human Strength.

Memorial of Saint Monica
Reading I
1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Brothers and sisters:
Christ did not send me to baptize
but to preach the Gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ
might not be emptied of its meaning.

The message of the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved
it is the power of God.
For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the learning of the learned I will set aside.

Where is the wise one?
Where is the scribe?
Where is the debater of this age?
Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?
For since in the wisdom of God
the world did not come to know God through wisdom,
it was the will of God
through the foolishness of the proclamation
to save those who have faith.
For Jews demand signs
and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called,
Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God
and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength.
The distinction between true and false wisdom.

In this reading Paul presents us with one of the most central concepts of his teaching and indeed of our Christian faith. He begins by saying that Christ had not sent him to baptise. In so speaking, he is not in any way minimising baptism. What he is asserting that his special calling was to proclaim the Gospel. It was for others to establish Christian communities after he had gone to preach the Message in another mission field. Peter, too, asked others to baptise the Gentile Cornelius and his household after they were received into the community (Acts 10:48).

Today’s passage focuses on the essence of our faith, which transcends all human divisions - a message just as relevant now as it was then. What he says arises out his displeasure with factions which were forming in the Corinthian communities. Some saying they were for Paul, others for Apollos, or Cephas (Peter), or even Christ. Paul emphasises that they are all, whoever baptised them, one in Christ. It was Christ and Christ alone who died for them and saved them. Paul’s particular role or charism was to proclaim the Gospel mainly to new communities; he was a founder of churches and communities and so he kept moving from place to place. The other church ministries were left to others to carry out. It is a good example of the diversity of gifts which he will speak about later on.

Further, his role was to preach the Cross of Christ but not with an orator’s eloquence which might rob the Cross of its real power. Oratory was a highly esteemed talent in those days, especially among the Greeks and Romans, but Paul makes no claim to it and for that he is glad. Paul’s mission was not to couch the Gospel in the language of the trained orator, who had studied the techniques of influencing people by persuasive arguments. What Paul shares is not human wisdom but the wisdom of God. The strength of the message is not in how it is delivered but in its content.

The Cross will speak for itself and does not need the persuasive language of the orator. The message of the Cross is unique. It requires a special kind of insight to see its meaning and its wisdom, which is itself a gift from God.

For those who are not on God’s wavelength, it makes no sense but for those who are it speaks of God’s power, above all, the power of love.

Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah (29:14) in which God says he will bring the wisdom of the wise to nothing. This was originally said in the context of the people of Judah and Jerusalem who thought it was an astute thing to do to make an alliance with Egypt and thus turn away the threats of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king. God had other plans to deal with him, plans which the “wise” never dreamt of. In fact, Sennacherib was forced to withdraw from the gates of the city when his army was unexpectedly decimated by a kind of plague.

And where are the wise men now - all those pagan philosophers, including those Paul met in Athens and who laughed at his message? asks Paul. Perhaps Paul knew of the remark of Aristides who said that on every street in Corinth one met a so-called wise man, who had his own solutions to all the world’s problems. (We still have them in our newspapers every day!) Where, asks Paul, are the experts in the Mosaic Law? Where are the “debaters of this age”, those Greek sophists who loved to engage in long and subtle disputes?

Has not God - in Christ - made the wisdom of the world look foolish? Faced with the mystery of the Cross such people have nothing to say.

In a beautifully paradoxical statement (worthy of an orator!) he says: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

Not, of course, that their preaching is foolish but the message of Christ crucified is viewed by the world as foolish. Jesus said something similar: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike” (Luke 10:21).

And so, the Jews are demanding miracles and signs as proofs of God’s saving power among them. Several times in the Gospel Jesus was asked for a ‘sign’ to prove his credentials, even though his whole public life was a succession of signs which the ordinary people frequently recognised. The Greeks, on the other hand, indulged in endless philosophising about ‘truth‘ and ‘wisdom’ without ever coming to grips with the realities of life.

The Cross is on a completely different level. It does not require great intelligence and learning to be understood. It can be grasped by the totally illiterate person. It is not a message of intellectual depth but a witness to immeasurable love. It can only be accessed by faith and trust.

Paul and his companions are proclaiming a crucified Lord, a message of power shining through total impotence and apparent failure. On the face of it, it is a total contradiction, except to those who can see its inner meaning.

No wonder it is a 'scandal', an insuperable obstacle for those Jews who were waiting for an altogether different Messiah. They expected a triumphant, political Messiah, not a crucified one.

Even Jesus’ disciples had this expectation. On the day of the Ascension, they asked him: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The answer, of course, was “Yes” but not in the way they were thinking. Similarly, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus said to the stranger who walked along with them: “We were hoping he [Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). It was only after Jesus had explained the Scriptures to them that they realised the real truth behind their question.

And to the Gentiles it made no sense whatever. How could a crucified criminal be proclaimed as the world’s Saviour? Greeks and Romans were sure no reputable person would ever be crucified, so it was unthinkable that a crucified criminal could be the Saviour.

However, for those who have received the call, be they Jews or Greeks, Jesus on the cross speaks eloquently of the power and wisdom of God. The crucified Christ is the power that saves and the wisdom that transforms apparent folly into ultimate and highest discernment.

And Paul finishes with a memorable and much-quoted statement: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Today the Cross is still seen as a stumbling block and as nonsense by those who only see the external image. In a world dedicated to acquisition, power and success, it gives a totally unacceptable message. Jesus is seen as a soppy wimp.

The power of the Cross, the power of active non-violence is not understood and the followers of Jesus are ridiculed and deemed irrelevant. As Christians living in this world, we are probably often caught in the middle. We are carried along by the power-success dream and at the same time would like to be able to make the weakness-failure Way of Christ ours too.

What we need is to be able to see clearly that the real power and wisdom is with Jesus’ way and that the way of the world ultimately leads only to nothingness.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 33
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Give thanks to the LORD on the harp;
with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
For upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
The LORD brings to nought the plans of nations;
he foils the designs of peoples.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever;
the design of his heart, through all generations.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The Kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps
and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied,
‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready
went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Eschatological discourse (continued)

The second chapter of this discourse consists of three long parables, with all of which we are familiar. They all have the common theme of preparation for the final coming of the Lord whenever that will be.

Today’s reading is the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids, literally, ‘virgins’. The story reflects common wedding customs of the time. The bridesmaids who attend on the bride are waiting for the bridegroom to come. The time of his arrival is not known. Perhaps it is his way of asserting his male authority from the very beginning of their marriage! (Just as today it is the bride who asserts her last moments of freedom by coming late!)

In the story there are 10 bridesmaids altogether. Of these we are told five were “sensible” and the others were “foolish”. The sensible girls all brought an extra supply of oil with them while the foolish ones only had their lamps. The lamps consisted of oil-soaked rags at the top of a pole and needed to have oil added every 15 minutes or so.

The bridegroom was long in coming. The implication is that he was taking much longer than expected. In fact, he was so long in coming that the girls all fell asleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the call went up: “The bridegroom is on his way! Go out to meet him!”

Immediately the girls got ready and trimmed their torches. The charred edges had to be cut away and the rags soaked in more oil. The foolish ones immediately realised they were running out of oil; quite a lot was needed for this kind of torch. They ask their companions to share some of their oil. These refused on the grounds that there was not enough to go round and none of them would have enough. The foolish ones were told to go off and buy some more for themselves.

However, while they were still away, the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went into the marriage celebration with him and the doors were shut. When the foolish girls finally arrived with their new supply of oil, they found the doors closed in their face. They cried out: “Lord, Lord, open to us!” But the bridegroom answered: “I do not know you.”

Again this is a parable warning us all to be ready when the Lord comes. In the early Church, he had at first been expected to come in the very lifetime of the early Christians. This belief is reflected in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (which is read at this time in Year I) and which is the earliest writing of the New Testament.

But Jesus did not come and, by the time Matthew’s gospel appeared, people were beginning to realise that his coming could be in a more distant future. It is in this context that today’s parable gives a warning. If the Lord was not going to come soon, then some people might begin to take things easy and become lax in their living of the Gospel. Today’s passage suggests that that is not a very wise way of behaving.

The bridegroom may not have come when expected but he did come. And, when he came, half of the group were not ready. In other places, Jesus has warned that we do not know the day or the hour, for he will come like a thief in the night. The only policy is constant readiness. If we are not ready and he does come, then we may find the doors closed and hear what are perhaps the most chilling words in the whole Gospel: “I do not know you.”

In John’s gospel Jesus says that, as the Shepherd, he knows his sheep and they know him. Not to be known by Jesus means to have broken our relationship with him through sinful and loveless behaviour. To be in that state when he comes is truly tragic. The choice is ours; we have been given adequate warning.

While the Gospel is speaking about the final or eschatological coming of Jesus as King and Lord, it would be very complacent of us to think that there are no signs of it happening in the near future. That would put us in the same category as the foolish bridesmaids! While the final coming may still be far off, our own rendezvous with the Lord can be at any time. For all practical purposes, that is the time we have to prepare for.

Just yesterday our newspapers in the city where I am writing this reported an unmarked police car going out of control in a crowded downtown area, killing two people and seriously injuring others. You or I could have been one of those victims, young and in perfect health with a whole life before us. But the Lord called.

If it had been me, would I have had “oil in my lamp”? That is, what would I be able to show the Lord in terms of Gospel-centred living? Maybe we think the “sensible” girls in the story were selfish not to have shared their oil, but there are some things which we have to bring to the Lord on our own. We cannot borrow the good life that someone else has led. It is has to be totally ours.

Clearly, the best way to prepare is not to think anxiously of the future but to concentrate on the here and now. Let us learn to live totally in the present, to seek and find God there. If we can do that, then all the rest will take care of itself. And, whether the Groom arrives early or late, it will not matter. Because he has been constantly part of my everyday life. And, apart from the insurance that it gives, is it not by far the best way to spend our days?*
Saint Monica

Monica was of Berber descent. She was born in 332 at Tagaste (located in modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her parents brought her up as Christian and married her to an older, pagan man named Patricius. He was a man of great energy but also had a violent temper and sexually promiscuous. However, their son Augustine reports that, although domestic abuse was common at the time, because of Monica’s submission to her husband, he never beat her. Her almsgiving and habit of prayer irritated him yet led him to respect her. It was said that by her sweetness and patience, she was able to exercise a good influence among other abused wives and mothers. They knew she suffered as they did and so were moved by her example.

Monica was very devout and attended church daily which helped her cultivate the virtue of patience. She would say to other women who had difficult marriages, “If you can master your tongue, not only do you run less risk of being beaten, but perhaps you may even, one day, make your husband better." And, in fact, she won over her mother-in-law in a short time. She also converted her pagan husband to Christianity and calmed his violent tendencies.

Monica and Patritius bore three children: Augustine the eldest, Navigius the second, and a daughter, Perpetua. Augustine made her happy because of his successes as a scholar and teacher but she was also ashamed of his debauched lifestyle. Augustine lived for 10 years with his mistress and also became a Manichaean. Although Monica asked a bishop to convince Augustine of his errors, he was not able to change the young man. He told the mother to keep praying for her son. He told her, “It is impossible that the son of so many tears should perish.”

When Patricius died, Monica went to Italy to join her son. He had been in Rome but when she arrived he had already gone to Milan so she followed him there. Through St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, she had the joy of seeing Augustine aged 28 converted after 17 years of her prayers. Mother and son spent six months at Cassiacum, after which Augustine was baptised in the church of St John the Baptist in Milan. They then decided to return to Africa, stopping at Civita Vecchia and Ostia. It was here that Monica died. The year was 387 and she was 56 years old. Her last words to her son were: “There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life and that was that I might see you a Christian before I died. My God hath answered this more than abundantly, so that I see you now his servant spurning all earthly happiness. What more have I to do here?” 

After her death, her son wrote extensively of her virtues and his life with her in his Confessions.

Her relics were later removed from Ostia to the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome.

As part of the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, Monica’s feast was moved to August 27, the day before the feast of her son Saint Augustine.

Saint Monica is the Patron Saint of patience, wives, mothers, and victims of abuse.*

The Irish Jesuits

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Be Prepared, For You Do Not Know The Day Or The Hour When The Lord Will Come.

Thursday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus
by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the Church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified
in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always on your account
for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,
that in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,
as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful, and by him you were called
to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today we begin reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Christians in the southern Greek city of Corinth. Paul had gone there after his dismal failure with the sophisticated citizens of Athens. Here, in a city of very mixed population and with not a terribly good reputation for its morals, he did very much better. This letter is one of the most important documents of the New Testament and contains some of Paul’s most central teaching. So we will be staying with this letter up to the end of Week 24 – three and a half weeks altogether.

As is usual in letters of the period, Paul begins by identifying himself and numbers himself among the apostles called by God. In its original meaning ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent on a mission or with a message to communicate’. In the New Testament the word can be use in a general sense about someone who is sent on a mission . More particularly it is used of the Twelve we meet in the gospels but was also applied later to Paul (who calls himself “the least of the Apostles”). The title is also sometimes given to a wider group including Barnabas, James “the brother of the Lord” and possibly Andronicus and Junias, whom we meet in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul uses the title of himself in most of his letters to affirm his authority as a messenger of Christ, an authority that was sometimes challenged. He reinforces his claim here by adding “by the will of God”. In other words, he is not self-appointed.

The greeting also contains the name of Sosthenes, who may possibly be the synagogue ruler who was attacked by his fellow-Jews in Corinth when their complaint against Paul was rejected by Gallio, the pro-consul of the local province of Achaia. (The story occurs in Acts 18 and also in the First Reading of Friday in the 6th week of Easter.) If it is the same person, then he must have become a Christian either while Paul was preaching in Corinth or during the ministry of Apollos.

Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God in Corinth”. “Church of God” is one of his favourite expressions and used only by him. It refers to the community of Christians gathered together, often in one of their homes. Its Old Testament counterpart is “assembly (or community) of the Lord”. At this stage there is no formal building or institutional structure.

He also calls them a people “sanctified”, made holy in Christ. This refers not so much to their behaviour – for, as Paul will not hesitate to point out, they had many faults – but because they had been called, with Christians in other churches, to be a people set apart, distinguished by their commitment to the Way of Christ. The word hagios, translated ‘holy’, means ‘set apart’ and the “saints” is a term used of all Christians in Paul’s letters and not just those outstanding in virtue.

The opening greeting ends with a blessing and prayer for the “grace and peace” of God the Father and the Lord Jesus, a greeting we now use in our Eucharistic liturgy.

“Grace” in Greek is charis and implies God’s love given gratuitously and not because it is deserved. No matter how good we are, God is never indebted to us. The first initiative of love always comes from God, never from us nor can we ever do anything to earn it. It is always there first waiting to be accepted by us.

The letter now properly begins with Paul uttering words of thanks for all the testimonies of God’s love, his “grace”, that have been showered on the Corinthians in Christ Jesus. He is especially thankful for the gifts of “speech and knowledge”, exemplified in their preachers and teachers. These are special gifts of the Spirit (mentioned later on among other gifts). ‘Speech’ is the gift of being able to proclaim the Gospel effectively. ‘Knowledge’ implies a deep understanding of the Gospel message and not just facts about the message.

The “witness to Christ”, which Paul gave to them, has not been at all in vain; on the contrary, it has clearly been confirmed by the gifts of the Spirit of Jesus which are evident among them. Those gifts of the Spirit enable them to serve the body of Christ, which is the Church, until the time when the Lord Jesus will be revealed at the end of time, the time of his final coming. Paul will speak at greater length about these gifts in chapters 12-14.

According to those chapters, a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit enabling one to minister to the needs of Christ’s body, the church. The gifts are not intended for oneself but to enable one to respond to the community’s needs. There are different gifts for different needs. (Notice that Jesus’ final coming is no longer seen as imminent, as in the Letter we read earlier in the week.)

They will need these gifts as they wait for the full revelation of Jesus Christ, when the hidden plans of God are to be made known. Then Christ will reveal himself at the end of time, the time of his parousia and his Appearing. Before this, the “Man of Sin” will have ‘revealed’ himself, only to be destroyed by Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8).

And it is God who will give them the help they need to remain “steady and without blame” until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” when he will return to take all his own to himself. By God calling them, they are united in a special way with Jesus Christ. (The ‘day of the Lord’ and its various forms was mentioned in our reading on Tuesday.)

And, he says in conclusion, “our God is faithful”. He is a God who always keeps his promises. His love is unchanging no matter what we may do. And he is the One who has called us into fellowship with him through Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord.

Paul will have many criticisms to make of the Corinthians in the course of his letter but for now he begins with words of thanks for all the genuine good that he sees among them.

We can so easily be aware of the shortcomings of individuals and groups inside and outside the Church and we are not slow to express our views when we get together with others to gossip. But it is important for us to be able to see the good in every person, in groups of people and even in ourselves.

Let us always begin by being thankful for our blessings, for all the good things that we see in ourselves and all those around us. It is sad when we are not able to give genuine words of praise and appreciation.

And let us especially today reflect on the graces that God has poured into our own lives. Let us, on the one hand, thank him sincerely for them and, on the other, ask ourselves how we have used them for his love and service and the love and service of our brothers and sisters. After all, that is why they were given to us in the first place. (We will see more about that later in this letter.)*
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Psalm 145
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Generation after generation praises your works
and proclaims your might.
They speak of the splendor of your glorious majesty
and tell of your wondrous works.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
They discourse of the power of your terrible deeds
and declare your greatness.
They publish the fame of your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your justice.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
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Matthew 24:42-51
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Stay awake!
For you do not know
on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house
had known the hour of night
when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.

“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant,
whom the master has put in charge of his household
to distribute to them their food at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant
whom his master on his arrival finds doing so.
Amen, I say to you,
he will put him in charge of all his property.
But if that wicked servant says to himself,
‘My master is long delayed,’
and begins to beat his fellow servants,
and eat and drink with drunkards,
the servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish him severely
and assign him a place with the hypocrites,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Eschatological discourse

We enter the final phase of our readings from Matthew which will conclude on Saturday of this week. We will see selected readings from chapters 24 and 25 which form what is called the “Eschatological Discourse”. This is the fifth and final discourse, each of which is a collection of the teachings of Jesus and which are a feature of Matthew’s gospel. This discourse is concerned with the end of all things and the second and final coming of Christ to bring all things together.

The earlier part of chapter 24 includes the foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which for the Jews of the time (including those who had converted to Christianity) must have seemed like the end of the world (just as, later on, the collapse of the Roman Empire seemed to be the end of the world for St Augustine of Hippo and his contemporaries).

The early Christians had expected to see the Second Coming in their lifetime and the sacking of Jerusalem and the sacrilegious destruction of the Temple must have seemed the certain signs of the eschaton. But, by the time Matthew’s gospel came into circulation, that was already at least 15 years in the past. The end, although certain to happen, did not seem any more quite so imminent.

Matthew includes as part of the discourse a number of parousia (final coming) parables. Following a pattern we have seen in other parts of this gospel, they are seven in number. We have two short ones in today’s reading. Both consist of an exhortation for readiness to welcome the final coming of the Lord.

In the first we should be as alert in watching for the coming of the Lord as a householder would be to prevent his house being broken into and robbed. Like a thief, Jesus will come when we least expect him.

In the second parable, Jesus compares us to a servant who has been put in charge of the house while the master is away. This may refer to the community leaders in Matthew’s church and, by extension, to leaders of communities everywhere. It will be well for that servant when the master unexpectedly returns and finds his servant diligently doing his job. Readiness is measured by people consistently carrying out their responsibilities. On the other hand, the servant may think that there is no sign of the master (who had been expected to come earlier) and goes about beating up the other servants and leading a debauched life. It will be too bad for that servant when the master does suddenly appear on the scene.

The lesson is clear. Many of the Christians, who had expected the Lord to come soon, now see no sign of him and begin to backslide in the living of their Christian faith. We can be tempted to do the same thing. “Let’s have a good (that is, a morally bad) time now and we can convert later.” It is not a very wise policy. In the long run, the really good life, that is, a life based on truth and integrity, on love and compassion and sharing, will always be better than one based on phoniness, on selfishness, greed, hedonism and immediate gratification of every pleasure.

And the conversion day may never come or the chance to turn back to him who is the Way, Truth and Life. The wisest ones are those who consistently try to seek and serve their Lord at every moment of every day. They find happiness now and Jesus will not be a stranger when he comes to call them to himself.

They are the ones who are both faithful and prudent.*

The Irish Jesuits

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blessed Are Those Who Fear The LORD, And Walk In His Ways!

Wednesday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, 16-18
We instruct you, brothers and sisters,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to shun any brother
who walks in a disorderly way
and not according to the tradition they received from us.
For you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery,
night and day we worked,
so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves
as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you
that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.

May the Lord of peace himself
give you peace at all times and in every way.
The Lord be with all of you.

This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s.
This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.
We have our final reading today from 2 Thessalonians. It is a short work with only three chapters. The teaching is a warning against people who do not work and do not pull their weight in the community.

It seems that this was partly related to the expectation of the Lord’s imminent second coming among the very early Christians. They believed that Jesus would return while they were still alive. As time passed, this belief receded and is reflected in the later books of the New Testament.

If the end of the world was so near, what was the point in killing oneself working? Paul will have none of that and Paul’s own behaviour is proposed as an example to follow.

Next to the question of the Second Coming, he pays more attention to this related issue than anything else. It seems to have worsened since the earlier letter. The Christians are even told to keep away from, to have nothing to do with those who will not work. The word Paul uses is strong, an authoritative word with a military ring about it. This would not imply a complete separation from people who were in effect brothers and sisters in Christ but rather a total refusal to identify with their behaviour. Idleness is sinful and disruptive but those guilty of it are still brothers. Such behaviour was not at all in accordance with the “traditions” that had been handed on to them.

Instead, they are called on to imitate Paul, to make him their model. The Jerusalem Bible comments:

By imitating Paul, Christians will be imitating Christ, who is himself the one that Paul is imitating. Christians must also imitate God, and they must imitate each other. Behind this community of life is the idea of a model of doctrine, that has been received by tradition. The leaders who transmit the doctrine must themselves be ‘models’, whose faith and life are to be imitated (edited).

The New International Version makes this comment:

The order in Christian imitation is:

(1) Believers in Macedonia and Achaia imitated the Thessalonians, just as the Thessalonians imitated the churches in Judea;

(2) the Thessalonians imitated Paul, just as the Corinthians did and just as all believers were to imitate their leaders;

(3) Paul imitated Christ as did the Thessalonians;

(4) all were to imitate God (edited).

In case of any misunderstanding, Paul spells out just what he means. Whenever he was with the Thessalonians, he always worked to support himself and even paid for the food that he was offered. To “eat…food” is a Hebraic term for ‘making a living’. Paul, of course, does not say he never accepted hospitality (in fact, he says below that it is the missionary’s right) but that he did not depend on others for his general living. He and his companions worked hard “in toil and drudgery” so as not to be a burden on any community. (We know from elsewhere that Paul was a tent-maker.)

They did this, not because they had no right to expect some material support from those to whom they were preaching, but because they wanted to set a good example which they expected the Thessalonians to follow.

It is another example of Paul setting aside a principle [in this case, the community’s duty to support the missionary] for something he believed was more important [that each one pull their weight in the community]. (Another example is his refraining from eating certain foods which the scrupulous might regard as “unclean” or in having Timothy, who had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, circumcised, even though he himself did not believe in the necessity of circumcision.)

Paul had even laid down a ruling with them that food was not to be given to those who refused to work. There was apparently a secular proverb in the form, “He who does not work does not eat”. Paul sets it down as a rule to be followed in the community. He clearly had no time for spongers and social parasites, however exalted their motives.

The reading ends with the final blessing of the letter, a prayer of blessing for peace “all the time and in every way”.

He then signs off in his own handwriting. Although he normally dictated his letters (there are hints his sight was poor – was this the “thorn in the flesh” he speaks about in 2 Corinthians 12?), he sometimes added a handwritten signature as a sign of the letter’s genuineness. Here he tells us that this practice was his distinguishing mark.

And, although he had had words of criticisms for his readers, he concludes with a typical prayer that the loving grace of the Lord Jesus be with them all.

We could perhaps reflect today on our attitudes towards work. On the one hand, there are the ‘workaholics’, those who are compulsive workers, irrespective of the need to do what they are doing or of the rewards it produces. There are others who work very hard simply to earn more and more, often way beyond the needs of a modestly decent standard of living.

In both cases, other personal, family and social needs are neglected and the individual him/herself can suffer. Paul clearly would not approve of this.

On the other hand, there are those who have a strong aversion to work and who will do all they can to live off others, whether that be their family, friends or the state. Such people can become experts at “milking” social welfare in its various forms. Paul would not approve of them either.

There are others who work hard and make significant contributions to society but whose work cannot always be quantified in monetary or economic terms. An obvious example is the full-time mother. The idea that mothers with young children should also be full-time salary earners or else that they should be paid for the work they do at home seems to confuse the idea that work is primarily for service and not for remuneration.

Many of those who work for churches or other social service organisations come in this category too. They all deserve that their needs (not necessarily all their ‘wants’) be provided by the wider community. Surely Paul would give his approval here.

So I need to look at my life and see whether, given my various resources, I make an appropriate contribution to my society:

       » Do I work too much?

       » Do I work enough?

       » Do I work as a service to others? Is that how I see the job or profession I am in?

       » Do I work only for the material reward?

       » Am I sufficiently and appropriately remunerated for the work I do?*
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Psalm 128
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
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Matthew 23:27-32
Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs,
which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones
and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You build the tombs of the prophets
and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’
Thus you bear witness against yourselves
that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
now fill up what your ancestors measured out!”
We come today to the last two of the seven ‘Woes’ which Jesus throws against pharisaism. Again it is an attack on hypocrisy and he gives two examples.

6. You are like whitewashed tombs… (verses 27-28)

On the one hand he compares the Pharisees to “whited sepulchres”, a phrase (like many others) that has found its way into everyday English through the King James version. In other words, they are like the tombs that people in Palestine could often see spotlessly clean in their whitewashed stones but which inside were full of the decaying and rotting bodies of the dead. One reason they were whitewashed was because a person who unwittingly stepped on a grave became ritually unclean. Whitewashing made them more visible, especially in the dark.

The Pharisees put on an external show of religious perfection down to the tiniest detail but inside their hearts and minds were full of pride and hatred and contempt for their fellow-men. It was epitomised in the story that Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers or even like this tax collector here,” was the sanctimonious prayer of the Pharisee. It was, of course, to some extent true but it closed his mind to a different kind of sin altogether - his pride and imagined self-sufficiency. As Jesus will say in another place, the greatest sin of the pharisaical is their sheer blindness, the inability to see themselves for what they really are.

This, I suppose, is the most dangerous sin of the pious in any age and yet the one least likely to be confessed and repented of. It can happen to any of us.

7. You build the sepulchres of the prophets… (verses 29-32)

Mention of tombs leads Jesus to comment on the Pharisees’ pride over the tombs they have built in memory of the prophets and other holy people. They congratulate themselves that, if they had been present, they would never have partaken in the actions which brought persecution and death to the prophets. Yet here is Jesus, the prophet of all prophets, whom they are preparing to kill. In the last verse of our reading, Jesus tells them to go ahead and complete the murdering of the prophets, referring to what is going to happen to himself. Another classic example of the blindness of the self-righteous.

The more committed we are to our Christian faith and to the behaviour that it expects, the greater the danger that we, too, can fall into the same trap and see ourselves on a higher level than others whose behaviour we deplore and perhaps even attack. Whole groups of such people have been appearing in recent years, people who claim to know the Church better than the Pope, who deplore the “heresies” of the Second Vatican Council, who close themselves off into elitist groups afraid of being contaminated not only by the “world” but even by other Catholics!*

The Irish Jesuits