Sunday, July 25, 2010

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Genesis 18: 20-32
Reading II. Colossians 2: 12-14
Gospel. Luke 11: 1-13 (ask and you will receive).

In last weeks readings the theme was hospitality. We saw that hospitality, one of the outstanding characteristic of the Jews of the Bible, derived from the example of their father, the patriarch Abraham. In today's first reading Abraham exhibits another quality that Jews and Christians have always prized. Persistence.

We have to remember that before the negotiating session in today's episode, the Lord had promised Abraham a reward for his faithfulness. Abraham's barren, elderly wife, Sara, would now have a son who would carry on his race forever. Even though he had been blessed in this manner, the Biblical account in Genesis depicts Abraham interceding with the Lord to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.

Despite the tragic ending of this story, it's hard not to see humor in today's reading. It seems a little like an Abbott and Costello routine where Abraham although in a humble way dares to lecture and influence his Lord. What nerve or chutzpah! He actually asks, "Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?" He finally gets the Lord to agree to save the cities if only ten innocent men are found there. Unfortunately, we know that not even one innocent person would be found.

However, the biblical author uses this form of humorous discourse not because he believed that the Lord of All required instruction, but because he wanted to show two things. First, that the Lord encourages us to be persistent, especially in prayer. Second, the presence of a few good men or women in a community could save the entire community.

In today's gospel reading St. Luke gives us a slightly different version of the "Our Father" or "Lord's Prayer," than the more familiar version in St. Matthew's Gospel. Now there were two famous prayers that every Jewish male was required to say each and every day in our Lord's time. Certainly a rabbi like Jesus would know them by heart. When one of the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He chose to boil down these prayers to their very basics.

Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.

We say this prayer so often that we hardly think of it. But let's reflect a moment on its meaning. First, the prayer is addressed to our Father in Heaven but the word that Jesus uses for father is the familiar, Abba, which means that God is as close to us as our own fathers. He is not distant or remote and we can feel free to address Him in as familiar a way as Abraham did in our first reading. The rest is just a series of petitions asking for our Father's assistance in getting through the daily struggle of life.

It's hard to believe that this short prayer is all we have to say. In another place Jesus cautioned against the multiplication of words in prayer. Keep it simple would appear to be His advice. Our Lord makes clear that persistence in prayer is more important than words.

And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.

We all recognize the importance of persistence in our daily lives. In business, especially in sales, there is no more important quality. In sports success is impossible without persistence. It's well known that great athletes, whatever their so-called natural ability, practice harder and longer than others. Basketball stars like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were noted for getting to the arena hours before their teammates for extended practice sessions. Constant repetition and drilling built muscle memory so that when the game was on the line, they would not have to think about what to do.

I remember hearing a talk by a great American Olympic gymnast, Peter Vidmar, on his own practice routine. He and a teammate in preparing for the Olympics would practice their routines for hours each and every day. At the end of each day's exhausting session, they never failed to go through one last routine no matter how tired they were. They would pretend that they were actually in the Olympic finals with the team title on the line, and that each of them would have to hit a perfect "10" to win the title for the USA. They went through that routine each and every day and wouldn't you know when they got to the Olympic finals, they found themselves in the same situation that they had practiced at home.

If athletes know the value of persistence, why don't we? Why do we think that we don't have to put the same effort into our spiritual lives that athletes do into their games. None of us has enough natural ability to get by in life without hard work and practice. When theologians speak about virtues like Faith, Hope, and Charity they are speaking about gifts of God that we have to work on each day until they become like habits. We have to develop spiritual muscle memory to deal with the tests that life will present.

In today's second reading St. Paul says that the same Father who raised Jesus from the dead has also raised us from the dead. All we have to do now is run the race to the end.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Genesis 18: 1-10a
Reading II. Colossians 1: 24-28
Gospel. Luke 10: 38-42 (Martha and Mary).

Hospitality was one of the marked characteristics of the people of the ancient world. To treat a guest well was a duty of honor, but to allow him to be insulted in one's house was a serious fault. To kill a guest was the most infamous of crimes. Perhaps the well known hospitality of the Jews of the Bible had its roots in the story of their father, Abraham, which we have today in our first reading from the Book of Genesis.

This story is set at the Terebinth of Mamre. A terebinth is a tree, and it seems as if Abraham and his family and his cowhands had camped by a whole grove of terebinths where grass and water would be plentiful. Right before the episode with the three visitors the Lord had appeared to Abraham and promised that he and his elderly wife, Sara, would conceive a son which would carry on his race forever. Now Abraham had had a child by one of his slaves, but Sara, his legitimate wife, had been unable to conceive. When Abraham hears this news his first reaction is to fall down laughing in disbelief since he and Sara are beyond child bearing age.

Now in our reading these three strangers come into town and Abraham rushes to offer them the traditional hospitality. He springs into action and involves his wife and servant in preparing food and drink for the visitors. Abraham waits on the men himself while Sara remains in the tent. Is this a breach of hospitality on her part? Could it be that like many wives she doesn't like the idea of waiting on every Tom, Dick, and Harry her husband brings home? Finally, our reading ends when one of the visitors tells Abraham that Sara will indeed have a son by next year. If our account had gone on a few more verses we would have found that when Abraham told Sara this news, she also broke out laughing in disbelief. Was that another breach of hospitality?

For the last few weeks our readings from St. Luke's gospel have given us a picture of Jesus travels on the road to Jerusalem. Chapter 10 of St. Luke's gospel seems to be all about hospitality. First, Jesus entered a Samaritan village but was refused hospitality. Then he sent 72 disciples out with instructions to expect hospitality wherever they went. Last week, he told the great story of the "Good Samaritan" who offered hospitality to the man who had been beaten and stripped by robbers. This week our Lord is welcomed at the home of the sisters, Martha and Mary.

The story of Martha and Mary is deservedly well-known. Theologians have discerned great significance in the roles of the two women. Mary is regarded especially in the Greek and Russian church as the symbol of the contemplative life. She has turned her back on the cares of the world, and seeks only to discover the word of God. Martha is the symbol of the active person who enters into life and seeks to do good works.

It is true that the world could not go on without Marthas. Many of the greatest saints had a lot of Martha in them. St. Teresa of Avila, a noted mystic of the 16th century, was also a skilled administrator and reformer of her religious order. In our own time Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose whole life was devoted to prayer, still ministered to the sick and dying with her own hands, and created the most successful religious order of the 20th century.

In fact, all of us, whether man or woman, are a lot like Martha. It is hard not to take her side against her sister. Who of us has not been at a family gathering where one member of the family seems to be doing all the work while the others sit around talking and having a good time? Nevertheless, our Lord finds it necessary, although with great feeling and love, to gently admonish Martha.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.

Where has Martha gone wrong? I'd like to suggest a couple of possibilities. Perhaps she has committed a basic breach of hospitality. She has invited someone into her home but then gets so wrapped up in her duties as hostess that she pays little attention to her guest. Moreover, it was she who had invited the Lord into the house in the first place and now she is complaining about the work she has to do. It says elsewhere in the Bible that the Lord loves a "cheerful giver." Finally, is there a hint of jealously of her sister, Mary?

Perhaps our Lord is saying, as he never tires of saying, that the old laws or ways while good in themselves do not go far enough. The law says, "Thou shall not kill," but He says do not even be angry. The law says, "Thou shall not commit adultery," but He says don't even think about it. The law says, "Thou shall not bear false witness," but He says the Truth shall set you free. The law says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but last week He gave us a lesson on who is our neighbor.

The basis of the law of hospitality among the Jews was the belief that the stranger or visitor at your door might have been sent by God, Himself. The early Christians believed that the visitor might be Jesus, Himself. After all, He did say in the famous passage from Matthew that when we offered hospitality to the least of our brethren, we offered it to Him. When He knocks at the door, it is up to us to drop everything and welcome Him.

Maybe this is the mystery that St. Paul speaks of in today's reading from Colossians, "the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past."


Sunday, July 11, 2010

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Deuteronomy 30: 10-14
Reading II. Colossians 1: 15-20
Gospel. Luke 10: 25-37 (The Good Samaritan.)

There is an old legal maxim that ignorance of the law is no defense. Maybe that comes from today's reading from the book of Deuteronomy. Moses tells the people that they can't be ignorant of the law because it is built into their very being. "For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts..."

Let's face it. Even if our religious education stopped after grade school, we know that it is wrong to kill, or steal, or lie, or commit adultery. We don't have to be a theologian, or a lawyer, or an intellectual to figure it out. In fact, it often seems that the more education we have, the more we try to deny or explain away the fundamental truth that lies in our hearts.

Today's gospel is the famous parable of the "Good Samaritan." In all of literature only the story of the Prodigal Son is more well known than this one, and yet here it is presented to us as the centerpiece of our liturgy on an ordinary summer Sunday in Ordinary time. Why did our Lord use parables or stories?

Let me tell a joke to make a point. Two string beans were crossing the street when one of them was hit by a car. An ambulance came and took both of them to the hospital. A few hours later the doctor came out of the operating room and told the bean that he had good news and bad news. "What's the good news?" "Your friend is going to make it," the doctor said. "What's the bad news?" "He'll be a vegetable!" ...I'm sure that most of you will remember this story much longer than the rest of this homily. Isn't it true that a well told story will not only have more of immediate impact but also it will remain in our memories much longer. After all, no one took notes while Jesus was talking but his stories were told and retold by his followers.

Jesus is prompted to tell the parable after a student of the Law tested Him by asking, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus asks him how the law of Moses answers the question. In reply, the man repeats the "Shema" that prayer that every Jew knew by heart and which every one of us would do well to memorize and repeat every day.

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.

After Jesus commends his answer, the man asks, "who is my neighbor." Rather than giving a theological or philosophical lecture, Jesus answers with the story about the man who was beaten and stripped by robbers and left for dead on the road to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass him by without lending a hand. They even cross to the opposite side of the road to avoid the stricken man. Both of them had to know in their hearts that the Law commanded assistance to the needy.

It was left for the Samaritan to take pity on the man. Now Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with foreigners and had contaminated their religion with idol worship. They were viewed by the Jews as heretics and idolaters and regarded with hatred and contempt. Nevertheless, our Lord says that a "Samaritan traveler...was moved with compassion" at the sight of the man. Commentators tell us that this is the only instance in the gospels where the verb which means "moved with compassion" is used for anyone besides Jesus. The Samaritan when he dresses the man's wounds and takes him to a nearby inn to care for him, is acting like Jesus.

Of course, when Jesus asks the lawyer, "Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" his answer is the same as ours would be. "The one who treated him with mercy." What other answer could there be? This law is ingrained in all of our hearts even though we all have difficulty in obeying the true impulses of our hearts.

In today's second reading St. Paul says the Jesus "is the image of the invisible God." For St. Paul, and for Moses, and for the "Good Samaritan" God is not a distant, invisible, unattainable being. We do not have to look "up in the sky" or far "across the sea" to find Him. We can find Him in the words, and in the deeds, and in the simple, but unforgettable, parables of Jesus.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 66: 10-14c
Reading II. Galatians 6: 14-18
Gospel. Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20 (lambs among wolves.)

Today's first reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah is a song of praise for Jerusalem. "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her..." Isaiah compares Jerusalem to a mother from whom we all take nourishment. Obviously, Jerusalem was the heart and soul of ancient Israel. It was more than a place or even a capitol city. It was the holy city of God, in a way the source of all that the Jews were as well as the place to which they all aspired to ultimately return.

We often think of America in the same way. On July 4th we can compare Isaiah's words with the words to "My Country Tis of Thee," set to the melody of the English national anthem, "God Save the King."

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing
Land where my fathers' died, land of the pilgrims' pride
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

For Isaiah Jerusalem is something feminine. He compares it to a nursing mother. From the earliest times the Church has been viewed in the same way. How many times have we heard the expression "Holy Mother Church?"

Christians have always valued these readings from Isaiah because the Church itself is a spiritual Jerusalem. It is not just a city or country. We have our holy cities and shrines which we visit on pilgrimages but we don't regard Rome in the same way that Jews regard Jerusalem or Moslems regard Mecca. The Church is a community of believers and we can feel right at home anywhere in the world, but no where more so than here in our own little parish. From here we embark on our own spiritual journey to the heavenly kingdom that our Lord speaks of in today's gospel.

Perhaps you noticed in today's gospel that Jesus sent 72 disciples ahead of Him to visit the cities and places that He would pass through on His road to Jerusalem. They were to go in pairs and prepare the way for Him. He gives them their marching orders and warns them that the going will be rough. "Behold I am sending you like lambs among wolves." He tells them to travel light and to expect to be sheltered and fed by those whom they serve. He even tells them what to say. "Into whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this household.'"

If they are welcomed, they are to behave as dutiful guests, cure the sick, and proclaim, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." If not welcomed, they are to shake the dust of the town from their feet and go on to the next town. Jesus always insists that the door to the kingdom of God is wide open but that no one can be forced to enter.

Whenever our Lord speaks to His disciples, we can assume that He is speaking to us. Like the disciples we are being sent to prepare the way for the Lord. Like the first disciples it is our job to cure the spiritually sick and to show them that "the kingdom of God is at hand." It is not just the job of the bishops or priests or sisters. It is not just the job of the Pope although God knows that Benedict is giving his life for "the kingdom of God."

What or where is the "kingdom of God?" What does our Lord mean when He says that it's "at hand?" I know that many people believe that our lives here on earth must be filled with pain and suffering and that we will only know true happiness after death. However, our Lord always seemed to work at alleviating pain and suffering right here on earth and he instructed his disciples to do the same. He cured the sick both of their physical and spiritual ailments.

It's interesting that in Dante's, Divine Comedy, the most famous poem of the Middle Ages, all the characters in the poem are portrayed as being the same both before and after death. Those whom Dante placed in Hell--the lechers, the gluttons, the drunkards, the misers, the cruel, the proud, the angry, the murderers, the traitors--had made a hell for themselves and for others during their lives on earth. Those journeying up the great mountain of Purgatory had already begun their journey of redemption while on earth. Those whom Dante placed in Paradise had already exhibited the saintly qualities of love and humility during their life on earth. They had already found heaven on earth and had spent their lives in bringing it to others.

I know that there is always room for conversion, even on one's own deathbed. Tragically, some of us might even fall at the last moment. That's why St. Paul urges us to consider that we're in a race and to keep our eyes on the finish line. Today, he ends his letter to the Galatians by telling them that the question of circumcision is irrelevant. What matters is whether we've been willing to give up our lives in the service of others. Like those first disciples Paul was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. It wasn't easy--"for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body." He ends with a famous blessing which reminds us of the blessing that our Lord gave to the disciples. It's one that we can still use today.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,
brothers and sisters.