Monday, February 28, 2011

Lilies of the Field

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time
A cycle

I'm taking a break for the next two weeks and so for now I just post an image of the "lilies of the field."

"Consider how the lilies of the field grow...not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these."

Reading 1 Isaiah 49: 14-15
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 4: 1-5
Gospel. Matthew 6: 24-34 (lilies of the field).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gospel: Love your enemies

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

In today’s first reading from the book of Leviticus the Lord urges Moses to tell the Israelites to by holy. Just what does “holy” mean. It certainly does not mean taking some kind of pious attitude. The Lord is not asking the Israelites to love Himself, but to love their neighbor.

You shall not bear hatred for your brother and sister in your heart,…
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In today’s gospel our Lord seems to have Leviticus in mind as He follows up on his discussion of the beatitudes that we heard just two weeks ago. The Mosaic law of just retaliation stood for an advance in civilization and was more humane than other contemporary law-codes. The injury inflicted on a wrongdoer had to be proportional to his crime. “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Still, the Pharisees interpreted the command to love one’s neighbor as applying only to Jews—the pagans need not be loved. Jesus removes all limits on charity. After all, what good does it do?

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
What is unusual about that>

In Christian theology there is no difference between the words “good,” “holy,” and “perfect.” There is also no difference between “bad,” “evil,” and “imperfect.” We don’t want to think of ourselves as bad or evil, but most of us would readily admit that we are imperfect.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells his followers to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” His words today are a lesson in how to achieve perfection or holiness. He raised the ante. Where Leviticus said love your neighbor, Jesus expands the definition of what is meant by neighbor. He says “love your enemies.”

When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
Turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
Hand over your cloak as well,

Sometimes the words of Jesus seem so impractical. But if we reflect on our own experience, maybe we will begin to understand. As children if we cheated on an exam or found a way to avoid doing our work, what did we learn? Cheating did not hurt our classmates or our teacher, it hurt us. It also hurt all those who trusted in us.

In our families do vindictive or vengeful words do any good? How do they make us perfect? These words and actions hurt us even more than the people they are directed at. I know people whose close friendships were broken over a seemingly trivial word or deed. What good did it do them to lose a friend forever?

We know that the world of sports, business, and politics is extremely competitive, but what good will it do us to hate our opponents? When we do so, se become less, not more perfect.

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he tell us that if we only know what we are, we would look at things differently.

Do you not know that you are the temple of god,
And that the spirit of god dwells in you?

He says that there is a higher wisdom, a truer practicality than the world knows. Even our wisest leaders today seem to lack this wisdom. We see them being unfaithful to their loved ones. We see them cheating their friends as well as their enemies. And finally, we see them being led off to jail in handcuffs after being held up to shame and ridicule in the media and the courts.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God…
The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
That they are in vain.

Fortunately, most of us will not be considered among the wise of the world. In our simple lives we can fly below the radar. Yet we all have to travel the road to perfection in our own way. In these weeks before Lent, our scripture readings are providing us with a road map.

Reading 1 Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 3: 16-23
Gospel. Matthew 5:38-48 (love your enemies).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gospel: Wisdom and the Law

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle (I say to you)

In today’s readings we literally pick up where we left off last week. In the gospel we don’t even skip a verse in Matthew’s fifth chapter, and in the second reading we just continue reading from St. Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthians. Even though our first reading is from the book of Sirach, it just continues in the same vein as last week’s reading from Isaiah.

Sirach introduces us to the idea of choice.

If you trust in God, you too shall live;
He has set before you fire and water;
To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
Whichever he chooses shall be given him.

How do we make the choice? On what basis do we choose? So often scripture talks about wisdom and regards it as greater than silver or gold. What is wisdom. All of us know that the smartest or most educated people are not always the wisest. It is just as easy for PhDs to mess up their lives and make bad decisions as everyone else. I can honestly say that my immigrant grandparents, who never even completed grade school, were among the wisest people I have ever known.

It can be said that the ability to make decisions is the mark of a wise person. In politics, business, or even sports we admire the decision makers. How often do we hear announcers say that the quarterback made a good or bad decision right before he was about to be crushed by onrushing linebackers?

Whatever our age we are all going to face life’s decisions. Teenagers will sweat over which college to attend, or which career to pursue. Their parents will have to decide what steps they will take or what sacrifices to make to pay the expected costs. Many people today are facing very tough career choices, especially if they have been forced to change careers. The elderly might have to decide whether to stay in the old house or downsize.

Everyone will say that the wisdom to make the right decision comes more from life experience than from book learning. In films and literature the wise are often portrayed as elderly to indicate years of life experience. We often speak of “wise, old owls.” Nevertheless, we know that it is possible for even the experienced to make bad decisions, especially when they are personally involved.

Most of us need a mentor, a trusted advisor or counselor who can help with our decisions, especially the big ones. In today’s gospel Matthew presents Jesus in the role of advisor. It might sound like he is just issuing commands or orders, but throughout this long reading Jesus is urging us to avoid basing our lives on rigid adherence to a set of rules and regulations but to consider the spirit of the commandments.

This is what he meant by urging his followers to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees who were known for their strict adherence to the letter of the Law. However, Jesus calls them hypocrites because they often evade the spirit of the Law. When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees , he speaks to us.

We know that it is wrong to kill but anger is just as bad. We know that we must love God but how can we if we are not on speaking terms with our brother or sister. We know that it is wrong to defraud our neighbor but why wait until we’re caught to make amends. We know that adultery is wrong but why lead ourselves into temptation. The wise will avoid what used to be called temptation or occasions of sin.

If your right eye causes you to sin,
Tear it out and throw it away…
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
Cut if off and throw it away.

Jesus uses divorce as just another example. He says that just because a man (and he is talking about men here, since women had no legal rights in those days) can find a legal way to get rid of his wife, does not mean that he can evade his responsibility. Just because of a legal technicality a man is not free to discard his wife for someone else. His wife is not a slave.

Perhaps nowhere in modern society do we face such difficult choices as in the area of love and marriage. Today so many people find it so difficult to make the commitment necessary to enter into marriage. Moreover, the choices become even more difficult when a marriage goes bad. Even on St. Valentine’s day we know that so many marriages that began with undying professions of love, will end in anger and bitterness.

Jesus calls divorce a sin because it hurts all those involved--husband, wife, children, parents etc. Nevertheless, the cure for the hurt is not to turn from God. So many Catholics believe that divorce has excommunicated them from the love of God. Yet, St. Paul, a true Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, told us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Reading 1 Sirach 15: 15-20
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10
Gospel. Matthew 5:17-37 (But I say to you).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gospel: Salt of the Earth

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

In last week's gospel Jesus went up to a high place and preached to His disciples the now famous "Sermon on the Mount." In today's first reading the prophet Isaiah preaches a similar sermon:

Thus says the Lord:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless,
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.

Isaiah says that for those who behave in this way,

your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed.

Our Lord says the same thing in today's gospel account from St. Matthew. Today we have the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers that,

your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.

But our Lord warns us that our light can flicker and grow dim. Using another metaphor He calls us the salt of the earth, but cautions that "if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?"

In the next few weeks we are going to learn just what it takes to be a “light” to the world or the ‘salt” of the earth. From now to the beginning of Lent we are going to see that the Sermon on the Mount was not just words, words, words. We are going to see that the Beatitudes require hard work on our part. To put it another way, if we really want to be happy in this life as well as in the next, we will have to work very hard at it.

Why should this be so difficult to understand? Most of us are sports fans especially today on Super Bowl Sunday. Is it possible that the two teams in today’s game got to the Super Bowl without hard work and sacrifice? We know that the best teams must have regimented work schedules. They must practice daily whether they like it or not. There is no way that a player or team can sit back and just hope to achieve success.

Some people admire Jesus because he was a great teacher. They like his sayings, the parables, and the words of wisdom found in lessons like the Sermon on the Mount. But they often fail to understand that Jesus came to suffer and die for us—to give up his life for us. Often they fail to understand that he called his disciples, including us, to a life of sacrifice and self-denial. Only if we die to self, will we find true happiness.

In today’s second reading St. Paul shows that he understood the message of the cross of Christ. He tells the Corinthians that “I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.” Instead, he says,

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
Except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah issued a call to action that is as relevant today as it was then.

If you remove from your midst
Oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
If you bestow your bread on the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted;
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like midday.

We are well into the New Year and many of us have already forgotten our resolutions. Maybe they were trivial anyway. In the year to come we might want to do some hard work if we want to get to our own Super bowl.

Reading 1 Isaiah 58: 7-10
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5
Gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 (salt of the earth).