Sunday, June 26, 2016

Free to Choose


                                    13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   

No One Who Sets a Hand to the Plow

           
Elijah was one of the great prophets in the Old Testament. In his time--about 700 years before the birth of Christ-- the Jewish people, their leaders, and their priests had departed from their ancient faith to follow strange gods. Elijah stood virtually alone against this apostasy.  Jewish tradition held that Elijah would one day return to usher in a new age.

In today's first reading Elijah, at the request of the Lord, chooses Elisha to be his successor. The young man is working, he is plowing a field, when Elijah calls him by throwing his cloak over him. Elisha understands that he has been called but only asks that he be allowed to kiss his father and mother good-bye. Elijah's response indicates that Elisha is under no compulsion. He is free to do what he wants. He has to choose. In his own way, by slaughtering the oxen, he sells all he has and gives it to the poor. Then "Elisha left and followed Elijah."

Who could not see the similarity between this episode and today's gospel? Chapter 9 of St. Luke's gospel is full of the signs and wonders that Jesus worked. The most incredible sign was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed the multitude. Many in the crowd thought that Elijah had returned. Afterwards, Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say that I am?" Right after Peter replied that Jesus is the "Christ of God," St. Luke tells us that our Lord took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where He was transfigured or glorified. At the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus. We don't have that reading today because the Church always has reserved the Transfiguration for the second Sunday of Lent.

Unfortunately, when they come down from the mountain, Jesus finds that people, even his followers, do not understand. A man has to beg Him to free his son from an evil spirit because the disciples had not been able. Jesus "healed the boy and restored him to his father." Next the disciples can't believe Him when he again says that He "is to be betrayed into the hands of men." Finally, they even start arguing among themselves about "which of them was the greatest." Again Jesus has to rebuke them: "he who is the least among you, he is the greatest." 

This is the background to our gospel today where Jesus sets out on the "journey to Jerusalem." His first stop is a Samaritan village. Samaritans were Jews who long before had intermarried with non-Jews and accepted strange gods. Here we see our Lord's standard operating procedure. When they refuse to welcome Him, when they turn their backs on Him, and fail to offer Him even common hospitality, He just moves on to the next village. It's their choice.

Then St. Luke tells us of three individuals who express a desire to follow Jesus. The stories are brief and puzzling and have been subject to much interpretation. I don't think that Jesus wants us to disregard our basic human obligations. My guess is that Jesus knew that his would-be followers were offering excuses or  having second thoughts. "Let me go first and bury my father," or "first let me say farewell to my family at home."

Jesus says to the fearful, to the undecided, to the waverers among us, "don't look back,"
"seize the moment," "strike while the iron is hot." He actually uses a proverb that was old even in His day, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." In a famous parable He spoke of a merchant who was willing to give up everything he had in order to gain the  "pearl of great price."

For St. Paul the "pearl of great price" is our freedom. Our journey to Jerusalem is a journey to find our freedom. It's strange that although we live in a world that values freedom above everything else, we actually possess so little of it. It's not just that so many people in the world live under tyrants and despots, or that so many are victims of poverty and hunger. Even here in the greatest and wealthiest country in the world's history, so many of us are enslaved to one addiction or another.

Could it be that our emphasis on "self-esteem" has led us down the wrong path?
 A children's doctor suggested as much in a newspaper column the other day. We have to recognize that the basic principles of religion are at odds with the world today, just as in the time of Elijah or St. Paul. Self-sacrifice, not self-esteem, is at the heart of Christianity. Last week our Lord said that we must lose our life in order to find it.

This week St. Paul reminds us that our flesh (our individual desires) is at war with the Spirit. He says that Spirit and flesh "are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want." Anyone on a diet looking at the dessert menu will understand the "war" that goes on within us. Anyone mindlessly flicking through the TV channels for hours will be hard pressed to explain to themselves how they could waste so much of the valuable time that has been allotted to them.


Today, St. Paul's advice to the Galatians and to us is, "serve one another through love." True freedom is found in the "Golden Rule." "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Wouldn't our children be happier today if they were taught to esteem their parents, relatives, teachers, and neighbors rather than themselves? Wouldn't we be happier?

###

Reading 1. 1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21
Reading II. Galatians 5: 1, 13-18
Gospel. Luke 9: 51-62 (Let the dead bury their dead).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Who do you say I am?

                                    12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   


 
Giorgione: Jesus, Peter, and the Rich Young Man*
          
Today's first reading from the Prophet Zechariah talks of hope. In Ordinary time the priest usually wears green, the color associated with hope. The prophet tells the Israelites that even in the midst of great mourning and desolation, the Lord will give them "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness." Of course, from the earliest days Christians have looked upon Jesus as the fountain from which all hope springs.

Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus? In today's gospel the scene between Jesus and Peter is pivotal.  Chapter 9 of St. Luke's gospel is full of the miraculous deeds of Jesus. Not the least of which was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed a great crowd. Right after that manifestation of his power, Luke says that our Lord and the disciples left the crowd of people behind and went off in solitude to pray. When they were alone, He turned to the disciples and asked, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"

The answer indicates that Jesus has made quite an impression on the people. Some say that John the Baptist has come back to life; others believe that He is Elijah, that great figure of Hebrew history who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot; and others believe that an ancient prophet like Zechariah has come back to life. But when He asks the disciples, "who do you say that I am," Peter answers, "The Christ of God." Peter's expression of faith means that he has come to regard Jesus as the long awaited Messiah who has come to save His people.

It's one of the mysteries of the gospels that every time an Apostle speaks we can almost imagine ourselves speaking. In fact, whenever our Lord speaks to them, he seems to be speaking to us. "But who do you say that I am?" What would our answer be? We know that many regard Him as a good teacher although His teachings may no longer be relevant in our modern age. Others see Him as a kind of social worker who went about doing good works. Of course, they find it hard to believe that any of these works could have been miraculous, and they try to find purely natural explanations. In other words, He was a man just like us. Indeed, a best-selling novel claims that He even married and had children of His own.

I think that one of the reasons why the film, "The Passion of the Christ," caused such controversy was not because of the violence depicted but because we do not like the idea that our Lord had to suffer and die. We know that the Apostles didn't like it either. After Peter's confession of faith, our Lord tells them,

            The Son of Man must suffer greatly
            and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
            and the scribes,
            and be killed and on the third day be raised.

After all the wonderful things He had done, this was shocking news. Even more shocking was what He said next,

            If anyone wishes to come after me,
            he must deny himself
            and take up his cross daily and follow me.
            For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
            but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.

To save our lives, to find true happiness, we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and be willing to give up our lives for the sake of others.

Today is Fathers Day. Is there any more difficult job than the one faced by fathers today? On this day our society pays lip service to fathers but on every other day they are mocked and vilified. Everywhere around us we see men abandoning, and abusing their children, and even urging that their children be aborted. Let's pray today that fathers will deny themselves, and take up their cross and do their work

Here is a little prayer for fathers;

            Our Father in Heaven, we thank you for all the fathers on earth who,
            like St. Joseph, accept the responsibility to care for and love their children.
            May you strengthen them with the kindness, patience and wisdom they need
            to encourage and guide their children.
            May they be supported by a steadfast wife, a caring family and good friends.
            Most of all, may they know that you and you alone are the source of all that is
            good and truly valuable in this world.

Jesus asked “who do the crowds say I am?” If the crowds were to ask who we are, what would we say? No matter what he has gained or accomplished, a man could never say anything better than “I am a father to my children.”


###

* This painting that now hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence is usually called the "Three Ages of Man."

Reading 1. Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1
Reading II. Galatians 3: 26-29
Gospel. Luke 9: 18-24 (who do you say that I am?).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sin and Forgiveness

                           11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                          


        
Today’s readings deal with sin and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Samuel presents us with what is perhaps the most shameful deed in the entire Bible. I'm surprised that the makers of the famous TV series, "The Sopranos," never thought to use the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite as the basis for an episode. We only get the tail end in today's verses but if you read the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the Book of Samuel you will get the whole story.

It is the famous account of David and Bathsheba. It begins with lust and degenerates into betrayal and murder when David orders Bathsheba's husband Uriah, one of his most loyal and dedicated soldiers, to be killed. David's sin is especially despicable because he had previously been given so much by the Lord. He had literally come from nowhere for he was the least of his father's many sons, a mere shepherd. Nevertheless, he was picked to lead his people and become their King. 

As the reading indicates, David had everything. He had been saved from death at the hands of Saul, the previous King, and had been given all of Saul's possessions even his palace and many wives. In those days the Israelites especially their leaders could have many wives as well as concubines. Still, for David, like so many of the rich and famous, it was not enough. He set his eyes on a poor soldier's wife and the results were tragic.

I would like to guess that David never realized that all of his success and achievements were the result of his faith in God until he and his family suffered the consequences of his sin.

St. Luke's gospel account today presents us with another sinner--the sinful woman who anoints our Lord with oil, and washes his feet with her tears. In this touching and meaningful story our Lord tells the woman that her "sins are forgiven." Then he tells her, "Your faith has saved you, go in peace."

What did our Lord mean? It is clear that He uses the woman as an example not only to the Pharisee who invited Him for dinner but also to us. It was the woman's faith that led her to perform the basic works of hospitality that the Pharisee had omitted to perform for his guest. Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherence to all the practices required by the Law.

This incident with the woman will help us to understand what St. Paul is talking about in today's second reading. For us today justification is a word that has lost much of its meaning. When St. Paul introduces the concept of "justification by faith", it just conjures up theological controversies of long ago. What is justification? What is faith? What are works? Is there a conflict between faith and works?

Although St. Paul always stressed the importance of faith, no one worked harder for those entrusted to his care. After listing all the trials and tribulations he had endured in his missionary endeavors, he concluded with these words.

I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel week? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

The best way to understand the relationship between faith and works is to turn to the gospels.

In today's gospel the woman, despite her sinful status, performs the basic work of hospitality. Our Lord's words to the Pharisee are addressed to us.

         Do you see this woman?
         When I entered your house you did not give me water for my feet,
                  but she has bathed them with her tears
                  and wiped them with her hair.
         You did not give me a kiss,
                  but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
         You did not anoint my head with oil,
                  but she anointed my feet with ointment.
         So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
                  because she has shown great love.

Time and time again in the gospels our Lord urges us to do the work. Those who do the work are the ones of great faith and love. They are the justified who can go in peace.


###

Reading 1. 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Reading II. Galatians 2:16, 19-20
Gospel. Luke 7:36--8:3, (the sinful woman).

Monday, June 6, 2016

Widow of Nain

                                    10th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

           
As usual, today’s first reading from the Book of King’s is closely related to today’s gospel reading from St. Luke. Both tell the story of the restoration to life of the son of a grieving widow. For most human beings nothing is worse than to outlive your children. A mother especially will never forget the death of a beloved son or daughter. It is not hard for us to understand the grief and sorrow of the two widows in today’s readings even though both cases have happy, miraculous endings. Nevertheless, both miracles are not the kind we normally encounter in the scriptures.

In the first case the widow’s son is not restored by the mother’s faith. The widow of Zaraphath is actually angry at the Prophet Elijah and blames him and the God he represents for her calamity. Earlier, Elijah had saved both the woman and her son from death by starvation in the midst of a terrible drought. But now it seems that the son has died anyway.

Like most people who suffer such a tragic loss, the widow loses faith and blames God for allowing her son to die. She says to Elijah,

Why have you done this to me, O man of God?Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt?And to kill my son.

Words will do nothing to heal the grief of the mother. Only when Elijah is able to revive the child does the woman acknowledge God’s grace and power.

In today’s gospel as Jesus is entering the town of Nain, he encounters a funeral procession for the son of a widow. The mourners are heading out of town to bury the body. In most of the miraculous healings that Jesus performs someone approaches him and begs for his assistance. They believe that he has the power to heal them and he will often say that their belief or faith is responsible for their cures.

But in this case neither the grieving widow nor the crowd of mourners think to approach Jesus and ask for help. He sees the woman crying and approaches her and tells her not to weep. We are reminded of the Beatitudes where Jesus says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Then he approaches the coffin and orders the deceased young man to arise.

The dead man sat up and began to speak,And Jesus gave him to his mother.

Maybe mourning and crying are acts of faith, but it seems as if the grace of God came to the widow of Nain and her son even though she had lost all hope. It was a free gift of God to someone in need.

Perhaps the Church includes the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians today to also illustrate the point that God’s grace can come to us without asking, or even when we try to resist it. Paul reminds the Galatians that he had persecuted the Church and sought to destroy it. He was on his way to Damascus to do even more damage, but then Jesus appeared to him, and in a way raised him from the dead. Paul insists that his conversion was not due to his own efforts, or the efforts of any other person. It was a free gift from God.

The problems in the world today can seem so overwhelming. Even the problems that arise in our own families can often seem so overwhelming that nothing we say or do seems to accomplish anything. But God’s grace came to the angry and bitter widow of Zarephath, and it came to the despairing widow of Nain. It also came to an angry Paul on the road to Damascus. It can also come to any of us who feel lost and abandoned.

Most of us will not experience such dramatic events as those related in today’s scripture passages but we all have our own roles to play as agents of God’s grace. Just as the Lord chose Elijah and Paul to do his work, so we are called to bring God’s grace to those we care for every day. We know that everything is in the hands of God, but for some strange reason He uses us to do His work.


###

Reading 1. 1 Kings 17: 17-24
Reading II. Galatians 1: 11-19
Gospel. Luke 7: 11-17 (the Widow of Nain)