Homilies-3rd Series (2018-2020)
Christ the King A
At the crucifixion scene in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus cries out: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34) Although this verse is not in all of the most ancient manuscripts, we appreciate it quite a bit. It gives us a lot of consolation. We hope that when our judgment day comes, Jesus will stand next to us and say, “Father, forgive this person, who didn’t know what she or he was doing.”
In some ways, it’s hard to know what we are doing, particularly when it comes to the long view of things. For many decades it was common for parents to think that spanking children was one of the most important things in their moral growth; now all kinds of experts and studies say the opposite. Did those parents know what they were doing? Or, in our heated and divided society, we sometimes say things that later turn out to have been more hurtful, or divisive, than we ever intended.
As Jesus tells this parable, dividing the sheep from the goats, we all have t wonder whether we would be on the King’s right or the King’s left. But we all would like Jesus to appear with the same line—Father, forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing—so that whether we ended up on the right or the left, we might all get off the hook.
But the parable doesn’t let people off the hook. It goes on with detail and repetition to drive home the point: whatever we did to the poor and least, that is what we were doing to the King. That is what we are doing to God’s Kingdom and even to God. So instead of driving us into a field of moral ambiguity, it drives us to the clarity of the actions that we do in our daily lives, to the clarity of whom we open our hearts to and whom we do not.
This parable, in its own way, simplifies the judgment we face: did we have compassion, especially compassion on those who were smaller, weaker, poorer, or more vulnerable than us? Perhaps some might think we have compassion fatigue as we hear news story after news story about people who are hungry, or unemployed, or homeless. But Jesus insists on the point: unless our compassion reflects the compassion of God, then we cannot enter the Kingdom because we never knew it to begin with.
Often we think of compassion as a weakness. We’ve heard, in recent years, people being characterized as losers, snowflakes, wimps, or bleeding hearts. That’s because we think of compassion as giving in, of not holding people accountable. But what do we make of the image of the first reading, from Ezekiel, where God is the compassionate shepherd who goes out of his way to care for those whom others are not caring for? Does this look like weakness?
Compassion is not weakness or giving in. Rather, it’s the distinct strength to leave our own comfort zone, our own assumptions, our own judgments, to see the reality of another person. When we do that, we see the way God sees. We see someone whose limitations and fears parallel our own; we see someone just as much in need of love as we are. The difference is that we often will not respond, but it is in the very nature of God to see, to love, and to respond.
Christ is our King, replete with power. But Christ exercises his power against the forces that would diminish our lives, against evil and death. Christ’s victory of reconciliation on the Cross is a victory of compassion, of seeing our brokenness so deeply he takes it to himself and conquers it in his Resurrection. This is the victory that we want to share in, far more than winning in sports, or politics, or even in medicine. This is the victory that Jesus won and extends to all who want to share in his compassion.
Humans have many fears. Some are afraid of heights, others do not like speed. Many people run away from spiders and other insects. Some people never got comfortable with dogs. Many likewise fear law enforcement, or the IRS, or gang activity. But why would anyone fear a gift?
Of the three figures in Jesus’ parable today, it is the last one who gets the most attention. The figure who received the most, and the one who got a modest amount, each double the gift they have received, and the Master rewards them. But the last figure, the person who got the smallest gift, has to give an explanation for why his gift did not grow. “I knew you were a difficult Master,” the person says. “So I just hid my gift to keep it safe.”
The Master is miffed for two reasons. The more obvious reason is that his gift did not grow. It could have grown with the simplest and safest of actions, but the servant would not even do that. All the servant could do was put his head, figuratively, in the ground and hope the Master would not return. Sometimes people do not do even the most obvious thing because they are afraid of risks. They are so afraid of failing, they are content with the least.
The second reason the Master might be angry is a bit more subtle. The servant says that he knew the Master was hard and tough. Certainly the reaction of the Master would make it seem that way—take away the gift he has and throw him outside—but we have to ask if that’s true. With the other servants, it’s just the opposite. They receive gifts, they use these gifts, the Master rejoices and doubles their gift. My suggestion is that the Master is angry because the servant presumed on his harshness and acted that way. The servant found it easier to fear God than to respond to God, respond to God’s generous love.
When we look at the abundance of gifts that come into our lives, certainly we can think of God as generous and gracious to us. The first reading praises the role of the wife. We might think it dated and perhaps sexist, but isn’t it true that our lives become incredibly rich from the relationships that we have? And look how these relationships have more than multiplied that happiness in our lives and in the world. This is true with almost any aspect of our lives—how knowledge and wisdom grow, how generosity feeds on itself, how kindness sets the world aglow.
Jesus’ fear is that his followers will misunderstand the God he reveals to us, making God into a Mean Boss instead of a Loving Giver of everything. He fears that we will live our Christian lives hiding and cringing, doing the minimum and even less, if we can get away with it. He fears that his Kingdom will not grow because his followers do not believe in it. He worries that we will not see ourselves as children of the light, trusting in his saving presence.
As we come to the end of our Church year and as Advent begins in two weeks, we hear readings that remind us of the end of the world. Certainly, after this year, it feels like we’ve been living the end of the world every week. But Jesus tells us to live with confidence, as children of the day who are part of his conquest of darkness. The less fear we have in our hearts, the more open we will be to sharing God’s gifts of love with everyone.
Reflection: What gifts have I received and what is my attitude toward them and the God who gave them to me?
We were driving down the road and the gas needle was getting near “E.” “I hope we don’t run out of gas,” I said to my companion. He reached for the car manual and said, confidently, “The book says that when the needle says ‘empty’ there still are two gallons of gas. That means almost 60 miles, so we’re OK.”
How often we are cutting it close, even trying to take short cuts, because it’s more convenient and less work for us. There’s got to be an easier way, we think. We can wait another day to go to the store, another few days before doing laundry, another few weeks before answering a letter. We take the risk. We are willing to do something desperate later rather than doing what we should do now.
Jesus story about the ten bridesmaids echoes on a variety of levels. One is the straightforward meaning that the bridesmaids should have thought ahead of time and brought enough oil with them. Another is that you cannot hurt yourself to make up for someone else’s hurt, as the wise bridesmaids see. But behind it all is the lingering question: why didn’t the bridesmaids have enough oil?
At the very least they didn’t understand what might be required of them, that is, to stay longer hours than they wanted. But at a deeper, and more shocking level, it shows that they just didn’t care. If they cared about the groom and the wedding they surely would have prepared enough ahead of time. They were willing to go along for the ride . . . but not willing to really take the ride, to be responsible and faithful.
Jesus’ parable, coming as he nears Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke, speaks to the way his disciples were not prepared for what happened to him, but also the ways in which we are also unprepared. So many of us have tepid faith, or seem to lose faith altogether, because we think that the discipleship Jesus has invited us to undertake can be done in half measures.
In fact, discipleship requires our total attention, not because Jesus asks us to be obsessed with ourselves but because Jesus asks us to be obsessed with him and his love for us. When we try to live faith for our convenience, when we try to take shortcuts, we are not understanding what it means to have encountered Jesus. We cannot take shortcuts when it comes to love. We either love and care, or we do not care enough and love less.
We can see that in the time of Paul many thought faith was a style or a mood. Paul says to them that faith is a life-and-death issue because Jesus rose from the dead to give us his Risen Life. The same way we will do anything to stay alive, just the same we must do whatever is needed to maintain our life in Christ. We do not make guesses; we prepare and we follow through.
Gas, laundry, kitchen supplies . . . we can take chances with them, perhaps. But not with Christ, not with the life he gives us, and not with the promises he has made to us and to all who would be faithful.
Would you like to be a saint?
Would you like to be blessed?
Would you like to be happy?
These three words seem to say different things to us; they have a different feel. But, in reality, they are all about the same idea, to experience the fullness of life and love, to live in the Kingdom of God. We put our different nuances on them and sometimes distort them. “Saint” often means someone hopelessly unlike me who has no imperfections. “Blessed” often means I think God gave me what I want. Happy can mean lots of things, some positive and some negative.
But Jesus invitation to us is to be joyful in his Kingdom, the Kingdom he came to inaugurate on behalf of his Father. The basis of this kingdom is understanding God’s relationship to us. That’s where Jesus always begins. The Father’s love grounds every moment of our lives, a love that comes always as a generous gift. Until we understand the God that Jesus presents—not the God that can’t wait to put us in hell but the God that can’t stop inviting us into his Kingdom—we do not understand the Gospel message.
This is why people who are poor, who cry, and who are not puffed up with pride can be blessed and happy. They have found that God is their wealth, their joy, and their strength. They don’t waste time trying to stuff their lives with things, with money, with pleasure as if these alone could begin to make them happy. They see all of life as precious moments filled with precious gifts that come from God’s infinite love. And because they cry, they can see the tears of others; because they are poor, they help others who are poor; and because they aren’t filled with themselves, they can be present to others.
This is such a liberating feeling! It liberates us to do the things that show the Kingdom to others—to work for justice and peace; to be an ambassador of mercy, and to do so even when the odds seem against us. The Kingdom is about what God does for me; but it is also about what we do for others because of God’s love in our life.
Think of the happiest people you know, people truly at peace and living with joy. What is their secret? They have come to an understanding of how God relates to them, and they bring this understanding into every opportunity in their lives. They just radiate goodness to others. That’s what we are all called to do. And that’s what a parish is supposed to do—as a community of saints, of blessed people, we radiate God’s goodness to others.
This week many of us will go to the polls. As important as our vote is—and we have an obligation before God to vote because it shows our care for our nation—we must put it into perspective. Our salvation cannot come from a government. It can only come from God who has already voted in our favor through the life of his Son, Jesus. May the Spirit of Jesus bless us, make us happy, and also make us saints.
What did I spend my week doing? Well, I was reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. The Italian title is the actual English title because “Fratelli” can mean brothers and sisters in Italian and Spanish, and not just “brothers.” At over 40,000 words, the encyclical really wants to tell us something.
Pope Francis sees a lot division, self-interest, and national interest being espoused today and it worries him. Ongoing division and the inability to respect and accept each other are the only fruits we get from these limited perspectives. Unless our minds and hearts are expansive and accepting, our world will remain in danger.
How would I put the Pope’s message? Perhaps the simplest way to say it would be: unless our love is broad enough to extend to everyone, it is not the love God asks of us. We hear in the Gospel the phrase from Jewish law that Jesus repeats: love your neighbor as yourself. And we know Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, embarrassed his questioner when he asked “Who is my neighbor?” by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. But, instinctively, we have a very limited scope of who our neighbors are.
Look at the difference between neighborhood and neighbor. Neighborhood can carry all kinds of associations that might make us proud or ashamed, if we have great restaurants, for example, or if there is lots of crime. But neighbors are not an area or a thing. Neighbors are people—in all their peculiarities and limitations, in all their charm and nastiness. People can love their neighborhoods, but can they love their neighbors?
Dorothy Day was a great Catholic convert who achieved a prophetic voice during her lifetime. She began the Catholic Worker movement, an attempt to serve those people most deprived in society. She had an open-house philosophy: if people entered one of her Catholic Worker houses in need, she took them in, fed them, and gave them lodging. Some people thought she was crazy. But she said this: the love you have for God is only as big as the love you have for the person you like the least.
After all, if, as Pope Francis says, everyone human being has dignity because they were created by, and are loved by God, then how can I claim to love God if I do not love what God loves? We hear sections from the book of Exodus called the “holiness code”—where Moses says we must have the same compassion that God has. The alien, the poor, the defenseless, the widow, the orphan, the laborer, the one who owes you: you have to stretch yourself until your love covers everyone. Our list would include the immigrant, those on welfare, the unemployed, the homeless, the addicted.
Perhaps at no point in history is this a more difficult message than today; we will have to see how the Pope’s message is received because look how long we’ve had God’s message and we’ve not heard it or acted upon it. As long as I think I’m inherently more important than anyone else, I do not know how to value people. In fact, I do not know how to value myself as God values me.
No one is excluded from God’s love. This is a fundamental understanding of our faith. Our tasks as disciples of Jesus is to live in such a way that this becomes clear to everyone: by my words, my attitudes, my deeds, and, at times, my heroic gestures. When God’s command to love becomes our way of life, then maybe the hope God has for the world will become clearer to everyone.
Well, the pandemic has brought a very few blessings that I can count. One of them is the far fewer political ads that I have to watch. In other years, when I could travel more, I’d wake up in Ohio and hear people attacking a senator or governor, then fly to Iowa and hear similar attacks there. Often it would be impossible to watch television without the perennial “and I approve this ad” being spoken. This year, with the pandemic and restricted travel, I have been freed from most of that.
Because politics and political issues have become flash points for people. Today people can sniff out where someone is politically and either agree with them or else ignore them. When people try to chat with someone who differs politically from them, it often becomes a shouting match.
But, as we see from the Gospel, this is nothing new. People were using politics to try to trap Jesus and make him look unpopular. We have to remember just how political Jesus’ situation was: the Roman occupation came after three other occupations. Since the Jews returned from exile in Babylon about 500 years before Christ, they had never known political independence. This meant, as we see in the Gospel, a lot of grousing about taxation—particularly when it was going to the Romans and not to their own Jewish leadership structures.
How we wish we could argue as well as Jesus did? “Give me the coin? Whose image is this?” In one sentence Jesus puts politics and political argument in its place: “Give to Caesar what is his; but to God what belongs to him.” For us modern people, it has to strike us a very strange that, although he was crucified as a revolutionary, Jesus did very little political agitation against the Romans. He was concerned with politics, of course, because he was concerned for justice and suffering. But he was concerned far more with something else.
What, after all, do we render to God? What do we give him? What place does God play in our lives? Is God one of the items that concerns us . . . or is God, and the things of God, the central preoccupation of our lives. “Give to God what belongs to God” . . . and what does not belong to God? What should not be ordered to God’s service? What should not be understood in terms of God’s love, God’s Kingdom, and God’s gracious mercy?
So often the vision of Jesus gets obscured. But it always comes down to the same point: we have to be clear and open in our relationship with God, in grounding our lives on God’s mercy and infinite love. Once we do that, then other things begin to fall into place; their true importance can be measured. We know how to evaluate our worries and anxieties; we know how to prioritize the relationships and actions of our lives because we now know the meaning of our lives.
In the first reading, Cyrus is applauded because he represented the start of the Greek conquest over Babylon; this is what permitted the Jews to return to, and rebuild, Jerusalem. But the reading goes on to say that history is ultimately about God’s purposes whether people see that or not. Perhaps that can be a consolation to us, given the deep rifts in our civic life, that our arguments will not frustrate what God wants to ultimately accomplish in human history.
We got a wonderful glimpse of this when, on a Sunday morning, Jesus was raised from the dead and, through him, God opened our true future before our eyes.
So you don’t want to come to the party? Gee, I wonder why?
Oh, I see, you think you have a better offer. Really, how do you know? Yes, yes, there’s lots going on, and people really want your attention. But you really still don’t want to go to the party?
I’m not sure you realize what this party is about. It would be terrible if you had a great time on your farm or your other business but never really understood the invitation in the first place. You are being invited to a party that will change everything in your life. In fact, everything in the lives of all people. You are sure you don’t want to come?
Yes, at your party there will be guests, a nice munchies, and perhaps even some great steak. But the party God is throwing goes beyond all your parties. The party God is throwing will nourish every person on earth—nourish them by destroying the things that destroy us, by destroying death itself. Even more, it’s a party that everyone can go to. The entry price is great too: you just show up, wanting to party with God, and you can get in.
Perhaps you think you aren’t worthy. Let me tell you, lots of people felt that way but God sent out his servants to bring even the bums and hoboes from the street. “I want my party filled. I want people to know my love. I want them to be joyful and satisfied. I want to embrace every one of them, to tell them that they will live forever once they know my love.”
Oh, I know, you heard about the idiot who didn’t show up dressed right. Well, what do you expect? All he had to do was put the garment on that he was given. But he thought he could treat his party as a joke. That’s like treating his life like a joke. He’s like a lot of people who say they are something but never live it out. Once you are embraced by God, the least you can do is embrace God back.
Sure, sure, there’s money to be made, and degrees to be earned, and bottles to be opened, and jokes to be told. Sure, you have so many other things you have to do. But wouldn’t it be a shame to have done so many things in your life and still have missed the one thing you could not miss? Wouldn’t it be a shame if you thought you were at the party of life but missed the real party altogether?
God is a God of feasts. The feast that God throws is the feast of unending love and gracious mercy. It’s a feast where we all can belong, surrounded by each other, filled with a joy that can never end. You think God is about punishment, shame, doom and gloom. You sure have that wrong. God is about a joy that is totally contagious—unless we close ourselves completely.
Come, the feast is ready. The party is going to happen. Why sit on the side or, even worse, outside?
They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. I suppose that can be true. How did Michael Jordan feel when “Be like Mike” was the motto of a whole generation of boys growing up? Or Jackie Kennedy when millions of women began getting their hair styled just like hers? Or how Ruth Bader Ginsburg felt when she became a model of women’s equality and achievement, with movies being made about her life?
But imitation can also be a form of envy, as when someone you are supervising at work thinks he can do your job better than you. Or when a company or nation steals the intellectual property of another. Or when we think the point of our lives is to “keep up with the Joneses” or even do better then them. That’s where you get the rat race that can characterize so much modern life.
In the parable Jesus puts out for the religious leaders of his day, the tenants of the vineyard are filled with resentment because they don’t own the vineyard outright. Instead of accepting who they were and the gifts they had, they wanted to take the owner’s place. They are envious and jealous. They will resort to anything to do be in charge. As if it were possible for us to begin to be God.
A famous Jesuit tells this joke. A terrible car wreck takes the lives of a Franciscan nun, a Dominican priest and a Jesuit. After they die the come before God in judgment. The Franciscan nun is weeping and says, “I know that once or twice I kept money that should have gone to help the poor.” God says to her: “But you helped so many people through most of your life. Enter paradise.” The Dominican begins by saying, “Yes, I know there were some students that I gave up on and refused to help.” But God says, “I know, but you gave yourself generously for so many years in the classroom. The Jesuit appears before God and looks at God on his throne. Then he says: “Excuse me, I think you are in my seat!”
A lot of modern life has been driven by this idea that we can take God’s place. For all the advances we have made, we also have invented things and systems that can destroy us. World War I taught us that the weapons we learned to make can tear us all apart; almost all war since then has reinforced this reality. Our sophisticated economic systems can lift many out of poverty or they can crash on a regular basis with the loss of millions of jobs. Our computers and Internet have made it possible for us to believe almost anything; we never know when we are being manipulated. And even medicine can be misused and become a way to exploit people. Indeed, the coronavirus brought modern life to its knees.
There are two ways we can approach God. One way is wrap ourselves around arrogance and judgment, thinking that’s how God is. We can even think of religion as a way to control God and others. When we do this, we are like the tenants Jesus talks about. The other way is to see the God Jesus reveals, a God of service and generosity, a God of compassion and kindness. A God we come to know through the life and words of Jesus. When we follow this path, God works in us, making us his children, and helping us be compassionate and generous, to live humbly as his disciples.
Paul says to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When we let God be God and seek to put this God at the center of our lives, then we can see who God is and all that God gives to us—rather than distort God by our ambition, pride, and arrogance. When we live as disciples, then we can bring forth the kind of fruit in our lives that both enriches us and reveals the beauty of the Father.
So often people have tried to imitate God by distorting God’s image and distorting their own lives. When we think we can become God we end up using and abusing people. The whole twentieth-century, from Communism to Fascism, demonstrates this. But when we imitate God by letting God work in our lives, in humility and openness, then we produce what God desires: saints like Francis, or Theresa, or Dorothy Day. When we think we have to supplant God, we forget how much of the vineyard, of the Kingdom, is already ours.
Reflection: What is the image I have of God and how does it affect my life?
Choice is more important to our culture than ever before. Whole industries are built around giving people options. Go down the cereal aisle in the store; we are astonished at the variety. I marvel at the size of pet food options. Are pets really that fussy, or is it their owners? Some people might argue that having too many choices is a problem. We need to simplify life.
But look how complicated one of our greatest choices has become, the choice we make when voting? So many people are so ambivalent they don’t even bother. “It makes no difference.” But our church has urged every citizen to vote. The more of us do, the clearer the direction of our nation will become, and the harder it will be for others to try to interfere with our vote. Choice is essential.
It seems from our Gospel that God very much believes in the power of choice. Jesus give a very simple parable about two sons. One says “no” but changes his mind. The other says “yes” but doesn’t follow through. But each one has a choice. And, more importantly, the power to choose again, the capacity to rethink what we’ve chosen and do something better—or, perhaps, worse. Ezekiel simplified things for his ancient hearers: if someone chooses the good, there’s a reward. If someone chooses evil, there are consequences.
God uses our ability to choose, and the amount of time we have, to call us to wholeness. God gives us chances to decide again and again. Every time we come to Mass, aren’t we make another decision to put God at the center of our lives? God does this to give us every chance to experience conversion, to be like the son who says “no” but returns to what the Father wants of him. God does this so that we will know there’s never a reason to give up on ourselves, or to give up on God.
After all, has not God chosen us? Paul uses an important hymn in our second reading to show the extent to which God has chosen us in Jesus. Although he was divine, Jesus chose to humble himself. The Greek word says that he “emptied himself,” gave up everything he had, to identify with us in our death. We may be indifferent and ambivalent about many things but we cannot be ambivalent about God’s love for us. God’s choice of us cannot be doubted.
If we are honest, we can see a little bit of “no” in our lives, the parts that resist God’s love in us. But we also see a little bit of “yes” in our hearts, the parts that want to respond to the infinite love God has shown us. Jesus asks us when we are going to give up our “no” and let the love of God claim our whole heart. He says to his opponents that if some of the worst sinners could respond to God’s invitation, if they could say “yes,” than why cannot they make up their minds? Why cannot we make up our minds?
In spite of our hesitations, choice is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us. It’s a way to show what we think, what we want, and, ultimately, what’s in our hearts. If we have let moments of choice that can shape our lives and our nation pass by, we should not let the moments we have to choose God’s Kingdom sit idle and go to waste in our own lives.
Reflection: What are the choices God is inviting you to make? What are the choices you are avoiding?
“All men are created equal.” Or, better, “All people are created equal.” This American ideal was articulated at the start of our nation, but it has raised as many questions as it has brought about answers. In what ways are all created equal? Did that include slaves, or women, or people who didn’t fit into stereotypes? Does equality mean we all get the same thing, that no one is richer or smarter than anyone else? Does it mean that everyone has enough?
The parable that Jesus presents disturbs us today as much as it disturbed the people of his own time. One its face it seems so unjust, that people were working throughout the day and they get the same wage as people who just started working a few hours ago. One of the biggest questions we face as a society is who is deserving? Should the unemployed get money for not working? Should the one percent keep getting richer while no one else is getting richer? Should people be treated in the hospital just because they are sick?
Jesus gives us this parable not to talk about equality so much to talk about the generosity of God. That’s the question which the Master throw back at the grumbling people: have I been unjust to you or are you just resentful because I am generous. Wherever we see ourselves in this parable, do we see ourselves as objects of the unmerited generosity of God?
After all, what does God have to give us? What is the pay that God wants to give to his faithful? Although many people erroneously think God’s blessings show themselves in big houses and cars, the fact is that God wants to give us only one reality: a relationship with God so grounded that it will never come to an end. A relationship with God so expansive that it comes to include everyone who is open to it. God wants to give us the Kingdom, the fullness of life and love.
We see a bit of this in Paul’s struggle, whether to die and be with the Lord or whether to continue doing ministry. Ultimately he sees both of these as aspects of the same relationship he has come to have with Jesus. He may get fatigued or even frustrated doing his mission, but doing his mission is what brings him joy because it allows others to see the richness of God’s love and life.
Often we feel cheated by life; sometimes we may even say we feel cheated by God. We all can seem like the grumbling workers in the Gospel today. But Jesus invites us to think about life not from what we feel is missing but from everything that we’ve been given, from the point of view of God’s generosity. Everyone of us has been graced by God; everyone of us has been infinitely loved. Everyone of us has been called into a special relationship with God. Rather than having little, the fact is, when we think of it, we have more than we can ever imagine or deserve.
Often politics appeals to the part of us that feels that we are being picked on, ignored, or cheated. Political conversation can center on grievances and be fueled by anger. This can become an enduring mindset making us perpetually peeved. Jesus points out that what we are being offered is a place in his Kingdom which we can only lose by walking away.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
A Gospel passage like the one we have today, this long story about forgiveness, gives us insight into this often-recited phrase. It shows us just how close our refusal to forgive comes to idolatry. Idolatry, after all, isn’t just some statue that represents one or another false God; idolatry is also substituting something in our lives for the place that God should have. And one idol, one of the things we substitute most often for God, is the vengeance and anger we harbor inside of us.
Why, after all, are the servants of the Master so shocked at the behavior of the first man who was forgiven? Because this first figure, having received forgiveness, should have known what it was all about. He should have seen that forgiveness is at the heart of who God is. His refusal to extend that forgiveness means that he has also chosen to refuse to see that God’s very nature is love and mercy. Instead of discovering the truth of God, he sits with the idolatry of his resentment.
This is why we are urged to forgive. Forgiveness not only touches the relationships we have between each other. The experience of forgiving establishes our very ability to see and to know God. Our anger, which is only a distortion of the pride we have, means we put ourselves and our hurts in the place that God should have in our lives.
Because none of us can pay anything back, because none of us can erase the past, the only way we can move forward in our lives is through mercy. The only way we can move forward is through God’s love.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord,” St. Paul says. This means that we are living to incorporate into our lives the qualities of mercy and forgiveness that Jesus shows us are at the center of who God is. When we live this way, it forms the basis of our eternal life. Our anger not only traps us inside ourselves; it also blinds us to others and removes the God we say we love from the central place God should have in our lives.
The whole world seemed shocked to learn that Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at the age of 43. He played several outstanding roles, but perhaps his most noted one was in Black Panther, where he was the King of Wakanda. This mythical country in Africa represented an ideal, a kind of Utopia, where people lived in harmony, and with progress, where people overcame divisions. The popularity of that movie, which came out in 2018, undoubtedly reflected our desire, still seemingly frustrated, to be a people united and without division.
As we can see from the Gospel, unity and reconciliation are very difficult. The passage, which talks about reconciling with others, undoubtedly reflects the fact that tensions arose even among the earliest Christians—tensions about how to articulate beliefs as well as tensions about how values were, or were not, lived out by the community. One can read the entire New Testament as a reflection on finding reconciliation, overcoming divisions, and living Christ’s values.
As we look at what Matthew presents, it seems very simplistic. Someone does wrong, so one person goes to speak to him. If there is no change, then two people go to speak to him. If there still is no change, then he is, in effect, booted out of the community. I can hear the conversation behind this scenario: “Oh, so you are the righteous person who think you can come and correct me? Now you are getting the whole gang to turn on me? Who do you think you are?”
In fact, it is very hard to accept correction from others. The passage from Ezekiel talks about how we are responsible for correcting each other. But we know from experience that hearing difficult things about ourselves causes enormous resistance.
Look at how difficult the conversation on racism has been in our society today . . . a century and a half after we fought a Civil War. How easy it is to stereotype each other and therefore dismiss what is being said. How easy it is to be defensive when we feel accused: “I’m not responsible for slavery!” But how hard it is to step into the shoes of another and feel the prejudice, the assumptions, the patronizing that others have felt their whole lives for no reason other than their sheer existence. In the end, is anyone’s genetic material superior to anyone else’s?
The whole law, we are taught by Jesus and Paul, is summed up in loving God totally and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Because we know how we want to be treated. We know how it feels when others dismiss us from prejudice or base assumptions. And we know what it is to be loved. Jesus says that when people use the love that he shows and gives, he shall be in the midst of them. For love makes us one because it allows God’s life to shine forth from each of us.
Most people I know are dreading the next weeks before our election. Undoubtedly those who benefit from divisions will be working social media like crazy. But today Jesus teaches us the road of reconciliation, of stepping into the experience of others, of renouncing divisiveness. One God created us all from the same infinite love. The more we are united, the more we show that truth to the world.
If we can’t be Wakanda, maybe we can try to get as close as we can.
“Oh, is that what you meant?”
We might use a phrase like this when we get a left-handed compliment, or someone sends us an unexpected gift, or when a political leader employs a new phrase whose meaning takes time to figure out. You’ll remember the famous phrase, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” It’s a nice sounding way of threatening someone else. “Oh, is that what you meant?”
I hear Peter trying to say something like this to Jesus. We cannot divorce the passage we have today from the one we had last week, where Jesus told Peter he was the Rock on which his church would be built. That passage ended with the cryptic sentence about Jesus telling his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Christ. In today’s passage we know why Jesus said that.
When Jesus tells them what being the “Christ” is all about—how the Son of Man would be rejected, disgraced, and murdered, it takes no time for Peter to say to Jesus, “Oh, that’s what you meant?” And he has definite opinions about this. In fact, he begins immediately to try to disabuse Jesus of this harrowing notion of being the Christ. “You cannot mean what you are saying.”
Peter was not the only one who wanted a Messiah on his own terms. Haven’t we, throughout history, remade the image of Messiah in a variety of ways—from the ascetic who rejected the world, to the emperor who conquered nations and developed political systems, to the philosopher who answered all our questions, to the social radical who overthrows assumptions about how life can be lived?
Indeed, in our own personal lives one of the greatest temptations we face is to make up religion as we want it, filled with excuses for our own weaknesses, or points to argue with people we do not like, or practices that seem to bring us solace but ask nothing more. We have wanted every kind of Jesus except the one who tells us that we have to renounce ourselves particularly by letting go of the security blankets we use to protect us from what God is asking us.
Yes, saving ourselves and those we love is a primary impulse in life. Jesus is warning his disciples of the way we can be deceived by this primary impulse. Because we can continue to put ourselves in the middle of everything by thinking that life is about aggrandizing ourselves, or dominating others, or getting even. Until we realize that God, and God’s Kingdom, have to be at the center of our lives we are not seeing clearly. Until we realize our salvation consists of living for others as Jesus did, we are just like Peter; we are trying to write an alternative script rather than accept God’s will that we support each other in our suffering.
For the Messiah is the one who carries our burdens, even to the point of death, as a way of showing us that his path is not about getting our own way but giving ourselves as a sign of God’s love for everyone. After all, Jesus does not die for one group or one nation; Jesus dies for all. Denying himself, he affirms God’s love for everyone—a lesson that has been so hard to hear down through history, even to our present days.
“All men are created equal.” Oh, did you really mean that? “Love your neighbor as you love your own self.” Oh, did you really intend that? “Deny yourself and give yourselves to others.” Really? Indeed, look upon the Messiah, and the cross he carried for us. Then we can see that, for sure, he really meant what he said.
In my observations, there’s something even more daunting that the “glass ceiling”—a phrase we use to talk about an invisible barrier that keeps people from advancing at work, mostly because of their female gender. But more often than this, I see something I call the “administrative ceiling”—when people do advance at work and end up having to supervise other employees. “I wish I could go back,” I often hear them say. Because supervising employees means dealing with the limitations that people have, including their irresponsibility.
The first reading talks about irresponsibility, when someone could not live up to the requirements of his expectations. Using the image of a “key,” the prophet says that it will be taken from one person and given to another—someone who will be responsible. This reading points to a perennial dilemma we have: how do we follow through on the responsibilities given us? Many of us may be old enough to remember the book, The Peter Principle, which argued that people always advance one notch more than their actual competence.
In this most famous Gospel scene, Peter is given “the keys.” The idea is that Peter, because of his faith, will become a source of strength for other believers. Peter has gotten a glimpse of who Jesus is—“You are the Christ.” What kind of responsibility does that place on him? How does he live up to the fact that God has sent Jesus as the one who will turn history upside down? How does one follow this Jesus?
We know how haltingly Peter followed Jesus, even to the point of denying that he even knew him when they came to arrest Jesus. We know about his impetuosity. We saw a few weeks ago how easily Peter’s faith could fade. But once Peter has seen something, everything changes. Jesus’ expectations of Peter change, even if it will take a while for Peter to grow into the leadership Jesus gives him in Caesaria Philippi.
Of course Peter is not the only one called to be responsive in faith. The other disciples have gotten a glimpse of Jesus too. He warns them not to tell anyone that he is the Christ because he knows they barely understand what this means. Almost all of them will run away when Jesus hour of crisis comes; but, even so, their faith endures this failure.
We, too, have gotten a glimpse of Jesus. Indeed, we’ve gotten more than a glimpse. We have seen Jesus in the Gospel for years. We know, unlike the disciples, that being Christ would mean Jesus would die and rise to bring the hope of liberation upon all human beings. We have followed twenty-centuries of Christians who tried to follow Christ. We have been given the gift of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. How, then, are we responsible for the faith we have?
If Peter is given the “key,” the door has been opened for us. We are the church, the assembly, that Christ has gathered. We are the ones whose faith, like Peter’s, can keep the forces of hell and death from defeating us. That Peter receives the keys hardly absolves us from carrying the responsibilities of being faithful to Christ, of being his disciples. Our faith, too, is to be a bedrock for others.
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks. They could hem and haw, but we cannot. “You are the Christ,” we shout back. And Jesus then says, “Well, then let me see how you show that in your lives. Let me see how you are defeating the forces of hell in your everyday lives.”
How long are we willing to wait for a breakthrough? Often we have no choice; it just takes a long time. If people are able to develop a virus for Covid-19 sweeping the world, that would surely be a breakthrough. Maybe it’s around the corner in record time; maybe it will take much longer. When will we have a breakthrough in racial relationships? It’s not only our own country, of course; it’s all the ways people set themselves up as better than others. And, of course, in a nation founded on the idea that all people are “created equal,” when will that equality actually happen?
The readings in today’s Scriptures show us just how slowly breakthroughs happen. For one of the biggest breakthroughs in religious experience was the realization that the Resurrection of Jesus had given everyone equal access to God through faith. This idea shook the first believers in Jesus because they assumed that their Jewish heritage certainly gave them an advantage; in fact, many thought being Jewish was a precondition of being a follower of Jesus.
Although this was a new idea that Christianity introduced, we can see in the first reading that this ideal was part of Jewish hopes. Isaiah has a vision in which all people will feel part of God’s covenant, even foreigners. “I will bring them to my holy mountain,” says God, because God’s house will be one of prayer “for all peoples.” When Isaiah spoke these words, the Jewish Temple had been completelh destroyed by the Babylonians; this trauma led Isaiah to dream of something new.
But we can see in the Gospel passage that this was not an easy idea for people to swallow. When this poor woman, identified as a Canaanite, comes up to Jesus, it’s everything she can muster to get passed his disciples, and everything she can muster to get the attention of Jesus. In effect Jesus is saying that his ministry is to the Jewish people, not to others. Almost as if she is representing the primal hopes of all people for healing, she pushes back on Jesus. “Even dogs get scraps; you have plenty; a scrap is enough for me.”
Where is the breakthrough in this Gospel? It’s in the next to the last line: “O woman, great is your faith.” What makes us brothers and sisters, what allows us to know that we have a relationship with God, is the faith that emerges from our hearts. Faith, the ultimate trust that all of us can and must have in God, makes us part of God’s covenant of salvation. When we acknowledge the faith in our hearts, the major breakthrough has happened.
When Paul talks about the disobedience of all, he is referring to the basic need we all have to renounce our presuppositions and pride, so that we can experience the mercy of God. God wants everyone to accept the mercy that God offers precisely because all of us need it and because this mercy makes us brothers and sisters, children of the Father. Receiving God’s mercy allows us not only to see how equal we are before God; more than anything, it shows us what God is like and, therefore, what we should be like.
When we think about the breakthroughs in our own lives we begin to realize that, although they seemed like all-of-a-sudden, the beginnings of these breakthrough go way back in our lives. We finally realized something had to change. Obviously we have been working on social breakthroughs in our nation since the beginning. For many of these we’ve needed revolution, massive protests, and even a civil war.
But the more we can experience and accept breakthroughs in our own lives the most possible it becomes for God’s ultimate vision of a renewed humanity to come about.
We will do anything when we are desperate, I suppose. Look at the things this pandemic has us doing that we never would have imagined a year ago—from wearing masks, to taking frequent temperatures, to avoiding members of our families out of fear. We similarly will take bigger risks when we face bigger health problems, whether it’s dangerous operations or long-term chemotherapy.
But what happens when the emergency ends, and we are no longer desperate? What happens when life returns to normal?
The disciples are desperate, and Peter is so desperate he’s willing to take huge risk. He is not even sure that the figure is Jesus—“It’s a ghost!” they all shouted. But Peter decides to take a chance. He calls out to Jesus words that represent anything but faith: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” If . . . Do you think you can build a life of faith on bunch of “if’s”?
Peter has pride but not much shame. He’s not afraid to cry out, “Lord, save me.” He did not really get it when Jesus said not to be afraid. “It is I,” said Jesus, the very thing that Peter dares to question with his “if.” But now, as he sinks into the water, fully aware of the wind that encircled him and the boat, he has nowhere else to go. “Lord save me.” And Jesus reaches out his hand to grab him. “Oh you of little faith,” he says.
We often have difficult periods in our lives when, just like Peter, we cry out: Lord, save me; Lord, save us. In times of war. In times of pandemic. In times when we face serious medical issues. In times when we are abandoned by the people we have needed the most. In times when we or the people we love seem to face death.
But then what happens? After the emergency? So often we revert to the keep-God-distant, or God-isn’t-that-important attitude we usually carry. We cry out in desperation, but we do not want to live truly as people of faith. We stretch out our hands in fear, but we otherwise hardly ever raise them in prayer.
We learn from the first reading that we can be fooled in our approach to God. We can think that God only comes in thunder, or in earthquakes, or in times of great fear or stress. But is not God also in our quiet moments, in the softer moments of our lives, in the everyday way we relate to each other, in the ordinary hopes that we carry in our hearts? Only when we seek God at every moment of our lives do we begin to understand the vastness of God’s presence and love.
Jesus wants us to cry out to him in our need. But Jesus also wants us to talk to him in all the moments of our lives. Jesus promises to be present in emergencies or in our danger; but he promises to be present always, until the end of time. It is in the “always” that we learn discipleship, that we learn to follow steadily behind Jesus and walk confidently with him.
When Jesus lifts Peter from the boat, Peter is not saved. He’s only rescued. In fact, when he gets back into the boat and starts to feel safe, Peter is just beginning to learn what salvation, and discipleship, are all about. Often that’s where we are as well. Just at the beginning stage. “It is I,” says Jesus, always wanting to help us grow more deeply in faith.
When we hear the words “desert” and “feeding,” our minds immediately jump to the much-discussed issue of people who live in food deserts. Here the reference is not to thousands of people who ran out of food because the sermon was too good; rather, the terms concerns the millions of people who live in areas where supermarkets and stores that provide fresh food simply will not open up. They think they are not going to make money from poor people, or that poor people may tend to rip them off. So people in these food deserts have stores that offer mostly processed or convenience foods—not conducive to health. No fruits or fresh vegetables; no fresh fish or meat.
This situation brings up one aspect of the today’s Gospel. When people are hungry, it affects everyone. The hunger of anyone touches the resources of everyone. We only have to see pictures of children in Yemen, or children greatly neglected by mentally ill parents, or people waiting online to enter a soup kitchen: these images grip us and fill us with dread.
So the hunger of the crowd gets noticed by the disciples and gets noticed by Jesus. It raises the same question that is always raised in spiritual life: will I be abandoned? Will God provide for me? Will I die because no one cares?
The Gospel says that care comes on two fronts. We notice, most of all, the feeding, how Jesus is doing in the desert what his Father did when the Jews went through the desert and had no bread. But there’s another thing to notice: how Jesus forces his disciples to become part of the feeding, to take and distribute the bread so that people can be fed. The Gospel is saying that we are always responsible for feeding each other with the gifts God gives us.
Of course, this also raises a different question for us: what are we hungry for? Because starving for food is a metaphor of all the things that we need to live. What, for example, are the hungers that we Americans are experiencing at this time? Certainly a hunger for health. And also a hunger that great social wrongs be made right, a hunger for justice. These hungers can cripple a society as much as a lack of food.
Jesus shows the crowd something more important than a miracle. He shows them that some issues need to be solved together, that his disciples need to roll up their sleeves to care for others. And he shows them that God’s abundance is always somehow available to us. Today we end the amazing eighth chapter of Romans where Paul has taught us about God love being poured into us by the Holy Spirit, and that all creation cries out for new birth, for redemption. Today he shows us that when God is on our side absolutely nothing can truly hurt us. When we are fed with divine love we have resources that can bring us through any desert.
We worry. We struggle. We complain. It’s part of our lot in life. But should these worries, struggles, or complaints keep us from seeing our true situation? Loved, enriched, supported, and graced, we have already so much from God; why should we ever doubt?
I used the word “ambicioso” in Spanish once and was surprised at the reaction. “You don’t say that word, Father,” my friends said. “It has a bad connotation—s omeone is in it for himself.” Wow, I thought, in English ambitious can often mean a good quality, a desire to get ahead, a desire to make something of oneself. Sometimes it can mean a person who will walk all over you. But not too often.
“Ambitious” is the word that comes to me when I hear these short images, parables, of Jesus in the Gospel. One man finds a jewel that will be forever valuable. He doesn’t sit there. He moves ahead. He will do anything to get that pearl because of what it means for him. Similarly, the man who finds the treasure will move heaven and earth to buy that field.
Jesus uses the image to task us what kind of energy, what kind of commitment, we are willing to put into seeking and living in the Kingdom. Because if something is important to us then we go out of our way to get it or preserve it. Jesus is hinting that if we do not find energy for the Kingdom inside us then maybe we haven’t begun to enter it. Maybe the Kingdom isn’t that real for us.
We have the fascinating figure of Solomon in the first reading. Here is he, just after he is made king of Israel. He is young and he certainly is ambitious. It’s his plan to fulfill his father, King David’s dream of a Temple in Jerusalem. And he will work to situate himself among the powers of the Middle East at the time. But what is his first act? To ask for wisdom, for what he knows he will need. Before Solomon is ambitious for things or power, Solomon is ambitious for the good of his people. He wants for things himself, but he mostly wants what’s best for others, for his people.
There’s a whole part of our Catholic faith that wants to make us ambitious for what good we can do for others. It says that the best spirituality we have does not revolve around ourselves and our needs, but around what God wants for all of humankind. God sends his Son to show us how important we are; his Son shows us the way we are to care for each other. God loves us with divine ambition!
We see that in the second reading. Paul is telling his listeners why they should have confidence even in the midst of their struggles. His basic point is this: do you not know God is on your side? That God will move heaven and earth to give us the fullest life we will accept. The only limit on God’s plan for us is our refusal to be part of it.
Maybe we don’t want an expensive jewel or even a field we have to dig up. But what do we want? The Gospel is asking us if we want the Kingdom, and all that goes with it. And, if we do, then does it show in the way seek and the way we live?
We hear a lot about identity. How we know ourselves. It should be pretty simple on one level: our gender, age, family background, careers, etc. But identity seems much more a thing of choice today at least in some respects, not what I belong to but who I choose to be.
And often identity gets easier when we have a clear enemy. It was easier to see ourselves as Catholics when, before the second Vatican Council, we thought everyone else was going to hell. And it was easier to wave the American flag when we could shout “Community” and threaten war. Certainly in sports, the games we enjoy the most are the ones with our rivals, the team we always boo.
But our Gospel today has some important cautions. It begins by setting things up the way you and I typically do it: here’s the good and then the bad. The wheat and the weeds. We decide, of course, who we think is good or bad and then we name them the enemy or opposition. “Let’s get rid of the weeds,” we shout..
As the parable gets going however, the Master has to cool his servants down. They want to pull out all of the weeds right away, to make the field perfect again. But the Master says doing that may be way too destructive. Instead of using your might to settle scores and prove you are correct, how about being patient, knowing God will ultimately bring about the right.
I do not think that this is a parable to tell us to do nothing, or not to strive to make things better. But it is a parable to warn us about taking into our own hands the fundamental judgment that belongs to God. And it is a parable to urge us to treat each other with gentleness. That we sometimes think having a weapon and settling scores is the best or only approach when, in fact, we are always called to love.
The short passage we have from St. Paul today is very important because it reinforces this spiritual vision. Paul makes two points. One is that we are often so conflicted and confused we don’t know what to pray for. How many people have felt this when they see the approaching death, and great suffering, of someone we love? “What do I pray for?” Paul says to open our hearts and let the Spirit speak from deep inside of us. Just like it takes a while for crops to grow, it may also take a while for us to resolve difficult situations and feelings in our lives.
Secondly Paul talks about God scrutinizing our hearts. Yes, we do have to think that God’s Spirit is seeing us with a clarity that we barely have about ourselves. And God sees the intentions of others with a clarity that we can never have. Who I truly am is who I am before God.
Our basic identity comes from God, how God sees us, and how God leads us on unique paths through the Holy Spirit. We sometimes think that this involves opposition and conflict. Yet the basic conflict is not outside ourselves but within our hearts, from the conflict we foster inside us. Our God wins not be brutal power but by loving patience. When we share his love and patience, it is then we are closest to God.
We used to hear “The pen is mightier than the sword,” back in the old days when words appeared mostly in newspapers and books. Today most words appear in electronic form and the might of words has become an endless battle between opinions and ideas on the Internet. We consider not only the might of these words but also their capacity for manipulation and even deceit. Nevertheless, as our first reading reminds us, words do transform things, nothing more so than the Word of God.
If we asked a lot of folks about God’ Word, we’d get different responses. Some religious groups provide enormous resources to help their adherents read the Bible. Many Catholics, on the other hand, find it difficult to remember where their Bible might be in their house. That is why today’s Gospel reading, about the Sower and the Seed, provides us an opportunity to reflect on God’s Word in our life.
We come to church or, these days, watch Mass online. Over half the time we spend at Mass is devoted to the Word of God. Sunday by Sunday we hear God’s word addressed to us. This can be so routine that many of us don’t realize its power or its effect on our lives. Every single Sunday the Gospel is calling us to conversion, to commitment, to deeper discipleship. As we hear these words together, we are saying that, as a community, we hold ourselves accountable for them. In front of each other we are saying that we know we need to live the Gospel we are hearing.
The parable we hear about the Sower can be easy to misunderstand. We can conclude that, whatever God does, our destinies are fixed, that we are rocky soil, or thorn-filled soul, or just a roadway. But obviously the parable is not saying this. Rather, the parable is calling all of us to ask how we have let that Word of God into our hearts, and how we are letting that Word transform us.
Indeed, that Word is powerful enough to penetrate the rockiness of our hearts, or the shallowness of our vision, or the distractions and temptations that beset us. Indeed, rather than just lying inert on the ground, the seed of God’s life penetrates us, empowering us to accomplish its good in our everyday lives. Indeed, God’s Word wants to bear fruit in us—thirty, sixty, or even a hundred-fold.
Consider, for example, the powerful message from the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul offers us a stunning image, that of groaning. He applies this image to dimensions of our personal lives because he knows the suffering all of us go through. But he also applies it to creation itself, inviting us to see every moment of our existence as a step toward that ultimate birth when we come to the fullness of life.
Cannot you and I reflect on the sufferings of our lives, on the great pain in our nation, on the great struggles of our world—can we not see these in a new light, as a way in which we are invited to grow in hope, to believe in God’s future for us even though we go through difficulties? God sows this word in us to give us a new vision of ourselves and our world.
Some words are mightier than other words. But all the words we use come and go. The Word of God, springing from God’s infinite love, is the last word, the most powerful word, the word that abides. We pray for the grace not only to hear it, but, most especially, to live it.
It’s a laid-back Fourth of July. Even now we’re not sure who gathers, how they gather, what the displays will be like, how various celebrities will be present. We gather without the swagger that usually accompanies our national celebrations, chastened by a disease that has crippled us, and demonstrations that point out embarrassing flaws in how we live out our American philosophy.
So maybe we are in a better position to hear the message of Jesus in the Gospel. “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Humble of heart is not the way we think of ourselves as citizens. Not only are we all equal, or at least supposed to be equal, but we define ourselves by our proud achievements—defeating the British twice, conquering the Confederacy, humiliating the Spanish, winning the “war to end all wars,” until we had to win another one twenty years later. About recent wars, where it’s hard to swagger, we kind of obscure in our discourse. We still think of ourselves as the richest, most powerful country—in all of human history.
But what does Jesus mean by being “meek and humble of heart”? We can understand this by looking at the phrase “take my yoke upon you.” To be yoked to someone is to work alongside, to be part of their work and efforts, to share their vision. In order to understand how Jesus is meek and humble, we have to see what his vision was and how we are joined to it.
In this passage, Jesus is receiving his disciples whom he sent out earlier to proclaim his Kingdom and to heal the pains and burdens of the people. Just as Jesus came as a servant, so he sends his disciples to be servants too. Jesus shows his disciples that there’s a power in humble service; the same power is available for us as well. In the first reading, from one of the last prophets in Israel, when the Jewish people had not seen kings for hundreds of years, Zechariah envisions a king who comes to rule without any of the displays of power—horses, swords, chariots—but only with the promise of peace.
You and I know the power of humble service, for nothing brings parents closer to their children than the opportunity to care for them, even in the most menial ways. Nothing motivates public servants more than just be of help to others; we see what happens when public servants don’t act that way. People go to poor countries to serve the population; they come back transformed. A prophet like Martin Luther King Jr. stands before us—and we all know the power of his words more than 50 years after his death.
Paul contrasts those who live by the Spirit and those who do not. To live by the Spirit is to live totally focused on God and the power that comes into our lives because of that. To live by the flesh is to rely on the arrogant illusion that “I can fix this by myself. I am strong and resourceful.” Many things we can fix, but the deepest problems need the resolution that can only come from God.
Like the disciples, we are all sent out. Every week Jesus sends us forth, strengthened by his Word and nourished by his Flesh. We have yoked ourselves to Christ. He sends us forth to walk in that deepest assurance that comes not from arrogance but from an attitude of humble service. We learn to say, “I am not here to look good, but only to serve you.”
When we take on this attitude, indeed we find deep peace and profound rest. The arrogant are yoked to their own illusions. Jesus’ disciples find true freedom in humbly being yoked to him and his vision for humankind.
Nothing has shown us the social connections we have, and need, more than this Covid-19 disease. This disease has forced us to fear, to keep afar, and to question every contact we could possibly make with another human being. One of the things most affected by our social confusion is what the scriptures speak about most clearly, hospitality.
How many times did I hear grandparents would not go near their grandchildren, and children would not bring their kids to see their grandparents? “I don’t want to be responsible for killing you,” people would say, showing just how much ultimate fear had become part of our daily discourse. We cannot begin to imagine a scene such as we have in the first reading, a prophet casually dropping in on a couple to eat until they end up building a bedroom for him to stay in.
Jesus sees hospitality as one of the fundamental ways in which faith is shared. He talks about receiving each other; to the extent that we receive others into relationship in faith, to that extent we receive the one who sent them. Ultimately, it is God who sends us into each other’s lives; ultimately when we receive each other in genuine openness and love, we are receiving God.
But, to be honest, Jesus doesn’t sound very hospitable with the opening lines of this passage—that unless we love Jesus more than our parents, more than our family, we cannot be his followers. We ask, “Why do we have to face a choice like this?” It gets clearer in the next lines. The one choice we have to make is whether to embrace Jesus and his way. When we do that, we will then know how to love everyone else in him.
It’s as if Jesus is saying that when we understand God’s infinite love for everyone, then we have the chance to understand how we are to view each other. God’s love binds us together, certainly as families, but also as friends and neighbors, also as members of a human community whose meaning becomes clear the more we see God’s love for each and all of us.
The passage from Paul’s letter shows the same thing from another angle. When we have completely identified with Christ, as we do when we are baptized, then we have died to the selfish, need-based way we usually live. Rather, in our new relationship with Christ, we find the power of his new life in our hearts, freeing us from the narrow vices that keep us from truly seeing each other.
The new life that Jesus offers us calls us to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. It’s hard to do this literally at this moment in our history, but maybe it’s clearer what this means. We now know how frail we are, how we depend on each other, and how we need to live as one human family—we know this better because of the turmoil of our present life. As Catholics, we gather to worship on behalf of all the human race. As God unifies us in Christ, so God is showing the unity that our very humanity cries out for and needs.
We who, because of our sacraments, know the power of our relationship with Christ, can uphold the importance of relationship, of hospitality, of acceptance in this broken and confused time. We have died with Christ, snuffing out the things that alienate and disunite us. We are invited to a table where God would feed us all as brothers and sisters. We, who have been visited not by a prophet but by the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, bring his transforming love into every relationship of our lives.
Whoever we are, we all feel unsettled when we think we are not protected. This is why the pandemic was so frightening to all of us: we could never be sure we were protected from it. Did I touch my face? Did I not wash my hands enough? Who was I in contact with?
A good percentage of our population, in addition to this, feel unprotected from the very people who are charged to protect them, law enforcement. I know if someone is threatening my life, I was police around. But for some people having the police around feels more like a threat than a security.
Jesus directly addresses fear on the part of his disciples. We are shocked by his confidence—saying not to worry about those who can kill the body, that we are worth more than any number of sparrows, that the hair on our head is counted. We know that persecution came early and frequently to the early followers of Jesus, so Jesus’ words must have been repeated often. Where did that confidence come from?
Jeremiah is the prophet most frequently speaking of persecution. People conspire all around him. “But the Lord is at my side like a mighty champion,” Jeremiah says. Jesus continues this ancient insight: to be on the side of God is to be on the side of victory. The only difference is this: the early followers of Jesus knew what that victory was about; they knew Jesus risen from the dead. They saw that victory in person.
In Paul’s famous reflection in the letter to the Romans, where he contrasts the power of death throughout history with the power of justification in Jesus, he confidently states that the power of the risen Christ overflows for many human beings. God has done something for us in Jesus and, once we see and accept that, the victory of Jesus brings his very strength to our lives.
In other words, in Jesus, we know, in a complete way, that God is on our side. “Therefore, do not be afraid,” Jesus says. Do not be afraid to announce the power and victory of Jesus available to everyone. Do not be afraid to live with such confidence that other see it, feel it, and come to accept it. Do not be afraid to tell a culture that feels unprotected and unsafe that God is our ultimate safety.
For we acknowledge Christ when we live with the trust that he invites us to have. We proclaim Jesus to the world when we radiate trust to all around us. The trust is not some naïve feeling that denies life’s problems; rather, the trust arises in our hearts despite whatever life can throw at us. The old hymn sings that God’s eye is on the sparrow; far more is God’s eye, God’s love, God’s power on every one of us.
I’m afraid our times will continue being unsettled. No one knows the course of this virus; no one can promise soon a vaccine that is guaranteed to work. Likewise, no one knows when cries for justice will lead to needed changes. These are times, Jesus is telling us, when we Christian have so much to give the world: in the face of uncertainty and fear, we believers know we have the absolutely certain power of the risen Christ around us all the time.
The Body and Blood of Christ A
Like the Jewish people of old, we have very mixed feelings about the “manna” in our lives.
Our first reading gives us an idea of this manna. The Jewish people were on the move, away from Egypt, the land of slavery which they still missed; they were traveling through the desert for an undetermined amount of time. When they didn’t have their regular food, God sent them manna, a strange kind of grain, to sustain them. It sustained them until they reached the Promised Land where they could produce their own grain once again.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think of what we’ve been through as something like the desert. In our homes, our regular food routines have been disrupted, even our shopping routines. And certainly getting anything from a restaurant, or even a fast-food chain, has become a multi-step chore.
But particularly when it comes to our worship, with the Eucharist at the center, we have been walking in a desert. We have been deprived of the chance to come together as a family, to hear our readings proclaimed, to share in the Eucharistic Prayer, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, whose feast we celebrate today.
Yet God did send us manna, another kind of food that sustained us in our faith, although we preferred more. God sent us multiple live streams of the Mass, homilies from virtually any church in America. God sent us the challenge to form a center of our own faith life by period of prayer and meditation. God sent us the opportunities, which many of us exercised, to pray with our families at home, to share our faith directly.
Just as the Jewish people were tempted to forget, or even disparage, the gift of manna, we are tempted to want to “open everything up” so it returns to the way it was. And, in doing this, we are also tempted to overlook the kind of daily bread, the kind of everyday spirituality, which is as much a part of our faith lives as our ability to go to Mass. For, in this pandemic, we learned that part of what the Sacrament of the Mass means is that the Eucharist is to help us see how God is always feeding us, sharing our lives, and bringing us into union. The Sacrament shows us what our faith lives are about.
As precious as the Eucharist, our central Sacrament, is, it, in itself, is ultimately also a form of manna—a sign pointing to the fullness of life that God promises and is bringing about in our lives. Paul calls the food we take a participation in the Lord’s Body and Blood, a form of living which shows itself in the love we have for each other. And Jesus tells us in the Gospel the Bread he gives us finds its meaning in our eternal life. Jesus sustains us just as the Father sustain him to that we can begin living eternal life even as we journey through life.
God always sustains us, especially at those moments when we feel most abandoned and confused. He gives us bread from heaven, “manna,” to support us on our journeys. Our Catholic lives are filled with these forms of support, whether in our everyday spirituality which affirms us in God’s life, or in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or in the ultimate promise of the fullness of life which is our goal. God always sustains us so long as we learn what our true hungers are, and how we need to be fed.
Trinity Sunday A
She looked at me, puzzled. “Father, is that you?” she asked. I wondered why she was confused until I remembered that I was wearing my mask. Then I noticed her face. I knew who she was because she has cut my hair for ten years. But as I studied the mask on her face, I realized how much less recognizable she was, how hard it would be for most other people to see who she was.
Sometimes we wear masks to deliberately obscure our faces, as we might a Halloween or as a gangster might during a crime. Sometimes we wear a mask metaphorically, pretending to feel something we do not feel. We put on a happy face, for example, when we feel raw and pained inside. But most of the time we expect to see and recognize each other in one or another relationship. Just imagine the last face we’d want to see before we died.
So what about God? Does God wear a mask? How do we know what God is like?
In fact, it’s been hard to know God over human history. We have projected into God strange ideas of anger and revenge, or we have made God something so abstract it really doesn’t affect our lives. For this reason, we Christians rejoice in the gift of Jesus Christ. He is the one who takes off the masks we create for God; he is the One who shows us the Father of unlimited love.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” we read in the Gospel this Sunday. This is easily one of the most recognizable scriptures because we’ve seen references to this verse at almost every outdoor event in signs held up by someone in the crowd. Likewise, the start of the letter to the Hebrews says that God spoke in different ways using different symbols in the past; but, in our final days, God has spoken to us through his Son.
When we see a face, even initially, we tend to project into it. Is this a friendly face, or bored face, an all-business face, an angry face? Often our first impressions are wrong. After we know someone well, we not only see the face but we have a whole range of feelings and insights associated with that face. For example, we see so much more in the faces of those we love than others do. When it comes to our life partners, we see both their lives and ours in the faces of those to whom we’ve committed ourselves.
This Trinity Sunday we celebrate the way God has been disclosed to us, after thousands of years of revelation, in Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us the face of the Father. In Jesus we see compassion, grace, joy, mercy, and the promise of life. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends his Spirit into our lives, so that we may know God from within our hearts and souls, and so that we may be faces through which others see God.
The life of God, which Jesus shows us, does not stay within God. No, the nature of God’s life is to go forth, to shine forth, to give life. We celebrate this as Christians when we can gather for worship—and we hope we can do that together, again, and soon. But we enjoy this life whenever we realize that Jesus has made us part of God’s eternal life, made us sharers in the life of the Trinity, and given us a relationship with God that abides so long as we choose to view God’s face through the image that Jesus showed us.
Among the many sad things we learned during our pandemic is that we can be made to fight over everything. Whether to wear a mask or not? Whether this was only a gentle flu or not? Whether our churches could be opened or not? As these arguments evolved, we realized that the point was to emphasize the divisions among us, to make one group look one way and another group look like it was stupid, wrong, or even the enemy.
Unfortunately this kind of “we” versus “them” thinking seems to be part of our human nature. Not only do we want to think we are “right.” We need the other person to be “wrong” and we need a group behind us to cheer our side of the argument. Just about every war experienced by humankind had its origins in some of kind of “we” versus “them” thinking.
Part of the drama of the feast we celebrate is this: Pentecost gives us the change to think of ourselves as one, united together, sharing the same Spirit, and open to the same God. In our first reading we have the traditional list of peoples who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast—Parthians, Medes, Elamites—but instead of grouping together into clusters apart from each other, they are now hearing the same message of salvation offered to all people—hearing that message apart from their nationality or ethnicity.
Pentecost celebrates the desire of God, because of the resurrection of Jesus, to offer humankind a new vision of itself, a vision in which each person knows she or he is gifted by the Spirit of God to be a force for joy, peace, and unity. Our second reading tells us that the gifts we have do not come to us to be kept alone, among ourselves, for our own personal good. No, the gifts of the Spirit—as varied and subtle as they are—become tools for uniting all humankind in a vision of divine love.
When Jesus comes into the closed, fear-filled room of the apostles, who think that everyone and everything is against them, he offers them peace—the gift of reconciliation with him, the one they fled and left to die. Then he breathes his own Spirit upon them, his way of saying that his risen power is now passing to them. After that he challenges them to be agents of reconciliation in the world: because they have the Spirit, they can break down walls, overcome divisions, walk in humility, and find ways of forgiveness and hope.
Reconciliation does not happen by looking back into the past, trying to pick over old wounds and correct old wrongs. It happens by looking forward, to what God would bring about in the world, to a future when we all walk in the Spirit of God in service to each other, and, particularly, in service to the neediest among us.
So this feast of Pentecost God places two ways before us: the way of opposition or the way of reconciliation. If we stay in our little pockets, reconciliation cannot happen. But if we trust that God has the ability to send his Spirit upon us and bring us into a new space, then we begin to understand just what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection, and just what God intended when we were called to be his Church.
There’s lots to be said about the experience of quarantine. Most of the comments talk about people gaining so much weight they won’t fit out the front door when it’ all over. And, of course, the binge watching of TV series on one outlet or another. Some have had to home-school their children, enjoying it for the most part. Some were unfortunately caught in a network of domestic abuse which staying home did not help. But I think a common sensation was this: a lot of pent up energy, that could have gone to work or socializing, was ready to burst open.
In some ways the period between the Resurrection and Ascension was like a period of quarantine. Jesus appeared to his apostles and prepared them for ministry. But as long as he was with them in his risen body, what could they do but want to hang around him, admire him, or question him? The Ascension of Jesus was the way Jesus transferred his risen power to his followers. As he was sent, so also they would be sent.
We get a hint of this in the first reading when the disciples ask Jesus about the Kingdom to be restored. Jesus speaks first of all of the power that would come upon them. The word here is like our word for “dynamism”—it’s a power that arises from inside of us and drives us forward. I think a lot of students during this time who were looking to graduate; they exerted a lot of dynamism to finish their last crazy semester and finally get their diplomas. We know dynamism in our life when nothing seems to be able to stop us.
The whole point of the Ascension of Jesus is to put into us, the followers of Jesus, the dynamism that marked his life. We call this the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” We see Jesus in the Gospel with his followers, many of whom still cannot believe that he is actually risen. But he sends them forth, doubts and all, to make disciples of all peoples. We find out what this means when he tells his disciples to teach them to follow everything Jesus has commanded us. Jesus does not doubt that his disciples have the wherewithal to carry this out, even to the ends of the earth.
Of course, what Jesus has commanded us is to live his Beatitudes, to experience such trust in God that we come to know divine love as the foundation of our lives. Because we have this experience of God, we then can be agents of hope, peace, mercy, and liberation to others. We follow his commands when we live with the wisdom the parables give us, when we build communities of reconciliation, when we let people know they are invited to the table of the Lord, that they can share in the joy of the chalice of God’s new covenant. Was not this Jesus’ teaching all through the Gospel?
We are often tempted to think of our faith lives as mostly rules to be followed and lessons to be memorized. But Jesus did not send his disciples out to impose laws or write catechisms. He sent them out first to be examples of the life he lives, and to help others know they could live his life as well by opening themselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit of love.
We often wonder what we would have done on the top of that mountain if Jesus sent us forth? We wonder if our doubts would have given us an escape path from Jesus’ commissioning. But we are all, in fact, on the top of that mountain. Jesus has appeared Sunday after Sunday to us; he sends us forth at the end of every Mass. Is not his love greater than our doubt? Is not his Spirit greater than our fear?
Jesus ascends not to leave us but to become present in a new way. We rejoice in the dynamism of Jesus, now ours as a gift of the Spirit. We pray our hesitations may never leave this dynamism diminished.
Easter 6 A
One of the most frequent, and moving, scenes is when children greet parents, and even grandparents, when they have been separated for a while—daddy’s coming home, grandma visiting, mom’s return from the hospital. These scenes have their opposite, too: when children are separated from their parents—maybe they are lost for an hour, or maybe a parent has died, or maybe children a put in cages far from their mothers and fathers—scenes we’ve seen too often. These help us know the primal, instinctive bonding that happens between children and their elders.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus says to his disciples in today’s Gospel. He wants to spare us the ongoing grief of having been deprived of his presence and his guiding love. Aware as he is of the enormous bonding that has taken place between himself and his followers, Jesus know that they will need special resources if they would continue being his followers—if they would ever mature enough in faith to go forth and act in his name.
He tells them he will send “another Advocate”—that is, another from God who will provide the resources that he did. What resources” Protection, guidance, and ongoing relationship. Because this is what Jesus gave to his disciples; and this is what Jesus continues to give to his Church through the Holy Spirit. Jesus protects, guides and continues to unite with us through the Holy Spirit that he sends upon us.
The Spirit’s protection gives us the assurance of God’s resilience and strength, especially when we are threatened. As we’ve read the Scriptures in these days after Easter, we see that proclaiming Jesus involves risk and leads to dangers. The first letter of Peter today speaks of Easter hope to a people who are already living in fear, who have already suffered for faith. “Be ready to give a reason for the hope that is inside of you,” Peter urges; especially the hope that lets us stare down the threats of others. Once we have God’s inner consolation, we are safe from threats and danger.
The Spirit also guides us. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Look at how confused we have been throughout this pandemic. So the followers of Jesus need a way to discern steps ahead when new situations arise. The Spirit helps us remember who Jesus is, what he taught, and how he lived. From this we continue to discern how to move ahead into an unclear future. While we do not have the guarantee of never making a mistake, we do have the assurance of Christ’s gift of wisdom.
The Spirit also connects—connects us with Jesus, us with each other, us with the Father who sustains all because God dwells in all. The Spirit even sees our connections with people we once thought strangers, as we see in the first reading. Jesus has revealed to us the extent of the Father’s care and love for us; he has also shown us how we can trust in, yes, even abide in God. This happens through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who allows us to identify with God in a way that makes all other union we may experience in life only a sharing in that basic union that we have with God. The Spirit lets us see our lives as experiences of divine indwelling.
We’ve not been left orphans. Jesus loves us so much he continues to protect, guide and unite with us. In this way, if we have received the Spirit, we can continue his work by the way we protect, guide, and love each other. We are not orphans; we can give to others what has been abundantly given to us!
Easter 5 A
There are many places in my Fathers’ house.
I suspect that’s a line from Jesus’ discourse in today’s Gospel that can resonate with any number of us. I see funny jokes online about people saying, “Where shall we go to church this weekend?” Pause. “In the kitchen or in the living room?” Indeed, with all the stay-in-place rules we’ve had over this time, our houses and apartments can feel very small indeed. We like the idea of having many rooms to roam.
Jesus means a lot of things by these words—how big his Father’s love is, how salvation is for many. But I think the most striking meaning is that God has a place for each one of us with all the differences of our lives and personalities. Sometimes we feel that holiness looks only one way, or Christians all have to look the same. But there are as many ways of holiness as there are people whom the Holy Spirit has touched; Jesus can use what is unique for each one of us to build up his Kingdom.
But even though there are many rooms, Jesus says that getting to his Father’s house has one route: that he is the route. “I am the way, the truth, and the life, “ Jesus says. No one can come to his Father except through him. How can that be, we ask? Didn’t he say that there were many rooms in the Father’s house? Is he now saying that it’s hard to get in?
Jesus rather is elaborating on his words: way, truth, and life. He is saying that his mission is to show the infinite love of the Father. That is his truth, his life. Because this is so, he remains the way to the Father. He shows us the Father’s love by the way he reveals it to us; we show that we live for the Father by the way we live as Jesus did, by the love we are willing to show.
“Whoever sees me has seen the Father,” Jesus says, underscoring the point that his life’s mission has been to reveal the Father in such a way that all can see the Father, and also that all of us can reveal the Father by the way we live. In the words of St. Peter, we announce God’s praises by the way in which we live, by the way we show that we have left darkness and now live in God’s light.
Of course, many of us who claim to follow Jesus only go so far; as a result, our lives do not reveal the love of God for everyone. Paradoxically, many who do not claim to follow Jesus manage to reveal a lot of the Father’s love by the generosity of their lives. Seeing God is not a matter of our eyeballs, just like seeing the Risen Jesus is not a bodily function. Seeing God means we make the generous love of God the path that we follow and the truth that grounds us.
Our current emergency, and the way we politicize it, leads us to identify heroes and villains on a regular basis. But no one doubts that the bravery of people who have staffed our hospitals and served in our clinics, often at great risk to themselves and in almost impossible circumstances, stand out in a special way. They are not just heroes but as people who reveal God’s love to us.
These are the “greater works” Christ says his followers will do—greater because even lowly and weak people like us can be ways in which God is revealed to the world. God uses us to create the many rooms that compose the Father’s house, to construct the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
Easter 4 A
Feeling safe is one of our most primal instincts. We can see that now, during our pandemic, when just about everything we do can make us afraid. Did I touch some metal? Did I wash my hands a lot? Is that person far enough from me? Did I pick up the virus from that person who sneezed? Will my mask be effective protection?
So our hearing of the Gospel today, which presents Jesus in several metaphors involving being a shepherd, ought to deeply console us. There might be other false shepherds who run away when things get difficult, but Jesus is not like that. No, Jesus give everything he has, because of his love for his sheep. “Whoever enters through me will be saved,” Jesus says.
It’s natural to think of Shepherds primarily as people who defend us, who keep away attacking animals and would-be enemies. And it’s consoling to think of Church—even when we cannot go to church at times like this—as a place to keep us safe. People often refer to the comfort of their church, how warm it makes them feel, how secure.
But Jesus shows us a picture of a Shepherd who is quite active. The shepherd’s job is to lead the sheep. The shepherd goes first, faces the danger, and then calls out so that the sheep can be assured at the familiarity of the shepherd’s voice. “My sheep know my voice,” Jesus says.
But doesn’t knowing Jesus’ voice mean that we are called to go out ourselves, to lead for others, to help others find the gate through which they can come to experience Jesus? Isn’t Jesus calling us not to be passive sheep, nor even to be laid back shepherds, but to be about the shepherding of people in the world in which we live? Precisely because we feel secure in Christ, we can act as he did, to be ways in which others find Christ’s pasture.
In many ways parents do this as a natural part of raising their children, they model a form of faith which can permanently strengthen their sons and daughters. Sometimes we take on other shepherd-like roles. A policeman or nurse can do their job, but they also can transform their job when they see it as an expression of their faith, of the love Jesus shows us. But even beyond this, we often run into folks who just seem to be wandering through life, no real direction or hope. These are people we can shepherd by helping them see the doors we have opened and what they have done for us.
We feel so much more secure in our lives because we have heard the voice of Jesus. But we can ourselves be Jesus’ voice through our own faith-filled living, reaching out in service to others. Through us, through our lives, Jesus’ voice echoes once again, speaking with assuring love.
Easter 3 A
How would it be for us to spend a morning with Jesus?
What do we imagine we’d talk about? What would Jesus be interested in? What would we want to know about him?
We have in the Gospel today one of the most famous walks in human history, Cleopas and his companion, whoever she or he might be, leaving Jerusalem as fast as they can. When we confront a tragedy, one of our most natural instincts is to turn away from the place where it happened. If someone I love was killed in an accident, every time I went near that place, I would cringe. When the World Trade Center collapsed, many New Yorkers could not bear to watch the smoke rising day after day.
But even though Cleopas and his companion feel a need to run away, to return to their past lives, Jesus begins a conversation that invites them to look at the tragedy they want to escape, but to look at it through the eyes of hope and faith. “Was it not necessary?” Jesus concludes. “Can’t you see that there’s a bigger picture here than the death of your religious hero?”
Surely, if we talked with Jesus, he’d ask us if we felt disappointed in our lives, particularly if that disappointment led us to become stuck. Jesus’ ministry was always to free people, to get them over the hurdles they or society placed in their way. He might very well ask us about the things we feel are the worst about ourselves. And he’d love us all the more for these burdens we carry.
What would we ask him? On the one hand, we are always curious about his life, how he felt, what he thought about things. What did you do in your childhood? Did you always want to be a prophet? What did your family, especially Mary, feel when you left home? How did Judas make you feel? What was it like to die? To be dead?
I suspect, though, Jesus would want us to dwell less on the past and more on the future. He’d want us to ask what his dreams were for human history, how he could hope in us when we keep messing things up, how his Kingdom would emerge from the checkered history we had created. I suspect Jesus would want us to leave that walk with him believing in the hope that he had for us, in the power of love to untwist hate, on the ability of hope to pull us through the blockages we keep finding in life.
That’s what he did whenever people ate with him. He filled their imaginations with hope as bread multiplied to feed hunger, and with reconciliation as public traitors sat with him and learned of God’s mercy. So he eats with these two depressed people on their way to Emmaus, people whose hearts were already so on fire they barely realized it. And as he breaks the bread, they see the future of humankind open up before them: Jesus is raised! The past cannot hold us back, neither can our sins! There’s one road ahead, a road of love and life.
At this time when we cannot eat sacramentally with Christ due to the disruption of the pandemic, Jesus would surely insist that this was not a total hurdle. Rather, it can be an opportunity for us to explore in our prayer and meditation how Jesus continues to walk with us, knowing our sadness and fears, but still showing a vision of loving hope.
Easter 2 A
He is like a lot of us. He just needed a little more time.
You know, some of us are late bloomers, take a while to pick a major, decide we’ll wait to get married, or get into our life-long careers after years of work.
Why shouldn’t Thomas have needed more time? How quick should he have decided that what his comrades were telling him might in some way be true. Not just that Jesus appeared. Not just that they knew it was him by the wounds he showed them. Not just that he forgave them and offered them peace. All that was plenty to absorb. And, if it was true, what would that mean?
But their story went even further. Jesus told them he was bestowing his Holy Spirit on them, that they would be instruments of reconciliation in the lives of others. Most of all, he said to them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Really?
After all, how long has it taken us to begin to absorb the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and, even more, its implications for us? If we seriously looked at our own lives, the things that make us worry and the things that get our attention, do we seem like we are living with the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this risen life is ours?
How many centuries have Christians heard Jesus’ words that we are sent by him, just as he was sent by the Father? To be living signs of joy, hope, healing, and reconciliation? How many of us live in such a way that the Spirit of Jesus shines out from our lives?
Of course, we want to. We hear the Easter message year by year. We feel glimmers of joy somewhere inside of us. But we live with the same fears as everyone else, the same questions, the same hesitations. It just takes time for us, in fact, a lot more than it took for Thomas.
Like Thomas, we want to test Jesus, to see if God will do what we want God to do. Yes, prove you are who you say you are. But, like Thomas, we know that’s only a game, a way to put Jesus off, a way to buy even more time for ourselves.
At some point, however, we know that we’ve had time enough. At some point we fall to our knees and say, “My Lord and My God.” At some point we know we cannot live without Easter because every fiber in our bodies, and every sincere thought in our minds, and every prayer we say, cries out for the fullness of life.
Jesus gave Thomas time. Jesus gives us time. But he still stands before us, still stands beside us, asking us if we’re ready, asking us if we’ve finally decided to be the Easter people he rose to make us.
Easter Sunday A
Today, Easter comes after a Lent of enormous obstacles.
We hardly knew back near the end of February just how deprived we would be. The obstacles we faced put our very human society at risk, not only physically but most especially in our very existence as a community.
We faced a disease we could barely name and had difficulty seeing. The disease forced us away from each other, looking at each other with suspicion or outright fear. We closed our stores, our theaters, our malls. We even closed our churches.
This disease, and our fear of it, became an obstacle to our celebrating the presence of Christ in our midst in the Eucharist.
So we are like the women in today’s Gospel, running to a tomb but not knowing who will remove the obstacles: the soldiers who guard it, the tomb that blocks it. Who will roll away the stone? We wonder, we sorry.
God’s messenger tells us that the stone has already been rolled back. The tomb is already empty. Though we face our fears and doubts, God’s saving action has decisively struck. For he has vanquished the fear and hatred that led to the death of his Son, the One he sent to heal, to forgive, to reconcile, to love. He has removed the blindness that has blocked our human eyes from the beginning, the fear that tells us that we have to be our own gods, our own saviors.
No matter how beset we are with threat, Jesus was threatened more. No matter how shamed and confused, Jesus was even more so. No matter how death surrounds us, Jesus absorbed death and took it to himself. But, now as the messenger explains, “He has been raised. He is not here.”
Where is he, then? In our faith, in our hearts, in the eyes we have that twinkle with hope, in the way we embrace each other, in our prayer, in our longing for church and Mass, in the way you and I look to the future not with trembling but with joy.
He has been raised and given the Spirit to the community that puts him at the center of its life. Has not Christ been with us all these days, in spite of all obstacles and deprivations? Has not Christ always been with us? And will he not continue to be with us?
He is raised. Do not be afraid. Go tell the world that he goes before us into the glory for which we are destined.
Passion Sunday A
Giuseppe Bernadelli was one of dozens of priests who died of the coronavirus in Bergamo, the city in Northern Italy mostly made famous as the birthplace of St. John XXIII. Father Bernadelli’s name was widely circulated, though, because of an enormously generous gesture. Although he was 70 years of age and certainly qualified for a ventilator, he preferred that the ventilator be given to someone much younger. He gave up part of his life to extend the life of another.
As such, he is a hero, and he reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of professionals and public servants who have put their lives at risk to help the rest of us. Some people take on so much risk that they end up dying for others.
It’s tempting to read the Passion story in this way, Jesus as the hero who gives up his life for the rest of humankind. Yet we cannot lose sight of the particular kind of sacrifice that Jesus makes. Jesus’ death does not mean, after all, that you and I don’t have to worry about dying. His death did not take away our death. Instead, it changed the meaning of our deaths.
When we hear the story of Jesus Last Supper, agony, arrest, and assassination, the story has so much power we might overlook the invitation the Passion story has for each one of us. Jesus does not die in our place. No, he dies alongside of us, he dies with us. In doing so, he teaches us what life and death mean.
Jesus death flowed from his life. He lived to bring the Kingdom of God into human experience. His death is part bringing the Kingdom. He dies giving witness to the overwhelming love of God who promises us a yet fuller life beyond death if we have begun to live with a vision of the Kingdom. That vision means we live with a passion for others, for their healing and their justice. That vision means everyone is treated as sacred because of God’s eternal love for them.
The women of those days wept for Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t want our tears. Rather he wants us to live with the vision that consumed him, to live in witness to God’s love, to live for the betterment of all creation, to be witnesses of hope. Given what we are going through as a society, when we cannot even gather for Easter, we now know what a precious commodity hope is.
Jesus dies not exactly as a hero so much as God’s witness, showing us the fullness through and beyond death, a fullness that secures our deepest hopes.
Lent 5 A
That’s how the cookie crumbles. It is what it is. Life never promised you a rose garden.
We have many phrases that encourage us to be tough, Stoic, and to accept the things that happen to us which seem beyond our control. The death of Lazarus seemed beyond the control of everyone, too, except, of course, Jesus. What do they say: the two inescapable things in life are death and taxes? The reactions of Mary, Martha and the whole community to the death of Lazarus paint a picture of inescapable death and grief.
We might well be puzzled at Jesus’ attitude through all of this. John’s Gospel shows Jesus as fully aware of his friend’s illness, but Jesus deliberately delays coming. The sisters of Lazarus, while being polite to Jesus, signal their disappointment, even regrets, when they say, “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even the townspeople express surprise: could not have this miracle-worker done a miracle for his friend?
In spite of all this emotionally laden language, the Gospel invites us to see Jesus’ point with great clarity. Certainly, the physical raising of Lazarus has enormous clarity. We cannot hear this passage without pictures of this man limping from the darkness of the tomb after Jesus calls his name. The image is indelible.
But there’s another point of clarity when Jesus says to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Then he asks her—and he’s is asking us as well—whether she believes this. She responds with the traditional belief about resurrection at that time in Israel, but Jesus tells her that something beyond her traditional belief is now available to her. “I am the resurrection.”
Although we want to think of resurrection in terms of bodies that do not corrupt and keep on functioning, Jesus is saying that bodily preservation is not the point; rather, the endurance of relationships is the central focus of our faith and our relationship with God. Do we not see that once we have a relationship with God then we exist forever in God’s eternal love? “I am the resurrection,” says Jesus. “I have established your relationship with God, with eternal life. This is far more essential than the biology that traps you.”
When we hear “eternal life” we imagine “future life” or “life hereafter.” But that’s not Jesus’ teaching. “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” After all the funerals we’ve been to, especially the fears of these months, it is hard for us to see Jesus’ point. Jesus tells us that the power to live forever, the power of eternal life, has already been given to us when we believe, when we let God know us and abide in us. This eternal life is already present; we are living in it now.
In fact, this eternal life is what we celebrate when we gather for Mass. In this time of pandemic, when we are deprived of liturgical celebrations, the great blessing of the Eucharist might become clearer to us. Eucharist is when Jesus affirms his unending life in each of us and in all of us as his living Body. Eucharist is how the power of risen life grows in us as disciples.
A popular prayer asks God to give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. Indeed, all of us have to accept life’s limitations. But we should know what those limitations actually are. Jesus assures us that even death is not a limitation in the face of the enduring relationships we have in God through faith.
Lent 4 A
Don’t touch your face! We’ve been hearing this for the past two weeks; the more they say it, the harder it is not to touch our faces. It’s just instinctual, whether scratching, pushing hair from our eyes, or grabbing a tissue. This caution makes us realize that our face is actually a set of carefully arranged openings, between our mouths, noses and even our eyes; it’s a major way things get into our bodies.
So how do we feel with this phrase in the Gospel, that Jesus “made clay from dirt and his own spit,” and he then put that on the blind man’s eyes? It isn’t even clear that the man asked Jesus to do this. Rather, the man seems to be used principally as a passive example of what can happen—his parents must have sinned, so that’s why he was born blind.
Last week we had the water of the well; this week, we have a different kind of water—the spittle that Jesus uses to make the clay he’ll put on the eyes of this blind man. The word “clay” reminds us of another Biblical image, when God makes clay and shapes it into the form of Adam, the first human. Jesus is doing something analogous to what his Father does when he creates: he is bringing into being something that wasn’t there before.
Yes, the man is born blind. That’s how we know this is an act of creation. Jesus is not restoring something the man had and then lost; he is bringing into that man’s world something that he never had before and, I’m sure, something that he thought he would never have. We can imagine how he lived, how dependent his was on others, especially his parents, and how small his world had to be.
When Jesus puts the mud on this man’s eyes, he is asking him: do you want new life? Do you want my life penetrating you? Do you want to see with my eyes? Can I touch you in a way that will leave you changed forever?
The blind man washes in the pool called “Sent.” This completes the imagery for us: the pool indeed is the water of baptism, the sacrament by which Christ’s life penetrates our own lives, the sacrament in which we become children of God and sisters and brothers of Jesus. Do we want to see like Jesus? Or look upon others as Jesus did? Or speak like Jesus, or care like Jesus, or give ourselves like Jesus? Do we want Jesus to penetrate us?
At this time of year, we are powerfully mindful of those who are preparing to enter the Church, for whom Baptism and Holy Communion will not be memories or weekly actions but powerful, new experiences of encountering Jesus. Yet what happened and happens to us is not anything less than what will happen to them: our conversions, our discipleship, our following of Jesus is confirmed at every Mass we celebrate.
The man born blind begins as somewhat of a passive figure; people talk about him and he has to listen. But after Jesus touches him, he finds himself and his voice. When they try to shut him down, he affirms in their faces: “The only thing I know is this: I was blind but now I can see.” Can we remain ourselves passive and quiet in the face of what Christ does for us every day? Has not Christ given us a vision, and also a voice with which to speak it out?
Lent 3 A
Serge Rachmaninoff’s music is very popular. He lived over 100 years ago and was a great Russian composer. He wrote three piano concertos, but the second one he wrote was a breakthrough. It seems after his first concerto he underwent profound doubt and depression. He was unable to write because he didn’t believe in himself. It was only after years of doctoring and care that he found the ability to compose again. This second piano concerto is among his most favored.
We do get stuck in life, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s psychological, a profound insecurity. Sometimes it’s occupational; we just don’t have the time. It could also be social—what others expect or do not expect of us. We feel written off or dismissed.
People had written off this Samaritan woman; maybe given how small her hometown was, and her history, they might have had good reason to write her off. She has to come, in the midst of the day’s heat, to get water at the well. No wonder she is shocked when this strange man, not of her stock, comes up to her.
“Is he asking something of me?” She must have thought that. Did he trust her that much? Was he showing her that she still had the capacity to give? She dismisses his opening: “How can a Jew like you ask a Samaritan like me to give you something?” The Samaritan woman is stuck in two ruts. One rut is her reaction to the external opposition of her peers; the other rut is the way she has taken disapproval and made it the inner voice of her head. She’s blocked; she’s stuck; she cannot move to another spot.
Neither can we, for that matter, in areas of our lives. We too fall victim to both what others think of us as well as the way we imprison ourselves in the distorted self-images we have constructed for ourselves. We are not good enough for others; we are not even good enough for ourselves. That’s what we think—until Jesus comes into our lives.
The spirituality of Lent is, to a large extent, a spirituality of freedom. The things we give up are to help us feel our freedom; the generosity we show reveals a freer heart; the prayer we make come from a deeper spot, a freer spot, in our hearts. But this freedom is proportional to the extent we are willing to let Jesus engage us in dialogue.
For when we dialogue with Jesus, new images come about. Instead of being trapped in the images of ourselves we have formed, we can now perceive how Jesus sees us. Instead of thinking we have no status, Jesus shows us the status we have before the Father. Instead of thinking we have nothing to offer, Jesus sends his spirit to fill us with gifts. He starts the conversation: isn’t there anything in your heart you can give me? Once you do, you’ll be a disciple, a partner, a soul set free.
The well in our Gospel symbolically points to the well of water in which we were baptized, an inexhaustible well of divine life and love which forever slakes our thirst. We’ve been washed and given new life in Jesus’ endless water. Who says we are stuck? Healing and new life are always there.
Lent 2 A
Our whole classroom was astonished. This was back in the mid-50s when we were squished together in our classroom at St. Paul the Apostle on the West Side of Manhattan. Because this was well before Yuppies were moving into the neighborhood, we were a pretty rangy collection of kids from tenements, the housing projects, and other marginal housing. One fellow in our class—I cannot remember his name—seemed to come right from some Irish gang around 57th Street. Always in trouble. Always ready for a fight. But one day we were blown away. It was near Christmas and we were singing our favorite carols. This fellow gets up and, I a solo, blasts away with “O Holy Night” in a magnificent baritone voice. We could not believe it. We never thought it was in him.
With all their exposure to Jesus, I doubt even the three prominent ones mentioned in the Gospel today, Peter, James and John, ever dreamed what was in Jesus. Sure there were healings of various kinds, crowds following, and some powerful words. But they are blown away by the vision of glory that Jesus shows them on the top of the mountain. So blown away by this vision that they had no idea what they were supposed to do with it.
Peter gets the first idea about building booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. In this way Peter could hope that the glory would remain forever, that he didn’t have to worry about all those predictions that Jesus made about his defeat and death in Jerusalem. “Let’s freeze this moment of glory,” Peter seems to be thinking. But at this exact moment the brilliance disappears and, instead a dark cloud comes over them and terrifies them. But out of that cloud comes the voice of Jesus’ Father with the words that tell us what this scene, and the whole Gospel is about: This is my beloved Son, listen to him!
Doing this is not as easy as seeing Jesus’ glory. To listen to Jesus is to realize what his life is about, the service that would entail the giving of his very life in the most gruesome way; to listen to Jesus is to realize that our lives sometimes have bright spots and often have dark spots, but God’s voice rings through them all, assuring us that we are beloved just as Jesus is. If we follow Jesus up the mountain, can we follow him down? Can we be with him in the agony that would offset this moment of splendor?
What is really in Jesus? What is really in us? So often we think of our lives as uneventful and even burdensome. We expect little of ourselves and we hope God expects even less. But just as Jesus carried glory within and around him when we ministered, so we too carry Jesus’ glory about us, even in the incidental moments that can seem so trivial—putting a child to bed, helping a grandparent down the stairs, giving a homeless person some money, or boosting someone with a message of hope.
Peter and his companions had to climb the mountain to see Jesus’ glory. But God’s voice says that Jesus’ glory is there for any of us who dare to listen to Jesus’ voice and put his way of life into effect in our own lives.