The Gospel for Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The Gospel for February 28th, 2016: The Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13: 1-9

Reflection:

Here we go again. Another gospel that says, repent!  I must begin by admitting the call for repentance grinds on me sometimes.  It never seems to go away.

Today’s gospel addresses the very human tendency toward minimalism. That part of us that says to authority figures such as parents, bosses, law enforcement, and the government, just tell me what I have to do to be in compliance; I will give that much and no more. I think I am probably not alone in saying I do this also with Jesus and the Church.

The passage begins with a conversation between Jesus and some followers about a horrible atrocity committed by the infamous Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, against a group of worshipping Jews. Apparently, he had his soldiers kill these people as they were giving sacrifice to God. Recognizing the injustice of those circumstances—that their lives could be taken even as they were participating in a ritual that should grant them God’s favor and protection—they ask Jesus if perhaps the sinfulness of those who died was greater than their own. If this was the case, it would recast this tragedy as some sort of deserved punishment from God, and thus assure them that they who were “less” sinful and “more” devout were safe from death at the hands of an unjust government. Jesus gives them no such assurance, stating rather unequivocally, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (5).

I can only make sense of this harsh warning by guessing that Jesus sees the motivation of minimalism in their question. Perhaps they were thinking because they adhered closely to Levitic and Mosaic laws they must be okay. God will protect them from death. This logic is the legalism of the Pharisees; it is the mentality of minimalism. With His words, Jesus shatters those delusions. We are all sinners, and we are all mortal. Therefore, avoidance of physical death, whether an unforeseen tragedy or a peaceful passing in one’s own bed, is not the issue. Instead, choosing life with God in both this life and the next one is the only concern. Jesus wants our hearts with nothing held back. This is why the challenge of repentance requires such frequent reminding, because to give our lives completely to Jesus is to deny our human natures oriented toward sensual satisfaction and physical survival. We are not exempted for good behavior or past sacrifices, allowing us to indulge our baser instincts from time to time. Simply put, our lives are not our own. Nevertheless, until the day we die, the temptation to hold something back will remain, despite all we may have done previously through God’s grace (and the temptation to take credit for all the good we have done previously in pride will remain as well).

So on the one hand, like the fig tree in His parable (6-9) that doesn’t bear fruit, we can be cut down at any time. And yet, Jesus is the gardener who can help us bear fruit so that we may live now and after our physical deaths. His persistent call for repentance is one of the fertilizers that can treat the barrenness caused by the selfishness of a minimalistic attitude. Every saint recognized at some point in his or her life that embracing the call to repent and serve Jesus, to bear fruit, is life itself and must be embraced daily.

So I pray that I too may embrace the call to repent every time it comes in the Gospel and in the opportunities to serve God unselfishly in the course of each day. May we all remember on this third Sunday of Lent that with the coming of Easter Jesus conquered death by giving His human life for us. My irritation with reminders that I can give more will always pale in comparison to His suffering on the cross. Any anti-authoritarian tendencies are quelled quickly in the light of His sacrifice.

Advertisements

The Gospel for Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Gospel for February 21st, 2016: The Second Sunday of Lent
Luke 9: 28b-36
Reflection:
My focus with the transfiguration story has changed with this reading due to the influence of repeated hearings of Bishop Robert Barron’s CD titled, “Who Do You Say That I Am? The Four Great Expectations of the Messiah” (link to CD). I first became interested in the transfiguration due to its place in the rosary as the fourth luminous mystery. The spiritual gift associated with it is spiritual courage. In trying to understand how this story relates to spiritual courage, I focused on the disciples’ direct and frightening encounter with God as a result of their accompaniment of Jesus up the mountain: “[T]hey became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my chosen Son; listen to him’” (34-35). While the wisdom of this incident–that even though our encounters with God will at times be frightening and uncomfortable, we must set aside our fears and concentrate on God’s message for us—is critically important to following our faith, my attention has shifted in this reading to the dismissal by God of Peter’s suggestion to make three tents.

Father Barron outlines the four expectations of the Messiah from the Old Testament as these: The Messiah will gather the tribes of Israel, cleanse the temple, deal with Israel’s enemies, and reign as King of Heaven and Earth. Barron points out that in His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus fulfills all four of those expectations. I think this Christological rubric helps to understand the puzzling question of why Peter felt the need to suggest three tents and why it would have been dismissed by the Father Himself.

According to Luke, Peter, John, and James have been sleeping when Jesus’s transfiguration begin. I imagine their great confusion as they awake to a “dazzling” light and the unanticipated presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. It would have been understandable under those circumstances to recognize the presence of God and feel the need to act quickly to worship Him in an acceptable manner. Jews meet God’s presence and worship Him in a tabernacle. In the first century, that would have been in the temple in Jerusalem. But they are not at the temple at this moment. Furthermore, their company now includes Moses and Elijah, who have long been perished. How does a good Jew who has been instructed in God’s law solve this problem of right worship? Thinking quickly, Peter sees the need to construct a portable tabernacle, a tent, which would have been how Jews built a space for worship before the construction of the temple. In addition, he has to address the problem of whether the deceased, Moses and Elijah, can worship with the living, him, Jesus, John, and James. So if I may give Peter a lot credit for some fast calculation, I think he suggests the three temples as a solution to the problem of how worship at the moment: a separate temple for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for his group including Jesus. It seems to me this would be a reasonable proposal for a first century Jew who realizes he is in the presence of God, is frightened at what this means, and desperately wants to put him and his companions in a posture of appropriate worship and reverence.

Under the rubric of Jesus as Messiah described by Barron, this solution is misguided, though well-intentioned. Three tents, or three separate places of worship, will not gather the people as Jesus has come to do. The Messiah has come to gather the tribes of Israel, all of God’s creation, under one body. Furthermore, Jesus has come to cleanse the temple by replacing it with Himself. So there should be no reversion back to tents or even the temple in Jerusalem. It is through Him and in Him that right worship and praise will now take place. Therefore, God the Father simply redirects Peter: “This is my chosen Son; listen to [H]im” (35). In other words, Jesus will lead you to a posture of right worship with Me. Focus now on Him.

This Messianic reading of the Transfiguration has implications that move beyond the rather personal concern of my earlier reading focused on spiritual courage for myself. It serves as a reminder of the ever-present mission of the Church to evangelize with an ecumenical spirit. We can never, as I am wont to do frequently, ignore our responsibilities to participate in the gathering of God’s people together under one body, the Church. It is inadequate to only concern ourselves with a personal salvation. Three tents were not in God’s plan, especially for Peter, the future leader of the Church; therefore, I cannot work to build a tent just for myself and my friends only, without concern for those outside the true tent of Jesus and His Church. Evangelization and ecumenism do not come easy to me. I would prefer to leave that responsibility to someone else. However, through prayer and the sacraments, I believe Jesus will show us how to participate in the gathering of Israel if we keep listening to Him. I must be quiet and listen and be prepared to do my part.

The Gospel for Sunday, February 14th, 2016

The Gospel Reading for Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Luke 4: 1-3

Reflection:

On this first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus enduring a forty day trial in the desert during which He is tempted by Satan. Unlike us, Jesus is not in need of repentance and purification to grow closer to the Father. Instead, this episode powerfully models strategies we can use to help us in our personal struggle with sin.

First, before facing temptation, Jesus prepares by filling Himself with the Holy Spirit and then fasting. This speaks to the efficacy of prayer and fasting to build resistance to the lure of sin. In calling on the Holy Spirit regularly, we too can fill ourselves with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which includes fortitude. As for fasting, it would be easy to read this passage that His fasting was a weakening agent that made Him vulnerable to Satan’s enticements, especially for food in His state of hunger. However, Jesus’s answer to Satan’s suggestion of turning the stone to bread, which He surely could have done, is to quote the scriptural wisdom, “One does not live on bread alone” (4).That is to say, life comes from the Creator first and foremost, and turning to evil for the temporary of sustenance of food is not worth risking severing ties with the Father who is the source of life and will provide in the absence of food. Furthermore, Jesus’s endorsement of fasting in this passage give us another way to be close to Him, especially during Lent, as the discomfort of fasting reminds of His suffering and death for our sins during the Passion.

The other strategy I read in this passage is Jesus’s use of sacred scripture as a guide to decision making. Every rebuttal Jesus gives to devil’s entrapments is a quotation from scripture. The relevance for us is knowledge of the word of God that comes from regular Bible reading and attention to the Liturgy of the Word in mass is another fortifier against sin. Reading and reflecting on scripture allows its teaching, wisdom, and exemplars to sink deep roots in our hearts. When confronted with temptation, we, like Jesus, can recall the truth of the gospel and unveil sin for what it is, an empty promise that is not capable of delivering God’s unconditional love. Without this enriching of our consciences with truth, it is easy to accept the rationalization of the world for so many sinful, selfish behaviors, whether we call them addictions or passions, under the misguided banner of happiness and freedom. Without a gospel of love in our hearts, we continue the futile search for happiness by indulging in the temporal pleasures of the world, forever unfulfilled. But, these sins wither and die under the objective scrutiny of the gospel, where we are instead turned to the path of eternal happiness with our Creator.

And so during this Lenten season, the Church provides us with rich opportunity for prayer, fasting, and reading of the Word. An increased focus on all these strategies will move us away from sin and closer to Jesus and  we prepare to celebrate His covenant of salvation with us.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Gospel for February 7th, 2016: “The Call of Simon the Fisherman”

Luke 5: 1-11

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in other boat to come help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Reflection:

I read this gospel and think of Bill Cosby’s famous bit about the conversation between Noah and God and the command to build an ark (Youtube link: https://youtu.be/bputeFGXEjA ). The humor comes from the recognition that many of the characters in the Bible make leaps of faith that seem beyond most of us. When God commands us to submit to His will and serve him in ways we don’t expect or like, many of us, like Cosby’s Noah, say, “Right….” We don’t reject the command immediately, but our response is heavily laced with skepticism or outright disbelief. We are in danger of saying no to God and on the threshold of sin in those moments.

In this passage about the call of Simon Peter, a walk through this series of events in Peter’s shoes gives me the same sense incredulity as Jesus skips over human logic to accomplish His purposes in calling these simple fishermen to follow Him and accept His mission for them.  Peter and his partners have been out all night fishing and have caught nothing. Life experience tells me these men are tired, frustrated, and just want to go home. The task of washing their nets delays this further and probably seemed like an endless inconvenience. Then, in the midst of this scene, Jesus walks onto the boat seeking some distance from the throngs of people following Him and asks Simon Peter to take him back out so he can more effectively preach to this large crowd. I would think it would stretch Peter to the end of his wits to agree to this, but he does. It should be remembered that Peter would feel some obligation to Jesus, since recently He had cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4: 38-39). I also think the presence of Jesus would be hard to ignore or resent under any circumstances. Nevertheless, Peter’s state of mind was likely similar to that which I feel when it is obvious I need to do something unselfish to help others and I am not in a very giving mood.

After Jesus finishes preaching, he taxes Peter’s patience further by requesting, ““Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Although not the words of his reply, I hear Bill Cosby’s voice speaking for Peter, “Right….” In terms of worldly logic, it just doesn’t make sense.  They have not caught any fish all night, why would Jesus possibly think a few hours could possibly make a difference, enough so to extend the fatigue of this tired crew. Yes, Jesus appears to be a gifted healer and preacher, but why should he know anything about fishing? But Simon Peter does what we all should do under similar circumstances, take a beat and then obey. Granted, he respectfully questions the reasonableness of Jesus’s request. This sort of dialogue with the Lord is acceptable. We can admit our difficulty in believing as long as we don’t turn our backs. Of course, the result is an abundance of fish that is far beyond what the crew could have expected in the rosiest of scenarios when they went out to fish that day. Jesus rewards their patience and obedience.

A further lesson is obvious in Peter’s reaction to this turn of events. He immediately confesses his lack of faith and sinfulness to Jesus. In this moment of reverence and humility, Jesus comes with the most outrageous request yet, to leave the life they know as fishermen and follow Him. The fact that they do this immediately, no longer questioning His commands indicates the nature of the relationship we are developing with Jesus as Christians. With every act of obedience to His call will come reward and more challenging missions. However, the point is not whatever earthly rewards may accompany our obedience. Be they fish or money or friends, these will be temporary in their ability to satisfy us. Instead, the point is we will continue to move closer to eternal life in Jesus as we allow Him to take control of our lives, leaving behind the longing for anything other than His sustenance. Our unity with Him is freedom from death. The difficult part is suspending our doubts and obeying the invitation to this future. Ultimately it means doing as the fishermen did, “[T]hey left everything and followed him” (11).

Post-blog note: In light of the many disturbing allegations in recent years against Bill Cosby, I hope fans will join me in praying for both him and his alleged victims. His comedy has been an enriching gift in my life, whatever sins the man may count.