The Gospel for Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

The Gospel for July 3rd, 2016: “The Mission of the Seventy-two” and “Return of the Seventy-two”

Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20

Reflection: For His Glory Only

Today’s gospel raises questions that, while interesting, may not be necessary to understanding the larger purpose of the reading. For example, the whole mystery around who these seventy-disciples were and how they were chosen is intriguing. So many of the gospel stories have Jesus speaking either intimately with the twelve apostles or publicly with large crowds, the choice of this intermediate and specific number of seventy-two suggests it is significant, yet I cannot see why. Likewise His advice to them about how to respond to those who do not receive their message seems surprisingly harsh. Is Jesus being snarky when he has them go out into the streets of unrepentant towns and say, “The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you” (11)?

Regardless, I don’t think the answers to those questions are as important as what Jesus says to them after they return from their missions, amazed and rejoicing that “even the demons are subject to us because of your name” (17). He cautions them, “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon servants and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your name is written in heaven” (19-20). This speaks to the ever-present danger of developing pride for gifts we have been given. In the case of these preachers, Jesus  gifted them the ability to cast off spirits as part their mission. This is an intoxicating supernatural power that could easily be abused. If they use or revel in those gifts for personal glory instead of for that of God, then they compromise their effect in terms of salvation.  This slide to self-regard happens to me sometimes even in just writing this blog. I have written some that turn out much better than I thought possible when I began. Occasionally in those moments, my surprise has been followed with a sense of self-congratulations that is clearly marked by pride and vanity. Instead of thanking God for guiding me and granting me the gift to share His word through writing, I think only of myself with a false sense of personal glory. The proper position of worship is to see the truth that the gift comes from God and is for His glory. Even though He does not need my praise, a position of gratitude and humility is what makes possible participation in God’s glory and salvation of His people, including me His humble servant.

It has become quite popular to cite the Spider-Man reference, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Still, it is quite true. In the case of today’s gospel, the responsibility lies with every Christian to receive and use God’s gifts  with humility for His glory. Otherwise, we are only hurting ourselves. It is for this reason that Mary is such an important part of our faith. In Mary, we see the humility and devotion to charity that is not tainted by pride. The rosary allows us to contemplate the nature of God’s gifts as Mary did. So I end with the closing lines from the oremus prayer to the Lord to complete the rosary sequence, “Grant, we beseech Thee, that by meditating on the mysteries of the most holy rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.” Amen, indeed. May we imitate Mary’s humility and devotion in the hope of joining her in heaven.

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The Gospel for Sunday, June 26th, 2016

The Gospel for June 26th, 2016: “Departure for Jerusalem; Samaritan Inhospitality” and “The Would-be Followers of Jesus”

Luke 9: 51-62

Gospel Reflection: The Grace of Worldly Detachment

Just when I think I am making progress in my spiritual journey, I find myself stopped by something in the gospel that makes me question if I am making any progress toward holiness at all. In today’s reading, Jesus’s response to the two would-be followers provides one of those moments. In answer to their seemingly reasonable requests for settling their final affairs before following Him—one to bury his father and the other to say good-bye to his family at home—Jesus says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (59-62).This is a surprising and gloomy reply at this moment. What can He mean? Since this gospel is paired with the episode in 1 Kings 19 where Elisha makes a similar request to visit his parents before going with the prophet Elijah to become his successor, the reference to setting a “hand to the plow” likely refers to Elisha’s action of burning his own plow to boil his slaughtered oxen and thereby cutting ties to his life as a farmer. In so doing, he does not look to “what is left behind,” as Jesus says, but dutifully joins Elijah for his new life as a prophet.

With this in mind, Jesus’s words, although not a denial of their requests to visit family one last time, definitely carry a stern warning. If they are not prepared to leave their former life in following Him, they are not “fit for the kingdom of God” (62). As I process what this means to me in this day and age, I cannot help but feel a sense of intimidation and inadequacy. It is the same feeling I have when I think about Abraham leading his son Isaac to be sacrificed at God’s command. Perhaps, a better word to describe this feeling is awe. Both seem to require a complete surrender to God’s will that I may not be prepared to make right now. Am I not fit for the kingdom of God because I lack the resolute faith of Elisha or Abraham? Truthfully, at this moment in my life, the answer is yes, which is discouraging.

However, all is not lost. There is no cause for giving up. While it is unequivocally true that Jesus wants us to give our whole life to Him, which will require giving up those attachments to the world that distract us from our mission to serve the Lord, it is also true and easy to forget that we do not have make this break from the world without Jesus, through Whom all things are possible. As sinners, we cannot be “fit” for His kingdom without His grace. So while it is sobering to recognize we must let go of those unhealthy attachments in our lives to be His followers, it is also fortifying to remember He expects we will do this through Him and that He wants nothing more for us than our salvation. That is a power and love of which to stand in awe. Indeed, it is awesome, if I may use today’s vernacular without sounding trite.

I wish to make one additional point that gives me hope as I reflect on this challenge of turning our backs on the world and following Jesus. Such tests of faith will probably look very different for me than the would-be followers in the gospel or Elisha or Abraham or the person next to me in the pew. We all have different attachments to the world.  I am reminded of Mrs. Dubose in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She is the cantankerous, elderly widow who lives down the street  from the Finch family, around whom the story centers. Twelve year-old Jem Finch in a retaliatory fit of anger destroys Mrs. Dubose’s prized flower beds after she openly criticizes his lawyer father, Atticus, for defending a Negro accused of rape in the Jim Crow South. As punishment, Jem must read to Mrs. Dubose for extended periods of time each day, not realizing he is helping her through the withdrawals she is experiencing as she attempts to end her addiction to morphine before her time on Earth ends. Atticus, who represents Mrs. Dubose’s estate, is aware of her plans and tells Jem after she dies he would have insisted he help her with this even if he hadn’t been guilty of vandalism so he could learn the meaning of true courage. Mrs. Dubose was not asked to leave her family or sacrifice her child; but she felt the call to end her attachment to morphine. It would have been very easy for a person her age to carry that attachment to the grave and rationalize that it was fine for someone her position to keep it. However, she did not. Instead she died morphine-free; and as Atticus explains, “According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew” (Harperperennial Modern Classic edition, p. 150). To me, this is the message of the would-be followers passage. We must keep being honest about those attachments in our life that damage our relationship with God and others. And then, turn to Him to help us turn our backs on them, so that we too may die free to love God unbeholden to any other “gods.” Jesus’s words of caution to not look “to what was left behind” is only making the terms of the break clear. We will be happier with Him, but we will not get there without turning to him completely as our aid.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, June 19th, 2016

The Gospel for June 19th, 2016: “Peter’s Confession about Jesus,” “The First Prediction of the Passion,” and “The Conditions of Discipleship”

Luke 9: 18-24

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” Then he said to them, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Messiah of God.” He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

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

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

Reflection:

One of my favorite college professors during my undergraduate years introduced me to the notion that there exists “multiple logics” for any set of facts. I remember the implications of that statement stopping me for a moment. Up to that point, I had developed an understanding of logic with a big L; in other words, “Logic” had this formal definition that I associated with the logic taught to me by my Geometry teacher as a path to truth that included inductive and deductive reasoning as a means of proving validity. As is often the case with school, I assumed there was one “right” logic. Furthermore, any understanding that was not right, was illogical.

Certainly age and experience with people, especially adults of diverse ages and backgrounds, opens young minds to the possibility of more than one reasonable viewpoint on a whole range of issues. It can be very frustrating for young people to work through the opposing arguments for an issue like the death penalty, where both sides make good points that appeal to a sense of reason. It also becomes clear that the willingness of most people to choose sides often has to do with the personal experiences they bring to the issue. Someone who has been wronged by others frequently in his or her life might be more prone to support the death penalty because they have learned to be sensitive to injustice and seek a means in the law to address severe injustices punitively. Others who have not developed this same sensitivity due to a life filled mainly with fair treatment might side against the death penalty due to the research that suggests it does not deter crime.

In this gospel, Jesus, in the direction of His questions, seems keenly aware of the multiple logics the witnesses to His ministry are employing.  By this point in the Lukan gospel, He has done a lot of preaching and teaching, but He has also performed many miracles, including raising the son of the Widow of Nain from the dead (Luke 7: 11-17). The astonishing scope of Jesus’s public ministry would naturally lead to speculation about Him, since He is clearly not just any run-of-the-mill Rabbi. So who is He then? This is a logic problem that brings to light multiple, seemingly reasonable logics.

When He asks the disciples who people say He is, they say, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen’” (Luke 9:19). Jesus’s reticence to judge these answers allows space for the reader to consider their reasonableness. If a first century Jew is expecting  a Messiah and believed that John the Baptist was him, then Jesus could be John risen from the dead. Of course, this conclusion ignores the fact that John denied that he was the Messiah and that one greater than he was coming. Certainly most Jews of Jesus’s time raised on the stories of the Old Testament prophets could see that Jesus’s penetrating teaching and ability to perform miracles showed an undeniable resemblance to those chosen to speak for God in the past. So we don’t see Jesus condemn the faulty reasoning of the people as these conclusions are revealed to Him by the apostles.

Still, these answers are insufficient. So he asks them who they say He is. Peter famously and correctly answers, “The Messiah of God” (20). Now Jesus’s curious reply, “He rebuked them and directed them not tell this anyone,” challenges my own sense of logic. It seems like He should be thrilled that they are understanding rightly and would want them to spread the word. Suffice to say there is a less obvious logic at work in Jesus’s reasoning that may have to do with the people’s misunderstanding of what the Messiah came to do. Perhaps they needed to slowly grasp this radical message of sacrificial love in the context of Jesus’s death and resurrection, because they were expecting a new priestly warrior-king like David.

My point is that Jesus understands how deeply challenging the “salvation logic” of the Messiah is to the people of His time and to the people of our time. In fact, it so radical that if we do not understand who He is in the context of scripture and the Church, we are apt to wrongly reduce Him to one spiritual teacher or prophet among many throughout history. Doing so is not illogical. On the contrary, it makes very good sense to integrate the more appealing aspects of His teaching into our worldview in combination with other lessons we have learned from the world. Again, multiple logics exist and are reasonable to use in many circumstances. However, other logics in this case are working from an incomplete set of facts, just as those the apostles spoke of were.  There is only one salvation logic: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God the Father. The Old Testament points to His coming and the New Testament verifies it. If we fail to accept this completely, we risk missing the very salvation we long for. Therefore it is imperative that we “experience” Jesus so as to not reduce who He is to the logic of moral relativism that allows us to twist His message to fit our own personal selfishness. It is not a coincidence that He follows up this conversation with the apostles about who He is with these conditions of discipleship:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God” (23-27).

This is so hard to do, to give our lives to Him and deny our own versions of life and happiness. But the advice from Jesus that allows a Christian to accomplish this is to “take up his cross daily and follow me.” Most days that cross may be as simple as accepting the full truth that Jesus is God and follow His simple mandate of loving others as He has loved us, one person at a time, one day at a time. In attempting to do this each day, we will learn to live our lives according to salvation logic and reject those logics from the world that are selfish (and sinful) in nature.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 12th, 2016

The Gospel for June 12th, 2016: “The Pardon of the Sinful Woman”

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Reflection:

This gospel speaks to me deeply.

I struggle with both the before and after of my own sins. I often know before I commit a sin what I am really doing, and yet I still do it anyways, which is just so illogical and frustrating. And then afterwards, I ask for forgiveness in prayer; which definitely helps, but the guilt does not go away entirely, partly because I put off going to confession right away. It doesn’t always fit in to my schedule conveniently; so I procrastinate, which adds to the guilt and shame. And then there is this deeply engrained pride that rears its ugly head and engenders a fierce resistance to going that compounds the weight of the sin even further. I am afraid the priest will judge me. It doesn’t matter that I know better.  I am still afraid of being judged. Furthermore, I am afraid he will ask of me a penance I am not prepared to make. It hasn’t happened yet, but nevertheless, I fear it. As a result, days turn into weeks and sometimes into months before I return to the sacrament of reconciliation.

However, when I read today’s gospel, I find myself thinking how mixed up I am about this sacrament. The benefit of reconciliation is so appealing in contrast to this game of self-loathing and procrastination I play. Jesus doesn’t just begrudgingly pardon the sinful woman; He holds her up to the critical Pharisee as a model of love.  He forgives her sins gently. In his conversation with Simon the Pharisee, He shows His preference for her return from sin to the cold pride that motivates the Simon to criticize her sinfulness. He explains about her efforts at penance, “So I tell you, her sins may have been forgiven because she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (47). In other words, it is better to have sinned and return heart-felt to God, than to follow the letter of the law out a sense of superiority. The first loves God humbly and renews the only relationship which offers true life. The second trades one sin for another and grows joyless in withholding from the loving dance of God’s forgiveness of sinners. This echoes the lesson of the Prodigal Son. The younger son sins and returns meekly to a joyful reception from his father. The older son is only bitter because he is not seen as better in his father eyes for upholding his duty.  Jesus came to make it clear that the purpose of God’s laws are to unencumber us from worldly attachments so that we may freely love Him Who is life. They do not exist to be used as a means to elevate one’s self over others. Love is willing the good of others. In a society that celebrates achievement and goal-orientation, it is easy to pervert abstinence from sin into an empty goal that forgets about the mission to love others. It is wrong to stand back unstained, rather than wading into the muddy lives of our fellow sinners to offer help. It is timeless problem of failing to see the forest for the trees.

I pray for all those like myself who struggle with reconciliation. May the lesson of Jesus’s pardon of the sinful woman move us to return to confession without fear and in anticipation of God’s loving embrace. And as a result, we return back to the world brimming with God’s love to share with others. I also pray for all the Pharisees who have traded loving sinners for judging them in the misguided belief that following rules alone is a path to salvation. May they see that it is only in willing the good of others in both thought and deed that we can truly experience the love and peace found in Jesus Christ.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, June 5th, 2016

The Gospel for June 5th, 2016: “Raising of the Widow’s Son”

Luke 7: 11-17

Reflection:

As I have mentioned on many occasions, my spiritual journey has led me to read extensively books, blogs, and articles by Bishop Robert Barron of the Word on Fire Ministries. One of the insights from that reading is a growing awareness of the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. While I don’t think this awareness is necessary to understand and benefit from reading the Gospels, it adds an undeniable weight to every parable, healing, teaching, and experience that is rendered from Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in the four books of Jesus’s life.

The gospel story of the “Raising of the Widow’s Son” gives me a good opportunity to demonstrate this. In the past I would have read this as evidence for Jesus’s divinity and would have found that mildly compelling. I say mildly compelling because if Jesus is God, it is not surprising he would be able to perform miracles, even raising one from the dead. Since I have read the New Testament with the belief that Jesus is God, this affirms what I already believe. But if the evidence of yet another miracle is all I see, it is easy to view Jesus distantly, without the urgency of mission. It is easy to take a complacent stance that allows for an attitude of spiritual procrastination.

However, this would not have been the stance of those who were aware of or witness to His ministry at this time. The Jews had many expectations learned from their religious tradition, including a return of the prophet Elijah preceding the coming of a Messiah, the Son of Man.

This expectation would have raised implications from Jesus’s ministries that go beyond a sense of amazement and mystery at the wonders they observe and hear about. Consider the reaction of the witnesses as Jesus raised the dead boy to life: “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God exclaiming, ‘A great prophet has arisen in our midst’ and ‘God has visited his people’” (16). I didn’t know that others had raised the dead through God before Jesus. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17) and Elisha (2 Kings 4) raised the dead. So Jesus’s miracle with the widow’s son would immediately mark Him as a new prophet, perhaps the return of Elijah. Since prophets carry the word of God, this in itself is startling. However, the possibility that Jesus is Elijah would mean that the coming of the Messiah is near. This is the long awaited salvation of God’s people. The need to repent from sin would be greater then than at any other moment in their lives; hence, they react with both fear and glory-filled praise. This moment is not to be missed or taken lightly.

But Jesus in not Elijah; He is the Messiah. In fact, Elijah has returned in the person of John-the-Baptist who is hearing stories of Jesus’s ministry and is reading the signs of the Old Testament prophecy. Therefore, Luke 7 continues with John sending messengers to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (19). While Jesus replies to John in ambiguous language–probably to delay his persecution at the hands of the Sanhedrin for proclaiming to be God—he is plainer in His comments to those in the crowd who were present at the visit of John’s messengers. For them Jesus identifies John as “the one about whom scripture says: ‘Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you’” (27). The implication is John is the messenger and prophet, not Jesus. He slips in his true identity as he notes how the scribes and Pharisees are missing the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy because they are blinded by their concern for the law. In response to John-the-Baptist’s fasting, they see not a prophet, but one “possessed by a demon” (33). In response to Jesus’s lack of fasting, they call Him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (34). In answering that charge, Jesus refers to Himself and His behavior with, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking…” (34). In the minds of first century Jews the Son of Man would be the Messiah.

The point of this revelation is salvation is at hand. The Messiah has come. The wait is over. And if the wait is over, so then is putting off repentance.  What this means for twenty-first century Christians is the same thing. The savior is already here. Therefore, we delay our salvation, perhaps put it at risk with every day that is not lived is service of Jesus’s mission to gather all His people to Him. For most of us this is not a retreat from the world, like a monk who chooses a contemplative life to serve Jesus. Instead, it means we bring Jesus to the world daily. And in that mission, we must be willing to bring God’s unselfish love to others as God places them in our paths, not at our own choosing. So the urgency to let go of our own selfish motives and plans is upon us. This is what it means to reject Satan and all his empty promises. We must choose salvation to be at peace in life and peace in death.

I close with one final point about this passage. Jesus raising others from the dead, and then His own resurrection at the hands of God the Father is more than just evidence for His divinity; it is His salvation plan for us. Complete acceptance of a life dedicated to the good of others will be our victory over death, pain, and suffering. Yes, we must endure them in this life as Jesus and the saints have before us, but in that endurance lies the peace and happiness we seek. The significance of that insight is radically life-changing. It is the victory of life over death.