The Gospel for Sunday, July 31st, 2016

The Gospel for July 31st, 2016: “Saying Against Greed” and “Parable of the Rich Fool”

Luke 12: 13-21

Reflection: Justice and Salvation are Only Possible through Jesus

Today’s reading in its excerpted form is a well-crafted point that functions as effective moral instruction. This is a fairly typical example of Jesus in His role as teacher. What I mean is that lines 13-15 introduce this problem where a brother is not sharing his inheritance with another brother, a move that can be easily understood as greed. This prompts Jesus to make a cautionary statement against greed with, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (15). That point made, he follows up with a parable to illustrate the insidious and futile nature of greed by telling the story of the rich fool who saves his bounty for a life of leisure, failing to recognize, until God points it out to him, it is foolish to save for a life in this world that could end at any time (16-21).

Even though as a writer I understand the value of clarity, there is a danger in passages like this to reduce Jesus’s message to codified moral instruction. In other words, to read greed is bad; share your bounty with others. Such simple messages, though truthful, sometimes fail to give the reader a sense of the far-reaching scope of every one of Jesus’s moral teachings as they relate to salvation. Fortunately, there is a clue to that larger picture in Jesus’s response to the man who asks Jesus to intercede on his behalf so that he may receive his rightful portion of the inheritance kept by his brother. Jesus asks him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator” (14)? I think it is reasonable to wonder about that question. Isn’t Jesus judge and arbitrator? Aren’t there many clues throughout the Bible that suggest He will come again to judge the living and the dead?  Is Jesus objecting to the greed in the man’s question? Or is He leading him to the fact that Jesus has been appointed judge by God the Father in heaven? Such questions lead us to a deeper, more meaningful interpretation of Jesus’s role as savior.

Let’s start by considering the man’s request: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me” (13). He is seeking justice, the law is on his side, and Jesus has the moral authority as teacher to settle this dispute. So, in worldly understanding, this man has done nothing wrong. Yet in the way Jesus responds, it is unclear who is being condemned as greedy. It could just as easily be the slighted brother for concerning himself with obtaining his rightful part of the inheritance as the brother who is keeping it from him. It is in that possibility that I want to direct my interpretation and point out that it has been heavily influenced by my reading of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ. Rutledge asks her readers to reconsider how we understand words like justice and justification and their relationship to mercy. Often, we want to separate them and only consider the need for punishment or in contrast move quickly past justice to forgiveness in an effort to be merciful. Both of these understandings are misguided because they fail to understand justice in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Justification, according Rutledge, is better understood as rectification. Jesus’s death and resurrection are necessary to make right for all corporate sins of humankind. He comes, not strictly to judge in the worldly sense, but to save us from sin. Whether the sin is greed or pride or any other manifestation of separation ourselves from God, we cannot do this for ourselves. We need to Jesus and the grace He has provided by dying for our sins on the cross.

This helps explain why Jesus does not accept the role of judge and arbitrator in this reading, and why he does not assign blame for greed to one brother or the other. We all share in the power of sin, which we cannot escape without Jesus. If this act of injustice is seen only in worldly terms, our path to salvation may be misunderstood.  Single acts of righteousness by humans do not cancel out the overwhelming power of corporate sin. They draw us closer to our savior as we share in His unselfish love, but their good should not be seen as redemptive without Christ. If the one brother gives back to the other his portion, he is still a sinner. If the other brother turns the other cheek and resists the temptation of greed or anger at the injustice, he is still vulnerable to sin without relying on the grace that helped him to do right at that moment. I read today’s gospel in this way to avoid a legalistic understanding of the message. If I do a certain number of truly unselfish acts, I have not proven my worthiness to Jesus as judge or arbitrator, allowing me to “rest, eat, drink, be merry” (19). For humans, sin persists, as does Jesus’s grace and mercy. So the press of the gospel persists. We go to Jesus daily, hourly, minute to minute, as sinners, humbly turning to Him and attempting to participate in His love. Sometimes we need to hear the more theological wording of John’s gospel to fully grasp the nature of sin and Jesus’s role as savior. In John 12, He makes his role plain: “And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world” (47). He did not come as judge to condemn, but as a savior to save willing participants. When we treat justice as the world does, we become shortsighted and greedily see sin in terms of our own actions, either for or against our credit personally. Jesus does not want us to forget that not only do we share in sin with all our brothers and sisters and but also in their salvation as well. The goal is to save us all. He asks us to turn to Him for that mission and give our lives to help.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 24th, 2016

The Gospel for July 24th, 2016: “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Further Teachings on Prayer, “and “The Answer to Prayer”

Luke 11: 1-13

Reflection: Persistence or Imitation in Prayer

Sometimes I begin to pray, and I don’t say what’s on my mind because I know it is selfish. Its sounds so absurd to put this idea into words, because even as I read it, I realize I can’t fool God into thinking I am less selfish than I am. He knows my heart. Still, it seems wrong to trouble God with my petty problems, especially the ones that are clearly my doing. Can I really get on my knees and pray: Lord, I know I should not have spent the money on the more expensive cable package without asking my wife, but can You have her go easy on me when she finds out? The answer from today’s gospel is yes and no.

On the one hand, Jesus uses some analogies and metaphors to say ask and keep asking. There is the friend at midnight who obtains bread for a late caller because his or her friend in bed cannot ignore the persistent knock at the door (5-8). This example is followed by a list of familiar metaphorical expressions that champion persistence in prayer: “…ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (9). All of these suggest asking God for help is always the right thing to do. It may be that the answer we receive is not what we want to hear. Perhaps in the end what we receive is the fortitude to endure a trial, or the patience to wait for the answer to our prayers. Nevertheless, the act of asking is an expression of our faith in the Father’s providence and mercy. Not asking out of fear of appearing selfish is simply prideful and untrusting. So Jesus says yes, go ahead and ask as many times as needed.

But on the other hand He gives us a first option that is worded perfectly and speaks to all our deepest needs,” The Our Father.” While at times we may speak this prayer on automatic pilot, it is always an option that puts us in a position of proper worship with the Lord. In it, the Father is addressed in His rightful preeminence (2); our petition speaks to God’s will and not ours (2); God’s providence for all our needs is requested (3); and our sinfulness and God’s role in our salvation is acknowledged (3). By imitating Jesus’s words, we can go to the Father confidently for help and not worry if our requests are selfish or petty.

So in a sense, we can’t lose if we are willing to humble ourselves in prayer. With persistence, whether using our own words or “The Our Father,” God will guide and answer us.  The key, as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, is to ask and keep asking.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 17th, 2016

The Gospel for July 17th, 2016: “Martha and Mary”

Luke 10: 38-42

Reflection: The Choice to Spend Time with Jesus

I have been told that this gospel is very challenging to some women who find it hard to accept that Jesus would support Mary’s decision to ignore helping Martha with the hosting responsibilities of providing for the guests. As we are called to serve, a call that many women take very seriously when guests enter their homes, Jesus’s response is rather baffling and counterintuitive. However, as a male, I always feel a little uncomfortable discussing roles and responsibilities that traditionally have been ascribed to women. The truth is I don’t know what is like to be a woman, although I will say it appears to me to be very difficult. For this reason, I would rather not take up the specific question as to whether Mary should be helping her sister with the serving of the guests. Instead, I read this gospel as a lesson about the choice to do any number of service activities that on the surface appear worthwhile and unselfish instead of choosing the “better part” to spend some quiet time with the Lord.

So let’s re-imagine this story for second from a more contemporary, masculine point of view. Imagine Martha is a man named Martin who is a husband, father, and conscientious Christian. He works for a non-profit organization that provides help to low-income and homeless families to identify and obtain federally subsidized housing. This is an organization that believes in its mission and asks its employees to work hard. Their work provides an effective service that provides many families with stability and hope. So Martin’s work week is very full, to which he adds a busy after-work schedule of helping his wife with family responsibilities, including running their children to a number of extra-curricular activities in the evenings and on the weekends. All these commitments have left Martin with little time to do a number of chores that he was raised to believe are important. He has trouble finding time, and maybe the energy, to clean the garage, mow the lawn, and keep the maintenance on the vehicles and the house. So what does he do? Like any good twenty-first century American, he pushes those responsibilities to Sunday. He knows Sunday is the Lord’s day, but he can’t see how he can be a good husband, father, and employee without doing chores for at least part of the day on Sunday. He is not alone in this. Lots of men he knows do this also.

Is this a problem? Certainly, one could argue he is serving others in performing all these roles and responsibilities. He is being the good Christian he is called to be. And from a twenty-first century, time management paradigm it just makes sense. It is being efficient to use time on Sunday if the rest of the week is spoken for. His wife understands because she wants to see the lawn mowed and the garage cleaned too (and she probably is doing her own chores on Sunday or cooking up a big Sunday meal for the family). But here’s the thing: How long can Martin keep this up? How long before something has got to give?

The first thing to go is quiet time with the Lord. In trying keep up, he has stopped praying each day, because he can’t afford to spend that time sitting still doing nothing. On Sunday, to his credit, he is still going to church with the family, but his mind is not there. It is on all the things he needs to do Sunday afternoon and the coming week, or it is on an internal dialogue of self-pity about how tired he is and the changes he plans to make to fix the problem. Or maybe he even is dozing during the longer parts of the service. Sooner or later, Martin will reach a state similar to Martha in today’s gospel. She is “anxious and worried about many things” (41). This is the state that leads many people like Martin to so many of the problems that are well-known among “successful” people. They start to self-medicate, a little bit at a time, with food or substances or sex or entertainment or relationships and justify these behaviors because they deserve a break and no one is perfect. And the harder they push, the more important these behaviors become entrenched in their lives, to the point that their relationships start to suffer because they need to feed these fixes with more time and money.

Martha does not go down that road. She talks to Jesus about her frustration, thinking she is in the right. But Jesus reorients her to Him. He tells her there is need for” only one thing,” “the better part,” (42) whom Mary has chosen by sitting at Jesus’s feet while He is in her presence and listening to Him speak (39). Apparently, Martha does listen to this lesson also. In John 11, Martha turns to Jesus with such faith that she knows He can raise her deceased brother, Lazarus, from the dead, and he does. She stakes her happiness on Him, not on the “many things,” and becomes a saint.

Martin can do the same as Martha and Mary. He can choose the better part as well by spending time with the Lord each day and asking, what do You want me to do, Lord? What is Your will for me? He can give more time to the Lord on Sunday to help set an agenda for the week that is based on God’s plans and not the plans that he has created or that others have handed him. The return on this time spent with Jesus is life-changing. He will learn to let go of those activities that seem so important, but leave him feeling too busy and anxious. They are not part of God’s plans for Martin. Instead he will learn to trust in the Lord, who wants him to be a good husband and father and will give him energy and strength for those activities that truly are his mission for the Lord. Like Martha, he will learn to speak to the Lord about his frustrations and seek His counsel and peace through prayer, the sacraments, the Church, and by fulfilling his unique mission. He will recognize that God will show him which others he needs to serve and when. He may even find that sometimes God will ask him to take a break or a nap occasionally, so that he is refreshed for an unforeseen plan that the Lord has waiting.

It is very tempting to try to figure out how to spend our time by classifying activities as right or wrong on our own. Then once we figure out what we think is right, we fill our time completely with all those right activities. This misses the point entirely. It is not for us to decide. Jesus will show us what to do each day if we just ask and listen. He says, “There is need of only one thing” (42). The challenge is putting Him at the center of all that we do and keeping Him there. But like for Martha, it is a path to sainthood and true happiness. It is why God created us.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, July 10th, 2016

The Gospel for July 10th, 2016: “The Greatest Commandment” and the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”

Luke 10: 25-37

Reflection: Open Hearts, Open Minds

*Warning: This is a long one.

The pairing of “The Greatest Commandment” and “Parable of the Good Samaritan” passages is an example of brilliant teaching. Notice the Socratic, dialogic nature of Jesus’s conversation with the Scholar of the Law. The young man asks Jesus the deepest of questions, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (25)? Jesus responds with two questions, “What is written in the law? How do you read it” (26)? When the young scholar gives his answer, he does not quote the law, but rather interprets it meaning to answer the question. I think his answer is inspired in its pithiness. He has reduced the Ten Commandments down to two: Love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus refrains from superfluous comment and simply confirms the correctness of the young man’s answer, followed by brief encouragement to live those two simple commands. In His choice of responses, Jesus has allowed the student to arrive at the answer himself, and then lets the truth of those words stand unobscured by further elaboration.

But the young scholar is not finished with his questions. He asks, “And who is my neighbor” (29)? Jesus again proves to be the exemplary teacher, for He recognizes an illustration is a far better answer than an abstraction. So he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who although the least likely choice when compared to a Levite and a priest, is the one that acts as “neighbor” to the victim of a robbery.  The Samaritan is under no obligation to help the injured man along the side of the road. He is bound by neither social nor religious obligations, as the Levite and priest would be, and yet unlike them he does not pass by “on the opposite side” of the road. Instead, he gives his own time and money to help this man in need (30-35). Finally, the dialogue over this questions ends similarly to the first. Jesus asks the young man who among the three passers-by is the victim’s neighbor. He replies with similar eloquence by saying, “The one who treated him with mercy” (37), instead of calling the neighbor a Samaritan. This  time Jesus does not even bother to tell him he is correct, but goes directly to a call for action: “Go and do likewise” (37).

I have highlighted the clarity of Jesus’s teaching in this gospel to emphasize the difficulty is not in the understanding of how to live as Christians, but instead in the doing. Just this week I had an experience that reminded me of this quite powerfully. I was driving into a nearby city from my rural home. While stopped at a light at a large intersection, my vehicle was approached by a man begging for money, which according to his crude cardboard sign would be used for blankets. Since I am occasional visitor to this city, I had observed panhandlers like this one from a distance before, but had never been close enough to be approached. As he walked toward my vehicle, I froze. Quickly, I tried to think through what I should do. My ability to reason failed me, so I stared ahead and ignored the beggar and pretended he was invisible. Mercifully, he did not extend my discomfort and quickly walked back to his corner. The discomfort was intense (probably nowhere near that of the beggar), colored by feelings of fear, shame, and embarrassment.

Why was I paralyzed to answer this man’s need with some money from my wallet? In particular, why was I afraid to help? Why did I walk to the other side of the road as the Levite and priest did in Jesus’s parable, rather than move to help the man as the Good Samaritan did? In my struggle to answer these questions, I did a Google search for “Should Catholics give money to beggars?” Predictably, there were discussion board and blog posts on this question that represented a variety of views. What I read can be summarized into three categories. There were those that reasoned many street beggars will use the money for destructive behaviors and that it is better to give to charitable organizations that will do a better job ensuring the money will be used wisely in its aid to the poor. Some among this group also pointed out that they did not have enough money for every street person who asked and that some may be con artists who make a decent income preying on the generosity of others. Another group agreed with the concern the money might be used to further addictions to drugs or alcohol, but they still wanted to be able to give some immediate help. Therefore, they would give food or gift cards, or offer to buy a meal in such encounters rather than just give cash. Finally, there was a group who said the right thing to do is give what you can without concern for how the money might be used or if they will have enough for every indigent person that comes along.

All three of these are reasonable positions by good Catholics who strive to live the gospel. Also, many who commented live in cities where they face this decision on a daily basis, unlike me who may go months or years before something like this happens again. So for them, having a policy that makes sense both spiritually and financially is necessary. I get that. However, for myself, I can only conclude that I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet that I could have given that man. My fear over how the money might be used or what would happen if I tried to give it to him and the light turned green stemmed from a closed heart.  When the young scholar answers  “how” he reads the law, he lists loving the Lord, God, with all our hearts, being, strength, and minds (27). My first move was to the mind instead of the heart. And yet the heart comes first in this gospel about love and mercy. In contrast, I mindfully calculated the risks of being merciful and failed to include my heart in the decision. I judged, wrongly, this man, his circumstances, and my ability to answer his need, because I only used my mind and ignored my heart. This is why I was afraid to look at and interact with him. I was more concerned with myself than with loving him. We do not love with dry intellect; we love with the heart of Jesus. We act without the concern for self as the Good Samaritan did. My point is not to endorse an abstract policy that Catholics and Christians are obliged to give to anyone who asks at any time. I believe Jesus teaches using parables to avoid blind adherence to rules that reflects legalism. Instead, I think context and truth matter.  As we make these decisions about helping others, using our hearts and minds together and guided by the Holy Spirit, God will lead each of us to our role in His divine mercy.  Also He will lead us to truth and justice even though we may not see the logic of it. When we close either our hearts or minds in our dealings with others, out of fear or inconvenience or selfishness, we also close ourselves to the presence of Jesus inside us and fail to use the gifts He has given us.

Had I opened my heart in those few seconds, I might have discovered there was not time to give him the money. Perhaps he was a scam artist or posed some risk to me, and God would have would have intervened in some way to make sure His justice was done. Or perhaps I would have given him the money so I didn’t spend it on some selfish desire that only strengthen its hold on me. Or perhaps, I really was the person intended to meet his need for that day, and, like the Levite and the priest, I walked by under the rationale of some baseless, hypothetical excuse. The harm of those missed opportunities is great.  Gary Hoag, in an article in Christianity Today, shares some wisdom from John the Almsgiver that applies here.  About a person who accepted alms from his ministry who was not really in need John said this: “Give unto him; he may be our Lord in disguise.” I think he is right. Missing the opportunity to meet the Lord in disguise is not worth it. I pray that next time, I do better.