The Gospel for Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

The Gospel for October 2nd, 2016: “Saying of Faith” and “Attitude of a Servant”

Luke 17: 5-10

Reflection: Humility is the Default Position for Faithfulness

As we cycle through the gospel of Luke, we find a series of short parables and analogies that provide instruction directly from Jesus in the faith. These are often followed by moments of summation that pithily speak volumes when preceded by this collection of spiritual nuggets. So it is with the quote at the end of this passage from Jesus in line 10:

“So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

When we have done all we have been commanded by God to do, what do we want to say? I often say, “God, reward me.” Or, “God,  I need a break now.” But Jesus is saying if you do that you fall back into self-love, which is missing the point. Instead, we need to recognize we have yet to do enough, that we are “unprofitable servants,” and that it is enough to serve, to do “what we were obliged to do.” The default position is humility so that God may use us to spread His unselfish love. We aren’t capable of loving others as God loves us when we are consumed by our own fears and desires. We aren’t capable of remaining in His unselfish love for all eternity. Our quest for sainthood is journey toward this kind of selflessness.

This is why we cannot forget the importance of Mary. Our knowledge of her from the scriptures tells us she always returned to the default position after serving the Lord. How else could a mother raise the Son of God who would save humanity through the most humiliating death imaginable in the ancient world? The temptation to keep her son for herself, to have Him live a long, mortal life would have been unbearable for any mother. But God chose Mary for her humility. From that came a sustaining faith at once both small in its simplicity and strong in its groundedness that she was able to see through her vocation first as Jesus’s mother and then as the mother of His church on Earth. Such faith is a mystery in human eyes, and yet makes possible the salvation of God’s people. Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to [this] mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith like that is possible only in the default position of humility. May we seek that humility through God’s grace and increased service to His commands. May we experience the righteous power that moves life and renews it in ways we never thought possible.

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The Gospel for Sunday, September 25th, 2016

The Gospel for September 25th, 2016: “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus”

Luke 16: 19-31

Reflection: The Simplicity of Unselfish Love of Neighbor

One of the lessons I have learned from writing a weekly reflection on the Sunday gospel readings is the rich depth of Jesus’s words in general, and in particular the parables he tells. Today’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus provides an excellent example. On the one hand we have this cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring our neighbors in need as the Rich Man does to Lazarus, a beggar at his door. The Rich Man’s unwillingness to heed God’s call to help others lands him in Hell after his death, forced to contemplate a reversal of fortune where God has raised the poor beggar to the comfort of Father Abraham’s side and yet remains irretrievably distant from helping him as he suffers an eternity in a “place of torment” (28). And yet, the characterization and dialogue include poignant literary elements that offer other points of departure for contemplation of Christ’s message such as the foreshadowing of the raising of the dead of Jesus’s friend Lazarus and His own Resurrection found in at the end of the passage. The Rich Man suggests that if God cannot send Lazarus to him to quench his thirst, He can send the once-beggar to his five brothers as a sign to repent. Abraham replies for God from Heaven with, “‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (31). Notice the subtle message in this exchange that it is prideful to set the terms of our devotion to God–to say, I need a sign in the physical world right now so that I may believe and repent. Abraham reminds the Rich Man, and us, that the message of who our savior is was there from the beginning, and that we have consistently ignored the signs that have been given to God’s people. Therefore, it will be faith, not proof, that will save us.

It is another of these small details I would like to focus in today’s reflection. The Rich Man’s first words from the netherworld to Abraham are these, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames” (24). While I don’t criticize the Rich Man for asking for pity and relief from his suffering, I am struck by the fact he condescends to the beggar Lazarus, asking that he be sent as a servant to bring him water. His words suggest that he still sees Lazarus as beneath him in this request, despite the opportunity to see him in his full stature as child of God. The Rich Man remains self-centered in his attitude toward others as he did in life when he ignored Lazarus’s needs at his door. Such a change in perception toward others, especially those who are poor or needy or different, is a necessary ingredient for a the change in heart required to love them as God does. We must see them as beautifully created by God. In that, they are like us and not to be feared or competed with. In that, we must see past any discomfort that comes with those meaningless surface features that repel us such as Lazarus’s sores. Because if we can see them as lovable, we will find God asks much less of us in loving them than what we fear in our selfishness. We notice that Lazarus was not going to ask the Rich Man to clean his sores or take him into his house to live with him. Instead he would have been happy to eat the scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table and probably went to the dogs or the garbage pile. When we are confronted with another person in need, I wonder if it isn’t just that simple to see their beauty with our hearts, rather than their flaws with our eyes, and ask them, Can I help you? And then let God take care of the rest. I pray that we not complicate it any more than that, and instead act with the faith of Abraham and Moses and the prophets when God sends a Lazarus to our doors.

The Gospel for Sunday, September 18th, 2016

The Gospel for September 18th, 2016: “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward”

Luke 16: 1-13

Reflection: It is About the Money

“And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (8-9).

This is the spot in this gospel where I get confused. The dishonest steward has been reported to be so to the master and informed to make a full account before he loses his stewardship. He goes around and lowers the debts of the tenants and is consequently praised by the master for being prudent. I’m not sure I see anything prudent about what he did in Christian  sense. On first reading, it seems the steward is acting with complete self-interest from beginning to end.

Confronted with this puzzle, I did some web-based research looking for some insight. Generally, I prefer not to do this for my reflections because evaluating the credibility of the forum and blog posts, the non-Catholic websites, and free academic articles this sort of search generates can be as confusing as the gospel passage itself. I did ask for some help from the Holy Spirit on this one out of desperation.

First, I found that I am not alone in being confused by this parable. One academic cited it as one of the  most debated parables in all the gospels. As such, I was able to find a wide range of interpretations of Jesus’s point in telling it. While I did not walk away with a definitive interpretation of the overall moral personally, I did gain some understanding that brings me closer.

The insight is about the dishonest steward’s motive to lower the debts of the tenants in response to being found out by the master. I thought, as have others, that he is cheating the master whom he has already lost favor with to gain favor with the tenants in the hope of having benefactor to turn to when he is forced to leave the master’s land. This simply doesn’t square with the praise he receives from the master for doing this as “acting prudently.”

What I learned  that makes more sense is that the arrangement between the steward and the master probably had the steward paying the master a set amount prior to collection from the tenants to lease and manage his land. In other words, the land was leased to him, and the tenants were sub-letters from the steward. Under such an agreement, the tenants would not know how much the steward needed to cover the original lease terms. Therefore, the dishonest steward could charge them a highly inflated amount to accrue his own fortune dishonestly. If that is the case, the lowering of the debts that occurs is taking money out of the pocket of the dishonest steward, not the master. In his moment of crisis, he acts unselfishly and does the right thing, which is wise. Now whether he does this out of a sense of mercy, since he is being treated mercifully by his master at the discovery of his dishonesty, or whether he is doing this to befriend the tenants in the expectation he will still lose his job and place to live and need some help, I am still not sure.

However, his willingness to make things right with the tenants when he easily could have bilked them one final time to have some wealth to get him through his coming crisis is praiseworthy. It is more satisfying that Jesus would call this prudent. I prefer this to some interpretations that suggest Jesus is praising his craftiness, though not his dishonesty, and would have us apply the gift of craftiness, or prudence, to achieve the aims of His Kingdom. This understanding lacks the simplicity of message that marks so many other gospel parables.

In this light, I will offer a tentative interpretation of the other stumbling block for me in the quotation referenced above. When Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (9), I don’t think in any way is He endorsing dishonest practices in obtaining wealth or friends. Instead, I think He means the friendship we make with dishonest wealth or otherwise is a relationship of detachment from it completely. In other words, we don’t give in to the temptation to exploit others for our own financial security and gain. This would be the only way that when it fails, as it does for the dishonest steward, that one would still be “welcomed into eternal dwellings.” It is consistent with Jesus’s teachings that we must put the good of others before ourselves.

To close, while I am not confident I have a robust understanding of all Jesus is saying to me in this gospel, I do think it is about the money for me in this time, at this moment.  While I am not a business person per se, I have financial obligations that consistently dominant my thinking. I justify so many uses of my time based on how it will benefit my family’s financial bottom line. This is serving the god of money, which is a master I can not serve, if I am to serve the Lord. I think it is a typical modern problem that many in wealthier countries allocate their time so much in favor of work and accruing material wealth, rather than in worship, prayer, and helping others. I am guilty of this crime, and in so doing, have much to learn from the parable of the dishonest steward.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, 9/11/2016

The Gospel for September 11th, 2016: “The Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “The Parable of the Lost Coin,” and “The Parable of the Lost Son”

Luke 15: 1-32

Reflection: Mercy and Forgiveness on 9/11

I think it certainly says something about the magnitude of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks that my thoughts turned so quickly to them when I saw 9/11 is the date for Sunday’s gospel. Even though I did not personally lose anyone close to me in those attacks, it still resonates strongly with me as with most Americans. The fact the devastation was covered so vividly by the media is, I’m sure, one reason. But more than that, as an American, the attacks shattered any illusions of our country’s ability to guarantee our safety from foreign threats on our own soil. Then there is the whole Muslim jihad angle that forces Americans to ask themselves why they are the targets of a holy war. I think we have to ask ourselves why that is. It is alarming, disconcerting, and confusing to contemplate even now. In my memory, the aftermath seems as muddled and puzzling as the event itself. Even though we were able to identify the terrorists responsible for the airplane hijackings, figuring out who they represented proved to be far more complicated, especially as thoughts of justice and eliminating future threats became the focus. Eventually, we settled on El Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the chief targets, which led us to Afghanistan. Finally, the Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden giving Americans a victory to celebrate in the strange and elusive war. And yet, despite bin Laden’s death and reports of a weakened El Qaeda, the group continues to persist in its holy war against the West and U.S. in particular.

With this background in mind, I would like to focus on one line in particular in today’s gospel. It is a charge against Jesus from the Pharisees that says, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (2). I don’t know about others, but it is this inclusive nature of Jesus’s mission that I find one of the most appealing aspects of Christianity. I love it because it means I have a place at Christ’s table despite my sins. It is the gift that makes that continues to make life in this world livable and gives hope for eternal life. Like the Prodigal Son in one today’s parables, I am welcomed back despite my selfish choices.

The catch is that with every gift Jesus gives, he also gives an uncomfortable mission. One of those is for us too to welcome the tax collectors, the lost sheep, and the prodigal sons and daughters. When those wayward souls have not harmed us, I think this is within comfort zone of most Christians. We are willing to help those who those in need and forgive those who have sinned. Our charity in these case feels rewarding and sweet. But do we also welcome our enemies to the table? Do we also eat  as Jesus did with the Judas Iscariots and Pharisees, whom He knew willed His death to further their own selfish motives?

Our mission is to imitate Christ in the full depth of His holiness. In so doing, I think we are called to welcome and eat with our enemies like Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda. Frankly, this is so uncomfortable to think about that I can’t even begin to imagine how to do that or what that might look like. Furthermore, I don’t know how I as an ordinary citizen might contribute to a  diplomacy with an enemy that is based on Christ’s teaching. All I can think to do is pray about this today. I pray for the victims and their families. I imagine the only peace for such an unjust tragedy can come from the Lord. I pray they may know peace. But I also pray for the hijackers, bin Laden, and the current members of Al Qaeda. I pray that the forgiveness and mercy of God may be theirs as I hope it is mine. Finally, I pray for forgiveness for the thrill I felt when I found out bin Laden was dead. When juxtaposed with Jesus’s open table fellowship, there is something wrong about that desire. I was not showing love for my enemy, willing his good. In a sense I was like the Good Son in today’s parable who preferred to judge His brother’s sins and resented his father’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy at his return. Would he have experienced the thrill of revenge if his father had thrown out the Prodigal Son upon his return? In likeness of Jesus, we are called to love the unlovable. Against that measure, I am humbled to such a degree that I must crawl back to Jesus and beg for his mercy and forgiveness at my hardness of heart. It may be just at this moment that I finally understand the Sacred Heart of Jesus devotion. May His heart be our hearts.

The Gospel for Sunday, September 4th

The Gospel for September 4th, 2016: “Sayings on Discipleship”

Luke 14: 25-33

Reflection: Swallowing the Hard to Swallow

This first gospel of September follows three challenging gospels in August that I would characterize as “hard to swallow.” “Hard to swallow” is an idiom that is often used to describe something as difficult to accept or believe. On August 14th we had Luke 12: 49-53, “Jesus: A Cause of Division;” on August 21st was Luke 13: 22-30, “The Narrow Door; Salvation and Rejection;” and finally last weekend on August 28th, we read Luke 14: 7-14, “Conduct of Invited Guests and Hosts,” where Jesus turns up the heat on the guests and host at a banquet. Each of these made me squirm a bit in their uncompromising language.

Today’s gospel, “Sayings on Discipleship” continues that trend. The chief reason for this discomfort comes from these three lines:

Line 26, “If any one comes to me without hating his father* and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Line 27, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Line 33, “… [E]veryone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”

My first inclination is to soften them up and make them more palatable. To pull one of those moves like, Jesus doesn’t really mean this; instead, He means something that does not require me to sacrifice, change, or suffer in any way. That would be wrong and unhelpful. Jesus is trying to change us–to make us holy and fit for Heaven. Still, I think a literal reading of these lines is confusing and daunting as well. So let’s just go through each one on it’s own and consider what it might be saying to us in the context of this day and age.

The bugaboo in line 26 is this notion of “hating” one’s family and even one’s own life in order to be a Christian disciple. If Jesus asks us to love even our enemies (Luke 6: 27), why would He asks us to hate our family and ourselves? Shouldn’t we love them all? I think Jesus is definitely calling us to love everyone; hate is not to be taken literally. However, He calls to love with unselfishness, the love called agape, that is about willing the good of the other. Quite often our emotional attachments to the security of our family and ourselves gets in the way of the good that is God’s will. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had stepped aside from his leadership role during the Civil Rights movement because of the threat to the safety of his family and himself. It would be easy to see him as not loving–or rather “hating”–his family because he undertook the risk. Despite King’s flaws, it easy to believe his motives were unselfish and an answer to God’s call to bring justice to an America that had grown ripe with racism. Did King hate his family? No. Rather, he trusted in God’s plans for him with a faith that exemplifies true Christian discipleship. The risk of protecting one’s family  or self out of the need for preservation before God’s will is real. God does not want us to hurt our families, but we must always trust in his plans for them, not our own. It is the faith of Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice Isaac  at the Lord’s command. Like all other aspects of our lives, it requires a surrendering of our will to His. Very few of us will be called to make sacrifices that look like “hate.” Mostly, we must continue to walk this high wire act where loving our families means respecting each relative’s free will, forgiving family members when they hurt us, and living the truth of Christ’s centrality in our lives even when our kin doesn’t approve or agree. Only God can help us stay on the wire.

Line 27 indicates discipleship requires carrying one’s cross to follow Jesus.  This to me is beautifully metaphorical as it plays off of Jesus’s literal carrying of the cross as a necessary step in saving His people from sin. Just as that exhausting journey to Calvary caused our Lord inestimable physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering, so to do the trials of each of our lives demand us to suffer. Some of those trials are self-imposed from giving in to sin; some given to us as a part of God’s plan; but all provide the opportunity to purify us and grow closer to Jesus if we can forgive and accept as He did in the hope of eternal life with God the Father. The only way to overcome our propensity for selfishness and to truly serve others is to be willing to suffer and look to God for relief, mercy, and the strength to endure. It is in those experiences that we learn that all life can only be found in Him.

Line 33 asks us to renounce all our possessions. Is that realistic in this day and age? Let’s face it, even the Catholic Church owns buildings and property. While I do think there is tremendous value in simplifying our lives and reducing our dependence and attachment to our possessions. I don’t think it is wise or helpful to suggest we all need to give up all our possessions tomorrow. I say that because so many people, including myself, are not ready and would only resist with greater intensity. Instead, I think this gospel should be read as a challenge to continue to detach ourselves from our possessions, to love people instead of things, and to depend on God instead of the products of this world for our happiness and security. In this reading, the self-denial of fasting from rampant consumerism and excessive materialism during Lent and other times of the year becomes a concrete means to develop a true detachment from our possessions. Furthermore, an effort to increase our willingness to charitably give to those in need our money, possessions, talents, and time will bring us closer to the ideals of putting God and others first. I am consistently struck when I am around elderly persons who are clearly losing their physical and mental capacities by the fact that inevitably we will reach a point in our lives where all those possessions can’t help us anymore. Our bodies will perish and our dependence on God’s mercy and love will be all that remains. If we reject Him, death is all there is.

To close, these three lines taken together remind me of the formula made famous from Gayle Sayers’ autobiography, “I am Third.” God first, others second, and me third. It is the great challenge of our lives to overcome our innate propensity to put our own needs first. Our Creator would not ask us to do this if it wasn’t necessary for us to be gathered up in Him. We must learn to imitate and participate in His agape love toward all His creation. Only then will we be Holy enough to share in the purity of Heaven. He knows we can not do this alone, that we need His help. This is why He sent us Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. This is our destiny. It will take patience, suffering, and sacrifice in this life. And it will take God in all His manifestations and grace. We just don’t ever want to lose sight of that truth for a second. So we say a prayer and swallow the truth of today’s gospel which will change us for the better.