The Gospel for Sunday, October 30th, 2016

The Gospel for October 30th, 2016: “Zacchaeus the Tax Collector”

Luke 19: 1-10

Reflection: Climbing the Prayer Tree

As the home page of this blog site suggests, I experienced a conversion in 2013 where I decided to return with a renewed commitment to the Catholic faith of my upbringing and place Christ at the center of my life. While I didn’t begin blogging until 2015, one of the early steps in that transformation was to, on the advice of Matthew Kelly, bring a prayer journal to mass each week and write down what God is saying to me, a practice I have found helpful and continue to do. One of those early journal entries that has stuck in my memory was from November 3rd, 2013, when the reading about Zacchaeus the Tax Collector last appeared in the gospel cycle.

I would like to share what I wrote in that entry for this reflection because it speaks to me this week as I find myself sliding into a state of worldly busy-ness similar to three years ago. Here was my response then to the gospel about Zacchaeus:

He overcomes his short stature to “see” the Lord by climbing the tree. This effort is rewarded. Jesus sees him and “calls” him despite his sins. He asks to stay at Zacchaeus’s house. By answering His call, Zacchaeus experiences conversion and salvation. Prayer is my tree. I must climb over my pride and vanity.

A recent decline in my prayer life has had a negative effect. In an effort to be less selfish and more helpful to others, I have said yes to many new commitments since 2013, especially in the last few months. Consequently, I have noticed I am praying less each week, becoming more desensitized to sin, and reverting back to earlier destructive habits. Unlike earlier in my life, the commitments I have taken on have not been motivated by ambition for personal glory. Nevertheless, they hold the same potential for distracting me from God’s will in my life. Certainly, a growing presence of sin is not a sign I am listening. As Zacchaeus made the effort to climb the tree to see Jesus, I need to make the effort to slow down, even if it means saying no once in awhile, to give myself time and energy for prayer so that I may move toward Jesus too. I tend to think my spiritual growth will progress in a steady manner toward Christ. I realize now it is a struggle with starts and stops, ebb and flow. Winning this struggle depends on the discipline of prayer. So reminiscent of Zacchaeus, I need to climb the prayer tree once again and re-establish habits that keep Christ at the center.

The Gospel for Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

The Gospel for October 23rd, 2016: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”

Luke 18: 9-14

Reflection:  American Pride

There are many places in the gospels where Jesus is hard on the Pharisees. I imagine this was quite shocking to first century Jews who would have seen them as models of holiness. As we see  in this Lukan parable, Jesus makes it clear that many of them did not have the love of God’s people in their hearts, but rather a love of self—a deeply seated pride and vanity.  The Pharisee in the parable approaches God in prayer with gratitude not for God’s blessings, but for his superiority over others.  His heart is not open to the reality that all his gifts come from the Creator and that humility is the proper state for approaching and knowing the Lord. In contrast, the stereotypical sinner, the tax collector, the first century villain, approaches God fully aware he is a sinner who can only beg for God’s mercy (10-13). Despite his faults, he approaches God with humility. Jesus makes the moral quite clear, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14).

Today, it is easy for many Americans to miss our similarity with the pride of the Pharisees.  Unlike first century Jews, we have few illusions that even the most revered members of our free society, surrounded by temptations, sometimes indulge, in sinful behaviors. Whether it is the adulterous politician or the priest who drinks too much or the CEO who smokes marijuana to come down from the pressure at work, we are frequently reminded of the fallen nature of our heroes and leaders. In this context, we may identify more quickly with the tax collector in this parable because so many of our sins our public.

However, pride is insidious. Although we may not pray like the Pharisees, giving thanks for our superiority, we still may hold that pride in our hearts, perhaps even unknowingly. Americans have been raised on The American Dream, which we hold up as both an ideal and a right. Fundamental to that dream is the notion of “upward mobility,” usually associated with a belief in meritocracy. That is to say that those who do the best work deserve to get ahead. This ideology is underpinned further by the gospel of hard work that was sung by our Puritan forefathers and used by some immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to achieve versions of the American Dream that firmly entrenched this notion in our culture. So as Americans, we think that when we achieve superior levels of economic, educational, and demographic status, we deserve it. We have permission to be proud of ourselves.Thus begins the slide, like the Pharisee in the parable, into thinking we are better than others, usually in the misguided belief it was through our own efforts.  I frequently find myself enthralled and entrapped by this ideology. Despite an awareness of the many sins in my life, I often miss the biggest one of all because I still compare myself to the standards of American society instead of to the model of the saints. It is an old habit that dies hard.

So what do we do? Do we all take vows of poverty and move someplace else? I don’t think so. I think Jesus is the answer as taught by the gospels and the Church. We need to live the Christian life in the midst of the culture we live in. But there is something we don’t do. I don’t think we try to Americanize the Church. In other words, we don’t try to substitute the ideals of American democracy for the doctrine of the Church. As much as we would love to escape the crises of conscience that exist over so many issues such abortion or gay marriage, we don’t pretend the solutions are political. Instead, we approach these dilemmas with the humility of the tax collector and turn to Jesus humbly in prayer and ask for His guidance and mercy. Like Mary in the Magnificat, we are only grateful to be ‘handmaids’ of God’s will, instead of self-pronounced saviors, just because we have been blessed with certain comforts or successes in this American life. My fellow Americans, pray that we may be humble in spite of our desire to be otherwise, despite of our American-ness. I need those prayers in my struggle as an American Catholic. I need those prayers in my struggle as a Christian.

The Gospel for Sunday, October 16th, 2016

The Gospel for October 16th, 2016: “The Parable of the Persistent Widow”

Luke 18: 1-8

Reflection: The Effectiveness of Nagging God

Currently, I am reading Father James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. One of the revelations from this engaging book is the idea that Jesus had a sense of humor, which may well be the reason some of the gospels are hard to interpret. In other words, Jesus’s strange choice of words and examples may have been chosen to be humorous and are perplexing when they are read too seriously. I am wondering if this parable about the persistent widow is one of those moments.

Jesus’s point, as we are told in the opening, is about the need to “pray always without becoming weary” (1). We need to remain persistent in our prayers. I don’t think this is surprising advice, but rather quite logical. And yet, as I think about what it might mean as Jesus is addressing his disciples, the word “weary” might mean more than they were a little fatigued and needed to lie down. He was probably talking about the very debilitating weariness that comes from trying to live a life that put them at odds with so many around them with the promise of a reward that may be at times hard to believe. This is the kind of weariness that is probably accompanied by a crisis in faith. It might be quite possible to believe that many of His disciples were experiencing that weariness then. In such moments, the advice to keep praying may sound overly idealistic and hollow. I will admit to feeling that way at times when I am lost and confused, weak and tempted, or sometimes just exhausted; and my daily prayers do not seem to be helping me through my trials.

So Jesus tells a story as an example that, thanks to James Martin, makes me laugh and leaves my heart feeling lighter. We have this corrupt judge who apparently has ruled against this widow in some case where he has been unjust to her, or maybe he has refused to hear her case for some reason or another. Jesus tells us she keeps bothering him about this, asking him to give a verdict in her favor. It sounds like she might do this quite belligerently–perhaps there is handbag or cane used as a weapon–because the judge decides he needs to give her the just verdict she seeks or she may come and strike him! (5). Luke calls this persistence; I call it nagging. And it works! The judge gives in and delivers the verdict she seeks. This woman is not a saint; she is a bully! So when Jesus says be like her because surely the Father will answer our petition for help more quickly than a corrupt judge, I laugh and say I can do this. And with that, a little weariness lifts, as it probably did for the disciples who were not in the mood to hear ‘the Lord doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’

Now I don’t really believe we should go out of our way to belligerently nag God with our unanswered prayers in the spirit of the widow. Certainly, we should always strive to approach our Lord with humility, gratitude, and patience. However, I also think that God wants us to turn to Him when we are lacking those virtues rather than give up. So if we need to express our prayers as grumpy nagging once in awhile because we are acting as the sinners we are, Jesus is saying go ahead and keep praying. And furthermore, have a laugh at yourself while you are at it. Just don’t lose faith in God’s grace and salvation. For He ends the parable with this provocative question: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?” Let us pray that He does.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, October 9th, 2016

The Gospel for October 9th, 2016: “The Cleansing of Ten Lepers”

Luke 17: 11-19

Reflection: Gratitude for the Gift of Faith

I love the pithiness of this gospel. Ten lepers cross paths with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. They appeal to His mercy and ask for pity, a sign of faith. Jesus mysteriously commands them, “Go show yourselves to the priests” (14), which they obey. As they do so, they realize their leprosy has been healed. I think the wording is important: “As they were going they were cleansed” (14). One of them, a Samaritan, thinks to go back and thank Jesus for this gift of healing. Jesus, noting the other nine did not show their gratitude in this way, says to the renewed man, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you” (19).

The significance of this episode clearly speaks to the connectedness of gratitude and faith. I would go so far to say one cannot exist without the other. While all ten acted out of faithfulness in asking Christ to heal them and received the gift for which they asked, I wonder if only the grateful one will continue to participate in that gift of salvation as he moves forward in a new life without leprosy. The others may no longer be marked by the horrible disease; but without gratitude, I wonder if they won’t become infected by other sins that will cripple them in the days that follow. I say this not to indicate that Jesus will take revenge on their ingratitude, but rather their faithfulness will recede and by replaced by sin in the period during which they forgot that all that is good in their lives comes from Jesus. Gratitude is the proper disposition in which to believe, act on, and sustain this salvific relationship.

I realize the inference I am drawing from the passage may be too large a logical leap without some doctrinal or theological support. If I may, I would like to skip the lengthy research of this type and instead offer support for my thesis from the Rosary. The First Luminous Mystery, the Baptism of Jesus, provides the spiritual gift, “gratitude for the gift of faith.” In contemplating the baptism by John of Jesus, who came take away sin and offer new life in Him, we remember our own baptism cleans us of original sin and gives us new birth in the faith that we are children of God. In that faith lies an eternal good that can only come God. By cleansing us of sin, as Jesus “cleansed” the ten lepers, and gifting us with a life in Him without sin, we find ourselves blessed in an existence that is so superior to the alternative that gratitude is the only possible state of mind we can have if we only contemplate the gift. Hence, remembering Jesus’s sanctification of baptism in the Luminous mysteries goes beyond acknowledging the manifestation of our faith. It gifts us with gratitude, the only reasonable response to receiving the gift of eternal life. Gratitude, like charity, is one of the marks of true faithfulness. They are indeed connected. As in the Rosary, our prayers need to be infused with gratitude in order grow in faith. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, like the nine ungrateful lepers, saved from one manifestation of sin, only to invite more sin to plague us during the separation from the Lord caused by our forgetfulness to be truly thankful.