The Gospel for Sunday, July 30th, 2017

The Gospel for July 30th, 2017: “Treasures New and Old”

Matthew 13:44-52

Reflection: Surprised by Hope

This week’s gospel continues in the vein of last Sunday with Jesus telling his disciples more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. Another similarity is the inclusion of a disconcerting line about the end of the age. Jesus tells them, “The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (49-50). I would like to reflect on this line in light of a book I’m currently reading by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Wright’s book attempts to set straight what he considers are common misunderstandings among most Christians about the resurrection and its role in our hope for salvation. Wright argues we need to return to an understanding that is closer to the first century Christians. The misunderstanding he describes is recognizable. He claims when Christians talk about hope for resurrection, generally they equate that with going to Heaven as a disembodied spirit after they die. While this does offer some hope and comfort in times of bereavement, it also devalues God’s creation in this world both in our physical bodies and in the rich biosphere that surrounds us. However, Wright claims it is not what Jesus meant or how the first disciples understood what He meant about resurrection.

If I may summarize Surprised by Hope with broad strokes, Wright explains that the Jewish understanding of resurrection would be a new life in physical form after death, just as Jesus gave Lazarus and to which His own resurrection refers. This is what the Pharisees believed in that the Sadducees did not. It is not a purely spiritual state far away in a realm called Heaven. Jesus came to join Heaven and Earth—to unite the perfect with that which was marred by sin. Therefore, salvation is a restoration of God’s perfect creation, removing sin, death, and decay. So the “end of the age” Jesus refers to is not a rapture, as some argue, where Jesus will collect the worthy, transporting them to Heaven, and leave behind the sinners on Earth to languish in an eternal Hell. Instead, Wright argues the resurrection has two parts. The inaugural resurrection is Easter Sunday, Jesus’s resurrection, which proved He is God-made-man, the joiner of Heaven and Earth who came to save His lost sheep. With Easter, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, meaning the building of Christ’s Kingdom begins. The second resurrection will arrive with the second coming of Jesus to Earth, when all of God’s people who have died are resurrected, their bodies restored to the perfection of the intention of their creator, free from sin, death, and decay forever. So our hope is for being resurrected to walk in the Kingdom, not as spirits who have shed off defective earthly bodies, but as holy creatures born again into a physical perfection we cannot imagine in this life.

This raises some questions. What happens between death and this completion of the salvation story? I do not have the space to try summarize all of Wright’s claims on this. He acknowledges the view of purgatory, but his Protestant leanings show he is dubious of a spiritual purgatory. He posits the view that it is possible our suffering on Earth is what purges and that with death we truly rest in peace spiritually until the resurrection mission is complete. Frankly, I don’t think this question needs to be answered in detail as a condition for accepting his understanding of the resurrection.

The other question is why the resurrection occurs with this process starting on Easter and lasting into an unknown future? Again, let me caution I am trying to put together Wright’s argument with my own understanding, in my own words. However, I think it a reasonable approximation of Wright’s answer to state he believes the salvation plan involves all of humanity, God’s created stewards, participating in the victory over sin through the unselfish love of our Creator. We strive to live the gospel message of love of God and neighbor in every moment, as the first parable suggests by selling all we have to buy the treasure of Christ’s kingdom. Since we share this love of others through our relationships, Christ’s salvation, the purging of sin through selfless love, spreads through all creation. It may well be that the final resurrection occurs when all have been saved (or at least all who assent to be saved)  which only seems possible through faith in Christ.

Despite all the theological ends I may have just loosed, let me return to the gospel with this basic understanding of Wright’s book in mind. The notion of a “fiery furnace,” a Hell for sinners, sometimes does more harm than good in the sense that fear of eternal damnation is not an impetus to love freely through the Holy Spirit. So the result from scare tactics is too many Christians of all denominations act on that fear by trying to save themselves, instead of moving toward the people and parts of God’s creation most marred by sin and decay in the spirit of mission. So instead of bringing God’s love to poor, sick, and dying, they isolate themselves in comfortable “Christian” enclaves, waiting for life’s suffering to end, and for that prized trip to Heaven. They are not concerned about restoring Heaven on Earth through love in the forms of faith, hope, and charity, which Wright claims is Christ’s salvation plan. I can honestly say that like those waiting it out, I spend far more time worrying about my own salvation than about all of humanity, the scattered tribes of Israel if you will.

So why then does Christ bring up the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and grinding of teeth” if not to scare us away from sin? I think He is describing the purging of sin that will take place after His Easter resurrection, not as a damnation of sinners, since all of us are marred by sin, but as the holy perfecting of those very sinners. In the case of this parable, Jesus is not talking about the fish in the net as individual saints and sinners; rather he is comparing the net to the Kingdom of Heaven. Could it be that the bad, throw-away fish are not individual people, but sin itself? Could Jesus be giving a glimpse of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth being burned away in a fiery furnace of God’s love so that what remains is a kingdom where all of God’s creation has been restored to its full glory? In such a scenario the wailing is not the cries of the eternally tormented, but instead the resistance we experience in letting go of our attachments to the world. It is not easy to give up our sins because we still must choose God’s love over them. But in the end, it is a tremendously hopeful idea that God’s love is irresistible and that all of humanity will surrender to the joy of the kingdom and let go of sin to allow the final resurrection and Jesus’s return.

In the end, I guess I believe in a universal salvation for all. I think our hopes our tied up together as God’s creatures. Just as sin is corporate, so too is salvation. We are given Christ’s mission of love so that in saving others we will participate—choosing freely—to save ourselves. Perhaps the second coming of Jesus to complete the restoration of the kingdom is a function of our willingness to take the mission to the ends of the earth. It will happen eventually, but it takes longer when we selfishly resist the call to love others as Christ loves us.

Why is this so hopeful to me? Because I know my sins. Every time I am confronted with the idea of sinners being cast away to Hell, I think I deserve such a fate. So my hope has to be in a mercy that is so divine that we can all be saved. If I can treat others with unselfish love—of which  the challenge often does make me wail and grind my teeth inside–maybe that merciful love spreads to further the ultimate resurrection. I choose to believe Jesus is a savior who cannot lose a single one of us. I believe that all the good and beauty in the world is not here on loan from Heaven, but rather to change hearts and stomp out sin. All the manifestations of God’s love are active agents in preparing the way for the final resurrection that will complete the joining of Heaven and Earth.

 

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The Gospel for Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

The Gospel for July 23rd, 2017: “The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat”

Matthew 13: 24-33

Reflection: Dare We Have Hope?

Like last Sunday, Jesus is teaching with parables in today’s gospel. The parable that dominates this passage, “Weeds among the Wheat,” describes a wheat field infested by weeds that were planted by the devil. He explains the weeds are analogous to “children of the evil one” (38-39). With the appearance of the weeds, the field owner’s servants ask if they should “go and pull them up” (28). The owner declines, citing the risk of pulling up the good wheat along with the weeds. Instead, they will wait until harvest, collecting the wheat into the barn and burning the weeds in bundles (30).

The fate of the weeds is terrifying. Jesus says the angels “will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (42); whereas, the wheat, “the children of the kingdom,” (38) “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (43). Framed this way, it is an easy choice. Any reasonable person will pursue Christ’s kingdom over obliteration in the fiery furnace, which sure sounds like Hell.

Still, such passages show a side of Jesus that is discomforting. He sounds like a doom-and-gloom prophet or a fire-and-brimstone preacher. This is not the Jesus of endless love for humanity. Or is it?

I think this is Jesus the truth-teller speaking. To choose the way of Jesus, we must accept the reality of sin, death, and our capacity to reject the offer of Christian salvation. He needs us to know that. This message was probably important to first century Jews because many, like the Pharisees, may have believed that their salvation was already secure from Judaic tradition and ritual, so they didn’t need Jesus and the monumental change to their lives His arrival brought. However, part of my discomfort with this talk of damnation is how some Christians use it to judge others. Their intent is not to save their fellow sinners, but to condemn them. This is dangerously prideful, if the message is not said with complete love and recognition we are all sinners.

The detail in this passage that reminds us to withhold judgment is the waiting until the harvest to destroy the weeds. Jesus says the harvest is “the end of the age” (39). I don’t feel comfortable explaining all the theological implications of that phrase, but I do think it means judgment will belong to the Lord in a time of His choosing, not to His followers here and now. What will happen at that time, I cannot say. Will the walls of Hell be filled with my friends and family? Will I be among them?

In Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved: With a Short Discourse on Hell, the Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Hans Urs Von Balsar tackled the paradox of statements by Jesus that suggest Hell awaits the sinner and those by Him that promise salvation for all. For those like me who are troubled by a gloomy Christianity, it is a book that restores hope. Von Balsar gives no reckless certainty or assurances, but his scholarship does consider the fullness of the gospel message on this subject that culminates with the hope that comes from Jesus’ victory over death and sin. He sees hope in the gospels that Hell will not necessarily be crowded. The power of Jesus’ salvation plan is beyond our comprehension.

For me, the most attractive aspect of faith is hope for happiness. When we read passages that remind us we can reject the offer of salvation and die bound to sin, we must also never forget that Jesus came to save us out of love. Like the prodigal son, He will embrace us in astounding mercy if we just accept His offer, regardless of what we have done in the past. Dare we have hope that Jesus will include all with those who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father?” I say, yes, we do. The love of Christ is irresistible and boundless.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 16th, 2017

The Gospel for July 16th, 2017: “The Parable of the Sower”

Matthew 13: 1-23

Reflection: Salvation is Gradual

The wonderful thing about today’s gospel, “The Parable of the Sower,” is Jesus tells us its meaning. However, it is interesting to note Jesus only tells the apostles and not the crowds of disciples who have been drawn to His presence and teaching.  It is worth considering the reason, which the apostles ask about, and I will return to it. But first, let’s review Jesus’s explanation of the parable.

Jesus says:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (18-23).

I like this parable because it creates an analogy for salvation that emphasizes its organic nature, thus avoiding a very legalistic view of faith. We are not simply following rules, but instead cultivating the “word of the kingdom” in our hearts. With this reading, “word” should be taken in its fullest sense as the logos. It is not just the words of the gospel and Jesus’s teaching, but Jesus himself, as is reasoned out in chapter one of John’s gospel. Recall, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John: 1, 14). So Jesus is the Word who like seeds into soil enters our hearts to yield a bountiful harvest.

Yet, as Jesus enumerates case by case, the soil of our hearts does not always bear fruit. He extends the analogy by citing the causes for this infertility. On the path, misunderstanding allows evil to steal away the seed. On the rocky ground, the seed sprouts but lacks the substrate to grow dense roots and persist. In amongst thorns of anxiety and temptation, the seeds are choked in the competition with the thorns. No, the soil must be fertile for the seed to bear fruit. It cannot be all mucked up with sin, from which the listed causes of infertility come.

Okay. So I have come around to sin. Regular readers know I am infatuated by the sinfulness of our natures because I am painfully aware of my own propensity to sin. I am not writing to scare anyone to Heaven like the classic Jonathan Edwards’ Puritan sermon, “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” Given how often Jesus says “fear not” in the gospels, I don’t think the path to salvation is some sort of “scared straight” lecture. What I am trying to understand with this gospel is how do we sinners fertilize the soil?

This question brings us back to Jesus’s decision to not explain the parable to the crowd. The apostles ask Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” instead of teaching the path to salvation directly (Matthew 13: 10). If I may paraphrase Jesus’s answer, He says the disciples are not ready to understand. The divine genius of the Lord’s teaching in this gospel is salvation is a process of slow growth through stages and seasons.  It is a good starting point intellectually to simply accept understanding the “word of the kingdom” will take patience and time like every good harvest.

Part of what takes time is learning to accept who Jesus is and the implication of His mission. Jesus’s plan to save humanity is through love that is selfless—that wills the good of others. This is who He is as our creator and Father, and this is how he lived his time on Earth as the Son of God. When we love Jesus and His creation, we are united with Him in love. Because of our free will, however, we can choose to hold back something for just ourselves, an act of division and selfishness. This is a powerful force. We cannot contend with it individually on our own. But the love of Jesus comes to us through the love of others frequently and reclaims the soil of our hearts for love. We are never lost from His reach.

What takes so long to accept—what the crowds were not ready to accept that day because His resurrection was yet to come—is our hearts need to belong completely to Jesus in love. We can hold nothing back to join in His goodness for eternity. Even though we won’t die a death on a cross, His model indicates the level of sacrifice and surrender to love of God and others salvation takes. This calls to mind the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, which I read recently. Abraham’s was a trust in God’s plan I am not ready to fathom.  I think it takes a lifetime to reach the point where we can give ourselves completely to Him for the sake of not just our own happiness, but for that of humanity. That life might be long or short in human years, but in every case we must keep saying yes to Jesus right up until our last day, regardless of the ledger of our past successes and failures. The fertilizer to prepare the soil of our hearts for this surrender is the small acts of humble obedience to Jesus’s love. We pray; we worship; we love others. Over and over, one day at a time, through the grace of our Lord’s love and the Holy Spirit. I am not there yet. But I have faith and hope in Jesus. He has a plan of salvation for me, for all of us. It is gradual, like the sowing of seeds in the ground, which over time grow into mature plants and bear fruit.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 9th, 2017

 

The Gospel for July 9th, 2017: “The Praise of the Father” and “The Gentle Mystery of Christ”

Matthew 11: 25-30

Reflection: Gone Fishin’

Okay. I didn’t actually go fishing, but I did just get back from vacation and my mind is still there. I strive for honesty and depth in these reflection blogs, and I  can honestly say I don’t see much depth coming from my current state of mind.

I encourage readers to check out the video reflection for today’s gospel on the USCCB website. It features Franciscan friar, Father Greg Friedman, who I find always uplifting and helpful in his reflections. Today’s video is no exception.

God’s blessings to you all. I’ll be back next week with more than honest excuses.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

The Gospel for July 2nd, 2017: “The Conditions of Discipleship”

Matthew 10: 37-42

Reflection: Being Rightly Ordered

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me
(37-38).

There was a time when lines like this from Jesus would have bothered me a lot. How can Jesus, who talks so much about love, criticize a person for loving family members? I might have given up quickly on understanding and assumed they were some part of the divine mystery not meant to be understood or are unclear because they come from a different time and place. However, today I think I do understand Jesus’s point.

I have received Bishop Robert Barron’s daily reflections (https://www.wordonfire.org)on the gospel through e-mail for at least a year. Many times he has written that the teaching of Jesus is showing us how to be rightly ordered to God, just as Mosaic law was given to Israel by God to teach them how to be rightly ordered in the Old Testament. What Bishop Barron means by ‘rightly ordered’ is proper worship, not for God’s sake—He doesn’t need our worship—but for our own positioning to receive God’s love. As every Christian knows, it can be difficult to be a disciple and at odds the world. I imagine for first century Jews it would be even more difficult to be at odds with family members who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. Does a Jew reject the Savior because his or her family does not believe?

Let me be clear. Jesus is telling His disciples He is God with the words “not worthy of me.” Imagine the shock of hearing that. Those listeners were confronted with a choice, do I follow this man who has revealed Himself as God-Incarnate or do I reject Him as an imposter? It is really the same choice we face today. To be rightly ordered, we must be disciples who follow His teaching to love Him above all else and others as He loves others. And the hard part is we must let go of the attachments that get in the way of giving ourselves fully to His will.

Jesus is not saying don’t love your family. He is saying don’t become attached to family above serving Him. If we love them unselfishly with Christ at the center, all will be well. However, if there is conflict in the family over living a Christian life, a Christian shouldn’t give up Church and worship to appease the family.  Disciples hold firm in the faith. Jesus comes first—always. The conflicts that arise in family over religious ideas and practices are crosses to bear. Jesus, who came to save all, will help heal those conflicts. It may take a lifetime, but we must not give up faith that we can play a  role in the salvation of others, especially family members, by simply continuing to try to live the gospel. We pray for those who are lost and keep peace with them, but we do not sacrifice Christian worship for them. By putting Jesus first, we are rightly ordered to receive His love and give it to others, including family. This is the only recipe for happiness, which the beatitudes promise.