The Gospel for Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The Gospel for October 15th, 2017: “The Parable of the Wedding Feast”

Matthew 22: 1-14

Reflection: The Kingdom is for All Who Accept

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever.

–Isaiah 25: 6-8

Like last week’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to the chief priest and elders in a parable about the Kingdom of God. And also like last week there are references in the parable to a horrible fate for those who reject God’s authority and gifts. Last week it was vineyard tenants who failed to cooperate with God as the vineyard owner. The Jewish leaders  suggest that the punishment for their offense should be death to the disobedient tenants. This week, it is those who were invited to a wedding banquet and refuse the invitation or show up without proper dress. Jesus says the consequence of their rejection is banishment to the outer darkness in bindings, where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 22: 13).

At the risk of sounding redundant, my reflection on both parables recommends we do not focus our reading of these parables on the mentioned consequences and equate them with a wrathful God sending off sinners to Hell. While it reasonable to read this way, I don’t think it fits with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Gospels. He does not come to punish; He comes to save and usher in the Kingdom of God. As I stated last week, the Kingdom of God is marked by love and forgiveness, not wrath and punishment.

If we can avoid focusing on the punishment for the moment, then I think the parable speaks to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation to the wedding banquet, which is the Kingdom of God. Consider this line from the auxiliary reading from Isaiah quoted above: “On the mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven all nations….” (Isaiah 25: 8). The Jewish priests and elders thought theirs was the chosen people who alone were invited to the Kingdom. Jesus is saying the invitation will go out to all, including the Gentiles. The veil that separates the tribes of Israel, the unity and relatedness of all God’s creation will be destroyed by Jesus’ coming. Now all may participate in the Kingdom of God.

Once we establish this message as central to the passage, the punishment mentioned by Jesus is not read as coming from Him or from God the Father. It is self-imposed by those who reject the gift of salvation, the invitation to the wedding feast that is the Kingdom of God. God gave us free will to choose to love Him and his creation so that we may actively enjoy the gift of His love and can freely give it to others. The truth of this condition means humans can choose to reject God’s gift of salvation. This self-imposed exile will mean separation from the love that leads to happiness, a condition that leads to “wailing and grinding of teeth.” We choose the punishment by rejecting the invitation to the Kingdom, which of course the Jewish leaders did by crucifying Jesus.

In this understanding, the final line, “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22: 14) is not about God’s selectiveness, with a few saints in Heaven and a multitude of sinners in Hell. I think this line probably suffers from a difficult translation into English. It should read something like, ‘All are invited, but not all choose to accept.’ Our place at the wedding banquet–in the Kingdom of God– is secured by our daily re-commitment to saying “Yes” to the call of the Lord. We say, “Here, I am Lord,” and then try to carry out God’s plans for us to proclaim His word and love one another as He has loved us. Our moments of weakness and shortcoming will be forgiven as long as we resist the ultimate temptation to harden our hearts to God’s love and live for the temporary pleasures of this life alone. We need Jesus to do this. His grace will flourish in our simple act of surrender to His invitation. All are called and He who created us can help all join the divine feast.

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The Gospel for Sunday, October 8th, 2017

The Gospel for October 8th, 2017: “The Parable of the Tenants”

Matthew 21: 33-43

Reflection: The Law is not the Path to the Kingdom of God

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.

–Isaiah 5:7

The responsorial psalm for this week connects the metaphor of the vineyard in today’s gospel, as well as from previous two weeks, to the people of Israel. It is tempting to draw a further analogy from the people of Israel to the new Israel, today’s Christians. However, the danger of this is that readers can fall into the trap of the “works contract” hermeneutic that leads to the kind of legalistic thinking of the Pharisees Jesus sought to change. Jesus, who loves unconditionally, is the icon for our faith and hope, not the law.

Consider today’s gospel as a case in point. Jesus tells the Jewish chief priests and elders the parable of a vineyard owner who leased his property to tenants and then leaves on a journey. When he returns, he expects a fruitful vintage from the land and sends a servant to collect it from the tenants. The tenants do not comply and violently stop three servants from collecting the vineyard owner’s due, including killing one. In response, the vineyard owner sends his son to collect, thinking the tenants surely will respect the heir to the vineyard and hand over the yield. Alas, the greedy tenants kill the heir as well, thinking the vineyard will now be theirs. Jesus then asks His Jewish audience what the owner will do in response. The chief priests and elders answer, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to  other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times” (41).

If we see God the Father as the vineyard owner, his son as Jesus, and the tenants God’s people, it is easy to interpret this passage as saying God will punish the sinful, perhaps by sending them off to Hell. But keep in mind, Jesus is speaking to those who refuse to accept He is the Messiah. The passage suggests they were aware the tenants in the parable referred to them, who were rejecting the heir. I think this should be the focus of the interpretation.  The vineyard tenants not only sin in a variety of ways, but they fail to recognize the heir as the one comes to make things right. Why does this refer to chief priests and elders? Because they thought their adherence to Mosaic law and tradition was enough to make things right. They failed to see the need for a Messiah who came preaching love and forgiveness. They didn’t realize Jesus was the fulfillment of the law. As I have heard Bishop Robert Barron say, it is not that Jewish law was bad, but that it was gathered up in Christ.

The message is relevant to us as well only if we fail to see Christ as He represents Himself in the “Last Supper Discourse.” There Jesus says to the Apostles, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). This is not a works contract, but an invitation to live His story in Him. Jesus came to save through love and forgiveness until the very end. The Jewish leaders had it wrong. They thought law and punishment would bring justice. Jesus brings justice through love of others. Jesus as the heir would not have killed the sinful tenants; He would have forgiven them, just as He did His persecutors on the cross. The challenge from today’s gospel is the question that haunts us throughout the New Testament: Can we love our enemies in order to make peace and participate in the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth?

The Gospel for Sunday, October 1st, 2017

The Gospel for October 1st, 2017: “The Parable of the Two Sons”

Matthew 21: 28-32

Reflection: Repent!

Today’s gospel is an uncomfortable scene. Jesus confronts the chief priests and elders with the undeniable fact that they did not accept John the Baptist’s openness toward all repentant sinners, namely prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus indicts them for two sins. First, they fail to love and accept those considered disgraceful. Additionally, in their smug haughtiness, they closed their hearts and minds to the prophetic word of God from John. In other words, John preached repentance; they remained unrepentant.

Furthermore, Jesus demonstrates these sins are not out of ignorance by asking them to answer the puzzling question of which son is doing God’s will in the “Parable of the Two Sons.” In the parable, a father commands both his sons to go work in the family vineyard. One son openly disagrees to do so, but later changes his mind and goes. The other politely replies to the command with, “Yes, sir,” but then fails to go (28-30). Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, which of the sons did their father’s will? Rightly, they answer the first son, who despite disobeying at first, changes his mind and concedes (31). This son repents, just like the prostitutes and tax collectors who turned back to God at the urging of John the Baptist.

Part of the difficulty for the chief priests and elders is that intellectually they probably did not think they had  sins to repent. They thought tradition had already saved and purified them, so there was no need to ask God for forgiveness and mercy. A conscientious searching of the heart would have revealed a different truth, but perhaps they had closed and hardened their hearts for so long they had rendered themselves incapable of such a meditation. I don’t know. I am only speculating.

What I do know is this is a very real danger inherent in the human experience. The power of sin can influence us to focus on ourselves instead of others and to ignore our sins—to look for scape goats instead of face our failures in thought and deed. If we fail to heed John the Baptist’s message of repentance, we may risk pushing away Christ too far so that our hearts no longer respond to His call to love, despite the hollow “Yes, sir” our words may say. I truly believe the best defense against this prideful free fall is a life centered on the sacraments, so that the closeness of Jesus may penetrate the iciness of our hearts. In particular, reconciliation enacts genuine repentance so that our hearts may be completely restored to spiritual health. As I reflect on this gospel, I realize it has been over six months since my last confession. I have put it off too long. Despite the appearance of my words, my heart is unhealthy. It is time to go.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 24th, 2017

The Gospel for September 24th, 2017: “The Workers in the Vineyard”

Matthew 20: 1-16A

Reflection: It is Enough to Be with the Lord in the Vineyard

My initial reaction to the parable in today’s gospel about the Kingdom of Heaven is that the outcome is unfair. Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires four groups of workers to work in his vineyard throughout the day and pays them all the same wage at the end. At the extreme end, the last group, hired at 5:00 pm and who worked only an hour, is paid the same as the group that started at dawn and worked all day in the heat. What sense are we to make of this inequity?

To begin, we can interpret God as the landowner and the workers as His people. The work done in the vineyard is living  life as a faithful follower of Christ. If we read the parable this way, the meaning that emerges forces an understanding of the Christian life that is at odds with worldly wisdom. What Jesus is telling us is the reward for being a faithful servant of Christ is the same whether a person embraces it early or late in one’s life. That reward is a life in Christ: the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be fully instituted on Earth with resurrection of all His people. Worldly wisdom suggests that those who have worked longer deserve more. This is the basis of the full-day workers’ complaint to the land owner: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat” (12). Can we accept that those who come to God without a long record of doing His work are just as deserving of the Kingdom of Heaven as those who have spent a lifetime in His service? Or do we reject the deal Jesus is offering on the grounds it is unfair?

These questions prompted by the parable are the same ones suggested by the conversion and salvation of Dismas, the Good Thief, who repents to Jesus as they are on the cross dying and is promised paradise by the Lord (Luke 23: 43). They are also the same as those begged by the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 13: 11-32), because the wayward son receives an abundance of love on his return that seems to be more than that received by the faithful son who stayed at home and dutifully worked for his father. In each of these cases, I think we can only accept the outcomes as being just if we reflect on why Jesus came and died on the cross. He did not come as merely another prophet to warn of God’s impending judgment against the unfaithful. He came as the Messiah of Israel, who comes to gather all of God’s people to the Lord’s presence. He came to save all from sin and death. Furthermore, when we see the story of His salvation unfold in the gospels, it becomes clear that we who know Him are being asked to participate in this glorious vision. We are witnessing to God’s glory in word and action and loving one’s neighbors and enemies alike.

In view of the salvation plan, the goal is not to pay each worker in the vineyard according to his due. This brings us no closer to the realization of God’s vision for all. Instead, it is to gather all into the vineyard, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what the full-day workers in the vineyard and the Dutiful Son have lost sight of in their pride. Happiness is found in the presence of Christ and in His work. The world can offer nothing better. The injustice that needs correcting is that not all of God’s people live in the light of His love. As the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, we should rejoice each time another lost son comes home to Christ and when another unemployed worker is hired for the vineyard. There is no need to be envious of those who are lost or unemployed. Those workers who are outside the vineyard “standing idle all day” are not happy (6). They are the lonely, the alienated, the exploited, the sick, and the dying. We who are in the vineyard have been saved from a miserable existence and can participate in the glory of the Kingdom by welcoming all those latecomers to receive the same gift of happiness and life we are enjoying. Until the God’s Kingdom is fully realized on Earth, until all the workers are gathered in the vineyard, it is tempting for those us blessed with knowing Christ to attempt to horde His love out a sense of self-preservation. But since it is truly a gift, its value is only experienced in reciprocation. Our sense of love and freedom come from giving the gift to others. We are called to act as the Father to Prodigal Son and generously give the love we have received so graciously to those in need, rather than to attempt to turn God’s love into an economic transaction as the Dutiful Son suggests.

This is true justice in the Kingdom of God. When the landowner in the parable hires the workers in the morning, he promises them “what is just” (4). Life in Christ is justice; it is happiness. If we can accept this and reject the worldly notion that we can have more happiness if we horde and possess God’s gifts, we will enjoy God’s happiness and peace. In addition, we are prepared to participate in the salvation plan by sharing God’s love unselfishly. We who have worked in the vineyard all day are the lucky ones. We need to remember to be grateful for that gift and share it with the rest of the world. To think or act otherwise is to reject the happiness given to us so generously by Christ.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 17th, 2017

The Gospel for September 17th, 2017: “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”

Matthew 18: 21-35

Reflection: I am the Unforgiving Servant

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.

–Sirach 27:30

In today’s gospel Peter asks Jesus how many times we must forgive a brother who sins against us (21). Jesus’ answer, seventy-seven, is not literal. He means always. This is typically radical teaching from our Lord. In His time, as in ours, other recourses for when another wrongs us are available and glorified. Certainly, we can seek to right the wrong through legal or judicial means. Then there is the path of violence that has been glorified time and time again in legend, history, and literature, especially  more recently in the era of film. The Christian option of reconciliation and forgiveness, however it may look in practice, is rare and considered weak and unsatisfying by the world.

Jesus knows this. He knows how tightly we hold onto the temptations of wrath and anger, as the quote from Sirach above suggests. So he follows up this teaching with “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” which as an analogy or metaphor clearly demonstrates the need for forgiveness. A servant who is in debt to his king is about to be sold. He begs the king for mercy, vowing to pay him back in full.  The king is moved to be merciful and forgives the loan. Free again, the servant goes to another servant who owes him money and demands payment. The other servant begs for patience and mercy, as the first servant did with the king, but is flatly denied and thrown in person by the first servant who gave him the loan. Witnesses to this episode are disturbed by it and tell the king. In anger, the king says to the first servant, “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (32-33). The king then reverses his decision and hands the wicked servant over to the torturers until he can pay back the full debt, which seems impossible from prison. Jesus sums up the moral of the parable by saying, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (35).

As I have argued now many times in these blogs, I don’t think we want to read Jesus’ message using a “works contract” paradigm where the fate of the unforgiving servant is Hell because he failed to act in accordance with the model of the merciful king. This understanding tends to breed the kind of legalistic thinking that Jesus railed against in the Pharisees. We are not being prompted to ask what the law says and how we may follow it to the letter in order to be saved. The grace of our salvation is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross and Easter resurrection, which demands a change of heart. Jesus is inviting us to vicariously experience the incongruence of the worldly reaction to sin against us and the beatitude contained in Christ’s teaching of divine truth. It is heart-breaking in its irony. Do we feel the pathos of the unforgiving servant’s decision to not pay forward the mercy he experienced at the hands of the king? Do we see how his rejection of the gift of mercy endangers his happiness, not contributes to it? Do we realize the unforgiving servant is we, who fail to recognize all the opportunities in our life to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our Lord?

My heart breaks because I know I am the unforgiving servant. Many times, in spite of my knowledge of my blessed life in Christ, I fail to imitate Him and instead judge and condemn others in a plethora of ways, large and small. I indulge my fantasies of revenge fueled by petty wrath and anger. My heart does not break because I fear a fate at the hands “torturers” in Hell. Rather, my heart breaks because I failed to choose the beatitude of Christ in those moments. Anger and wrath are unfulfilling always. They darken my heart and distance me from the ecstatic happiness found in the Lord. It is pathetic and tragic enough on its own.

I think the lesson from this gospel is to seek peace for  past sins through prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation and ask for the Lord’s grace to help me choose happiness in the future by forgiving others daily—always. Jesus knows how hard it is. He is just trying to help us see it is worth it and possible through Him.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 10th, 2017

The Gospel for September 10th, 2017: “A Brother Who Sins”

Matthew 18: 15-20

Reflection: Finding Peace with an Authoritarian Church

Today’s gospel is sandwiched between two passages that emphasize the need to forgive sinners as followers of Christ. The first is “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” (Matthew 18: 10-14) where the Jesus makes it clear what a source of joy it is to the Father when his lost children return to Him. The second is “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18: 21-35), where Peter is told by Jesus to forgive a brother who sins against him seventy-seven times.

It is not surprising then that today’s passage, “A Brother Who Sins,” focuses on reconciling with Christians who sin against the Church. Yet, Jesus’ words go beyond simple forgiveness to a set of instructions for ‘winning him back.’ Surprisingly, those instructions end with a scenario where if the resolution is unsuccessful Jesus counsels the following: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (17-18).

The commentary on the USCCB’s website (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/bible/matthew/18:15) suggests Jesus is telling the disciples to separate themselves from this sinner, placing him outside their community. The comment even references the word “excommunication.” What is going on here? Isn’t the instruction to excommunicate sinners incongruent with the teaching of forgiveness?

This passage establishes the Church’s authority to excommunicate unrepentant members. In fact it echoes the “binding” and “loosing” lines from two weeks ago when Jesus establishes Peter’s papal authority (Matthew 16: 15). This authority is sometimes perceived as puritanical and unforgiving, leading some to an unfavorable view of the Catholic faith.

In order to better understand the purpose of excommunication, I read through the article on the subject at newadvent.org, a Catholic encyclopedia website. The dogma and history of excommunication are long and complex, but what I was really looking for is its purpose. It seems illogical that the Church could justify a penalty that banishes a sinner from the Church when its primary teaching is forgiveness. The article explains that the intent is to separate the sinner from the sacraments so that he or she longs for their return and repents. The New Advent website words it this way: “It is…a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness.”

Based on past experience, I’m not sure if this would work with me. Sometimes I rebel against heavy-handed authoritarianism. This is why it rankles me when I hear Bishops threaten refusal of communion to pro-choice, Catholic politicians by bishops as in the cases of Mario Cuomo, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi among others. I frequently wonder if this threat accomplishes the goal of bringing back a sinner or instead alienating a faithful servant who has a very difficult job to do.

Here’s how I make peace with those feelings, or I should more accurately say here is the insight that I think God’s grace has revealed in my heart. The Church is set up to bring all people to Christ. It is unreasonable to expect the institution itself would be able to do that in a way that fits with my own narrow view of what is effective. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to think I would have as much insight into these matters as those whose mission is to lead the Church. I am sure God leads them in their prayers as he leads me in mine.

Within the dialogue on dogma and its application, I have faith Church leaders and pastors will reach all through varied means. I think is what St. Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 9 when he says:

To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some (20-22).

As sinners, we all know the pain of separation from Christ. Our faith derives from the joy of union with Him. If some might be brought to that union from the threat of losing the sacramental pathways to Christ for a time under excommunication–until they renounce a prideful adherence to a sin–I could not wish for anything better than that. Most of us will not face the threat of excommunication in our lifetimes. But even so, sometimes the challenge of humbling ourselves and going to reconciliation feels like a similar choice. In those moments, a Catholic should remember that, like excommunication, the purpose is to heal and mend our relationship to our God, not to penalize. In the end, it is still about forgiveness.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

The Gospel for September 3rd, 2017: “The Conditions for Discipleship”

Matthew 16: 21-27

Reflection: Dealing with Sin

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel strike deep in my heart.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct” (24-28).

The challenge of these words is undeniable. They demand a choice and a commitment on such a scale that I can’t help but pause and wonder, can I do this?

The easy answer, of course, is God’s grace will provide the help we need to meet this challenge (or maybe some would say the easy answer is no, I can’t do it). However, accepting that all will be well with God’s providence depends on a faith that still is shaken at times in my own life. So I find it helpful to think about why anyone should try to follow Jesus–to think deeply about why, as Matthew Kelly has described it, choosing Jesus’ conditions of discipleship is “the best way to live.” In my view, this is not a matter of ethics and philosophy per se. It is a personal choice for happiness in this life that just so happens to be God’s plan to save all humanity from the grip of sin for all eternity.

Allow me to focus first on the last line of the passage, because, like me, some will be concerned about line 27, which says Jesus will come and “repay all according to his conduct.” If one reads this line from the “works contract” theological perspective, it is daunting. How will sinners be repaid? Probably they will be sent to Hell, right? Those with a track record of sin like mine (which is really all of us except Jesus and Mary) can’t help but think there is no way I can become a saint, so why don’t I just give up now and enjoy the time I have left? However, I think this is a misunderstanding of the line. The repayment will not be according to the conduct of the sinner; rather, it is according to conduct of the savior, Jesus. This conduct is to join God’s creation in love on Earth, to bring to birth the Kingdom of God on earth. In the Kingdom, as in Heaven, sin no longer exists, causing pain, suffering, and death as it does currently in this world. So line 27 is not a threat to sinners, it is a gospel. It is the good news that the Savior has arrived and the Kingdom of God is at hand!

How so? If we think of sin as the dark side of free will, we move beyond the “works contract”  list of specifically sinful behaviors found in many Christian paradigms to a greater sense of God the Father’s relationship with His creation. He promises to love and care for us throughout the ages, which is the covenant that begins with Adam and continues through the old and new testaments. He created us to share in the glory of His love. However, if He did not give us free will, we could not truly participate in that love because it is enacted by willing the good of others. Without the choice of free will, one cannot love by choosing to serve the good of others, much a like a robot that is programmed to behave only according prescribed ways. Such an automated program  is lifeless, the opposite of the promise of life in God’s kindgom, because it does not reflect God’s desire to share His goodness. Still, with free will, the temptation to harbor God’s goodness for our own satisfaction is inevitable. And so sin exists in the realm of Earth and leads to all the selfish behaviors that divide humans and interfere with coming of God’s kingdom on Earth. Foreseeing all this, God set in motion a rescue operation where humans will choose love over sin in all its forms. This is, in effect, a choice to worship God over human created idols such as power, greed, sensual pleasure, and so on. God deals with sin by becoming man in the person of Jesus. He brings together perfect divinity and perfect humanity, so that sin is dealt with, while free will is still respected. Jesus, in this incarnation, is so attractive that we are drawn to Him, as were the huge crowds and both Jew and Gentile alike, which the New Testament describes. And what does He do with this magnetic power to unify all of God’s people? He unites instead of divides; He forgives instead of seeking vengeance; He heals the sick; He calms fear with hope; He loves unselfishly to the point of giving His life for us who are in the grips of sin. And finally he takes the worst that sinful humans can do to Him and rises from the dead, cementing the victory of love over sin on Earth. All that remains is for us to participate in this love to complete the task of unifying God’s creation and cleansing the remaining sin on Earth. With the same inevitability that free will allowed for the existence of sin on Earth, God is dealing with sin through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to join with His people on Earth in a destiny certain of victory.

With this in mind, Jesus’ words in the gospel are still challenging, but not in a threatening way. We are being invited to join in the building of the Kingdom where all are loved unselfishly, even those we consider unlovable or enemies. In doing so, as Jesus did, we will encounter resistance from some, who under the power of sin, will criticize, mock, and even do us violence in order maintain their grip on the false idols they have mistakenly believed will make them happy. Those same idols are the ones that  divide and cause violence. He is helping us see the truth for what they are in this passage because we may cower in fear when the resistance comes as we may have made an idol out of a secure life in this world.

This is why Jesus rebukes Peter when he says in response to the news his friend awaits a fate of suffering, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (22).  Jesus calls Peter “Satan” not because that is who he is, but because he is under sin’s power by choosing to trust his own instincts for the security of his friendship instead of God’s plan for the good of all people. Jesus needs to deal with sin by allowing it to be drawn out in all its ugliness on the cross and conquering it with forgiveness of those under its power. This should not be feared, but lovingly embraced.

Now, to return back to my original claim that denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus is choosing happiness in this life, a distinction needs to be made between suffering and pain that is the result of complying with sin and the suffering that Christians may face in the effort to follow Jesus. Happiness, as I am using it, is akin to the fulfillment to the peace and joy that comes from union with God and his creation. It is life-giving and satisfying. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a temporary pleasing of the senses that inevitably does not last or sustain life. Whenever we comply with sin and make an idol from one of the good fruits of God’s creation, even when it is merely idolizing the survival instinct to cling to an earthly life out of fear of death, we will eventually experience the pain of separation from God and His Kingdom. It is not God’s will that we would actually be excluded, but selfishness cannot exist in the light of God’s perfect love. Hence, the mission of the Church is to spread sin-vanquishing love throughout the world as participants in the salvation plan. In Old Testament language, it is to gather the lost tribes of Israel back into unity with their God.

In contrast, when we choose to love in Christ’s name and thereby incur pain and suffering as a result, we are living in union with Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. In short, we will be at peace in our suffering. We will be happy and loved and strengthened against any sensual pain. This is the point of this gospel; we will be happier following Jesus to the cross. It is not just a plan for deferred gratification for after we die. We die to sensual pleasure in favor of happiness in Christ. His is the only true source of happiness. Line 25 makes plain the ironic and self-defeating rationale of clinging to sin: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Even when we fool ourselves into thinking we are happier choosing the fool’s gold of the world over Jesus,  we experience pain that comes not  just from being separated from God’s love, but also from being divided against ourselves. God is within us calling us back. Jeremiah’s line in the auxiliary reading is so poignant on this point: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20: 9). God’s love is irresistible. Eventually we will all must give in and join the Kingdom to find true happiness.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, August 27th, 2017

The Gospel for August 27th, 2017: “Peter’s Confession about Jesus”

Matthew 16: 13-20

Reflection: Developing a Good Conscience

Today’s gospel from Matthew narrates the moment that Jesus publicly announces Peter will lead the Church on Earth. This announcement is in response to the unequivocal witness Peter gives as an answer to the question from Jesus, “[w]ho do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Peter faithfully states, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (15-16).

In making this announcement, Catholics believe Jesus is inaugurating the authority of the first Pope. So when He says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (19). This is strange wording. So I did some research. It appears to be a Jewish expression that refers to the authority to settle disputes.  In this case, Jesus is giving Peter that same authority to settle disputes in the Church with the full support of the Father in Heaven. This line of reasoning is the basic argument for papal infallibility, which purports that the Church doctrines the Pope and bishops teach as truth should be followed as proper worship. This authority, which draws both from sacred scripture and sacred tradition, is generally referred to as the magisterium.

Catholics and non-Catholics, especially in America, are well aware that this authoritarian role to set doctrine and settle doctrinal disputes is at times in conflict with other Christian denominations and with societal norms in general. Some of the topics that have persisted in causing tension over the last 100 years are the unacceptability of divorce, contraception, and abortion, as well as a lack of openness to many issues relating to homosexuality and transgender. Discomfort with the Church’s teaching on such difficult issues has played a role in alienating many from Catholicism, including myself many years ago, especially when well-meaning clergy and lay persons have used divisive rhetoric on this issues promising penalties of Hell and ex-communication for those who do not comply with the magisterium. Although I am not proud that I left the Church as a young man and am so grateful that I was welcomed home when I was ready to return, I understand the sensitivity and stakes of trying to grasp papal infallibility as a Catholic. Surveys since the 1960’s have consistently shown many Catholics are forced to quietly disobey Church teaching on issues such as contraception in order to remain in the Church they love. Charles Morris’s brilliant history from 1997, American Catholic, deftly describes the many historical forces and political factors that play into the uneasy tensions to which I am referring.

As a counter balance to the authoritarian structure of the Catholic Church and the inherent potential for human corruption, even among the clergy, the Church teaches the primacy of conscience as well. The Catechism states in Article 6 under “Moral Conscience,” “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1782). Statements like this, which although respectful the God-given intellect and a history of some doctrinal change, complicate the picture further. While the standard is not a robotic blind obedience to doctrine, respect for the hierarchy and magisterium and the divisive rhetoric that often accompanies doctrinal debate, make it difficult to know when a Catholic can or should, in good conscience, dissent from the magisterium and if such breaks are cause for leaving the Church.

The point I wish to make to close this reflection is I am reading deeply to better understand the interplay between the primacy of conscience and papal infallibility so that I don’t ever feel as though I should leave the Church again. I am too early in this course of study to draw any firm conclusions. However, I have begun to develop a set of criteria as a guide for dissent that I think may be worthy of further discussion. I would like to share those and invite comment to see if others find them tenable or useful.

Here are some potential guidelines I think may help in rectifying one’s conscience in areas of dissent:

  1. The love of Christ is unselfish and wills the good of others. If one dissents from Church teaching to defend selfish behavior, this is not morally and spiritually defensible.
  2. The development of conscience depends on a prayerful and sacramental life, so that we may live in dialogue with and in the presence of Christ. If one is in conflict with Church teaching, he or she should pray and ask the Lord for guidance. Furthermore, participation in the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation should intensify, not lessen. If one is in crisis, one should turn to Jesus. One of the reasons I fell away is because I stopped participating in the life of the Church when I had doubt and disagreement.
  3. It is important that Christians strive to understand Church teaching through study. I enjoy reading, so I read literature that speaks to those issues. However, this is not the only way. There are many great programs from the Church both in-house and through videos that promote a deeper and more nuanced understanding of difficult issues. Finally, while clergy are very busy in many parishes, my guess that most are willing to talk to those with serious questions.
  4. Any dissent on Church teaching should not be viewed lightly. Doctrine is not a political platform, where ideas are often shaped to win votes; it is an effort to clarify the divine truth. Jesus gave Peter this authority in anticipation of its need. The Pope and bishops spend hours each day in prayer and celebration of the mass in order to remain aligned with God’s will. While a review of the history of papal pronouncements does include some questionable decisions, these are men who have given their lives to Christ in a way that few of us can imagine. Their teachings deserve our fullest attention and respect, even if we choose to disagree in the end.

If these four considerations are followed as one decides whether or not to follow an uncomfortable Church teaching, I wonder if it might be enough so that through God’s grace the conscience will form appropriately and leave one in peace if the conclusion is to dissent from the magisterium. Thoughts? Please comment respectfully if you feel moved to do so by this reflection. Further, I ask for your prayers that I may be motivated by a humble search for God’s truth and not selfish pride as I write these blogs.

Thank you for reading and may God bless you.

The Gospel for Sunday, August 20th, 2017

The Gospel for Sunday, August 20th, 2017: “The Caananite Woman’s Faith”

Matthew 15: 21-28

Reflection: Mercy Upon All

In today’s gospel Jesus heals a Gentile girl possessed by a demon at the request of her mother. This request is granted only after the woman persists in asking, even though Jesus seems to ignore her at first. As we seek guidance from this narrative, the lesson of persistence is clear and a common interpretation. The woman does not give up even though her first request does not bear fruit. Jesus rewards her patience, proclaiming, “O woman, great is your faith!” (28).

Even though I do not want to take for granted the usefulness of connecting faith and persistence, I think this story suggests there is more to be learned from the strange conversation between Jesus, the Caananite woman, and his disciples. My reading of scriptures right now is heavily influenced by the work new testament scholar N.T. Wright, who seeks to dispel limited notions of personal salvation in the scriptures in favor of a larger view that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth, where the power of sin and darkness are conquered and all people of faith—Jew and Gentile alike–are restored in the resurrection through Jesus Christ.

An interpretation of this gospel with this larger view in mind begins with the fact the woman is not a Jew. Despite her upbringing, she witnesses her belief by calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” (22). Whatever her understanding might have been of those words, the name acknowledges Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. When Jesus does not respond, the reader, especially a first-century Jew, might jump to the conclusion that He is ignoring her because she is not Jewish. Indeed, that is probably what his disciples thought as they say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us” (23). I contend that Jesus waits to respond to draw out this discriminatory response from the disciples, rather than to merely test the woman’s perseverance in faith. If this episode is preparing the way for a Kingdom that includes Gentiles as well as Jews, Jesus needs to draw attention to the fact that his granting of her request will be based on faith alone, and that the new covenant will not be limited to the traditional understanding of Israel.

How does Jesus do that? The conversation that follows illustrates that disciples are characterized by faith, participation, and humility, as well as persistence, not by ethnic identification or religious law. Jesus describes His mission this way: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (24). On first glance this sounds exclusionary; He came to save Jews. However, Israel is the light to all nations who is characterized by their worship of God, instead of false idols. The woman’s answer shows she too is a sheep of Israel when she says with “homage,” “Lord, help me” (25). Her faith is marked by participation, by witness.

Jesus continues to use this conversation to draw out further how this Gentile is a worthy disciple by emphasizing her humility. He states a very conventional opinion about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles from the Jewish perspective. The Gentiles are “dogs,” not worthy of a place at the table of God’s chosen people; therefore, “It is not right to take the food of the children* and throw it to the dogs” (26). This is a setup so that woman may illustrate her faithfulness through humility. She responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (27). Her answer is not demanding and prideful; she asks for no more than simple mercy from the Lord of all. Her words have served the purpose of illustrating Christian discipleship in the Kingdom of God. Once stated, Jesus praises her and heals her daughter.

This trial of the woman’s patience and faith is not just a personal test; it is a vehicle to reorient Jesus’ disciples to the new Kingdom that will include all of God’s people, not just Jews, and the conditions for discipleship. All have been marked by the power of sin so that all may be saved. This is what Paul means in the auxiliary reading when he says, “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (Romans 11: 32).

I find this perspective challenging and exciting. I have often been inclined to see faith as being about my personal salvation and to read this episode as an exercise in persistence. However, it can be lonely and discouraging to focus on begging for one’s personal rescue. While God hears, he wants us to put ourselves third behind Him and others. By identifying with the awakening of the disciples in this gospel to the mission to reach all, both happiness and salvation will follow. It emphasizes the tremendous opportunity in this fallen world to participate in the Christ’s salvation mission. This gospel makes clear we are called to treat all people with love and mercy, especially those we don’t understand or who are difficult to love. In so doing we participate in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and live in hope of the day when loneliness and isolation no longer exist, only harmony in the love of God. It is radical notion that, once embraced, leads to happiness in this life and beyond.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, August 13th, 2017

The Gospel for August 13th, 2017: “The Walking on the Water”

Matthew 14: 22-33

Reflection: What am I Afraid of?

Today’s gospel is one of my favorites. Jesus walks on water, further revealing His divinity, and Peter attempts to follow Jesus, only to need saving from sinking when he has a moment of doubt in faith. It is a magical story, miraculous and uplifting, and filled with unforgettable imagery. In particular, this version  of the scene by Australia artist, Rebecca Brogan, captures the frightening turmoil of the storm, which can be read symbolically as the danger and disorder of a life without Christ in a fallen world. All the disciples are afraid, first of the storm, and then of Jesus’ unprecedented walk across the waves. But it is Peter’s fear that interests me most at this point in my life.

Peter accepts Christ’s reassurance and invitation to join Him on the sea. He climbs out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus on the water. He is really doing it! I go through stretches like this where my faith is strong and am answering Christ’s call. However, they are often followed by episodes of doubt and fear like Peter. “[W]hen he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” (30). Of course Jesus answers that cry for help and saves him from sinking. He says to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (31).

A fair question. Unlike me, Peter has a reasonable excuse for doubting. The notion that Christ is there to save Him is still unfolding before his very eyes. Trusting that He is the Messiah would take some time. It might not be too much time, considering the others in the boat end this episode by saying to Jesus, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (33). Still it is a radical idea to accept. But in my case, I have known for a long time this fact. For most of my life, I have been aware Jesus is my savior, even though my ego sometimes has caused me to resist that truth. So why do I doubt? Why am I afraid of sinking into dangerous waters when I set out to follow Jesus?

The reasons are complicated; however, I think it is accurate to say that at the heart of most cases when I give into fear I am afraid of suffering and view it as a precursor to death. Granted, I am rarely, maybe never, in actual danger of physical harm. Nevertheless, a natural survival instinct takes over as I fear the suffering. In reality the suffering is usually from the emotional discomfort caused by frustrating, disappointing, or failing others. Still, the fear is real and can paralyze me.

Since this danger is in my head, the analogy of Peter’s situation is not precisely similar, but still very instructive. What is Peter afraid of when he starts to sink into the water? The worst case scenario is drowning—death. Let’s say his worst fears are realized, Jesus doesn’t save Him and he drowns. What does our faith tell us about his fate? He is fully in the hands of the Lord at that point, no longer in the grips of suffering. He is in a better place. Of course as this gospel illustrates, it doesn’t come to that. Jesus intervenes and saves him from his dilemma. In other words, there is no bad outcome for the faithful Peter. There is nothing to fear—which is Jesus’ message in this passage. Death and suffering only have power over us when we doubt our faith.

I try to remember this story when I am aware of fear setting in. Since I believe my ultimate goal  is to live with Jesus in the resurrection, there is no rational reason for me to fear death. If death brings me closer to this peaceful destiny, I should welcome death and any suffering that precedes it. If it is not my time, then Jesus will save me from suffering so I may find the peace and health to return to His mission for me in this life. In Christ, I cannot lose. I should fear not, for as Jesus tells us and the old hymn asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The answer is not a person or thing in creation. Every trial brings me closer to the God who created and loves me, as soon as I let go of the doubt. This is the true freedom of the Christian life.