The readings give us much to ponder as we prepare for Liturgy this Sunday. The homilist will be challenged to break open the Word for us so that we are nourished and led to a deeper understanding of the nature of human relationships as God intended, its permanence in marriage, and, I believe, its permanence in the Church. Remember, we speak of the Church as the Bride of Christ. There are implications in terms of our relationship with each other and with Christ. Lots to think about here and ample reason for us to pray for the grace of enlightenment and the courage to live by what the Spirit reveals.
In the first reading from the Book of Genesis, there are some important details the reader should not miss. This is the beginning of the story of creation and the human’s place in it. We are not reading a scientific treatise. We are hearing a theological interpretation of the World as God called it into being, and of the hierarchy of beings that inhabit it. All are God’s creatures.
Hear God’s first words in the text: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him. This would seem to indicate, at least from God’s point of view, that it is essential to the human experience to live in relationship. There is ample evidence of the dire effects of solitary confinement to substantiate that. Isolation can destroy the human spirit.
God begins to form all the wild animals and the birds of the air and puts them before the man. Perhaps this is to see if one of the creatures will put an end to the man’s being alone. That doesn’t seem to be the case as one by one the animals prove to be inadequate. Rather it is the purpose is to have the man name the creatures. Shakespeare asked, What’s in a name? More than he thought, at least in this text. One by one the man names them. This says two things. First, the man is intelligent and knows the essence of each creature. That is why he can assign the name. Second, naming the creature gives the man dominance over it. The man is at the apex of the creatures with a God-given dominance. It is clear that this is not enough for the man. He is still alone. None of the creatures is a suitable partner.
The man is put into a deep sleep as God removes a rib that God builds up into a woman. Something different is happening here. For the first time the being is not formed out of the ground but from a rib, that is, from the life substance of the man. The woman shares the essence of the man. Still, there is an implied dominance here because it is the man who names her as he had the other creatures, calling her woman for out of her man this one was taken. The man’s exultation is clear. He is now a complete human being, as is she in their union, as the two become one flesh. The conjugal union is an expression of God’s will. In their being one flesh, they are the image of God. It will be ages before the equality of the sexes will be accepted. In fact, there are some who do not accept that yet. But that is another issue.
So, we come to the Gospel and another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Each confrontation is an attempt to trap Jesus should he say something that will deny the Law or do something that will deny the Law, or do something that will be a major infraction of the Law. Jesus cured on the Sabbath remember. The Pharisees then can denounce him. Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife? Jesus turns the tables on them and asks if they know what Moses commanded them in the Law. Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her. The husband could do this. Not the wife. The grounds for doing so could be trivial. The wife had no rights. She could be discarded at will.
Now Jesus becomes the confronter. Moses may have allowed this because of the hardness of your hearts. The Pharisees may accept such actions as being in keeping with the Law. Make no mistake about this, Jesus says, this is not in accord with God’s will. To substantiate this, Jesus quotes the concluding lines from our Genesis reading. The proclamation is absolute and must have shocked the Pharisees who were comfortable with the status quo. If a husband writes a bill of divorce, dismissing his wife, and marries another, that union is adulterous. Now, don’t miss the subtle elevation of the woman’s dignity as Jesus cites the other side of the coin. If she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. In effect, Jesus is saying the wife ought to have the same dignity and power as the husband, and the same standing before the Law.
What can be inferred? There is no question that Jesus condemned divorce. Put positively, Jesus avowed the indissolubility of marriage. This is the living out of the great declaration of the two being one flesh. What God has joined together, no human being must separate. Lived ideally, marriage is a safe and secure relationship between husband and wife that lasts until the death of one or other of them.
The union is sacramental. As with all the sacraments, marriage has significance for the whole Church. That is why marriages are celebrated in church where the Assembly gathers to celebrate Eucharist. The man and the woman perform the sacrament that is witnessed by the priest and the Assembly. In marrying each other, the couple pledges to love each other and the community in which they live just as Christ does in his union with the Church. Again remember, the Church is the Bride of Christ. Lives of service in imitation of Christ’s are implied. Just as Christ cannot be separated from the Church, neither can the husband and wife be separated from each other. That is the ideal.
There is evidence that it was not that long into the Christian era before exceptions to the law began to emerge. The first grounds admitted for divorce was adultery. A little later, someone not baptized could leave a marriage with another non-baptized, and so become Christian and marry another Christian. Paul allowed for that. Such action is called the Pauline Privilege. We will not go farther with this. Our purpose is to recognize the ideal that Christ puts before us and to recognize that on occasion the ideal does not work out. There is the reality of divorce. There is in the Church, the reality of annulment, which Pope Francis has urged that the process be simplified. He has also called for admitting to the Table the divorced and remarried, to no longer consider them ex-communicated. In every situation there is the possibility of healing and peace.
For whatever the reason, not everyone in the Church marries. Celibacy is imposed on those who would be priests and vowed religious. (A question for the Church to ponder is the reality that celibacy is a charism, a gift of the Spirit. Can a charism be imposed?) Some choose the single state. Still, the adage remains: It is not good for the man (or woman) to be alone. It is not good to live in isolation. Those who are baptized are baptized into union with Christ and with the Church. That union is celebrated and proclaimed each time we gather to celebrate Eucharist. Remember, in each Eucharist the whole Church is present. We share a meal and call it Holy Communion. It might be easy to spring to the conclusion that we are talking about the resulting union between the one receiving Communion and Christ. But that would be only half the story. Holy Communion results in a union with Christ, to be sure, but also with each other and with the whole Church. That is why we call the action Holy Common Union. Think of the hymn that often accompanies the Communion Procession. One Bread, one Body, one Lord of all/ One cup of blessing which we bless/ and we though many throughout the earth/ We are one Body in this one Lord.
The hymn profoundly sums up the reality that all have a right to live by virtue of their Baptism. The faith community ought to strive to make that right a reality for all – not just the elite, not just those of one race or gender, not just the acceptable, the hale and the hearty. All are welcome here. All can come with plenty or in want and should find acceptance, welcome, and, those in need, support. The Assembly baptizes. The Assembly catechizes and calls to full stature in the Church. The Assembly witnesses marriages. The Assembly mourns those who die. The Assembly proclaims in word and deed that no one ought to feel alone and abandoned. After all, we are all part of the one Body that is Christ.
(As I write this, Pope Francis is touring in this country, speaking and acting out his message of the human family and our responsibility towards the poor and disenfranchised. He fed the poor in a soup kitchen. He visited a school in Harlem. He took part in a multi-faith prayer service in the 9/11 Memorial. And multitudes are getting the message and finding reasons to hope again.)
Obviously all this places huge demands on the Assembly. Tithing is one way of accepting that responsibility. It is a profound declaration of faith when the majority of parishioners commit themselves to tithing. All of a sudden there is plenty to meet the needs of the many and to reach out to embrace all who are brought low. And no one is alone.
This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel reading from Mark are closely related in theme. In each reading, underlings think their master, Moses in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel is being threatened by unauthorized people exercising charismatic gifts. Eldad and Medad were not present when God showered the spirit, first on Moses and then on the seventy elders. Empowered by that spirit, the elders prophesied; that is, they uttered messages God wanted the people to hear.
Joshua is scandalized when Eldad and Medad exhibit the same gift of prophecy. He wants Moses to silence them. Joshua seems to think that Moses will be slighted if the people think there is another source for the gifts other than Moses. Joshua wants the trickle down theory to be obvious. He wants it to be clear that God gifted Moses, and through Moses, the seventy elders received the gift of prophecy. And it stopped there. But Moses sees things differently. He thinks it would be wonderful if all the people gave that evidence of God’s influence in their lives and thus became prophets.
In the Gospel, John is upset. Disciples have been out on a mission. While they were away from Jesus they saw someone who was not part of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John tried to stop him. He thought the man’s actions were scandalous because he was not known to be a disciple. But Jesus corrects John. He tells him that if someone performs good deeds in Jesus’ name, that one cannot be against Jesus and his disciples. That one has to be for Jesus.
The fact is that if someone acts kindly toward another because that one belongs to Christ, the benefactor will be rewarded. Jesus might be telling John something similar to what Moses told Joshua. John, wouldn’t it be great if everyone started doing heroic deeds in my name? Could the Kingdom then be far away?
There always seem to be those who want to control God’s gifts and so make it clear that those acting have the blessing of the one in authority. The actions of those from another group or sect are to be seen as suspect and not to be encouraged. By whose authority do you do what you are doing? Then follows the effort to silence the outsider. The lesson of Pentecost hasn’t been grasped. That violent wind and those tongues of fire could not be controlled. All those caught up in the storm, those licked by the fire, all went out and announced Jesus.
The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills. The result is that those affected change and bring God’s blessings to people in need. When starving children are fed and children are rescued from sex trafficking, when medicines and sera stem the tides of HIV/AIDS and sleeping sickness, when these good things happen, there ought to be rejoicing regardless of the source. Good deeds are signs of God’s working through people, lifting up the lowly and embracing all with God’s love.
The Gospel text shifts suddenly. The theme is no longer about those who act righteously. Now we hear a warning about those who give scandal and lead others into sin. It would be better for one to die than scandalize the vulnerable. It is not clear to whom Jesus is speaking. He could be talking to the Apostles. He could be speaking to those in authority among the disciples. He could be speaking to the whole community of believers. Certainly the message applies to anyone who wields authority over others, be they parents or teachers, pastors or political leaders, or anyone else who can say to someone, do this and he does it. All should take their authority seriously and take whatever means necessary to avoid giving scandal.
Jesus’ teaching is plied with grim images that should cause the hearer to wince. Cut off your hand, or, cut off your foot, or, gouge out your eye if it will cause you to sin. Those words are not meant to be taken literally. The point Jesus is making is, be willing to take drastic measures to avoid giving scandal. Remove from your life anything that gets in the way of your being an effective witness to Christ. Hell awaits those who do not. That’s harsh, to be sure, but that seems to be what the Lord Jesus is saying.
Pope Francis is developing the reputation of one who takes this admonishment seriously. He has stripped away the outer splendor of his office. He lives simply. He serves among and not over others. His focus is on the little ones, the outcasts, and the vulnerable. And he supports anyone, even those outside the church, who seeks to do God’s will and works for justice and peace. As I write this, the world waits to hear what he will say before the United Nations and to both Houses of Congress when he visits the United States. There is likely to be no shortage of those who will think, surely he is not speaking to me!
The second reading from the Letter of James does not directly relate to the first reading of the Gospel. We have been listening to James for several weeks now. This will be the last we will hear from him until we return to these B Cycle Sundays three years from now. What we hear this Sunday seems particularly apt given the state of the world’s economy and the increasing evidence of the growing chasm separating the 1% wealthy ones from the 99% less endowed, and the growing number of impoverished people. It seems clear what James would say about the so-called American Dream.
Do not misunderstand. James is not saying that wealth and finery of themselves are evils. He would rejoice with those who have if what they have has not become their god, blinding them to the needs of others. The so-called entitled can ride roughshod over others and create havoc along the way.
The wealthy James denounces have gotten where they are by exploiting those beneath them. They have not paid just wages to the workers or done anything to ease their sufferings. The elite live in luxury and pleasure while others languish in abject poverty. Read the finance pages and the scandals covered there and you will be able to put contemporary faces on those James excoriates. This country will not soon forget Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and all those broken by his greed and duplicity. All the victims cry out. James says that the Lord hears.
Those who believe in Jesus need to hear his message and heed the Church’s Social Gospel. The wealthy have a responsibility to the poor. Workers have a right to a just wage. The vulnerable should be shielded and protected. First World countries have a responsibility to aid developing countries, or Third World Countries, as they tend to be called. Pope Paul VI said people do not have a right to excess wealth when there are those who live in dire poverty. From faith’s perspective, this is so because we belong to one family. The poor are God’s beloved ones, too. They are our sisters and brothers in this human family.
There is a lot to ponder here, a lot to pray about.
What is the answer? What are we supposed to do? As Catholic Christians practicing our faith, we come together to celebrate Eucharist. All about us are signs of our unity with each other in Christ. Our on-going transformation as the Body of Christ calls us to live the Mystery and so imitate Christ whose Body and Blood we share in the Eucharistic Meal. When we take the Cup and drink from it, that is a sign of our willingness to be poured out in service for others the way Christ pours himself out for our salvation. Again, heeding Pope Francis, we must become more obviously a servant church and dare to let the implications of our Baptism and our reception of Holy Communion compel us.
Who knows where the Spirit will lead us? Who knows what changes the Spirit will inspire us to make? In these days we must pause and pray. We must plead with God to show us the way. Fear of hell may be a motivator. But I believe that the love of Christ is stronger. Don’t you?
Jesus was counter-cultural, and so was his call to discipleship. That is even more so in this day and age. The readings for this Sunday confront us and give us an opportunity to examine our consciences, as it were, to see just how authentic our response to that call has been. The readings will give those on their journey toward Baptism and their commitment to discipleship the chance to ask themselves if what Jesus holds up, as the model of discipleship is a life that they want to embrace.
What is so counter-cultural about Jesus’ call to discipleship? Think for a moment about what values are put before children as an incentive to pursue excellence in their studies. They are challenged to strive to be the best in their class so that they will be able to go to the best schools and upon graduation secure the best jobs in firms so that they can climb the corporate ladder and, arriving at the top, be Number One again. Of course there will also be ample financial remunerations that will then allow them to live in splendid mansions, to drive the finest cars, to have servants to tend to their every need, and on and on – to have the best that this world has to offer. Why they could even be president of the United States if they want it badly enough. It is all part of realizing the American Dream.
Bring those goals to Jesus. Dare to ask what he would say about them. You might be startled at what you find – especially if position, power, and pelf are motivating factors in your life. Are those the carrots dangling before you as the incentives in life? It’s clear in this weeks readings that those are not what Jesus promises those who would be his disciples. None of them was a goal he pursued. Only the will of the Father urged him on.
The first reading from the Book of Wisdom is used in conjunction with the Passion Narrative during Holy Week. It is easy for us to hear the reading and know that the Just One rejected by the wicked is Jesus. He is rejected precisely because his values and what he preaches are a reproach to the evildoers. Translate that to be a confrontation of those who are in power. They have heard that the Just One relies on God who is his vindicator. The powerful want to take the Just One at his word and see whether or not that vindication will come about. Will God take care of him even if they impose a terrible death on him?
It is reference to that terrible death that opens the Gospel. The Son of Man is to be handed over to people and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise. This is Jesus’ second prediction of his destruction. Last week, Peter protested the Master’s impending doom. You remember Jesus’ response to Peter. This week, the disciples hear the dire news that shocks them into silence. They were afraid to question him about what they did not understand.
Keep in mind that there have been some rather extraordinary events to which the disciples have been witness. It wasn’t that long ago that they marveled that even the wind and the waves obey him. Remember the feeding of the five thousand? That was impressive, too, and seemed to confirm for the disciples that the long-awaited Messiah was here. They had a clear and vivid picture of what the Messiah would be like, what he would accomplish and, more importantly, where they would figure in his reign.
Have you ever had the experience of not wanting to know something and so you avoid access to the information? We joke about putting our heads in the sand, imitating the ostrich. That is what we do when we flee from the truth. The disciples were afraid to question Jesus, not because he would be harsh in answering their question, but because they did not want to know the veracity of what they suspected in their minds. They did not want their dreams dashed on the shoals like the waves in a storm.
What follows is curious. It seems that while the disciples did not dare question Jesus about his being killed, they were not reluctant to discuss his successor. When Jesus is killed, who will be the next to be in command? That is the argument that occupies them on their way back home. Good teacher that he is, when they arrive at the house in Capernaum, Jesus confronts the issue. What were you arguing about on the way? This time they are not so much afraid as they are ashamed to answer. Even they seem to be aware of how far such an argument takes them from the Master’s teaching.
Are you prepared to hear what Jesus says to the Twelve and through them to us? Those who wish to be first shall be the last of all and the servant of all. That is why the pope is called the servant of the servants of God. So, the higher one climbs in the hierarchy of the church, the more obligations of service that one incurs. And nothing is said about rewards. This has been a constant them of Pope Francis. He has said I do not serve over you, but among you. The reform of the church he urges is a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. You know well that not everyone welcomes that message.
Who has primacy in terms of importance in the community? The child. After all, if you receive one child such as this in my name, you receive me; and if you receive me, you receive not me but the One who sent me. Be careful who dazzles you. Be careful over whom you fawn. That may be the biggest indicator of how far you are from being the disciple Jesus has in mind – or how close you are. The same can be said for what you aspire to and why.
All of this says a lot about what our parishes should be like and what people, especially the least significant people, should experience as they enter the church. The parishioners’ experience ought to be one of having their Priesthood of the Baptized empowered. Each of the baptized, from the youngest to the eldest, from the strongest to the most infirm, from the wealthiest to the poorest has a capacity for ministry. That does not mean all have the same ministry. It means each has a ministry in keeping with the God-given gifts and talents that one has for a ministry. Not all should be lectors. Not all should be singers. Not all should be greeters, or ushers, or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. But in every parish there are enough with those various talents to fill those various ministries so that all who come among them can be ministered to.
In the midst of the Assembly there ought to be space to accommodate the specific needs of the disabled so that they can be in the midst of the Assembly, in the midst of their families and friends. None ought to be made to feel embarrassed by his/her disability. Even someone with Tourette’s syndrome or any other embarrassing disability ought to feel loved and welcomed in the Assembly. And there ought to be a ministry for him or her to carry out. Praying for the needs of the Assembly is a ministry.
Years ago, Jean Vanier commented that until our parishes evidenced all these types of people, the able and the disabled, the young and the old, and the multi-ethnic groups that make up society, until all were represented the parish would not be reflective of the Body of Christ. Our parishes ought to welcome that diversity and recognize it as the blessing that it is.
Pope Francis will be in our country as we celebrate this Sunday. It will be interesting to see how his messages to the United Nations and to the Congress of the United States are received. The pope is urging people to take in a refugee family. The Vatican is taking in two families. How does that resonate with some of the stands taken in this country regarding the immigration question? As I write this, it has been announced that Francis has ordered a simplification of the annulment process and a reduction of the costs attached. He has already said that the divorced-and-remarried should not be treated as excommunicated. Not a few still grumble when Pope Francis’s statement regarding gays is quoted. The hymn sang: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Are they? By you? By me? We must our response in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.
What practical impact will Francis’s Year of Mercy have in the church in the United States? We all should be praying about and for this.
That is a lot to digest, isn’t it? If you ask, who can do this, who can aspire to be nothing more than a foot-washer, the servant of all, I pray you realize that on one’s own, no one can. But remember that this is a graced calling, something that begins with God and is empowered by the Spirit. As you make your way in the Communion Procession on your way to the Table, keep reminding yourself that you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you. And eating his Body and drinking his Blood will be all the food you need to strengthen you for the rest of the journey.