FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 14, 2019

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:10-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:15-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 10:25-37

Dear Friends in Christ,

Sometimes the editing decisions in the Sunday Lectionary puzzle me.  In today’s first reading, for example, why are Moses’ opening words omitted from the text?  It would take only a second or two longer to read: The Lord will delight in you and your descendants, rather than beginning mid sentence with if only you would heed the voice of the Lord.  What Moses tells the Israelites and us is that God is delighted with us when we act according to the Law God imprinted on our hearts.  What is that law?  The Law of Love.  That is spelled out a few verses after the end of the reading when we are urged to always choose life over death.  To choose life is to choose love.  That seems to be the instinct that God placed within us.

That should have become clear to us when we pondered the creation narrative in Genesis.  Did not God say there: Let us make the earthling in our own image, after our likeness?  Our understanding of the Triune God is that God’s essence is to be a community of love.  Everything that God does is an expression of that love.  Every creative act is an expression of that love.  If we are created in God’s image and likeness and are therefore loved by God because our being reflects God, that would seem to indicate that we are created to love as God loves.  Love is what we should be about.  Love is what will bring us the greatest sense of fulfillment of our purpose.  Of course sin entered our narrative early one and warped our consciousness, tending to make us more self-centered.  But that calling remains in us.  It just takes a little more effort to respond.

Sometimes I wish the slate of our memories could be wiped clean and we could hear familiar gospel passages for the first time again.  Don’t misunderstand me.  It is not that I wish everyone could suffer an amnesia attack.  Rather, I wish the scriptures could impact us as they did our ancestors in the faith when they heard Jesus tell the parables.  If only we could be stunned by the implications of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Lives could be changed for the better if we chose to live out the implications of this parable.

The lawyer who occasioned the parable is an interesting character.  It is possible to interpret him variously, but, not to be harsh, as I read him, he is not a voice from the crowd of those seeking to be Jesus disciples.  Luke says quite clearly that the expert in the Mosaic Law stood up to test Jesus.  Most of the time, those tests were attempts to build up a case against Jesus, to have something with which to accuse him, and so bring him down.  The lawyer’s calling Jesus teacher might have the smarmy about it.  His question is lofty: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  It was quite ordinary for scribes and Pharisees and others interested in the Law to sit around and discuss which laws were the most important, and most necessary, to be carried out if one hoped to see God at life’s end.

If there is a snare in the question, Jesus clouds it, and turns the table on the inquisitor and asks for his own opinion.  Immediately it is apparent that the man knows the law and is able to summarize it by quoting the Scriptures, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  He states that the Law is about loving God with our entire being, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

What makes me wonder about the man’s sincerity is what follows.  In another encounter, when Jesus hears one give a similar answer, the text says that Jesus looked at the respondent with love.  It doesn’t say that here.  Perhaps that is because Jesus knew that there was no correspondence between the lawyer’s knowledge of the Law, and the way he lived it.  So, Jesus gives a curt reply that affirms the lawyer’s grasp of the Law, but challenges him to change his ways and live by that understanding.  Did the lawyer see the others in the crowd smirk at him when they heard Jesus’ admonition not to be one who only knows the Law, but to be one who lives the Law.  To justify himself, in other words, to save face before the crowd, he now wants Jesus to define the term neighbor.

It is never a bad idea to put yourself in a gospel text.  Suppose you were the one who fell victim to the robbers on your way down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Wouldn’t that add weight to all that happens in the story?  Imagine yourself stripped, beaten, robbed and left half dead by the side of the road.  We are not that unfamiliar with road-rage stories in these times.  It should not be that hard to identify with the poor soul.

What may not be clear to us is what results from the man’s beaten and bloody condition.  He becomes unclean.  Any observant Jew would incur ritual impurity were s/he to come into contact with him and his blood.  Being ritually impure, that one would not be able to enter into temple worship without first being purified.  That is why the priest and the Levite, when they see the man, are careful to pass by on the other side of the road. – lest even the hem of their garments should brush against the man’s bleeding body.  Religious people would understand their concern.  That is how  important it is for them to keep God’s law.  Do you think the injured one would understand?

Along comes a Samaritan.  Again, the choice of character may not be jarring.  We are used to Good Samaritan hospitals, aren’t we?  But Jews despised Samaritans.  And vice versa also seems to have been the case.  Remember when, not that many verses ago, the Samaritans turned Jesus away?

This Samaritan is not concerned about incurring ritual impurity.  Jesus says that when he sees the wounded man, the Samaritan is moved with compassion.  The word compassion means to suffer with.  The Samaritan felt the man’s dreadful situation as if it were his own.  He ministers to his needs, dresses his wounds, takes him to shelter, pays for his care, and promises to pay for anything in excess of the amount he has paid upon his return.  Wow!  Isn’t that an amazing response from a stranger, especially from a stranger who knew that the one he was helping probably held him and his kind in contempt?  Would you not think that the expert in the Law found the Samaritan’s actions incredible?  If you were the beaten one, would it still bother you that the one who came to your aid was a Samaritan?

Remember that the question that occasioned the parable was: And who is my neighbor?  Jesus did not respond with a definition of neighbor that would have allowed the expert in the Law to maintain lines of demarcation.  Who is my neighbor?  Who is not my neighbor?  Instead, at the end of the parable Jesus asks another question: Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?  It is interesting that the man cannot even bring himself to utter the word Samaritan.  In stead he has to fess up and admit that the neighbor was The One who took pity on the victim and responded to his needs.  He probably wished that he had not asked the question that started all of this when he heard Jesus say to him: Go and do likewise.  Did his friends snicker then?  From the text it does not seem that he protested.  Maybe he went home and stewed over the matter.

What should be our response?  The proclamation of the Good News is never meant to induce a guilt trip on the part of the listener.  It is meant to challenge us, help us to change, and respond more fully to the Living Word.  Certainly, if we harbor prejudices in our heart, we must root them out.  The one we have the strongest feelings against is, because of our faith, more than a neighbor to us.  That one is our brother or sister in the Lord.  How could racial prejudices survive were we able to get beyond the color of one’s skin and recognize our commonality?  Religious prejudices would yield were we able to be convinced that what the Second Vatican Council proclaimed is so, that there are many paths to God; that the Jewish people remain the Chosen Race, God’s beloved ones.  That in no way diminishes our standing before God, baptized and identified with the Son as we are, washed clean in, and redeemed by his blood.  Are we able to love even those who vilify us?  Even if they act in that way against us, their relationship to us remains the same.  They are included among those we are commanded to love, as we love ourselves.

So there we have it.  In the end, it is about love, love of God and love of neighbor.  We are invited to love God with our entire being.  I say invited even though we are talking about a commandment here.  I don’t know if love can be commanded.  We are invited to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Perhaps that  is what we should bring with us the next time we celebrate Eucharist.  In our giving thanks to God (Eucharist means thanksgiving) what if we dared to pray that we might be transformed completely, as is the bread and wine over which we pray.  How differently would we conduct ourselves were we convinced that we are the Body of Christ?  Would we find the courage to love our neighbor the way Christ does?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 7, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 66:10-14c
A reading from the Letter of st. Paul to the Galatians 6:14-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Dear Friends in Christ,

To experience the power of Isaiah’s prophecy in this Sunday’s first reading, we must be able to identify with people who have come through a horrific disaster.  They have survived, but what do they have to show for it.  As I write this I think of our brothers and sisters in the midwest who have lost everything in the floods and more than 500 tornadoes that have torn through their land.  Hopeless is a word that might come to mind.  Who would be surprised to hear anguished cries of Why?  Where will these people and others in similar situations find reason to hope?

Isaiah spoke to his people newly returned from 50 years in exile in the Babylonian Captivity.  They are home again, back in Jerusalem; but their holy city is in ruins.  These are the people the psalmist described as sitting by the streams of Babylon, weeping as they remembered Jerusalem.  They had hung up their harps on the aspens there because they could not imagine singing their holy songs in that foreign land.  Would they be tempted to think the Prophet mad as he intoned: Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her?  What could there possibly be to rejoice about?

What Isaiah wants the people to hear is the hope that is theirs in the promise.  It was God who led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, and was with them during their 40 years of wandering in the desert.  Did not God feed them with manna and quail?  Did not God bring water gushing forth from the rock?  The people were in dire straits then, but God strengthened them and brought them to the Promised Land.  That powerful God is still with them.  God will cause blessings to flow in Jerusalem again, and the people will know comfort, security and peace.  There may not be signs to bolster the hopeful message, but it will happen.  The people must believe.

With today’s second reading we come to the end of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.  The second readings in Ordinary Time are not chosen thematically to relate to the first reading and the gospel.  But this week, we can find a thread that does link and relate to the other two readings.  Remember that Paul has been defending the call to follow Christ that he has preached.  He has put before the Galatians the basic tenet of the New Way, that salvation is in, with, and through Christ.  He is angered that some of them are saying that Jewish ways must also continue to be observed, vis-a-vis the practice of circumcision.  He is offended because some are saying that Paul is not of significant stature because he isn’t one of the original Twelve.  The fact that Paul was not that tall and had an ineffective voice did not help matters for him.  And so he pens the conclusion to the Letter.  We, in fact the whole Church, need to be confronted by his words.

Jesus said to his disciples: If you would follow me, take up your cross everyday and follow me.  Those who are called to discipleship should not expect wealth, position, or power to follow from their becoming disciples.  They must do what Jesus did and serve as he served.  The Galatians complained to Paul because he was lacking in their eyes.  Following his teaching was not likely to bring them the same success they saw happening in the lives of their neighbors.  Paul says that that is not what being a Christian is about.  May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  He challenges the Galatians and us to be like him and boast only in the Cross.  

Through our Baptism, we have put on Christ.  Through him we have become a new creation.  Christians come together and celebrate Eucharist.  What is that but an entering into the dying and rising of Jesus that we might live the new reality that is life in Christ, and witness to Christ through service.  If we want something more, then perhaps we have chosen the wrong path.  We might not have heard clearly the call to discipleship and considered its implications.

Paul lets his irritation break through in his closing words.  In effect, he says stop hassling me.  I am the apostle the Spirit brought to you.  My effectiveness in serving in your midst is certified by the scars on my body.  I bear the marks of Jesus.  Paul has been scourged, stoned, spat upon, and imprisoned – all for the Gospel.  As Jesus did, he persevered to the end.  The marks speak for themselves and are his certification.  The Galatians need to accept that and, in the conversion that will result, they then will know peace.

The prophecy we heard in the first reading and the Good News we will hear next in the gospel must be proclaimed today by the church.  But the message will not be heard unless a church proclaims it, that is, a people who bear the marks of Jesus proclaim it.  The message will ring hollow if voiced in splendid settings by those wielding power.  Archbishop Oscar Romero’s voice still rings out loudly and clearly in El Salvador and beyond.  The Salvadorans find reason to hope in his witness.  They believe that one day it will happen.  This must be what motivates Pope Francis to urge reform on the church, calling for a poorer church to serve the needs of the poor.  And like the Galatians in their reaction to Paul, there are those rejecting Francis’s challenge.  But some are hearing and responding.  And some are hearing and being renewed in hope.

In the gospel, 72 newly commissioned disciples are sent on their first missionary journey.  Through the lush imagery of a teaming harvest, Jesus puts before them the magnitude of their task.  There are not nearly enough of them to meet the pastoral needs of the many.  So their first responsibility is to pray and to invoke God’s blessing and inspiration, so that many others will take up the cause.  They must be people of prayer for whom there is no other visible means of support.  They must evidence poverty through their lack of the ordinary provisions the more moneyed would have for their journeys.  Vulnerable as they are, it will be more obvious that God is working through them.  Their message must be for everyone, Jew and Gentile, (Eat what is set before you; the dietary laws you used to live by as Jews no longer apply.) slave and free, male and female.  Even sinners, as well as the virtuous.  Lepers and the insane or possessed.

Each time I read this section from Luke, I remember wonderful days I spent in Kenya and Uganda.  I was part of a mission group, but hardly going to a people who had not yet heard the Gospel.  We were among believers.  We had brought with us the necessary provisions for our journey and medical supplies for them.  The people responded by preparing lush meals for us, far more splendid than their means would ordinarily allow them to prepare for themselves to enjoy.  This was a people who felt fortunate if they could have a bit of meat or chicken once or twice a month.  I can still see the banquet table they prepared for us.  In addition to a variety of vegetables and steamed plantain, we had lamb, beef, and chicken to feast upon.  They wanted us to know that we were esteemed by them and welcome to be among them.  It was obvious that they were convinced that God had something to do with bringing us all together.

The 72 returned from their first mission over-flowing with excitement and eager to share the stories of their successes.  Jesus had told them to proclaim peace in Jesus’ name to all they met.  They were to tell all that God loves them and is with them to deliver them from all that afflicts them.  God’s peace comes to them.  That means nothing will separate them from the Love of God that comes to them through Jesus.  No mention is made of the ratio of successful preaching to failures.  Jesus had prepared them to expect both, to preach to all.  To those who rejected them they were to say: The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.  But all the disciples can talk about are the successes.  Even the demons are subject to us because of your name.  God’s power is in the disciples and works through them.

Where are you as you reflect on these readings?  Are there troubles or afflictions with which you are dealing?  Perhaps you know a devastation similar to that experienced by those in the floods and tornadoes.  A judgment may have been made against you, or you or a loved one are struggling with disease.  You might be wrestling with doubts of faith.  There are thoughts here you need to ponder.

This might be a wonderful time for you with everything going well.  You may have a profound sense of peace and are convinced that you are blessed.  You are grateful to God for everything you experience in your life.  There are thoughts here you need to ponder too.

We are Christian and Alleluia is our song.  In the worst of times and the best of times, we must remember that God is with us.  We have put on Christ.  God’s power is with us.  In time, even the most grievous wrongs will be made right.  Those who are blessed have God’s power to reach out to those impoverished ones and help them to be restored by the assurance of God’s love that you bring to them through your service.  Think of those who helped rebuild after Katrina.  Think of those who responded to the catastrophe in Haiti.  And those responding to Puerto Rico.  There will be a need to respond to those in the floods and the aftermath of the tornadoes.  You get the idea.  It is not about power; it is about service from which we might come away with Jesus’ marks on our bodies.  The Cross is our hope.

So it is that Sunday after Sunday we gather for Eucharist to give thanks to God as we renew Jesus’ dying and rising in Bread and Wine.  All are welcome at this Table as long as when they have eaten and drunk, they are willing to be sent to bring good News to all they meet, until Jesus comes again in glory.  Even the demons will be subject to them because of Jesus’ name.  And the people will know peace and be able to live in hope.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

 

 

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – June 30, 2019

A reading from the first Book of Kings 19:16b, 19-21
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians 5:1, 13-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 9:51-62

Dear Friends in Christ,

This week we return to the Sundays in Ordinary Time.  There is something we need to understand as we listen to the readings in the Liturgy of the Word this Sunday.  The readings have to do with discipleship.  My dictionary defines disciple as a pupil or follower who helps to spread the master’s teachings.  What the first reading and the gospel tell us is that to be a disciple in our tradition is a vocation, a calling that begins with God and is a result of the Spirit’s movement in the one who is called.  

That is fine as far as it goes; but what is also clear is that God looks for a wholehearted response from the one who is called.  Maybe, or, later just will not do.  Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus said to his disciples: If you are going to be my disciple, pick up your cross every day and follow me.  Isn’t Jesus saying, before you say yes to my call, know what you are getting into and what is expected of you?  Jesus defined his own ministry as doing always the will of the One who sent him.  The disciples must strive to say the same thing about their lives in reference to Jesus who called them to ministry.

In the first reading we meet the prophet Elijah, the great prophet who spent himself trying to keep the Israelites faithful to God by helping them avoid the false gods that others worshiped.  Now he is coming to the end of his days.  There needs to be the selection of his successor, the one who will continue to tell the people what God wants them to hear after God has taken Elijah home.  God directs that successor to be Elisha who is talented and apparently comes from well-to-do parents.  12 yoke of oxen says he is not from paupers.

If there were any words spoken by Elijah in calling Elisha, they are not quoted.  In stead, Elijah simply walks up to Elisha and throws the prophetic cloak on Elisha’s shoulders.  The cloak is the symbol of authority.  Was he stunned for a moment as he pondered and then came to understand what this action meant?  There is nothing in what follows that would indicate hesitation on Elisha’s part.  He runs after Elijah and asks for permission to say a proper adieu to his parents.  Elijah’s words are poorly translated in the text.  In essence he tells Elisha that he should do what he needs to do, but recognize the importance of what Elijah has done to him.

Elisha shows that he accepts God’s will in his life.  He slaughters the oxen.  With the plough and the yoke, he builds a fire so that he can make for his parents a meal from the meat of the oxen. That is the end of Elisha’s former life.  That is over now.  The text doesn’t say that he kissed his mother and father goodbye; but I would bet that he did that before he ran after Elijah to take up his new vocation as Elijah’s attendant.

Why Elisha?  God has placed in Elisha those gifts and talents that will empower him to be successful as Elijah’s successor.  He will be strong, powerful with words, and able to preach effectively.  That makeup is part of the grace that inspires his immediate and whole-hearted response.  His yes seems natural to him.  How could it be any other way?  Everything with which God has gifted him, Elisha will in turn place at God’s disposal.  That is the response God expects.  The same is true for Jesus.

From this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is determined to journey to Jerusalem, there to suffer greatly, be rejected by the elders…and be killed and on the third day be raised.  Jesus is single-minded in his determination and totally responsive to his vocation.  There is an indication that the disciples who are with him still have much to learn.  As they near a Samaritan village, Jesus sends representatives ahead to prepare for his reception there.  Remember that there is strong antipathy between the Samaritans and the Jews.  Jews would incur ritual impurity and so be unfit to enter into temple worship were they to come into contact with a Samaritan.  The Samaritans refuse to welcome Jesus.  James and John are furious.  (They are aptly named sons of thunder.)  They want to punish severely the Samaritans.  They might be open to the idea of slaughtering them.  But Jesus rebukes them.  A rebuke is a strong castigation.  We do not hear what Jesus said in the rebuke.  But you can imagine.  The incident is over.  They go on towards Jerusalem.

The theme of call to discipleship recurs now.  There are various responses.  One person, bursting with enthusiasm, rushes up to Jesus and says that he will follow Jesus wherever he  goes.  Jesus knows that flashes of enthusiasm can be just that, flashes that are short lived, but perish when reality sets in.  So Jesus puts his poverty before the individual lest he have any misconceptions about Jesus.  Is this one thinking about Jesus as the mighty one who will set Israel free, the way Peter used to think?  We don’t know whether this is the end of the line for the person, or whether, altering his perceptions about Jesus, he embraces the poverty and follows Jesus as a disciple.

Jesus invites another person to follow him.  But the man demurs.  His father has just died and he must tend to the funeral.  Jesus tells him not to let that get in the way of his announcing the Good News.  When Jesus invites another to follow, there seems to be a conscious allusion to Elisha’s story.  The man wants to follow, but after he says goodbye to his family at home.  Jesus says, No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.  In other words, disciples cannot be divided in their response, one foot in one world and one foot in the other.

In the early Church the way Baptism was celebrated attests to this total yes that Jesus wants.  During the Vigil of Easter, the elect were brought to the Font.  At the entrance to the Font, they stood in their old clothes, that is, in what they wore in the life that is about to end.  After they were questioned about their intent and the firmness of their faith, they were asked if they wanted to enter the Font and there to die to all that was in order to rise from the Font reborn in Christ.  They stripped off all the old trappings and, naked, were lead into the waters where they were immersed three times – in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  As they came out on the other side, they were clothed in the white garment that symbolized their having put on Christ.  

What is hard for us to appreciate, perhaps, are the implications the early Neophytes had to accept as they became disciples.  What did they have to give up?  In many cases, everything.  If they were converts from paganism, they could never again come into contact with pagan things, or take part in their practices.  Sometimes the family rejected the convert and s/he is suddenly alone in the world, except for the community of believers.  Sometimes they had to give up their employment.  Leaving everything of the old order on the edge of the Font was more than symbolic.  It aptly described the forsaking of everything that was so that they could live this new life in Christ.  Their entering into Jesus’ dying and rising began their proclamation of the emerging Kingdom of God.

In the second reading, Paul urges us not to look back and take up former ways.  What occasioned his remarks were those people who were urging Christian converts from Judaism to continue the former disciplines.  That seemed to say that they were saved by the Law rather than by the blood of Christ.  Christ sets us free from the Law.  But that does not bring with it the freedom to live licentiously.  The sins of the flesh that Paul refers to involve more than sexual sins.  Pride is a sin of the flesh.  So, too, are envy and greed and all the other capital sins.  None of them should be part of the Christian’s life.

How, then, are we to live?  Paul quotes Jesus in summing up the path we are to follow.  You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Love is the new law.  Christian love is imitative of the love practiced by the One who taught it.  Essentially it is a love of service that, strengthened by the Spirit, empowers us to take up the cross every day and follow Jesus.  It is a love that grows out of the Eucharist that is at the core of our faith life as each Sunday we give thanks to God renewing the Lord’s dying and rising.

It is said that when Romans witnessed the behavior of the Christians as they faced a martyr’s death, the pagans said, See how these Christians love one another.  I would like to think that that is an accurate quote in those circumstances.  If it is, that might also be an explanation for why the church flourished during those terrible times, and why the number of converts always surges during periods of persecution.

There are people who represent us and go to distant and desperate lands to minister to the impoverished in Christ’s name.  They live joyous lives in spite of the dangers that surround them and the threatening sword that might claim their lives at any time.  How these Christians love the poor and pour themselves out that the little ones might know that God loves them in Christ!

Wouldn’t that be an amazing grace if the first thing a visitor sensed as s/he entered the parish church for Sunday Mass was how these parishioners love one another?  And what if the second thing s/he realized was that that love embraces the visitor, too, and those beyond.  That could be a life-altering experience, especially if that one came into that community feeling alone and abandoned, judged, unloved and ignored.  S/he would share in the Bread and  drink from the Cup.  You can be sure that it wouldn’t be long before the visitor tells others what s/he found there – and s/he can hardly wait until next Sunday.  The whole week in between will be better, too.

The invitation to discipleship is always there.  The question is, how do we respond?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus