You have heard me pray about this before. I am in that mindset now. You are a revolutionary whose radical ideas have been tempered and moderated by frequent exposure. Otherwise your words would shock those of us who think we are living according to your way. You have been painted in pastels. The message has been softened. It shouldn’t be so comfortable being your disciple now. When you first challenged potential disciples to come and follow you, many of them were afraid and wondered how they could do it even as they knew they wanted to be with you.
When this Sunday’s Gospel is proclaimed, will anyone stand with mouth agape and wonder if s/he is hearing you correctly. Will the Assembly understand the implications of what you say should be the attitudes that dominate our prayer? Your disciples watched you pray. Whatever they observed made them long for a similar experience for themselves. One said: Teach us to pray. In response, you didn’t teach them how to pray. You taught them what should be the content of their prayer. In the few short sentences that outlined that content you encapsulated the whole revolution you have in mind.
The revolution begins with the attitude you want us to have toward God. Some verbal portraits of God are daunting, and some preachers ramp up that message of a seeming judging and condemning God. Granted they misread the text. Still they would have humankind quiver before a God who is formidable, distant, judging and condemning. (Would God really have been happy had more of the LGBT community been slaughtered in the Orlando massacre, as some preached?) How can they reconcile that with the image of God that emerges in this week’s reading from the Book of Genesis? Here we experience the God who looks for a reason to withhold the fury that could sweep away the innocent with the guilty. This is the God who promised when the waters receded that there would never be another flood that would destroy the world. This is the God who anticipates repentance and is lavish with forgiveness. This is the God who pleads, abases himself and pleads: Let me be your God and you will be my people. You say that when we pray, we should call God Abba, Father.
We forget that not every child’s sire was an Abba. We forget that not every child was treasured in a safe and secure home, with doting parents to respond to every need and to protect them from every danger. Children, in your time, were property that could be bought and sold and then live their lives as slaves. In directing us to call God Abba, you give us an insight into your relationship with God, your Abba. You challenge the then accepted power structures in families. That persists to today. No one is to lord it over another. Children are not to be chattel. The family is to imitate and live the community that is God, each one pouring out self in loving service of each other, just as you do. We stand in awe of God’s holiness that now is approachable, even as we are held in God’s embrace and long to experience God’s reign in our lives and in our world. Tyranny is banished forever.
Abba is the source of every blessing. You invite us to use intercessory prayer, but not to pray for excess goods. Give us each day our daily bread. Doesn’t that mean that we are to pray for the essentials that are necessary for our survival? That seems to imply a certain poverty of lifestyle. The wealthy don’t have to worry about their next mouthful. People who are young and strong and of comfortable means might forget, with their stomachs perpetually sated, that Abba is the one who called them into existence and sustains them in existence. In their mind’s eye, they might find it hard to imagine themselves aging, being in want, and experiencing vulnerability. What would daily bread mean in that context?
Attitude. It’s true, isn’t it? “The attitudes of prayer you want to inculcate in us demand that we change our perspective. The pronouns are plural. You envision a community praying, a community that is in truth and reality familial. God is our Abba, not my Abba. That is included, of course, but you want us to recognize each other as sisters and brothers whose common Abba desires that we live as family, in loving service that is imitative of Abba’s attitude towards us. Abba loves us communally.
There is something that frightens me in your next directive that has to do with forgiveness. I pray for forgiveness daily and celebrate Reconciliation regularly. Are you saying that that is fine as far as it goes, but you expect more? There is a condition you want us to place on our plea for forgiveness. That condition is fine if I am a forgiver. But what if I am not? Am I praying that Abba watches me as a forgiver and assess the quality of that forgiveness, and then forgives me in the way I forgive? What if I bear grudges? What if I forgive but never forget? What if I cannot forgive? How can I ask God to treat me in the same way? (I will never forget the extraordinary faith manifested in those survivors of the victims in the church shooting in South Carolina. Immediately the proclaimed forgiveness for the shooter, because they wanted God’s forgiveness to work in their lives.)
Ah, but now I think I see that there is a constant challenge here. You are directing that forgiveness be at the heart of every Christian community. Yours is not a community that is primarily judgmental, much less condemnatory. Neither should it be quick to proclaim who is not welcome here. That is correct isn’t it? You said it in another place. Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you. Is that what you expect of communities that gather in your name? We are to be sinners forgiving sinners, gathering around the common table, rejoicing that all are welcome here. There must be more to this Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared, than the hanging of banners that proclaim it. Alas, I wonder.
How long have I been praying your prayer? As I write this, I wonder if I have ever understood. And if I understood, would I have dared to utter your prayer? I am confident that it is not too late. Please open my heart and help me to live what I pray, just as I ask you to help me live the Eucharist we celebrate. I believe that if my heart changes, then strengthened by the Eucharist, I will not be afraid on my last day. I will understand then that strengthened by your love and the love of the community in whose midst I have prayed and served, I will recognize in those final moments that it is Abba coming to take me home where I will experience the fullness of Abba’s reign.
Hospitality. Table fellowship. These are primary responsibilities for you, aren’t they? You want them to be the hallmarks of experience for those who gather in your name at your table. Forgive me, but that is why I struggle with this Gospel relating your visit to Martha and Mary’s home. It seems incomplete to me, in need of one more line of dialog in which you praise Martha, too.
Martha, after all, welcomes you. The text makes that quite clear. She is the hospitable one as she assumes the implications of hospitality. She prepares the table for you. She acts like Abraham in the first reading. Abraham welcomes the mysterious trio of visitors with reverence. He is lavish in his ministrations and calls for preparations far in excess of what the three could possibly consume.
Did Abraham act this way because he recognized the Lord’s presence in the visitors? Or did he act this way because he knew the demands of hospitality dictated he do so? The impact of the piece would be lessened if Abraham had a premonition of the rewards that would come to him following the meal. In stead, he did what he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Only after the meal did he find out that God cannot be outdone in generosity. Abraham had entertained angels unawares.
In Abraham and Sarah’s old age, they would be parents. A son will be born to them about this time next year.
Perhaps the problem is that Martha feels burdened by her chores. Should there not be joy in the service? Is that what elicits your response? Or are you rejecting the subservient and servant role that had fallen to women? Were you subtly prompting her to aspire to more than traditional feminine roles as was evidenced in Mary’s taking her place at your feet, as the males would who were your audience?
What is Mary’s chosen better part? It’s true, isn’t it? She has rejected the servant role and refused to be segregated from the men. She will not be consigned to the scullery. You say she chose the better part. This is not something that she passively fell into. Much less is it a sign of laziness or blindness to the demands of hosting. Mary has chosen to be a disciple. In choosing to sit at your feet and listen she affirms she is a disciple. Disciples are with you. They listen to you and drink in your words and are transformed by them, so becoming your other selves.
Mary, prompted by grace and the Holy Spirit, (I say that because St. Paul says that is the only way responses like these can happen) chooses discipleship, chooses to listen, and chooses to be with you. What would follow, should she not have been fully aware of the implications of what she was doing? She will find herself among the first of those to proclaim your Resurrection.
So, I come back to Martha. I notice that she calls you Lord. Doesn’t that mean that she has made her decision about you? If she chooses to be your disciple, doesn’t that mean that she, too, as does her sister, wants to be with you? Are you chiding her for not putting discipleship first? Or is the chiding because in her anxiety about many things, she did not take the opportunity to listen to the word?
I place myself in the scene. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to act? You have chosen me to be a disciple. My response is the desire to be with you, to sit at your feet and listen to you. I believe you want me to choose the better part. But even that is not enough, is it?
I am having one of those moments. If I do listen and if I do absorb the message, something should flow for that. Besides doing what Mary did, don’t I have to do Martha’s business, too? Obviously I do not have the limitations imposed by sexism. Still, I wonder what you would say to me were you to see me in action.
And I wonder about the Church. Sometimes it seems power and position take prominent roles over those who have been called. The faithful have been baptized into the Priesthood of the Baptized. They should be empowered to exercise that Priesthood. The chief Shepherds, as Pope Francis has said, should not exercise their shepherding over the sheep, but among the sheep, even going so far as to smell like the sheep. All of us are called to sit at your feet and listen to the Word and, together, be transformed by the Word. All of us are to exemplify hospitality and table fellowship when we gather. What should resonate fro us is the proclamation that all are welcome here.
We have to absorb the transformative lessons of celebrating Eucharist. If there is anything of arrogance about us, we’ve missed the point. If we lord power over anyone, we are not exercising the discipleship you modeled for us. We must be willing to be broken and poured out in service. We have all been called to be servants whose faith empowers us to recognize you in the poorest of the poor. The poor are not inferiors, but in being given primacy of place, they are our peers.
Will you be patient with me as I struggle to embrace discipleship? Will you encourage me to cast of contrary values of power, wealth, and primacy of place that can be very alluring and so let me find joy in entertaining angles unawares?
Is it normal and natural to want to put limits on things? The finite we can handle. The limitless boggles the mind and the imagination. Is that why humankind are more comfortable with the Transcendent God than with the Immanent God? Moses had been to the mountain top for his encounter with God before he came down to announce to the people God’s will for them to keep the commandments and statutes in the book of the law. Did he hear the people gasp collectively as they wondered who could do that? What kind of transformation would they have to go through before they could follow Moses’ directive?
Is this correct? In this reading from the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses revealing to the people how immanent God is? God wants a loving relationship with us, for us to live that love with each other. God breathes the Law into the human heart. All the person has to do is awaken to it and live by it. Is that what Moses is saying? God plants the seeds of the Way in the human heart, gifts us with instincts that, if followed, mark the doer as God’s own. Dare I ask if doing this is what makes us human, the clay shaped by the Potter’s hands? It is all about love, isn’t it?
If this living of basic relationship with God and neighbor marked by love is basic for everyone, what more do you expect of those who are your disciples? Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself and forgetting that you set your own pouring out of self as the example, the new norm. That becomes what one is to do if s/he would be your disciple. Always. For everyone. No limits. Dare I even consider this? Dare I ask the questions that the Samaritan story raises in my heart? And if you give me the answers, whether I am ready for them or not, what will be my excuse then for not following in your footsteps?
God knows the human heart, its strengths and its weaknesses. The knowing God would not command what the imperfect being is incapable of carrying out. It is interesting that the scholar of the Law in the Gospel does not react to your iteration of the limitless love the Law commands the human to have for God. Love God with your entire being. The scholar doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Is that because loving God entirely seems almost easy to do until you link that loving and make a sign of that loving, the love exhibited for the neighbor? Does his desire to justify himself mean that he wishes to put limits on whom he has to love? Will he have to reconcile his past actions with this new insight you have challenged him to accept?
Who is my neighbor? You tell the story of the kind and generous Samaritan. How many Assemblies have gathered for the Liturgy of the Word and heard the account? I don’t recall seeing anyone flinch or hearing anyone gasp. But wasn’t that the response you were looking for when you told the story? Aren’t the details of the story supposed to shock and call forth a sense of need for grace, for conversion, if one is supposed to respond like the Samaritan to another’s desperate needs? That is, if one is to be your disciple instead of remaining one of the crowd. You want the hearer to ask, “Who can do this?”
What would happen if, before you identified the central figure that exemplifies what a neighbor does, you asked the seeker a question in return? What if you asked the one who wants to know what s/he must do to inherit eternal life, Tell me, whom do you hate. Whom do you despise; whom do you shun, or ignore, or demean, or debase? That hated one becomes the Good character that exemplifies the response to grace that you are looking for. Then there might be a gasp. The hearer might shudder. The one you hold up as exemplar might even anger him/her.
You used the Samaritan as a paragon to a man who thought observance of the Law, what would mark him as a good and God-fearing Jew, meant considering the Samaritan untouchable. That observance of the Law was important to the priest and the Levite who both passed by on the other side of the road from the beaten and robbed man. He was bleeding and had they come into contact with him they would have incurred ritual impurity and not been able to enter into temple worship.
So, to come into contact with the Samaritan, or with the wounded man would mean to incur ritual impurity and be unable to enter into worship until being purified. That one held in contempt is the example of what a neighbor does, to say nothing of who is my neighbor. Did that scholar hurl back at you, That’s not what I asked? I asked, who is my neighbor. You tell me what a neighbor does. Is that fair?
It is painful to admit, but the fact is people around the world live in the tensions of societal division and hostility. Each day the news is filled with terrible stories of people unleashing violence against others. As I write this letter to you, the news relates the horrid details of another mass killing, this time in Orlando Florida. A new record has been set for the number of people killed by the shooter. Society is divided racially, religiously, ethnically, by sexual orientation, and by whatever sets another off as different. If you were telling the story today, whoever is one hated by the hearer would be the Good Samaritan. Isn’t that true?
I’ve thought about this and prayed over it. Perhaps that is why I write this letter and dare to ask the same question. I long for eternal life. Will I be putting eternal life beyond my reach if I cannot carry out the implications of this story? Aren’t you saying that I must be willing to be the Good Samaritan to one I despise? I have to turn the other cheek once I have been struck. I must embrace my betrayer. I must love practically the one who hates me without seeking retaliation. It is my responsibility to bind up the wounds of the one who hurled the rocks at me.
It just occurred to me that this parable has implications for the attitude I bring to Liturgy. When I gather with others to renew the Eucharist, your dying and rising, I have to look around at the others and have love for them. You call us to gather as sisters and brothers, united in you, if we dare to approach and share in the meal. If we gather, it is to be sent after the meal to proclaim love for the wounded and the poor’ the off scouring of society in the market place. We are supposed to be Good Samaritans to them. That is what it is about, isn’t it? That is the Church in the Modern World.
I’ll understand if you do not get back to me right away on this matter. That will give me more time to ponder the issues and to wonder what you would have me do.