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THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1Timothy 6:11-16
Luke: 16:19-31

Dear Jesus,

I wonder if there is any other parable that you told that I make more assumptions about than this parable of Dives and Lazarus. I make assumptions about Dives, the rich man in the story. You say that he dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. That’s all you tell me. But I think surely there must have been more of which he was guilty. Look how he winds up on the other side of that great chasm that separates him from Abraham and confines him to a place of torment. Maybe you forgot to mention that he was a thief or a lecher. Surely he must have been abusive to his family or his hired servants. At least he must have been a glutton with all that rich food and fine wine each day. But while gluttony is a capital sin, I don’t think it is that bad to merit by itself eternal damnation. So, I combine gluttony with a few of those other evils so that I can see the justification for Dives’ final end.

Of course you don’t tell me that much about Lazarus either. And just as I do for Dives, I do for Lazarus only the opposite. Surely there must have been virtues there that you meant to share and so to inspire to go and do likewise. Lazarus must have spent hours in prayer, never complaining about his difficult straits. He continually must have borne a cheerful countenance giving evidence that he took up his cross everyday. Did he habitually put others before himself? Did he regularly reach out to those less fortunate than himself to try to ease their burden? But none of that is in the parable either. You only tell me that covered with sores he sat in view of Dives’ table and would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. The dogs that licked his sores would do that, as was the custom.

Where’s the sin? Where’s the virtue? Or am I missing the point of your story? But you are talking to Pharisees when you tell this parable, to those who were students of the Law and scrupulously tried to follow it. They were the ones who argued about which law was the most important and who knew that living by the law was to live in the Covenant. It occurs to me that Lazarus, if he was covered with sores, might have been a leper. If Dives had had any contact with the leper, he would have incurred ritual uncleanness. He would not have been able to enter into worship before being cleansed himself. Would that have been his excuse? Or was his sin that he didn’t even notice Dives lying at his door. But if Lazarus lay there every day would not Dives be excused of his dereliction? It would be like a clock ticking in a room. It’s not long before you don’t hear the clock anymore. In fact, you won’t even notice when the ticking stops.

I can see you shaking your head in disbelief as you read this. Are you wondering if I will ever get the point, ever hear the message and allow my heart to be broken by it? It’s only then that I will know that attitude needed if one is to approach the Table, if one is to celebrate Eucharist and share in the meal.

I’m afraid of the implications that are beginning to prick my conscience. I’d be very grateful if you would tell me that I have it wrong now, too. What if I were Dives? What if I am Dives? Are you saying that the abhorrent evil is not to notice? Is it enough to merit eternal separation from God that one not see the beggar at the door? Surely there must be other attendant sins like those I listed above. Mustn’t there be? Of course if I don’t see then I won’t act. I’ll be able to go to my bed at the end of each day with a clear conscience because I didn’t notice the plight of the beggar. On the other hand, how could I live if I did notice? How would I ever be able to sleep at night if I let another’s suffering into my life?

Is it grace that would empower me to understand? There is something nagging in the pit of my stomach. I am afraid. It has to do with what I am beginning to suspect about Lazarus which is much more important than anything I need to know about Dives. Lazarus is you, isn’t he? Whom did you come for? Isaiah promised that God would tend to the needs of the poor, the blind, the lame and the hungry. But it wasn’t enough for you to respond to their needs. You took on their flesh, and in taking on their flesh, took on their plight. If Dives ignores Lazarus he ignores you. That’s it, isn’t it? You are daring me to go there and see if I can ever be the same again.

I remember reading about an exchange between Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Malcolm Muggeridge who at the time considered himself to be an agnostic. He was visiting Mother Teresa at the time she was becoming renowned for her ministry to India’s poorest of the poor. Mr. Muggeridge was trying to get to the bottom of the woman’s mystery and kept asking her why she did what she did. They were sitting in a death house, a place where they dying were cared for in their final hours by Mother Teresa and her sisters. Somewhat exasperated by Mr. Muggeridge’s repeated question, Mother took the hand of a dying man, one who otherwise would have died on Calcutta’s busy streets, and she said, in effect, when I minister to someone like this poor man, I minister to Christ on his cross. You know that not long after that now famous interview, Malcolm Muggeridge found again the faith of his childhood, came into the Catholic Church and lived that faith to the day he died.

Now I am remembering an encounter in Africa. I stood on the street outside a bank in Kampala. In a moment, a boy clung to my feet as others grabbed at him and tried to pull him away. I saw blood flowing down the side of his face and more flowing down his bear calf. I remember cringing from the blood and wondering what kind of disease I could pick up should I touch him. He looked up at me and sobbed: Please, Uncle, please help me? But what could I have done? I watched as the others pulled him away from me and dragged him into an alley. I could hear the cries, Uncle, Uncle, long after the boy was out of sight. What could I have done?

This is too much. Will you now tell me that boy was you? But if you do, how shall I ever sleep again?

And then there is the question of the separating chasm.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

Dear Jesus,

Are you challenging me to make a choice? The last words of this Sunday’s Gospel say it all. No servant can serve two masters. S/he will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Your call to discipleship is absolute and unequivocal. If I am to be a disciple, I cannot straddle the chasm that exists between the old way, what I have to leave behind, and the new, what I am to become in you. If I look back with longing for what used to be, that is where I will return. There are those who may claim to be culturally Christian or Catholic. That means there is some notional knowledge of you, some association with the Church, but there is little or no practical impact on decisions made or lifestyle lived. Are you saying, Stop fooling yourself? Make a choice. Be one or the other and do it well! There are logical consequences.

In some ways, it is easier to be a convert today than it was in the Church’s infancy. Seldom does one have to sever all previous relationships and end familiar employment. Even though the powerful symbolism remains in the celebration of an adult’s baptism, entering the font to die to all that was to rise out of the waters reborn in you, one can go through the process and not have to experience the radical changes that confronted those in the early days of the church. Or so it might seem. And seem is the operative word here. The gospels of these several Sundays demand that we consider the cost of discipleship, to recognize that your call is absolute and unequivocal, and to respond half-heartedly is foolhardy and far from what you expect and want to empower.

Am I mistaken in taking the cue from the relationship between the rich man and the steward in the parable? The steward is to act as the representative of the rich man, to have the interests of the rich man in heart, and to ensure the economic advances from the rich man’s property. The rich man trusts the steward expecting him to act with integrity. There is dismay when the rich man hears of the steward’s squandering ways. It is trust that is betrayed. And the steward’s enviable position comes to an end. A relationship ends.

You expect more from discipleship. Your call is not to secure representatives. You initiate a love relationship that results in the disciple’s acting in persona Christi, as your other self. That is the new life that is initiated through Baptism and that prayer and Eucharist sustain. You invite the disciple to live in relationship with you and to act out of that relationship. Once you said to an apostle, Philip, if you see me you see the Father. Am I correct in saying that you expect that if someone sees a disciple that one sees you? Because of the loving relationship that is lived the disciple thinks in union with you, sees with your eyes, acts with you hands, and loves with your heart. All of a sudden cultural Christian doesn’t make sense. That’s not enough. A disciple is one who is the enfleshment of the Good News you announce, one who is willing to imitate you in the pouring out of self in love for the poorest of your brothers and sisters. To be selfish and self-aggrandizing is the equivalent of the steward’s squandering the rich man’s property. That doesn’t fit with the call. It is about service. It is about identifying with the poorest of the poor and loving them, practically ministering to their needs and recognizing that in so doing it is you in your passion who is being embraced, whose wounds are being bound up, whose nakedness is being clothed, whose thirst is being slaked.

You cannot serve both God and mammon. That is hard to hear. You must realize the culture in which we live. Success in these times is about position, power, and the security of wealth. It’s all about what’s in it for me. Those who have keep those who have not at a distance. The wealthy congregate with the wealthy abetting the delusion that everyone lives as they do. Their memberships in the golf courses of the elite mean that they do not have to share the fairways with hoi polloi. Many see wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Some even preach a gospel in your name that crudely translates into find Christ and you will find wealth, happiness and security. Sadly that gospel also resurrects the assumption that poverty and suffering are punishments either for this man’s sins or that of his parents.

Do I find comfort in these thoughts because I have never been wealthy, much less a member of the elite group? To the best of my recollection, I was never about exercising power but empowering the priesthood of the baptized. Please, Lord, tell me that I sought to serve rather than to be served, to work collegially in shared ministry rather than apart and above in a separatist fashion. You were vulnerable to those you served and so was I. That was then. This is now. So what is this about God and mammon?

You are not saying that wealth is evil, are you? But you are warning of wealth’s debasing influence. How preoccupied am I with money and the things that money procures? If I were wealthy would I see myself as better than those with less? Of course I would never admit that, but is that how I would act? If I am a disciple, if I am being a good steward of the Gospel entrusted to me in discipleship, I think you expect me to be preoccupied with how I can share what is mine with the poor, how I can use what has been lent to me, if you will, to relieve the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. You expect me to be vulnerable in service and not vindictive when that vulnerability is violated.

What is really at stake here? You opened the parable with the rich man’s telling the steward you can no longer be my steward. It isn’t stewardship that is at risk but my relationship with you. The worst words one could ever hear would be, you can no longer be my disciple. Our relationship is over. That wouldn’t mean that God would no longer love me. That wouldn’t mean that God would no longer will my salvation. But it would mean with elitist and mercenary attitudes I could no longer walk with you on the way. I could not say if you see me you see Christ. The words of the parable echo in my consciousness: I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth (mammon), so that when it fails you, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Pray, Lord, where might that be?

Thank you for your constant invitation to gather at the table conscious of my own emptiness. You invite me to come open and empty-handed with others who are poor, blind, disabled, those who are sinners and the off-scouring of society, and, gathered there, to break the Bread and share the Cup. And giving thanks to God, to be sent to live what we have received.

Perhaps, then, I should not be surprised if I, too, am broken and distributed. You were.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Dear Jesus,

When I listen to your parables, I always place myself in them. Sometimes, I imagine myself as one of the audience being careful to note whether you are speaking to crowds, those undecided about you, or to disciples, those who have made their decision to accept your invitation to be with you on the Way. In this sequence, you are surrounded by the detested tax collectors and those judged to be sinners. Your association with these types got you into trouble and became the source of one of the accusations that contributed to your downfall. But these parables about the shepherd’s quest for the lost sheep, the woman’s search for the lost coin, and the story of the Prodigal Son, are not addressed to them. Your intended audience are those who are upset by the company you are keeping, the Pharisees and scribes, those who are seriously concerned with the Law and strive to live by it exactly and who are judgmental about those who seem not to be keeping the Law with due diligence. Your associations offend them.

Sometimes, I imagine myself one of the characters in the parable and wonder how I would react in the situation you describe. I always wonder what the point is that you are trying to make. In these parable,s I wonder if you are not telling your audience to let their preconceptions about God be challenged by the images you conger. Are you telling us to stop thinking that we understand how God loves human kind? The difficulty for the judgmental is that you make God seem foolish, God’s reactions, excessive. You say to them, what one among you wouldn’t act in this way? And they struggle with thinking what sane individual would respond like the shepherd, the woman, or the Prodigal Son’s father? It doesn’t make sense to leave ninety-nine sheep untended in the desert and go searching for a lost one. It doesn’t make sense to have such an exaggerated and costly reaction to the finding of a lost coin that you would then have a party that would cost far more than the value of the coin. It doesn’t make sense to be so lavish in the outpouring of affection for a wastrel son whose excesses have resulted in the squandering of a fortune to say nothing of debasing the family name and reputation. It doesn’t make sense to the judgmental, but what a consolation to those who have a sense of their own sinfulness and have a heartfelt need for forgiveness and acceptance.

You begin the parables by asking the Pharisees, the scribes, and us which one of us wouldn’t act in the same way that the shepherd, the woman, and the father do. And I wonder. Perhaps, I could be that fond of a lamb separated from the flock that I would brave the wilds in search of it. But would I leave the rest untended? Would I get that excited about finding a lost coin? Would I be that lavish in the moment of reunion with someone who had betrayed me? I wish I could give an unqualified assent to this, but, as I said, I wonder.

But since I am a sinner and find it more comfortable to be one of the lost in the parables, I find great solace in imagining being sought out, rejoiced over, and welcomed home again. It is a matter of perspective.

There is a lot to ruminate over in the Prodigal Son parable especially since you do not give all the answers. How one hears the parable probably depends on how that same one fills in the blanks that you purposely left. The Prodigal, for example. You don’t tell us much about the life he lived other than that he squandered his inheritance squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. It’s left to the judgmental older brother to interpret dissipation as trafficking with prostitutes. But, did he? You don’t tell us because that doesn’t matter. It isn’t the sin that is important but the desolation the Prodigal feels as he longs to share the pig’s slop.

Was he really repentant? Is it by design that his plea in rehearsal is different from the one voiced in his father’s embrace. He doesn’t mention the possibility of being treated like one of your hired workers. On the other hand, perhaps the father didn’t give him enough time to finish all he wanted to say because that didn’t seem important to the father either. Can anyone every adequately express sorrow or repentance? What mattered to the father was that the son for whom he had searched every evening, looking down the road with longing as the sun set, his son, once lost, was found, once dead, was alive again.

Someone speculated that you are the Prodigal Son in the parable. You thought equality with God was not something to be grasped at but rather emptied yourself to become one of us. You dissipated the divine to become sin among us and so were nailed to the cross. It is in Luke’s Gospel that you cry out from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. In that moment, did you leap into the void that is death only to be caught up in the arms of the Father whose will you always sought, whose image you are?

I wonder about the older son. You say at the outset of the story that when the younger son asked for his inheritance now, as if he could not wait for the father to die, the father divided the inheritance between the two sons. The older son had his share of the inheritance all along. He remained the firstborn. His brother’s sad saga had no impact on the amount that would come to him. Was it the father who forced him to serve the father’s needs? Did he resent each day’s responsibilities? Was his life one of drudgery like that of a slave? His resentment is so intense that he cannot even refer to the returning prodigal as his brother. He is this son of yours.

You don’t tell us if the older son accepted the father’s invitation to come in and join in the celebration. We certainly can hope so. But it remains possible that he chose not to. Is the elder son the stand-in for the Pharisees and the scribes, for those who resented that you welcomed sinners and ate with them? Why couldn’t they rejoice in seeing the off scouring of society made to feel that they were loved by God and had reason to hope? Will there be those in the anteroom of heaven unhappy when they see who have been welcomed into the kingdom? Will they resent their having slaved to observe the law day in and day out? Will they resent that God wills the salvation of all people? Will there always be those who want to restrict access to the Table? Those who cringe when they hear that all are welcome here?

I find tears in my eyes as I think of the implications of this parable. Sin remains sin – whatever the Prodigal’s might have been, whatever mine might be. But God’s love is greater than even my worst sin and therefore, there is no room for despair. God rejoiced always with the one who was lost and is found, who was dead and has come to life again.

Your dying and rising has done this and I am filled with joy even as I want to tell each person that I meet of this wonderful love.

Sincerely,
Didymus