Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

Sirach 35:12-14,16-18
2 Timothy4-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Dear Jesus,

Were the ones to whom you addressed this parable – those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else – among your disciples? Or were you speaking to those in the crowds milling about who had not yet made up their minds about you? Maybe that isn’t as important to know, as is my being sure that attitude isn’t my own. Despising everyone else? Please, Lord, let that not be my attitude about anyone else, much less about everyone else!

I have come to realize that there is something in every scripture that speaks to every heart. Conversion is an ongoing process, not finished until the day I die. So, as I ponder the Pharisee and the tax collector’s story I have to ask what it is that you want me to hear, what is there in me that needs to be seared away by the Gospel’s fire?

It’s true, isn’t it, that once again you pick an unlikely character to be the example of the grace effect you wish to recognize in those who follow you. The Pharisee is a member of a noble group who are set on keeping the Law alive and ensuring that the Law be observed. Pharisees are seriously religious people. He wasn’t lying as he listed those qualities and attitudes he possessed for which he was grateful. He wasn’t an adulterer. He told the truth. He didn’t covet his neighbor’s goods. Fasting twice a week went beyond the Law’s dictates, as did his tithing program. There probably are not many who could have trumpeted such a list of virtues and not feared contradiction.

On the other hand, the tax collector was part of a hated group who made their money wringing from their neighbors inflated tax bills imposed by Roman rule. They were Jews in commerce with the Roman oppressors. They added to the tax bill so that they could skim off their cut for their own profit and turn over the billed amount to their employers. They rendered to Caesar in spades. There could hardly be words to describe how despicable was the behavior of the tax collector who bled their own to make a living. Tax collectors were among those with whom you were infamous for associating. You welcomed them into your company. You ate with them. And you were cursed for it. I can imagine how your audience bristled when a tax collector was held up as an example to them.

There is more about the Pharisee that you want me to hear. Was it wrong for him to thank God for the good life he lived, or, to assume that he was better than everyone else? Implicit, too, is his assumption that his good deeds win God’s favor and endears him to God more than everyone else. He is meriting heaven, getting there on his own. He doesn’t need redemption or salvation.

There is more about the tax collector, the most painful reality to consider. The man is trapped in his occupation. There is no way out. The oppressors wouldn’t let him quit. If he did sever his relationship with the Romans, no one would welcome him back into the community. Like the leper or sinner, he would be forever an outcast for what he had done.

The Pharisee is chastised not for the good that he does, the virtue of his life, but for his judgmental attitude toward everyone else, his attitude in prayer. How dare he assume to know another person’s heart? I am not even like the tax collector.

The tax collector is not praised for the evil he does. Sin is sin, after all. But he recognizes the hopelessness of his situation – that there is no way out for him – and would not even raise his eyes to heaven. He is justified because he acknowledges that he is a sinner even as he prays for mercy. Sirach said that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.

So I ask you, what is it that you want me to take from this parable? I know I am a sinner. The list of my virtues is not nearly as lengthy as that of the Pharisee’s. But I wonder about my attitude towards others. Am I like the Pharisee in that, in making assumptions about and judgments of others? What do I know about even the worst person? Certainly I do not have to whitewash evil that is done. But there is a difference between hating the sin and hating the sinner. I haven’t walked in the other’s shoes or suffered the indignities that formed him/her. I don’t know the inner workings of the other’s mind. And I ought not forget that s/he is God’s beloved – loved unconditionally and forever. I ought not forget that s/he is one for whom you poured out yourself like a libation as you finished the race and were faithful to the end.

I’ll stop here. I think I know what you want me to hear. It isn’t that I should paint myself in worse colors than truth would demand. You would have me recognize the workings of grace in my life and the influence of the Spirit. You would have me remember and give thanks for your sacrifice. And you would demand that I not judge, lest I be judged. It’s about love in the end, isn’t it? Love one another as you have loved. And perhaps when I am tempted to judge I should pray St. Augustine’s prayer: There but for the grace of God go I. It is a salutary thing for me to remember that there is no sin committed by another human being that I am incapable of committing – except for grace and your love.

Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

Exodus 17:8-13
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

Dear Jesus,

This Sunday’s readings form a curious juxtaposition. I know the link is prayer. And the lesson to be learned is persistence in prayer. But the readings are problematic, the Gospel reading more so, but so, for me is the Exodus reading.

The image of Moses, the shepherd of the Israelites, their link to God, is an example of steadfast prayer in the face of adversity. Standing on the hill above the people with the staff of God in his hand, he lifts his arms in supplication, begging for God’s intervention. He holds up his arms until he is exhausted and can’t keep them up any longer. Fortune changes for the worse when he lowers his arms as his energy flags. His praying wears him out. A large rock is brought to Moses for a seat and Aaron and Hur on either side support his arms so that his praying can continue. And so Israel prospers. But the problem is that Moses is praying over a battlefield. And as long as he prays, the Israelites can slaughter Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And I think of the horrors of war.

Is it the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who picks sides and supports warmongering? Images conjured by the description of Joshua mowing down Amalek and his people cause me to shudder. Prayer being the source of the empowerment to slaughter is worse. The end result for one side is carnage and grief, albeit with victory and rejoicing for Israel. But at what price? Perhaps, stories like this could be told once and cause inspiration because we had not yet begun to ponder the reality that God wills the salvation of all people and if so must have loved Amalek and his people too. There is mystery here. I don’t know the answer. Maybe I should just stay with the central image of Moses in prayer and leave the rest to God.

In the Gospel, you tell your disciples, you tell me that we must pray always without becoming weary. This is in reality another instruction on the essentials of discipleship. If I am to be your disciple I must be a person of prayer. If I do not pray, I am not a disciple no matter how I might try to delude myself to the contrary. A cultural Christian just doesn’t cut it. Pray without ceasing even if I become weary. And, remembering the example of Moses, I wonder if, should I become weary in prayer, I just might find support to keep my arms aloft when I pray in the community of my brothers and sisters. Knowing that God loves us, I can have confident assurance that God will hear me in this assembly that is your Body, the Church.

But why do you use the example of the unjust judge who finally is worn down by and relents to the urgent pleas of the widow, granting her justice lest she finally come and strike me? You meant this to be humorous, didn’t you? Isn’t it funny to picture the unjust judge cowering in fear of the widow’s slap? But you want me to see that persistence pays off. A widow can get her justice by nagging and threatening with the flat of her hand even if the judge is unjust. Are you using this as another example of if this in the greenwood, what in the dry? The God to whom I pray loves me and all the baptized as God loves you. It’s true, isn’t it, that God doesn’t recognize the distinction. After all, you live in us as you live in the Father that they (the disciples) may be one in us. The unjust judge does not fear God or man. The God to whom we pray loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son.

I wonder if praying always, even if I should grow weary, means always praying prayers of petition. Must I continually be asking for something? I know what it means to pray for the sick and the dying. I know what it means to pray for the poor and the hungry. I know what it means to pray for an end to war and all the other inhumane things people do to each other. And I don’t love all these people nearly as much as God does. So does my faith come to play when, with confident assurance, I put these concerns before God and trust that God will bring justice in God’s time? God’s kingdom will reign. You will come again in glory. You have given us your word.

All this brings me to wonder if when you command us to pray always you aren’t telling us to live aware that we are in God’s presence, to live the prayer of adoration with the confidence that one day, if we are faithful as we journey on the way, we will see God face to face in our resurrection? All my intercessions are addressed to God through you. Every Eucharist is the Church giving thanks to God through you. The petitions voiced during the Liturgy are the Church pleading with God through you. If I believe this, what do I have to fear? One day God will make all things right. Justice will be done speedily.

Can I hang on? Can I persist in this conscious living in the presence of God that is prayer so that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth? Alone? Probably not. But I can if you strengthen me and keep my hands aloft.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

2 Kings 5:14-17
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Dear Jesus,

How many times had the ten seen you, how many times had they heard you before they dared approach you convinced that you could do something about their plight? Or, was this their first encounter with you, their eagerness and trust the result of what others had told them about you? In the end there isn’t much difference. To experience the witness of a disciple is the same as hearing you. The result is to ponder what they have seen and heard and to work toward a decision about you. Here they call you Master. Will they call you Lord one day – the day after this meeting?

To appreciate their pathos, one has to have had the experience of being pariah. There is unique pain in being shunned, in knowing that one is unwelcome among a people thought to have been one’s own, in knowing that one’s very being is despised. These unfortunates knew that anyone coming into contact with them would incur ritual impurity and then could not enter into worship until s/he was declared clean again. They rang bells and cried out, Unclean! Unclean! to give ample warning lest contact, even with the hem of a garment be made. They begged for their sustenance. They lived near the refuse piles outside the city gates, themselves the off-scouring of society, their situation hopeless, death their only release, hopeless, that is until this day you came, approaching their city.

Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
One of the lepers was twice unclean. One of the lepers was a Samaritan, a member of a sect splintered from Judaism who worshiped God from the Mountain rather than in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s odd how you use Samaritans to illustrate the response you are looking for from all your disciples. You told the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who responded with compassion to the man beaten nearly to death. The religious establishment had passed the poor wretch by on their way to synagogue, avoiding contact with a body, again, lest they incur impurity. That was not a concern for the Samaritan who cleaned and dressed the wounds, put the man on the Samaritan’s beast of burden and secured shelter for him so that he could heal.

Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!

You tell them to fulfill the prescripts of the law for those healed of their leprosy. Go show yourselves to the priests. Simple as that, you send them off. There is no dramatic incantation. There are no showy gestures to attract attention to the miracle taking place. You tell them to show themselves to the priests who can then certify their cleanliness and make it possible for them to enter into society and worship again.

It is not difficult to imagine the excitement as, one by one, each of the ten came to realize their skin had taken on the pink bloom and healthy glow of youth again. No more scabs. No more running sores. Was it then that the Samaritan became unacceptable company for the nine? Did they oust him from their group rather than run the risk of incurring another kind of impurity through contact with him? Observance of the law, after all, was important for them. They were grateful to you, weren’t they? But they were intent on carrying out your directive and thus taking care of the Law’s demands. Did the nine think that there would always be time to get back to you someday?

Were you irate at the foreigner’s return to you? Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God? There is the sound of indignation in your words. Was there disappointment because the Samaritan gives the response you were seeking from the house of Israel? Giving thanks to God is the meaning of Eucharist. Does this foreigner have the heart necessary to enter into Eucharist when you will give thanks, bless, break and distribute the Bread that is your Body and the Cup that is your Blood? Is that part of this ecstatic moment of Thanksgiving emanating from the foreigner at your feet? Is he ready to be part of a Eucharistic people?

Did your attitude change when you recognized the Samaritan’s faith? He believed in you. That is a gift that only God can give. The Spirit worked in him. He is ready for discipleship. Was this another moment when you felt your ministry being pulled in an unexpected direction beyond the House of Israel for whom you said you had been sent? Did you accept at that time that you had been sent for the nations, too? The Samaritan found God through healing just as Naaman, the Syrian, another leper, had through Elisha’s ministry.

What would you have me take from this?

I know that I am to adopt your attitude towards today’s lepers. It is not acceptable that anyone or any class or group be thought unworthy of coming to the Table. I must live declaring all are welcome here. And that declaration must be accompanied by works that result in the designated unclean feeling your embrace when they are clothed, fed, and given drink. You were scorned for being a man who welcomed sinners and ate with them. To be scorned for the same offenses I would have to see as a blessing and not a curse. And of course there is a risk of guilt by association.

But I think there is something more that you would have me recognize. I must identify with the leper because I am a sinner. I may know rejection and experience betrayal and broken relationships. You want me to know that your wish is that I be whole, that I be healed, forgiven, and have a place at the Table.

The Spirit has stirred this faith making it possible for me to believe. I cried out, Jesus, Master! Have pity on me! And when you told me to Stand up and go; your faith has saved you, I stood and began to walk with you.

And I called you Lord.

Sincerely,

Didymus