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THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A

Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

How you hear the words will determine the shade of meaning. You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped. The dictionary says that a dupe is one who is easily deceived or cheated; in other words, a fool. So, to be duped is to be made a fool of. Was Jeremiah raging with fist raised to the heavens when he spoke these words? Was he brokenhearted with tears streaming down his face as he whispered them? Was there a wry smile accompanied by a wagging head that left Jeremiah telling God that God had really pulled a clever one on the lad when God tapped him to be a prophet? It’s all in how you hear the words as they are proclaimed. Regardless of how you hear them, the truth remains that for Jeremiah the die has been cast. Even if prophesying costs him his life he must do what God called him to do. Jeremiah is in love with God and God’s people come what may. And he can’t be quiet about it.

Jeremiah’s feelings may mirror Peter’s in the gospel. Remember last week’s reading? Peter proclaimed for the other disciples that they are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus is the Messiah of God, the anointed one God has sent into the world. Remember the praise that Jesus lavished on Peter for his insight: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. It is difficult to reconcile such generous praise with the dressing down that the Rock receives a few short verses later: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me!

What happened? It seems Peter has a lot to learn with some assumptions of which he must be disabused. You see for Peter the word Messiah had rich meaning that included power and prestige in the here and now. Peter assumed that Jesus as Messiah would set up a powerful kingdom, a rich kingdom, and would drive away the oppressors who made life for the Jews miserable. And Peter could hardly wait because when that happened and the rewards started pouring in, who would be there in a position of favor to bask in the luxury? You guessed it. Peter.

But those dreams are dashed in today’s gospel when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised. What about the might and the glory? What about sharing the throne with a position of power for Peter? After all, Jesus had just said that Peter was foundational to the kingdom that Jesus was bringing. There is a word in the text whose force we might miss. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. To rebuke is to give a complete dressing down to. The word is harsh and severe in meaning. Maybe a fist was shaken in Jesus’ face. The words must have hissed from Peter’s lips with panic just beneath the surface. The panic is born of Peter’s fear that he has been duped by Jesus whose first words to him had never ceased ringing in Peter’s ears: Come after me and I will make you fishers of humankind. That’s a power position, isn’t it?

When Jesus tells Peter to get behind me, Satan, he is not banishing Peter, excommunicating him, as it were. Rather, Jesus calls Peter a tempter the way Satan argued with God in the Book of Job. The order to get behind me is telling Peter to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and learn from what he observes over Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus is not a warrior Messiah. Jesus is a servant Messiah. This Messiah will associate with all the wrong people – the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers – all those whose condition gives evidence of their being sinners and out of favor with God. That was the commonly accepted assumption of the times. Worse than that, this Messiah sees suffering and death at the very core of his mission. Peter will see the worst thing that people can inflict on people happen to Jesus. Rejection. Crucifixion. Death. There is nothing worse that can be imagined. And Peter probably missed the part about rising on the Third Day.

What tone of voice do you imagine that Jesus used in the final discourse of this pericope? We probably would like to hear the gentle Jesus reassuring Peter and the other disciples. But could it be that Jesus used a stern voice with a hint of anger in it to shock the audience into hearing the new basic condition for discipleship? Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me. In other words, if one seeks discipleship for the good things that will follow, the prosperity, power, and position that will follow, that one is following the wrong Christ. The trappings of glory do not belong here. It is a servant church whose foundation is Rock (Peter).

You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped! Jeremiah’s words are now on Peter’s lips. What was true for Jeremiah is also true for Peter. Peter may have been duped but there is no turning back. Life without Jesus would be no life at all. He may still have a lot to learn, even the basic meaning of discipleship, but the truth emerging is that for Peter to live is Christ and to die is gain, as Paul later will say when facing his own death.

People can come to Christ from various motives and begin to walk with him on The Way. But that walking takes time and the walking is formational. Inevitably that walking necessitates denying self and giving up presuppositions. That walking must be in Jesus’ footsteps with lessons learned from watching over his shoulder and doing what Jesus does. Those who aspire to discipleship must accept vulnerability. Jesus’ values are not the world’s values. It’s not about power here, but service – serving the poorest of the poor and giving them primacy of place. Discipleship entails gathering at the Table to give thanks to God – the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. There dying and rising happens as the Assembly breaks the Bread and shares the Cup and is transformed into the Body of Christ in order to be sent to be broken and distributed until all the poor have been fed. And being vulnerable service might entail dying, too. It did for Jesus. It will for all those who follow him.
Don’t miss the promise. For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to their conduct. I think of St. Ignatius of Antioch who pled with his people not to try to dissuade him from the martyrdom, the lion’s jaws that awaited him. He urged them to let him be ground like wheat in the lions’ jaws, an allusion to the flour from which the Eucharistic bread would be kneaded. For Ignatius, the death of martyrdom was not defeat but victory in Christ. So must it be for all who follow Christ. We may not be cast to the lions. But we may be abased in our service. Sometimes, I wonder if that isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sometimes, I wonder if that isn’t the lesson to be learned and taken to heart by all those who let themselves be duped by the message.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Isaiah 22:19-23
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

Over the past few weeks, we’ve noted two groups represented in the gospels – the crowds and the disciples. And we have noted that what differentiates the two groups is that the crowds watch what Jesus does and listen to what he says and wonder about him. The disciples, on the other hand, have made the decision to follow Jesus. In this week’s gospel, Jesus presses for clarification about that decision.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ reputation has spread throughout the land, even through the region of Caesarea Philippi. Judging by the name of the region, there must have been a strong Roman influence in this place some distance from Galilee. Remember what we have witnessed in the proclamations of the last several Sundays. Jesus fed the 5000 with a few loaves and a couple of fish and had 12 baskets of orts left over. Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water through a violent storm. Jesus had the mission-altering conversation with the Canaanite woman. In light of all this, hear the question Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

Each year as Church, we make a journey through Ordinary Time via the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. We hear from John’s Gospel from time to time. Some of us have been making these journeys for many years from the time we died with Jesus in the Font and rose to live his life. Some of us are making this journey for the first time in a decision-making process called the Catechumenate. For all of us, the journey through Ordinary Time affords us the opportunity to deepen and strengthen our faith, or rather, to be influenced by the Spirit and so be strengthened.

Who do people say that the Son of Man is? The Son of Man simply means I. Jesus is asking: Who do people say that I am? Taking in all that the people have heard, what is there decision? That is what Jesus asks the disciples. There is no question that people recognize his greatness. Look at the company into which they have put him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. That is another way of saying that the people, the crowds, know that God worked through these giants in the tradition and they suspect that God is working through Jesus now. And remember what the Canaanite woman called Jesus last week. She had observed. She had listened. She had decided. She called him Lord.

As always with Jesus, it is not enough what others think. (Notice that that litany of conclusions the crowds have made about Jesus are like facets of a wondrous gem. Jesus does not deny any one of them.) Who do you who have been with me for this time, who have witnessed the miracles and heard me preach and teach, who do you say that I am? How have the signs spoken to you? Would you believe that that is the question before us each time we come together as Church? That is the question each of us must answer each time the Gospel is proclaimed, each time we assemble, and each time we celebrate Eucharist. That decision makes all the difference in the world.

Peter speaks for the disciples: You are the Christ (the Messiah) the Son of the Living God. Peter opines that Jesus is the one God has sent, the one anointed by God as David was, the one who will establish God’s reign. In other words, Peter says that Jesus is the embodiment of all of Israel’s dreams and aspirations especially as they applied to deliverance from foreign rule. Through Jesus the people will be free again and the disciples will share in the splendor.

It is important to note that the decision is beyond the powers of our own ability to make. The Spirit inspires. Grace empowers. Everyday, Paul marveled at the experience of that reality in his own life from the initial encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus until the day he died. He knew, as he said, that no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit.

That is why Jesus marvels at Peter’s declaration. It is beyond mere human powers to discern. Jesus’ heavenly Father revealed the truth to Peter. And it will be that witness that will be the foundation for the Church Jesus establishes. By the way, don’t miss the important name change in this passage. Simon here becomes Petrus and the name means rock. You are Peter and upon this rock (Petrus) I will build my church. And look how strong it will be and how long it will perdure.

As the Baptized, we gather in the Mystery that is Jesus and our actions translate our understanding of that Mystery. Each of us must profess that faith through what we say and do. As church, we must profess that faith through what we say and do. In response to the proclaimed Word we celebrate Eucharist. Giving thanks to Jesus’ heavenly Father and invoking the Spirit the transformation goes on, the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Assembly into that same Body and Blood. And strengthened in the decision we have made about Jesus by the meal we share, we are sent to be sign so that others may come to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

But as we will see next week, sometimes saying it is just the beginning. We may have a long way to go before we understand what kind of Messiah (Christ) Jesus is and what that will mean for believers.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Some people, even Catholics among them are not comfortable with the word catholic. They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian at least in practice. To be catholic is to be universal. Like it or not, God is catholic. Granted, that might not seem apparent in the early books of the Hebrew Scriptures when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own. Many are the mandates of separatism that, of course, can quickly translate into elitism. Ritual impurity could be incurred through contact with Gentiles. Living in fidelity to God’s Law will result in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.

Then come proclamations of the catholic call like that found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, especially if you read the skipped verses that include even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs with the foreigners. Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all of them to enter into this relationship of love celebrated in formal worship and in lives lived in fidelity to the covenant. The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Even Jesus had to change his mind, or rather, had to grow in the understanding of his calling. There is not shortage of quotes that state clearly in the early stages of his ministry that Jesus knew that he was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews. In the beginning, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity through contact with foreigners or any other class of people declared unclean. Then comes the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel. Translate Canaanite foreigner and foreigner unclean and you will see the power in their exchange. The woman comes to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation. Her daughter is tormented by a demon. It doesn’t matter whether this refers to a possession by the devil or some disease that is ravishing the girl. The situation in the mother’s eyes is catastrophic.

The woman is not self-conscious much less concerned by what her neighbors will think of her when she cries out to get Jesus’ attention and informs him of her plight. It is painful to hear that Jesus pays her no heed in spite of her persistence. She embarrasses the disciples who seem to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns. They want Jesus to get rid of her, putting it crassly, to get her to shut up – in today’s parlance. It is akin to the situation the disciples discerned with the 5000. There was a great need then and again the request that Jesus send them away to have their needs met elsewhere. This time, however, Jesus doesn’t tell them to do something themselves. Ignoring the woman, Jesus avers his call only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She persists and calls him Lord and adds please help me!

We should wince at Jesus’ reply. It is cruel. It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. Undismayed, the woman turns the insult to her own advantage and reminds Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their masters’ table. Wow! That, in effect, is what Jesus says, too. He recognizes that in this foreigner he has found the faith response that he has been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And Jesus assures this giant of faith that she is not a dog but a woman and the crumb she seeks is given to her. Her daughter is healed.

Here is a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. His invitation begins to be catholic and will include tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites. Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love. That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles. If his vision had remained unchanged despite the Canaanite woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of Jesus’ concern.

Dare I ask the question: How Catholic are you? Before you answer, think a moment. Whom do you think should be called to the table? Or, who should be excluded? A great scandal from the Church in various ages including our own is the willingness to exclude. It ought not be the prerogative of any minister to refuse Eucharist to anyone who presents him/herself. I hope we cringe when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated and not just in the south. Harlem had that experience, too. Move beyond racism to any other classifications to which humankind are sorted. With which of these people would you be willing to stand in solidarity at the table? Would the presence of any of them scandalize you?

The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning. Love. Love one another as I have loved you. Love with a love that expresses itself in service. Love with a love that is universal. It is that love that brings the kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom whose coming we pray for each time we pray: Our Father.

Sincerely,

Didymus