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THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

Luke 12:13-21

I decided to look up the word vanity in my dictionary because I had always thought a better word could be found to put on Qoheleth’s lips for the opening of the reading from Ecclesiastes. What I found was that what I thought was the word’s primary definition, i.e., undue pride in one’s self or appearance, actually was its third meaning.  Qoheleth had it right all along.  Or at least his translators did.  A vanity is something that is vane, empty or useless. That is exactly what Qoheleth is talking about and urging us to recognize in terms of what our hearts’ desires might be.

Perhaps he exaggerates a bit when Qoheleth says, all things are vanity. But when you hear that, his statement certainly gets your attention.  All things are vane, empty and/or useless.  Surely, not all!  From Qoheleth’s starting assumption, all things would qualify as being vane, empty, or useless in the final analysis.  You see, for Qoheleth, a person’s existence came to an end with death.  There was not yet a belief in life after death.  So that is why he would think that all the things with which we preoccupy ourselves in the end come to naught.

From King Midas to Ebeneezer Scrooge to the great Gatsby, our literature is dotted with characters that made the mistake of thinking that wealth was the most important thing to attain in life.  If one were wealthy, one had everything anyone could ever desire and everything else that one might want would follow or could be purchased.  In the materialistic age in which we live there is little that would give us a contrary message.

I am always intrigued with the television commercial that shows people buying this and that with cash and concludes with the statement that for everything else there is MasterCard.  Really?  And when the charges come due, what is the easy spender supposed to do?  Wouldn’t you think that advertisement would ring hollow in the ears of people stung by foreclosures, the ones who had the sorry lesson to learn that just because someone said go for this home that is clearly out of your price range because it could be yours for a minimal down payment and at very low non-fixed interest rate, that would not make that fantasy into reality.  Remember the drop in the market?  The drop in home values?  And the rise of the interest rates?  Home after home went into foreclosure.  And some people lost even the little that they had.  When will people learn that if something is too good to be true, it probably is?  Why didn’t all the people burned in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme pay attention to their first instincts and steer clear of that disaster waiting to happen?  Because Mr. Madoff became the genie in the jug that seemed to say, trust me, it will happen.  Wealth is your wish, isn’t it?  I’ll grant it.

What is the most important thing in your life?  About what does your fantasy life center?  What one thing do you think would make you happy?  Those are really the questions to ponder here as we move toward the gospel reading and listen to what Jesus has to say.  We’re Christians, after all.  We are not like Qoheleth.  We do believe in heaven.

Notice that the one that asks Jesus the question at the beginning of the reading is a person in the crowd, and that he address Jesus as teacher. It is clear that this person is not yet a disciple.  That is what the designation of crowd means and why the person calls Jesus teacher and not Lord. The person in question is clearly impressed with Jesus’ power as a lecturer.  Even the crowds said that this man teaches with authority and not like the scribes.  The person might be contemplating becoming a disciple.  But he is not there yet.  And what follows may or may not help.  All he wants at this point is for the Teacher to help him get from his brother his share of an inheritance.

Jesus calls the person, friend. That would seem to indicate that there have been some previous encounters.  Jesus wastes no time in clearing up erroneous assumptions the person is making.  He is not a judge or arbitrator.  Those are not his areas.  Then with no transition he tries to draw the man to new values and understandings that he must have if he should ever decide to accept Jesus’ invitation to be with him on the way.  Be careful to guard against all greed. Notice: ALL greed.

This is not the first time Jesus has talked about this issue, and he has done it by way of highlighting the importance of poverty in the life of a disciple.  The invitation is always to sell possessions, give to the poor, and then follow.  We know that some people followed Jesus because they thought he would be the source of security in their lives.  There are some today who preach wealth and security coming from acceptance of Jesus in your life.  And they take the line from last Sunday’s gospel as the basis of their assumption: Ask and you will receive. Some so-called mega-churches thrive on that gospel.  I have to confess, that line of preaching has never made much sense to me.  I’ve always heard the promise of the cross if one follows Jesus, the cross that leads to eternal life.

Guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions. I remember many years ago, sitting by a man lying in a hospital bed and I listened to his grief.  Tears flowed down and he made no attempt to wipe them.  He had just received a diagnosis that said his life was drawing to a close.  There wasn’t much time left for him.  But that is not what he was weeping about, at least not directly.  He talked about wasting his life, about being a high-functioning A-personality.  His whole life had been about his work and amassing the fortune that came as a result.  Yes, he had been married.  Yes, he had children, but their relationships were distant and strained.  He knew why, because he had never had time for them.  It was always next year when he might be able to take a vacation and they would be able to do things together.  That next year never arrived.  He missed their games and their other significant moments and all the while told them that he loved them.  He made sure that they went to Mass every Sunday.  That was one thing he could brag about.  But that was about all.

And his wife?  She endured the marriage by finding other people and activities to occupy her life.  She loved and cared for the children and often said that she was representing him at their functions.  Then she always added: You know your father loves you very much. After years of that she stopped and just was present for their important times.  They never divorced.  But, he said, their marriage should have been so much more.  And now, this.  Chilling words came next.  Well, at least they will have an inheritance.

That man was not unlike the man in the parable Jesus then told about the one with the bountiful harvest, so bountiful that his present barns could not hold it all.  It seems laughable to think that one would tear down the existing structures to build larger ones to accommodate the reaping.  But that is what he does and concludes that when all is stored he will have arrived and have nothing more to worry about.  Now I have many good things stored up for many years. Now he can rest, eat, drink, and be merry.  Don’t you wonder whether, if the man in the parable had been successful, after it had all been gathered into the new structures, would even that have been enough?  I wonder if he wouldn’t start fantasizing about next year and the possibility of an even bigger crop.

That’s not an option in the parable, though: You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you. To whom will all you have gathered go then?  And, how is your relationship with God?  That is really what the parable asks.  In the end, what is important is the condition of one’s relationship with God?  What role did faith play in that life?  He might have been too busy to pray.  And there is no indication in the parable that the man thought about sharing his wealth with others.

I was impressed by a discussion with Bill Gates, Jr. I was privileged to hear.  One of the riches men in the world talked about his mother and how much of her life was taken up with philanthropy.  On the day of his wedding his mother told him and his new wife, Melinda, that the important thing wasn’t how wealthy they became, but what they did with their wealth to ease the sufferings of the poor.  Gates’ mother died of cancer a few months later.  But he never forgot what she had told him.  It is amazing the difference the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making in this country and in African nations.  Then I read that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, another wealthy billionaire, together have started a campaign to urge other billionaires to give a good portion of their billions to charity.  And several of them apparently have committed themselves to doing that.

You may not be a billionaire or even consider yourself wealthy.  In terms of the vast numbers of the impoverished in the world, you and I are.  I try not to whine about what I do not have and rejoice in what I do.  The next step is to determine what I want to do with what I have.  Dare we ask God what God would have us do with what we have?

We must listen to Paul’s words in the second reading: Brothers and sisters, if you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Don’t you pray that there is some tangible evidence that that is what you are doing?  I know that I do.  And I will pray more about this.  Will you?

Don’t be afraid.  The Lord is with you, after all.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Genesis 18:20-32

Colossians 2:12-14

Luke 11:1-13

He asked me if I prayed.  What an odd question, I thought.  I’m a seminarian, aren’t I, preparing to be a priest.  So I said, Of course, I pray. But my confessor persisted and asked: How?

I never forgot that evening of spiritual direction.  The how question threw me.  I stammered and finally came up with the rosary and some other prayers that I had memorized and now said frequently.  It became clear that my answer was not satisfactory.  That sounds like sitting down with a friend and the only conversation you have is from someone else’s prepared text.  Would you do that? I realized then that I didn’t know the first thing about prayer, that when I prayed I always used someone else’s words, even the Hail, Mary, but never spoke from the heart.  That’s what my confessor told me I ought to try.  Speak from your heart!

It is many years later as I write this to you.  And over those years I have struggled with the art of praying, if you will, and have come to the conclusion that praying is much more about being silent than it is about saying words.  When you are in the presence of someone you love, someone who has been a part of your life for some time, a test of the solidity of the relationship is whether or not you are comfortable with silence.  Does one of you have to be talking all the time?  Or, can you just be in each other’s company knowing that you are with someone you love and someone who loves you in return?

Do you pray?  If the answer is yes, then my next question is the same one that was asked me: How? Think about that for a few moments before you continue with this.  Think about that as you listen to this Sunday’s first reading and the gospel.

Could you imagine yourself in a conversation with God similar to the one Abraham has with God in the first reading?  Don’t miss the gravity contained in the first sentence.  Something terrible has been going on in Sodom, a sin that results in cries to God of outrage.  Sodom’s sin is serious.  We probably would use the term mortal sin for what was going on there.  God is moved by the cries and comes down from heaven to see what is happening there.  You mustn’t lose sight of that as you read or hear what follows.

This scene takes up right after the dinner that Abraham had prepared for the three visitors.  Two of the three are walking toward Sodom, when God stays behind to engage in conversation with Abraham.  Obviously Abraham is comfortable talking with God.  He asks God if it is God’s intention to annihilate Sodom and all its inhabitants, guilty and innocent alike.  If God did that wouldn’t people change their opinion about God, seeing God then as vengeful and forbidding?  Abraham puts it before God that surely God would spare the city for the sake of fifty innocent people.  God agrees that the city would be spared for the sake of the fifty if there were fifty innocent.  Abraham lowers the number, time after time, and each time God agrees that the city would be spared for that number, too.  Finally, Abraham asks if God would spare the city if there were only ten innocent people there.  And once again, God says that the city would be spared even for the sake of the ten.

Abraham persisted in prayer.  That’s what the conversation with God was, after all, intercessory prayer.  God responded favorably to Abraham’s pleas for Sodom.  That is where the reading ends.  If you go to Genesis and read what follows you will find out that there mustn’t have been even 10 innocent ones because Sodom is destroyed.  Knowing that doesn’t seem necessary for the theme of perseverance in prayer we are going to hear again in the gospel.

Jesus is a man of prayer.  Often he went off by himself to spend long periods of time in prayer.  On occasion he spent the whole night in prayer.  Prayer usually preceded major turning points in his public ministry.  There must have been something fascinating about the sight of Jesus caught up in the prayer moment because, after watching him, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.

Jesus responds by teaching them the themes that should be a part of their prayer, what they should have in mind whenever they pray.  In Luke’s Gospel, the themes emerge as a modified Lord’s Prayer.  In reality, Jesus is telling the disciples what should be part of every prayer they pray.  It is clear that Jesus wants the disciples to remember to whom it is that they are praying.  When you pray, say: Father. This is the relationship that Jesus wants the disciples to remember that they have with God.  Father speaks volumes about God’s attitude toward the one who prayers.

I remember a holy man telling me once about Baptism.  We were standing near a Baptismal Font.  For a moment we were mesmerized by the sound of the water cascading into the pool.  Neither of us wanted to break the spell.  After a few minutes had passed, he said to me: Beautiful, isn’t it?  Imagine the centuries the font has been a symbol of hope and new beginning for our church, both a womb and a tomb.  Do you know what I believe?  When the newly baptized emerges from the font where s/he has died to sin and put on the new life in Christ, God loves that one with the same love God has for Christ.  In fact, I wonder if God can tell them apart. Every time I am near a font I remember that conversation.  And being one of the baptized, I try to believe what he said.  That’s what Jesus meant when he said: When you pray, say, Father. We should go before God with the confidence that a child has in his/her father.  Can you really believe that God loves you that much?  If you can, why are you afraid? That is how our conversation at the font ended.  And when I am afraid, I still wonder why.

Jesus came as the full revelation of God, to bring God’s love and mercy to all.  His desire was that all people would hear him and believe, and, in hearing and believing, accept the relationship with God.  We ought to stand in awe before God.  God is a god of majesty, wonder, and power, the creator of the universe, the God who created humankind in God’s image and likeness. And God is the one who asked us to let God be our God.  Hallowed be (God’s) name. Jesus wants all who hear him to accept the reign of God in their lives.  That’s what we pray for when we say: Your kingdom come. May all people come to know God and live as God’s people.  That is God’s Kingdom, God’s reign begun here on Earth.

Give us each day our daily bread. That means that we are supposed to pray for what we need each day to survive.  There is nothing here about excess.  There is nothing here about praying to win the Lotto, or a football game, for that matter.  God is the one from whom all blessings flow.  When we sit to table and prepare to break bread, as we gaze at the bounty before us, we should see evidence of God’s bountiful love for us.  It’s not a bad idea to pray before the meal begins and give thanks, not only for the meal, but for the grace that brought together those with whom you are eating, making them family and friends.  All is blessing.  Our prayer ought to include all those who live in poverty and lack even the essentials.  We ought to pray that our awareness of God’s bountiful love will inspire those with plenty to share with those without.  There is no reason why anyone should die of famine.  The sad thing is, it is the desire for profit that gets in the way.

Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone in debt to us. It amazes me that people do not struggle with this theme of prayer.  There are times when I hope that God will be more generous in forgiving me than I am in coming to forgiveness.  I think of people who have exhibited extraordinary grace in forgiving.  Parents who have forgiven their children’s killers.  People who have forgiven those who have defrauded them of their savings.  Survivors who forgave those who held them in captivity in prison camps and killed their families and friends in the gas chambers.  Each time I read a story like that I wonder: Could I have done that? And when I struggle to find the way to forgive I pray that the Lord sees my struggle and will grant me the grace to be able to do it – someday.  I also believe that some things God expects of us can only happen with grace.  That is why Jesus bathed us in the Spirit.

And do not subject us to the final test. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, during the final moments of his agony on the cross, will be our supreme example of the application of this theme of prayer.  Hanging on that gibbet, his life’s blood draining from him, and threatened by the darkness enveloping him, Jesus cries out: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus leaps into the chasm that is that darkness confident that the Father will rescue him and raise him up.  He triumphed in the final test.  Each one of us will have a final moment.  We will be suspended between time and eternity.  If only our final breath can be like Jesus’ and, confident that we are God’s beloved, in our dying moment, take that final leap of faith.

The little parable that Jesus tells following his outline of prayer doesn’t need much comment.  It is pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to understand that if a friend can beseech a friend for a favor at an inconvenient hour and, persevering, have that favor granted for friendship’s sake, how much more will God, who loves us as God loves Christ, out do even our best friends in generosity if we persevere in prayer.  But wait a minute.  Again, it is clear that this generosity is not about things.  How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask God? This is about praying for the gift of faith, the grace to believe what our prayer should be about.  Jesus is telling us that whether we are experiencing times of powerful temptation to go against God’s will for us, or whether we are in that final moment we spoke of above, God’s love will embrace us, strengthen us, and, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s influence, we will be strengthened to be faithful and trust in God’s mercy to the very end – if we pray for it.

A final note: We could come to the wrong conclusion on the basis of the final paragraph of this pericope.  Jesus says that everyone who asks, receives, and the one who seeks, finds. The same is true for those who knock.  This is true when we are praying for those things that should be constant themes of our prayer.  Our challenge is to trust that God, who knows our needs better than we do, will provide what is necessary for our salvation.  And God knows that even before we ask for it.

Maybe that is why silence becomes such an important part of prayer.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT (Against Anger)


(Continued)

Against Anger

The Commandments are one thing.  The new Way is quite another.  The Law says, “You shall not commit murder.”  We know what murder is, the taking of another’s life.  Some would immediately put qualifications on the commandment and say, “You shall not commit murder, except under these circumstances or conditions.”  And those circumstances or conditions usually have to do with provocation.  It’s murder only when the victim has done nothing to merit the killer’s blow.  Killing is the extreme reaction to offensive behavior.  Everything short of that is understandable and can be justified.  Or so many would like to think.

The Sermon on the Mount is an outline of how life is to be lived in the Kingdom that Jesus is initiating.  He is the authoritative teacher, promulgator of the New Way.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of the Christian Way.  Jesus’ authority is quite clear in the present context.  You have heard the commandment imposed on your ancestors, he says.  Moses brought that commandment from God to the people and imposed it as a sign of the covenant between God and the people.  God is the author.  Keeping the commandments would ensure right order in society, reverence and respect for God, reverence and respect for each other.

Jesus does not do away with the commandments, as we saw earlier in our discussion about the Law.  What he does do, however, is speak in the first person and widely expand what should be included under that law.  What I say to you is that far more than murder is unacceptable in this faith community.  In the process of salvation, Jesus is reordering creation and clarifying the implications of living as children of God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.

More than murder is forbidden here.  So are anger and abusive language.  Before we go further, there is one important idea we need to post.  There is such a thing as just anger that is not forbidden by this new commandment.  Jesus’ own actions attest to this.  Think only of his fury as he made a whip out of his belt and drove the moneychangers from the temple.  The justification for his rage?  “My father’s house is a house of prayer; you have made it a den of thieves.”  And the Gospel says, “Zeal for his father’s house consumed him.”  Anger is an appropriate response to injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable.  Anger compelled Mahatma Gandhi, albeit, non-violently.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was angered by the treatment of his Black brothers and sisters.  His anger compelled him to lead marches.   Apartheid angered Archbishop Desmond Tutu and compelled him to work for conciliation.  So, there are situations and conditions that warrant anger.  A license to kill does not follow.

Jesus addresses the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, to those who have begun to commit themselves to him and are acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and even Lord.  He is telling the disciples how they are to conduct themselves in this emerging community in which all are brothers and sisters.  Killing a brother or sister is reprehensible.  Jesus says that hating a brother or sister merits the same consequence, damnation.  The one who hates deems the other to be loathsome, abominable, and detestable.  One cannot have such an attitude toward a brother or sister, a fellow member of the community.  So, then, whom can one hate?  It won’t be long before Jesus bans hatred, or so it would seem.  You’ve heard the admonition: “Love your enemy.  Do good to those who hate you.”  In the abstract, you might think that it is not all that challenging to banish hatred from your life.  But put a face on the “enemy” and see him or her as the one who has done something despicable to you, ruined your life, or absconded with your spouse or your life’s savings.  Could you wash that person’s feet?  Jesus would.  He exchanged a kiss with Judas, after all.

I have heard it said that soldiers in the battlefield must dehumanize the enemy before they can kill them.  They don’t see the faces or know the stories and families of those at whom they hurl the grenades or shoot the guns.  They have to make faceless the one at whom they aim.  They see a moving target and a generic enemy.  Part of post-traumatic-stress disorder can rise from the realization that the one killed had a name and a wife or husband and had children.  Every person is made in the image and likeness of God.  That can be difficult to live with for one who has killed another.

Before we can kill, we must demean.  The aborted fetus is not fully human, or if allowed to mature will be an unwanted burden on the mother or a too painful reminder of a romance gone badly.  Those promote euthanasia who see the elderly and disabled as burdens without merit.  Because they cannot fully function they are not fully human and do not have the right to life.  Capital punishment allows us to kill those deemed corrupt and to have merited death for whatever crimes we think warrant death as retribution.  Of course the slippery slope here is that once one class of persons’ right to life can be taken away, the rights of all are in peril.  Remember the Holocaust.  The Nazis felt justified in purging their society of the Jews because, they said, the Jews were responsible for all the ills that plagued Germany.  Nothing unites people more closely than a common enemy.  The goal became to purify society and restore the Arian race to its rightful primacy in the hierarchy of beings.  The pestilence afflicting the people gradually expanded to include the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the disabled and mentally ill, and on and on.  Jesus says demeaning your brother or sister is forbidden and tantamount to killing with the same punishment.

It was jealousy between brothers that caused the first murder.  Cain killed Abel because God seemed to favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s.  Jesus inaugurates a new society where brothers and sisters live in unity and peace because that has been God’s intention from the beginning for the human family.  Brothers and sisters take pride in each other’s accomplishments and are not threatened by abilities that one has and another lacks.  Each individual is uniquely gifted.  One gift does not negate another.  Think of Paul’s litany of gifts in the First Letter to the Corinthians that make up the human body and the body that is the church.  Different gifts but the same giver, Paul says.  That “giver” is God.  And when those different gifts are supported and encouraged how powerful becomes the body and how apparent is the God in whose image the humans are made.

So it seems clear that Jesus is saying to his disciples that they can never be content with dissention in the community.  Disciples can never accept fractured relationships.  Because someone offends does not mean that he or she can be shunned or exiled from the community.  The grace of repentance is always available.  And so Jesus admonishes the offender, the one who caused the breakdown, to have as his or her first priority to make amends and seek reconciliation.  This obligation comes before the obligation to worship God.  If the person is on his way to temple with the elements of sacrifice in hand, Jesus says to tend to first things first.  Reconcile and then offer the sacrifice.

We live in a litigious society.  Every year a list of the top ten silly suits that were successful for the one suing are posted, begun when a woman was awarded a huge amount because she spilled her coffee on herself and was scalded by the “too-hot” coffee.  Mac Donalds had to pay big time.  Laugh though we might, Jesus is saying that this is not acceptable practice in the community he is initiating.  The urgency ought to be to settle outside of court and not waste time in litigation.  Reconcile, reach a settlement and go on to buildup and strengthen the faith community.  Then you can return to worship.

It is not by accident that our liturgy begins with the Penitential Rite wherein we call to mind our sins and, recognizing that there is no such thing as a private sin that does not weaken the whole assembly, we ask pardon of God and of our neighbor before we enter into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Then, do not miss the significance of the greeting of peace that precedes the Communion Procession.  What we are celebrating is the reconciliation that is necessary to heal the breaches in our society.  Only then can we approach the Table and partake of the One Bread and the One Cup that sacramentalizes our unity with Christ and one another.  It is Mystery that we celebrate, and it is all grace that we must put into practice.

One bread, one Body, One Lord of all/

One cup of blessing which we bless/

And we though many throughout the earth/

We are one Body in this one Lord.