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THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 29, 2013

The Book of the Prophet Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The first Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 6:11-16

The holy Gospel according to Luke 16:19-31

 

Have you ever seen someone standing for the proclamation of the Gospel not even cover his mouth as he yawns and then stares off into space as the reading goes on?  He’ll say, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ with the rest of the Assembly and then sit for the preaching.  I always wonder what such a one has heard.  Did any of the words penetrate his consciousness, or was he trying to remember who won the football game?  If we, like the yawner, allow ourselves to drift off, we are not going to hear the Gospel either, or be confronted by it, much less converted by the Word of the Lord.  Perhaps the Assembly instinctively shields itself, lest they, like many in the first audience become angry by what Jesus is saying, the values he confronts.  We shouldn’t forget that Jesus’ story telling so infuriated the establishment that they wanted him dead.  Kill him rather than be changed by him.

The thing is, it is okay to be upset by what you hear as long as you don’t stop there.  Focus on what upsets you.  That will tell you to what you have to die in order to follow Jesus more closely.  Remember, the walk of faith is a life-long conversion process that began at Baptism and won’t be finished until you breathe forth your spirit in peace.  So hang on.  This Sunday could be a rough ride.

The first reading from the Prophet Amos is directed toward the complacent in Zion or Seattle, or Chicago, or New York City or anywhere else the faithful gather.  Complacency is an interesting word.  My dictionary defines it as self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.  Amos addresses those among God’s chosen people who have made it, as we would say today, the elite, the first tier of society.  Never having been on that rung, can I breathe a sigh of relief and watch others squirm?  Probably not.  The elite are the ones who are able to partake of the best that life can offer – the finest meats and wines and surround themselves with the best furnishings that money can by.  They can be artsy and pretentious.  There is nothing particularly sinful about what they are doing.  They might even be thanking God all the while for the good fortune that is theirs, thinking of it all a signs of God’s favor.  Notice that some of what they feast upon ought to be given to God in the temple sacrifice.  (Our tithing applies here.)  Aside from that dereliction, there isn’t anything blatantly sinful in what the wealthy are doing.  So what is it that Amos wants the complacent in Zion to hear in his prophetic message?  That’s the same as asking what God wants the people to hear, by the way.

Think of the two great commandments in The Law.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Jesus linked the two commandments and made them one, making it impossible to fulfill one without fulfilling the other.  Now we see what Amos is announcing.  This people with all their indulgencing in lavishness are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!  Here, Joseph represents all of the people, especially the poor, the widows and the orphans who are supposed to be the objects of their special care.  The rich, in effect, separate the love of God from the love of neighbor, fulfilling one while ignoring the other.  Amos decries the self-indulgence by the wealthy that will bring about the collapse of the nation.  The warning?  The rich will be the first to be led off in exile when the nation topples.  If they are the first, they will be enslaved even before their poor counterparts are led away.  It has been shown historically that Israel was strongest when the people were most committed to living The Law as God’s people.  The nation was weakened when the people became fascinated by the gods of the Gentiles and abandoned The Law.  The people became complacent, unaware of actual dangers and deficiencies.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a rich man, Dives, who with his family feasted sumptuously every day.  He was probably unaware of the physical hazards that came along with that kind of habitual diet.  Those were the days when full figured women and overweight men were signs of prosperity and material success.  It is clear that he was also blind to the moral deficiencies of his lifestyle.

Most often when people hear this parable they assume all kinds of evils in the man’s life.  Read that in, if you will, but there is nothing in the text that would indicate licentiousness.  The only evil Jesus cites in the parable is that the man ignored Lazarus, didn’t even see the beggar at his doorpost.

The scene shifts to the netherworld – Hades, Sheol, or hell in our parlance.  What a different perspective is put before us now.  Lazarus has died and now reclines on the bosom of Abraham, the God figure.  Dives has died also and, from his place in torment, can see the transformed Lazarus.  Abraham informs Dives that he is where he is as a consequence of the life of luxury he lived while Lazarus lived in want.  Even so, notice that Dives has maintained his attitude of superiority over Lazarus.  He asks Father Abraham to have Lazarus tend to his needs.  He wants Lazarus to do his bidding and bring him a sip of water to quench his thirst.  Not possible.  Dives doesn’t realize how deep and how wide is the chasm that separates the two worlds or how permanent is his present situation.

Then comes the only indication that Dives is aware of anyone else in his universe as he asks that Lazarus be sent to Dives brothers to warn them to change their lives lest they suffer Dives’ fate.  But Father Abraham reminds him that they have Moses and the prophets.  They should serve as warnings.  Let them listen to Moses and the prophets and take their words to heart.  Dives says that his brothers may be ignoring all the teachings up to this point in their lives, but they will listen if Lazarus goes to them from his place among the dead.

If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.  And so the parable ends.

Luke’s Gospel was written in light of Jesus’ resurrection.  In effect, Dives’ request of Father Abraham is granted when Jesus triumphs over death and rises to new life.  Someone from among the dead has returned to call people to live a new and different kind of life, a life of justice, love, and peace. As Paul says in the Second Reading.  Will Dives’ brothers listen?  Will they respond?  Will people in every age listen and change their lives?  Will we?

Sunday after Sunday, we come together to listen to Moses and the prophets and to the Gospel in our Liturgy of the Word.  The readings confront us and might unsettle us.  Certainly, they are meant to warn us in a positive way.  Our starving spirits are nourished at the Table of the Word.  As uncomfortable as we might be made by what we hear, we are meant to take the Word to heart and be transformed by it as we are shown time after time that we are called to love God with our entire beings and, our neighbor as ourselves.  There must be more than a notional response.  If Dives had been asked about Amos, or Moses, or any of the prophets, he probably would have said that he accepted the teachings.  He might even have memorized some favorite texts.  But the teachings did not change his heart.  He could love God with all sincerity all the while ignoring the beggar at his doorpost.  We listen to Jesus who has come back from the grave.  He commands us to love God and to love one another as I have loved you.  That love must be practical or it isn’t love at all.

A fairly well known Catholic writer announced that she is giving up being a Christian.  Her reasons are what we would call the sins of the Church, the way the Church is perceived in these times.  Judgmental.  Condemning.  Divisive.  Hierarchical and clerical.  Sexist.  Her words.  It is true that what the woman says is simplistic and un-nuanced.  It is also apparent that she is not turning her back on Christ, but on the Church as she hears what the Church’s message is today.

Pope Francis is challenging the Church to be a poor church serving the needs of the poor.  The ordained should be serving in the midst of the people.  The Church as the Body of Christ should challenge the people of God to work toward justice for the poor and seek a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods.  He has said in effect that the chasm that separates the wealthy nations from the developing nations must be narrowed.  Differences that separate ought not be the primary theme of ecclesial declarations.  Rather, what unites us in God ought to be the proclamation.  When the strangers, rich or poor, regardless of race or creed, male or female, regardless of sexual orientation, when the strangers come among us, the first thing they should experience is God’s love that embraces all, that wills the salvation of all.

So, once again we will go from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  It is a love feast that unites.  Together we will give thanks to God as we renew Jesus’ dying and rising in the Bread that is broken and the Cup that is poured out.  Once again we will take Jesus’ promise to heart that whenever we do this, Christ is present in our midst.  We are transformed just as are the bread and wine.  And, believing the One who has come back to us from among the dead, we are sent to live that reality that is Christ until he comes in glory.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

 

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NO NEED TO FEAR

Think of the scene in the upper room just before the Pentecost event.  Acts tells us that the disciples were gathered there.  The doors were locked out of fear.  It isn’t mentioned, but darkness seems apt, too.  Then their world changes.  The sound of a violent wind blowing is heard.  Fire dances over the disciples’ heads.  And their lives change forever.

Somehow, that imagery seems apt for the whole church these days.  Pope Francis has unleashed a fresh breeze through the windows Blessed Pope John XXIII opened when he summoned Vatican Council II.  Change and the unknown fill some with fear, especially those who found security in what they thought was unchangeable tradition.  They were comfortable in thinking that what was would always be the same.  Familiar was safe.  The unknown fills with terror.  They are like the disciples in that upper room.  This time, though, they might hear the violent wind blowing and see the fire, but they resist unlocking the doors and moving out into the present.

Some caught their breaths right from that first moment Francis stepped out onto the balcony without the customary papal splendor of dress and greeted his brothers and sisters waiting in the plaza and asked them to pray for him.  And for them it has been going down hill ever since.  No more red shoes.  No more living in the papal quarters.  No more aloofness.  Now the pope lives in a simple apartment.  He presides at morning mass with ordinary people and breakfasts with them.  He drives about in an older car.  And, what’s more, it’s rumored he even places phone calls to people who have written to him.

Some wince hearing the pope call for a poorer church that serves the needs of the poor.  He has challenged the ordained to get out a move among the people and learn how they smell.  How dare he tell ordinary people that he is not over them but one of them and equal with them?  The reaction of the naysayers?  They would deny Francis’s papacy and declare the throne to be empty still.  Alas.  So be it.  For them.

For millions of others there is excitement and a renewed reason to hope for the renewal of the church that is emerging from very dark days.  It’s possible, I suppose, to be blind to the reality of the many who have left the church.  It remains true, for example, that the second largest denomination in the United States is Former Catholics.  Some might continue to say that when the exodus finishes the few remaining will make up the true church.  The current empty pews don’t bother them.  Once the church gets back to the Tridentine past, the core group will thrive and continue on their march to heaven, leaving the refuse behind.

There is a basic law in biology that these people ignore.  It has to do with living organisms.  The law says that living organisms evolve and thrive.  If they “devolve,” i.e., if they try to return to what they used to be, they die.  The living church remains rooted in her past, in continuum with the past, but evolves into her future through the wind and fire of each new Pentecost.  That’s what the millions are so excited about in the message they hear coming from Pope Francis.

It is difficult to imagine his being more blunt than he was when he decried the present fixation contra gays and contraception.  If he isn’t in a position to judge gay people who seriously seek God, who is?  Then he dared to opine that even atheists who do good works could be go to heaven.  Again, while multitudes cheered, some gasped in disbelief.  And that’s the point, it seems.  The pope is calling for a church that more obviously preaches the Gospel of Jesus, a church that is forgiving, reconciling, and welcoming.  He seems to want the church to be condemned for the same crime Jesus was: This man (Jesus) welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Unless there is change and renewal, he said, the church could collapse like a house of cards.  That’s being blunt.  Let those who have ears to hear listen!

The Resurrected Lord has words for the fearful disciples then and now.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.  I go before you into Galilee.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Go. Preach.  Baptize.  Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.

We all need to remember that faith is dynamic, i.e., a force that moves us.  Our ancestors in the faith, the first disciples, began the journey and we continue on it – always, until time ends.  The God of our faith defies definition.  The Israelites couldn’t deal with God being  I AM while Moses was away on the Mountain face-to-face with God.  So they built a golden calf.  That their minds could grasp.  The temptation is still to define God so that our minds can contain God.  The truth is that everything said about God is only a facet, not the whole gem.  As sojourners we must let go of what we think is certainty in order to embrace the experience of what is happening now, the unfolding presence of God.

There is a parish not far from where I live.  I ventured there out of curiosity not long ago.  I didn’t weep.  I just wanted to.  The experience was like a time-trip to the past.  The Liturgy, including the language, was as it was when I was a child.  The altar placement, the tabernacle, the communion railing, the hanging vigil lamp, everything was as it used to be in my parish church when I was a child.  And the people were in their proper place, on their knees, many of them with rosary beads in their hands, others with prayer books or missals.  Safe.  Or so they think.

I wanted to shout, “We can’t live in the past of tradition.  Truth remains, but the past is over.”  But I know they wouldn’t hear me.  I would say to the dreamers that we can’t live in the future.  We’re not there yet.  That’s the nature of promise.  We are called to live in the present.  That is where we find God.  And that is where we meet Jesus in flesh and blood.

The pope’s namesake learned that as he began to follow the directive to rebuild my church.  He found Jesus in the leper and in the poor.  He kissed the leper and lived among the poor, counting himself one of them.  Pope Francis is calling the church today to those same understandings.

Let the winds blow.  Let the fires blaze.  And throw open the doors to welcome all.

 

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 22, 2013

The Book of the Prophet Amos 8:4-7

St. Paul’s first Letter to Timothy 2:1-8

The holy Gospel according to Luke 16:1-13

 

We must pay attention to who is being addressed when Jesus tells a parable.  When we are vulnerable before them they always unsettle as they teach aspects of discipleship or attributes of the coming Kingdom.  If Jesus is speaking to the crowds, that is, to those who have not yet decided whether or not they will cast in their lot with Jesus and follow him, those parables usually warn of the cost of discipleship.  After all, Jesus wouldn’t want converts to feel duped when it dawns on them that the way of discipleship can be daunting.  If Jesus is speaking to the disciples, those who have chosen to walk in his ways, as is the case with this Sunday’s Gospel, then he is pointing out aspects or implications of discipleship.  This is how Jesus expects disciples to live out their vocation to follow him.

It is especially important to remember that today Jesus is speaking to disciples, that is, to you and to me, because this parable is among the most problematic of them all.  At first hearing, it might seem that Jesus is praising craftiness, even dishonesty.  The master reprimands the steward, the one left in charge of the estate during the master’s absence, for squandering the master’s property.  This is an interesting choice of words because that was what the Prodigal Son was accused of doing with his inheritance in last Sunday’s parable.  The word means to spend wastefully and foolishly.  In both cases, the foolish spending involved what was entrusted to them.  Ah, but then the master praises the dishonest steward when he acts prudently.

Once the steward has been confronted and an accounting is demanded, he rightly concludes that his station in life is about to be drastically reduced.  Living like one of the entitled one day, he is about to become one of the hoi polloi the next, from prince to commoner, even to pauper.  He recognizes his own limitations, that is, that he can neither be a common laborer, nor can he be one who sits and begs.  His pride won’t allow that.  He determines to ingratiate himself with those who are indebted to the master.  Summoning the debtors one by one before him, he slashes their bills, cutting the master’s profits, and makes it easier for them to repay and so get out of debt.  Some commentators say that he simply removes from the tab what had been added that would come to the steward upon repayment.  That is what tax collectors did to tax bills.  They added to the assessment in order to make their living.

Other commentators say the steward recognized on which side his bread was buttered, as we would say, and reduced what the master could expect to retrieve from his debtors.  It’s possible the master didn’t even know what was owed.  And the steward would do anything to make friends that would receive him in his desperation.

Jesus says that the master commended the steward for his prudence.  He is not being commended for his dishonesty but, recognizing the precarious situation he is in now, he does what he can so that he will have friends once he is thrown out of his position.  Disciples are to be prudent with what has been entrusted to them.  Jesus has entrusted to the disciples the Kingdom.  That means that their living the Good News and imitating Jesus is meant to prepare the way for the Kingdom’s entry into the lives of those they meet.  Disciples should be as determined in their ministry as the steward was in his endeavors.  Of course the obvious difference is that the steward was self-serving.  Disciples are to pour out their very selves in service of others.  This is not so that the disciples will be received into earthly mansions but, at the end of their ministries, they will be welcomed by the poor they have served as they enter the heavenly mansion prepared for them.

Now we hear Jesus’ commentary on the implications of the parable.  The implications have to do with the response to worldly wealth.  Jesus does not condemn wealth.  An axiom in this regard is often misquoted.  It is not money that is the root of all evil; but rather the love of money is that root.  If you are wealthy, what is important is what you do with that wealth.  The negative implications of squandering would apply.  I wonder if the Lord laughs at those who stand outside in long lines and through the darkest and dreariest nights just so that they will be among the first to buy the latest electronic gadget.  Much more encouraging are the news stories about the movement among the billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to dole out the bulk of their fortunes to charity.  Others have followed suit.  And already tremendous differences are being made for many of the most destitute in the world’s population.

It is safe to say that the Lord does expect us to give of our wealth, be it great or meager, expects us to tithe of our wealth to ease the needs of the poor.  We are to recognize our relationship with the poor.  Why else would Pope Francis long to see a poor church in service of the poor?  We ought not miss in Matthew’s judgment scene that the master praises the sheep on his right, for I was hungry and you fed me; naked and you clothed me.

Jesus expects disciples to hold wealth in perspective.  I remember several years ago reading an interview with the late actor, Tony Randall.  He had had a successful acting career and fortune followed.  In the interview, he said that he never wanted to take his wealth for granted nor did he want to think that his success gave him importance.  On those occasions when he thought he was getting a swelled head and was taking himself too seriously, he would journey to some impoverished area, Calcutta for example, and there walk among the poorest of the poor.  This brought him face to face with his powerlessness to do anything to alleviate the situation.  He said if he were to give something to a beggar the rest of the impoverished would throttle the recipient to wrest the pittance from him.  Randall’s interview did not go on to say what portion of his wealth he did give to charity.

Bernie Madoff’s name will live in infamy.  While he is not the only one to plot and become ruthless in his pursuit of worldly wealth, he can stand as the epitome of what the Lord is warning us about regarding succumbing to the love of money.  Of course there is always that possibility that Madoff thought his Ponzi scheme would work.  But it seems his lust for money stifled his conscience as he bilked wealth from friends and strangers and charities alike with the promise that they would see amazing returns from entrusting their fortunes to him.  Turned out in disgrace as he was when the scheme collapsed, and were he not in prison, who would have received him or offered him shelter in his impoverished state?  How different would have been his fate had he been trustworthy and honest in his dealings.  Had fortunes collapsed then, there would have been those to receive him into their homes when his wealth failed.

Remember, it is the poor we serve and to whose needs we contribute that will be the ones to pray in our behalf when they reach the heavenly kingdom before us.  They are the ones that will receive us into glory.  We don’t have to go to the other side of that coin.  We’ll just stay with the positive challenge and its reward.

It is important that we listen to the Prophet Amos in this Sunday’s First Reading.  Amos rages against hypocrisy and against blindness to the needs of the poor.  He is searing in his condemnation of a religious people whose observances of the Law and temple practices are hollow.  They may suspend their dealings for Sabbath observance or for other religious celebrations, but instead of giving praise and honor to God in order to return then to working for justice for the poor, the suspension time becomes one of calculating how to gouge more from the poor for their own profit.  It is chilling when Amos quotes the Lord as saying: Never will I forget a thing they have done!  That should give us pause, don’t you think?

By now, as disciples, we should know from all the emphasis that Jesus places on the embracing of poverty as part of the call of discipleship, that wealth poses a danger for us.  The question to pray about is, what is most important in our lives?  You cannot serve both God and mammon.  My dictionary says that mammon is material wealth having a debasing influence.  There are those people that seem unable to talk about anything else but money, its acquisition, and their unquenchable thirst for more.  It would not be difficult to conclude that what is most important in their lives is money, or mammon.  Where does God come in?  Second place?  Where do the poor come in?  Third place?  We cannot be slaves to wealth and serve God faithfully and strive to alleviate the needs of the poor.

There was an important sign proclaimed when on the night he was named pope, Francis stepped out on the balcony void of the majestic robes of splendor and with simplicity addressed the assembled as brothers and sisters.

So, we come to Eucharist.  The assembly gathers around the table united as the Body of Christ.  Again we give thanks to God.  We renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine.  Christ’s dying is self-emptying.  He gives his body to be eaten and his blood to be drunk by those who stand in need.  In the Communion Procession, we approach with open and empty hands to receive the Bread and to drink from the Cup.  We come in our hunger and poverty to be filled and strengthened so that we can continue to be faithful stewards in service of the Gospel.  We come to be transformed by what we take and eat so that we can be sent to continue to meet the needs of the poor in whom we recognize Christ in his passion.

Christ is the master who has gone on a journey and entrusted to us as stewards the Kingdom.  We pray that when he returns in glory he will find us faithful and trustworthy stewards, not slaves to mammon, but servants of the One who seeks and saves and of the Good News he announces.

Sincerely,

Didymus