Dear Reader,

Mercy was no more a cardinal virtue in Jesus’ time than it is in our own.  That is probably why when a merciful person acts today the result is so newsworthy.  So, too, was it then.

Imagine yourself in that crowd gathered around Jesus, listening to those incredible statements that seem to challenge and contradict every commonly accepted value.  You have heard four stunning statements already; each one builds on the one before.  Who can find it easy to accept that the poor in spirit are blessed or happy?  Where is the joy in mourning?  If you are meek, won’t you get trod upon?  How can those who are hungry and thirsty be happy?  Coming as they do in rapid succession, there is hardly a moment to digest what you hear before you are confronted again with a more demanding attitude that, if accepted, will push power, prestige, and economic success farther from your grasp.  Surely some in the crowd have become restive and want to say enough of this, and so move on.  But others give clear evidence of hanging on every word, especially those who have declared themselves to be disciples of Jesus.  They want to be part of the kingdom they believe Jesus brings.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  If you use a different word, you will come close to what Jesus suggests as a core value of those who will walk with him on The Way.  Blessed are the compassionate.  The word means, to enter into the sufferings of another, or to suffer with another.  That is what God does.  Those of Jesus’ disciples who are compassionate will help others believe this.

What was the common experience of that age?  Frequently in the Gospels, we read of people who cry out to Jesus for pity, even as those around him try to silence the poor.  Lepers were shunned and relegated to the outskirts of town.  Widows and orphans were in constant peril, their survival in danger.  Jesus railed against the Pharisees for their lack of compassionate response, even as they railed in return against Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road nearly dead.  Religious figures, on their way to temple, skirt around the man and continue on their way.  They had to avoid him after all, because if they had come in contact with the man and his blood, they would have incurred ritual impurity and not have been able to enter into worship.  Then comes along a Samaritan.  Had they come into contact with him, they would have met the same result, ritual impurity.  But the Samaritan, not bound by their laws, does not have the same dread.  With compassion, he ministers to the poor wretch.  He binds up his wounds, puts him on the Samaritan’s beast of burden and takes the man to an inn.  He pays for the victim’s stay and time of recovery there.  He promises to pay any overage on his way back.  The Samaritan entered into the man’s sufferings and took them on as his own.

Jesus told the parable as an example to be imitated, a challenge to those scribes and Pharisees who heard him.  It goes without saying that he meant the parable to lodge in the hearts of his disciples, too, and motivate them to the same kind of response to others’ sufferings.

What must be remembered is a mindset of those times, which seems to have survived into our own.  All of the social and physical ills endured by people were deemed to be the God-sent punishment for sins – either of the one suffering, or his parents or grandparents.  That gave the crowds permission to ignore the cries of the poor, much less to respond to their needs.  The blind, the crippled, the lepers – all these are in their desperate condition because of sin, just as all those who are secure and wealthy are in their condition because of their virtue.  God favors them.  Sound familiar?  Don’t we hear that poverty is the poor’s own fault? They wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder?

Jesus challenges those assumptions when he touches and anoints blind eyes with mud made with his spittle; when he touches the deaf ears and puts his fingers into them; when he takes the lame man by the hand and invites him to rise.  In every case, those healed are extolled for the faith that has enabled their being healed.

The new community that Jesus forms will be made up of a different kind of people.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of the New Way.  Compassion will be expected of those who accept the invitation to be disciples.  Be compassionate.  Enter into and take upon yourself the sufferings of your sisters and brothers.  Take up your cross daily and follow.

Compassionate responses may be applauded in the media in our times, but I don’t think that means that compassionate response is the common experience.  How can that be when many in our society, especially those on top, accept that “it’s all about ME?  Children are taught to be competitive from an early age.  Winning is the most important thing.  A moral theologian once said that he believed competition is the source of most of the moral evils of every age.  In a competition someone wins and someone loses, just like in wars.  To teach children to participate in war games, or play them electronically, desensitizes them to the horrors of war.  The same results rise out of the violent video games that have as their goal killing of who or whatever is out there.  Again, the survivor takes all and comes out on top.  Compassion can play no part.  It is kill or be killed.  I find it hard to see that as a Gospel value.  There is a danger in saying that it is only pretend.  Humans, albeit digitalized, are the targets of the bullets and bombs.

Remember the Ponzi scandals of a few years back?  They brought ruin to many individual and charitable investors.  That could not have happened if those who directed the schemes had had compassionate hearts.  The rules in that arena are acceptable only if you accept the Ayn Rand philosophy of “objectivism” that makes the only ethic applicable the one that ensures you come out on top.

When the Nazis set their sights on the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s woes, the first thing they had to do was convince the people of the Jews’ lack of humanity.  How else could a people look the other way during the attempt to exterminate the Jews?  Outsiders could look on and bemoan what came to be called an example of “man’s inhumanity to man,’ a concept that Nazis could not grasp.  The enemy wasn’t human and therefore did not have basic human rights.  They were a scourge on the emerging Third Reich.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful”  The first instinct might be to say, “Thank God. ” Now maybe someone will take pity on me.”  That is not what Jesus is saying.  Rather he is placing the onus squarely on the disciples’ shoulders.  Each one is called to be merciful, to be compassionate, to give of self that others might simply live.

The Eucharist is at the heart of our faith life.  We gather as sisters and brothers, as one people, one family, to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  Jesus promises that when we do this he is present to us.  That is what “Do this in my memory” means.  As important is what happens at the conclusion of the celebration.  Those who have been fed by the Word and by the Eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ by what they had done.  Now they are sent.  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.”  In other words, “God and be Christ’s compassionate presence where ever you go and whatever you do.”  To act in that manner is to exercise the priesthood of the baptized.

Mercy.  Compassion.  Add to those, forgiveness.  Recently I heard a woman give a motivational talk.  She was a woman who has known terrible suffering and grief in her life.  One horrific accident killed her husband and two children.  The driver of the other car was drunk and was killed as well.  There was no minimizing of the burden she had borne in the years since that sad event.  Then there was a stunned silence as she said through a radiant smile that if the man who took her family from here were alive and present she could forgive him and wish him well on his way.  Her faith, she said, demanded that response from her.

Nowhere does Jesus say that being his disciple would be easy.  Why else would he say, “if you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and be my disciple”?  In other words, know what is involved and what is expected before you begin this venture.  Jesus expects disciples to live the Eucharist they celebrate, to allow themselves to be bread broken and cup poured out in compassionate response to all who feel alone and abandoned, wounded and broken, to the refugees from whatever land.  They are all family.  All.  Even the ones we are told to despise.

Sister Helen Prejean responds to this beatitude in her ministry to prisoners on death row.  St. Teresa of Calcutta responded through her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of India.  Hospice workers do the same as they assist the dying so that their dignity is revered to their last moments on this earth.  Those who serve in shelters for the homeless and treat their guests with kindness and respect have taken the invitation to heart.  The same can be said of those who minister to the developmentally disabled and those locked in insanity.  It really doesn’t matter the poverty to which the compassionate respond.  Jesus looks for those who are willing to enter into others’ sufferings as their own.  In the process they will recognize Jesus and experience his mercy and compassion in return.

One final note on this Beatitude: the compassionate response of believers to those who suffer reflects God’s attitude toward us all.  God comes to us as the Samaritan did to the beaten and abandoned man on the road.  God comes to lift us up and share the burdens of our lives, to forgive our sins and support our repentance, and to bring us safely home at the end to be with God forever.  That’s the promise Jesus gives, isn’t it?  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

If only we dare to take Jesus at his word.




THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – March 04, 2018

A reading from the Book of Exodus 20:1-71
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 1:22-25
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 2:13-25

Dear Reader,

In Jesus’s time, it was not uncommon for the lawyers to sit around and argue about which commandment in The Law was the most important.  There was a lot to argue about since what had begun as the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, had morphed into 613 laws in the Torah.  Practically every possible violation via human thought, emotion, or action was covered.  It is one thing to know the law; it is another to embrace it and deem fidelity to it to be the sign of justification that earns favor from the Lord.  The Law can be embraced and so be liberating.  How, you ask?  It all depends on attitude.

The Israelites gloried in the Law as a sign of their being God’s chosen people.  Abiding by the Decalogue would give evidence to the Gentiles that no other people lived in such intimacy with their gods as the Jews did with YHWH.  Theirs is a jealous God who wants a singular place in the people’s devotion.  No other gods, no idols are allowed.  One day of every week, the people are to rest in God and dedicate the day to God.  That dedicated day is the Sabbath.  Dedication makes it a holy day.

There is more to the Decalogue than what governs our relationship with God.  Seven Commandments dictate how the people are to treat each other.  Primacy of concern is given to parents and the honor and respect due to them.  Then there will be no killing, no adultery, no stealing, no falsely accusing a neighbor, nor coveting of house, or wife, or neighbor’s property.  There you have it.  In a nutshell, so to speak.  And there is the problem.  The Decalogue gives us the minimum, the least that is expected.  Alas, so many possibilities are not covered.  What about the minutiae?

Don’t you wonder if scrupulosity plaid a hand in the development of the other 603 laws?  The scrupulous one sees sin everywhere and sees self always sinning.  The word scruple in root means a small sharp stone.  Imagine one in your shoe and you know how the scrupulous conscience works.  Every eventuality must be covered when one does not trust the ability of conscience to decide whether to act or not.  What about this is a constant refrain.  Make the Law an end in itself and it becomes a millstone around the neck, something that imprisons rather than liberates.

That kind of paranoia gives rise to the question: Which is the greatest, or most important of the laws?  Those who wanted to trap him in error questioned Jesus about his opinion.  His answer amazed as Jesus turned the question back on the questioners.  Hear, O Israel!  The Lord our God is Lord alone!  Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Love.  If you love, the minimum is cast out.  Read the Decalogue with that filter, each of the Ten Commandments becomes a love directive.  Hear the difference?  But demanding can’t be the right word since, as the song say, Love isn’t love until you give it away.  Love is freely given and does not look for a return.

That is what St. Paul says in his first Letter to the Church in Corinth in response to the Corinthians’ wondering about the possibility of living this Christian faith.  What is it all about?  Why should they change their ways?  Some of the Jews challenged Jesus for signs and were never satisfied.  The Greeks, living more in their heads, wanted an explanation that made sense.  Paul says: We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (Greeks), but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Power, majesty, exaltation, and all other grandiosities traditionally understood and associated with God must be abandoned as we come to recognize God born in flesh, the one who died for us on the cross, the embodiment of God’s love that sets the standards for all who follow Christ.  It is all about love.

Do you recognize this theme in what Pope Francis continually urges the Church to see?  In imitation of Christ who poured himself out in love, this is a servant Church that gives to the poor primacy of place, a servant church whose leadership shepherds in the midst of the sheep, not over them.  This Church welcomes all and proclaims God’s love for all.  That is not an easy proclamation to hear if you are expecting power to come to you in your role in the Church.

In the Gospel for this Third Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the miracle at the marriage feast at Cana as Jesus enters the Temple area.  So begins John’s telling of the cleansing of the Temple, the sign that is related in all four Gospels.  We see Jesus in a rage, wielding a whip, albeit, his belt, upending the tables of the moneychangers, and releasing the doves and other animals for sacrifice.  What offends him?  The moneychangers were necessary if the Jews were to carry out the prescriptions regarding sacrifice.  Roman coins couldn’t be used because they had Caesar’s image on them.  The animals had to be purchased.  The implication seems to be that the laws governing Temple worship had become ends in themselves and, perhaps, the moneychangers, rather than engaging in a holy work, were dishonest in their dealings, charging too much, weighing the scales.  How can what is happening in the Temple area be construed as signs of God’s desired relationship with the people, and the people’s acceptance of that relationship?  Take these (doves) out of here and stop making my Father’s house a market place.

Two important ideas follow.  First, when Jesus is asked for a sign to justify what he has just done, he says: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.  Those listening took him literally and scoffed because the Temple had been under construction for 40 years and was not complete yet.  Three days from destruction to reconstruction?  How could that be?  But Jesus was talking about his journey that would seem to end with his crucifixion (destruction of his body) but actually would culminate in his resurrection.  Even the disciples who were with Jesus at the time could not have understood what he was saying then.  It was only afterwards, when people announced that the Lord is risen did they remember what he had said and come to believe the Scripture and his word.

Second, notice that some people began to follow Jesus because of the signs.  They are the ones who stand in awe and experience the thrill and wonder of the moment, those with incipient and untried faith.  Alas, it does not last if faith does not go deeper and rest in Christ alone.  It is not a question of wondering what I am going to get out of this.  It is a question of wondering if I can love the way Christ does, if I can let the Spirit lead.

So we continue on this Lenten journey, driven into the desert by the Spirit to be with Jesus and make the comparison.  We fast because there may be a lot of which we must let go.  Sin.  Selfishness.  Self-absorption.  We pray so that we can be open to God’s love and to the Spirit’s ongoing transformation.  God is not finished with us yet.  Ad we give alms, a sign of our desire to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.  Isn’t that what celebrating Eucharist is about?  Our transformation into the Body of Christ and our being sent in a renewed sense of thanksgiving to be bread broken and cup poured out, compelled by the call to love as we are loved.

As I write this, I am aware of the pain that has devastated many, the school massacre in Florida.  The event emerges as a sign of the divisions in our society and the violence that is unleashed daily.  The number of school shootings is deplorable, but so are the cries of those who feel devalued, those suffering the after-effects of harassment and abuse, the #Metoos, and the Black Lives Matter.  Then there are the wars and the catastrophic suffers of innocent men, women and children.

It has always been true, but it seems especially true today.  What the world needs now is love.  The disciples must live the love Christ’s Gospel proclaims.  Love that is expressed in the pouring out of self in service in behalf of the little ones, a love that decries power and self aggrandizement, this love can heal the divisions as together we come to recognize and accept that we are all one family of God.

Don’t worry if you conclude that there is still a lot to be done.  See yourself as a work in progress.  Then imagine what can happen if you let go and let God do it through you.  That is all God asks.




Dear Reader,

The contemporary reader may have problems with this beatitude.  Those who heard it the first time did too, but for a different reason.  The current issue has to do with the word “righteousness,” and that, more than likely, is because of the tendency to hear self-righteous.  We are all familiar with the judgments of the self-righteous, their gratitude that they are not like the rest of people, especially those they are reviling and condemning.  They seem convinced that God is in lock-step agreement with them and just waiting to cast the ones they deplore into hell’s unquenchable flames.

The cause doesn’t matter.  Those opposing it are so invested that there is no room for dialog; anyone who holds they are against is reprehensible.  Politics has moved in this direction.  Conservatives spew vitriol on the liberals.  Liberals do the same regarding the conservatives.  All ought to be embarrassed by the vile things being tweeted, especially as the opinion expressed changes as soon as it is posted.

You may have thought that the days of race riots had passed.  There is ample evidence to the contrary.  White supremacists and neo-Nazis marched proclaiming the United States to be a White country.  Jews and Blacks and Hispanics should leave these shores.  Those demonstrating against bigotry and racism confronted them.  The President said that there were good people on both sides and would not speak against the racist demonstrators.  And the list goes on.

Jesus condemned attitudes like those above that were embodied in the Pharisees who, Jesus said, strained over the speck in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.  It is the judgmental attitude that condemns another’s sin while “understanding” and “accepting” one’s own.

The righteousness for which the blest hunger and thirst for in the beatitude is better translated for us as right relationship, right relationship with God and right relationship with our sisters and brothers in the Lord.  These are the people who long for union with God and for justice and peace in the world.  There is an intensity about them that creates a longing and a willingness to suffer in order to attain what is longed for.  Hunger and thirst.  Human beings need food and drink to survive.  More important for these blest ones is the unitive way, the way that leads to living in the presence of God, embraced by God’s love.  More important than the lavish banquet and the fine wines is the desire to see the oppressed liberated, sexism and racism banished, the impoverished sharing in the goods of the world necessary for their survival.

There is a hymn that achieved secular popularity in the late 1960s and ‘70s.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.”  The hymn is about conversion, about seeing in a totally new and wholesome light an abominable behavior that before the grace was acceptable.  In this instance, the “wretch” had transported enslaved men and women destined for the auction block.  Once grace entered the author’s consciousness, he was never the same and could never accept the institution of slavery again.  But that is not enough to qualify as one of the blest in this beatitude.  It is not enough to find an evil unacceptable.  What must follow is the willingness to do whatever can be done to eliminate the evil.  This former ship’s captain worked tirelessly to bring about the end of the horror.

Dorothy Day was a woman steeped in that same Amazing Grace.  There had been restlessness in her from her youth.  She saw oppression and inequality in society, the downtrodden poor enslaved in poverty, while others lived lavishly.  The way of Communism seemed for a time to be the answer.  She joined the party.  She became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion.  Then she met a man who told her about the Gospel and especially about the Sermon on the Mount.  That is when the grace entered her live, created a longing for God, and empowered her to live the rest of her days in poverty as she witnessed to the dignity of the workers and their worth before God.  She fasted.  She spent a portion of each day in contemplative prayer.  She went to Eucharist every morning.  And she marched for civil rights.  Who can ever forget the picture of the then senior Dorothy Day seated next to Cesar Chavez, peering over her glasses at the baton-bearing policemen who would arrest them for defending the rights of migrant workers?  (Were she alive today, she would be speaking out for the Dreamers and other aliens longing for this country’s freedom.  And she would have something to say about the dignity and worth of other refugees, be they from Mexico, or be they from Muslim countries. )

Saint Dorothy Day?  Not yet.  Some say, never.  After all, she was a sinner in her youth, a Communist who had an abortion.  Surely she wouldn’t get to heave.  Or would she?

The self-righteous might say, “Surely not!”  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would have no problem with Dorothy’s salvation because they recognize that it is all grace.  God’s love is all embracing.  God’s desire is to forgive and reconcile.  St. Augustine knew he was a sinner in his youth and late had he loved God long after God had first loved him.

Righteousness is God’s gift, God’s grace working in the human consciousness that enables those so gifted to see possibilities for peace and justice once they recognize each other as equals before God, all created in God’s image and likeness.  When they see through that prism, then they come to understand that when the stone is thrown, or the bomb dropped, it is Christ who is crucified again in those who are wounded and slaughtered.

So, as you sit at Christ’s feet and hear the proclamation of happiness for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, you have to ask yourself what stirs your passion.  What evils inflicted on others fill you with outrage?  What is it that you long to see?  What transformation do you pray will one day come about?

What I suggest here might not work for everyone.  The bigoted are often blind to the humanity of those they hate.  We tend to think of those enduring the evils that limit and take their lives in terms of statistics.  Millions of people are dying from AIDS in Africa.  At least that was the case when I was in Kenya and Uganda some time ago.  Think of the raves, the destruction and deaths from the hurricanes and storms that ravaged Puerto Rico, Texas, and other parts of our country.  The numbers mount and can move us to some extent.  But put names and faces on those people and we can find ourselves moved to the core.  Look at the effect the diary of a young girl has had on untold millions of readers regarding the evils of anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

My suggestion is to allow yourself to think of the people suffering as members of your family.  Why do you think it is that when we celebrate Eucharist, the central symbols are one Bread and one Cup?  We gather around one Table to share the one Meal.  It is one family gathered at the family table.  As another hymn has it, “We are one body in this one Lord.”

It is to that kind of sensitivity that this Beatitude calls us.  Once awakened, we hunger for the day when our brothers and sisters no longer endure that suffering, the day when the cure for the disease has been found and there is a vaccine to prevent it.  We thirst for the day when the wars will end and peace will reign.  We long for the time when humanity is enough to guarantee the recognition of the shared dignity that God has in mind for us all.  I believe you will realize then how close God is, as you feel secure in God’s embrace.

“Blest are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they shall be satisfied.”  In truth, that is what heaven is all about.