Twenty-Eighth Sunday: The Body of Christ

2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

This Sunday’s Gospel is a little complicated.

On one level, the story is easy to follow.  Jesus heals ten lepers.  Only one comes back.  “Your faith has saved you.”  A good homily could be given on that level.

But the complication begins with the difference of that one leper.  All ten had cried out, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!”  Normally, that seems to be all it takes for him to say, “Your faith has saved you.”  For example, in the next chapter, the blind man will say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus will say, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (or “saved you,” or “healed you”: it’s all the same in the Greek).  But here, he says that only to the leper who returns.

***

It’s all about geography.  Our reading begins, “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem”—the organizing theme of Luke’s Gospel—“he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Galilee is the north, Samaria is the middle, Judea, with Jerusalem, is the south.  The first half of Luke’s Gospel, and the early chapters of Jesus’s life, are in the north, in Galilee. 

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The turning point of Luke’s Gospel is Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”: he heads south. The very next verses say, “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.  But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” 

His journey begins by entering Samaria.  The Samaritan religion was a variant of Judaism that didn’t recognize Jerusalem, but held onto the older tradition: before David built Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple, the previous version of the Temple, the wandering Tabernacle, had been kept in the central plains.  Samaritan means “the keepers”; the Samaritan version of Judaism guarded that older tradition, in defiance of David and Solomon’s Temple. 

It’s funny, then, that this Sunday our reading begins, “he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  Galilee should have been left behind.  I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that Luke is drawing our attention to this journey.  But I do notice: Jericho, to the east of Jerusalem and on the Jordan river, is also the route to Jerusalem that Galileans used to avoid going through Samaria.  Maybe Luke is thinking of Jericho again?

***

The next appearance of Samaria was in the chapter after he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  Jerusalem is in the mountains.  You always “go up” to Jerusalem.  This man was leaving—on that Galileean road.

So was the priest who passed him by.  With the Levite who passes him by, it is unclear, except that it says he did “similarly” to the priest.  And it’s very clear: priests and Levites do their work in Jerusalem.  They work in the Temple.

But the Good Samaritan is just “travelling.”  It doesn’t say he was “going up” or “going down,” but it’s interesting that the priest and the Levite have their backs to Jerusalem.  Interesting, too, that when the Good Samaritan takes the man to an inn, the Greek word is literally, “a place that receives all people.”

***

The third time Samaritans appear in Luke’s Gospel is in our reading this Sunday.  The lepers “stood at a distance,” because they were following the Law: leprosy is contagious, and lepers were supposed to keep far away.

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Jesus follows the Law on this, too.  He does not lay hands on them.  With the blind man in the next chapter, “Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him.”  But with the lepers, he does the opposite: he tells them to go away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” 

He is following the Law in a second way.  The Law requires those who are healed of leprosy to have their healing confirmed by the priests.  And the priests are now in Jerusalem.  He is sending the lepers to Jerusalem.

The one who returns is a Samaritan, someone who doesn’t believe in Jerusalem. 

***

“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—the word for thanks is eucharist.  Jesus said in reply, “. . . Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks?”

Our first reading is Naaman the Syrian, another foreign leper.  That story too is earthy, geographical: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”  The waters of the Jordan heal him.  He takes two mule-loads of earth home with him so he can worship on holy ground.

Our second reading, from Second Timothy, shifts from land to the body of Jesus, “raised from the dead, a descendent of David.”  Salvation is “in Christ Jesus.”  “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.”

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Jesus is the new temple, the new Jerusalem.  The place of worship matters.  We need to go up to the Temple.  God is everywhere, but we meet him by going to the place where he chooses to reveal himself to us.  The Samaritan is wrong to deny Jerusalem, so important to Jesus—but also right to replace Jerusalem with the higher temple of Jesus’s body. 

Jesus removes the ethnic attachments of Israel.  You don’t have to be born of Israel to come to the Temple.  But you do have to go to the Temple.  Just as Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, we have to go to Jesus.  We don’t eucharist just anywhere, but at his feet.

Does your religion ever get disembodied?  Could you be more Christ-centered?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Fake Love

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

One of the main features of Luke’s Gospel is his collection of moving parables.  This week we get the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The first two readings prepare us.  The prophet Amos is writing just before the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered.  He says, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”  They are comfortable in their riches.

“Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!”  I think there is a double entendre here.  In the prophet’s present, Joseph refers to the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons), the first and the final of the northern tribes to be conquered.  But in history, it also refers to the poor brother sold into slavery.  Amos argues that Israel will be conquered because they don’t care for their poor brothers. 

“Like David, they devise their own accompaniment” on the harp: metaphorically, their actions form the accompaniment of their affections.  Complacent hearts bear fruit in complacent lives.

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Against that complacency, our final reading from First Timothy says, “pursue righteousness.”  Paul reminds us that God gives life, and that Jesus gave testimony—two ways of saying we should be active, not complacent—and then points to the fulness of the commandments.

He concludes by reminding us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the King of Kings, whose Lordship we must recognize—and contrasts that to the God in “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.”  Its like Paul’s version of what First John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  It makes no sense to call God, or Jesus, Lord, if it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.

And it points us forward, to Matthew 25, “when did we see you hungry?”, and to Luke’s more colorful version of the same parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus.

***

Where Matthew 25 moves directly from our treatment of the poor to our judgment when Jesus comes again, Luke’s version dwells in the human relationships.

The rich man has purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously every day.  But he doesn’t have a name.  He is depersonalized by his wealth.

The poor man has a name.  Lazarus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar (or El-azar): God helps.  He looks to the crumbs that fall from the man’s table, while sickness oozes from his own body.  I always thought the dogs who licked his wounds were humiliating him, but I wonder if they are his only friends.

The poor man’s death is rich in relationships.  The angels carry him, to the bosom of Abraham.  I can’t find any other places where heaven is described this way—the parable is making a point about how relational heaven is.  It’s not just individuals floating in the ether with a depersonalized God.  Heaven is family. 

Luke says that the poor man and the rich man see their fortunes reversed.  But that reversal is not the whole story.  It’s not just that accounts are balanced.  It’s their quality of relationships that brings about the reversal.  Lazarus isn’t in heaven because he’s poor, but because he leans on God.

***

The story takes a sophisticated turn when we see the rich man in hell.  Again, we are not told directly why he is in hell—but it plays out in the story.

“Father Abraham,” he calls.  A great theme of the Gospel is what it means to be a child of Abraham.  Many of the Jews think it is their birthright.  Jesus proclaims it a matter of faith.  The rich man has one, but not the other.

In our translation, Abraham says, “My son.”  But it’s important that he doesn’t say “my.”  He doesn’t recognize him as a true son of Abraham.  He just says, “child”—who knows whose child.

The rich man is pretending to have a relationship he doesn’t have.

***

Then he pretends to have another relationship.  Again trying to call Abraham “father,” he says, “I have five brothers.”  No surprise, he asks that Abraham make Lazarus his messenger boy, to warn his brothers.  He cares, he says, about them, while instrumentalizing Lazarus.

But how often Jesus tells us that it is no love to love only those who give to you.  If the rich man had no concern for Lazarus at his gate, Abraham is not impressed by this “love” for his brothers. 

And we learn something about them: they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets.  That means, first, that they aren’t true children of Abraham; they may have his blood, but not his faith.  And it means, second, that they too are ignoring the call of Moses and the prophets to love your neighbor and care for the poor. 

In short, Abraham calls him out on false love.  It’s easy to say we love others.  But the Gospel calls us to a more radical love. 

And so too, Abraham says at the end, it’s easy to say you believe in the resurrection of the dead.  But true faith means hearing the call of the Gospel and the call of the prophets, which includes the cry of the poor, and the call not just to love those who are convenient, but to love with the heart of Jesus.  Only that love can welcome us into the family of heaven.

How do you fake love?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cheat the World

Matthew’s Gospel has the famous story of the talents: those who make money get more.  To contradict a worldly interpretation of that parable, Luke’s Gospel gives a very different version, which we read this Sunday.

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Our first reading, from the Prophet Amos, sounds the theme: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”  Interesting that they ask, “When will the new moon be over . . . that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?”  They observe the Law.

But they also say, “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!”  They cut corners.  They “buy the lowly for silver.”  And “The Lord has sworn . . . Never will I forget a thing they have done!”  Maybe we should start worrying about the way we do business.

***

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Our Gospel immediately follows last Sunday’s Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells the story of a steward getting fired “for squandering his property.”  His solution is to squander it more: “How much do you owe my master?”  “One hundred measures.”  “Quickly write [a new bill] for fifty.”  To get his employer’s debtors to “welcome me into their homes,” he helps them cheat his employer.  Pretty rotten. 

And somehow, Jesus says we should copy that conniving steward.

The key verse might be the one right after our reading ends.  Next week we will read Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  But we skip five verses between that story and this one.  The first of those verses says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”

In last week’s Gospel, he told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—and the celebrations when they were found—to contradict the Pharisees’ scandal at him welcoming sinners.  But all of those stories leave us open to thinking that the real goal is to have prosperous farms, money, and parties.  We, who are like the Pharisees not only in our lack of mercy but also in our love of money, might get the wrong idea.

So Jesus launches into this story, and next week’s, about the Rich Man and Lazarus.

***

Here’s the moral Jesus draws from this strange story of the dishonest steward: “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

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It’s one of Jesus’s weirder analogies, but it works: We are the dishonest steward.  The boss is this world.  He is going to fire us; he rejects us; he does not care for us; he will not provide for us, he will fail us. 

And so like the dishonest steward, we should cheat him right back.  Waste his money.  Deny his values.  Take his wealth away from him and use it for better things.  Serve God, not mammon.  Use the things of this world, not to grow richer in this world, not to impress the boss who will fire you.  Use the things of this world, as the dishonest steward did, saying, “I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes”—or rather, as Jesus later explains, “into eternal dwellings.” 

Focus not on what the world wants.  Cheat the world, and do what God wants.  That means, for example, caring for the Poor Man Lazarus.  It means that instead of cutting corners and trampling on the needy, you give and don’t count the cost.

***

“What is exalted among men,” Jesus says, in the second verse between this week’s reading and next’s, “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Live by a different standard.

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The fifth and last verse we skip is Luke’s only treatment of divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”  All the strength and punch of Jesus’s teaching.  But Luke cuts it down, and puts it in a different context.  What does it mean to live Jesus’s teaching on marriage?  It means rejecting worldly standards.  You can better understand what he says about marriage, Luke thinks, if you learn not to be worldly about money.

Our reading from First Timothy adds a parallel about government.  “There is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  So approach even government, not with worldly perspectives—not with tribalism, not with attempts to get more money or honor or whatever for you and yours—but with a desire for unity, working for peace and quiet, not for war.

It’s not enough to follow the Law—observing the sabbath, or avoiding adultery, and then looking for how you can cheat your neighbor to get more money.  Jesus calls us to a new standard.  Subordinating our financial life to that standard is a good start in living a truly converted life.

Where could you cheat the world by being kinder?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Action of the Father

This Sunday we read—again: we read it during Lent, too—the magnificent story of the Prodigal Son.  But the context of the story, at the opening, is the Pharisees and scribes complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

We can think about this in terms of action and passivity.  Jesus seems to his critics to be too passive, as if he doesn’t care.  His answer is that they don’t understand just how active the Father is.

***

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We start with Moses arguing with God over the Golden Calf.  God tells Moses his plan “that my wrath may blaze against them to consume them.”  It often seems to us that God is active in punishment, and passive in relenting.  Because Jesus is not destroying sinners, he seems to be at odds with this active God of the Old Testament.

That wrath is real.  There is punishment.  But the surprising thing we learn is that punishment is God’s inactivity.  Salvation is his activity.

In our story, God has already acted to save them.  But they choose to worship a molten calf—which is dumb.  For God to ignore them is to leave them alone in the desert, worshiping a god who cannot save.  What we call, and experience as, wrath, is the misery that will happen if God does not save us.  Punishment happens when God is not active.

Instead, Moses reminds God of his promises.  God has acted to make those promises, and God has promised to act.

***

We begin three weeks reading First Timothy.  Paul begins by talking about God’s mercy toward him, which has rescued him, not from Egyptian slavery or the desert of Sinai, from from blasphemy and arrogance.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” to get us out of this mess. 

It seems ironic that Paul ends this touching discussion of God’s mercy and our sin with a benediction that sounds cold: “To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever.” The link is action.  God is not weak, he does not fail, he does not flop.  He is the strong God—the God of salvation.

***

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Jesus warms to his theme with two short parables.  He takes from Matthew the story of the man looking for his sheep—acting!  He adds to Matthew’s version the action of laying the sheep on his shoulders, and then calling together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. 

Then the story, unique to Luke, of the woman looking for her coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps, searches carefully—then calls together a celebration. 

He is turning inside-out the perception of the Pharisees.  They think he allows sinners to come because he is passive.  He describes himself as the most active.

***

And consider the father’s action and the sons’ passivity in the Prodigal Son. 

The Prodigal demands—what the Father has earned.  And the Prodigal wastes.  Action?  Of the lowest kind.

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A famine comes.  From the Prodigal’s perspective, the famine is the non-providence of God, God the Father not taking care of him.  But we can see that God was caring for him.  Contrast the Prodigal’s behavior, which is busy but accomplishes nothing, with God’s behavior, which is slow and steady, and accomplishes much.  Which one is really active?

We can see more about the Prodigal by looking at his Elder Brother.  They are opposites in way, to be sure—but also similar. 

The Elder stands outside, refuses to enter the house.  When the Father comes to him, the Elder says, “not once did I disobey”—a very inactive way to respect his Father.  And he says, “You never gave me” (an accusation of inaction) even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” 

The Father says, we feasted together.  The Elder’s accusation is not that he didn’t eat well.  His accusation is that the Father didn’t help him wander off.  The Father wanted him close. 

So too the Prodigal, who cares for his Father only so far as he can take stuff and leave.  When he returns, he is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” but only so that he can get bread, like those who are not sons.  How richly ironic is statement, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  He doesn’t care about being a son; doesn’t care about the richness of that relationship; doesn’t care about the intense action, in this parable and in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, of celebrating together.  He confesses his sin only because he doesn’t mind sacrificing his relationship so that he can sit outside and eat.

***

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But how active is the Father.  He gives.  And then he watches.  “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”  Where the sons are limp and stand outside, the Father rushes to embrace.

He calls for a robe, and a ring, and sandals—not necessary things, just celebratory actions.  He calls a feast.  And then, while the Elder pouts outside, “His father came out and pleaded with him. . . .  Now we must celebrate and rejoice.”

They might accuse Jesus of being passive, for letting sinners come to him.  No, he says, I am active, like the Father.  You, who only want to stand outside and criticize, and demand your rewards, you are the passive ones.

Where is Jesus calling you to the greater action of his love?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Loving the Slaves

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to hate our family.  It’s a shocking passage.  And an interesting aspect of Luke: Matthew only tells us not to love our family more than Jesus, Mark skips the passage altogether—and Luke tells us to hate our family.

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The Lectionary perfectly pairs this Gospel with our one reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the New Testament, which is also about the transformation of relationships. 

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Philemon is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has been working with Paul.  Paul’s discussion of this slave is thick with irony.  Paul appeals for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, not a slave.  But he says he sends him back to Philemon because “I did not want to do anything without your consent”: Paul affirms Philemon’s freedom to make his own decisions—maybe Philemon can do the same for Onesimus.  “So that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”—by freely freeing Onesimus to do what is voluntary, not what is forced.

Onesimus serves Paul, but with diakonia, chosen service, not as a doulos, a slave.  And Paul, himself in chains, in prison, commands Onesimus not as a slave master, but as a father.  He does not use Onesimus, but calls him “my own heart” (the Greek is splagchna, “my guts,” where I really feel things).

Paul appeals to Philemon to be “a partner,” a koinonos, who participates in the koinonia, communion, with which he has opened the letter. 

***

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Philemon adds to our reading from Luke the idea of transformed relationships.  Luke’s stark language, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,” makes us think of ending relationships.  Paul shows us that our relationships must be transformed—radically, so that the one we viewed as a slave, the person we trampled on, becomes our “beloved brother,” and the flesh relationships, our earthly beloved brothers, melt away into the real love of the Christian communion. 

That sounds pleasant—but it is very hard.  One can imagine the division it would bring to a household if, for example, you started freeing slaves, or giving up property, or befriending those your family thinks are beneath you.  Our Gospel reminds us that this kind of transformed relationship is a way of carrying our cross, of dying to the old man and beginning a radically new life.

***

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Our Gospel opens with “great crowds traveling with Jesus”: a communion of friendship with the Master, which is a good thing.  But Jesus “turned”—or, “twisted around”—“and addressed them.”  He walks with them as friends, but he also turns to address them as Master.  To walk with Jesus we need to accept his authority to challenge our life.  Many among those “great crowds” are happy to be his friend, but less happy to be his disciples.

The shocking line, about hating father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters—and even our own life—is only one sentence, though an important one.

The next sentence proclaims that we have to carry our cross.  We are still on the road to Jerusalem.  Just before he set out on that road (9:51) he had announced that he was going to be killed (9:22) and so, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23).  He predicts only his own death—for his disciples, he predicts the cross, which means carrying on our own two shoulders the implement of our death. 

Love is lovely.  But the love of Christ passes through the way of the Cross.  To say that it requires hating our earthly loves is to say that they must die with Christ before they can rise again.

***

He says the same thing another way with two parables.  If you’re going to build a tower, you need to calculate the cost—the cost of discipleship—and lay the foundations.  Christian love isn’t just happily doing what comes naturally.  It means embracing the cross.

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The second parable takes another angle.  Heading into this battle, we discover that we are outnumbered.  We cannot win—this is a battle where we will die.  Realizing that, we need to “ask for peace terms.”  When you’re outnumbered, those peace terms mean asking the other party what you have to do to avoid annihilation.  In the Christian life, on the one hand, we realize that we need the Strong Man’s help: the things that make for peace are the gifts of Christ. 

But on the other hand, to accept those gifts is to accept the transformation he demands.  And in the final sentence of our reading, the demand is not to hate our family, but to “renounce all his possessions”: all the relationships we metaphorically cling to, and all the material things we literally cling to.  Somehow, like Philemon, we have to free our slaves, find those we treat as less than human and embrace them as our brothers.  The love of Christ comes only through renunciation.

***

Our first reading, from Wisdom, then, reminds us of something essential.  Weighted down by our bodily concerns, we can scarcely make wise decisions about earthly things—so to know higher things, the things of God, we need to shut up and listen.  We who walk on the road with Christ need to let him turn and speak to us as Master, and demand of us what we would never embrace on our own. 

What slaves is Jesus calling you to befriend?

Twenty-Second Sunday: The Wedding

Our Gospel this Sunday tells us to choose the lower seat so that, instead of being humiliated, we can be called up higher.

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The story is more complicated than it first appears.  First thing: it has two parts.  The first part is about being called up higher.  It seems to be practical advice, a shrewd way to behave. 

But the second part is different in an important way.  Jesus is at table at a Pharisee’s house.  The first part he addresses to the others at table.  The second part he addresses to the host.  To the host he says, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor . . . . For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The difference is that the first piece of advice seems to be worldly.  It suggests a way to get repayment in this world.  But the second says we should not seek repayment in this world.  Is Jesus giving us practical advice for how to improve our reputation?  Or he is pointing to something deeper?

***

A second complication: His advice to the other guests, in that “first part,” is not as straightforward as it seems.  Our translation says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor.” The translation is interpreting the Greek so as to make it match the situation where Jesus is sitting: invited to a table.

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One parallel is real: He is speaking to those who “were choosing the places of honor” and challenges them not to take “the place of honor.”  But he’s speaking about a distinctly different situation.  The Greek says he is at the home of the Pharisee not “to dine” but to “eat bread”: very tangible.  But he speaks about “a wedding.”  Now, the word wedding, in Greek as in English, implies something about a banquet—but Jesus says nothing about tables or eating.  He just talks about the wedding.  He’s not describing the situation they are in, he’s talking about something else.

Oddly, Luke says, “He told a parable to those who had been invited.”  Luke doesn’t seem to think this is practical advice about the current situation.  It is a parable.

And with the words “invited,” “guest,” and “host,” our translation obscures something evangelical: it is all about those who are “called,” and “the one who calls.” 

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Suddenly, this all sounds more like . . . the parable of the wedding feast, in Matthew 22.  Which wedding is Jesus talking about?  And who calls us to that wedding?  Is he giving practical advice about how to score social points in this world?  Or is he teaching us about seeking our reward in the next life?  Whose voice do I want to hear saying, “Friend, rise up higher”?

Luke is putting that parable from Matthew into the context of ordinary life.

***

Our reading in Hebrews is one of the most beautiful in Scripture.  “You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” etc.  It describes the great wedding feast.  We are already there.

It contrasts that wedding feast to Moses on the mountain of the Ten Commandments, “a blazing fire and gloomy darkness . . . and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.”  The Old Law was given with a threat of punishment, while God still seemed far away.

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But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.





But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.

***

Sirach gives us wisdom.  Seek humility rather than to be “a giver of gifts.”  How ironic, that we often hoard money in the name of being generous to others.  Forget the hoarding, seek the lowest place.  Find favor with God.

Listen to the proverbs.  Don’t think you have penetrated the higher things.  Be taught.  Listen to the Gospel.

And give alms, which quench sin like water on fire.  Don’t hoard, but pour yourself out.  Hoarding is the root of all sin.

***

Our Psalm response says, “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.”

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First, let us see ourselves as the poor.  God is good.  Trust him.  Don’t hoard, don’t calculate, don’t angle—trust that God is good. 

And second, let us see God’s love for the poor.  Because if we trust that God is good, we will give.  We will trust that he will provide, even if we don’t hoard.  And we will see that life is not about calculating how we can rise higher, but abandoning everything for the pearl of great price, the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem, the great wedding of the Lamb.

What parts of your life are worldly?

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Strive

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus once again turns our thinking inside out.

Bild från Johanna Kempes f. Wallis resa genom Spanien, Portugal och Marocko 18 Mars - 5 Juni 1895 - Hallwylska museet - 103303.tif

(Notice that he is still on his way to Jerusalem, the organizing principle of Luke’s Gospel.  What does Jesus’s pilgrimage to die in Jerusalem mean?)

On the way, someone asks, “Will only a few people be saved?”  We tend to think of religion, and lots of other things, as an alternative between two answers to that question.  “Liberals” say, hey, everyone’s fine, no need to judge; their answer to the question is, “many will be saved, everyone!”  “Conservatives” say people are not fine, people do deserve to be judged, only a few will be saved—but tend to define the standard of judgment as “like me” or “not like me.”  (Our current trends toward nationalism and tribalism—on both the Left and the Right—show how far we can go in judging people based on their conformity to us.)

Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative.  He doesn’t answer the question how many will be saved.  Instead, he changes the perspective.

He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” and our reading concludes, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  On the one hand, he seems to say that many will not be saved: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. . . . He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers.’” Jesus is opposed to liberal presumption.  We can lose our salvation.

***

But he is also opposed to conservative presumption, to the presumption that other people will be condemned, but people like me are going to be fine.  “Some are first who will be last” means, you might think you’re in the in-crowd—but if you think that way, you will end up on the outside.

It’s striking how his metaphor proceeds.  Right after talking about the gate, he switches to the metaphor of knocking on the door after it has been locked.  Those on the outside will say, “Lord, open the door for us,” and the Lord will respond, “I do not know where you are from” (or maybe, “I don’t know you—where did you come from?”) 

But then they give their wonderfully presumptuous answer: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  They say, “Hey, Jesus, let me in, you know me, we hung out together!”  They think they are insiders.

But the Gospel is full of humor, and this is a funny way to describe being insiders: We ate and drank, and you taught.  They are passive.  But Jesus says, “Strive.”  (Maybe the more important part of the metaphor is not the “narrow door” so much as the “striving”: you have to work hard to be a real Christian.)  Their self-description, “We ate and drank in your company,” makes Christianity sound like eating popcorn at the movies.

And their passivity is a description of going to Mass.  “You taught in our streets” (literally, our big open areas, our plazas) is the Liturgy of the Word.  “We ate and drank in your company” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  And Jesus says, showing up at Mass and sitting there passively while I preach, and then mindlessly eating my Body and Blood, will not get you into heaven.  “Being Catholic” won’t get you into heaven.

As he says elsewhere, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Or as he says here, “struggle to enter in,” “strive to enter through the narrow door.”

***

The context of our Gospel is a series of stories where more people get into heaven than you’d think: Luke 13 begins with the Galileans crushed with their sacrifices, who are not as unrighteous as you’d like to think; then the barren fig tree, that gets a second chance; then a woman cured of her disability, when the Pharisees would tell Jesus to stop his works; then the mustard seed and the leaven, which become a huge tree, home for the birds, and the kingdom leavens three whole measures of flour.  Many will be saved.  But not you, if you take it for granted and rest on your “identity.”

Something similar happens in our reading from Isaiah, almost the very last verses of that hopeful but strange book.  In third- and second-to-last verses, Isaiah speaks of new heavens and a new earth, when “all flesh shall come to worship.”  Many will be saved!

And yet the last verse of the book is, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”  Those who trust in the Lord will be saved, he can do it, he will reach out to every nation.  But those who think they are in the nation of the saved and are eager to treat others as outsiders, those who think they don’t need a savior and don’t need to repent, those who rebel against his command, they will not be saved.

Thus in our reading from Hebrews he says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  If we let the Lord be our Lord, how great a salvation!  But you have to strive for it!

Do you catch yourself thinking you’re already righteous, already an insider?

How to Preach: Some Thoughts

Searching the Scriptures

I am a layman, not a preacher.  But I listen to plenty of preaching, teach seminarians preparing to preach, and study the theology that is supposed to give life to preachers.  And one of the reasons I write Sunday reflections on this website is to help me appreciate the life of preaching that my teaching is supposed to support.  So here are some thoughts on how to approach preaching, for the preachers who are reading:

1. Be clear about the heart of your preaching, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think the best summary of that Gospel is not just “God loves you,” which leaves a lot out, but “the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5).  Preach God’s love.  Preach that we are not only to be loved, but ourselves to love with that love.  Preach that God transforms us, by the Holy Spirit, that the ability for us to love is his gift to us.  Preach the Holy Spirit, who is God’s love poured into our hearts.  The theological name for all of that is “grace,” specifically “sanctifying grace”: God makes us holy by sharing his heart with us.  But whatever you call it, keep it foremost in your mind.  Too much preaching, liberal and conservative, sounds like God is completely passive, like we have to do it all ourselves—or like God expects nothing of us.  That’s heresy, and it covers over the heart of the Gospel.

2. Preach Jesus Christ.  It’s through him, only through him, that we receive God’s Spirit.  It’s he who shows the Spirit and he who gives the Spirit.  As JPII said, “contemplate the face of Christ.”  Again, a bizarre amount of preaching hardly mentions Jesus.  Talk about him!

3. Preach Scripture.  Scripture is God’s Word, Jesus’s Word, the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets.  It spells out the basic Gospel.  The Gospel is simple: the love of God is poured into our hearts.  But there’s a million applications of that.  That’s why the Bible is so long.  And the reason Jesus gives us the Bible is that it’s pretty hard to apply the Gospel right, pretty easy to apply it wrong.  Pretty easy to preach what’s comfortable for the preacher instead of the actual consequences of the Gospel.  Let Scripture call you out of yourself.  Let Scripture show you what needs to be said.  Let Scripture show you the multitude of things to be said: one week (or one day) one thing, but the next week, a different thing, because there are many different things that need to be said.  If you’re left to your own resources, it’s going to be lousy.  Preach God’s word, not your own.  Make it a joy to be learning God’s word beside your congregation, instead of pretending that you’re Mr. Know-It-All, which you’re not.

Love as I have loved

4. Lean into the details of Scripture.  To prepare a homily, read the readings and look for what is striking.  Too much preaching sounds like the preacher had something he already wanted to say, and then he just used whatever miniscule part of the readings (if he used the readings at all) confirmed him in what he already wanted to say.  Instead, look for where Scripture surprises you.  When the word choice is weird, don’t ignore that, lean into it.  When the progression of ideas is weird, think about that.  When Scripture surprises you, let yourself be surprised, because that’s when you are being led out of your thinking into God’s thinking. 

5. I highly recommend good Bible software.  I love E-Sword (and I-Sword on my phone), a free program that makes it easy to look up the original languages.  Look at where words come from, what word the original author is actually using.  You don’t need to know the original languages (though it helps).  I don’t know Hebrew, but when I’m curious what an English word in the translation means, I can still look up the definition of the Hebrew word, and find what words it’s derived from or related to, what pictures the word is evoking.  Again, the point is to find out what Scripture is saying, not what you (or the translator) wants it to say.

6. Lean, too, into the connections.  Read the readings together.  See how one reading helps you understand the other.  Scripture is all connected, ultimately all written by the same author.  You understand one part better by looking at the others.  And the Lectionary is a great gift the Church gives us, to help us think Biblically.  The more you love the Lectionary, the more you teach your people to love the Lectionary, the more you think with the Church and teach your people to think with the Church, the more you help your people (and yourself) understand that all the details of our faith fit together. 

7. Lead into the Creed.  Right after you preach, on Sundays, comes the Creed.  Love the Creed.  Make it your own prayer.  Pray it thoughtfully, carefully, every day in your rosary, or elsewhere in your prayer.  Figure that the best judgment of whether you prayed a good homily is whether you’ve helped them understand the beauty and richness of the creed.  That doesn’t mean that you have to talk about specific lines in the Creed—though it wouldn’t hurt.  But it does mean you have to have them thinking about the central realities of our faith.  (The same could be said about the Eucharist, and the other verbal prayers of the Mass: but the Creed is a good focal point.)

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8. Finally, I ought to say something about your people.  Talk to your people.  Know your people.  Love your people.  Want your people to be holy, and to grow in Biblical, Catholic faith.  My advice is to aim at the more serious parts of your congregation.  You are not the only evangelizer in the parish.  It is not your job to sink to the lowest common denominator, or to preach the thinnest gruel possible, so as to reach everyone.  It is your job to build up saints in your community who can evangelize others.  Respect the people in your parish who are trying to grow in holiness.  Feed them.  Show the others that holiness is real by talking about holiness with the people who believe in holiness; if you sound like you don’t expect anyone in your congregation to be serious about the faith, you send a horrible message to everyone.  Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator.  But do love your people, and try to speak to them. 

That said, I think you do best not to focus on what you think those people need to hear, but on what Jesus is saying through Scripture in the readings at that Mass.  Preach God’s Word, not your own.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Peace, but Only through the Cross

In our Gospel this week, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three,” etc.

I’m afraid with my summer travels I haven’t finished writing my Sunday reflections in a couple weeks.  (I have several half finished!)  But we remain in the context we’ve been in, in Luke 12:

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“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said last week.  But then, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.”  Then he gave the principle: “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

On the one hand, we have no reason to fear.  God will provide!  But that doesn’t mean we should settle into worldliness.  To the contrary, our trust that God will provide is why we are not worldly, why we abandon earthly riches and trust in heavenly.

***

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The same dynamic comes out in our reading from the prophets this week.  The princes say to the king, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city . . . ; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

(I just did a long personal study of Jeremiah.  I recommend it: he’s the easiest to understand of the long prophets.)

The context is this: the Nothern Kingdom, called Israel, has been taken into exile.  Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is under seige by the Babylonians.  And the prophet Jeremiah says, “we deserve this.”  God will protect us, he says—but first he will punish us.  And we need to accept that punishment.

As always—as today—the people of his kingdom want a prophet who will say, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” but who will not say, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.”  They want an easy Gospel, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  We all want Christianity without the cross.  But there’s no such thing.  That is not what the Christian God’s love for us means.

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Jeremiah does care about them.  But that care includes God’s “severe mercy.” 

In fact, in our reading, Jeremiah dramatizes the whole thing.  He is thrown in a cistern—a pit for gathering water—and sinks into the mud, until the king’s eunuch comes to his rescue.  God protects Jeremiah, and he will protect us—but through our weakness, not through our strength, and through our acceptance of the hard road of conversion, not through cheap grace.

***

Our reading from Hebrews shows the same thing with Jesus.  “For the sake of the joy that lay before him” (that sounds nice!) “he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  So too we have to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race.”  God will come through—but it won’t be easy.  That’s the religion of Jesus Christ, the religion of love through the cross.  He died and so must we.

***

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In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  The “set” is more like “throw.”  The image is something like fire and brimstone, or shooting lightning bolts.  Some translations say, “how I wish it were already kindled,” making us think of starting our fire small and gentle—but our translation rightly shows the violence of Jesus’s language: he’s not gently warming our hearts, he is crashing in, kicking down the walls.

Then, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.”  Jesus uses lots of mixed metaphors.  Notice how he’s shifted from fire to the water of baptism.  (Baptism literally means dunked in water.)  It seems to me he shifts metaphors partly to keep us from getting too attached to any one of them.

But notice too that he has shifted persons.  He wants to cast fire on the earth, on us.  But he wants to be plunged into the waters himself.  That’s his love: He leads the way, “the leader and perfecter of faith,” as our reading from Hebrews says.  And that is the meaning of our baptism: we are violently plunged into the cross of Christ, the radical call of conversion—and so the waters cast fire on us.  This is not the religion of a comfortable bath, it is the religion of the radical cross.

***

And then the household.  There are five characters here, father, mother, adult son, daughter, and the son’s wife, a pretty picture—but “a household of five will be divided.”  He says, look, the religion of love is going to be hard; it will not make cozy happy homes; it will set us at odds with a fallen world.  That’s ironic—as ironic as the fire and water he has just discussed. 

But that’s the cross.  That’s setting our face toward Jerusalem, which is both the place of communion and the place of the cross.  Of course he has “come to establish peace”—but not “on the earth.”  It’s a hard peace, the peace of radical love.

Where do you use God’s love as an excuse to avoid conversion?

Sixteenth Sunday: Martha’s Complaint

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I am on a road trip with my family, so I didn’t get to write about last Sunday’s readings, with the Good Samaritan, one of the most important passages in Scripture.  But this week’s Gospel, Mary and Martha, follows directly on it, and builds on it.  In fact, the Lectionary for these several weeks has given us a close reading of Luke 10, all the passages immediately following Luke 9:51, the turning point of this Gospel, where Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem, and the passage right after that, “let the dead bury their dead.”  The Lectionary doesn’t have space just on Sundays to read all of Luke’s Gospel (one great reason to go to daily Mass is to read more Scripture), but Luke 10 we have been reading very closely.

To me the most interesting part of Mary and Martha is how it contrasts with the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan is good because he takes action.  “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”  The question is, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy.”  The moral of the story, it seems, is service.

But Mary and Martha is the opposite.  Mary, who “has left me by myself to do the serving,” “has chosen the better part.”  Martha, “burdened with much serving,” seems to get scolded.  You might say these two stories represent two opposite interpretations of Christianity: action or contemplation, God or neighbor, mercy or prayer.  And Luke puts them right next to each other, at the end of this magnificent chapter 10.

***

But notice, first, the introduction to the Good Samaritan.  In the introduction to the parable, Jesus gets a scholar of the law to summarize it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  The Good Samaritan is about the question, “And who is my neighbor?” the second half of the great commandment.  But Mary and Martha is about the first half of that commandment: Mary loves Jesus, who is God.

Here it’s worth reading carefully.  Jesus does not scold Martha.  He does not tell her, “service doesn’t matter, as long as you pray.”  He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”  This is more subtle.  First: she is worried about “many things,” but “there is need of only one thing.”  In the Greek the parallel between “many” and “one” is strong.  Second, the word for “anxious” is more literally “divided in parts”—the same word as when he says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”  (Even the word for “chosen” has the sense of “selected,” as in, picked this “one” out from the “many.”)  Jesus doesn’t say, “don’t serve,” he says, “focus.” 

What is distracting Martha’s focus?  Is it service?  Or is it complaint?  Jesus has just commended the Good Samaritan for his service.  The difference between Martha and him is that Mary complains: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do the serving?”  Her complaint poisons her service.  The ill is the complaint, not the service.

***

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 × 65.6 cm.jpg

Jesus is on the road, and he is sending his disciples on the road.  It is interesting that these two parables are about being on the road.  Mary and Martha is about welcoming him in: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you.”  The Good Samaritan is about a traveler: “a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”  Jesus is both the guest we welcome and the Samaritan who comes down the road to heal us; he is the God we worship and the man we follow; he is the one we serve and the one we adore. 

Jesus teaches us to be Mary and Martha—without the complaining.  Because he teaches us to love God with all our strength—and to love neighbor as part of that love, because of that love.  If we love service but do not love God, we miss the meaning of our service. 

***

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Our other two readings underline this point.  Abraham is Martha, whipping up a meal for God, who comes to him in the mysterious three travelers.  But he doesn’t complain, he rejoices: “If I may ask you this favor,” “Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food.”  For this service, Abraham receives the gift of more joyful service: a son.  What if Martha had talked like that? 

So too in Colossians, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”  “I am a minister” (it’s the same Greek word Martha complained about, “diakonia”) “in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me,” the awesome privilege to share in God’s service to his people.  But that ministry is to make known “Christ in you, the hope for glory”: Christ in the ones we serve, so that we worship as Mary through the works of Martha, and Christ in us, so that we share in his mission to the world. 

What service do you ruin through complaint?