Fourth Sunday of Easter: the Good Shepherd

Last Sunday celebrated the Good Shepherd.  The first three Sundays of Easter remember the Resurrection, the fourth turns to the Good Shepherd, and then as we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we recall Christ’s promises to stay with his Church, in the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel (13-17).  Together these Gospels summarize the Acts of the Apostles and the foundation of the Church.

This year, our readings for Good Shepherd emphasize the strange way Jesus continues his Incarnation through the Apostles.

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In our first reading, from Acts, Paul and Barnabas proclaim, “the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” 

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the same dynamic.  “Christ is the Light of nations [Lumen Gentium]. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.”  Christ is the light.  His Gospel is the light.  But the Holy Spirit is present in the Church, so that the light of Christ’s face is reflected on the face of the Church. 

The same confusion between the prophet and the messiah—which one is “the light of the nations”—is in the texts Paul and Barnabas are quoting, from Isaiah 42, 49, and 60.

The Fathers of the Church call this “the mystery of the moon.”  The moon shines with a light not its own, reflecting the light of the sun. 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Anyone else can be a good shepherd only by reflecting his light.

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Our second reading, from Revelation, takes us deeper into the strange confusion between Jesus and the Church.  The Shepherd is the Lamb (that’s a paradox).  The righteous are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (another paradox).  “The Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.”

He is the shepherd because he is the lamb, who knows the suffering of his sheep and dies for them.  They are his people when their purity is not to hide from suffering, but to immerse themselves in his blood.

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And so we come to our short Gospel, from John 10. 

The Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 is as strange as they come.  In vv. 1-5, Jesus introduces the door, the shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the sheep.  Which one is he?  In vv. 7-10, he is the door.  In vv. 11-13, he is the good shepherd, who lays down his life.  In vv. 14-16, he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  In vv. 17-18, he again lays down his life. 

Verse 22 begins a new discourse, when “The Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.  It was winter” (or more literally, at “the renewal,” Hanukkah, the celebration of when they renewed religious services in the Temple, after the Antiochene persecution, “in the rainy season”).  But he picks up the same theme again: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he says.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  It is there that our reading picks up.

“No one can take them out of my hand,” he says.  Without the previous verses, it is less clear that he has just said that some of the Jews of Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, have taken themselves out of his hand, though we got that message in Acts: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”  The message is not that everyone is fine.

Rather, the message is that we are fine, if we are in Jesus’s hands.  It’s not that we don’t need a Shepherd, but that we have one. 

Thus the short reading quickly takes a new turn.  From his sheep knowing his voice, he segues to them never perishing, and then to the Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.”

He is pointing forward to chapter seventeen, where Jesus will say to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them,” and he prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus and the Church are one.  Jesus preaches through the Church, when the Church clings to Jesus.  The Church is united to the Father, when the Church is united to Jesus.  And the Church can have good shepherds only when they cling to the Good Shepherd.  It all depends on union with Jesus.

Do you find yourself searching for security apart from Jesus?

Why Are They So Nervous about Pope Francis?

Another group is out calling Pope Francis a heretic.  That group’s

claims are truly outrageous, but they fit into a pattern of nervousness about Pope Francis’s orthodoxy.  But we shouldn’t be nervous.

First, because that’s Protestant.  For me, a central part of becoming Catholic was deciding that, when my opinions clash with the Magisterium, I assume I’m wrong.  I believe in Christ’s promises to Peter.

Second, there are lots of factually incorrect assertions about Francis.  I know the temptation we all have—including theologians—to skim a document and claim we’ve read it closely.  But I teach Francis’s main documents, and every time I see a new controversy, I check his words carefully.  He isn’t saying the things people are afraid he’s saying. 

Third, what I find when I read him is that he’s saying really important things.  It’s not just that I tolerate him because he’s the Pope.  I think he’s a great, much-needed Pope.  It’s too bad people aren’t reading him.

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There are a lot of parallels between Francis and Vatican II—and the problems in how people (don’t) read both.  St. John Paul II spent his great papacy uncovering Vatican II, showing that the actual teaching of the Council was way richer than the politicized stuff a lot of people say about it.  JPII said, read the documents, and what you will find is the riches of the Catholic faith.

Benedict XVI was a great teacher, too, on how to read Vatican II.  One of his most important teachings was his lecture on the “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Hermeneutics is a fancy way to say that often what we get out of someone’s teaching says more about us than about the teaching.  We tend to hear what we want to hear, or what we expect to hear.  If you approach Pope Francis, or Vatican II, with the assumption that they’re saying something wrong, you’re going to tend to hear something wrong even where it isn’t being spoken.  People even did that to JPII.

That’s what Benedict XVI meant by “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Without even having read Vatican II, a lot of people assumed it was a break with the

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traditional Catholic faith.  But people don’t get that idea from Vatican II, they bring that idea with them, and it can keep us from reading what the Council actually says.  Ironically, that’s true of both liberals and conservatives: liberals are delighted to think that Vatican II is a break from the past, conservatives are horrified—and neither of them are reading what Vatican II actually says, they’re just bringing their assumptions.

The same is true with Pope Francis.  If you read what he says, there’s no rupture.  There is, as Benedict XVI says of Vatican II, reform, an effort at rediscovery and living things better—Benedict says the proper “hermeneutic” for Vatican II is not just “continuity,” but “reform in continuity.”  Reform is significant, and difficult, but it is not rupture.  But we can be so eager to find rupture that we never read what Francis actually says.

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So why do we bring that assumption of rupture to Francis?  A reforming Pope—it was true of JPII, also—can be challenging, and there are legitimately difficult ideas that Francis talks about.  I need to find time to talk about those ideas, too. 

But for now, I just want to suggest some alternative explanations, to suggest why we might be imposing a “hermeneutic of rupture” on a good Pope.  I want to emphasize at the beginning that the following suggestions are very different from one another.

1. Separation anxiety.  St. John Paul II spent several years dying.  We knew we would have to move on.  When he died, there was a funeral, a huge

mourning experience.  But when Benedict XVI resigned, he just walked away, quickly—we only had a month—and we didn’t get to mourn.  Instead, we have the weird situation of the previous pope still sitting there, walking-distance from the new pope.  Popes are different—Benedict XVI was very different from John Paul II, despite their friendship—and it’s hard to adjust to a new one.  We’re emotionally invested in Popes: that’s why they announce a new one with “Gaudium magnum, great joy,” and why we have a mourning period before the conclave.  We should have an emotional attachment to Pope Benedict—but we shouldn’t let it prevent us from reading what Pope Francis says.

2. The 24/7 media.  We see a lot more than we used to see, and spend a lot more time dissecting it.  Take Cardinal Kasper’s infamous contributions to the Synods on marriage.  Cardinals have always had a lot of opinions, but we didn’t use to hear them quite so much; part of the problem with Vatican II was that people weren’t used to so much press coverage—and now we have the internet.  The sausage was always made, but not we watch it over and over again on the internet.  On the personal level, even popes make mistakes—but the internet, like People magazine, makes us focus on that personal level more than on the level of actual papal teaching, which is much better.  In between the personal level and the doctrinal is the way of expressing things.  In any dialogue or writing process (this is my second draft of this post!) the first version won’t be the best.  But where we used to only hear the final statement, the official papal document, now we’ve spent so much time discussing the first, clumsier statement that we have trouble setting it aside to read the official version.  A perfect example is Kasper’s initial statement on communion for the divorced and remarried: it was riddled with theological problems.  What Francis finally said in Amoris Laetitia is NOT what Kasper said—but by the time the real document came out, we were all so exhausted and invested in the Kasper argument that we didn’t have the energy for a clear discussion of what the Pope really said.

3. The new media.  As recently as when John Paul II died, media was handled by massive centralized companies, including the big Catholic newspapers and EWTN.  Those centralized companies had their own dangers: they tended to promote centralization, from the New York Times’s big government to EWTN’s big papacy or the Wall Street Journal’s big business.  But in the blogosphere, there’s something almost Darwinian about the most negative, outlandish sources rising to the top: why click on responsible reporting when you can click on something exciting, true or untrue.  (Trump, of course, is a genius at manipulating this system, getting media exposure by being outlandish.)  And just as big media is inherently centralizing, the new media is inherently anti-authoritarian.  Again, this has more to do with media than with Francis: no matter who is Pope, outlandish and anti-authoritarian things on the internet are going to get a lot of clicks.  Readers need to be savvy.  So do writers: it’s awfully tempting to be flattered by the traffic, and think that if people are clicking on us, we must be saying something important.  Pray for your new-media authors.

4. Us vs. them.  As to the substance of what he says, Francis is harder on people inside the Church than on people outside.  We are a tribal race, and we live in tribalist times: we all prefer to hear that we are right and everyone else is wrong.  When Pope Benedict said “dictatorship of relativism,” it felt great to us who oppose relativism.  (Though if you read what he actually said, it’s not as tribalist as people think.)  Francis is kind to non-Catholics and hard on Catholics—and he has been more successful than JPII and Benedict XVI at making us hear that criticism.  But if you read the prophets, or the saints, or the Gospels, you realize that God’s word is always harder on “us” than it is on “them.”  The prophets who said, “we are fine and everyone else is bad” were false prophets, whom the true prophets condemn.  Whereas Jesus constantly warns us against being Pharisees.  Francis is in the best prophetic tradition—but none of us like to hear the message that we need to be better Catholics than we are.

5. Poverty.  Opposition to Pope Francis did not begin when he started talking about marriage.  It was strong from day one, when all we knew was that as a cardinal, he rode the bus and cooked his own dinner, and that as Pope he said, “How I long for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”  The

Church’s teaching on money is hard for us to accept.  When Francis was elected, I had only just come around to those ideas.  When Benedict XVI wrote his encyclical on economics, I was one of the many people who rejected it—until I had to teach it, and discovered that Church teaching on economics is (a) presented by the Magisterium as magisterial, not optional, (b) about moral obligations: not macroeconomics, and not an endorsement of one secular political party or economic system over another, but the moral responsibility of each of us to care more about other people than about money, and (c) not trying to replace personal prudence, or microeconomics: the Church doesn’t tell a businessman exactly what wage to pay his employees, any more than it tells a father what to feed his children or how exactly to teach them—though it does assert, contrary to the secular world, that a businessman has a moral responsibility to his employees and customers, just as a father has a responsibility for his children.  Unfortunately, our hostility to misrepresentations of Church teaching on economics often makes us close our ears to the real teaching of the popes.  Pope Francis has been more successful than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and other recent popes at making sure we know that he is talking about economics, but because we still don’t know what the Church teaches about economics, he makes people nervous.  (The same could be said about mercy, or clericalism.)  So ironically, because Francis is boldly proclaiming traditional, orthodox Church teaching on an issue that makes American Catholics nervous, too many of us fear him, instead of welcoming his magisterial voice.

Poverty, us vs. them, the new media, the 24/7 media, and separation anxiety: some of the opposition to Francis is rooted in rejection of previous papal teaching, but I think much of the opposition is from people who just haven’t thought through their emotional attachment to the last pope.  We should pray for all of them, and recognize our own tendencies to thoughtlessness and self-righteousness.

I love the Pope because he’s the Pope.  I love Pope Francis.  And I’m sad that all these issues are keeping people from hearing the important things he has to say to us.

Third Sunday of Easter: Torn from Our Nets

The Third Sunday of Easter rounds out the Resurrection stories: Easter Vigil is from the Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Easter morning is John (or optional Luke), and the Second Sunday is the appearance to Doubting Thomas, which John tells us occurs a week after.  The Fourth Sunday will be Good Shepherd, and the rest of Easter is from the farewell discourse in John 13-17.

This year our story is Peter and the guys out fishing.  Peter puts his clothes on and jumps in the water when he hears Jesus call.  It’s one of my family’s favorite slapstick moments in the Gospels—Peter’s enthusiasm is infectious—and I have been thinking about the humor of John’s Gospel, which returns again and again to the confusions of fleshy people trying to think about Jesus’s words.

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But I did a little research about fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and what strikes me even more than the humor is Peter’s vocation.

Peter is a fisherman.  Jesus sends them home to Galilee, and Peter says, “I am going fishing”—all night.  It’s who he is.

He has no luck that night.  But Jesus’s ability to give them fish points to how much providence there is in fishing.  I don’t think it suggests that Peter was a bad fisherman.

Our translation says, “He tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad.”  That’s polite.  It’s more like, “he pulled on a pull-over, and tied a belt around it”—casual fishing clothes, I think—“because he was naked.” 

Modern fishermen in Galilee, from https://ferrelljenkins.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/fishermen-galilee_fjenkins110505_52t.jpg?w=768&h=576

Now, it’s fair enough to conjecture that “naked” just meant “under-dressed.”  Okay.  But it sounds like the way this kind of fishing worked, you’d throw a net in the water with weights on one side and floats on the other, and then use your boat to pull it around in a circle, so you have a kind of cylinder.  Then someone has to dive down and pull the bottom of the net closed: my favorite Bible dictionary describes seeing fishermen do this in late nineteenth century Galilee, so it’s not impossible, and it might just be the traditional way to do it.  It would explain why Peter was naked—swim trunks are a new thing—and why he thinks nothing of jumping back in.  Peter was a serious swimmer.

Then we hear that Peter swam to land, while the others rowed.  Yes, Peter’s swimming is enthusiastic.  But it’s also athletic.  It says they were a hundred yards from shore, which was short for their little boat.  But for a swimmer, that’s two lengths of an Olympic-size pool, or four lengths in a normal pool—fully clothed, just after grabbing that net from the bottom.  That’s athletic.

Then Peter rushes over and single handedly drags ashore a net full of one hundred fifty-three large fish—these were probably Mango Tilapias, about eighteen inches long and three and a half pounds each, so five hundred thirty-five pounds of fish, plus soaking wet netting: no wonder the guys couldn’t get that net into the boat.  Peter is really athletic.  Perhaps he has the miraculous strength of the Resurrected One, but he is really athletic.

“St. Peter’s fish,” in Galilee today

Then they eat fish and bread over a seaside fire, as if to drive home Peter’s natural environment.  Peter was a fisherman, the kind who fished with big nets.

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But the Lectionary, always brilliant, pairs that story with the next one, “Do you love me?”  People are right to focus on the love part—and perhaps that love is the perfect explanation for Peter’s swimming enthusiasm. 

But I’m interested in the fisherman.  It’s fascinating that in such a fisherman context, Jesus changes the subject, mixes the metaphor.  He

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doesn’t tell Peter to be a fisherman.  He says, “Feed my lambs.”  (The threefold repetition brings out three parts of shepherding: food for the baby lambs, watch over the big sheep, and feed the big sheep.)  Peter is not a shepherd, he’s a fisherman.  I imagine shepherds and fishermen didn’t understand each other.

And then the punchline: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted.”  In fact, we have just seen Peter’s athletic youthfulness, his dressing himself and freedom with his clothes—naked, wet clothes, he does whatever he wants—and his going where he wants: fishing, not shepherding. 

Nice that Jesus calls him, “Simon, Son of John,” pointing to his origin—and tearing him from it. 

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John tells us this was Jesus’s third appearance to the apostles.  He had appeared to Mary Magdalene (not the apostles) and said, “Do not touch me.”  He appeard to the Apostles the first time in the Upper Room, and showed them his hands.  He appeard to Thomas and the Apostles the second time and let Thomas touch his hands.  And now he is helping them fish and eating with them.  He gets fleshier and fleshier.

And the more real he is, the more the power of the Resurrection tears Peter from his comfortable home place and drags him out, to pastoral concern for others instead of fishing with the guys whenever he wants—“I am going fishing!”—and to his own crucifixion.

Where is the power of the Resurrection drawing you?

Passion Sunday: The Silent Teacher

In this time of waiting, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, a thought on Jesus the teacher, from Palm Sunday.

I was struck by an odd connection in Palm Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 50.  On the one hand, it is about suffering: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  But it is also about proclamation: “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  Somehow he teaches through suffering: the training of his tongue is in the plucking of his beard.

That’s key to Psalm 22, as well.  It’s a long Psalm, and though it has much of “My God, my God, why have you abondened me?”—“All who see me scoff at me,” “Many dogs surround me,” “They divide my garments amount them”—it also talks about preaching.  The Liturgy gave us the final verses: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise him.”  One point is that the one who asks the question about being abandoned does not in fact thing he is abanonded—he prophesies his own triumph.  But another point is that the one who suffers triumphs through preaching.

The Christ hymn from Philippians hit a similar theme.  The Liturgy often takes the verses out of context, so that it only tells us about “Christ Jesus,” who “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”  But Philippians introduces the hymn, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . . .”  His emptying himself and taking the form of a slave is his preaching.  It preaches to us both the mind we should have, and also his glory: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name.” 

He preaches by emptying himself.

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I was struck, when we read Luke’s account of the Passion, by all the questions.  Way back when he was twelve, we “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions,” and then heard him ask his mother, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  “And they did not understand the saying . . . .  And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”

This was the way the rabbis taught, by asking questions.  I know as a teacher (though I wish I was better) that it’s easy to talk and talk while your students sit glassy-eyed and wait for you to finish.  What’s hard is getting them to think about what you say.  Often the best way to do that is with questions they have to treasure in their hearts.

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Central to Luke’s account of the Passion is his trial by the Sanhedrin.  “If you are the Christ, tell us,” they say, like students who just want Teacher to give the answers without making them think.  Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not believe,” and adds, oddly, “and if I question, you will not respond.”  There is something here about teaching, in the style of the rabbis.  You won’t believe what I tell you—but also, if I just tell you the answers, I will rob you of the opportunity to make an act of faith.  Jesus’s silence, his inaction, calls forth our active participation, our act of faith. 

He calls himself only “the Son of Man,” but provokes them to ask, “Are you then the Son of God?”  He replies, “You say that I am.”  They respond, “We have heard it from his own mouth”—but how odd, that it doesn’t come from his mouth, it comes from theirs.  By his silence, he makes them speak.

He does the same thing to Pilate.  Pilate asks the question that matters to him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  And Jesus responds, “You say so.” 

Jesus doesn’t want to do it for us.  He wants to draw us to an act of faith.  That is how he teaches through the silence of the Cross.

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In fact, the whole long reading, 113 verses, is a series of questions.  “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes,” he says.  And then after supper, he takes the cup, and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”—and we are left to question what just happened.

“The hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table”—“And they began to debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed.”  Good question.

They argue who is greatest, and he asks, “Who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?”  Good question.

Peter says, “I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you”—and Jesus lets the statement hang pregnantly: are you?

“When I sent you forth without a money bag or a sack of sandals, were you in need of anything?”

“Pray that you may not undergo the test.”  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup.”  Statements that raise questions.

“Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”  “Have you come out as against a robber?”

He leads Pilate to ask, “What evil has this man done?”  Good question.

When the women weep, as if they see what’s happening, he turns it around: “If these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

When he is on the cross, they say, “He saved others, let him save himself”—and we ask, yeah, why doesn’t he?

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But the story ends with two other people answering the questions.  “We have been condemned justly,” says the Good Thief.  “This man was innocent beyond doubt,” says the Centurion.

On the Cross Jesus empties himself, and questions us with his silence.  The good teacher leads us not by giving us all the answers, but by leaving us to ponder, and to make an act of faith.

How could you give Jesus more space to ask you questions?

Notre Dame

I was just coming to write my Sunday post (a day late), and find news of Notre Dame.

I am devastated.

It was my favorite church, from three trips to Paris. It was exquisite, the central, perfect monument of such a rich age.

I can only think of Lamentations. In the old office of Tenebrae, “Shadows,” sung during Holy Week, we invoke the desolation of Jerusalem at the Babylon exile. Quomodo sedet sola civitas: as the city sits alone.

The devastation of Jerusalem, the devastation of the Cross. It’s so easy to skip to the next step, to shrug and say, yes, but in three days he will rebuild this Temple. But in his valley of tears, so many Temples will never be rebuilt.

Devastation.

(from
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/notre-dame-fire-live-updates-cathedral-paris-france-stream-video-latest-a8871471.html#post-1162886657 )

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Not Written in Stone

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

For the last Sunday before Holy Week, unless for RCIA you’re reading the Raising of Lazarus, this year’s Lectionary gives us John’s telling of the Woman Caught in Adultery.  The theme is second chances.

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That theme begins with Isaiah 43.  There’s a major turn in Isaiah at chapter 40—modern scholars wonder whether the “First Isaiah” wrote as Jerusalem was being attacked by the Babylonians, and the “Second Isaiah” wrote as they were coming back from Babylon, and even Thomas Aquinas begins his commentary by saying clearly this book has two halves.  Let’s just say that the first half is prophecies of woe, and the second half is prophecies of hope.

So our reading says the God, “who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army”—like the army that “First Isaiah” says God sent to destroy sinful Jerusalem—is later “doing something new.”  That newness, “In the desert I make a way,” sounds to me more like a recollection of how he got his people out of Egypt, and less like the specifics of how they came back from Babylon.  (That route is actually up the beautiful Euphrates, until you’re north of Palestine, and then south through the beauties of Syria and Lebanon.)  But the point is, he always saves his people.

Our reading of Philippians turns that newness inside out.  It’s not that he brings us “back” to earthly splendor, but that he pulls us forward: “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.” We count what lies behind “so much rubbish,” but look forward to being transformed in righteousness “through faith in Christ.”  But still, it’s a second chance, a path out of the desert.  God does not abandon his people.

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That’s the obvious theme of the Woman Caught in Adultery: instead of stoning her, he says, “go and sin no more.”

But a couple kooky thoughts on John’s rich commentary on this story:

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First, on stoning.  We all know that they say, “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” and Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

But it’s worth noticing that both sides are twisting the Law of Moses.  Actually, what Moses says is, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).  Both of them.  And John is careful to quote them saying, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery”: you can’t catch one without the other. 

So what’s going on?  How faithful are they to the Law?  Are they “without transgression,” even here?  Or are they instead prosecuting the one side of the Law that they like, and ignoring the other?  There’s something dramatic about how they “made her stand in the middle.”  In the Greek, I think, it’s a phrase that always emphasizes being the weirdo, the one unlike everyone who surrounds you.  We’re talking about a bunch of men attacking a woman: “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman.”

We’re so used to hating on the Law of Moses that we miss its civilizing effect.  Killing the woman is what every pagan culture does.  Punishing the man, too, is a dramatic move toward social responsibility. 

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So too stoning.  It sounds so brutal to us, but Jesus’s words remind us how it worked.  He says, “throw the first stone.”  But the whole point of stoning is that no one throws the first stone.  Modern firing lines are a bit like this: when they execute someone by gunfire, the Nazis would have one man do it, so he knows he did it, but more civilized societies have several guns, and one of them is not loaded, so that each man can hope maybe it wasn’t him.  Stoning is a form of execution that demands responsibility from everyone in the community.  You don’t send someone to an abstract Death Row where you never have to think about it again: everyone in the community has to stare the death penalty in the face, and participate in it.

Nicolas Poussin: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’m not trying to defend capital punishment.  I’m trying to say that Moses is always taking a step in the right direction, a step toward civilization, toward at least recognizing what the death penalty means. 

Moses is not the bad guy in this story.  In fact, the goodness of Moses brings out the evil of the scribes and Pharisees, who ignore the sin of the man and can’t bear to take personal responsibility for the punishment that sounded so exciting to them. 

God’s true law is not about lynching people who are different from us, much as we like to twist it in that direction.  God’s law is about growing in personal responsibility.

That’s our side, now God’s side.

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Second: bending.  Several times in the story, “Jesus bent down” and then “straightened up.”  In Greek it’s the same word: he bends, and he unbends.  That’s a weird image, and not the way modern writers write—but it is the way ancient writers write.  To their rigidity, Jesus responds with flexibility.  It’s not the flexibility of condoning sin—he tells her to sin no more.  But it is the flexibility of second chances.  It is the flexibility of a God who bends down to us, and then rises up again to carry us to heaven. 

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And so, third: drawing on the earth.  When it says, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger,” I think it’s quoting Exodus (31:18): “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”  Jesus is the author of the Law, who wrote it with his own finger, not only on tablets of stone, but right into the earth itself, when he created us. 

But the earth into which he inscribed it is more flexible than stone.  He doesn’t change the Law—Jesus is clear about the evil of adultery, and tells the woman to sin no more—but he has the flexibility and strength to wipe away this sin from her heart.  Not everything is written in stone.

Where is Jesus calling you to offer others—or yourself—a second chance?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Joy in the Desert

Third Sunday of Lent: Rejoicing to be On Our Way

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This Sunday is the pink Sunday of Lent, the day the priest wears joyful vestments to remind us that there is happiness even here. (I know they insist the vestments are “rose.” But rosa is just the Latin word for pink.)

Our first reading is a commentary on that joy in the desert.  Joshua and the Israelites are camped “on the plains of Jericho”: that means they just crossed the Jordan, after forty years of Exodus, and are beginning to claim the Promised Land.  They celebrate the Passover, and the next day they eat “unleavened cakes” (since Passover is observed for a week) and “parched grain.” “Parched” is a funny translation; what it means is that they roasted the fresh local grain on their campfires. 

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Now, on the one hand, it’s nice that they’re finally eating fresh grain, instead of manna.  They have come to a place where good food actually grows.  But it’s cooked on the camp fire—just as the Passover lamb must be roasted over fire, not in an oven or a pot—because they are still on the move.

I imagine our own campfire meals.  Even canned stuff tastes good over a campfire, because you’re thankful to be eating, a special thankfulness because you can’t prepare a feast. 

And that’s the pink vestments of Lent: not the settled joy of a feast day, but the joy of being on the road, on our way, moving forward toward the Resurrection.  Even a fast can be a feast.

***

Our reading from Second Corinthians talks about “reconciliation,” or maybe it should be translated, “exchange.”  “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”  We are “in Christ a new creation,” and that’s something to celebrate.  But we celebrate that new creation in and through Lent.  It’s not that everything is fine; it’s that we are in the process of transformation, on the road to the Resurrection, passing through Good Friday.

***

And so we come to the Prodigal Son.  Above all what marks Luke is his eye for these stories—also the Good Samaritan, the place of honor at the wedding feast, the rich man and Lazaurs, the persistent widow: the touching stories are mostly unique to Luke. 

So many rich details.  I love this book.  I wish I could write my own. 

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The story, of course, is not about the Prodigal Son, but about the Father and the Elder Brother.  The Lectionary sets the theme: “the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,” the Elder Brother, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’” like the Father in the story.  Then it skips the two introductory parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke alone adds the widow and her coin), which tell the same story more briefly.

But though the main point is about the Father and the Elder Son, Jesus and the Pharisees, Luke gives us brilliant details about the Prodigal. 

The Prodigal is clearly at fault: “Father give me the share of your estate . . . So the father divided the property,” literally his “life.”  What a lout.  “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  But “when he had freely spent everything,” we feel almost bad for him, because “a severe famine struck,” not his fault.  Few stories in world literature make our eyes roll like this one. 

But what does he do?  “He hired himself out?”  Literally, he glued

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himself to a local, adhered, sucked up.  And it must be said, when he “comes to his senses,” he doesn’t say, “what a jerk I’ve been,” he says, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough.”  It’s pure calculation and manipulation: sucking up to this guy hasn’t worked out, maybe I’ll suck up to my father.

Meanwhile, “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody game him any.”  We groan again: he’s feeding the swine, he doesn’t need anyone to give him “the pods” (literally, “the hard stuff,” from the same word as keratin).  But he wants more gifts, like he took from his father.  And going home, he’s not looking for hard keratin “pods,” he’s looking for “food”: he knows how they eat at his father’s house. 

But his father is utterly unlike him, catching sight of him a long way off, filled with compassion, running to meet him, giving him what he doesn’t deserve.  He goes out to the Elder, too, who refuses to come in.

***

The Elder Son’s objections are totally reasonable.  The Prodigal is a real jerk, one of the greatest jerks in all literature.  And the Prodigal in this story is us.  This isn’t a story about how great we are.  Our new creation, our entrance into the Promised Land, isn’t about how we’ve really cleaned up our act and done the right thing.  It’s about the sheer goodness of the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ. 

The Elder Son, of course, is also us, rejecting the Father’s way of mercy, insistent on merit. 

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But the real celebration, the pink vestments of Lent and the fresh grain roasted on the fires of the Promised Land, is that somehow he can bring us from death to life, from being lost to being found.  We rejoice not in our goodness, but in his, and in the process of our redemption, which is still under way.

In what parts of your life should you be rejoicing more at the Father’s mercy?

Third Sunday of Lent: Get Moving

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

The first Sunday of Lent, the reading has always been about Jesus’ fast of forty days, and the second Sunday, his Transfiguration.  The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion from our Gospel for the year (with John’s version on Good Friday).  In this year of Luke, the fourth Sunday will be the Prodigal Son, and the fifth will be the woman caught in adultery, from John.  (You have probably noticed that parishes with RCIA have the option to use the same readings every year.)

The Lectionary tells us, with good reason, that these middle Sundays are “about conversion.” 

But this third Sunday the reading is obscure.  First Jesus talks about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”  Then he talks about a fig tree that bears no fruit—you can get an idea of how weird that parable is if you look at the different treatments Matthew, Mark, and Luke give it: a rich but confusing episode in the life and preaching of Jesus.

The theme that will emerge, a central theme of Luke, is that we are on our way.  Christianity is not about where you are, but where you are going, and the progress you make on the road.  Lent is a time to remember that we have not yet arrived.

***

The first three readings are a complicated web.  The Lectionary says the Old Testament readings of Lent aim to give us a tour of the Old Testament, while the Epistle ties together the first reading and the Gospel.  In every season, the Psalm brings out the central theme of the Old Testament reading.

This Sunday, the Epistle is from 1 Corinthians 10.  It says that everything that happens in the Old Testament “happened as examples for us.”  And it says, particularly, that the Exodus is about us.  We skip some verses about the idolatry and porneia of the people of the Exodus, but skip to the central point: God provided, and the people grumbled.  They did not receive what he offered.  It’s not good enough to be one of the people, if you do not let God’s presence transform you in thanksgiving.

The Psalm says the Lord is kind and merciful.  The Hebrew words speak of God caressing us, bending down in acknowledgement of us. One of its central words is hesed, which means loving kindness but literally that he bows his head to us, shows us reverence.

The Old Testament reading these all spell out is Moses and the Burning Bush.  There God says he hears his people’s cry, witnesses their affliction: he bows his head to them.  Then it says who he is: he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he is the great “I am.”  Let us just say that God’s hesed is not a sign of his weakness, but of his awesomeness.  He is the God of life, of superabundance, the God who saves and is the source of all being.  As at the Transfiguration, we should be overawed at his goodness—and moved by it.

***

In our Gospel, Jesus calls us to move. 

In the first half, “some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate” had shed, in their place of sacrifice.  Now, this is Luke 13.  In Luke 9, the turning point, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem; people recognize him, fear him, as one whose “face is set for Jerusalem” (9:53).  But in chapter 17, he will still be “between Samaria and Galilee.”  So at this point, he is in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. 

So first he speaks of Galileans: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?  . . . If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”  To the Galileans, he says, it’s not about what happens to you or where you’re from: it’s about repentance.

Then he speaks of his destination, “Or those eighteen people were were killed when the tower at Siloam [near Jerusalem] fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?”  It’s not about being a Jerusalemite either.  All will perish.  But God calls us to repentance.

Lent reminds us: it’s not about being “a Catholic.”  It’s about repentance, about being moved by the awesome God.

***

So then he tells the parable of the fig gree.  “For three years now”—we are in the third year of Jesus’s ministry—“I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.”  But the gardener begs one more chance: “Leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.  If not you can cut it down.”

The gardener, too, wants the fruit of repentance.  It’s not good enough to be “his” tree—unless the fertilizer he pours on us moves us and transforms us.  Not good enough to put up tents and get cozy on Mount Tabor.  Not good enough to be a Catholic without Lent, or the Cross, or the hard journey. 

Jesus calls us to move.

What complacency does Jesus want to work out of you?

Second Sunday of Lent: Called Out of this World

Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1, Luke 9:28-36

The first Sunday of Lent, we battled the temptations of the flesh (bread), the eye (miracles), and pride (the kingdoms of the earth). The second Sunday, we see the goal of this battle: Jesus transfigured.  Jesus shows us God’s power by leading us in the fight against temptation, and he shows us God’s glory in the Transfiguration.  And so the reading concludes, “Jesus was found alone,” or “there was found Jesus only.”  Only Jesus.

***

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Our readings rise to the theme.  In the first, Abraham walks by faith.  God promises him descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s believes; and it is credited to him as righteousness.  It all begins with trusting in the Lord.

Already this reading develops things a step further.  Abraham believes the promise about children, but when God promises him a land for them, he questions.  That question drives him to sacrifice—the strange sacrifice of animals split in two, with the appearance of a flaming torch passing between them. 

There are two levels of faith.  One is pure faith in God’s plan for his people.  But then that faith has to take flesh: to believe that God will actually give us a place for those children requires trusting God with our stuff, and so Abraham’s sacrifice.  The highest faith sees Jesus alone—but for that faith to take flesh, we must set aside other things, so that Jesus is alone.

***

Our reading from Philippians raises the stakes.  For the enemies of the cross, Paul says, “their end is destruction.”  That’s ironic: the Cross seems like destruction.  We say, “God wants me to be joyful!”  And Jesus says, “only through the Cross.”

So too those who make their stomach their God and shameful things their glory.  If we live for this life alone, we live for destruction.  If we live beyond this life—and offer this life in sacrifice, even embracing the Cross—than beyond destruction we find God.

But only because he is our savior, who can “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  Only Jesus can carry us through.  That’s what we profess in our Lenten fasting.

***

I’m sorry this is the first reflection I’ve been able to publish this year of Luke, because I’ve been trying to watch Luke’s themes.  His Gospel is the most complicated of the four.  Somehow it focuses on the power of grace, the power of God’s mercy, the change God brings about in the worldly order.

In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

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In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

In Luke alone, the disciples are falling asleep.  Jesus must escape out of a world where the flesh triumphs over the Spirit.  And though Matthew calls the cloud bright, and Mark only says there is a cloud, Luke says the cloud causes fear.  The disciples are being called beyond themselves.

***

And so Luke frames a little differently the words from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  (Many translations say “chosen,” but the Greek is “agapatos”: agape-d, beloved.) 

We are called to a profound conversion.  We follow the ways of the world.  Peter wants to build by his own strength and initiative, instead of listening to Jesus and being filled with the divine light.  And Peter’s plans are to stay put: he wants to build tents, but Luke adds that he says this that Moses and Eijah “were about to part from him,” and that Jesus is beginning his exodus.  Luke emphasizes the contrast.

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Jesus is leading us upward.  The Transfiguration is a funny mix, because on the one hand, we need to look at nothing but him, a kind of contemplative stillness.  But to look to him is to be called out of ourselves, to follow him in his exodus, into the Cross, out of the ways of this world, out of our comfortable tents. 

Thus the traditional Lectionary gives us the Transfiguration this second Sunday of Lent, a sign of the glorious culmination, almost more glorious than Easter itself—but in a key that calls us to conversion, out of our comfortable worldly calculations, up the mountain of the Cross to the heavenly Jerusalem.  For, says our epistle, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in earthly tents.

How are your calculations too worldly?

Thomas on Scripture

Dear readers, a little update, since I’ve been away so much.

I’ve already written a Christmas reflection, on how sometimes the Word takes flesh more in the chaos of family life than in brilliant meditations on Scripture. That’s been continuing in my life: I finally finished a comedy-of-errors plumbing fiasco. As I was finishing, two weeks ago, we got the flu.

I was standing inside a wall, taking a Sawzall to a thick iron pipe through the flooring way above me–a ridiculous position–and found myself quaking. Gosh, I thought, either I’m working harder than I thought, or I’m really getting stressed out about the magnitude of this project. But as soon as I had the pipe cut–and before I had the chance to replace it–I swooned on the couch, my fever spiked, and I was flat on my back for a couple of days, with the worst flu we can remember. Maybe it wasn’t the project that made me tremble, but the oncoming fever!

But such is life. And there’s so much richness just in being able to smile and count suffering and various forms of “passive diminishment” as part of living the Gospel. Just as there is so much joy, such richness in our faith, in being able to face financial frustration and rejoice to meet Lady Poverty, to find the joy of Holy Obedience in frustration at work, (even a taste of Holy Celibacy in times of separation) and abandonment to divine providence when life is too much for us. The Gospel of suffering is good news.

And that’s why I didn’t write two weeks ago.

***

But last weekend, it was a much different challenge. I want to share with you readers, just briefly, about a wonderful conference I attended, on Thomas Aquinas and the Bible. (It’s worth clicking through, just to see the titles of the talks.)

So many things I could say, but I just want to say something simple: there were I think sixty-nine papers given, by people who really know their stuff, on Thomas Aquinas’s love of the Bible.

Okay, a couple details: Maybe my favorite paper was by Brant Pitre, a Bible scholar and friend of Scott Hahn’s. He got into some very technical questions about the dating of the Last Supper: in short, John’s Gospel seems to say Passover didn’t start till the next night, Friday night, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to say Passover started Thursday night, and it’s pretty hard to figure out how to fit them together. Most Bible scholars just throw up their hands and say obviously the Gospels don’t care much about historical details, they contradict one another, they must be wrong.

Well, here’s what we learned about Thomas Aquinas in that paper: a) He believes the Gospels are accurate history, and that the history of the Gospels is really important to our faith, b) he thought really hard even about these very technical questions of Biblical interpretation, not because they have big philosophical significance, but because he loves the page of the Gospel, c) he read both the New Testament and some pretty obscure passages of the Old Testament a lot more carefully than any modern scholar, and found ways to solve this problem based just on knowing the Bible really really well.

There were lots of other papers that talked about, for example, Thomas’s deep insights into the theology of St. Paul, the interpretation of the Psalms (where he finds Christ on every page), and John’s Gospel, which he reads with exquisite depth.

The point of all these examples is simply this: Thomas Aquinas loved the Bible. You should know that.

I’m sorry I missed writing a post while I was at that conference. But it affirmed the most basic insight of this web page, which is that the deepest Catholic theology comes from meditation on Scripture, and the best preparation for reading Scripture is a deep understanding of Catholic theology. I’m proud to have a small place in that project: on this page, at the conference, and I hope in all my teaching and research–and my life. Thomas Aquinas and Scripture!