Twenty-Fourth Sunday: Temptations

We need to understand—and doubt—our motivations.

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner - Jesus and nicodemus.jpgI’ve been reading the desert fathers, especially lately through the first volume of the Philokalia.  They make much of the line, “All that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” which they take to be parallel to the three temptations of Christ.  (Dostoyevsky loved the Philokalia, and I think it’s the source of his Grand Inquisitor, which is also a meditation on this theme.)

Lust of the flesh (hunger for bread, and hunger for sex) is one of the temptations that corrupts us.  But so too is lust of the eyes (the desire for power and wealth) and the pride of life (the desire for recognition).  Scripture and the saints warn us to be more aware—more vigilant and sober, the Philokalia says—about the ways we are tempted.

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This past Sunday’s first reading, from Wisdom, has “the wicked” plotting to attack “the just one.”  One theme is that God will defend the just one.  But the other theme is that he is “obnoxious” to the wicked.  The problem is, the voice of Christ is often obnoxious to us: not only when he condemns sex (the American Church seems to understand that sex is important), but also when he calls us to fast, and to renounce wealth and power and the cult of fame and recognition.  Frankly, I think this is a root cause of why so many conservative American Catholics hate the Pope: “he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.”  (Which is not to deny that there are reasons to oppose what some people report the Pope says.)

James continues to excoriate us, with that same wisdom from the Philokalia: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions?”  The roots of all kinds of conflicts are in our disordered loves.

James sums up his argument with a nice turn.  “You do not possess because you do not ask.  You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”  We need to love God as both means and ends.  We need to ask God for what we want, instead of trying to get it through violence and disorder.  But we need God to be what we want.  The suffering of “the just one” is from people who want bad things and use bad means to get them; by the just one’s sufferings, he proves what he wants and how he will try to get it.

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In our Gospel, we have skipped ahead a chapter from last week, skipped the Transfiguration (which has its own feast) and a powerful exorcism, and skipped ahead to the next time Jesus proclaims his coming death.

File:Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgWe have two short paragraphs.  First he says he is going to be killed; then the disciples argue who is greatest, and he tells them to receive a child.  This story is not in Matthew.

Mark gives a nice bridge between the two.  In response to his predicting his death, “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”  Then he questions them, and says “What were you arguing about on the way?”  They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

They are presented with a mystery as deep as the Cross—and they ignore it, and talk about something else.  And they turn from the wisdom of God to their own wisdom: they don’t ask Jesus, they talk about themselves.  How quick we are, too, to hear the mysterious wisdom of God—and shrug it off and go back to human concerns.

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In Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” and he says, “Unless you turn and become like children.”  That’s good stuff.

File:Lippi, pietà del museo horne.jpgBut in Mark, they don’t ask Jesus (and they don’t mention the kingdom of heaven, just “who is the greatest?”)  And here, Jesus doesn’t tell them to become children, he tells them to receive children, and to be servants.

Here again is that wisdom of the Philokalia.  They need to cast out their worldly desires, and desire not to rise in status, but to become greater servants.  In that service, he tells them to set their heart on him: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  Look for Jesus, serve Jesus, love Jesus, work only for Jesus.  The child here is a symbol of casting off earthly desires: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes (power and wealth), and the pride of life (recognition).  Only in that conquering of the world can they learn to long for Jesus, and to be identified with Jesus.  And only in casting off worldly glory can they learn to receive everything from Jesus, even when they have grasped nothing for themselves.

What false loves tempt you away from Jesus?

 

 

 

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: The Poverty of the Cross

If, as the ancients said, Mark is Peter’s writer, then Peter’s profession of faith is central to Mark’s Gospel.

Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus asked, “Who do people say . . . who do you say that I am?”  Both have Peter answer.  Both then say, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly,” Peter rebukes him, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan”; then he tells the disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Much of these events is word-for-word the same, even in the narrative (not just because they remember Jesus’ words); one evangelist is using the other’s writing.

File:Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter by Peter Paul Rubens - Gemäldegalerie - Berlin - Germany 2017.jpgBut Matthew has a passage Mark does not.  Matthew’s Gospel has, first: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”; then: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”; and third: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Big verses.

Nineteenth-century liberal Protestant scholars used this difference to discredit the papacy: Mark is primitive, therefore “real” Matthew made all this stuff up.

Now, I believe the Gospels are true, the very foundation of Christianity.  Matthew is Gospel truth.  But it must be said: I heard two homilies this Sunday, and both talked about Peter’s profession while sweeping under the rug all that stuff about the Cross.  Mark is correcting Matthew, in the sense that he doesn’t let us get carried away in triumphalism.

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Mark isn’t so primitive.  He adds little details.  Matthew says they’re going to the “district” of Caesarea Philippi; Mark, with his typical eyewitness details, says this happened in the “villages” of that district.  Matthew just says they were there, Mark points out that it happened on the road.

And Mark adds, when Jesus speaks about the cross, “He said this openly,” and that when he rebuked Peter, he was “looking at the disciples,” including them.  Mark has something to say.

File:Cimabue 012.jpgWhat he has to say is that Peter got it wrong.  Yes, Jesus said those words about Peter’s leadership.  But Mark’s version of the story emphasizes that, though they knew to call Jesus “Christ,” they didn’t know what that meant.  Fine to profess Jesus Lord—do you know that it means the Cross, both for him and for you?

Mark even reorders the final words, about the Son of Man coming in glory.  Matthew announces that it will happen: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”  Hurrah!

Mark subordinates that coming to Peter’s shame: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  How awful to deny Christ.  And that’s the center of this Gospel.

 

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The first reading is always picked for the Sunday Gospel; here we get Isaiah, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”

The second reading, however, is going through something in order—we’re three weeks into a five-week tour of James—and now we get: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

Crucified with Christ

First: those two readings match the two statements Jesus makes about being Christ.  First, he has to suffer: “I gave my back.”  To profess Jesus is Lord is to profess him as that Lord, the Suffering Servant.  But then Jesus says we have to bear our own cross: no good to profess him Lord unless we join him.

Second: in Isaiah and that first paragraph after Peter’s profession, he says the Messiah is poor.  He unites himself not to our power, but to our weakness; we ourselves must find him on the Cross, not in earthly splendor.  But in James and that second paragraph, he says that he is for the poor: James’ central image of “works,” throughout the letter, is caring for the poor: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day.”  Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake”: give it all away.

Third, the reason is our faith that God will protect us: In Matthew’s commendation, Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  But in both Matthew and Mark, when Peter denies the cross, Jesus says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as man.”

But, “See,” says Isaiah, “the Lord GOD is my help.”  “He is near who upholds my right.”  We can afford to suffer, to be poor and for the poor, because we believe the Lord is strong, and he is with us.

Where do you rebuke the Cross?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Believe in the Resurrection

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and cannot speak.

We are back into Mark (I am sorry to have missed last week—thirty-six hours down with food poisoning plus being on the road).  Again we have Mark’s curious attention to detail.  Matthew the accountant tells this story in two verses, Luke, with his own bunch of stories to add, tells it in one.  Mark takes six or seven.

File:Healing of Aeneas.jpgOnly Mark gives us the detail that Jesus “put his finger into the man’s hears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned,” just as only Mark will tell us, in the next chapter, about the blind man who at first thinks people look like trees.

Only Mark tells us the Hebrew word Jesus says, “Ephphatha, be opened,” just as only Mark tells us that he said “Talitha cumi, which means, little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Mark is the shortest gospel, but don’t be deceived: Mark isn’t short on details.  And though Matthew and John are ascribed to members of the Twelve, and Luke makes much in his introduction of finding extra stories, Mark seems to have an inside line.  I like the ancient tradition that says Mark was Peter’s scribe, relating Peter’s intimacy.

I don’t mean to waste time on trivia, but I do think it helps us fall in love with the Gospels if we appreciate the special richness of each one.  I have found it helpful in my own Gospel reading to flip back and forth, seeing how the stories differ, to see the special emphasis each evangelist is giving us.

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Helpful, too, to lean into the strange details.  The first verse seems boring: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”

Except that the previous story is about the Syro-Phoenician woman—“yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”—a powerful story about Jesus’ complex love for the people outside Israel.  And Sidon is twenty miles north—deeper into Phoenician territory—than Tyre (and Mark usually says “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” so when he says “the region of Tyre,” he seems to be saying Jesus was in Tyre, not Sidon).  In this one verse, Jesus is going deeper into missionary territory.

So too with Decapolis, which is the opposite, eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, furthest from Sidon and not the western shore of Capernaum, where he spends most of his time.  In fact, the Decapolis, too, is pagan, Greek territory.  These locations—precious details, in Mark’s spare Gospel—speak of Jesus’s mercy.

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Meister von Müstair 002.jpgSo too the physicality of the healing.  Jesus touches the man, puts his fingers in his ears and spits on his tongue.  He groans.  We’re tempted to over-spiritualize Christianity, to say that bodies don’t matter.  Jesus does want to heal our souls; it is lest they subordinate love of God to this world’s gifts that here, again, he “ordered them not to tell anyone”; but Jesus is incarnate, and we look forward to the resurrection of the body.  We pray not to a far-away spirit, but to the Word made flesh.

Funny how this healing works.  “He put his finger into the man’s ears.”  Perhaps it is just to be near them, that would be rich in itself.  But then he says, “Be opened.”  It seems like he plugs the man’s ears himself.  Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Jesus, soon to be crucified, uniting himself to the man’s disability, somehow becoming part of it, so that he himself can release it?  So too his spit shares in the man’s clumsiness of mouth.

One more: the Greek word here for “deaf” is literally “chopped” or “blunted.”  Sometimes in the New Testament it clearly means deaf; sometimes it clearly means unable to speak.  The word here for speech impediment is “difficulty of words.”  Interesting how closely hearing and speech go together.  If we cannot hear, we cannot speak.  Lord, restore my hearing, so I will have something to say.

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File:Masolino, resurrezione di tabita.jpgOur first reading, from Isaiah, has God restoring his creation.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, the mute sing, the deserts burst forth with streams.  God did not make the physical world so it would end in futility; he made it to end in the resurrection of the body—and in the resurrection of man all creation is resurrected.  He who made it will restore it.

But our reading from James turns this healing to human relationships, indicting those who prefer the rich to the poor.  It seems to me that we in the American Church need to hear these readings; it seems to me Scripture and Tradition speak an awful lot about the poor, and American Catholics are awful quick to shrug that off as irrelevant.  (Walker Percy jokes that we will have a schismatic “American Catholic Church,” with the Latin Mass, “Property Rights Sunday,” and the red white and blue raised at the consecration.  Look out.)

Why do we prefer the rich?  Because we think God cannot heal.  We think we need to stick up for ourselves, and we think those who are weak are useless.  We prefer the rich because we don’t believe in Jesus.

Do you believe in the Resurrection?