Gaudete Sunday: A Consuming Fire

I’ve been thinking about the Alleluia.  It is is something we say to celebrate, and what we celebrate with it is that, even among the greatness of the other Biblical readings, this one, the Gospel, is good news.  When we say Alleluia, we should pray, “Hurrah!”

But it’s almost funny how that hurrah clashes with what usually follows: because almost always, the Gospel punches us in the nose.  Those who haven’t read the Gospel think it’s full of Jesus telling us how nice he is and how much he likes us just as we are.  But open the Gospel and read it, and you feel yourself almost under seige.

In the last week’s daily Masses, for example, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof got healed, but only after he was reminded that he needs forgiveness, which Jesus alone can give; and the condition of his healing was extraordinarily hard work.  Mary’s life and plans were hijacked to make place for a kind of king none of us is looking for.  We were pointed to the bizarre and frightening John the Baptist, and told that the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force—which could mean a lot of things, but none of them pleasant.  We heard that Elijah—another fearsome prophet—must come, and that we fail to recognize him when he does.  We heard that John calls us to fast, and Jesus calls us, not to feast, but to pursue sinners—and on another day, to seek the lost one instead of just rejoicing over the ninety-nine—and I know I neither fast for seek the lost.  Good news?  Hurrah?

***

This Sunday’s “Guadete” Gospel, “rejoice,” has three parts.  In the first paragraph, John the Baptist demands conversion.  In the second, he says his call to repentance is only water, but Jesus will bring fire.  And in the third—ah, that Gospel sense of humor—Luke tells us that somehow this is “good news.”

File:Spas v silach from Vasilyevskiy chin (15th c., GTG).jpgJesus is fire.  “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  John the Baptist baptizes with water: for all his terrifying austerity, he can only rinse off the outside.  But fire purifies all the way through.

And the Gospel is fire.  The good news is strange good news: not that we’re fine the way we are, but that Jesus changes everything.  The Beatitudes are the same way: “Blessed,” they begin, “Happy,”—and then they tell us that the path to happiness points what seems to exactly the wrong direction—to the Cross.

I was with a friend recently who was worrying that someone in his life would be a lot happier if she could just focus more on herself.  That makes sense.  The Gospel’s answer makes a lot less sense: but it’s true.

When we sing “Alleluia,” we don’t say, “this will be nice, I’m going to be confirmed in what I already thought,” but “thank God, Jesus comes to shake me out of my complacency, to lead me in new ways—and to purify me with unquenchable fire.”  Thank God I am not left to my own devices.  Hurrah!

(Incidentally, that’s why we should read and preach Scripture, not just our own stupid ideas.)

***

Thus our reading from Zephaniah promises that the coming King will “renew you in his love” and “turn away your enemies.”  There’s a lot of joy in that—and a lot of purifying fire, since our enemies are within.

And Philippians tells us that a peace that surpasses all understanding—that is, not the peace that makes sense to the world—will guard your hearts and minds, and only “in Christ Jesus.”  “No anxiety,” because “by prayer and petition” we trust God to do what we cannot.

***

And rejoicing, St. Paul tells us, goes hand in hand with “kindness.”  Sounds kinda hokey.  But John the Baptist says something similar.

“What should we do?”  “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none”: pretty reasonable, actually.  Jesus, who is fire, not water, will go much further, and tell us to give our tunic to the one who takes our cloak (Lk 6:29) and, “Sell all you have and give to the poor” (Lk 18:22).

John just tells us not to be jerks: share our excess with those who have none, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” “Do not practice extortion,” “Do not falsely accuse anyone,” “Be satisfied with your wages.”  All of those things, of course, apply far beyond tax collectors and soldiers: plenty of extortion and false accusations in our homes and workplaces.

But though what John says is reasonable, it is also radical.  A strange thing happened in twentieth century Catholicism, where “liberals” told us to be nice to people and “conservatives” said that’s just silly.  In fact, kindness and basic justice are far too demanding for our tastes, which is why we try to explain them away, and they end up demanding the whole moral law, because there’s no justice or kindness in adultery, theft, lying, or skipping Sunday Mass.  (“Conservative” and “liberal” Catholicism both water down the Gospel.)

And that’s just getting started, because where John rinses our outsides, Jesus comes with the Holy Spirit and fire, the winnowing fan to blow away the chaff with which we cover the Eucharistic wheat of the Gospel, and the fire of love to burn it all away.

Good news.  But the good news of the cross, and the poverty of Bethlehem.

How do you encounter the call to repentance?

Second Sunday of Advent: Under Pontius Pilate

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

File:Isenmann, Colmar Altarpiece (Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns).jpgAfter a first Sunday that looked forward to the final coming of Christ, our second Sunday of Advent introduces John the Baptist, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” and clarifying that the real preparation is “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which is the true meaning of baptism.

The reading, from Luke 3, starts, sort of like Luke 1 (“In the days of Herod”) and Luke 2 (“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”) with a statement that locates the reading historically: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”

That statement dates the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert, and the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry: the year 29-30.  Scholars think partly Luke is trying to be fancy.  Certainly he’s trying to state that the events he relates are historical.  When in the Creed we say, “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” one thing we mean is, “this is not myth, this is history.”

***

But Luke goes on, with a lot of details that aren’t necessary for historical dating.  He is telling us more than that this is the year 30.  He is telling us what that year was like—as if, after saying, “in 2018,” we went on to say, “in the age of Hillary and Trump.”

File:Melker Altar - Dornenkrönung.JPGTo say “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” is to say that Jerusalem is occupied by pagans, by the rulers of this world.

He names only three “tetrarchs” (literally, “the four rulers”); the one he is leaving out he is the tetrarch of Judea, as if to say the so-called Jewish king of Judea (where Jerusalem is) is a non-entity.

“Herod was tetrarch of Galilee” reminds us how far the Herod’s have fallen: this is the son of Herod the Great; now he only gets the backwaters.  It also points forward, as does Pontius Pilate, to the crucifixion: the not-quite-king who will take part in the death of our Lord is introduced as a no one.

“His brother Philip [was] tetrarch of the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis”: we are introduced to another nobody, for whose wife Herod will call John the Baptist.  Ituraea is “the land of Jetur’s people”: Ishmaelites, whom David battled.  Some kingdom.  Trachonitis means “rugged stony land.”  Some kings, these miserable tetrarchs.

And then “Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,” way up to the northeast, as if to underline that the Herodians who claim to be kings of the Jews are puppet of the pagan caesar, ruling over pagan lands.  “Tetrarch” is a lousy claim to authority.

Then comes, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”  Caiaphas, of course, again points forward to the crucifixion.  Annas was his father-in-law, yet another puppet of the Romans.  By this time Annas was not high priest, Caiaphas was; Luke is mocking the son-in-law, the puppet of a puppet.

***

File:Giuseppe Arcimboldo Herod.jpgAnd into this morass comes John: “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”

Zechariah himself was introduced, in chapter one, in the same kind of juxtaposition: “In the days of Herod [the Great, the father], king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”

Scholars cites this “days of Herod” as if it proves Jesus wasn’t born in the year 0: Herod died in 4 BC.  But whereas Luke 2 (“. . . This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria”) and Luke 3 (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”) are both specific, Luke 1 is not.  It doesn’t sound to me like Luke is trying to date the annunciations to Zechariah and then to Mary so much as to situate them.  Herod was king—and Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous.

So too, in Luke 3, Herod Jr and the rest of them claim power: and John, in the desert, son of the righteous ones, hears the Word of the Lord.  John calls us to repentance—but Luke is calling us to repentance, too, asking us whether we’d rather be in the palaces of kings, or in the desert, or the stable, whether we’d rather sit with these stupid puppets who do what they’re told by filthy pagan Romans, or whether we want to follow the Word of the Lord.

File:Masolino - Banquet of Herod - WGA14245.jpgOur Psalm again cites the torrents in the southern desert.  Into the dry land of Roman power comes pouring the power of God’s Word, the power of repentance, and of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus.  Which do we cling to?

***

It puts a shattering spin on the mild words of our reading from Philippians: “I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you.”  With joy, because the Word has come to us.  But praying, because we have chosen darkness.

“And this is my prayer that your love may increase ever more and more.”  That is the torrent in the desert, the rush of new life: God’s love, poured into our hearts, “with knowledge and every kind of perception,” to see truly, to make crooked ways straight, to prepare the way of the Lord.

What miserable puppet kings do we follow?

First Sunday of Advent: Anticipation

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

For the beginning of Advent, our first Sunday’ readings have us prepare for the end.

Ambrosius Francken (I) Triumph des Christuskindes c1605-10.jpgOur Gospel, in the new year of Luke, warns of final tribulations; we’re reading the parallel to the passage we read two weeks ago, from Mark.  “People will die of fright in anticipation. . . . The powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

Reading this Sunday’s Gospel (and the one from two weeks ago) with my children, I did not know quite what to tell them—this is surreal stuff—but I was glad that the Lectionary reminds me, and teaches them, to think beyond this world.  We need an “apocalyptic imagination,” to see beyond the everyday.  I read the Book of Revelation with them a few years ago: they loved it, it’s so strange and mysterious and exciting.  Our spiritual life should have that note.

***

That said, I also want to emphasize the normality of this Gospel.  “On earth nations will be in dismay,” it says, “perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  But that roaring, though it does have an apocalyptic sound, is also normal.  The Psalms are full of this roaring: “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.”  “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”  “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!”

The Apostles were amazed to see Jesus still the sea.  But they were not amazed to hear the sea roar.  It roared last week in Anchorage, Alaska.

***

File:Christ entering Jerusalem icon.jpgIf you go to daily Mass, you heard this whole apocalyptic chapter of Luke last week.  Just before our Sunday Gospel we hear about the destruction of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it.”

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not a Bible scholar, and maybe I’m missing something, but: scholars think these predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem prove that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.  I have no idea what year Luke’s Gospel was written.  But I do know that what happened in 70 AD was not unique.  Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians (587 BC I think, though I’m not great at these dates), after it had watched in terror as the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians (722).  Not long after they returned from exile (537) the Greeks desecrated the Temple again (168), and though the Maccabees fought back, the Judean kings themselves turned Herodian around 120 BC, and the Romans, like Pilate, took charge by 6 AD.

In short, the destruction of Jerusalem isn’t a weird thing, a unique occurance in 70 AD.  Jerusalem is always being destroyed.

The earth is always being shattered.  The Church is always being persecuted, and self-destructing.  The end will come, yes—but the surprising thing is that we are constantly shocked that the world is falling apart.

***

Mystic Marriage.jpgNo, the miracle is not destruction, the miracle is healing.  Our reading from Jeremiah might be more helpful in that regard.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise.”  Justice—in our short reading, he speaks of justice four times, plus security twice—will come at last.

Now, that’s good news and bad news.  Finally the righteous will be rewarded, the Church will triumph as she should.

But would that I were righteous.  Would that I hungered and thirsted for justice as I ought.  Would that I could receive the king of love, the king of justice and of mercy, as one who longed for those things and not for their opposites.  (Mercy and justice, of course, are not opposites: the opposite of justice is injustice, and the opposite of mercy is indifference to others’ sufferings.  If only those were not such good descriptions of me.)

***

So our reading from First Thessalonians—one of Paul’s most apocalyptic letters, alongside our other apocalpytic readings—is wonderfully humdrum.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another.”  That’s how we can be ready to meet the Lord when he comes.

Bjc.jpgAnd how can we get ready for his return in power?  By entering into his first coming, in humility.  “We earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus . . . .  You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

That’s a funny line: he gave instructions “through” the Lord?  What it means is that it is only in union with Christ that we can be ready for Christ to come.  It is only “the Lord” who can “make you increase and abound in love.”

Therefore, our Gospel concludes, “Be vigilant and pray”—pray!—“that you have the strength . . .to stand before the Son of Man.”

What would need to change for you to be able to stand without shame before the humble Lord Jesus?

Christ the King—My Kingdom is Not of This World

Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37

For the last Sunday of our year of Mark, Christ the King, the Lectionary gives us John’s account of the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate about true kingship.

Stuttgart Psalter fol23.jpgWe start with the famous “Son of Man” prophecy, the first vision of Daniel, when the visions begin in Daniel 7.  “I saw one like a Son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven.”  Jesus calls himself “the son of man,” and people make the connection.

Now, I’m not a Bible scholar, so maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that “son of man” is used a lot of places in the Old Testament, and it just means, “human,” maybe specifically, “weak human.”  Psalm 8, for example, asks, “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Here in Daniel 7, before our reading, the vision begins with four beasts, the first and fourth of which look like “a man.”  They are big and powerful and bad.  They are defeated not by man, nor by any earthly power, but by “the ancient of days.”  (I can’t find that phrase anywhere else in the Bible.)

The Son of Man “receives” power from the Ancient of Days.  This Son of Man doesn’t conquer, he lets God conquer.

Of course, Jesus is both Son of Man and Son of God—but if he’s referring to Daniel 7, it’s to make this distinction about who is powerful.  We cannot defeat the beasts, or the earthly powers they represent, by earthly power.  Before the power of Pilate, the Son of Man gets crucified.

***

Visby Sankta Maria Christ Icon01a.jpgBefore Pilate, Jesus is almost evasive about kingship.  Pilate, the governor, rules on behalf of Caesar, the ultimate earthly king (who is in his own way called son of God and most high, etc.), and somehow cooperates with the local client king Herod.  Pilate knows—or thinks he knows—what kingship means.

So Jesus can’t be direct.  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  As Thomas Aquinas would say, “kingship can be said in many ways.”  Depends what you mean by “king.”

Jesus does claim kingship when he says, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.  If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”  It’s a delightful distinction: yes, I am a king—and no, I am not the kind of king you’re thinking of.

In Pilate’s world—in our world—kings fight.  Kings kill; they are king because they do not get killed.  In that sense, no, Jesus is no king.  But is that true kingship?

***

Another equivocation is about “the Jews.”  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Well, yes and no.  Pilate says, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation [that is, the Jews] and the chief priests handed you over to me.”  Jesus turns that around when he says, “my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”  Did the Jews hand him over to Pilate, or is Pilate handing him over to the Jews, or what?  Are they “his own nation”?

Yes and no.  It seems to me John’s Gospel uses “the Jews” in a funny way—sort of like how he uses “the world,” which God “so loved” and for the life of which Jesus gives his flesh, but of which Jesus says, about his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” and even “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me.”  John’s Gospel does something similar with “the flesh”: good and bad, depending what you mean.

Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  And Jesus says . . . depends what you mean by “the Jews.”  “The Jews” can mean those who are handing him over to Pilate, who won’t go into the Praetorium so they won’t be defiled for Passover, but who ask Pilate to help them, because “It is not lawful”—according to Caesar’s law—“for us to put anyone to death”; they later say, “We have no king but Caesar.”  No, he is not their king.  But the Jews are his kingdom.

A lot of these words don’t mean what people think that they mean.

***

Niko Pirosmani. Easter Lamb. Oil on oilcloth. State Art Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia.jpgSo too, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  But Pilate says, “What is truth?”

These two are not speaking the same language.  Jesus is king, but not by earthly standards.  He is king not because he has the power of Daniel’s beasts, but because he bears witness to the Ancient of Days, the only real power.  “My kingdom is not here.”  Those are words we should say.  Yes, kingdom—but no, not that kind of kingdom.

***

“Behold he is coming amid the clouds,” says our reading from Revelation.  (I’m not sure why, but these Фрагмент (10587682466).jpgfinal appearances always involve “the clouds.”)  “And every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.  All the peoples of the earth will lament him.  Yes.  Amen.”

Somehow, the final judgment will mean seeing the one whom earthly power has pierced, and knowing whose side we have chosen.

Is your kingdom of this world?

 

Thirty-Third Sunday: The In-Between Time

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18, Mark 13:24-32

In our Sunday Gospel two weeks ago, a scribe asked Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” and when he had answered, “No one dared to ask him any more questions.”  This week Jesus responds to one last question.

Our reading begins, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In those days after that tribulation.’”  Again the Lectionary alludes to a passage we didn’t read, which begins, “Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’”

This is our last reading from Mark: because Mark is short, this year we read from John, too, so for the last Sunday of the year, Christ the King, we will read John’s account of Christ before Pilate.

***

Our reading from Daniel tells of “a time unsurpassed in distress,” “there shall arise Michael,” “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.”  The prophets foretold a final day of wrath, and it is about that day that the Apostles ask Jesus.

But Jesus’ answer is subtle.  He begins, “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet.”  The passage we read at Mass concludes, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Jesus speaks of his humanity: no creature, not even the angels, can see that day, only God knows.)

The Apocalypse is not about predicting the future.  It will come—but we don’t know when.  Don’t look for signs.

***

Civate San Pietro Apocalisse 03.JPGHere’s an important point in Catholic theology.  Protestants (and some Catholics) have a tendency to read the Bible as talking about other times.  For them, the most important part about Genesis is figuring out when and how the world was created back then; the most important part of the Apocalypse is figuring out when and how it will happen; even the most important part of Christ’s work on the cross is what happened then.

As Catholics, we believe all these things are true: God did create the world, it will end, and Jesus’ death on the Cross is the central moment of history.

But we believe all those things are important now, not just “then,” “in that day.”  Genesis, the Apocalypse, and the Cross all tell us how to live now.  They are of historical importance because they are also of moral importance, today.

***

Thus if we keep reading past this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be on guard, keep awake.  For you do not know when the time will come. . . . Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”  The Apocalypse is something that will happen—but it is important for how we live our lives today: as those who await his coming, not as those who have it all figured out.

Twice in the passage leading up to our Gospel Jesus warns about “false christs and false prophets.”  Instead of following new leaders, we need to hold on.

***

When it comes, our Gospel says, you will know: “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (that’s a prophecy made many times) “and then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”  “Learn a lesson from the fig tree: . . . when you see these things happening, know.”  (A curious reference: he begins his final ministry in Jerusalem by cursing a fig tree for not being ripe before its time.  A complicated passage—but one point is, things have their proper time—and only Jesus can uproot the mountains.)

You will know!  No need to guess.

***

StEtienneAuxerreCrypteChrist.jpgOur reading from Hebrews says Jesus made the “one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.”  We await that final victory too—and live in the in-between time, when we know Jesus will triumph but we have not experienced it yet.

“By one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.”  Christ on the Cross gives us the strength to survive.  If we read on in Hebrews, we would find something similar to our reading from Daniel: “At that time your people shall escape . . . . Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever. . . . The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

Jesus is at work in our hearts even now.  We do not yet see the triumph of justice and wisdom—we do not expect to see that triumph until he comes.  But we know the triumph will be his, and we live in the in-between time, letting his Cross, made present to us through the sacraments, shape us into the people of the final age.

What difference does hope for the final triumph of Christ make in your life?

Thirty-Second Sunday: True Love

1 Kings 17:10-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

This week’s Gospel is the widow’s mite: “she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.”

Our reading about the prophet Elijah gives the story of another widow.  The prophet is demanding.  To a woman who is preparing her last meal before she starves to death, he says, “First make me a little cake . . . .  Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.”  The Lord provides—but only to those who give him everything.

File:Christ on the cross - Hugo van der Goes.jpgOur reading from Hebrews takes us into the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  The priest of the Old Testament could offer only a “blood that is not his own.”  To sacrifice something other than ourselves has no power to overcome our sins or to establish our relationship with God.  But like the widow, the sacrifice Jesus offers is his own life.  That is the only true and sufficient sacrifice.

The flipside is that when Christ “will appear a second time,” it will no longer be to offer sacrifice, but “to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.”  That “eager awaiting” is the sign of our own sacrifice: do we, like the widow, long only for God?

Last week we read about loving God with our whole heart.  Now we see how demanding that love is.

***

Our Gospel gives two contrasting paragraphs, one about the scribes, one about the widow.  The scribes—those who know God’s laws and promises from the Old Testament—are a theme here.  Last week it was a scribe who knew that we should love God with our whole heart, and to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  To know is not far—but not there yet, either, until we love in fact.

Then the Lectionary skips a short scene where Jesus argues with the scribes, who misunderstand the power of the Messiah.  They know the command, they don’t fully appreciate the promise.

Isus od Kumanovo.jpgAnd this week, he condemns the scribes.  He says they “like to go around in long robes (in Greek, stoles) and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.”  Sound like anyone you know?

They have their fancy costume, and they go three places: the marketplaces, the synagogues, the banquets.  Everywhere, they want to be first.  But notice that all of this is very social.  One could imagine that they—as so many of us today—pass this all off as love of neighbor: how could I not love to greet people in the marketplace, and to go to parties!  We pass off a lot of self-indulgence in the name of love.

Then comes the stinger.  Jesus tends to slap us in the face, but here he is more like Paul, who likes to bury the sting.  “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.”

“Devour” is literally “eat up,” and it comes right after the banquets.  I’ve only seen one scene from the Sopranos, but it’s on this theme.  How often, in the name of ministry, do we all—yes, priests especially, but all of us—claim to be piously enjoying hospitality, when in fact we’re just serving ourselves.  How often, in the name of love, do we justify self-indulgence?

***

Dead christ cyprus.jpgThe “widow” puts a point on it.  It’s still self-serving if you’re getting your steaks and movies from Carmela Soprano, who has plenty of money.  But the widow brings out the pure selfishness of the scribe who claims to be pious and eats away her livelihood.

Jesus then looks up to see a widow.  The last line is, she “has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”  In fact, the way Greek says this is, “her whole life”: what the widow put in the coinbox was, for her, life itself.

Elijah demanded all—but Elijah also had the miraculous power to restore that widow to life.  He gave more than he received, and his receiving was truly in the name of piety.  That’s not true of much that we do.  We are called to be like the widow, not like Elijah.

***

I like the contrast between those who “contributed from their surplus wealth” and she “from her poverty.”  The Evangelist introduces the widow as a “poor widow.”  In Greek, the word for “widow” already means, literally, “one in need”; it’s not just that her husband is dead, it’s that she has no provision.  But the word for “poor widow” here means “crouching,” and thus “begging”; it’s distinct from a word for poverty that means “toiling”: the “crouching” person is a beggar.

Then the contrast is built on two prepositions.  The word for “abundance” is a fun expansion of the word “around”: either it means, “people with a lot of stuff within arm’s reach” or “people giving the stuff that is nearby, but not really themselves”—like the Old Testament priests, who offered animals instead of themselves.  But when it says she gave “from her poverty,” it’s a similar expansion on the word “under”: either because she is the kind of person who is “beneath” everyone else, or because what she gives, what he next calls her very “life,” is not something just “nearby” her, but the very ground she stands on.

Like it or not, friends, when Jesus tells us to love with our whole heart, he doesn’t mean we go to parties and get fed.  He means we enter into the widow’s poverty—the poverty of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Where are your claims to love really a sham?

Thirty-First Sunday: The Heart of the Matter

Deuteronomy 6:2-6, Psalm 18, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 12:28b-34

As we begin the last month of the liturgical year, our Gospel leaps ahead.  We had read a few consecutive stories leading up to the triumphant entry at the beginning of Mark, chapter 11.  Now we leap ahead to the middle of chapter twelve, where Jesus and a scribe agree that the “first of all the commandments” is to love God and neighbor.

File:Bernardino Luini. Christ among Doctors.jpgJesus is affirming the Old Testament.  Here, at the culmination of his teaching, in answer to the most basic, ultimate question, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, the culmination of the five books of Moses.  First he quotes the Sh’ma, the most fundamental Jewish prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone.”  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not as obviously central, but it is a quotation from Leviticus (19:18), and it does indeed summarize much of the Old Law, the two poles of which are worship of God and love of neighbor, especially the poor neighbor, the one most in need of our mercy.

The scribe agrees with Jesus.  “Pharisee” and “Sadducee” are names of two particular interpretations of the Law (Pharisees looked for ways to maximize their religious life away from the Temple, Sadducees deemphasized everything but the Temple).  But “scribe” names not an interpretation, but an expert.  We don’t know what this guy thought, only that he knew his stuff.  The learned Israelite agrees with Jesus.

***

Neither Jesus nor the scribe quotes Deuteronomy exactly.  As our first reading shows, Moses says (both in the Hebrew original and in the classic Greek translation that Jesus often quotes), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Jesus expands “all your soul” to “with all your soul, with all your mind.”  The scribe says “with all your understanding.”

These are friendly amendments: not changes, just interpretations.  But it shows that they are thinking about the meaning of Scripture, not just quoting mindlessly.

***

This is another story where the first and last words are important.  Now, the reference begins 12:28b—partway into the verse—and the English translation just dives in: “One of the scribes came.”  The Latin (the official version of the Lectionary) adds “In illo tempore: At that time, one of the scribes came.”  But both leave out the key words of the first verse: “Hearing them disputing with one another.”  There is a context for the scribe’s conversation with Jesus.

File:Domenico Fetti - Christ and the Tribute Money - Walters 37582.jpgIn the stories the Lectionary skipped over, since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has “disputed” about the cleansing of the temple (which Mark “sandwiches” with the strange story of the cursed fig tree), Jesus’ authority and the authority of John, the parable of the tenants who do not pay their master, paying taxes to Caesar, and the reality of the resurrection.

It’s worth reading through that list carefully.  What our story this week highlights is that in all of these things—in all of the “disputes” of Jesus with the Jewish authorities—his real principle is just the primacy of God.

This week’s scribe helps us focus.  What are you really talking about, Jesus?  Loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as our self.  That’s it.  There’s lots of disputes where that word takes flesh—but the central word is to love God and neighbor.

***

File:Antonio Arias La moneda del César Museo del Prado.jpgAnd so in the other direction, our reading ends, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”  In fact, they don’t.  In the rest of Mark’s Gospel, the only question about doctrine that remains is when the disciples ask, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We have reached the culmination of Jesus’ teaching.

It’s that simple: love—a demanding love, a total love, of God alone, and thus of our neighbor.

***

The scribe adds one key point.  He repeats Jesus’s teaching on love but adds, “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This too is a summary of the Old Testament.  In a sense, Jesus has summarized the Law, in response to the question about “the commandments.”  But the scribe has added a summary of the prophets: after Moses gives the Law, the prophets add, in a hundred ways, that God isn’t looking for the sacrifices themselves.  The sacrifices are there for the love.  (My concordance names Samuel, the Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah as places you can find that point, though we could multiply further.)

We could add that, just as this central teaching on love of God and neighbor summarizes all of Jesus’s disputes with the Pharisees and Sadducees, so it summarizes what all the prophets have taught: you don’t understand anything till you understand it is all about love.

***

File:'sacrifice'. Study for the painting in Ottawa. Art.IWMART5581.jpgOur reading from Hebrews shows how that teaching culminates in the death of Christ.  Hebrews is a complicated meditation on various Old Testament passages; this week’s reading, for example, ends with “the word of the oath,” because it is meditating on the profundity of Psalm 110’s saying, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” For the Lord to “swear” suggests there’s something important about this priestly order of Melchizedek, something greater and more fundamental than the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.

The key line from this reading in Hebrews, though, is “he offered himself . . . a son.”  The perfect sacrifice is not Temple worship, but the pure worship of life and death as a loving son.

That is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets: Christ on the Cross, the perfect act of love.

Are there parts of your religious life that get detached from simple love of God?

Thirtieth Sunday: The Remnant

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

The key word in our reading from Jeremiah this Sunday is “remnant.”  Though Israel has been defeated by Babylon, a few remain, and will come back.  Central to this remnant are “the blind and the lame.”  They show both how weak is the remnant and how strong is God, who can save even the weak.

Our Psalm adds “the torrents in the southern desert.”  It’s an important image, please watch this video.  Where there is nothing, God brings abundance.

(I like this one, too.)

***

We continue our reading of Mark with the story of blind Bartimaeus.  Now it is Jesus restoring the blind remnant.

File:Early life of Christ in the Bowyer Bible print 21 of 21. healing of a paralytic by Jesus. Vos.pngThe story opens with an important but obscure detail: “As Jesus was leaving Jericho.”  He is on the road to Jerusalem.  Jericho is in the Jordan flood plain, the typical path south from Galilee.  Perhaps you know cities like this, such as Denver: it is the last city at the foot of the mountains, before you go up to Jerusalem.  The very next verse after our reading, Jesus begins his triumphal entry: Palm Sunday, on the way to Good Friday.

That context illumines Bartimaeus’ cry: “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me. . . . Son of David, have pity on me.”  (The word is eleison, as in “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.”  It’s what beggars cry, and the response is not just to withhold punishment but to give alms–or better, to give sight.) When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds will say, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  Later, in Jerusalem, Jesus will argue with the scribes about the Christ’s relation to David.

But this is the first time David is named in Mark’s Gospel.  Mark says Bartimaeus spoke, “On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth”—not the city of David.  In other words, Bartimaeus has a kind of intuition.  He is the first of the remnant to cry out in welcome to the true king of Israel as he enters Jerusalem.  The king is welcomed not by the wise of this world, but by the weak, the remnant.

***

Mark gives us another detail: he calls him, “blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus.”  In fact, Bar- (like Ben-) is Hebrew for “son of.”  Bar-timaeus has no other name but “son of Timaeus” and “blind man.”  The son of Timaeus welcomes the son of David: a little contrast to bring out the identity of Jesus the King.  I am not the son of David, he is.

In fact, Timaeus, says my Hebrew dictionary, means “the dirty one,” or “ritually impure.”  David means “beloved.”  The dirty one welcomes the beloved.  This is the true entry of the King, and the true meaning of mercy.

***

File:William Blake - Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus - Google Art Project.jpgMark repeats a word: “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’  So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’”  The word for “call” is just “sound.”  The blind man cannot see, so Jesus reaches out another way.  (Flannery O’Connor has the great line about Christian literature, “To the hard of hearing, you shout.”  But Mark seems to say, “To the hard of hearing, you wave; to the blind man, you shout.”)  Jesus condescends to speak as we can hear him.

And he gives him sight.

***

Then Jesus says, “Go your way”: it’s a strong word, “pull away,” “go home.”  Jesus lets him go—but the response of the blind man healed by Jesus is, “he followed him on the road,” to Jerusalem.

File:Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis 001.jpgAn odd detail is that when they call the blind man, “He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.”  In part, the “throwing aside” (another strong word) emphasizes the “springing up,” the joy with which he leaps to meet his king and healer.

But I wonder if there’s not more.  I’m not sure what it is—these cloaks are ubiquitous in Mark’s Gospel.  A cloak is what the woman (to whom, as to Bartimaeus, Jesus says, “your faith has saved you”) reaches out to touch; it is what turns white at the Transfiguration, and what is stripped by the soldiers; it is what the people will put on Jesus’ donkey and strew on his path when he enters Jerusalem; and Jesus will say of the end, “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains . . . and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.”  Anyway, Bartimaeus does not go back for his cloak, he leaves his old life behind to follow, under the cloak of the king, to Jerusalem.

***

Our reading from Hebrews tells us what is necessary for this encounter.  Jesus is the high priest who “is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness.”  But “No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God . . . You are my son.”

Jesus can reach Bartimaeus and the rest of the remnant because in his weak humanity he walks the paths of the world.  But he can heal us and lead us to glory because he is also the divine son of God, the true king and the high priest clothed in glory.

What does it mean for you to be part of the remnant, like Bartimaeus? 

 

Twenty-Ninth Sunday: The Wisdom of Jesus

Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

In this Sunday’s Gospel, James and John ask for privilege: they want to sit at Jesus’s right and left in glory.

File:Joseph von Führich 001.jpgOur last few readings from Mark, in fact, have walked us through the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience.  First Jesus talked about marriage.  In Mark’s version he doesn’t talk about celibacy (though Matthew does).  But the evangelical counsel is called “chastity,” not celibacy, and although we are not all called to celibacy, Jesus does present the golden path of his very high call of marriage.

Celibacy is an “evangelical counsel,” that is, something the Gospel presents us helpful, but not necessary.  “Chastity” reminds us that these counsels call to everyone.  We are all called to radical faithfulness in regard to sex and marriage, to a transformation that is impossible for man, but for God all things are possible.

The next story, the Rich Young Man, made the same point about poverty.  We are not all called to sell all we have, that is only a “counsel”—but we are all called to a kind of radical fidelity through detachment from possessions.  That too is a gift of grace: not the grace to enter the kingdom of heaven rich, but the grace to abandon our riches and pass through the eye of the needle.

And in this week’s story, he points to the counsel of obedience.  To vow obedience to a religious superior is only a counsel.  But we are all called to radical fidelity by renouncing our desire for power and authority.  “Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”  Not everyone has to vow obedience—but we all, “whoever,” must be servants.

We are not all called to vows of religious poverty, chastity, and obedience.  But we are all called to the spirit of these counsels.

***

File:Munchhausen StPantaleon 50.JPGThe Lectionary skips over three verses, between the Rich Young Man and this week’s reading, where Jesus again foretells his death.

But our story does present us with the conflict between worldly mentalities and the mentality of the kingdom.

When they ask to sit at his side in glory, he says, “You do not know what you are asking.”  Their idea of glory is all screwed up.

But he concludes, “You know”—this is what you do know—“that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them.”  What we know is the desire for power.  That is worldly wisdom.  Jesus calls us to a new wisdom, what we do not know.

***

File:Padre-Pio-young.jpgMost translations have him ask, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  But there are no question marks in the original Greek, and perhaps it is a statement: “Let me tell you what you can do: You can drink my cup, receive my baptism.”  We receive that cup and baptism sacramentally, so that we can receive them literally when our sufferings are united to his.

Then Jesus says, “You will drink . . . and be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give, but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  “Prepared” could be translated, “adjusted to,” “fitting for.”  What Jesus gives us his cup and his baptism.  Those are our path, our preparation, for glory.  But it isn’t his way to give us glory without that preparation; the only path to glory is through the cup and the baptism, through the Cross of Christ.

***

He concludes by talking about “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles.”  “Recognized” is important.  The ones who seem to rule are not really the ones who rule.  They are not really lords, do not really influence people as they—and we—think they do.  “You know that those who seem,” he says: your worldly knowledge is a matter of appearances, not of reality.

Renounce that worldly mentality and follow the Son of Man, who “did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

***

File:Christ passion-4015f.jpgThus our reading from Hebrews tells us that Jesus, son of God, has become our high priest by sharing in our weakness, so that our weakness—our cup and baptism—can become an approach to “the throne of his grace” and mercy.

Isaiah tells us that the one who “gives his life as an offering for sin”—Jesus, and then us who join in that cup and baptism—“shall see his descendants in a long life.”  The way to success is not the way we think.  We must follow the way of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Where has worldly wisdom infected your life?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: Because He is Good

Wisdom 7:7–11, Psalm 90, Hebrews 4:12–13, Mark 10:17–30

This Sunday’s Gospel is the Rich Young Man.  Mark’s version is too rich for this short space.

File:Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler.jpgThe drama heats up when Jesus names the commandment: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.”  Matthew and Luke both report the same ordering of commandments: the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth, then back to the fourth, “honor your father and mother,” the positive good that undergirds the negative prohibitions of the other commandments about neighbors.

But Mark has Jesus throw in one more: “You shall not defraud.”  That is not one of the Ten.  In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, that word appears only twice.  One is in the prophet Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who DEFRAUD the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”

Jesus sees to the man’s heart.  The prophets just spell out what was implicit in the law.  Theft and false witness are the main issues.  But Jesus challenges him: have you “defrauded the hired worker in his wages”?  Have you covered your theft behind a hidden false witness?  (Have we?)

***

Jan Luyken's Jesus 16. The Rich Ruler. Phillip Medhurst Collection.jpgThe man responds, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”  Perhaps he is lying.  Or perhaps Jesus is showing him that even if you follow the Law exactly, “You are still lacking in one thing.”  In fact, the deeper issue beneath the Law, the issue the Law protects but does not exhaust, is love.  As Jesus points out at the beginning, the deeper issue is what we think is “Good,” whether we know that nothing “is good but God alone”—and therefore “no one” is good until his heart is fixed on God alone.

“God alone” is why we must not steal, bear false witness, or defraud the hired worker in his wages.  But “God alone” means, too, that we must be willing to go beyond the law, sell everything, and follow Christ.  Why does the man cling to his possessions?  Why do we?  It is a question of whether we know what is truly good.

***

File:"Blasts" from The Ram's Horn (1902) (14597788930).jpgThe other time “defraud” appears in the Old Testament is earlier on, at the very beginning of Moses giving the Law, when he talks about divorce: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not defraud her of her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10).  And in Mark, this story comes immediately after Jesus has talked about what Moses said about divorce.

These things are all tied together.

Fascinating that this story ends with him saying “no one who has left . . . mother or father . . . for my sake . . . will not receive . . . children.”  There’s lots else he’s saying—lots of issues beyond marriage.  But fascinating, because in the previous story (last Sunday), he has just said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother,” and in the story right before that (two Sundays ago) he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” and right after he talked about marriage he said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

It is all about what we leave and what we receive, in Jesus’ name, and for his kingdom.  No one is good but God alone—yet in God’s name we must receive the whole world anew.  We must not “defraud” God’s kingdom of the love it deserves.

***

There is an innocence in this receiving.  Thinking about the reading this week, I was fascinated by a funny juxtaposition.  When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples “were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, Then who can be saved?”  “Exceedingly astonished” is a lot (and it’s a good translation).  The disciples’ argument seems to be that if the rich can’t be saved, no one can!

File:Hans Leimbacher (attr) Lasset die Kindlein zu mir kommen.jpgBut the very next thing is that Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you.”  The disciples have already done exactly what Jesus asked the rich man to do.  Why, then, are they so amazed?  I’m not sure.

The best I can come up with—let me know what you think!—is that for once, the disciples are doing something right.  But they are doing it right because they have not done it self-consciously, not as the Pharisees. It’s not that there’s a law of poverty, and the disciples follow it, and say, “Wow, look at us, we are the greatest!”  (Though we know they are tempted to think that way.)

It sounds more like this is the first time the disciples have even noticed that they gave up everything.  It suddenly dawns on them, after they have been “exceedingly amazed” at Jesus’ demand on the rich young man, “Hey, wait a minute . . . we did that, didn’t we?”

They didn’t do it because it was the Law.  They did it because Jesus was good.  They didn’t do it for their self-righteousness—they did it because “No one is good, but God alone,” and as Peter said a chapter before, at the Transfiguration, “It is good [beautiful] that we are here,” I wish I could make a tent and stay here.  Jesus says, “That’s right, it is good.  Follow me, not so you can be good, but because I am.”

Are there places in your life where you haggle over Jesus’ demands, because you forget how good and beautiful he is?