Twenty-Second Sunday: Not by Earthly Standards

Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with a baffling command: “He strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”  Why not?  This week we read the passage that follows, and learn something important about evangelization.

File:Rubens B116.jpgOur reading begins, “Jesus began.”  It leaves out the words before, “From that time”: from the time of Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus began to tell them about the Cross.  “Jesus began” suggests that he repeated the teaching, and that it took time.

The next verse of our reading has another “began.”  “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”  From the time Jesus began to teach about the Cross, Peter began to challenge him.

In our translation, Peter says, “God forbid, Lord!”  Those are such strong, specific words – I don’t know why translators choose them.  Paul often uses a phrase translated that way, me geneto, which is strong like God forbid, but doesn’t bring God into it.  It just means, “no way!”  But Peter here uses a different phrase.  It’s something like “gracious me!” except in Greek it’s “gracious you!”  The Greek is even closer to “happy for you.”

It’s a nice choice of words – let’s assume the inspired writers choose their words well – because it is upbeat, positive.  Peter is contradicting, but he’s contradicting with happiness.

For which, of course, Jesus calls him Satan and a scandal.  Jesus’s words are well chosen, too: “get behind me.”  Because Jesus is telling Peter not just to go away, but to follow him.  And where Jesus is leading is not so happy-go-lucky as Peter would prefer.

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Matthew the accountant is making a point that Mark makes in a more artful way.  The tradition tells us Mark was a disciple of Peter.  And so in Peter’s version, no one acknowledges Jesus as Son of God until the crucifixion.  You can’t know who he is until the crucifixion.  Oh, I’m sure Peter said, “You are the Son of God.”  But Peter would be the first to tell us, “I had no idea.”

Because as soon as Peter called him Son of God, Jesus began to tell him what that meant, and Peter Unknown painter - Christ in the Tomb - WGA23483.jpgbegan to contradict him.

We have read about Peter discovering Jesus as savior: “Lord, help me!”  Always we are tempted to misinterpret.  Jesus as savior might mean that we will always go happy places.  To the contrary, Jesus leads us through hard places.

There are plenty of consolations along the way.  The next story is the Transfiguration.  But that story too ends, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”  They will not understand until they pass through the Cross.

***

In the second part of our reading, Jesus gives a series of statements about our crosses.  First he says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (get behind me!).  It’s the second time in Matthew’s Gospel he has told us to carry our cross (see Mt 10:38).  As far as I can tell, it was not a normal expression.  Even before he told them about his cross, he was telling them about theirs.

The Greek word for cross is derived from the word for stand.  It means a stake, a post.  Something you are tied to, to be exposed.  You are going to be exposed, hung out to dry.

Follow me!

Jesus explains, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it.”  Literally, whoever protects his soul will destroy it.  And whoever destroys his soul – it’s a strong word – will find it.

Why?  “For what profit would it be” (I translate literally) “to gain the whole world and damage your own soul?”  Peter wants to push Jesus around according to his earthly idea of happiness, but Peter will damage his soul by those standards.  He needs to learn to follow a different standard, and that means following all the way through the cross.  Otherwise we chase after many things that aren’t what we need, and damage our soul.

And Jesus is coming – this reading looks forward – “in his Father’s glory and then he will repay all according to their deeds.”  How will we stand before his glory?  Will we choose him?  Or wish for earthly things?

***

Our first reading, from Jeremiah, “You duped me, O Lord,” talks about God hooking us and leading us into a way that is mocked by earthly standards.

Our Epistle, now in Romans 12, the start of Paul’s teaching on the Christian life, urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice and not to conform our minds to the world.

Let not your minds be conformed to this age.

***

Jesus tells them not to preach until they have learned about the Cross.  It all looks different in relation to the Cross.  We need to be careful not to follow Jesus, and not to preach him, according to Peter’s earthly standards, before the Cross.  We need to discover the divine perspective, the divine power, the divine goodness, which upends everything.  Perhaps before we preach we need to show both God and our neighbor that we live according to that new standard.

How has Jesus shaken your earthly standards?

Twenty-First Sunday: I build my Church

This Sunday we continue on our quest from the Parables of the Hidden Power to the new community.  This week we have the Confession of Peter, and the theme remains the same: it is the Power of God that builds the Community of the Church.

***

Our first reading is from Isaiah 22, from the section where he is proclaiming punishment to various parties.  This reading is a two-edged sword.

File:35 Mark’s Gospel L. the messiah revealed image 1 of 4. Saint Peter given the keys. Rubens.pngIt culminates in the lines: “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.”

“I will place the key on Eliakim” is parallel to Christ in our Gospel telling Peter, “I will give you the keys.”

But the Lectionary makes us read the background, which is ominous.  The prophecy is less about Eliakim than about Shebna, his predecessor: “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. . . . I will clothe him [Eliakim] with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority.”  The Lord gives, but he also takes away.

Now at first glance, a reader, whether a Protestant or certain strands of conservative Catholics today, might think this reading justifies deposing a leader, even a holder of the keys, a successor of Peter.  But the point is the opposite.

Throughout the Bible God says, “Vengeance is mine” – and the point is, it isn’t yours.  Oh, God can depose a Pope (through death).  But no one else can.  “I will thrust you from your office.”  And “I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”  I, no one else.

***

The bigger point is that it is God who gives the power.  Peter rules not by virtue of his own personal excellence, but because God rules.  That is the point of the keys.  The Lord puts the keys “on Eliakim’s shoulder,” so that they are obvious to everyone who holds the keys: the keys are a visible institution, not some hidden preference of who you think is the best.  And the keys really work: they open and shut the doors.

But it is the keys that do the opening and shutting, not the person.  It is not Francis, or Benedict XVI, ofFile:DambachVille StEtienne 14.JPG John Paul II, who has the divine power given to Peter.  It is the papacy itself.  That’s not to deny the holiness and brilliance of all of them, or the personal initiatives that they take with that power.  But it is the papacy that holds the power, because ultimately it is God, not man.

People sometimes think Catholicism exalts human power.  To the contrary, the sacraments, including the offices of priest, bishop, and pope, free us from an over-reliance on individual authority.  I trust in the papacy, which is a work of God, not in this or that human authority.  I go to Mass for the Eucharist, made present through the priesthood, whatever miserable wretch the priest might be.

***

Why does God choose this man or that?  “How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways,” says our reading from Romans.  We can ponder what God is doing, we should, but in the end, it is he who rules the Church, not we.

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The first key line in our Gospel, then, is when Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”  It is God who reveals, God who builds up Peter.  The Lectionary dwells on this incident, and next week we will see the next verses, where Peter fails.  Jesus then says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings.”  The power is God’s, not Peter’s.

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  I will build it – you are Peter, but you will not build it, I will.

Then comes an obscure line, “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail.”  Commenting elsewhere on File:Rubens, consegna delle chiavi.JPGChrist the corner stone – literally, “the head of the corner” – St. Thomas points out that often in the New Testament, the image of the Church is upside down.  The cornerstone is at the top, the keystone of the arch.  We build from the bottom up, but God builds from the top down, the whole Church hanging from the top.

Here, the image is of a Church is built on the rock of Peter, as Jerusalem is built on the rock of Mount Zion, and with gates underneath, trying to drop the holy city down into the netherworld.  It’s not so much the strength of the rock, of this or that man, that holds up the city.  Rather, the Church hangs from above.  “I will build my Church.”

***

“Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one” – and next week he begins talking about the Cross.  Because we understand nothing of the power of God until we see it in the Cross.  Only there do we learn how radical is the bond between God’s power and human weakness.

How could you lean your life more on the strength of God in the institution of his holy Church?

Twentieth Sunday: There Is Enough

We are now in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel that lead from the Sermon of Parables (Mt 13), on the hidden power, to the Sermon on Community (Mt 18).  The Lectionary gives us five Sundays on these chapters, plus the Transfiguration (Mt 17), to explore the community built by that hidden power.

The first two readings give us our theme.  We have one of Isaiah’s many readings on “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.”  They will become Israelites: they must “keep the sabbath” and “hold to my covenant.”  They will come “to my holy mountain,” that is, Zion, the temple mount, in Jerusalem, to offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And so the Temple of Israel will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

On the same theme, in our second reading from Romans 9-11, St. Paul says that although he is the “apostle to the Gentiles,” “the call of God” to Israel is “irrevocable.”  In short, although Jesus is for all people, not just those born into Israel, he calls us into Israel.  Jesus does not end the Old Testament, but makes it available to all – because Jesus gives us the grace by which we can both fulfill the Law and become the true Community of Israel, the Church.

***

These readings give us the crucial background for our strange, and at first disturbing, Gospel story.  A Canaanite woman cries “Have pity on me, Lord.”  Jesus mercilessly ignores her, then says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Only when she comes up with a clever come-back does he heal her daughter.  Not what we expect from Jesus.

Oswalt Kreusel - Millstätter Fastentuch - Die Versuchung Jesu.jpeg

The Devil Confronts Jesus

But once again, the Lectionary gives us a hint of the context.  Our reading begins, “At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.”  At what time?  From where is he withdrawing?

As we saw last week, after the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, and John the Baptist is killed.  Then Jesus feeds the five thousand, walks on water, and heals many.  He is rejected, but he shows his power to save.  The theme last week, remember, was Peter’s profession, “Lord, save me.”

In the immediate run-up to this week’s reading, the Pharisees accuse Jesus for not following all their rules about hand-washing.  Jesus says, not that traditions and the Old Law are bad, but that the Pharisees have lost the sense of the Old Law, and even break the Law in the name of petty “commandments of men.”  For “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man. . . . But the things which come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile the man.”  Our actions matter, and laws and traditions matter, because they express what is in our hearts, which is what really matters.

***

The Teacher

And so we come to the Canaanite woman.  Jesus goes out of Israel, away from the Pharisees, to Tyre and Sidon (on the coast, northwest of Israel), to talk to a Canaanite woman.

Key for understanding this passage is Jesus’s rabbinic method of teaching.  Remember, as a twelve-year-old in the Temple, he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and questioning them.  And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.”  Questions teach.

With the rich young man (Mt 19), Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good?”  Then Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which is right – but Jesus knows it is not the whole truth.  His half teaching provokes the rich young man to say, “What do I still lack?”  Jesus doesn’t just state the truth.  He provokes.

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Study the dialogue.  The woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  The foreign woman acknowledges him as Lord of mercy and as Israel’s messiah.  She knows what’s going on – she knows that in Jesus, she must join Israel.

“Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.”

The disciples respond, “Send her away.”  And to them – not to her; he is calling them into this lesson – he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  On the one hand, he is sent to Israel.  Israel is key in all of these readings.  But he is sent to “the lost sheep,” to those who cry, “Lord, save me,” “Lord, have mercy,” not to the Pharisees with their self-sufficiency.  Israel is about the promise, about hope, not about possession.  (See Romans 4.)

The woman continues to call “Lord, help me.”

He responds to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to dogs.”  But this is a puzzle, both for her and for the disciples.  He doesn’t say, “No, I won’t help you, because you are a dog.”  He gives a puzzle.

She solves it: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the tables.”  To which he says, “Great is your faith” – remember the “little-faith” of last week.

The disciples think of Israel as zero-sum: to give to the woman is to “take the food of the children.”  But the Canaanite woman knows that God’s grace is super-abundant, over-flowing, scraps falling from the table.  We must join into Israel, but there is plenty of room in the Temple.

Whether born in or out of Israel, we become true Israelites not by hoarding our self-sufficiency but by calling out to the super-abundant mercy of God.

In what areas of life do you find yourself hoarding instead of trusting the Lord’s super-abundance?

More than Obedience

Two weeks ago we finished the sermon of parables, about the hidden, transforming power.  Last week we interrupted our orderly reading of Matthew to get the Transfiguration, a couple chapters ahead of where it lies in Matthew’s telling of the Gospel.

StPierreJeuneP232.JPGWe are now in the section leading up to the fourth sermon, the sermon on Christian community.  We are discovering what that hidden power creates.

If we had not had the Transfiguration instead, last Sunday’s Gospel would have been the feeding of the five thousand.  But that Gospel begins, “when Jesus heard” – about the death of John the Baptist.  Right after the sermon of parables, Jesus is rejected by his people.  Then John is killed.  The hidden power is rejected.  And after those two stories of rejection come two stories of miracles: the five thousand, and this week, the walking on water.

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The Lectionary has a lot to cover, so things get little elusions, such as “when Jesus heard.”  After five weeks in the amazing eighth chapter of Romans, we now get two weeks for Romans 9-11, where Paul discusses the situation of Israel in relation to the Gospel.  We will talk more about this teaching next week.

For now, let us just say: the Israelites are the people who received the Law.  That is a good thing.  Law is a good thing.  But Jesus has something more to offer than law.  He offers the Holy Spirit, his transforming grace.  Paul says he wishes the Israelites could move beyond the Law to grace.

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And that is a good way to approach this week’s Gospel, the walking on water.

Jesus has just fed the five thousand.  The apostles must be excited.  But he sends them away, to the other side of the water – and he stays behind.  They are obedient to Jesus, and that is a good thing.

We can see an image of their obedience in the difficulty of their crossing: “the boat . . . was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.”  How often does obedience to Jesus mean swimming against the tide, and being buffeted by the storm winds?File:Po vodam.jpg

But Jesus has more.

He comes walking on the sea.  They say, “It is a ghost,” a phantasma, an appearance or apparition.  Because it couldn’t be Jesus.  He can’t do that, no one can walk on water.

They are terrified – in fact, the word means stirred up, tossed about inside, just as they are tossed on the waters outside.  What the heck is going on?

Jesus says, be not afraid (different word) for it is I.  What does he mean?

Peter says, “call me out of the boat.”  The first step is obedience.  Our translation is too strong in saying, “command me,” but Peter wants to be obedient, even in the impossible.  That is a good thing.  Funny, though, how even this obedience is on Peter’s terms.  Obedience doesn’t go quite far enough.  What Peter is doing is good, but not good enough – like the Israelites, like the religion of obedience.

***

“When he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.”  The Peter stories are comic.  The boat was being by the winds about before Jesus came.  And the first thing Jesus said was (same word) “don’t be frightened.”  He shouldn’t be surprised.  But he is.

And then he says the most important words of this Gospel, the most important words of our faith: “Lord, save me!”  Notice the transition, from “Lord, command me” to “Lord, save me.”  Peter is no longer in charge.  And he knows that he needs Jesus’s help.

Obedience is a good thing.  But it often presumes our own strength, our own sufficiency.  When the kid says, “time me while I run around the block,” he doesn’t want you to help him, he wants to show how strong he is.  Obedience is often about how strong we are.  “Lord save me” is about how strong Jesus is.

That’s the transition from Law to Gospel.  Not that we stop being obedient or stop following the Law.  But that we learn that it’s only the strength of Jesus, only the Holy Spirit, who makes us able to be perfect as he is perfect.

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“Immediately” – as soon as we call out – “Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter.”  Peter didn’t stretch out to Jesus, Jesus stretched out, and grabbed him.  That is grace.  That is the Incarnation.

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  The Greek is funny: “little-faith” is one word.  Later, when Jesus will talk about faith the size of a mustard seed, he also uses one word for “no-faith.”  Peter is not no-faith.  He has the faith of obedience, the faith to say, “hey, I bet I can walk on water too.”  But he needs more faith, more than obedience. File:Bril Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.JPG

At the end of the reading, those who were in the boat say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”  Two chapters later, Peter will make the same profession of faith, but this is the first time it is said in Matthew’s Gospel.  They know him as Son of God when they learn to cry out, “Lord, save me.”

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In our Old Testament reading, Elijah sees some dramatic stuff: rock-crushing winds, earthquakes, fire.  But God is in the still, soft voice.  In fact, he is in the quiet, “crushed” voice.  Strange word.  The voice of the crucified.  The voice that speaks to those who have been crushed, and are crushed in spirit.  The intimacy that goes beyond obedience, to “Lord, save me.”

When have you discovered Jesus as Savior?

Transfiguration: Encounter the Glorious Divinity of Christ

This Sunday we are blessed to celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration.File:1648. Праабражэнне.jpg

The readings begin with an apocalyptic vision from Daniel:

His clothing was bright as snow,

and the hair on his head as white as wool;

his throne was flames of fire,

with wheels of burning fire.

A surging stream of fire

flowed out from where he sat;

Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him.

This is not a cuddly Jesus.  It is not even a humble Jesus.  This is Jesus revealed as God.  The Transfiguration reminds us that within the poverty of the Incarnation is the God of Gods.

It seems to me, listening to preaching, etc., that we as Catholics would understand our faith a lot better if we had a more vivid sense of God.

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Our reading from Second Peter is an eyewitness account.  “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Second Peter is a remarkable document, an approach to Christian faith and life through the encounter with the Transfigured Christ.  There are other kinds of approach: through the Resurrection, through the Ascension, Paul’s encounter with the glorified Christ, and yes, through the Cross.  (St. Mark – St. Peter’s disciple – always calls us to the cross.)  But we need to contemplate the face of Christ, to know who he really is.  It all begins with that encounter.

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Let us approach the Transfiguration in four acts.

First, they see him transfigured.  Mark’s Gospel, like Daniel above, compares the whiteness to earthy File:Alexandr Ivanov 015 - variation.jpgthings, snow and bleach.  Luke says it was dazzling, flashing out like lightning.  But this year we are reading Matthew, the literal.  “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”  Precisely.

Jesus is full of light.  He is always full of light – but now they see it, see who he is.

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Second, he converses with Moses and Elijah.  On the one hand, Scripture, the Old Testament, bears witness to Christ.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  Everything points to him, in his glory.

And it is beautiful.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”  The Greek of the New Testament has two words for good.  This one is not good in the sense of profitable.  It is kalon, the word for beautiful.  This is the Good: through Scripture to see the glory of Jesus.  Lovely!

File:Alexandr Ivanov 015.jpgOn the other hand, the good seems within grasp.  Peter is ready to build tents.  Tent is a loaded term in the Bible.  In John’s Gospel, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, it is with such a “tent.”  And in the Old Testament, the first temple itself is called the tent, the tabernacle – same word.  There is some presumption in Peter’s offer.

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But third, “While he was still speaking,” God interrupts him.  “Behold, a bright cloud,” which Tradition sees as the Holy Spirit.  And the voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” repeating the same words from the Baptism in the Jordan.  But where those words seemed a beginning then, now they seem a culmination.

And where Peter was presumptuous before, now, “they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.”  (My kids, quoting the King James via Charlie Brown, use the same words as found when the angels speak to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel: they were sore afraid.)  The “very much” could be translated “violently.”

From presumption and tabernacle building, we move to awe.  We all need this movement.  To discover the divinity of Christ is to discover that God doesn’t need our help, and we aren’t the boss.

Parallel to this movement, the Father adds one phrase to the words from the Baptism: “Listen to him.”  We are called to action – but in reverence.  Jesus will tell them to keep silent until the Resurrection.  God comes first.  Worship comes first.  First we must know him, and know him as God.

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Then in the fourth act, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’”  Jesus takes them beyond fear.

But he takes them there by touching them.  The word even means “attaching himself” to them.  In the File:Преображение Господне.jpgIncarnation we pass to a new relationship with the divinity.  Before, we were forgetful of God.  Now we see his beauty, we fall down in awe – and we rise again, not the same, but transformed by the recognition that in Jesus God has come to us, attached himself to us, touched us.

And so “when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.”  Encounter.

What can we do to make sure we live in awe before the glory of God in Christ?  In what way do you need to fall down before the Transfiguration?

Seventeenth Sunday – Selling All for the Kingdom

This Sunday we complete the sermon on parables.  The last four parables teach us to be smart, and so to repent.

Searching the Scriptures

The Lectionary pairs them with Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.  Two notes on how the Hebrews, and the Hebrew language, thought about these things:

First, in our translation, Solomon asks for “understanding.”  The Hebrew word, though, means listening.  He wants, needs a listening heart.  This is a good thought to pair with the sermon on the parables, the theme of which is, “he who has ears ought to hear.”

Second, he wants to be able “to distinguish right from wrong.”  This word, distinction, is key to the Old Testament.  You need to be able to tell the difference.

Pope Francis (using an old Ignatian idea) talks a lot about discernment.  Make sure you know which are tares and which are wheat.  You have to be intelligent.  And to do that, you first need to listen to God’s Word.

***

In our first parable this week, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.  The key phrase, of course, is, “he sells all that he has and buys that field.”  The wise man – the listening, discerning man – knows that God is worth everything.

The second parable, the pearl of great price, is so like it that we need to look for the difference.  On the one hand, Jesus is doubling down on the punchline: “he goes and sells that he has and buys it.”

The main difference is what they’re doing.  The treasure in the field seems to be a surprise, but the merchant is “searching for fine pearls.”  The digger “hides again” the treasure so that the owner of the field won’t know why he’s buying it, but the merchant is buying the pearl itself, so it appears that someone is selling it.

Sometimes we stumble on the kingdom of heaven where we least expected it.  Sometimes we are searching.  Together, the two parables seem to say that it makes no difference.  Like the parable of the eleventh hour (which is not in this sermon), whether you deserve to find it is irrelevant.  What matters is if you will sell everything to keep it.

***

And so the third parable, the last one about the kingdom itself, says the kingdom is also like a net thrown into the sea.  Our translation says it “collects fish of every kind.”  But the Greek doesn’t say fish, and the word it uses for “kind” is the word for “the nations,” the goyim, the gentiles.  And when the net “collects” them, the word is “synagogue”: the gathering place.  The double meaning is that all nations are drawn into the community of Israel.  The kingdom can find everyone.

And do we find the kingdom, or does the kingdom find us?  Are we searching, or are we caught in a net?  Well – both.

But in another twist on the same theme, the lovely are brought home and the rotten are thrown out.  Jesus ends his sermon with those terrible words about a fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We have to say it: contrary to the idea that a snuggly Jesus overcomes the mean God of the Old Testament, far and away the scariest threats of the Bible come from the lips of Jesus himself.

Because always the message is: repent.  Give up everything and follow.  If you don’t appreciate the pearl, you don’t have to have it.  That seems to be the central theme.

***

At the end, parallel to our “ears to hear” in previous sections, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand.  Then he adds one more parable, not about the kingdom, but about the disciples.  In fact, when it says, “who has been instructed,” the word is the word for disciples.  But our translation is right to emphasize that the word for disciple is not so much about moral formation as about listening.  We are formed, we grow in discernment, by listening.

Then the parable says, the good student of the kingdom “is like the head of a household who brings form his storeroom both the new and the old.”

The “head” here is not a servant, not the butler.  You’re going to have to do this yourself.  And the Greek has less to do with “bringing” than with “casting out.”  One way of reading this parable is that, with the discernment we gain from hearing the word, we learn not to cling to what is old or new, but to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, old or new.   The kingdom means cleaning house.

Crucified with Christ

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Our reading from Romans has the comforting words, “all things work for good for those who love God.”  But how?  No, he will not buy you a Cadillac.  Rather, we are “conformed to the image of his Son” – the crucified.  Love casts out all things contrary, and so gains the beloved, though all else may be lost.

What is the Gospel calling you to get rid of?

Sixteenth Sunday: The Good Seed is There

Our readings this week continued with the theme of hope.  We continued to read Romans 8, the charter

Searching the Scriptures

of hope, and the sermon of parables in Matthew 13, on the hidden power of God.

We got three parables this week.  The main one was the wheat and the tares.  Subordinate to it are short ones on the mustard seed and the yeast that leavens the whole lump.  Paired with these readings is one from the challenging Book of Wisdom.

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A central line for all these readings is in the parable of the wheat and the tares.  When the field begins to bear fruit, the servants ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where have the weeds come from?”

File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgWhen Jesus explains the parable, he says that the servants are the angels.  We can imagine the angels looking down on our world with furrowed brow.  “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  This world – at least the human part of it – does not look like God’s creation.  If you aren’t tempted to wonder if God is sowing evil, or maybe not in charge at all, maybe you aren’t paying enough attention.  The story is a parable, not literal truth – but on some level, the angels must be appalled at what they see.

And we too.  We should ask ourselves how many less-honest ways we have of saying, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  At least that question puts the asker in contact with the Lord.  Instead, I get angry at the world, I set out to fix things, I try to take charge.  Because, so often, I have a hard time believing that God has sowed good seed.

***

The two short parables begin to answer the question.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It is a hidden power.  We should be amazed at the power of the seed.  It doesn’t make much sense that trees can grow from tiny seeds.  And sometimes it makes even less sense to look at this world and think that God is strong, and good, and paying attention.

In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky (who didn’t like the Roman church) imagines a cardinal telling Jesus he is foolish to abandon worldly power.  How is anyone going to be converted by love?  How can that foolish little mustard seed produce anything?  Jesus, don’t you have something more powerful?

And in the third parable, the key word is “hidden.”  Our translation says the women “mixed” the leaven in – but the Greek says she “hid” her leaven in a whole lot of flour – and found the whole lump leavened.

God has sowed good seed.  He is at work, in us and in our world.  But the seed he sows is tiny, and hidden, and takes time to produce its fruit.

***

In the Gospel, the seed is the Word.  In our reading from Romans, the power in that Word – the breath behind the word, the life within the seed – is the Holy Spirit.

“We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”  Now, some other time I need to talk about anti-intellectualism; a great danger of our age is Apse Saint Peter's Basilica Vatican City.jpgto think that God is wherever thinks don’t make sense.  I can’t tell you how many problems there are with that problem.  The seed is hidden, and we don’t understand – but the seed is the word.  It’s not that God makes no sense, it’s that we don’t.  It’s not that he is mindless, but that we are.

God “knows what is the intention of the Spirit,” or “sees what is the mind of the Spirit.”  In our weakness, we don’t see, but the Spirit does.

He intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  Don’t of this as mindless groans.  Think of it as subtle whisperings.  The workings of God are so much more subtle than we think.

Yes, says the Gospel, there are the evil ones, and the scandals, and at the end of time it will all be sorted out.  But in the meantime, it is subtle, and we need to trust the Spirit, not our gross eyes, to show us where God is at work.

***

The reading from Wisdom tells us what to do.  First, trust: his “might is the source of justice,” and the reason he doesn’t crush the evil ones is because he is strong, not weak: “your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.”  So trust.

And trust makes us gentle: the reading repeats God’s clemency, his lenience – and then says, “those who are just must be kind.”  Kind because God is strong, and we don’t need to crush evil.  And kind because we don’t know where he is at work.

***

The parables all point us back to the Word itself.  And so our reading ends, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”  Because we don’t see, we must listen, to the gentle whisperings of the Spirit, to the unexpected teachings of Jesus.  Listen, and trust.

In what ways do you find yourself doubting that God has sowed good seed?

Fifteenth Sunday: Receiving the Word

For the next three Sundays, we will be reading Jesus’s sermon of parables, in Matthew 13.

The parables are the third of five sermons around which Matthew orients his account of the Gospel.  He begins on the Mount, setting out the Christian way (cc. 5-7).  In the next sermon, he calls his twelve apostles and tells them how to spread the message (c. 10).  Chapter 13 is in a boat, again speaking to the crowds, but from some distance; the heart of the message, we will see, is that they hear but do not understand.  The fourth sermon turns inward, talking about the life of the community (18-19).  And the last proclaims the coming destruction and judgment (23-25).  At each step the gate seems to be narrower.

***

This week’s parable, the first, about the seed sowed on different kinds of ground, introduces the genre of parables.  He gives the image, but before he interprets it, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  He responds, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but . . . they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand.”  A parable is a way of teaching that only some people understand – or rather, it manifests how all of Jesus’s teaching makes sense only to a heart rightly disposed.

Then he explains the parable.  Watch how the word “hear” dominates the transition. “Lest they see with File:Birds from the parable of the sower.jpgtheir eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted . . . .  Many prophets and righteous people longed . . . to hear what you hear but did not hear it. . . . Hear then the parable of the sower.  The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it.”

The first parable is about parables: we can all hear the same word from Jesus, but it doesn’t bear fruit in all of us.

***

Martin Luther used the image of cow manure to explain his understanding of grace.  You stink.  Grace is like snow that covers up your stink.  But you are not changed.  That, of course, is the opposite of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.

But as Ratzinger liked to point out, Luther usually has a point worth considering.  I am told the following response comes from Teresa of Avila, though I am not sure:

Yes, we are like manure.  But in the Bible, grace is not like snow.  Grace is like a seed.  As much as manure stinks, it is the material that a seed can turn into a fruit-bearing plant.  Manure is fertilizer.  In fact, it is better fertilizer the more it has been chewed up and broken File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgdown and excreted as waste.  In this week’s parable, we want to be like manure.  Snow, well-tended ground, solid rocks, even jewels – none of these can become part of a flower or tree.

Now, an important part of that metaphor – and our Gospel’s metaphor – is that the life force is from outside of us.  It is the seed that brings life, not the manure.  The manure is lucky to be incorporated into something better – just as the life that grows in us is Christ’s life, turning us into members of his body, branches on his vine.

That might be the genius in Luther’s image: we can become nothing until we realize that we are nothing.  The only way the dirt “cooperates” with the seed is by letting the seed take over.

***

Last week I said that Romans 8 is the great charter of hope.  This week we get another installment.  “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

It’s not quite right to think of ourselves as manure.  Manure is a side-effect, a reject.  But all of creation was made for this.  All the emptiness, all the frustration, is part of a plan: the making of the good earth that can receive the seed of God’s word.

***

And while the Gospel parable emphasizes the many people who are not good ground, our reading from File:The sower went forth to sow.jpgIsaiah emphasizes the power of God’s word, which “shall not return to me void.”  Here the word even “gives seed to the one who sows” and then “bread to the one who eats.”  Where the Gospel focuses on one point, our reception of the word, Isaiah emphasizes that God is active at every point: he is the rain, he is the seed, he is the bread, his Sacred Heart will triumph.

***

For one more image of our receptivity, return to the Gospel.  The seed is the word, something with shape and intelligence.  The receiver is the one who hears, with or without understanding.  The human mind – not so separate from the heart – is an amazing potentiality to hear and understand and follow the Word of God.  Pretty fancy manure.

What kind of thing are you, than can receive the Word?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Hidden Strength

In this past Sunday’s readings, we entered a new section of Matthew’s Gospel.  Chapters 11-13, concluding with the sermon of parables, talk about the Church’s hidden strength.

This week we skipped to 11:25.  The beginning of that chapter talked about how the Pharisees reject both the austerity of John the Baptist and the mercy of Jesus.  Neither one fits worldly standards.

Then come woes, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago”: we ought to embrace the hidden strength.

And that is the set-up for the two sections of this week’s Gospel: “You have hidden these things form the wise” and “Come to me and I will give you rest.”

***

Our first two readings give us an idea of the kind of strength Jesus is talking about.  This year from weeks 9 to 24, our epistle is from Romans, that central articulation of the Gospel – and this week it is Romans 8, one of Scripture’s main passages on the Holy Spirit.  A great priest used to tell people who struggle with hope to memorize Romans 8.

“The Spirit of God dwells in you”: that is the first thing we need to know about this strength.

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The Transfigured Christ

He is “the one who raised Christ from the dead”: that’s the second thing.  The Spirit is powerful – powerful enough to work not just in some flighty “spiritual” world, but in the real world where bodies die.

“By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.”  Now, the Spirit who raises bodies is not anti-body.  Paul’s point is not that bodies are evil.  His point is twofold.  On the one hand, we can’t trust in bodily strength: our strength to live in the body comes from beyond the body.  The great gift of marital sexuality, for example, is a glorification of the body, but it requires spiritual strength.  It is the Spirit that raises the body, not the body itself.

On the other hand, on its own, the body falls into a whole realm of thinking that is evil.  Elsewhere Paul explains: “the works of the flesh” include not only “adultery, fornication, impurity, lustfulness” – obviously bodily sins – but also “idolatry, sorcery, hatred, fighting, jealousy, anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies,” etc.: sins not because they are in the body, but because they are based on fleshly calculations.

***

Our Old Testament reading gives another angle on the same teaching.  “Your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass,” and not even a full-grown ass, but “on a colt, the foal of anBurrell CollectionDSCF0340 02.JPG ass.”  He will bring “peace to the nations,” but not by earthly means.

Our king rules from the Cross.  Our fleshly calculations of how to win through worldly power are all wrong.  His is a different kingdom, a kingdom of the Spirit.

Again, it is lived in the body, the Spirit conquers in the body and glorifies the body – but it is not based on bodily calculations, not measured by earthly strength.

***

So the first part of our Gospel says, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.”

The “learned” are in Greek the “put together.”  The people who have their acts together, by worldly standards – those are not the ones who know the hidden power.

Rather the “little ones,” in Greek, “the wordless ones.”  (In-fant is from roots that mean no-speech.)  We are into the theology of spiritual childhood.  One way to think of it is this: we have all our “words,” our categories, our ways of thinking – and those are not God’s ways.  But that doesn’t mean we should be stupid.  Rather, like infants, we need to learn to speak – learn the categories in which we think – from our Father.

Little children are always listening.  When we read Scripture, we learn how to speak and so how to think.  There is nothing child-like about ignoring the language of our Father.

And so he adds, “No one knows the Father except the Son.”  We can’t know him as Father until we know how to be children, to receive from him the hidden strength.  And we can’t learn that except by hiding ourselves in Jesus: in the Sacraments, in Scripture, in the Cross.

***

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St. Anthony and St. Francis

“Come to me all who labor and are burdened.”  Everything else we have read helps us read these words.

There is a yoke and a burden.  Jesus calls us to repentance, to a new way of life, to put off the deeds of the body, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.”

It is an impossible burden by worldly standards, as impossible as rising from the dead.  But like rising from the dead, the hidden strength makes it easy, the strength of the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

Where are worldly calculations standing in the way of your repentance?

Thirteenth Sunday: To Love with His Heart

We are back to Ordinary Time – the Lectionary returned last Sunday, but I was not able to write then.  We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and for most of this year, from weeks nine till twenty-four, the letter to the Romans.  Great as all our feasts and liturgical seasons are, Ordinary Time is awesome.

Searching the Scriptures

Matthew’s Gospel is arranged around five great sermons.  We are now (and were last week) in the second one, Matthew 10, the Sermon on Mission.  Jesus has seen the crowds scattered like sheep without a shepherd, so he sends his twelve as laborers into the vineyard.  This week we read the end of his instructions to them.

Just before our reading he has warned them, “Do not fear those who kill the body,” and, “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.”  Mission will cost us.

Now he says, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” but “Whoever receives you receives me.”  He has said earlier, “A disciple is not above his master . . . it is enough for his disciple that he is like his master.”  Mission means being identified with Jesus, who gives all for his sheep.

***

The first reading, from the section on the prophet Elisha in Second Kings, gives a positive spin to the Gospel.  A woman offers hospitality to the prophet.  He sees her generosity, investigates her needs (his servant Gehazi points out that she is childless), and prays for her to have a son.  The moral seems easy: if you do good, you will receive good.

But the story is harder than than that.  Our translation says she was “a woman of influence”; others go further, and say she is rich.  It sounds easy, like rich people can buy babies from God.  But the Hebrew just says she is “big”; one of the main meanings of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament is “old,” which makes more sense in this story, where her husband is “getting on in years” and they can’t have a baby.

It’s not clear that the woman is rich.  She makes a “little room” for Elisha – on her roof.  In the next story, we read that her husband was a field worker.  She was generous not out of her abundance, but from her poverty.

And the baby she “will be fondling” soon – I was meditating on this passage while holding my baby late at night in the hospital NICU – is not a prize, but another demand for generosity.  In the next story, the child dies, and the woman cries out to Elisha against the pain he has brought her.  Elisha raises the boy from the dead – but the first point is, parenthood brings suffering, draws us out of ourselves.

It is not that we throw to God a couple coins we didn’t need, and he buys us a Mercedes Benz.  Rather, if we enter into his generosity, he draws us deeper in.

***

Our reading from Romans 6 glosses the issue in a similar way.  In Baptism, we have died with Christ.  “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

On the one hand, Baptism gives life.  On the other hand, the life it gives is the life of Christ, who laid down his life.  It gives life only to those who will pass through death.  It gives a specific kind of life, one in which we “died to sin once and for all.”

***

I like to ponder, in the Hail Mary, the phrase, “Holy Mary . . . pray for us.”  Mary is Mother of God, a pretty effective choice of advocate – or rather, God’s choice to become a child indicates his openness to hearing our prayers.)  “Mother of God” means we can ask God for things and he might listen.

But “Holy Mary, pray for us” is dangerous words.  Maybe we would rather have someone not holy pray for us, another sinner, with our set of values.  The Hail Mary doesn’t even specify what she should pray for.  We’d better look out, because she will pray for the things a holy person cares about, not the things we care about.

God provides for us.  But he provides according to his scale of values, not ours.  He provides to bring us to his values.

***

“Whoever finds his life will lose it.”  Better to give a cup of water to someone in the name of disciple than to cling to our own values, even our natural love of father, mother, son, and daughter.  Of course, Jesus wants us to love them as he loves them.  But that will demand a transformation of our love, a hunger and thirst not for our rights, but for righteousness.

How is Jesus calling you to a greater sense of mission?