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?

The Gospel of Family

Searching the Scriptures

I recently heard a Thomist I respect tell priests that they need to plan non-Biblical “doctrinal” homilies, because the Lectionary doesn’t hit the important points.  I think he’s wrong about that.  Especially this past Sunday.

Our Gospel was on marriage.  It is shocking how directly Jesus speaks into our current “issues”—and how much more deeply he speaks than anyone else.  (It is not sufficiently noticed that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is nothing but a meditation on Scripture: and it hits everything.)

***

The Lectionary’s choices for first and second reading are fabulous.  The first reading, naturally, is the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes: Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . .  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”  (The ancient Hebrew doesn’t have quotation marks.  Today, we tend to assume that “That is why” is the narrator commenting on Adam’s words.  Traditionally, they thought those too were Adam’s words: his prophecy about marriage.)

The Second reading is the beginning of the seven-week tour of Hebrews with which we fill finish this Year of Mark.  It is not about marriage.  But it is about flesh: Jesus “was made lower than the angels” so that he “might taste death for everyone,” and become “perfect through suffering,” and thus call us “brothers.”

What is important about these readings is how they portray family as a matter of both “flesh” and relationship.  When Adam calls Eve “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he is using an Old Testament expression that has nothing to do with sex.  It is what Jacob’s uncle Laban calls him (Gen 29:14), what Abimelech says to “the house of his mother’s father” (Judges 9:2), what the tribes of Israel say to David (2 Sam 5:1, 19:13), etc.  It means “she is my sister,” family.

So too when in the very next verse “the two of them become one flesh.”  That’s not a euphemism for sex.  It’s an enduring state of relationship.  And it is a relationship that is both flesh and person.  They become entirely one: family.  So too Jesus becomes one of us: family, our “brother.”

***

In the Gospel, there are three things to note.  The first, of course, is the prohibition of divorce.  “The two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”  Again, it’s not talking about sex: that fleshy union doesn’t last long.  Rather, it’s talking about becoming family.  Once that is joined, there is no breaking it.

Catholics don’t just “oppose” divorce.  We don’t believe in it.  It isn’t possible.  You can’t stop being married any more than you can stop being brother and sister, or father and son.

***

Love as I have loved

But second, notice that Jesus goes beyond the prohibition.  “Because of the hardness of your hearts he [Moses] wrote you this commandment.”  Lately there has been a lot of talk in the Church about mercy and divorce.  In fact, Moses’ mercy was to let them divorce and remarry, slowed down a little but not much by the “bill of divorce.”  Moses couldn’t do anything about their hardness of heart, and when hearts grow hard, marriage becomes impossible: because it’s not just “flesh,” it’s a relationship.

But Jesus is God.  He can do something about our hardness of heart.  Human mercy can offer external helps, but often all we can do is give up.  Jesus, “made perfect by suffering,” can give us the strength to get through our struggles.  He can soften our hardness of heart.  That’s what grace means.

Marriage is a central issue for Christian faith because we see this softening of hearts “take flesh.”  It’s for real.  Jesus can actually help us.

***

And that might be (third), why the next paragraph has Jesus saying, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  Children are in a state of becoming.  They have begun the path to adulthood, but they still have a long way to go.

The only way to live marriage is to realize that God isn’t finished with me yet.  He is still at work, transforming me, building me a natural heart, teaching me to love.  Marriage, and all of family, is a life-long project of being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is, in fact, the most tangible, fleshly example of how Jesus has made himself part of our family, and ourselves part of his family, and is sharing with us his sacred heart.

The failure of liberals and conservatives both is to think that the way we are now is the final word.  Unless we realize that we are still children, we can never grow up to the kingdom of God.

What transformations is family demanding of you?

 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: The Threat of Destruction

This Sunday’s Gospel speaks on two levels.  First, it tells us what to do.  Then it talks about the consequences.  Last things first:

Albrechtsminiator Wien um 1435 Kreuzigung.jpgIn this Gospel, Jesus three times threatens “Gehenna, the unquenchable fire.”  The last time, he adds “where their worm [or maggot] does not die.”  (The reference for this passage, “Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48,” looks like the Lectionary is hiding something, but vv. 44 and 46 are where some early-modern versions of the Bible repeat the line about worms.  Our verse numbers were invented by a French Protestant in the 16th century: they have no authority.  The older authorities don’t repeat that line: like our Lectionary reading, they have it once.)

It needs to be repeated: Jesus is not the nice guy in the Bible.  Nowhere in the Bible are the threats as awful as from the mouth of Jesus.  “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” is the last verse of another supposedly nice-guy part of the Bible, Isaiah—but Isaiah is talking about dead bodies.

People think Jesus sweeps in to tell us to stop worrying about hell.  The real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, is the main one in the Bible who does tell us about hell.  Jesus is our merciful Savior—but “nice guy” is a mischaracterization.  It is Jesus who reveals the eternal consequences of sin.

***

The two verses that follow our Gospel suggest that fire is inevitable.  The question is whether the fire is ours, or burns against us.  We will all face God, but will we be with him or against him?

Gehenna is from the Hebrew for “Valley of Hinnom.”  In the Old Testament, that’s where people sacrificed their children to the fire of the pagan god Moloch.  Later, it’s also where the people of Jerusalem threw their sewage.

Here’s another way to think about it.  Without Jesus, hell is inevitable.  In life we live among those who throw their children as sacrifices to Moloch—in abortion, yes, but also in all the ways that we tear one another apart.  The world worships Moloch.  Making peace with the violence of this world doesn’t change that it promises only endless hatred and destruction.

And then we die, and are thrown on the trash heap.  And yet our soul, the form of that dead body, lives forever.  After death is not some happy soul-world apart from the body.  Without Christ, after death we face only the eternal decay of the bodies which are ourselves.

What a wretched man I am, says St. Paul.  Who will save me from this body of death?  Who but the crucified.

***

ISpas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgnterwoven with these threats of Gehenna—which Christ does not create, but from which he alone can liberate us—are warnings about us causing little ones to sin, and our hand, our foot, our eye, causing us to sin.  Notice first the parallel: just as our hand might cause us to sin (or more literally, cause us to stumble), so we can cause others to sin.  And death is better than that.  Because Christ can save us from death, but not if we choose to embrace sin instead.

This is a classic passage where people say Jesus exaggerates—and therefore claim we can ignore various other things he says.  “Oh, he doesn’t mean that, he’s an exaggerator!  You don’t cut your hand off, do you!”

But notice, “If your hand causes you to sin.”  Does your hand cause you to sin?  In fact, no, it doesn’t.  You as a person might be able to cause another person to stumble, but it is never your hand that causes you to sin.

There is hyperbole in this story, but it’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to cut off what causes us to sin.  It’s that he wants us to find what really causes us to sin—like the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  Cut those off, says Jesus, or face the eternal death of worm and fire.

***

But what is sin?  The first half of our Gospel, and the first two readings, say sin is not about team spirit.  “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”  In your name, but does not follow us.  Jesus says, focus on me, not on your team.

So too, anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ will be rewarded, anyone who causes little ones to stumble would better die.  The focus is on Christ.  Back off of all your secondary concerns, and ask what leads to or away from Jesus.

So too in the first story, from Moses’s Book of Numbers, the elders receive the Spirit in the tent—but if the Spirit comes to those outside the tent, Moses says, don’t oppose them.  Yes, seek the Spirit in the tent, in the Church—but don’t oppose those who somehow receive it before they’ve reached the tent.  Your salvation is in the Spirit and in the tent, not in your hatred of those outside.

And James warns us that riches are “impending miseries,” because if we live for this world and not for Christ, we will die as this world dies.  Instead, we should treat the people around us as we would treat Christ: always look to Jesus, see no one but Jesus alone, even in this world.  Never look to the world.

What violence in your life threatens eternal death?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: Temptations

We need to understand—and doubt—our motivations.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

What false loves tempt you away from Jesus?

 

 

 

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: The Poverty of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

Crucified with Christ

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

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

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

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

Where do you rebuke the Cross?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Believe in the Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Do you believe in the Resurrection?