Christ the King—My Kingdom is Not of This World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

Is your kingdom of this world?

 

Thirty-Third Sunday: The In-Between Time

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

You will know!  No need to guess.

***

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

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

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

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

The Nuncio on the Bishops’ Responsibility

Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its annual meeting.  This year the top item on its agenda is the horrific sexual abuse by clergy, especially the disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

The Holy Father began by stopping the bishops.  They have been in a hurry to pass reforms that will save their face in the media.  Pope Francis wants them, first, to slow down, to make sure that their reforms are good ones.  The bishops have a retreat scheduled in January, and there is an international meeting of bishops–an “Extraordinary Synod”–in February on this exact topic.  True reform of the Church requires doing things thoughtfully and prayerfully, not rushing to impress the media.

The politics of this age is very complicated.  In the United States at least, we are used to thinking of everything as conservatives vs. liberals.  So often those ways of thinking fail to appreciate the real dynamics of the Church.  There are, to be sure, many people thinking as conservatives and liberals–but to the extent that they think that way, or as anti-conservatives or anti-liberals, they always fail the deeper mission of the Church.   We need to think as Catholics, not according to secular categories.

This is a big part of why things are so messy with Pope Francis: because the American Church, at least, insists on seeing everything as conservative vs. liberal, and Pope Francis–the real Pope Francis, not the Pope Francis of the conservative and liberal media (including blogs: those are media too, and all the more inclined to use secular categories)–just doesn’t fit those labels.

One place that is very true is on the issue of “lay review boards.”  I’m not going to try to think through everything in a quick blog post.  But it needs to be said: the bishops are the ordained leaders of the Church.  In the late nineteenth century, the fabulous Pope Leo XIII (who himself is impossible to label as conservative or liberal) refused a movement called “Americanism.”  Americanism was precisely the idea that lay people should run the Church.  That Americanism is returning with a vengeance today.  Ironically, it is the Right that has turned, in secular as well as ecclesial politics, to strange sorts of anti-authoritarianism–always with new kinds of authoritarianism mixed in, in hopes of preserving their libertarianism.  Many Catholics of the Right are shouting “down with the bishops, down with the Pope” (unless he’s my preferred bishop or pope). But whether that comes from the Right or the Left, it isn’t Catholic.

Look, as a lay person working in the Church, I rage against clericalism more than most.  There are lots of false authoritarianisms in the Church that I think should be denounced.  But the Pope remains the Pope, the bishops remain the bishops.  Like it or not, Catholics, we don’t believe that Christ established an egalitarian government for his Church.

Anyway, all of this is too much introduction for the nuncio’s fabulous talk to the US bishops today.  It is well worth a read.  Watch for his denunciation of “delegation,” in phrases like, “we must show that we can solve problems rather than simply delegating them to others”; “The exercise of authority is a real service and governance should not be a privilege or a position, but a responsibility to be neither ignored nor totally delegated.”  Mixed with lots of things about how the bishops should “listen”–yes yes yes–and should be close to the people.  But no, the bishops cannot delegate away their authority, and make it lay people’s responsibility to take care of clerical abuse.  The bishops need to take responsibility, not delegate it away.

Here is the nuncio’s excellent address.

http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/upload/ga-2018-fall-nuncios-address-pierre.pdf

ps – I would be happy to discuss this issue further, in the comments or private messages.

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?

How to Read the Bible

My principal goal with this web page is to encourage myself and others to encounter Jesus in the liturgy through the Scriptures.  Finding him in Scripture, especially in the Gospel, leads us from a vague awareness of God to a lively, specific awareness of who Christ is and how he wants to transform our lives.  The danger is that we hear the Gospel read at Mass and it might as well have been in a foreign language, because we aren’t paying attention.

I have found writing these pages to be a practice helpful for opening myself to the word of Christ.  I hope they help you too.

Today I want to talk about some other little methods I have found helpful.  These might be helpful for priests who will preach on the Sunday Gospel—and also helpful for those in the pews who want to get more out of the Sunday Gospel than they can get from their priest’s homilies.

***

Read the Sunday Gospel each day.  Make it part of your daily ritual.  My family tries (and often fails) to read the coming Sunday’s Gospel every day at the end of dinner.  You could also do it at breakfast or lunch, or before bed, or before you come from work in the evening—whenever.

Just read it.  A danger is that we are so caught up in our own concerns that we can’t hear Christ speaking.  I imagine it would be especially tempting for priests preparing homilies to jump ahead to their own concerns.  I tell my seminarians the liturgical gesture I most dislike is when the priest reads the Gospel, then shuts the book before preaching: “Enough of what he says—now for what I say!”  Instead, we need to open the book, read it without any agenda, let it speak to us before we begin to speak.

It may be helpful to read it out loud, just to slow yourself down a little.

With repetition, you notice details you hadn’t noticed before, funny little things you’d skipped past.  The message also begins to sink in, the seriousness of Christ’s word to you.  When you get to Sunday Mass, your ears are ready.

***

Spend some time, maybe ten minutes, with a short passage, such as the Sunday Gospel.

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpgIt’s good to read long passages too.  I recommend starting from page one, whether of the whole Bible or of the New Testament, and just reading it all, getting a sense of the whole.  Then do it again.  That’s very good.

But it’s good too to spend extended time with a short passage.  Even ten minutes is much more time than you usually spend with a paragraph.  Read it once.  Read it again.  Let a passage strike you, and sit with it a little, roll it over.  Then go back and read through again, and pull out another line.  Then move to another thing.

Don’t be systematic, just be determined to find out what it’s saying.

***

There’s a method of Scripture reading (that’s all “lectio divina” means: reading the Bible) where you pick one word and stick with it.  That’s fine—but from homilies I hear, I think it’s often misused.

This isn’t random word association.  You don’t hear there was a lake, and that reminds you of fishing with your grandpa, and that reminds you of playing cards with your grandmother, so you meditate on “lake” and then think about what time at “the lake” meant for you as a kid.  To do that is precisely not to listen to Scripture.  Imagine tuning out like that when a friend is talking.

Instead, you should be looking for words that encapsulate the meaning of the passage.  To do that, it’s helpful to return to the passage, to move from word to word.  Again, you don’t want to close the book,  and dive into what you think.  You want to find what Jesus is saying.  That means looking at the book, again and again.

***

Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgDig into the weird stuff.  If there’s a metaphor that seems strange, don’t gloss over it.  If there’s an idea that seems odd, or a funny word choice, think about that.  Jesus, and his holy writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose their words deliberately.  They’re not always speaking literally, but they chose those words for a reason.  Be surprised.

To that end, I also recommend Bible software.  I love “e-sword” on my computer, and the “i-sword” app on my phone.  The most basic setting allows you to click on an English word and find the Greek or Hebrew behind it.  My Greek is okay, my Hebrew is non-existent.  But the point isn’t that you’re an expert at those languages.  The point is that the dictionary entries for those words can help you dig into what’s being said.  Look at where the words come from, what images they are evoking.  Dig into the meaning of the words Jesus uses to speak to you.

***

Finally, learn to pray “Alleluia.”  In Hebrew it literally means “Praise the Lord,” but a great author says, the way we use it, it is more like we are cheering, “The Lord is here!”

Hear his voice.

What methods do you use to dig into Scripture?  Please comment and tell us!

 

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?