Twentieth Sunday: For the Sake of the Joy that Lay before Him

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 38:4-6, 8-10; PS 40:2, 3, 4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12:49-53

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has his face set on Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, and so enter into his glory.  Our readings from last Sunday encourage us to set our face in the same way.

The reading from Hebrews says Jesus, for the sake of the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, despising its shame.  He suffered physically – and he suffered shame, too.  It wasn’t nice.

But he looked ahead to the joy.  Our reading says that we too should “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,” who is both our model of a man seeking divine joy and the God who is our joy.  

With our eyes fixed on him, we can “rid ourselves of every burden and sin.”  The conjunction is nice.  On the one hand, sin is a burden.  It’s not that Jesus wants to take away our joy.  It’s that he wants us to set aside the things – the Greek for “burden” literally means “bulky things,” a nice image – that get in the way of seeking our joy.  We can’t rush forward to the Father with these burdens on our back.

On the other hand, there are burdens other than sin – or rather, we should expand our notion of sin, to include not just rule-breaking, but every burden that stands in our way.  The fear of shame and the fear of pain, for example, are bulky burdens.  As long as we worry about these things, we cannot keep our eyes focused on the joy before us.  We should count them as nothing.

Notice that in this Biblical vision, suffering isn’t a good.  Or rather, it’s only good as an opportunity to shrug it off.

***

The reading from Jeremiah gives us an example.  His sufferings are almost comically awful: thrown into a pit with no water to drink, only mud into which he sinks.  

The reading needs some context.  Jerusalem is under seige, collapsing under the weight of its sins.  Jeremiah says the Babylonians are going to take the city captive.  It’s not a personal preference, not an advocacy, just the truth.  The king’s friends shoot the messenger.

Thus the strange words of the court official who gets Jeremiah freed: “He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city.”  “There is no more food in the city” is a strange reason to set someone free.  But the point is: Jeremiah isn’t the one who’s hurting us.  He’s just speaking the truth.

Well, for us, the point is that Jeremiah is doing what Jesus did, following his master.  (Yes, the saints of the Old Testament, too, had Jesus for their master.)  He worried more about speaking the truth than about suffering the consequences.  As Hebrews said, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  We are all called to walk the same path – not because we love getting thrown in a muddy pit, but because it just doesn’t matter compared to the joy of knowing God.

***

The reading from Luke is strange: Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you but rather division.”  And he says households will be divided, father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.  Not nice!

To understand these words, I just want to point out some of what happens at the end of Luke.  On the Cross, Luke – expanding on the “Why have you forsaken me” of Matthew and Mark – has Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them” and telling the thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  

Does he come to bring peace or division?  Well, he does make peace on the cross – but not a nice easy peace.  In fact, that true peace comes about by being willing to suffer division, willing to suffer the cross.  Jesus wants not war but – well, he says it in our reading: I have come t oset the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  Not war, but not false peace either.  He comes to bring the fire of love, which is willing to suffer.

And so in Luke’s account of the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “It was necessary to suffer all these things and so enter into glory.”  He says almost exactly the same thing in Luke’s other resurrection story.  

Glory through the cross.  Not suffering as the end, but suffering as the path, suffering as something to “despise,” to shrug off, on the way to something grander, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him.”  

Christ speaks a word of peace to us.  But not false peace, that avoids suffering.  Peace born of a love that endures the cross, despising its shame, on its way to something far better.

Where does fear of suffering prevent you from finding divine joy?

Faith in the Divine Promises

 

I think this is the farthest behind I’ve yet gotten on a Sunday post.  Sometimes life intrudes: right now I have a kid recovering from major surgery, my wife trying to take some days away to think about homeschooling, and a brutal heatwave – we have no air conditioning – that makes me shudder at the thought of opening my laptop.  But I think it’s worth my while to reflect on last Sunday’s readings; perhaps it will be worth your while, too; so I’ll sit myself down in front of a fan . . . .

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 18:6-9; PS 33: 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22; HEB 11:1-2, 8-19; LK 12:32-48

The readings, you will perhaps remember, were something obscure from Wisdom about the Passover; Hebrews 11’s classic catalog of what people did “by faith”; and Jesus talking mostly about being prepared when the Lord returns.

What strikes me about those readings – perhaps because it is a preoccupation of mine – is that faith has content.  Liberal religion tends to turn faith into kind of a vague attitude – but, I have to say, conservative religion can do the same thing.  It’s closely related to the tendency of modern Catholicism to replace Biblical spirituality with various forms of silence: as if God has nothing to say, as long as we vaguely trust in him.

But he does have something to say, and these readings are helpful demonstrations.

***

The reading from Wisdom is short, but its point is specific knowledge.  “The night of the passover was known beforehand to our fathers.”  “The holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”

The divine institution.  The word in the Greek original here seems to be nomos – the equivalent of Torah, the Law.  But Torah has the deeper meaning of “teaching.”  The divine institution – whether of the Old Passover or the New one, Christ and the Eucharist – is God’s teaching.  We don’t know what it is unless we listen.

This is what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians.  God spoke to them, told them how they should worship, and they responded as he asked.  

***

The reading from Hebrews begins with the classic definition of faith.  (St. Thomas uses it.)  “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”  That’s dense; we need to unpack it.

Faith is intimately related to hope.  It is the “realization” in the sense that by it we “realize” what it is that we ought to hope for.  We hope for heaven – but we can only hope for heaven because we first believe in heaven.  We hope for God’s grace and mercy – but we can only hope for these things because we first believe in them.  

(The more literal translation is “the substance” of things hoped for.  But the point is the same: faith tells us what to hope for.)

It is the “evidence,” or “argument,” of things unseen in the sense that it is the basis of all our thinking.  In normal thinking we begin with what we know by our senses.  In faith we begin with what we only know by faith.  We think in a Christian way because God has told us something – something concrete, definite, not just a vague feeling that God is good.

***

The reading gives many examples of what faith is; let’s look at a couple: “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.”  It’s not just that he vaguely trusted God – God told him where to go, and he went.  The divine institution.  Go where he sends you: for example, the sacraments, the Magisterium.

“By faith he received power to generate” (or procreate).  Christ gives us powers we would not think we could have.  Our thinking is far too natural.  Too often even devout Catholics come up with what is possible, or reasonable to expect, based on their own lousy instincts.  But God tells us something greater!  To steep ourselves in Scripture is to see “arguments” based on different premises: the premise of the power of God’s grace, stronger than death.  

The Abraham and Sarah story is amusing.  He trusts God will give him a child, but keeps coming up with all too natural means of doing it – he adopts someone (Gen 15:2-3), even has sex with his handmaid.  So too we compromise, because our “arguments” are based on natural assumptions, instead of on faith.  We need to steep ourselves in Scripture to learn to think based on the awesomeness of God’s promises.

In the end, faith means trusting in the power of the resurrection: with the sacrifice of Isaac, “He reasoned that God was able to to raise even from the dead.”

***

Our Gospel has three sections.  First, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer . . . sell your belongings and give alms.”  In other words, move on from natural calculations and trust in the power of God.

Second, he says, “gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding.”  Faith teaches us to live in light not only of a past event, but of a future – something to hope for.  He will come again in glory. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  We should “reason” based on preparing for that.  

Third, Peter asks him how this applies to pastors – and Jesus gives an answer that applies both to pastors and to everyone else.  Here, first Jesus says, your master is coming back, don’t forget that!  Prepare for Jesus!  

And then at the end he comes around again to the “divine institution”: “that servant who knew his master’s will . . . .”  Act the way he teaches.  Follow his commands: to live by the divine riches, not human strength; to hope for what is naturally impossible; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect; follow the divine institutions (the Church, the sacraments, etc.).  And look forward always to seeing the face of Jesus; do not set your sights too short.

How do you nourish your thinking according to the divine promises?

Eighteenth Sunday: Christ Our Savior

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

ECC 1:2, 2:21-23; PS 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; COL 3:1-5, 9-11; LK 12:13-21

Before I reprove, let me exonerate:

Christianity is about personal transformation – the transformation that is love penetrating into our whole being. You can’t talk about Christianity without talking about how it changes us, and thus an awful lot of our talk, an awful lot of preaching, even the majority of Scripture, is about what that transformation looks like.

But that talk has to take place against an essential backdrop, and too often the backdrop fades away into nothingness. Too much of our preaching is nothing but moralism. To the contrary, our preaching should focus more on that “backdrop” than on the transformation.

That’s why the Epistle at Sunday Mass is important: the apostolic preaching never turns into mere moralism. Scholars think Paul’s letters were written well before the Gospels. I like that, because it suggests that the Gospels – which do contain an awful lot of moral exhortation – were written and read only for people who first understood the message of St. Paul.

***

To put it another way, I like to tell my students, Jesus is not our gym teacher. He’s not there merely to tell us how we should be better. The Cross encourages us, sure – but it’s not like the poster we put up of our favorite athlete, merely encouraging us to try harder on our own power.

No, Christ is not our gym teacher, he is our savior. He is the one who makes moral transformation possible. He is the one who brings about our moral transformation: not I but Christ in me. If I change, it is only because he changes me. Sure, there’s a place for taking about how I will look when I am changed. But too often we act like it’s all up to us.

Luther said reading the moral teaching of Scripture leads us to despair, so that we know that we need a Savior who will overlook our moral weakness. That’s not quite right – but it’s more right than the Pelagianism that so dominates Catholic preaching. When was the last time you heard a homily where Christ did anything at all for us – other than act like a gym teacher?

The moral teaching of Scripture reminds us that without Christ we are a disaster. But it also shows us what Christ can do for us.

***

That’s a lot of lead up to this past Sunday’s readings. The first reading, from Ecclesiastes, basically said, “you can’t take it with you.” We focus on the things that are passing away, and it is so stupid.

Here divine revelation is only pointing out what ought to be obvious, if we weren’t so morally bankrupt. (Since we are morally bankrupt, it’s a good thing Scripture states the obvious.)

What Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us is how to change. What, should I just try harder? Thank you, gym teacher, but I need more than that. I need a Savior. If I don’t believe that, I am simply not a Christian. Buddhists can tell me that wealth is vanity – and they will be right. But we haven’t yet gotten to Christianity.

***

Remarkably, our Gospel reading says little more. Jesus gets a little deeper, telling us that we should be “rich in what matters to God” (or just “rich in God”). He reminds us not only that earthly riches are dirt, but also that there is a higher wealth. Buddhism is weak on this, but it’s still something a good philosopher should be able to tell you (if he weren’t morally bankrupt, and if you were morally with-it enough to listen).

What the Gospel adds to Ecclesiastes is . . . a different atmosphere. Somehow it feels different coming from Jesus. But this Gospel reading doesn’t explain that difference. We have to know Jesus as Savior to understand why it’s different coming from his lips.

***

And that’s why the Epistle is so important. Our reading from Colossians tells us not just, “seek what is above,” but “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” We can seek what is above because Christ is our moral and spiritual resurrection – because he has lifted us up.

“You have died” – in Christ. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Yes, you need to “put to death the parts of you that are earthly” – that language makes us the agents. But even “earthly” takes on a new coloring: it is not merely that, like a philosopher or a Buddhist, we focus on transcendent things, but that we get beyond trusting in our own strength and are “renewed in the image of our creator.”

“Christ is all and in all.” We are more than Buddhists, more than philosophers, more than moralists, because Christ is our Savior. It is Christ who will lift us up, not we ourselves.

At what point today did you trust too much in your own strength? How could you preach the Gospel better?

Seventeenth Sunday: Pray for the World

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 18:20-32; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8;  COL 2:12-14; LK 11:1-13

There’s a discussion in some parts of the Catholic sub-culture about “the Benedict Option.” I have my own eccentric take on this question, but here’s the general idea:

In 1981, the great Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a book on the collapse of moral discourse in the modern world. He ended the book by talking about another collapse, the Dark Ages, when the Roman Empire collapsed. St. Benedict arose, he says, as an alternative, building a new, Christian society instead of clinging to the failures of old Rome. We need a Benedict today, he said.

The Benedict Option, then, can refer to a question: what would today’s St. Benedict look like? How should Christians rebuild among the collapse of our moral order?

But more often – if I may caricaturize a little – the Benedict Option refers to an answer to that question, in which Catholics say we should retreat from society, forget the pagans, and do our own thing. At its worst, this version of “the Benedict Option” seems to say, to hell with the world. Maybe I’m being unfair, but sometimes it feels to me like some of my fellow Catholics are gleeful about the collapse of our society. Hurrah, we have no responsibility! Damn the world!

***

Reading Scripture is important because Scripture presents us ways to think about things that we wouldn’t think of. Above all, Scripture portrays a God far more alive than we expect. We cage him up, box him in, think he can’t do it. Scripture presents him as living and acting.

Our first reading this past Sunday showed Abraham’s take on the Benedict Option. His world, too, was in moral collapse. Sodom and Gomorrah is the epitome of moral collapse. And it was all going to hell.

Abraham did not retreat, did not head for the hills, did not gleefully rub his hands together and think about how superior he was and how glad he was to see Sodom go.

Abraham knew the living God. I don’t need to walk you through the story, except to say that Abraham begged God’s mercy, not on the innocent but on the guilty. He didn’t pray that the righteous could escape. He prayed that the whole city might be saved on account of the righteous.

And so the second Benedict-Option lesson from Abraham, after praying for society, is that we can save it. We are called to be the yeast, the light, the salt. God did destroy Sodom, because not even ten righteous people could be found. But we are called to be the ten, the remnant, right in the middle of our fallen world, begging for mercy. We are called to be the ones for whom God saves the world.

***

In our Gospel, the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He teaches them to be persistent. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, know and the door will be opened to you.

If we think God is gone, we should absolutely give up on our society. But God is not gone. He tells us he is here – without Scripture we would never think this way. He says, keep begging for God’s mercy, just like Abraham prayed for Sodom.

I might be wrong, but I have often argued here that Luke’s Gospel is like a commentary on Matthew’s, a reworking of the basic facts. Matthew gives us the full Lord’s Prayer, all the words – and they’re great. (And I’ve written more than one commentary on them all.)

But Luke pairs it down to the essentials, to make it stand out. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day. We forgive everyone. Save us from the final test. Beg.

***

Luke concludes his account of Jesus’s words about prayer with something suprising. We’ve been begging for bread. But the last words say, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit.”

How important it is to read St. Paul, so that we may not forget the Holy Spirit! Let us turn to our second reading, from Colossians.

Through faith alone, we know that Christ is risen from the dead – that God can make life where there is death, for us just as for Christ – and for a culture that is dead around us. We are called to pray because the resurrection is real.

And not only physical resurrection. The death of Christ is a sign of our death in sin – and his physical resurrection is a sign of our moral resurrection. To repent of our sins, for the unholy to become holy, is no easier for us than is physically rising from the dead. But God can do it. He can send the Holy Spirit to make us holy.

Let our Benedict Option, then, not be a retreat from a dying society, but persistent prayer that God will bring moral and spiritual life to those who are dead in sin. Let us pray.

Where have you lost hope for moral regeneration? How can you restore the faith that enlivens that hope?

Sixteenth Sunday: Christ the Guest

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 18:1-10a; PS 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; COL 1:24-28; LK 10:38-42

This past Sunday’s readings take us deep into the theology of hospitality.

It’s hard not to write a whole book on Abraham’s encounter with the three angels. It is a classic example of how Scripture deeper and wider the farther you wade into it.

The Bible’s own main commentary on this passage is in Hebrews: “Let brotherly love continue. Forget not hospitality, for by this some have entertained angels in a hidden way” (Heb 13:1-2). But the New Testament writer expects you to read deeper, to know the depth of the waters to which he is pointing. Three points:

First: Abraham “sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot.” He was not at work, but he was not asleep. He was on the lookout. When the visitors came, “He ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.” Then he “hastened into the tent and told Sarah,” and “he ran to the herd.” He made a big, elaborate meal – he “picked out a tender, choice steer” and “quickly dressed it”: a big project – and then, well, our translation says “he waited on them,” but the Hebrew says the same in a more vivid way: “he stood by them.”

Abraham was not lazy. Like Mary after the Annunciation – “she went into the hill country with haste” – he wastes no time leaping up to serve.

***

Second: there are a lot of rich details here. I won’t try to explain, I’ll just offer them for your pondering.

The story begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” “The LORD” is how Catholics and Jews avoid pronouncing the divine name, YHWH. Abraham addresses him “Sir” – in Hebrew it’s Adonai, the word they substitute for YHWH.

The number of visitors is strange, jumping between one and three. “Abraham saw three men,” but he says, “Sir [singular] please do not go on [singular] past your [singular] servant. [You, singular] let some water be brought so that you [plural] may wash your [plural] feet.” Etc. Abraham sees the one in the three, the divine visitor in the midst of the three guests.

And though our translation simplifies and says he killed a “steer,” most translations point out that it was a “young” steer – and the Hebrew calls it a steer’s “son.” This is “ben,” maybe the most important word in the Abraham stories. Sons, animals, rams, cattle – all the elements of Old Testament sacrifice, which Abraham offers up to the Lord through these guests.

***

Third: this story is seamlessly tied to the Sodom narrative. Next week we’ll get the story of Abraham interceding for divine mercy on Sodom. And that ties into the theme of divine intimacy: the Lord comes very close to Abraham.

But the Sunday Lectionary won’t show us all the hospitality connections. The end of our story this week says, “And the men rose up from there, and looked toward Sodom. And Abraham was going with them to bring them on the way. And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I do?”

Then comes the mercy narrative. Then it ends, “the Lord went His way as soon as He had left off talking with Abraham. And Abraham returned to his place. And there came two angels to Sodom at evening.” These stories – Abraham’s hospitality and the destruction of Sodom – are not just nearby. They’re two halves of the same story.

The story is horrific, worth reading and being shaken by. In short, Lot takes in the strangers, just like Abraham did. But the people of Sodom demand to rape them, the antithesis of hospitality. 

The Catechism tells us, “The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are ‘sins that cry to heaven’: the blood of Abel (Gen 4:10), The sin of the Sodomites (Gen 18:20; 19:13), The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (Ex 3:7-10), The cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex 20:20-22), injustice to the wage earner (Deut 24:14-15; Jas 5:4).” In each case, the Bible says that the sin cries out to heaven.

Now, the Bible is clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality. But my friends, I think it’s hard to read this passage of Genesis, or its context among the other sins that cry out to heaven, and not see that “the sin of the Sodomites” is the antithesis of Abraham’s hospitality. Sodom is not destroyed for being gay. Sodom is destroyed for its horrific hostility to the foreigners. Hospitality is not a minor issue.

***

Genesis frames the New Testament readings.

Colossians, so rich, speaks of the unity of Christ in his people. Our acts of charity, says Augustine, are “Christ loving Christ”: it is Christ whom we love in others, it is Christ who loves through us.

So just read the main words of our Epistle with Abraham’s hospitality in mind: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” “It is Christ in you, the hope for glory.” “That we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

***

The Gospel was Mary and Martha. Martha welcomed Christ, the guest. And this story follows immediately on the Good Samaritan, who did the same. But this Gospel urges us to see Christ in the guest.

The Greek is pretty amazing. “You are anxious,” Christ tells Martha. In Greek, she is “divided into parts.” When he says Mary has chosen “the better part,” it’s the same word. And when Martha is “worried,” the Greek word-image is that she is a “clamoring crowd.

When we welcome Christ, when we are good Samaritans, let our heart not be divided.

How do you struggle to welcome Christ the guest – in your children, or colleagues, or strangers?

Fifteenth Sunday: The Grace to Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 30:10-14; PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; COL 1:15-20; LK 10:25-37

The readings for this Sunday are overwhelming, three of the richest passages in Scripture. We cannot possibly do them justice. But we can try to pick out a thread that ties them together.

The first reading is from the end of Deuteronomy, the end of Moses giving the law. He says, “if only you would heed . . . . Keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law.”

He then says the command is not up in the sky or across the sea, but “very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”

Now, as with everything in the Old Testament, there is a double meaning here. What Moses meant was, the law has been given. God has spoken through the Old Law. Once it’s written down, there’s no need to be confused: just do what God has told you.

But Christians believe in the New Law, written not on stone but on our hearts. For us, it is even more “near to you,” because now the Holy Spirit, the very love of God, the supreme law of God, is poured into our hearts. We don’t even have to look it up in a book.

We need only add: as the “scholar of the law” in our Gospel will say, even the Old Law, the Jewish Law, the Old Testament, is summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. It’s that simple. The Old Law spells it out: if you love God, come to the Temple and worship; if you love your neighbor, don’t steal his donkey, etc. But what the Old Law is spelling out is simple: it is no more than the love of God.

***

In our Epistle, we begin Colossians, with the canticle for Wednesday Evening Prayer: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation . . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The riches are overwhelming. But we can get a little help from the context.

Colossians is one of the “captivity epistles,” written after Paul was taken prisoner. In the very last verse of the letter, he says, “Remember my bonds.” Scholars notice a change in these letters – so much that some of them claim they must be written by someone else, later. But the change is this: Paul’s Christology gets very “high.” Jesus is God. (Interesting: all the scholars agree that the Gospels, which portray Jesus in a more human way, were written well after Paul’s letters, which speak of him as God. His humanity is really interesting once you discover he is God.)

Why would Paul emphasize Jesus’s divinity more once in captivity? Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The weaker Paul gets, the closer to death, the more he gazes into the divinity of Christ. His earlier letters are mystical enough – but it seems like prison wrought a real deepening of his faith in, and devotion to, the divinity of Christ.

And he shares the same idea with his friends. The context of our high-Christology canticle this Sunday is his greeting to them. He is praying for them, underlining their love for one another and their faith in Christ, that they may be “empowered with all power, according to the might of his glory.” It is in this context, of talking about how Christ strengthens us, that he launches into his praise of Christ’s divinity.

***

The Gospel is the Good Samaritan. As in Deuteronomy, which this parable begins by summarizing, the message is very simple and very powerful: love your neighbor. “Which one of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’s victim,” Jesus asks at the end. “The one who treated him with mercy.” “Go and do likewise.”

In fact, it’s even simpler. The failures in the story are a priest and a Levite, the hero is a Samaritan.

We’re in the midst of a debate. Priests and Levites are heroes of people (the Sadduccees) who think it’s all about the fancy things we do at worship. The Samaritans – not exactly Jesus’s friends – are the bad guys, because they don’t hang out in Jerusalem.

Now, Jesus loves Jerusalem – his face is set on it. But here he says, look, it all comes down to love. This is Luke’s expansion of Matthew’s line in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you offer your gift on the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” First, love.

***

What does this have to do with Colossians? It’s the same thing as the Christian rereading of Deuteronomy. We can love, love all the way to the end, because Christ has given us his Holy Spirit; the love of God is poured into our hearts. We can be Good Samaritans because he was the Good Samaritan, who found us bleeding in a ditch and had mercy and healed us. We can love to the end because he does. Only the power of Christ, the love of Christ, makes us able to fulfill the law and the prophets.

Where do you need to ask for the grace to love?

Fourteenth Sunday: The Power of His Grace

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 66:10-14c; PS 66: 1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; GAL 6:14-18; LK 10:1-12, 17-20

This Sunday our Gospel tells of the sending of the apostles. The other two readings set us up to understand the power of God’s grace in and through the Church.

St. Paul always gives us a wealth of theology, the deepest teachings about grace. This is the last week of our reading of Galatians, and we read from the last chapter.

Throughout the letter he has been arguing against those who over-emphasize ritual observances. He concludes, “Neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” God is the Creator. Grace – that is, the transformation of our soul – is his new creation. Since he made us in the first place, his grace does not unmake us: it does not destroy our nature. But grace is as powerful as creation itself: he makes us new, a new creation.

“Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule.” The last word is interesting. He is battling a mindset – still so very much alive today, on all sides – that wants to figure out which human activity, which “rule,” will triumph. Paul says, instead of following this “rule” or that one, make your rule of life the new creation, the grace of Christ. Let his grace be your peace, let his grace be your mercy, let his grace be your rule of life. Stake everything on the power of Christ working within you.

And so, he says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All I want is in him. All my strength is in him. And I gladly go even to die with him, knowing that everything, everything, is there, pouring forth from his heart on the Cross. Nothing else matters but the power of Christ, the new creation, his grace working within me.

***

Our first reading, from Isaiah, gives a different picture of the same theological truth. Jerusalem is presented as a mother. We are her children, dandled on her lap, nursing from her breasts, carried on her hip.

Our translation uses “comfort” several times. It is a good translation. But the Hebrew root of the word is “sigh.” Our mother sighs for us. This is Isaiah’s image of compassion: she yearns for us, pines for us, sighs over us. How happy we are, how at peace, in our mother’s arms.

Our mother, of course, is Mary. And also the Church. Wherever you read Jerusalem, you can imagine Mary – but the more direct reference is the Church. The two go together. Isaiah takes us into this imagery of our mother caring for us – and says, ah, that is Jerusalem, the Church. We find ourselves in the joy of being part of God’s people.

It says we will be “fondled in her lap” – but the root of the word is simply the mother gazing at her child. What peace!

It is a little scandalous to find such consolation in Mary or the Church. Shouldn’t we find our consolation in God alone? But that is the extra richness of this reading: it moves back and forth between God enriching Jerusalem and Jerusalem enriching us. God, whose grace makes a new creation, can make a Jerusalem in which we find our comfort. If his grace were weak, there could be no Church. But his grace is strong, and he saves us through the Church.

“I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river” – “that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort.” “I will comfort you” – “in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”

And again, we rejoice in the Cross, but the Cross in the Church. “Exult with her, all you who were mourning over her!” Jerusalem, the Church, has been destroyed and wounded and crucified a thousand times – but “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for in our weakness we find his strength. No, we are not strong – but he is.

***

All this teaching about grace gives the context for the sending of the apostles in our Gospel reading.

Jesus begins with two statements that seem to contradict. “The harvest is abundant,” he says – they are just waiting to embrace the Gospel! But “I am sending you like lambs among wolves”: they will hate you.

In fact, the two come together when we understand grace. The harvest is abundant not because everyone’s basically Christian already, but because God has created us for his grace, and his grace is a new creation that can convert the hardest hearts – that can convert even the wolves. Our hope is not in how easy the mission is for us – but how easy the mission is for him.

And so he tells them to carry nothing, no human strength – rely totally on the power of his grace. And say, “peace to this household,” not because everyone is peaceful, but because Christ will be your peace.

“Even the demons are subject to us,” they tell him – and he says, yes, “I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions.” Not the strength of men, but the miraculous strength of God’s grace, given to his apostles and his Church.

What conversion seems impossible to you?

Thirteenth Sunday: The Freedom to Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KGS 19:16b, 19-21; PS 16: 1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; GAL 5:1, 13-18; LK 9:51-62

Our readings for this coming Sunday are about true freedom – and truly being ruled by love.

And so they are also about turning points.

The first reading is about the great prophet Elisha, successor to Elijah. He will have a great career, through the books of First and Second Kings, as a healer, above all of Naaman the Syrian leper, but also fighting poison, restoring wells, recovering what was lost – and battling and anointing kings.

But this prophetic career begins in our reading today. Elijah has just heard the still small voice, and he has been sent with three tasks: to anoint a King of the foreign nation of Syria and a new king of Israel, to scourge the wicked house of King Ahab – and also to anoint this great prophet Elisha. These are men on a mission. We are not fooling around.

He finds Elisha plowing. Notice in the reading how it emphasizes that Elisha had twelve yoke of oxen. That’s a lot! He was a rich man.

But the central point of our reading is that Elijah casts his spirit on Elisha, and Elisha is driven.

There is one strange line. Elisha asks to say goodbye to his parents. In the translation at Mass, Elijah will respond, “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” But the original is simpler. Elijah says (he does not ask): “Go, return, I have made” – that is, Elisha is free to go, because Elijah has done something to him, changed him.

There is no rebuke, and Elisha’s actions indicate no hesitance: he slaughters all those oxen, gives them to the people, and follows. Elisha is not hesitating, he is going. Elijah has cast the spirit on him, and he is driven.

***

Our Gospel reading is the turning point of Luke. Again, our translation is weak. It says, “He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” But the Greek, here and through the rest of the Gospel, is more vivid: he sets his face toward Jerusalem. He is focused. He knows exactly where he’s going.

He passes through Samaria. Now, the Samaritan religion is precisely a Judaism that thinks that Jerusalem is unnecessary. Can’t we just stay here? It’s the perfect foil for Jesus’s determination.

But it’s interesting: the disciples are too focused on Samaria, too. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Our translation says, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” The Greek is stronger: Jesus twists around. He has to twist because his face is set on Jerusalem, and the disciples are stuck behind him, focused on Samaria. Our anger, too, prevents us from journeying on. But Jesus is focused, driven.

There follow three more short stories about being driven. First: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The head is a nice juxtaposition to the face: Jesus does not rest, because his face is set on Jerusalem. Forward!

Second: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Ah, the Greek is so tight in this week’s readings. The real tension is not between burying our father or not – again, Elisha is not condemned for burning his oxen and feeding the people in preparation to follow Elijah. The question is how we do it.

Jesus says, “Send away the dead to bury the dead, but you, going, proclaim the kingdom.” The dead are those who merely go away. The living are those who, going, proclaim. Do what you need to do – but as you go, proclaim the kingdom, be ruled by the kingdom. As you bury your father, keep your face set on Jerusalem.

Third: “Let me say farewell to my family”; “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom.” (The references to Elisha are clear – but what is the lesson of Elisha?)

With the plow, you have to keep looking straight ahead or your furrows are crooked – if you look back, you will see that you are not plowing straight. With the kingdom, you have to keep your eye on the prize, your face set toward Jerusalem. In fact, it doesn’t say, “no one who looks behind is fit,” as in, worthy. It says, “no one who looks behind is set, or fixed, on the kingdom.”

We have to have our faces set. We have to be ruled by the kingdom, driven.

Jesus doesn’t scold any of these three. The first says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” That’s a good thing. But Jesus says to each one, do what you need to do, but with your face set toward the kingdom. Be driven, ruled.

***

Our reading from Galatians reminds us that the key is grace, the Holy Spirit living within us.

The Spirit is both freedom (“you were called for freedom”) but also service (“serve one another through love”). If we love, if we are driven, if our face is set toward Jerusalem, we are set free from all that would distract us (“for the flesh has desires against the Spirit”), and the obligations of our faith don’t feel like obligations at all (“if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law”) but the desires of our heart.

The Spirit reigning within us is the freedom to love. Jesus and Elisha are not constrained by the kingdom, they are on fire for it.

What makes your heart wander from our true love?

Twelfth Sunday: Conversion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

ZEC 12:10-11, 13:1; PS 63: 2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; GAL 3:26-29; LK 9:18-24

This past Sunday, our readings taught about the connection between turning to God and lamenting our sin.

The first reading was from the prophet Zechariah. The prophets are a hard read, and this reading is typical.

At first glance it seems a jumble of unconnected ideas. “I will pour out on the house of David . . . a spirit of grace and petition.” “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” “The mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido.” “A fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.”

Four, or more, heavy ideas. Sometimes we need a moment to let them come into focus and fit together.

First, we see the connection between grace and petition. Our asking is itself God’s gift. It is his pouring out on us that leads us to ask and we ask him to pour out more of that same spirit.

Next, we look to the Cross. The spirit of grace turns our eyes to Jesus, the one whom we have pierced. In the Cross we see both our misery and his love for us. From this vision comes our spirit of petition.

In the third line, we get a “type,” an Old Testament partial image, of Jesus. Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido is where the good king Josiah lost his life to the Egyptians. Josiah was a reformer; he restored the Temple and the observance of Old Testament ritual, and put an end to idols. (The modern scholars who like such claims even say that he invented much of the ritual because he was such a great Restorer.)

Like Jesus, he brought people back to God. And like Jesus, he was slain (by the Egyptians). He is the original one whom they have pierced, this is the original lamentation for the destruction of the Restorer. He gives more shape to our mourning at the Cross: here was the one who brought us back to God, and our sin has attacked him.

And from the pierced side of Christ – and from the ground where Josiah was slain – springs forth “a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” In our mourning is our conversion.

***

The Gospel was Luke’s version of Peter’s confession: “But who do you say that I am?” “The Christ of God.” Luke does not give us Peter’s denial. He just gives us the juxtaposition in all its horror:

As soon as Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus tells them he “must suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” There is consolation in the Resurrection – but it comes only through the Crucifixion.

And lest that seem too easy, Jesus then applies it to us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

The key is in our reading from Zechariah. We have to deny ourselves because our desires are not right; we are sinners. We have to deny ourselves because we have pierced the Redeemer.

Peter has recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Savior. But to know him as Savior he must know his own need for salvation. We must look on him whom we by our sins have pierced, and lament.

***

The second reading, from Galatians, like Zechariah, is challenging. It’s at first hard to see what it is saying and even harder to see how it fits with the others. I point out this difficulty to encourage us to undertake a kind of liturgical lectio divina by juxtaposition. Sometimes the richest insights come from putting two seemingly unrelated passages next to one another, and gazing on them until their connection comes into focus.

In this reading, Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

It is the classic passage where grace seems to destroy nature. It works from extrinsic to intrinsic. Jew or Greek is a matter of nationality; so frivolous to think that one nation is holier than another. Slave or free at least hints at individual differences – the ancient world, well aware that slavery was mostly based on unjust historical accidents, debated whether there at least might in theory be some reason that one man would be lord over another.

And then comes gender itself. We follow the same debate today: if racism is wrong, shouldn’t we outlaw gender, too? If grace transcends nationality, doesn’t it also eliminate sexual differences?

Paul’s answer is subtle.

He does not think nature, or biology, is irrelevant. Less than two chapters later in Galatians, he will put “sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality” alongside “idolatry, strife, and jealousies” as exemplary rejections of the Spirit. God’s Spirit does not make us forget that we are woman and man – God teaches us to live our identities more truly.

And yet in this week’s passage, Paul warns us against mentalities of privilege. Yes, nationality and gender remain – but they are no reason to look down on one another, no reason not to love. Deeper than our natural differences, we are all “heirs according to the promise,” “children of God through faith.”

Paired with our other readings, this passage in Galatians reminds us to beware our tendency to fall into earthly ways of thinking – the ways of thinking that crucify Christ and deny our own crosses. Instead, let us lament our lack of love and cry out again to him who loves us.

How does your sense of privilege stand in the way of true conversion?

Eleventh Sunday: A Severe Mercy

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

2 SAM 12:7-10, 13; PS 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11; GAL 2:16, 19-21; LK 7:36-8:3

Sheldon Vanauken, a master of the English language, wrote an autobiography called A Severe Mercy, about the premature death of his wife.  The name comes from one of the many letters in the book from his friend C.S. Lewis.  It is the only book that has ever made me weep, and I recommend you read it.

But Scripture is better.  Last Sunday’s readings give us a deeper insight into the severity of God’s mercy, the Cross that is united to our healing.

***

The Old Testament reading was the repentance of David, after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.

The first thing to notice is that the Psalm that follows is not Psalm 51, which David seems to have composed to express this repentance.  It doesn’t need to be Psalm 51, because the repentance that Psalm expresses is not rare.  Repentance is everywhere in the Bible.

***

In the story itself, God threatens David: “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have looked down on me.”  It is this threat that evokes David’s repentance: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’”

But you might have noticed that the reading skips some verses: “2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13.”  In verses 11 and 12, the threats go deeper: God threatens to give David’s wives to adulterers, to treat him as he has treated others.  And in the verses immediately after, despite David’s repentance and God’s forgiveness – “Nathan answered David, ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven his sins, you shall not die’” – nevertheless, God does punish David by the death of the son he has conceived with Bathsheba, and David is so upset that his servants fear “he might do himself harm.”

David repents, but sin has consequences.  

***

We can think of the consequences as God’s choices: God does not want us to take sin lightly – and, more important, he does not want us to take his mercy lightly – so he shows us the depravity of sin.  

But we can also think of them as natural (and so as a deeper form of God’s providence).  Sin does have consequences.  When we act against marriage and the family, it takes no special act of God to harm our families.  It is David himself who has brought the punishment.  

Sin is horrible.  That’s why God wants to save us from it: because it is the reverse of the goodness he wants to show us.  God didn’t hurt David’s child, David did.  God made marriage and family, David unmade it.

That’s what it means when God so often punishes “even unto the third and fourth generation”: our sin itself has repercussions that hurt ourselves and our families, for a long time.  That’s why God wants to save us from sin.  That’s how good God is.

***

In the reading from Galatians, Paul tells us we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  (I pray that, now that the Magisterium has restored readings in the vernacular, we will rediscover this message.)

Goodness is God’s creation.  God alone made marriage and family, and God alone makes us able to live it.  Alone, we only unmake things.

But St. Paul goes further.   “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.  I live by faith in the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself up for me.”  

Sin has negative consequences – and Christ has joined us in those negative consequences.  He has taken on the “punishment” – the inherent pain – that comes from sin.

And so we are not alone.  We can rise again because those punishments themselves can become the place where we rediscover the good we have lost.  Christ does not unmake the punishment of sin, he redeems it.  As we experience the horror of sin, he fills us with his love – because he is there, with us in the fiery furnace.

***

The Gospel is the sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet with an alabaster flask of ointment.

The Pharisee thinks, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

But Christ does know.  He knows.    

Jesus says that the sinner “whose larger debt was forgiven” will love him more.  He knows that her debt becomes a path to union, when she does her best to repay it.  The ointment is costly.  Her sin costs her.

But deeper than repayment, “she wept.”  Elsewhere we read that “Jesus wept.”  

It is not in turning away from the pain that we find God, but in the hurt itself.

Where are you experiencing the punishment of sin?  How could you make that hurt a path of love?