The Exaltation of the Cross: Suffering and Gratitude

Exaltation-Cross

NM 21:4b-9; PS 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; PHIL 2:6-11; JN 3:13-17

This Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes precedence over what would be the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings show us how the Cross teaches gratitude.

The first reading, one of the stories about the Exodus in the Book of Numbers, begins with one of the Bible’s most amusing stories, about ingratitude. God has brought his people out of slavery in Egypt – and they complain, “against God and Moses,” “We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

The Exodus is the central story of the Old Testament. This humorous little story of ingratitude takes us to the heart of Scripture.

***

God’s response foreshadows the Cross. He punishes them, with biting serpents. But why does God punish?

The punishment leads them to ask God for deliverance: “Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” The punishment takes them from complaining to trust, from ingratitude to a rediscovery of gratitude.

God’s way of salvation is even stranger, at first glance, than is his choice to punish. “Make a saraph [a serpent] and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” The poisonous snake on a pole becomes the symbol of healing. (We still see that symbol on ambulances, and are reminded of it – and of the strange old union between barbers and medicine – in barber poles.)

The whole dynamic is of gratitude. To look at the bronze serpent is to be reminded that everything comes from God: the punishment, the good things we were punished for not appreciating, and the healing from that punishment.

Our sufferings cease to sting when we discover that they too are a gift.

***

Our reading from Philippians, the great Christ Hymn, gives us another angle on the same story.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Philippians hymn teaches us about two kinds of grasping.

The first is our grasping. We think everything is ours for the taking. We demand food – and delicious food! – in the wilderness, we demand an end to our suffering. We demand even equality with God. But Jesus teaches us that equality with God is not something to be grasped. Like everything else, we can only receive it as a gift. We need a savior.

And that savior himself does not grasp, and so shows us what it looks like to accept God as Father. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” Jesus models the humility that alone can lead us to God: the humility that grasps at nothing, and is obedient even to death on a cross.

***

John’s Gospel simply states the thesis. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

People often insert a word that isn’t there. “God loved the world so much”? But that’s a different word (ever clearer in the Greek). It doesn’t say this is how much God loved the world. It says this is the way he loved the world.

The particular way God chose to love us was by giving his Son to die on a cross – “just as,” the same passage tells us, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”

He could have loved us a different way: could have given us more delightful food, could have shortened our wanderings in the desert. Instead he gives us the Cross – both the fangs that sting us, and the sting of death lifted up in our sight.

***

“He gave his only Son,” John tells us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

We can look at our crosses and think God wants “to condemn the world.” Rather, he wants to remind us that “no one has gone up to heaven” without being taken there by Jesus; “equality with God is not something to be grasped.”

Like the serpents in the desert, our crosses, paradoxically, can teach us not to complain, but to cry out to God for help. When we cry out, God does not give us the deliverance we expect. He shows us the Cross of Jesus, to teach us that our crosses are gifts from him, just as everything is, and that the true relief is his presence, his union with us. He alone is our peace.

What parts of our life do we fail to receive with gratitude?

Twenty-Third Sunday: the Mediation of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EX 33:7-9; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 13:8-10; MT 18:15-20

Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the communion of love that is the Church.

The reading from Romans states the theme: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . . Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Paul is specific about the element of law: “The commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The Law is about love. The problem with adultery, murder, and all the rest is precisely that they are violations of love.

But why does God want us to love one another? What does “do not murder” have to do with “you shall have no other gods beside me”?

***

Our reading from Ezekiel begins to answer that question, by taking us into the strange and wonderful idea of mediation.

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me saying anything, you shall warn them for me.” This watchman “warns” when God speaks.

“If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out . . . .”

But this is strange. Why does Ezekiel need to speak out? God can speak to the wicked himself!

The question ends up being more about Ezekiel than about the wicked. “If you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt” – nothing is changing with the wicked – “but you shall save yourself.”

But if “you do not speak out . . . I will hold you responsible for his death.” This is about Ezekiel’s soul.

How Ezekiel relates to the people around him reflects his own relation to God. As the Psalm will say, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” That speaks not primarily to the wicked, but to Ezekiel: will he go where God sends him?

Will he go, even, to the most unpleasant parts of love, where we love others enough to call them back to love?

***

Our Gospel reading from Matthew skips a couple chapters from last week, from the end of chapter 16 to the middle of chapter 18. We skip over the scandalizing of children (Matt 18:1-14).

So we miss, “woe to that man by whom the offence comes! Therefore if your hand or your foot offend, cut them off!” We miss too “does he not leave the ninety nine, and go into the mountains and seek the one which is gone astray? . . . It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

But we skip to a section that nicely sums these up: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” We are to pursue the lost sheep, as did Ezekiel. And we are to convict him of sin, so that he can love, and as part of our loving him.

***

But there is a darker side of this reading. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven . . . .”

If we do bind him back to the love of the Church, or if he chooses not to be bound, he is loosed also from the love of heaven. What appalling power the Church has!

The phrasing ties in to our last two week’s readings: Jesus told Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” and now he says almost the same thing to all of us.

We find the jurisdiction of the hierarchical Church rooted in the more fundamental communion of love. In both cases, the point is that our love mediates God’s love. It is through us that others hear God’s voice, and see his shepherdly love.

Far deeper, it is through our expression of God’s love that we ourselves embrace God’s love for us. To choose to be outside love, outside the communion of the Church, is to choose to withdraw from this way God has chosen for us to hear his voice and experience his love.

Where could we better embrace the challenge of “binding” together in the communion of love?

Twenty-Second Sunday: Trusting God, Even to the Cross

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 20:7-9; PS 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; ROM 12:1-2; MT 16:21-27

This Sunday’s readings teach us that God is sweeter than life and stronger than death.

The Gospel is the second half of last week’s story. Last week Peter professed that Jesus was the Son of God. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus responded, “but my heavenly Father.” Then, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

But this week, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly.” “God forbid, Lord!” said Peter (maybe better translated, “goodness gracious!”). “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus responds, “You are an obstacle to me.” Skandalon means something like a stick you trip on; it’s a nice parallel to “upon this rock I will build.” And parallel to “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

***

Then Jesus applies it to us. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Interesting: in all the Gospels, until Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die, the only times he ever mentions the cross are in saying the disciples must carry it. He doesn’t tell them that he will carry a cross, too.

***

The reading from Jeremiah is a classic. “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.”

How did God dupe him? By convincing him to be a prophet – and then making him prophecy the Cross. “I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message. . . . I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart.”

The Cross appears on two levels. First, it is what Jeremiah must preach: in effect, he must preach that the people have to carry their crosses.

But this preaching is itself Jeremiah’s cross. “The word of the LORD” – this word of “violence and outrage,” of repentance and the cross – “has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” Just as Peter rebuked Jesus, the people rebuke Jeremiah for preaching the cross. To preach the cross is a cross.

And yet the strength of God, and the sweetness of God, compels him. How could he turn away from God’s call to him?

***

Our reading from Romans takes us deeper. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

Now this is interesting. They are supposed to use precisely their bodies for spiritual worship. (The Greek word for spiritual, logike, from logos, is even more intellectual and unbodily than the English word “spiritual.”)

“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The message is all about ideas and thinking. But the expression is bodily.

And this is the heart of the matter: to choose God as our God, to recognize him as God, has concrete consequences. If we are going to worship Jesus, we have to accept the cross. If we care about the will of God, we will have to express it in bodily sacrifices.

***

We return, then, to the Gospel.

To think as God does means choosing a different standard. To think as men is to fear death, fear suffering, fear the cross.

But to think as God does means accepting the cross: Jesus’s cross and our own.

Why? First, because God is powerful. “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,” says Jesus. The cross is terror if it is the last word. But it is not the last word.

Indeed, Jesus had just told them “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” If there is no resurrection, the cross is terror. But God is with us, and there is resurrection.

Second, we accept the cross because God is sweet. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Losing our lives is not the point of the cross. The point is that we give our all for him, because he is worth it. To lose everything and gain God is to lose nothing at all.

What cross do we fear to carry? Why?

Twenty-First Sunday: God Builds the Church

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 22:19-23; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; ROM 11:33-36; MT 16:13-20

Our Sunday readings this week teach us about the presence of God within the Church.

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s great account of Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. . . .  I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

There are many rich ways to approach this text.  I would like to focus on the words, “I will build.”  “I.”

***

Our reading from Isaiah gives a parallel.  “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  Clearly there is a parallel to when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.”  Jesus is invoking this Old Testament parallel.

But the deeper parallel is not the keys.  The deeper parallel is “I.”

The reading begins with God speaking to the previous master of the palace.  “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.”  The authority belongs to God.  It is God who drives Shebna out.

Then, “I will summon my servant Eliakim. . . I will clothe him with your robe . . . .  I will place the key . . . .  I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”

The part about the peg is nice: God has full authority.  God is in charge of the House of David, so fully in command that he can make things fit perfectly.

It is this divine power that explains Eliakim’s authority: “when he opens, no one shall shut” – because behind Elikaim is God.

Even deeper, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.”  Eliakim can be a father only because of the power of God behind him.

***

So too Peter – and his successors, both the popes and even the bishops.

“I will build my church,” – I! – “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Peter is not stronger than the netherworld.  But God is.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  I hope it’s obvious that Peter has absolutely no power to affect this – unless God not only gives him the power, but upholds it, at every moment.  It is because God builds the Church that the Church has authority.

(The binding and loosing, by the way, is the root of the power of Confession – our penance is the “binding” part.  It is also the root of the power of Indulgences, and the works of penance that gain them.)

The Church is a work of God.  It is God whom we trust when the Church teaches, when the Church administers the sacraments, and when the Church gathers us together in unity.

***

Behind this is a deeper work of God.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my heavenly Father.” See the way God works internally.  Just as God is able to give Peter the keys, so God is able to give Peter the faith.  God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  God illumines Peter so that Peter himself makes confession.

Even deeper, the conversation begins, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.”  “Son of Man” is a phrase from the psalms.  It emphasizes that Jesus is man.  But Peter recognizes that Jesus is “Son of God.”  Among other things, the Incarnation shows just how intimate God is with his creation.

***

Our reading from Romans takes us to the deepest theological roots of this intimacy.  The reading begins with the inscrutability of God’s judgments.  But it concludes, “Who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

Our inability to “know the mind of the Lord” only underlines that he is absolutely before us.  He makes us, not we him.

God has absolute authority over his creation because he made it: it is from him, and through him, and for him.  It is altogether in his hands.  God can speak to us interiorly, and cause us to make an act of faith, because he is our maker.  God can establish a Church, and a Pope, and bishops and priests and sacraments, because Creation is altogether in his hands.  He can work through it because it exists through him.

Are there places where we overlook the Providence of God in our view of Church teaching, or the sacraments, or the fatherly discipline of the household of the Church?

Nineteenth Sunday: The Still, Small Voice

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS  19:9a, 11-13a; PS 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14; ROM 9:1-5; MT 14:22-33

This week we again have a deceptively simple Gospel story. Again, like the parables, there is more than meets the eye.

“Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . . The wind was against it. . . . ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ . . . ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ . . . ‘Lord, save me!’ . . . ‘Why did you doubt?’ ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Again, the story is rich and beautiful and stirring even on its surface level. Jesus is Lord of Creation – “consubstantial with” the “maker of heaven and earth.” He can save us, but we must trust him. Good!

***

But the liturgy takes us deeper into the riches of this he story by setting it against Elijah and Romans.

The story from First Kings is the “still small voice.” Elijah knows God, and God speaks to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”

There follows “a strong and heavy wind . . . crushing rocks before the LORD” (pretty impressive!), an earthquake, and a fire – “but the LORD was not in the wind.”

Our translation says there was finally a “tiny whispering sound.” Now, there’s an insight in that translation. God is not just in the excitement – not just in the walking on waves and calming of storms, but also in the tiniest details. And though destruction is impressive, and may go “before the LORD,” God is not in destruction. The real presense of God is more subtle than that.

***

But I think in another way our translation is unfortunate. The old King James has “a still small voice,” and so far as I can tell from my concordance (I am not a Hebrew scholar, but have some good tools), the tiny whispering is not just a “sound” but a “voice.” The Hebrew word seems to be about calling, beckoning, and Elijah’s response is to go out to meet it.

He not only hears a sound. He is called. And indeed, what follows (after what we will hear at Mass) is instructions.

God is Lord of nature, yes. He can walk on the sea and still the waves, and that is important. But more important is that he calls to us, speaks to us, converses with us, and tells us the way we should go. God is more intimate than just impressive miracles.

***

Our reading from Romans is a little obscure. It begins the very difficult chapters 9-11, in which Paul discusses the plight of the Jews. Paul is a Jew, and loves the Jews: “I could wish that I myself were accursed . . . for the sake of my people.” And Paul insists on the truth of the Jewish faith: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Christ does not annul Judaism, he fulfills it.

The connections to our other readings are subtle. Paul begins, “my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart,” yearning for the salvation of his people.

This is a very fine statement, close to the heart of Paul’s teaching. “My conscience joins with the Holy Spirit.” It is the still small voice. God speaks to us interiorly. He enlightens us, illumines us – and so sets Paul afire, with “great sorrow and constant anguish.”

God doesn’t just do miracles. He speaks, and his word is life.

Paul works throughout to explain the continuity of this with “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” All of that speaking in the Old Testament is the same God who speaks to Paul – and to Elijah, and to Peter. He is a God who shows us the way to him, and tells us about himself.

***

Let us return, briefly, to the Gospel. The reading begins strangely: “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . while he dismissed the crowds.” He sets them up. Their obedience to his word prepares them to receive his miracle.

And at the heart of that miracle is a dialogue:

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“Lord, save me!”

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It isn’t about walking on water. It’s about hearing his words of peace, calling out to him, and learning to trust.

How could we find more opportunities to heed his promises to us?

Eighteenth Sunday: Jesus the Giver of Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 55:1-3; PS 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18; ROM 8:35, 37-39; MT 14:13-21

Our readings for this Sunday are deceptively simple – but just as in the parables we have considered the last few weeks, only faith uncovers the deeper good news beneath the poetry.

In the Gospel, Jesus is “moved with pity,” and he cures the sick. Then he sees that there is no food, and he multiplies what the disciples give him: five loaves and two fish for five thousand, with twelve wicker baskets left over. (We should note that in the thought-world of the Bible, numbers have symbolic value; but we do not have time to pursue that here.)

We see Jesus’s love, we see his provision, we see how he multiplies the little that we have. All lovely, and profound.

***

And in an especially poetic passage from a book filled with beautiful poetry, the prophet Isaiah says, “Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

Without being sentimental, let us say: the words are beautiful, healing, life-giving. The Word of God is balm. It is not too much to say that being a Christian and luxuriating in this beauty are almost one and the same.

***

But there is more, hidden beneath the filigree.

Isaiah continues: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?”

What is this? The poetry is still beautiful. But the words challenge our understanding. He just said, “You who have no money” – and now talks about how we spend our wages. He offers us wine and milk, then tells us that what is not bread fails to satisfy.

Two chapters after our Gospel reading, Jesus will tell the disciples, “O ye of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves, because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, neither remember the  loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? . . . Then they understood how he did not warn them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Mt 16:8-9, 12).

He’s not talking about bread.

***

Indeed, our reading from Romans asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will . . . famine . . . ? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.”

The answer is not, “you will never face famine, because Christ can multiply bread.” The answer is, “Neither death, nor life . . . nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The funny thing about our reading from Isaiah is that when he says, “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?” it is bread itself that fails to satisfy. “I have food to eat that you know not of . . . . My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Jn 4:32, 34).

Or as our reading from Isaiah says, “listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant.” The “rich fare” he offers is not material bread, but “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The real gift of Jesus is not the bread, but his healing mercy. The bread only shows us what he offers, and his power to provide. But he provides so much more than bread.

***

Incongruously (it seems) our Gospel reading begins, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” What do the five loaves and two fish have to do with the death of John the Baptist?

John preached repentance, died in fact for steadfastly preaching repentance even to the king. He preached that God is worth giving up everything first.

And so John went out to the wilderness, the deserted places, drawing others after him, to live not for bread but for God alone.

Jesus goes to the wilderness to preach God alone. And there in the wilderness, to all who will follow him there, leaving all else behind, Jesus provides every necessity and every good thing.

In the wilderness of repentance, they discover the rich fare of God’s mercy.

What obstacles prevent you from following Jesus to the wilderness?

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Conformed to the Image

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS 3:5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; ROM 8:28-30; MT 13:44-52

“Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Our Psalm for this Sunday takes us deeper into the power of faith. God calls us not just to vaguely like him, but to listen to him, and learn. His word enlightens our path.

***

The first reading is Solomon’s prayer. “I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. . . . Who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”

Solomon recognizes that the task to which God calls him exceeds human intelligence. This is vivid for Solomon, who has to rule a “vast people.” But it is true for us, too: what does it mean to instantiate God’s love, in the myriad complexities of my life? With work responsibilities, and a house, and a culture that is really hard to figure out how to engage, and a family, and complicated people . . . who is up to this task?

But Solomon does not throw up his hands. Nor does he say, “I’ll just try hard, and trust you to take care of it.” No, God calls him deeper, to a share in his providence. God does not call Solomon to let God be king. God calls Solomon himself to be king, to share in God’s care for his creation – and so to enter into God’s own wisdom.

So Solomon’s prayer is, although “I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act,” “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” Understanding. Distinguishing.

And God grants him light. He lets him see the path he should walk on. “Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

***

The Gospel reading concludes Matthew’s sermon of parables. We have the treasure buried in a field, and the pearl of great price. We all know that part of the meaning of these parables is that God is a treasure worth selling everything else to acquire.

But these parables go deeper, also into the intellectual component of Christian faith.

With the treasure buried in a field, Jesus says, “a person finds and hides again” and then goes to buy the field. This person is tricky, clever.

With the pearl, the character is “a merchant.” He’s not just acquiring something great. He’s clever, a wise businessman.

Next comes the “net thrown into the sea” (not as popular a parable), and “what is bad they throw away.” Like Solomon, those who use a net must “distinguish right from wrong.” They have to be clever.

And finally comes, “the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Whatever else this parable is about, this householder, again, is wise, able to distinguish, clever enough to meet his situation.

***

Earlier in this discourse, Jesus said, “blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, for they hear.” “Lord, I love your commands . . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Jesus asks us not just to love him, but to be clever. Indeed, true love has to be clever. True love wants to figure out how to love, concretely. True love must be wise.

And so God gives us wisdom. Not just the command to love him, but the light to know how to love him.

***

Our reading from Romans gives us the punchline. “We know that all things work for good for those who love God . . . .” Yes, the heart of the matter is love. Love is all that matters.

But love is concrete. The sentence continues, “. . . who are called according to his purpose.” He calls us in a particular way, to instantiate his wisdom, to be part of his plan. Not just vaguely to love, but to share in his purpose.

We are called “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” To be as Jesus is. Which is not vague, but incarnate, and wise. “So that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” To be as Jesus is, to share in his way of seeing, to share in his good counsel, to live out his purposes and his plan.

“Lord, I love your commands. . . . The revelation of your words sheds light.”

Can you think of places in your life where true love requires divine wisdom? Give thanks to God that he gives us that wisdom, in his Word and in his Spirit, dwelling within us.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Power of the Word

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 12:13, 16-19; PS 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; ROM 8:26-27; MT 13:24-43

Last Sunday’s Gospel emphasized our contribution to conversion. The same Word of God, sowed in different hearts, can bear thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, or else end up snatched away by the evil one, withered by tribulation and persecution, or choked by the deceitfulness of riches. It seems that we make all the difference.

But this week, we hear the three parables that follow, which emphasize the strength of God’s word.

***

In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the servants fear that the weeds sowed by the enemy will choke out the good seed. But the master says, leave them be; the only thing that can hurt the good seed is your quickness to intervene: “If you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus speaks of those “who cause others to sin and all evildoers.” Yes, evil can “cause others to sin.” But don’t be too worried about the good seed, “the children of the kingdom.” The weeds won’t hurt them. The only thing that can hurt them is your lack of trust in the good seed.

***

Then come two short parables that confirm the point. The mustard seed looks small, but grows large. The kingdom might look fragile, but it is stronger than it seems.

I’m no expert on Middle Eastern horticulture, but one commentary I read says birds don’t nest in mustard bushes. When Jesus says, “It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches,” he’s talking about birds that peck at the tree. Again: don’t worry. The mustard bush is strong enough to withstand those birds.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You wouldn’t think something so insignificant could accomplish anything. But don’t underestimate the power of God.

We tend to think it all depends on us. Thank God it doesn’t. Like the seeds and the yeast, the Kingdom is vastly stronger than we could imagine.

***

The other two readings give us two practical consequences of this teaching.

The reading from Romans 8 is, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Note the emphasis on “our weakness.”

True prayer involves a kind of predicament. We pray because we need help from a power greater than our own. But it’s hard to even know what is possible for God. When we’re looking at mustard seeds, yeast, and a field full of weeds, we can’t even imagine the possibilities that God sees. We are inclined to ask for too little.

Romans 8 reminds us that therefore prayer itself is a gift. Divine hope is a gift, parallel to divine faith. Only God himself knows the measure we can ask from God. But his Spirit dwells in us.

***

We can be tempted to focus on the irrationality of both hope and faith. Sometimes people dwell on the line in our reading that says, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Ah!, we think, the point is that we should pray with unintelligible groans!

But this way of thinking can get it exactly wrong. To the contrary, God tells us, in words, what to hope for. Without the words he speaks to us, we are left to our own hopes, and we hope for infinitely less than what he offers.

Faith and hope are unintelligible in the sense that God’s word leaves us speechless. He claims, for example, that the wheat will survive the weeds, that the tiny seed will grow big and strong, that the yeast can leaven the whole lump, and that his Spirit dwells in us – and our jaws drop.

But to respond by emphasizing just the unintelligibility, however wild it might seem, would leave us with nothing but our too-meager hopes.

The point of the groaning is not a hatred of words, but a longing as great as God’s love. That longing is born from the Word of God.

***

Where Romans talks about our own prayer life, the reading from the Book of Wisdom helps us apply the power of God’s word to our view of other people.

“Your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all,” says Wisdom. God is merciful not because he leaves things as they are, but because he is powerful enough to change them. Indeed, his “might is the source of justice.”

If God is so powerful that we can survive among the weeds, we have reason to hope that his yeast in us may even leaven the dead souls around us. There is no need to condemn others, but only to hope in the power of the promise.

How could we better let our view of the world be shaped by the promises God has spoken to us?

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: the Grace of Faith

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 55:10-11; PS 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14; ROM 8:18-23; MT 13:1-23

Our readings for this Sunday teach about the grace of faith: the gift that is God’s word, the gift of a heart open to receive it, and the goodness of faith.

The parable of the sower is worth endless meditation, but is straightforward enough that we needn’t dwell on the basic point:

“The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart,” etc.  There is a nice progression, from the word never sprouting at all, to it sprouting, but without roots, to it having roots, but being choked out by “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.”

Notice that even in the first case, it is “sown in his heart.”  The question is how deeply into our heart it goes, and whether we let it bear fruit.

***

But let us also notice the paragraph that becomes between the initial parable and its explanation. “The disciples approached him and said, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’”  In fact, this parable answers the question of parables in general.

“This is why I speak to them in parables,” Jesus tells them, “because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Faith goes deeper than just hearing.  It goes into our hearts.  Every word Jesus speaks is like a parable.  Whether you understand it depends not just on whether you hear it, but on the state of your heart.

“Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears.”  The deeper issue is love: not just going to Church, but loving Jesus enough to hear his word, and let it penetrate into us.

There’s a kind of parallel, between the huge crowds who listen to Jesus on the seashore vs. the few disciples who come near to hear the explanation, and the different kinds of soil in the parable.  Unless we come near, lay our heads on his heart, we won’t know what any of it means.

***

The two other readings take us deeper into two aspects of this Gospel teaching.

Jesus says, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.”  The key word here is “granted.”  It is a gift.

The reading from Isaiah is also about the word “that goes forth from my mouth.”  But here he says, “just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be. . . . My word shall not return to me void.”

In the parable in the Gospel, it sounds like it’s up to us: we are the ground who receives his word.  But in Isaiah, it’s all up to him: it’s his word itself that makes the earth fruitful.  His word is powerful, effective.

The two parables of the word reflect the two sides of grace.  We are really transformed, so that we hear and understand – but it is he who transforms us.  Our hearts must be truly receptive – but it is his grace that makes us receptive.

Faith is a grace. It’s not just because we tried harder than other people – or rather, we try harder because he gives us the grace to try.  Thanks be to God, not to me!

***

But in the Gospel, he also says,  “lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.”   Understand, be converted, and be healed.  This part of the reading shows that through faith comes healing.

The reading from Romans emphasizes that all creation “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.”  Even our bodies wait, and grown, “for adoption,” and for “the redemption of our bodies.”

These are two different things.  First, the spiritual thing: by the word we hear, we are converted, healed, made sons and daughters of God.  Second, our bodies are redeemed.  The point here is, everything in creation, especially everything in our humanity, longs for this.  Conversion through faith even heals our bodies – whatever that could mean!

The grace of faith converts us, heals us, makes us children of God.  This is the greatest joy.

How could I better lay my head on the heart of Jesus and ask him to open the Scriptures to me?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: His Yoke is Easy

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

ZEC 9:9-10; PS 145: 1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14; ROM 8:9, 11-13; MT 11:25-30

At last we return to our orderly reading of Matthew – and see how beautiful are the ordinary words of the Gospel.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Such words are like balm. They are really worth reading and hearing just to bathe in them. Such a beautiful reminder that none of our pious meditations can equal the healing power of God’s word.

***

But let us come to him, and learn! These words teach us even more when we read them in context. The Lectionary is good enough to give us the verses that immediately proceed.

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. . . . No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

The two halves of this paragraph illumine one another. Not by strength does man prevail. It’s not human wisdom that discovers the love of the Father. It’s a gift, through Jesus Christ.

And this is the deeper meaning of “take my yoke upon you.” The “rest” he gives us is precisely knowledge of the Father. This is the cure to our labors and burdens.

We have to take his “yoke” upon us. But this doesn’t mean hard work. To the contrary, it means being so assimilated to him that we let him be our all – let Jesus be the source of our strength, and learn from him to receive everything from the Father. That’s the true meaning of meekness.

And meekness is a “yoke” – a challenge to our self-sufficient ways, requiring a real change of behavior – but also “easy,” because what we learn is precisely that we don’t have to be self-sufficient.

***

The other two readings are well chosen to take us deeper into the Gospel.

The prophet Zechariah says, “your king shall come to you . . . meek, and riding on an ass . . . He shall banish the chariot . . . and the horse . . . the warrior’s bow shall be banished,

It is, of course, the prophecy Jesus fulfills. But notice the double banishing of the warrior’s bow. On the one hand – and this is always powerful in the prophets, who spoke during the time of exile – this gentle king banishes our enemies. He conquers all our labors and burdens, by a strength beyond human strength.

And on the other hand, he banishes not just our enemies bow, but our own as well. We can afford to be meek, because we are given a greater happiness. When he is our king and our shepherd, we don’t have to fight.

On the Cross, Jesus triumphs not by fighting harder, but by bringing the all-healing presence of God. He doesn’t take away our crosses, but fills them with love.

***

We should hear the prophet’s language of place, as well. “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!” We are to imagine ourselves as David’s city, finally liberated by the coming of the king. We find ourselves in that city, which is the Church. And we receive his salvation by being part of the city.

But the reading ends, “he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The great king’s city is not exclusive. The Church does not keep outsiders out. It is a light to the nations, to draw everyone in to the joy of his salvation.

***

The reading from Romans gives us a personal charge. It is not anti-body: “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.” But it does call us to live by a new standard: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

We are called not to live “in the flesh,” not according to the logic of this world. But “in the spirit . . . the Spirit of God who dwells in you” and brings us to a new kind of city, a new kind of happiness, a new way of life.

Where do you spend your money for what is not bread, and labor for what does not satisfy? Where are you called to set down your weapons and let Christ be your all?