Monday, August 19, 2019

21st Sunday C

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Isaiah 66:18‑21  Hebrews 12:5‑7,11‑13  
Luke 13:22‑30

We are all capable of being narrow and parochial in our religious attitudes toward "outsiders."  This Sunday's readings challenge us to be open to the universality of God's plan for salvation.  Let us take to heart the lyrics of our psalm: "Praise the Lord, all you nations;/ glorify him, all you peoples" (Ps  117:1).
Our first reading is from the conclusion of the entire book of the prophet Isaiah.  It is taken from the portion that scholars call Third Isaiah which was probably written in the late sixth century B.C. after the Jewish exiles had returned to Jerusalem but before they had rebuilt the temple.  This prophet, in contrast to some of his elitist fellow Judeans, announces that after the purification of Jerusalem, Jewish survivors will be sent by God to the nations and distant coastlands to proclaim his glory to those who "have never heard of (God's) fame."  In God's name, the prophet proclaims: “They shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord/ . . . to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the Lord,/ just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels.” He even dares to announce in God's name: "Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the Lord."
The reading from Hebrews continues directly from last week's section in which Jesus, who endured the cross, is presented to us as our model for persevering "in running the race" of faith.   Using a quotation from Proverbs 3:11‑12, the author reminds us that the Lord disciplines those whom he loves.  The trials we meet in being faithful Christians should be understood as the loving discipline of our Father.  In the language of the Hellenistic philosophy of the day, the author uses an athletic metaphor to conclude his exhortation.  “Make straight the paths you walk on, that your halting limbs may not be dislocated but healed."
In the Gospel from Luke Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem and warns the crowds that entrance into the messianic banquet is difficult.  Someone in the crowd asks, "Lord, are they few in number who are to be saved?"  Rather than answer directly, Jesus responds with a series of parabolic warnings, using the image of the door.  First of all he replies, “Try to come in through the narrow door.  Many, I tell you will try to enter and be unable.”  Then, changing the door image, he warns that some may be too late in responding to the call of the kingdom. "When once the master of the house has risen to lock the door and you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Sir, open for us,' he will say in reply, `I do not know where you come from.'  Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your company. You taught in our streets.'  But he will answer, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from.  Away from me you evildoers!'"Entrance into the messianic banquet calls for a radical change of heart; mere social contact with Jesus is not enough.
Finally, Jesus warns the crowd that they may be rejected from the final messianic feast and replaced by the Gentiles.“And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. People will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and will take their  place at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Jesus concludes by asserting that God's kingdom overturns our worldly standards: “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.”

Monday, August 12, 2019

20th Sunday C

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Jeremiah 38:4‑6,8‑10  Hebrews 12:1‑4  Luke 12:49‑53

            Every four years the Olympic Games captivate us with stories of athletes who have disciplined and trained themselves for years in order to win medals in competition with the best in the world.   In today's readings Jeremiah and Jesus give us inspiring examples of unwavering and passionate commitment to God's word, even to the point of death.  Only those who trust God in faith will be able to follow their heroic example.  Let each of us pray in the words of this Sunday's psalm: “Lord, come to my aid!/ Though I am afflicted and poor,/ yet the Lord thinks of me. You are my help and my deliverer;/ O my God, hold not back!”  Ps 40:18
            In his call to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1), Jeremiah learned that he would have to stand like "a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land."  His beloved land of Judah would have to die before it could live again.  Therefore, Jeremiah was summoned to speak God's word which would first "root up and tear down . . . destroy and demolish" and only then "build and plant" a purified nation.  
            In today's reading we hear an example of how Jeremiah lived out his call even to the point of death, only to be rescued by the courageous action of Ebed‑melech, a Cushite courtier in the king's palace.  Jerusalem is under siege from the Babylonian armies, and Jeremiah is imprisoned in quarters of the guard for his preaching.  While there, he has counseled the Judean soldiers to cease defending the doomed city and to desert to Babylonians in order to save their lives (Jer 34:2‑3).  Understandably, the princes view Jeremiah's words as treason and report to king Zedekiah, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he demoralizes the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”   Ironically, the prophet is deeply concerned with the spiritual welfare of the nation, and his advice to desert will guarantee that some will survive the destruction of the city.  Jeremiah's seemingly unpatriotic advice earns him what amounts to a death sentence.  Zedekiah allows the princes to throw him in a muddy cistern where he would surely die of starvation.  But God's plans for Jeremiah are not finished. He is rescued by Ebed‑melech and will go on to survive the destruction of the city and preach of the Lord's restoration of Judah and Jerusalem after a long exile (see Jeremiah 30‑33). 
            The Hebrews reading continues the theme of suffering for the sake of God's word by using the metaphor of an athletic contest, like the ancient Olympics, to exhort us to follow Jesus "who inspires and perfects our faith."  Last week's reading from Hebrews 11 presented "a cloud of witnesses" from the Old Testament who lived lives of faith in patient endurance.  Now they stand on the sidelines cheering us on as we "lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race which lies ahead."  To succeed in this race, we must "keep our eyes fixed on Jesus," who "for the sake of the joy which lay before him . . . endured the cross, heedless of its shame."   The fact that he, like Jeremiah, "endured the opposition of sinners" and still triumphed at "the throne of God" should encourage us not to "grow despondent or abandon the struggle."

The passionate intensity of Jesus' words to his disciples in the Gospel makes sense only when we realize the he is on his way to Jerusalem where he is destined to "suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Lk 9:22; see also 9:44; 13:31‑33).  In the context of warning the  disciples about their need to be vigilant and faithful servants once he has departed (recall last week's gospel), Jesus speaks in anguish about his own approaching fate as a "baptism" of  fire which he wishes were already set ablaze.   When Jesus was first presented in the Temple as a child, Simeon had prophesied about him to his mother Mary: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted . . . so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Lk 2:33‑34).  Now Jesus himself tells the disciples that his mission is not one of peace based on complacency but division which will sort out those who are willing to accept God's will from those who would compromise it.  "Do you think I have come to establish peace   on the earth?  I assure you the contrary is true; I have come for division!"  (Lk 12:51).  May we too have a uncompromising commitment to the will of the Father.


The Assumption (August 15)

Readings: Revelation 11:19; 12:1‑6, 10  1 Corinthians 15:20‑26  Luke 1:39‑56

            The Feast of the Assumption of Mary celebrates our Roman Catholic belief that Mary, "having completed her earthly life, was in body and soul assumed into heavenly glory."  This event is not recorded in the canonical Scriptures, and, therefore, the readings for the feast concentrate on elements related to this belief: Mary's special dignity as the mother of Christ and Christ's victory over sin and death in his resurrection which is the basis for our belief that Mary too, through her son’s resurrection, triumphed over death. 
            The apocalyptic vision in the Revelation reading uses symbols that are common to the myths of the Ancient Near East, Judaism and the Graeco‑Roman world.  All of these traditions have an archetypal story of the heavenly mother and her divine child who is attacked by an evil monster from the sea and then somehow rescued.  In the Book of Revelation this story is used to speak in a symbolic way of Jesus' triumph over the powers of evil through God's raising him to triumph in heaven.  It also alludes to God's protection of the mother and her offspring (faithful Christians).   The "woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head" recalls Joseph's dream, where this image symbolizes the tribes of Israel (Genesis 37).   The woman's labor pains are like those of daughter Zion in giving birth to the Messiah, especially in Isaiah 66:7‑9.  It is not surprising that later Christians identified the woman with Mary.   The "huge, flaming red dragon" is a grotesque and bestial personification of the forces of evil.  Despite his terrifying powers, the dragon is not able to devour the "boy who is destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod" because he "was snatched up to God and to his throne." The woman is also protected when she flees into the desert, "where a special place had been prepared for her by God."
            In the Corinthians reading Paul is defending the Christian belief in bodily resurrection.  He insists that Christ has been raised from the dead and that he is the first fruits of a harvest which will affect the whole of humanity.  Using the Adam/Christ typology, Paul speaks of Christ as a new Adam who has brought life in place of death.  His resurrection is the first event in an apocalyptic transformation in which the dead will be raised and God's kingdom will be definitively established. “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits and then, at his coming, all those who belong to him.  After that will come the end, when, after having destroyed every sovereignty, authority, and power, he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father.”
            The Gospel is the story of Mary's visiting Elizabeth.  It proclaims the special dignity of Mary in Luke's theology.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth greets Mary with the joyous words, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary's exalted status is founded on her trusting faith: “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord's words to her would be fulfilled.”
            In her canticle, Mary, like Hannah in the Old Testament (1 Sam 2:1‑10), praises God her “savior” who has manifest his power and fulfilled his promises to Abraham by exalting the lowly.  In our celebration of this feast, let us join Mary in singing God's praises. "My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord,/ my spirit finds joy in God my savior,/ For he has looked upon his handmaid in her lowliness;/ all ages to come shall call me blessed. God who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is his name;/ His mercy is from age to age on those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm;/ he has confused the proud in their conceit. He has deposed the mighty from their thrones/ and raised the lowly to high places. The hungry he has given every good thing,/ while the rich he has sent empty away. He has upheld Israel his servant, ever mindful of his mercy;/ Even as he promised our father,/ promised Abraham and his descendants forever."  

Monday, August 5, 2019

19th Sunday

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Wisdom 18:6‑9  Hebrew 11:1‑2,8‑19  Luke 12:32‑48

In our cynical and secular culture faith is a rare virtue.   This Sunday's readings challenge us to be people of faith who live in trust that God's future will bring deliverance from evil and gifts beyond our imagining.  Let us place our confidence in the Lord's fidelity to his promises, as we sing the lyrics of this Sunday's psalm: “See the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him,/ upon those who hope for his
kindness,/ to deliver them from death/ and preserve them in spite of famine” (Ps 33:18‑19).
The reading from the book of Wisdom is a poem describing the faith of our Jewish ancestors on the night of the Passover when they were delivered from Egyptian bondage.  That night they courageously put their faith in God's oaths promising deliverance, as they awaited "the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes."  Their faith was expressed by offering the Passover sacrifice, "putting into effect with one accord the divine institution."  This same faith in awaiting the Lord's deliverance from evil should mark our Christian Eucharistic celebrations.
The second reading is taken from the great encomium on the faith of our Jewish ancestors in Hebrews.  It begins with a formal definition: "Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see."  Through faith we attain what we hope for, and faith is the virtue by which we are put in touch with the unseen realities of God so that we may attain things unseen in the present. 
Each of the examples begins with the phrase, "by faith," and they, in some way, anticipate the resurrection faith of Christians. Abraham's faith enabled him to obey God's call to go forth to the land he was to receive as a heritage "without knowing where he was going."  His faith also gave him the hope "to live as an alien in the promised land as a foreign country."   "He," like Christian believers, "was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose designer and maker is God."  Sarah's faith gave her the "power to conceive though she was past the age, for she thought that the One who made the promise was worthy of trust."  Her faith, like that of Christians, was in God's power to bring life from the dead.  “As a result of (Sarah's) faith, there came forth from one man, who was himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand of the seashore.” Finally, Abraham's faith in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac was also an anticipation of resurrection faith because "He reasoned that God was able to raise from the dead, and so he received Isaac back as a symbol."

The Gospel from Luke continues the theme of the future orientation of Christian faith which calls for Jesus' disciples to live in trust and fidelity as they await the completion of God's kingdom.  In this section of the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching his followers that their faith should free them from earthly anxiety and make them faithful in performing their duties.  Because the Father has given them the kingdom, the disciples are free to sell their possessions and give alms.  Jesus commands them, “Get purses for yourselves that do not wear out, a never‑failing treasure with the Lord which no thief comes near nor any moth destroys.”  Jesus tells the disciples to be like servants “awaiting their master's return from a wedding, so that when he arrives and knocks, you may open for him without delay.”  If they are prepared, the master himself “will put on an apron, seat them at table and proceed to wait on them.”  Then Jesus uses the parable of the thief breaking into a house to illustrate that the time of his return is unknown.  When Peter asks if this parable is meant for the disciples, Jesus answers by telling them to be “faithful, farsighted steward(s)” who are “busy” doing their duties, rather than the type of servant who counts on his master's delay and abuses his fellow servants.  Ascertaining the time of the Lord's return is inadequate motivation for faithful behavior.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

18th Sunday C

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21‑23 Colossians 3:1‑5,9‑11  
Luke 12:13‑21

Today's readings present a shocking challenge to the very foundation of our capitalist society which values a person simply on the basis of financial worth.  As we are reminded of the folly of spending our lives in the accumulation of wealth, let us take to heart the refrain of our responsorial psalm, "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps 95).
Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, is a wisdom meditation on the "vanity of vanities," or complete emptiness, of all human striving which would fashion a meaning out of life apart from God.   Perhaps the ultimate example of such vanity is the man who uses his all "wisdom and knowledge and skill" to acquire property which he must leave to another.  Qoheleth even uses the language of business to remind us of the futility of such a life.   "For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?"  When we add up the ledger sheet, we discover that he has gained nothing but days filled with "sorrow and grief" and nights when "his mind is not at rest."  Qoheleth appropriately concludes, "This also is vanity." 
In contrast to the futility of Qoheleth's meditations, the Epistle offers a hopeful and transcendent vision of life based on belief in the resurrected Christ.  Paul is exhorting the Colossians to live out the consequences of their baptism.   "Since," in baptism they "have been raised up in company with Christ," they are now to set their hearts "on what pertains to the higher realms . . . rather than on the things of earth."   Their ultimate destiny is to "appear" with Christ "in glory."   In the meantime, baptism mandates that they "put to death" the earthly life of "fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires, covetousness . . ."   Their new life is to "be formed anew in the image of the Creator."  In the new creation wrought by the resurrected Christ all human categories of status and division have been eliminated. "There is no Greek or Jew here, circumcised or uncircumcised, foreigner, Scythian, slave, or freeman.  Rather Christ is everything in all of you." 
The Gospel returns to the favorite Lukan theme of the vanity of trying to find security through the accumulation of material possessions.  As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, he is asked by someone in the crowd to act as an arbiter in a property dispute.  He rejects such a role and instead proceeds to warn the crowd of the danger of greed through the parable of the rich fool.  The insidious character of wealth is best illustrated by the rich man's soliloquy.  After he has a particularly abundant harvest, he thinks that he has a plan to provide lasting security and the license to pursue a life of luxury.  He says to himself, “What shall I do?  I have no place to store my harvest. I know . . . I will pull down my grain bins and build larger ones.  All my grain and my goods will go there. Then I will say to myself: You have blessings in reserve for years to come.  Relax!  Eat heartily, drink well.  Enjoy yourself.” In contrast to the rich fool's carefully crafted plans, God says: “You fool!  This very night your life shall be required of you.  To whom will all this piled‑up wealth of yours go?” 

In the next section of Luke Jesus gives his disciples advice on the proper use of their material wealth. "Sell what you have and give alms.  Get purses for yourselves that do not wear out, never‑failing treasure with the Lord which no thief comes near nor any moth destroys.  Wherever your treasure lies, there your heart will be" (Lk 12:33‑34).  Let us pray that our hearts are with the Lord who is concerned for the poor and needy in our midst, not with our own financial security.

17th Sunday C

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Genesis 18:20‑32  Colossians 2:12‑14  Luke 11:1‑13

This Sunday's readings present graphic examples of the power of prayer.  Let us approach our merciful God with reverence and confidence, as we sing this Sunday's psalm: "Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me" (Ps 138).  
In the Genesis reading the Lord allows Abraham to boldly bargain for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah, two notoriously sinful cities.   In the previous section, the Lord deliberates about telling Abraham his intentions: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, now that he is to become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him? . . .”  Because of Abraham's role in the divine plan, the Lord allows the patriarch to hear of his intention to investigate “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah.” “Then the Lord said: "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.” 
Assuming that a guilty verdict is inevitable, Abraham begs the Lord to spare the cities for the sake of the few innocent who may be in them.  Significantly, he does not simply ask that God spare the innocent, like the family of his nephew Lot (see Genesis 13‑14, 19), but that the whole city be preserved because of the few righteous.  Abraham actually intercedes with God for pagan sinners, and his argument is quite clever.  He first asks the Lord, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”  Presumably the Lord would answer, “No.” But before he can respond, Abraham rushes on to add, “Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the fifty innocent people within it? . . .”   Now Abraham has forced the Lord to agree to spare the whole city if he is to preserve his reputation as “the judge of all the earth” who would not “make the innocent die with the guilty.” Abraham's almost Promethean boldness in pushing God to the point of promising to spare the city for the sake of ten innocent is a lesson to all of us to be courageous in voicing our concerns for justice and mercy to God.
In the second reading Paul continues his attack on those false teachers who want to introduce "circumcision" and certain exotic ascetical and religious practices into the Christian life at Colossae (see 2:16‑23).  In contrast to the fragmented religiosity of his opponents, Paul presents the simple, straightforward truth that in baptism the Christian was buried with Christ and raised to a new life with him.  God does not have some hidden debt against the past sins of a Christian which must be paid by strange penitential practices.  Paul asserts: “He (Christ) pardoned all our sins.  He canceled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross.”

The importance of prayer for the disciples is a theme that occurs repeatedly in Luke's Gospel.  He, more than any other  evangelist, presents Jesus himself as one who prays at important  events in the Gospel: at his baptism (3:21), when he withdraws  into the desert (5:16), when he calls the twelve to the mountain  (6:12), when he begins to teach his disciples about his passion (9:18), at the transfiguration (9:28‑29), at the Last Supper when  he tells Simon of his denial (22:32), in Gethsemane (22:44), and at his crucifixion as he forgives his executioners and commends his spirit to his Father (23:34,46).
In today's Gospel, Jesus' prayer is the occasion for the disciples' request, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Jesus goes on to teach them the “Our Father” in a more shortened form than in Matthew (6:9‑13) and instructs them  to be confident in their prayer through the twin parables of the friend at midnight and the father who gives good gifts to his  children.  The argument in both is from the lesser to the greater.  If a friend will rouse himself and his whole house because you come at midnight seeking bread for your guests, how much more will the heavenly Father respond when we pray to him?  And, if we, who are evil, give good things to our children when they ask, then “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”   Such teaching should give us the confidence to approach the Father with all of our needs.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

16th Sunday C

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Readings: Genesis 18:1‑10  Colossians 1:24‑28  Luke 10:38‑42

During the summer months when many of us are traveling for vacations, we are especially sensitive to the importance of hospitality.  In the ancient Semitic world of Abraham and Jesus, hospitality to strangers and guests was the mark of civilized, humane behavior.  The author of Hebrews goes so far as to command, "Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels" (13:2).  Indeed, in today's readings Abraham, Martha and Mary receive the gift of God's presence while entertaining guests. 
In the Genesis reading the elderly Abraham and Sarah are the very models of good Bedouin hosts.  Despite the oppressive, mid‑day heat, Abraham's every action is energetic and courteous.  He "runs" from the entrance of the tent and "bows to the ground" in greeting his three mysterious guests.  In Abraham’s request that they enjoy his hospitality, the patriarch insists that they will be doing him a favor, and he goes on to promise all the refreshments desired by weary desert travelers: water to bathe the feet, rest and shade under the terebinth tree, food and drink.  Once the men have accepted his invitation, Abraham is a flurry of excited activity.  We are told he "hastened" into the tent and told Sarah to “quickly” prepare the rolls; he then "ran" to the herd to have the steer, curds, and milk "quickly" prepared.
While Abraham politely waits under the tree for his guests to enjoy their meal, his generosity is rewarded with the announcement that Sarah will have the long awaited son (Isaac) who will carry on the promise.  "One of them said, `I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son'" (Gen 18:10).  The elderly couple receives the answer to their prayers while performing a selfless act of hospitality.
In his letter to the Colossians Paul is attacking certain  teachers who stressed obscure wisdom about such things as angels and Jewish practices rather than the centrality of Christ as the agent of creation and redeemer (see Col 2:16‑23).  The Colossians were apparently led astray by this appeal to esoteric knowledge and archaic Jewish traditions.  Against this false religiosity, Paul offers himself as an example of true Christian asceticism.  He is in prison as he writes this letter (Col 4:2‑4,18); this suffering for the sake of the body of Christ, the church, is the true and joyful asceticism which should mark the Christian community. “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you.  In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the church”  (Col 1:24). The "mystery hidden from ages and generations past" of which Paul  is a minister is not some coded, elitist wisdom but simply the  good news that in Christ the Gentiles have now been reconciled to God.   "God has willed to make known . . . the glory beyond price which this mystery brings to the Gentiles‑‑ the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory" (Col 1:27).

Luke's story of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and her sister Mary returns to the theme of hospitality from the Genesis reading and develops it to include attentive "listening to the  Lord's words" which is even more important than offering physical sustenance.  Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem and has just told the story of the Good Samaritan to teach the lesson of love of neighbor (Lk 9:51‑10:25).  Now he enters a village where Martha welcomes him into her home.  In Luke the demands of hospitality supersede Jewish cultural norms which would forbid both Jesus' being served alone by women who are not his relatives and his teaching a woman inside her home (see also Lk 7:36‑50).  In receiving Jesus, the two sisters assume contrasting roles.  Mary takes the position of a disciple by seating herself at Jesus' feet and simply listening to his words.  But Martha is busy with the demands of hospitality and in her exasperation says to Jesus, “Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me all alone to do the household tasks.  Tell her to help me.”  Jesus' answer does not condemn Martha's service but her anxiety which may cause her to miss the most important thing:  listening to him as he instructs his followers on the requirements of discipleship.  "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required.  Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it."