Luke the Evangelist

"The Kingdom of God is at hand" (Luke 10:9). 

It is appropriate for this feast of St. Luke that today's Gospel describes Jesus sending out evangelists.  The 72 disciples were sent to prepare the way for Jesus' own coming. They were to travel light, enter the homes of those who received them, share their food and hospitality, dispensing peace and preaching the good news. 

Luke certainly did all of this, composing his Gospel in a way that reached millions upon millions of people down through history. He extending the Good News beyond its original Jewish audience to the gentile world, where it was absorbed into the Greco-Roman world along with Paul's preaching and letters. Luke emphasized Jesus as healer, storyteller and preacher of mercy. Women receive special attention, as do the poor. Luke gave us the stories of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the birth account of Jesus and his childhood. 

Luke continues his Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles, describing how the ministry and mystery of Jesus were lived out by the church as it spread into the Mediterranean world.  

It has been suggested that each of us could write the gospel according to our own witness and experience. If this were your assignment, what would your gospel include and emphasize. What are your stories of Jesus? How have you spread the Good News of hope, the challenge of justice, the message of mercy within the narrative of your own life? 

Real Purity

" Did not the maker of the outside also makes the inside?" (Luke 11:40).

We understand why the name "Pharisee" has become synonymous with "hypocrite" when we realize that this group of religious leaders often invited Jesus to dine so they could observe him to find fault. 

Just as they were obsessed with the Sabbath rule and condemned Jesus for healing on that day, they were also keen on ritual washing of hands and of dishware.  What in ancient times was a matter of cleanliness to prevent disease had become a spiritual practice focused on avoiding moral contamination, which took the form of avoiding any contact with the poor and the uneducated, called the "unwashed masses" by the elites. 

This spiritual mandate justified dividing reality into what was sacred and what was profane.  Good people were spotless, while others were tainted. A religious person had no obligation to help a neighbor who did not keep the purity rules.  We live in a consumer culture in which cleanliness and smelling nice is a social marker. We segregate our lives into zones to avoid contact with the grit and odor of ordinary people, working class people, entire groups by racial stereotype and prejudice. 

Jesus tells his critics that everything in God's Creation is sacred, both things and especially the inner, invisible realm where the soul resides. This is where sincerity and purity of intention and attitude are most evident. What goof is it to be obsessed with ritual perfection and appearence if you neglect moral maturity and compassion for your brothers and sisters? 

The Sign of Jonah

"There is something greater than Solomon here" (Luke 11:31).

Jesus reaches back to history to compare his contemporaries to two previous generations in their response to a prophetic call to repentance.  Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, came all the way to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of Solomon. The people of Nineveh repented  when Jonah preached to them. But this generation rejected Jesus, who is greater than either Solomon or Jonah, and it will be condemned for it.  

The force of this comparison falls on every subsequent age, including our own.  We have to ask, just how will history judge us for our blindness and refusal to change things that will seem so obvious for their destructiveness and injustice. What will future generations say about our failure to respond to the signs of the times when it came to gun control and nuclear arms proliferation, climate change, economic exploitation of the the poor, closing the door on desperate refugees and immigrants, paralysis in the face of racial prejudice, modern day slavery and the trafficking of women and children for sexual abuse? 

The sign of Jonah is that his audience, as evil as the Ninevites were, did repent at his preaching.  How many prophetic voices are now sounding the warning that the world must change?  Pope Francis has been a clarion call on every issue, trying to avert self-destruction. How many prophets have been murdered for speaking truth to power? When will things be any clearer than they are right now, that change is needed to redirect history to avoid calamity? 

Does it seem exaggerated, even hysterical, to speak in these terms? Not to the victims of injustice and oppression, not to the millions of people who go hungry in a world of extravagant consumption and waste, not to those abandoned to poverty and ill health in the sight of gleaming cities and protected life styles insulated from care or even awareness of their plight.  How long before God, who loves the poor and sides with the oppressed, is roused to action?  Do we feel the heat?

Do we recognize that God's love is at work in our troubled world, breaking the spell of complacency, stirring up our consciences, calling us to action, not just for others, but for ourselves?   

Come to the Wedding

"Behold, I have prepared my banquet ...come to the feast" (Matt 22:3). 

The parables toward the end of Matthew's Gospel all show how the evangelist took an original story from Jesus and applied it to the contemporary situation of his church. It seems likely that Jesus described the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. His message was about the love story between God and his people, and Jesus often drew on the rich imagery from the Hebrew scriptures to show that his mission was to fulfill the covenant of love and the nuptial feast of heaven coming to earth. 

John's Gospel is especially rich in these themes. At the start of his Gospel, Jesus attends a wedding feast at Cana and changes water into wine. His first public miracle revealed the central theme of the Good News. The ritual jars of the first covenant filled with water for ceremonial purification were transformed into the new wine of God's grace. Jesus is the bridegroom, the divine lover come to woo the world back to God. The best wine had been saved for last. Jesus is a walking wedding, a feast to which sinners are invited. The bridegroom is among us, and ultimately the new wine will be revealed as his blood for sake the world, the laying down of his life for all of us, his friends 

Matthew takes up the wedding theme and adds other elements that reflect the need for  decisive action after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE during the Jewish-Roman wars. Because the original guests failed to respond tto God's invitation, the banquet is thrown open to the crossroads of the world, and gentiles pour into the hall to partake of the feast.  Yet, Matthew says, these guests must come prepared, and a wedding garment is necessary, which is faith. This same theme is found in the parable of the foolish bridesmaids, who ran out of oil when the bridegroom was delayed (the parousia -- second coming).  

This layered exegesis of Matthew does not hide the original theme, which for us is this--  that our relationship with God is meant to be a love story. God's mercy is already poured out in Jesus, the divine lover, whose body has claimed and incorporated us at baptism. His blood flows in our veins and our experiences. He is already the Bread of Life, and now wedding cake in our mouths, a song in our hearts we sing and dance to at the wedding of the Incarnation.  God is with us in our very flesh, our humanity already married to its divine destiny, an eternal nuptial of joy.

Everyone is invited. The church is the new creation, the new humanity. The doors are open to the feast .  Get ready, for in the wondrous words of James Joyce, "Here comes Everybody!"

Binding the Strong Man

"Whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11:26).

Jesus' day to day ministry, healings and exorcisms had cosmic implications. His power to drive out evil spirits showed that he drew his authority from the spiritual realm, where the real battle between Good and Evil, God and Satan, is being decided. The Kingdom of God has overcome the kingdom of Satan, and this is reflected in all the lesser defeats going on in the world. The demons and evil spirits recognized Jesus' superior authority. By knocking out the organizing principle of evil, Jesus neutralized all its manifestations. 

While we may not see the universe in these terms, we can certainly recognize that the most powerful forces in our modern society are not individual criminals but distortions in the larger culture itself. When fear overtakes and divides a society, or when blind ambition and greed permeate the culture, the evil that results is much harder to identify, control or eliminate. People participate in evil without even recognizing it, because its values seem normal.

When we speak of a "gun culture" or a "consumer culture" or we observe people indulging in a "culture of hate" based on race or ethnicity or gender, we are describing deeply rooted assumptions and prejudices that contribute to the breakdown of common values.  Violence becomes the norm, sexual predation and abuse becomes socially tolerated, homophobia and zenophobia seem justified, even praiseworthy in a twisted way. What an individual might be ashamed to say or do alone becomes acceptable in the crowd.

Only time or crisis can expose this kind of spiritual influence, break the spell that blinds people to how destructive their collective behaviors can be. Jesus apparently had the authority to challenge dominant, controlling assumptions and distorted social behaviors.  When he spoke, evil fled, those held captive were set free, physical symptoms disappeared. 

We participate in his power to speak truth to power, love to hate, goodness to evil.  The bigger the distortions and lies, the more prayer and fasting may be required to break their control over our minds and hearts.  But Jesus holds the upper hand, and we are to live without fear by imitating his courage. 
 

Persistence

"Suppose you have a friend who comes at midnight to ask for bread" (Luke 11:5, paraphrase).

Jesus tells a parable about the importance of persistence in prayer. It has been called "A Knock at Midnight' to dramatize the urgency of need in the face of resistance. The householder is in bed and does not want to get up to answer the door, but because his neighbor persists, he finally rises to respond. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once applied this theme to the mainline Christian churches, asleep and resistant, to rouse themselves to support justice for those deprived of their civil rights. It could be applied to many other needs.

If we say it is the "eleventh hour," we mean that time is running out. So if it is midnight, failure to act is near irreversible, grace is passing us by and judgment is not far behind. 

How many urgent issues in our world are approaching the midnight hour?  It is midnight in America when religious people ignore the plight of the poor and the oppressed. What time is it? It is time to pray, throw off sleep and  do what is right while we still can. Why? Because God is at the door. 
 

At the Crossroads

"Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:2).

Learning to pray as Jesus did is the heart of Christian formation. When we pray as he did, we articulate our baptismal unity with him, and the Christ within us, our true self before God, emerges within our unfolding human maturity to reveal our divine destiny.

How did Jesus pray? Like every Jew, he said the Sh'ma each day, the most important text and mantra from the Torah: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, there is no other. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Note that this prayer is not asking God something, but God commanding us to listen, to obey the very ground of our existence. Our bodies reveal this when we stand vertically within the creative will of God, totally dependent and totally responsive to the One who has loved us into being, heart, mind, soul and strength, enabling us to stretch our selves horizontally to our neighbors to share the same love we have received.  

These two directions, vertical and horizontal, make our bodies a crossroads between our divine source and our human responsibility.  To stand in God's love and to stretch our arms to  one another is the perfect expression of the Christian life, the imitation of the crucified and risen Jesus, who completed our human and divine identity, restoring us to the full  image and likeness of God. 

When his disciples observed Jesus at prayer, standing with his arms extended, they asked him to teach them how to pray.  He taught them the "Our Father," his personal communication with his Abba. He gave them more than words. He invited them into his own intimate relationship with God. "Come, stand with me before our God. Feel the flow of love going back and forth. You, too, are God's beloved, and because of this you exist to love. 

The Our Father simply repeats the Sh'ma. The first part  is about God, supreme Source, divine name and will, heaven to earth. By aligning yourself to God, everything you need to love your neighbor as yourself -- bread and mercy and freedom from evil -- will be provided.

Before Jesus arrived at Golgotha to mount the cross of his death, he was already the crossroads between death and life, the portal between time and eternity, transforming sin and death to grace and resurrection. This is the pattern of our baptism: If we die with Christ, we will rise with him. This is what Christian formation does, and it happens because we pray as Jesus prayed. 

One Thing

"You are worried and anxious about many things. There is need of only one" (Luke 10:40).

The beautiful story of Martha and Mary is less about who is right than about focus, Both sisters love Jesus and are eager to show him hospitality. Jesus arrives with two hungers, for food and for welcome. Martha welcomes him with her attention to table and her skills in the kitchen. Mary welcomes him with her face, her eyes and ears and her heart. 

Think of the last time you had a meal with a friend and ask what you remember most about that encounter. Delicious food and drink, the perfect setting, excellent service and all other amenities quickly fade before the intimacy of the moment as two souls come to rest in each other's company. Time disappears as the bubble of attention shapes and deepens the conversation, and as peace descends on the miracle of two solitudes becoming one transcendent communion. 

Without Martha's practical skills there would have been no meal. But what threatened the moment most was her anxiety and her resentment of her sister. Jesus reaches out to draw Martha into the feast of love Mary is already serving by her attentiveness to the Word, the main course and perfect gift wherever Jesus goes. He is the host and the meal, the bread of life, manna from heaven, the one thing necessary.  

Like another parable, Luke's "Prodigal Son," the goal is not to choose one son over the other, but to bring both of them to the table in love. Jesus rescued a dinner party at the house of his beloved friends by restoring them to a single focus, himself. In that miracle, salvation came to that house.  

Who Is My Neighbor?

"Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

By combining two of the most potent stories in the Scriptures, the Lectionary sheds fresh light on a familiar theme, the mercy of God expanding beyond our human prejudices to include everyone, even our enemies. 

The story of Jonah was a tale produced within the Wisdom literature to challenge the Jewish notion of exceptionalism. Jonah resisted his assignment to preach to the Ninevites, Israel's greatest enemy, because he did not want them to be spared punishment. He flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish, but is thrown overboard by the pagan sailors who understand the supreme power of his God.  Even when he arrives in Nineveh, he barely preaches, but the whole nation, from the king down to animals, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and everyone is spared.  

The Parable of the Good Samaritan repeats this theme. The lawyer wants Jesus to define the limits of his obligation to love his neighbor. By telling the story of the rescue and care of a Jew beaten, robbed and left for dead, not by a fellow Jew, or even a priest and a Levite, but by a hated enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, Jesus turns the lawyer's world inside out.  Salvation is revealed not just for the Jews or by the Jews, but by an enemy who has compassion. Whoever shows compassion to another in need is neighbor, and even more, they imitate God, who is always merciful to all.

It was a stunning challenge to the lawyer who had spent his entire life and career  fulfilling the letter of the Law, or so he thought, because he had missed the core of the Law, the command to love God and neighbor, a limitless invitation to love unconditionally wherever love is needed. 

This Gospel of unconditional love denies us the comfort of limiting our love to predictable recipients-- friends, family, neighbors, by race and religion or any other distinction. The test of this limitless love is to substitute for "Samaritan" the name of your worst enemy, the last person on earth you would feel any obligation to help. We can no longer exclude anyone as neighbor, and we must be prepared in our own hour of need to look up from our suffering to find the face of someone we have rejected and hated.

Put aside you guidelines, your rule book, your certitudes about who is worthy or unworthy,  insider or outsider.  Anyone can potentially be your neighbor, and God will come to you  by surprise if you live by love. There is only one rule: "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate." This is an unbearable yet wonderful invitation to life, and to the joy of the Gospel. 

New Wine

"He looked for the crop, but what it yielded was wild grapes" (Isa 5:3). 

The papacy of Pope Francis is summarized in his apostolic letter, Amoris Laetitia, "The Joy of Love." His central message is that God is merciful, and the most significant application of this message will be to get the church's most conservative hierarchy and theologians to open their minds and hearts to a different approach to the pastoral care of married people and families.

Hardline opponents of the pope continue to insist that Communion, the core sign of God's love, be denied any Catholic in an irregular marriage situation. The pope is pressing for a more realistic and compassionate pastoral accompaniment for couples who are struggling in real dilemmas in a conscientious desire to go forward within the church. 

The Word of God speaks to the challenge of mercy in this weekend's powerful readings and sheds both light and grace on Pope Francis' effort to preach the Good News to millions of Catholics suffering exclusion because of traditional teachings that emphasize legal absolutism.

Jesus's parable of the vineyard invokes the lyrical song of Isaiah about the Lord's beloved vineyard -- the people of God. This vineyard has been lovingly fashioned to produce the finest grapes, and from them the finest wine, the symbol of joy. But in Isaiah's lament, Jerusalem and Judah have not produced the harvest God sought. Instead, the vineyard place in their care has produced only wild grapes -- rebellion and shame.

For Jesus, this image described the failure of the leaders of Jerusalem to provide a harvest of justice and love. Despite God's generous gifts and Jesus's own preaching of God's mercy and forgiveness, the scribes and pharisees yielded only sour grapes. The history of their failure included rejection of every messenger and prophet sent by God to ask for an accounting.  The parable foretells that even the owner's beloved son would be murdered by the tenants, who wanted only to claim the vineyard for themselves. 

This stark outcome is in fact what Matthew saw when he composed his Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus' own people had rejected his message and murdered him, like all the preceding prophets. Because of this tragic failure to read the signs of the times, God had built the beloved community on the very cornerstone they had rejected. The kingdom of God would come despite this tragedy, built on a new foundation, the crucified and risen Christ. God was doing something new, and it was marvelous to behold, Matthew declares.  

We ponder this imagery and the parable Jesus told to try and grasp the struggle today to free the church from traditions and approaches to law and pastoral practice that seem only to preserve the power of leaders who reject any attempt to apply the Gospel of mercy to those who have fallen short of the strict ideal and the most literal interpretations of the Scriptures. For them, the church must be a tribunal that punishes and excludes sinners and those wounded on the battlefields of life. Pope Francis sees the church as first a field hospital that tends to the wounded before it passes judgment. Only this kind of church will ever evangelize the world; only this kind of church will show the face of the merciful God Jesus revealed and modeled.  

What is at stake is the Vineyard of the Lord. Without a harvest of sweet grapes there will be no wine, and without the new wine there can be no joy, the joy of love. 

 

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