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Generous Sowers, Bountiful Harvests

Posted on 28 January 2015 by patmarrin

Hear this! A sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:1).

By any measure, one of the great Catholic “sowers” of God’s word was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). This 13th century Dominican friar organized and presented Catholic doctrine in a transparent framework based on the methodical and systematic exposition of knowledge perfected by Aristotle for the sciences. His brilliant insights are evident in Catholic teaching today. A great sower produced a great harvest for teachers and preachers for centuries to come.

Aquinas is often regarded as a philosopher, but his deepest contributions were as theologian and scripture scholar. At the time when reason and revelation, authority and inspiration were often blurred as sources of knowledge, Aquinas distinguished them but also insisted that because there is only one reality there can be only one truth. His approach to that truth was summarized in the phrase: “Faith seeking understanding.”

Each of us is invited to seek a deeper understanding of the world we live in so we can contribute something to the beauty and order of the cosmos. We use reason to take us to the threshold of truths accessible through art and prayer. The goal is a wholistic view of creation open to the presence of the Creator, and the hope that comes from discerning God’s plan for us revealed in the Incarnation—God among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

We thank God for the gift of our minds and our imaginations, our emotional grasp of truths that hide from logic but reveal themselves within relationships and in our experience of love.

Family Resemblance

Posted on 27 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33).

If anyone needed to be convinced that families define us, a typical parish photo directory will make clear just how much our genes, diet, clothing and culture identify us with our parents and siblings. Less evident but revealing in many pictures are clues to why couples chose one another, the potential effects of birth order, parenting styles and economic status. That strong individuals emerge from family influences is a miracle of nature and nurture, opportunity and motivation.

In the ancient world, the idea that you were an individual apart from your tribe or family would have been far more unusual than it is today. For Jesus to put blood ties behind the shared vision and purpose of his mission is all the more striking. His mother and brothers come from Nazareth to see him. In Mark 3:20, just a few verses before today’s Gospel passage, we are told that “his relatives” had heard about his confrontations with the scribes and thought “he was out of his mind.” In Mark 6:1-4, Jesus will be rejected in his hometown by family and neighbors who were actually offended by his miracles and eloquence, as though this hometown carpenter was putting on airs.

Jesus measures the basis for relating to him by the willingness of his followers to put God’s will before all else. Whoever does this is “my brother and sister and mother.” The journey to independence from all other formative influences is a long and challenging road for most of us. Our need for family approval is deep. Our fear of societal rejection encourages us to conform to standards so pervasive they become invisible. Look at your high school year book photo if you don’t believe hairstyle dress code norms influenced you then.

The call to make God’s will the center of our identity comes to each one of us throughout our lives. Our response is a work in progress, but each step forward sets us free to be our true selves. Today is not too late, or soon enough, to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will” (Ps 40).

What's the Buzz?

Posted on 26 January 2015 by patmarrin

“The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said of Jesus, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul’ ” (Mark 3:22).

With sinister yet faulty logic, Jesus' critics accuse him of driving out Satan by the power of Satan. This ancient foe of God allowed to roam the world putting people to the test is identified with the name “Beelzebul,” which translates as “lord of the house,” or “lord of the flies,” which captures the onomatopoetic “buzzing” sound of the name. Composer Peter Gabriel conveyed this sense of pervasive swarming infiltration in the music he wrote for the 1989 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” We might think of the persistent howling of the wind that was said to drive sodbuster families crazy on the American prairie.

Mark’s Jesus confronts the notion that that evil possesses the house of human existence, penetrating the unconscious lives of people to create a controlling evil that is especially evident in the man in the synagogue thought to be possessed by demons. Jesus demonstrates that the Kingdom of God has come and that he is now Lord of the House, binding up the strong man who once ruled human affairs through intimidation and temptation.

We struggle today with the evident forces of evil in our world. The young girl in the Philippines who wept when she asked Pope Francis why such terrible things had happened to good people and to innocent children was voicing a universal question about the power of God and religious faith. The pope spoke honestly of the mystery of evil we do not fully understand but can confront with deep prayer and the compassion that elicits real tears. Evil is multiplied in war, abetted by fear and selfishness, and in the predatory and profit-seeking actions of our global economy. It is spawned by the conditions of corruption in our divided cities, fueled by drug use and easy access to weapons. How can we counter such forces and the swath or tragedy they cut across the human family every day?

The Word of God comes to us today with the invitation to deepen our faith, open our hearts to tears of compassion, and to the will to do what we can in our small spheres of influence within family, school, work and community to respond with courage. The "Lord of the House" is with us, ready to bind up the forces of evil through our actions and prayers. Evil is a mystery, but its collective spell can be broken by the even more powerful spirit of unselfish love. Jesus calls us to confront and push back evil wherever we find it with confidence that his grace is always sufficient.

The Call Is For You

Posted on 24 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus called them, and they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:20).

Mark provides enough detail in today’s Gospel to tell us how serious a decision Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, made in answering Jesus’ call to discipleship.

First, they are already out on the water in the boat, so to respond to Jesus, they will need to leave the boat and swim ashore. This "baptismal" theme will be repeated in John 21 when Peter again jumps into the water to come to Jesus on the shore.

Second, these fishing boats were family businesses. When James and John leave their father they give up their inheritance of a business large enough to employ them and additional hired men. They are walking away from the most important loyalty there was in the ancient world -- father and family -- and, in doing so, financial security for themselves and their own children.

The call requires a leap of faith in the unknown, total commitment to an upstart preacher whose only credentials are that he is a carpenter from the small village of Nazareth in the hill country of Galilee. What kind of impression must Jesus have made on these simple fishermen to move them to take such a dramatic step in their lives?

One artful attempt to capture their motivation is found in the lyrics of a song American songwriter Harry Chapin wrote for the stage presentation of “Cotton Patch Gospels.” The disciples sing: Everybody wants to touch their dream just one time. I know I’ll never ever get this close again. Everybody wants to feel that feeling one time. That’s why I don’t want this day to come to an end.

Out of the random and routine events of our lives comes a distinctive call to go beyond the script, to risk everything to say yes to an adventure that will define the rest of our lives in larger terms than we could have ever imagined for ourselves. We are free to hesitate, even say no, but we will settle for the safe and more predictable course already laid out for us by family, culture and country.

Simon and Andrew and, later, James and John, must have seen something in Jesus that moved them to abandon their world of boats and fishing nets to follow him.

The first decision any of us will make is to be open to that same mystery, and so sensitive to our dreams that we will hear God’s call when it comes to each of us in our own unique circumstances: “Come follow me.” Let me be the focus of your life, the prize you keep your eyes on each step of the way. When the call comes, say yes. You may never ever get this close again.


Called and Chosen

Posted on 23 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him” (Mark 3:13).

Management theory would hold that the decision to hire someone is probably the most important decision an employer makes. An eye for talent and potential is the key to assembling a good workforce. Bringing in ill-suited or potentially troublesome workers can create major problems down the line, and it is certainly true that getting rid of someone is far more complicated than hiring the right person in the first place.

By this rule, Jesus’ selection of the Apostles would seem a disaster. Even at the end of his ministry, most of them do not understand his purpose, or actually resist it, and in moment of crisis abandon him. One among them actually betrays him to death.

This outcome moves us to ask if there wasn’t some deeper reason for his selection, a different way of understanding success or the process he wanted his disciples to go through themselves to prepare them to lead others.

What Jesus sees in the apostles at the moment he chooses them is not their present state but their potential to come through a difficult process of preparation to become true apostles.

In Mark’s description of the selection of the Twelve, he make a point of saying that Jesus goes up the mountain to make the decision. This image links the moment to previous Bible theophanies. As Moses consulted with Yahweh on the mountain, so Jesus goes to his Father to discern the players in the unfolding story of his mission. And as he himself will undergo suffering and apparent failure, so his followers must also endure a process of conversion and transformation.

They will all fail miserably as the only way to position them for the experience of forgiveness and mercy they will preach to others. The two recognized pillars of the church — Peter and Paul – are both broken men rehabilitated by unconditional love to preach unconditional love.

This story should encourage us. It is not what we can bring to our discipleship that qualifies us, but what Jesus sees in us that God alone can bring to perfection. This will happen if we remain in his company. Even our failures and weaknesses will be part of the process. Once called, we need only stay on course to reach the holiness God wants for us and already sees in us.


Do You Want to Be a Hero?

Posted on 22 January 2015 by patmarrin

"Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will" (Ps 40).

The global media culture has revealed a deep desire, especially on the part of the young, for super heroes. Movies, comic books and video games fuel this need to identify with fictional characters who possess extraordinary physical gifts and engage in a dramatic struggle between good and evil. The same caricatures spill over into the vicarious investment by millions of people in the outcome of sporting events and political races. Danger lurks, threats multiply, but then a hero arrives to save the planet, win the game, rescue the country from villains.

The projection of our need to feel safe and strong embodied in these super heroes is one expression of a profound human desire to overcome all of life’s obstacles and to become whole and perfect. Today’s readings from Hebrews and Mark proclaim that this human perfection was revealed in Jesus. As God’s messenger and message to the world, Jesus embodied the absolute power of God to restore creation to its original plan by overcoming the effects of sin and death. Wherever Jesus went, people sensed this wholeness and freedom and sought to see and touch him to share in it.

Yet the Gospel reveals an astonishing paradox as the ministry of Jesus descends into the vulnerability and chaos of human suffering. His power is not in using force to correct the effects of human evil, but to absorb them in an all-encompassing love for sinners that takes on the burden of sin and carries it to the cross. God’s hero dies an ignominious death, crucified between two robbers, scorned by those in power, abandoned by his own disciples.

What we take from this mysterious “good news” is that our lives as disciples will find perfection and wholeness only in imitating Jesus’ downward path of services and sacrifice. It is in emptying ourselves in love that we find fulfillment. It is through the weakness of compassion and by accompanying the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters that we become heroes in the eyes of God.

Each day we are called to say with Jesus, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”


Withered Minds and Hearts

Posted on 21 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath?”

In Deut 30:19, Moses reduced the entire law to a choice between life and death: “I put before you life and death; choose life.” In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees, who claim to be followers of Moses, conspire to put Jesus to death for giving life on the sabbath to a man with a withered hand.

A withered hand meant that a man was unable to work to support his family. His dignity as a man was in question and the social suffering that went with his physical disability was total. But to the Pharisees, he was only bait to trap Jesus into healing on the sabbath so they could accuse him of breaking the law.

Jesus sees their intent clearly and turns the situation into a teachable moment that traps them in their hardness of heart. He asks these experts of the law if it is lawful to do good, to save a life on the day of the Lord. They remain silent. Mark says that "Jesus looked at them with anger." He then heals the man with the withered hand. Beaten at their own game, the Pharisees take only one lesson from this life-saving moment: They counsel with the Herodians about how to kill Jesus. What is truly withered in this story is their hearts.

The story is loaded with irony and captures just how frustrating the mission of Jesus must have been as he encountered the religious leaders of his time. They were perversely blind to the needs of the poor, jealous of the authority Jesus had to heal and to expose their self-serving interpretations of the law to protect their official positions. With each step forward Jesus gives life, but at the ultimate cost of his own.

Jesus reveals that compassion always fulfills the law. If we love others we will grow in obedience to God, who is pure compassion. If we do not show compassion, we will wither.

“I put before you life and death: Choose life."

Freedom to Live

Posted on 20 January 2015 by patmarrin

"The son of man is lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28).

From the very start of his ministry, Jesus makes clear that the Gospel is not just some kind of spiritual uplift but real liberation from any obstacle or control that keeps people from knowing God directly. Jesus first takes on the local clergy who run the synagogues, claiming authority to interpret the scriptures and all laws regarding ritual practice, sin offerings, healings and exorcisms. He will later take on the Temple establishment itself in Jerusalem and the Romans who levied taxes on the people.

Jesus' message to the crowds is that the God of love and mercy is always accessible to them. As children go to their parents, so we all possess the dignity and freedom of the children of God, who is eager to forgive, heal and free us to live fully and confidently. This direct access challenged the role of official religion as gatekeeper to God.

In today's Gospel, the local scribes challenge Jesus' lax attitude toward the Sabbath in allowing his hungry disciples to "work" by gleaning the heads of grain as they passed through the fields. First Jesus compares his messianic authority to that of David, who allowed his soldiers to eat the temple bread reserved to the priests.

Jesus then argues from the Book of Daniel, who gave all authority from God to the mysterious figure "Son of Man." In other words, "human beings" come first, even before the Sabbath rules. Necessity knows no law, and human dignity trumps ritual, especially when it is being applied legalistically.

We are invited to ask ourselves whether we exercise the freedom God gives us: freedom from fear; freedom from undue caution; freedom to respond in love and compassion even when we might make a mistake. Christian maturity challenges us to step out from under the shadow of anxiety and doubt, to live today in the glorious freedom of the children of God.


New Wine

Posted on 19 January 2015 by patmarrin

"No one pours new wine into old wineskins" (Mark 2:22).

Today North Americans pause to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who was assassinated in 1968 as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. King grounded the struggle for voting rights and equality under the law in the deep biblical story of the Exodus.

Today's Gospel reading affirms the reality that no social change occurs without a change of structures. New wine requires new wineskins. The call for justice continues to meet inflexible attitudes and resistance in an America still divided along class and race lines.

Pioneers of change like King have often met violence as the unyielding fabric of culture is split open. The new wine that spills out has often been their blood for the sake of the cause of freedom.

We commemorate a man while the movement continues to struggle on a broad range of economic educational and law and order issues across the nation. All Americans must participate in this struggle to complete the dream preached by Dr. King.


Conversation to Conversion

Posted on 17 January 2015 by patmarrin

"Where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see" (John 1:37).

How many revolutions have started with a simple conversation?

In today's Gospel, two disciples of John the Baptist are directed to follow Jesus, the "Lamb of God." That title was filled with intrigue, indicating that this new stranger would fulfill the promise John was announcing, not with messianic power but in self-sacrifice. The two disciples do follow Jesus, who invites them to spend the rest of the day with him, probably sharing a meal, for it was late afternoon toward evening. Whatever transpired during those hours is not told, but Andrew, one of the disciples, quickly recruits his brother Peter, and from there the public ministry of Jesus begins.

Sharing a meal and intimate conversation is typically a starting point for many important decisions. A date that leads to a proposal of marriage, an occasion for reconciliation, a chance to share an idea drawn on a napkin that becomes a business venture -- the future is mapped out over food and honest talk.

So it must have been for the Jesus movement, two fishermen and a carpenter talking about saving the world, liberating people from poverty and oppression, fulfilling prophecies and stepping into history to answer the call of God. if you or I had been there, would we have reached in to join hands to declare our intention to go forward together, no matter the cost or the outcome?

Each time we attend Mass with our faith communities, aren't we, in effect, entering this intimate conversation with Jesus that leads to total conversion? When we receive him in Communion, are we not "sealing the deal" to follow him wherever he takes us?

Such dramatic moments of decision are hard to imagine, and even harder to commit to. But if we have questions and doubts, we can begin the same way the first disciples did, by asking Jesus where he is staying. He will turn, look into our hearts and say, "Come and see." This is how it all begins.