House of Prayer

"All the people were hanging on his words" (Luke 19:48).

In many respects the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Israel's economy. Returning pilgrims exchanged foreign currencies for the local coin, votive offerings and animal sacrifices tied to annual liturgical feasts created  a market for birds and livestock. The Roman occupation skimmed the temple tax generated to support the high priests and Herod's court. Major holy days like Passover must have created an unholy cacophany and crowdlike atmosphere in the outer courts. 

Luke tells as that Jesus was teaching daily in the temple after his arrival in Jerusalem toward the end of his ministry. Jesus observed everything, including the trumpeted announcements of a major donor dropping coins noisiy into metal cauldrons, or the humble offerings of widows and the poor. 

The Temple itself, buit by King Herod to ingratiate himself to his Jewish subjects, was a focus of protests by purists who regarded it as an affront to the covenant and a constant reminder of the complicity of wealth and power. Jesus' decision to stage a symbolic "cleansing" of the Temple was one expression of that ongoing protest. It dramatized the claim that the Temple, instead of being a house of prayer, had become "a den of thieves." Jesus' public action was serious threat to the authority of the high priests, and it must have hardened their resolve to put a stop to his ministry at any cost. 

Jesus' "zeal" to restore the Temple to its purpose as a house of prayer was a visible expression of his core mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God-- the full reorientatin of Jewish life back to the covenant. It was his call to restore every Jewish heart to being a house of prayer, a place of obdience to the commandment to love of God and neighbor. Without this organizing principle, the essential identity of Israel was being corrupted to a kind of consumer culture focused on hypocritical show and material competition rife with injustice and the neglect of the poor. 

We can draw our own conclusions about whether our own society is a house of prayer or a den of thieves, but the judgment should begin within our own hearts. Where is the focus of our time, treasure and talent? Are we defined by our principles or our possessions? Today's reading is an invitation to cleanse our own houses in preparation for Advent, our annual chance to restore God to a central place in our lives. If we do this, everything else will take care of itself. 

The Attitude of Gratitude

"Has none but this foreigner retured to give thanks?" (Luke 17:19).

What was it about the one Samaritan among the other lepers that moved him to return to Jesus to thank him? Was it because he was the outsider, the last person to think that he would share in the healing given the Jewish lepers from a Jewish healer? His astonishmnt at being cleansed must have overwhelmed him. In any event, his outcast status meant he could not go with the others to show himself to the priests and offer sacrifice in the temple.

As they went off rejoicing, he stood alone, looking at his hands, feeling his face to be sure that everything was smooth and whole again. He was free to go home, to return to his famiily in Samaria. How long had he been separated from his wife and children, his parents, relatives and the community he had once been part of? When he got home and everyone had shared his astonishment at what had happened to him, perhaps they would have a feast. Everyone would be there, crowded around the table, hearing his prayer of gratitude to the man from Galilee who had not hesitated to heal him, the Samaritan. 

But first he would go back to find Jesus to say thank you. Was it then, in that chance to reflect even more deeply on the source of the gift he had received, that he began to understand that Jesus was more than a miracle worker? 

Finding Jesus, the man fell to his knees, tears running down his cheeks, unable to find words to express his gratitude. Jesus turned and reached down and lifted him to his feet. He looked at him with love and praised him for seeking to grasp the meaning of this encounter, not just for his physical health, but because salvation had come to him that day. His faith had saved him. 

We will pause today to take stock of our blessings, hopefully at a family table surrounded by those we love. May our feasting also be a Eucharist, with Jesus presiding, sharing the ultimate sign of Thanksgiving. May there be at least one or two outcasts among us, family members perhaps, or a leper, or strangers welcomed to share our bounty. May we have eyes to see the hidden blessings, always more than we had imagined, and multiplied because we opened our hearts in gratitude. 

Accountability

"He told this parable because he was near Jerusalem" (Luke 19:11).

Today's Gospel is Luke's version of the same story we heard last Sunday from Matthew. Servants are entrusted with wealth and judged by how they invested it. Luke gives the story added urgency by reminding his readers that Jesus told it as he was getting near Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. Accountability was drawing near, and everyone ought to understand that to whom much is given, much will be expected.

When Jesus arrived at Jerusalem, he wept for the faiure of its leaders to respond to God's invitation. God has poured out every gift on Israel, giving his chosen people every grace needed to find abundant life. God has sent generation after generation of prophets to remind the people of the Covenant, of the gift of the Law, of their rescue, firste from slavery in Egypt, then again from exile in Babylon. But they had turned their backs and failed to keep faith or to show any return for all that God had investd in them. 

The parable was a warning. Accountability would come not as punishment from God but as the logical consequnce of their refusal to read the signs of the times. Within a generation, the city of Jerusalem would lie in ruins and its people killed to scattered in a suicidal war with Rome. Luke offers this parable of Jesus as the verdict of history. But its lessons would be writ large on the whole of human behavior: For every gift there is a reckoning. You will reap what you sow. 

Enfolded in the glad tidings of God's merciful plan for human happiness is our need to respond. Salvation is not imposed. Our participation is required. We are free to reject God's invitation. We are not free to do nothing, for not to decide is to decide. 

As the end of the church year approaches, the urgency to choose life will increase. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and his cross, when the ultimate gift of love will be revealed. Will we be there to receive what God is offering? 

 

Come On Down

Today salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:10).

The familiar story of Zacchaeus is a favorite because it has so many of the elements of a conversion story. 

Zacchaeus first hears about Jesus, that he, unlike other religious figures, loves to eat with sinners. Knowing himself to be a sinner, a hated collaborator with the occupation who has enriched himself by extracting imperial taxes from his own fellow Jesus, Zacchaeus is curious to see this traveling preacher when he passes through Jericho. But he quickly realizes the obstacles to that encounter. His righteous neighbors will have nothing to do with him and it will be hard to get close to Jesus in the crowd. Zacchaeus is also short in stature, which can be a symbol for his shortcomings and lack of prominence in the community. 

Not to be deterred, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He has done his part to show his openness to what is to come. For at this point in the story, it is Jesus who takes the lead. He looks up, sees the tax collector in the tree and promptly bids him come down quickly, "for I must stay at your house." 

Now it is Jesus who meets resistance from the crowd, disappointed that he must be a poor prophet indeed not to recognize that the man he has invited himself to stay with is the town sinner. They express their disapproval with loud grumbling. But when Zacchaeus announces his intentions to repent, Jesus rejoices that salvation has come to his house that very day. 

What obstacles, including embarrassment or a sense of unworthiness, would you be willing to endure in order to see Jesus? Would you expose yourself to public rebuke, appear the fool to be seen by Jesus, then give up your whole way of life and its benefits to surrender to his decisionn to come and stay at your house? 

The man in the sycamore tree meets the man on the cross, and a sinful, wasted life is transformed by the unconditional love of Jesus, who takes on himself the sins of the world. Jesus is passing by this very day. Go and do whatever you need to to do to see (believe in) him. He will indeed stay at your house today, and your life will never be the same. 

I Want To See

"What do you want me to do for you?" Luke 18:40).

Jesus asks the blind man the most important question directed at all of us: "What do you want me to do for you?"

What would you ask for?  It may seem obvious in the case of the blind man. He wanted the one thing that would free him from his beggar status, what would allow him to get up and take charge of his life again. He did not want to be sitting on the sidelines while the world walked past. He wanted to see the world so he could decide where to go. 

The Gospels often use sight in more than one meaning. There is physical sight, but there is also that deeper sight called faith. When the blind man heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he was moved to cry out because he had heard that Jesus could heal him. His faith was stirred up as the first glimmer of hope in the possibility of a new and different life. When he receives his sight, he decides that what he wants to do more than anything else is to follow Jesus. 

What would you ask for? We return to the question in our own lives. Asking for sight is a good start, for though we may be already able to see physically, the gift of faith can open our eyes to an even deeper need to find our place on the road of life, our purpose in the world. How many have been sidelined by indecision, even indifference, and life is passing them by. 

If you want more out of your life, perhaps you can, even now, hear the news that Jesus is passing by. He is always passing by, and the chance to come alive, to really see, is always the opportunity we have been waiting for.  If your heart moves you, cry out to Jesus. Don't let the crowd silence you.

This is the one prayer that God inspires and will never fail to answer.  If Jesus calls you to himself and asks you what your want, ask to believe in him. When your eyes are opened, the first thing you will see is his face looking back at you, inviting you to come and follow him. 

Invest

"For everyone who has, more will be given" (Matt 25:29).

Our small Midtown Kansas City church paused today to celebrate the life of a young woman, 26, who died after a four-year struggle with a brain tumor. The loss, devastating for her parents, family and friends, resonated deeply in the faith community, which has witnessed its share of births and deaths over the past year. Yet, even in sorrow, as so many voices from her circles of friends and colleagues testified to Renee's impact on their lives, the spirit of her brief, amazing life overflowed into the church. We had witnessed a work of grace in her young life, enriching us all. 

Jesus' parable of the talents was made real. Talents are given to be invested. Renee multipied her gifts by becoming a catalyst, inspiring others with her honestly and generosity. Her gifts grew exponentially when mixed and matched with the gifts of others in common purpose. A great harvest of joy was the result.

Jesus wanted his disciples to experience this kind of harvest, for the challenge to change the world was so great. But if everyone brought their gifts, partial and incomplete and seemingly small, to the larger process of bulding community, wonderful things would happen. The two servants who invested their talents reaped a return. The servant who out of fear buried his talent had nothing to show. Disciples were to invest, to use their gifts freely, even risking them in the service of others. They would experience the power of grace and know the joy of the Gospel. 

Our encounter with the Word this week urges us to inventory our gifts and to ask just how we are investing ourselves. The basic laws underlying life are clear: Those who sow reap. Those who sow generously will reap generously. Those who do not sow will harvest nothing. Those who have will get more, while those who let their potential wither and atrophy will never know the satisfactions of living productively. 

The parable is a plea to the servant who let fear of the master's expectations keep him from investing his gifts. God would rather have us risk our gifts than let them lie fallow. God is eager to reward even our smallest efforts at using our gifts, for God wants us to experience greater and greater life. 

We come from the eucharistic table immeasurably blessed, having received the very life of Christ in communion. How will we communicate that to others? How can we radiate his life in the coming week?  Grace will find a way if we are open to it. Even the smallest effort will not go unrewarded. 

Time's Up

"Where the body is, there also will the vultures gather" (Luke 17).

As the Church nears the end of the liturgical year, the Lectionary lays out its store of endtime readings to invite us to deeper attention and reflection on judgment and accountability. Luke and other evangelists overlap these eschatalogical themes with the actual historical events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish-Roman Wars in 70 CE. One version of the saying about vultures gathering where there is a corpse changes vultures to eagles, a reference to the Roman legions.

The failure to accept God's invitation to conversion and reconciliation results in catastrophe.  Learn the lesson, and change while there is still time. Jesus cites the time leading up to the flood, when everyone mocked Noah and his ark and continued their eating and drinking and revelry until the rains began to fall. Then it was too late. 

The reading from Wisdom credits the ancients for their awe of nature, even if they called physicl forces like wind and fire gods, for they were searching for the source of created things. Reason can bring thinkig people to basic faith in the unseen power of God. What is scorned is the willful rejection of the obvious, or the ignorant preoccupation with material wants and worldly goals to the exclusion of life's transcendent questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life, and are we accountable for how we choose to live? 

Jesus warned his contemporaries that judgment can come swiftly and unexpectedly. "You know not the day nor the hour." A sudden crisis can turn our secure lives upside down and bring us face to face with hard reality and decisions we have foolishly postponed. 

The coming of Advent is a time to take our faith questions seriously. For those who seek God, the future is not about the end but the beginning, not about death but rebirth. Nature offers parables to teach us wisdom. Autumn leaves surrender their lives in a burst of glory. The dark nights and cold winds draw nature into a fallow time of regeneration and expectation. Creation urges us to take our place within the seasons of life and death, surrender and return. This is where God waits to renew the mystery of life within us. Now is the perfect time to pay attention.

Invisible and Unannounced

"The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed" (Luke 17:21).

Because the "Kingdom of God" was at the heart of his preaching, Jesus must have been asked often, by his disciples, by the crowds, and even by his critics, "Just what is this kingdom you are talking about? Show us!"

When Jesus did try to explain the comng of God's kingdom, he did so in parables. Each of his stories contained metaphors and analogies, so people went away pondering just how God's coming was like a sower who went out to sow, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price, a mustard seed, a dragnet, or one of many other images. 

While these parables must have drawn many people closer to Jesus and the mystery he was conveying by his words, actions and especially by his very person, many were not satisfied. In today's Gospel the Pharisees wanted specifics. Just when was this promised event of the coming of God's kingdom going to occur? 

Jesus deepens the mystery and their frustration by telling them the kingdom cannot be observed and will not be announced in advance, and furthermore, it was already here, among them, in their midst. This could only mean that Jesus himself was the revelation of God. As he would later explain to his apostles when Philip asked him to show them the Father, " To have seen me is to have seen the Father."  Jesus was the embodiment of the mystery he was preaching about. His very presence in the world had been the revelation of God. 

We may also want specifics in our growth toward greater faith. Just where are you, Jesus? If God is in our midst, how can we discern it and respond to you more completely? Yet this remains an act of faith, something we believe without seeing. Ultimately our lives in faith come down to how we experience God in our lives, and whether we see the effects of grace in our efforts.

The lack of certainty keeps us exploring and responding, guided by compassion and openness to God's hidden presence in the world. This apparently what will keep us fresh and creative and always alert for God's suprisese and the mysterious encounters that reveal God in ways we could not plan, anticipate or control. But isn't this the way love works?

Healing and Faith

"Stand up and go; your faith has saved you" (Luke 17:19).

The story about the healing of the 10 lepers is really about a double healing for one. Nine of the lepers were cleansed of their disease. One was both cleansed and saved. 

The Samaritan leper, a foreignerr thrown in among a group of outcast Jewish lepers for survival, is the only one who realizes when he and other others are restored that something much deeper has occurred. He returns to find Jesus because he has also received the gift of faith. He believes in Jesus, and the life that now flows in him is not only for the length of his natural life in this world, but a life that has claimed him for God.  He has encountered God in Jesus. 

As much as we want physical healing and pray for it for ourselves and others, this deeper healing is the more enduring gift. All the lepers, blind, lame crippled and blind people Jesus restored during his public ministry were fated to die in their time. Even poor Lazarus, raised from the dead, had to face death again. But for those who perceived who Jesus was and believed in him, physical healing was secondary to the relationship that embraced them forever when he looked and them, spoke to them and touched them.  

We know this mystery ourselves as baptism, when we became members of the living, risen body of Christ. His life flowed into our lives, sustaining and nourishing us toward a new destiny -- life with God. Even as we live out the narrative of our natural lives, this hidden life with Christ is the true animating grace that shapes and guides our choices, our relationships and our ultimate destination. Going with the flow of his presence and deepening our companionship with him is the secret of our identity. 

 

 

Simply Servants

"We are unprofitable servants who have done what we were oblighted to do" (Luke 17:10).

The annual meeting of the U.S Catholic bishops occasions reflection on their role as leaders of the church. Today's Gospel reading comes as a timely reminder that they are servants. 

Jesus addressed a short parable to his apostles about just what servants can expect when they have completed their duties. Rather than imagine that the Master will honor them and reward them for their service, the servant continues to serve and then says, "I am only doing what I am supposed to be doing." 

While this image seems almost uncharacteristic of Jesus, who was always serving others, including his Apostles, the point of the story is clear. Being a disciple or an Apostle is itself an honor and a reward. To be called by Jesus is to enter an intimate relationship with a master who always serves. St. Paul, one of the greatest of the Apostles, understood this well. Even after recounting his many sacrifices and sufferings for the Gospel, he expresses his gratitude for the privilege of his conversion and call to be with Christ. He can do no other, for his apostleship is his identity. He must preach and serve in order to be himself and to fulfill his purpose in this world. 

When we think that our service is overwhelming us, Jesus renews his call to us even in our weariness and feelings of being burdened. "Come to me," he says, "Get in the harness with me, for my yoke is sweet and my burden is light." Where else would be rather be than with him? What else could we be doing with our time and energy that is more meaningful than sharing his redemptive work? 

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