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God's Generosity for All

Posted on 20 August 2014 by patmarrin

"Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matt 20:16).

Pope Francis, in his 2013 exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel", emphasizes that the core of the Good News is that God is always merciful. It is the very nature of God to be merciful, to never cease offering unconditional love to us. We might grow tired of asking for mercy, the pope writes, but God never tires of being merciful.

There are a number of stories in the gospels that end with the words, "The first shall be last, the last first." This paradoxical saying challenges our notions of order and worthiness in order to bring home the freedom of God to be merciful to all, sinners and saints alike. Today's Gospel passage is clearly one of the most provocative stories about God's unconditional love. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day, right up until the final hour, then directs his foreman to give everyone a full day's wage. Those who worked the whole day complain that they should be given more than the latecomers for bearing the burden and heat of the day. But the owner reminds them that they are receiving their full pay, while he is free to be generous. The story invariably stirs its hearers, both then and down through the generations, to cry, "Unfair!"

Jesus had his audience, made up of righteous people, right where he wanted them, caught in the revelation of their own limited understanding for mercy compared with God's limitless mercy for all, whether they are deserving or not. It is God's nature to be generous to a fault; God cannot be otherwise. Salvation is a pure gift, not something anyone can earn. Everyone who comes to the vineyard, early or late, will receive salvation, a full day's pay. We are left in the tension of this outcome to ponder the startling -- even disturbing -- image of God, which turns upside down our notions of fairness, of who is first and who is last.

What a challenge this presents to us: To enter God's reign we must surrender our standards of mercy and justice and entrust ourselves to Absolute Love. Even more challenging, we enter today asked to model this same unconditional attitude to everyone around us. The Good News is also directed to us, in as much need of mercy as anyone. God will always love us, no matter what how late we are or how poorly we perform. The invitation to enter the vineyard of the Lord is never withdrawn. This is the joy of the Gospel.

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Nothing Is Impossible for God

Posted on 19 August 2014 by patmarrin

“This is humanly impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).

Jesus encounters a rich young man who was eager to follow him but could not part with his riches. The disciples are astounded at Jesus’ statement that it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. They saw riches as a sign of favor from God. The exchange has reverberated down through the history of the church, which has often adjusted this radical message to accommodate those who have used their wealth to support the church. Pope Francis’ message that he wants a “church of the poor” has again stirred up the debate over the challenge this puts before a global institution dependent on philanthropy, corporate endowments and large bequests to carry out its charitable works.

Among the many interpretations of this gospel passage is the idea that entering the kingdom of God is not just an end-of-life matter but a daily focus on God and neighbor that rules all our priorities and decisions. The accumulation and management of money requires a level of attention that can dominate a person’s mind and shape a calculating heart that must regard the paradoxical values Jesus taught as idealistic and impractical in the “real” world. The rich man cannot imagine letting go of his possessions, the security and power they afford, to venture freely into a life wholly dependent on God’s grace and the good will of others in the community. It becomes de facto impossible for a rich person to abandon his status to enter this kind of “kingdom of heaven.”

Evangelical poverty as practiced by St. Francis or groups like the Catholic Worker movement is a charism within the church that will always exist in tension with other values. What cannot be negotiated or compromised is the absolute centrality of our relationship with God, which makes every other concern secondary. How each one of us resolves this primary loyalty is the challenge of discipleship.

Hands Up!

Posted on 18 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Ezekiel shall be a sign for you” (Ezek 24:20).

The word “symbol” means “thrown together,” as is the case when multiple issues are conveyed in an image or gesture. For example, when we use water in baptism it becomes a symbol of death, new life and purification.

The prophet Ezekiel is told by God to perform a series of symbolic actions such as digging a hole in the wall and passing through it with his belongings to symbolize the coming invasion of the city and the exile of its people. In today’s first reading, even the death of Ezekiel’s wife became a symbol of the devastating loss the people experienced when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

More contemporary symbols like the V for “victory” used by Winston Churchill during World War II, or the symbolic “occupation” of places like Wall Street by people calling themselves the “99%” achieved international recognition. More recently, the symbolic raising of hands accompanied by the chant “Hands up; don’t shoot” has come to symbolize the tensions between disproportionately militarized police and unarmed citizens in many racially divided communities.

Symbols are very powerful when they catch on and represent the response of whole communities. They are portable, quickly communicated, easily translated into other languages, and capable of gathering together many ideas into a single gesture. Ezekiel acted out his provocative symbols and the people puzzled over their meaning, but knew they portended coming events.

Jesus’ many parables contained symbols of the coming kingdom and called for a response from people to God’s invitation. Jesus becomes himself the symbol that gathered together and fulfilled many prophecies and images in the Bible about the divine plan to transform history. Our job is to be on the alert for God’s many ways of communicating with us, so we can respond wholeheartedly and find life.

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The Borderlands

Posted on 16 August 2014 by patmarrin

“O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt 15:27).

Pope Francis, in his 2013 exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” says that a missionary impulse is constantly driving the gospel outward. When we stop sharing it or confine it to a comfort zone that serves only our group, the good news loses its zest and we lessen our own motivation. Like a tree, though the center is the source of strength and stability, the periphery is where all new growth takes place.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is at the borders of Israel. From across the border a foreign woman cries out to him to heal her daughter. The disciples are bothered by her presence and ask Jesus to send her away. He seems to reinforce their concerns by saying, “I was sent only to the house of Israel.” But the woman persists, and there ensues one of the more fascinating encounters in the gospels in which the woman seems to outpace Jesus in a contest of wills and metaphors. She turns an apparent insult — “It is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs” – into an even more cogent appeal for help – “Even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the children’s table.”

What is happening in the story is an expansion of borders, physical and religious. Confronted with the needs of gentile world for the blessings of the gospel, the early church recognizes that the Spirit is calling it to extend the mission. This was St. Paul’s message. If the early church had not gone beyond its Jewish beginnings, there would be no church today. That this story was preserved in Matthew indicates that Jesus himself affirmed the universal gift of God’s grace.

This gospel comes to us today in the question: What are the borders of our own reach as Christians to people outside our group and comfort zones? Who is not at the table in our lives and in our churches, and why not? What God has freely given us is to be shared or the gift itself is diminished. But if we go beyond ourselves, the gift will grow and enrich our lives and overflow into the lives of everyone we meet. This is the joy of the gospel.

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The Assumption of Mary

Posted on 15 August 2014 by patmarrin

“My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord” (Luke 1:46).

Many years ago I was present in a church sacristy before Mass when the priest asked one of the altar servers to go into the walk-in safe where all the sacred vessels were stored to get the “monstrance.” After a moment’s hesitation about going anywhere to get something with a name like that, the priest went himself and got the gold cross with a little window in the center where the host was placed for Benediction, a service following Mass to display the Blessed Sacrament on the altar during the day. The priest asked the boy what he thought the monstrance was, and he said, “It looks like a big magnifying glass.”

It seems fit description for Mary and the role she played in the story of salvation. Her dignity derives from her relationship to Jesus, whom she magnified perfectly. The lens of her life was so pure and transparent that she was chosen to reveal the fullness of grace revealed to the world in the person of her son.

The church’s recognition of her role was defined in the dogma of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII in 1950. As the first model of faith, Mary’s entire life reflected the transformation of the human race in the mystery of the Incarnation—God made human so we might become divine. That mystery, the church holds, is now completed in Mary, who is already alive in glory in God, a foreshadowing of the destiny promised to all the members of the body of Christ. Mary reveals our own future. We honor her today by magnifying God’s presence in our lives as she did in hers.

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Why Forgive?

Posted on 14 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”

Jesus compares God’s great forgiveness with human reluctance to forgive much smaller offenses. God’s mercy is the basis for all other forms of mercy. What God gives abundantly and unconditionally, we should share freely with one another.

By presenting this message in a story about debts, Jesus quantifies the issue. Owing money in student loans, car or mortgage payments or family borrowing is a common experience. To carry debt casts a shadow over our lives. To be debt free is a cause for celebration. Why total debt forgiveness does not fill the first servant with joy and inspire him to imitate his master is the heart of Jesus’ story.

The deeper challenge of mercy is not quantifiable. It is a quality of the heart that opens us to the mystery of God’s love in our lives, an inexhaustible gift of new life that never ceases as along as we allow it to flow through us. But if we limit its outflow we also slow it at the source. To stop loving is to block our ability to know love, to be loved. The divine economy of mercy must circulate.

The forgiven servant could not forgive because he still had a calculating heart, one familiar with keeping accounts, measuring debt and remembering what was owed him, but unable to let go of all that to enter God’s heart of mercy. Instead of joy and freedom, he went quickly back into debtor’s prison because his heart had not been transformed. It is this transformation we are to pray for and learn to practice.

The Power of Three

Posted on 13 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).

An old Irish toast says “May the strength of three be in your journey.” It attests to the power of even a small community of purpose. One is inert. Two might agree on something, the first miracle of unity in diversity, but when a third voice is added, the circle is complete. In religion, literature, politics and science, the number three symbolizes a wholeness that gives structure and energy to nature and to human affairs. The three-legged stool, the three-act play, the third way or the third rail resolve uncertainty and empower the project.

Jesus promises a blessing when even two agree on a prayer, and his presence where two or three are gathered in his name. The power of prayer begins with this small miracle of community. How much listening and love does it take to get any two or three individuals to really agree on anything? How much work is needed to move two or three parties in a dispute to negotiate their differences? A lot. Consider the failure to agree on shared basic principles underlying so many deadly conflicts now raging in the world.

So many prayers are answered just by bringing people together. So many prayers are really about reconciling differences, moving forward together, sharing our separate views on a common problem and discovering the solution already there. It should not surprise us that Jesus promises that God is present when we reconcile, for God is already a Trinity, the power of three.

No Child Lost

Posted on 12 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1).

The disciples must have had good reason to ask Jesus just who was the greatest in the kingdom he was preaching. They had seen again and again how he reversed the world’s idea of greatness, declaring that the first would be last and the last first, or that those ambitious to be leaders must be servants. They had even experienced it themselves as they jockeyed for position in following him, only to realize that he was serious when he said they were going to Jerusalem, where he would die.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus answers the question by placing a child in their midst. “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” He then warns them never to despise children, for they have a direct connection to God (“their angels in heaven always behold the face of my heavenly Father”). It is an awesome description, and it gives us insight into what Jesus asks of his disciples. You, too, must always behold the face of God. This is the kind of constant faith that brings heaven to earth even now, that you live always in the presence of God.

In the news each day we have seen so many children being terrorized and destroyed in situations of conflict, where power and fear overwhelm compassion; in Syria, in the Gaza Strip, at the borders. What are we to make of Jesus’ warning that God is intimately present to these little ones? Jesus concludes his instructions to his disciples with the parable of the lost sheep. “It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

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Clare of Assisi

Posted on 11 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Young men and maidens praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148).

Today is the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. If she is known outside of official Catholic iconography, it is probably because of Franco Zefferelli’s charming 1972 biopic of St. Francis, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” Clare hears Francis preach, appeals to him to let her join his movement. He cuts her hair as a sign of her commitment and sets up a cloistered monastery for her and her companions.

The story has survived in the history of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares because of its simple appeal but also because it reflects a pattern repeated in the foundation of other movements, namely that men and women together helped form them from the outset.

This same wholeness and stability based on male-female friendship and partnering is evident in other religious establishments: Benedict and his sister Scholastica as cofounders of Western monasticism; Francis de Sales and Jane De Chantal as spiritual collaborators; Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac as servants of the poor. Each of these movements and many others draw from the original model of Christian community and ministry initiated by Jesus himself. Before the church became patriarchal, clerical and male, it was a band of men and women following Jesus.

In Psalm 148, the responsorial for today’s liturgy, heaven is a mixed choir of men and women praising God. As difficult as history has made the cause of equality for women, it is the end of the story. Only male and female together can represent the complete image and likeness of God.

By choosing the name Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio signaled his desire that the church recover the evangelical poverty embraced by St. Francis of Assisi. The pope’s openness to the Franciscan charism of simplicity and the joy of the Gospel also suggests the question: Where is Clare in this picture? There can hardly be a “church of the poor” without the “church of women,” who clearly perform the greater proportion of all ministry on behalf of the poor. How far will Pope Francis go in restoring the balance of men and women in the life and ministry of the Catholic church?

Today is a good day to ask St. Clare’s influence on Pope Francis.

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All Hands on Deck

Posted on 09 August 2014 by patmarrin

Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt 14:28).

Matthew is writing his Gospel for a mixed community of Jews and gentiles in Antioch around 80 CE. We read today’s account of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee toward the boat full of terrified disciples with the needs of Matthew’s church in mind. Like other theophanies, (e.g., the transfiguration), is this story in fact a post-resurrection Jesus being placed in the narrative of his ministry for theological reasons? The early church, like a boat tossed on the stormy seas of persecution and uncertainty, desperately needs reassurance from its Risen Lord, who comes to them, not as a ghost, but as their Savior.

The role that Peter plays in the story is also important for the early church, still sorting out its loyalties and leadership questions. Matthew’s particular Jewish bent favors Peter as representing the church as the new Israel. Peter daringly voices the faith of the vulnerable little community when he steps out of the boat onto the waves to connect with Jesus. Even his moment of faltering is a realistic expression of the struggle the church is going through just 50 years after the events that inspired the new vision of God’s plan of salvation.

Matthew’s dramatic story has also served as personal reassurance for individual believers going through their own dark and stormy nights of doubt and confusion. When all seemed lost, the hand of Jesus reaches out to pull us up out of the churning waters of death. The storm passes and the sea is calm again, and we emerge from crisis knowing that we will survive, even if it means walking on water.

Faith that begins and is sustained in the imagination must be confirmed in our experience. Crisis actually strengthens us over the years with the conviction that, yes, we keep surviving as we go forward, despite our doubts, even because of adversity. The Word we share in prayer and worship says: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The risen Christ, present in us as members of his body, supports us.
Our crossing is assured within the boat of the church and, when necessary, even if we step out onto the waves to find Jesus ourselves. His love will never fail us.