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The Sign of Jonah

Posted on 12 October 2015 by patmarrin

"There is something greater than Jonah here" (Luke 11:32).

Sometimes the Good News comes to us as an urgent warning and a call to respond.

Jesus tells the gathered crowds that "this generation is an evil generation because it seeks a sign, and no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah."

That sign was Jonah's preaching. He went to Nineveh, the great enemy of Israel, and preached repentance, and to his amazement those evil pagans responded and were spared destruction.

But when Jesus came offering God's gracious mercy to his own people, the "Chosen People of God," they rejected him. Therefore, Jesus tells the crowds, on the day of judgment the Queen of the South, who came from afar to hear Solomon's wisdom, will condemn them. They have had the benefit of Jesus' preaching, and he is even greater than Jonah and wiser than Solomon, but they would not listen.

Jesus' reminder that outsiders were more open to God than they were surely stung those who grasped his meaning. When he said much the same thing at Nazareth -- that God had worked miracles for Naaman the Syrian and the widow of Zarephtha but not them -- the crowd rose up and tried to throw him over a cliff. Jesus was clearly about his mission to preach even in the face of rejection.

One of the great questions about mercy is this: what happens when people simply turn their backs on the offer? The freedom to say yes to God is balanced by our freedom to say no. We decide and, in the end, we judge ourselves. There are consequences for our decisions, for both nations and for individuals, and even God's unconditional love cannot save us if we do not want to be saved.

Like Jesus, the bright figure of Pope Francis also casts an urgent, prophetic shadow over the decisions we must make regarding climate change, economic disparity, global conflict and the fate of millions of refugees and immigrants. These are the decisions facing this generation, and if we do not address them, even greater disasters loom, all the more tragic because we knew but did not act.


One Thing

Posted on 10 October 2015 by patmarrin

“You are lacking in one thing” (10:21).

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who asked what he had to do to be saved is followed almost immediately in Luke’s Gospel by the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary. The link between the two stories is Jesus’ word to the rich man, “You are lacking one thing,” and his word to Martha that Mary has chosen the “one thing necessary.”

Mary is a model for discipleship because she focuses her heart entirely on listening to and following Jesus. The rich young man has kept all the commandments perfectly, but when told to sell his possessions in order to follow Jesus, he cannot separate himself from his wealth and the security and influence it affords him, so he goes away sad. He is eager to please God, but he lacks Mary’s deep insight that the ultimate treasure, God’s greatest gift, is Jesus.

Keeping these two stories together, as Luke does, yields an important insight. There is no evidence in the scriptures that Jesus asked Martha and Mary to give up their home or their possessions to follow him. They are already doing it by their hospitality. What Jesus praised in Mary was that she had opened not just her home but her heart to him. What Martha was also offering Jesus indirectly, Mary gave him directly and intimately.

What Jesus wanted from the rich man was not to dispossess himself, but to surrender his heart. Luke says that "Jesus looked at him with love.” If the rich man had responded with love, it would have changed his life. This was the one thing he lacked in the midst of his attention to keeping the Law. Legal perfection was not enough. Love was the one thing necessary.

This is a heartbreaking story, because the man was not ready to take the next step — the one that would have truly opened him to eternal life.

The Good News for us is that, instead of a story that makes us feel guilty us for not being willing to give up all our possessions, this story is really about Jesus inviting us to love him as much as he loves us. Whether we use our wealth for good or give it away to help others is secondary. The first thing, the Great Commandment, is this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength.” What you then become or do will flow from intimacy with God, not from some meritorious act or by giving up everything.

Mary found the treasure the rich man lacked. Jesus had looked at her with love and she had done the same. Jesus also looked at the rich man with love to open his heart to the same treasure, but he was not ready to respond. Jesus looks at us with love as well. If we say yes, it will be the one thing necessary, and we will truly know the joy of the Gospel.


Above All, Unity

Posted on 09 October 2015 by patmarrin

Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house" (Luke 11:17).

The Gospels tell us that the enemies of Jesus were so confounded by his obvious power to heal and drive out evil spirits that the only conclusion they could posit was that he was in league with the "prince of demons."

Jesus pointed out the absurdity of evil expelling itself. A house divided against itself will fall. Therefore, he must be drawing on a power superior to demons to be able to drive them out. "If it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you." Jesus was that "finger" of God appearing in the world to break the spell of evil that permeated even religious authority.

The confrontation was deadly serious. The opponents of Jesus were so threatened by his personal influence and message that they rejected the Holy Spirit, a sin that closed them off from the source of forgiveness itself.

Reports from inside the Synod of the Family in Rome say that the debates over issues like divorce, remarriage and Communion are heated, with conservatives and progressives vying over the future direction of the church. Talk of "tea party" bishops and "left wing" bishops refusing to compromise on principle leads to media speculation about a possible schism. The "s" word seems unthinkable, though the de facto split by the Lefebvrites after Vatican II is no distant memory.

Change disrupts as it renews. Jesus was a revolutionary in his mission to recover the essentials of Judaism but given freely to the whole world, an explosion of grace reaching the depths of humanity and to the ends of the earth. Pope Francis’ vision of a church that heals its center by going to the periphery, letting go of certainty and power in order to embrace God's surprises and the weakness of mercy, will not come easily. Some bishops do not like this “field hospital” church or the idea of letting certain kinds of sinners receive Communion.

The pope has insisted that the debates be rigorous and unfettered, and he trusts that the Holy Spirit will guide the church forward. His role is to hold the many voices together in love and respect. A house divided is not part of his vision, and he seems determined as supreme pontiff to bridge the divisions that are inevitable at the Synod.

We are asked to pray for the church. One body, one Lord, one Spirit, one mission for and by all.


A Knock at Midnight

Posted on 08 October 2015 by patmarrin

"What father among you would hand his child a snake when he asks for a fish, or a scorpion when she asks for an egg?" (Luke 11:12).

Jesus' parable of the neighbor who comes seeking bread at midnight was meant to show how generous God is to those who pray. It was also a not-so-subtle critique of the religious establishment of his time for not being available to people in need. "Can't you see how inconvenient you are? Come back during regular office hours. We are closed. Go away. What do you think this is -- a grocery store? A field hospital?"

In a famous 1955 sermon titled "A Knock at Midnight," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr chided the churches for not responding to the desperate cries of so many who came seeking the bread of mercy, advocacy and justice. Catholic churches were as blind to racial inequality as most others, making Sunday morning "the most segregated hour in America."

Jesus chided his contemporaries for not trusting that God was always ready to give good things to his children. If earthly parents knew enough not to give a child a stone when he asked for bread, or a poisonous snake or scorpion when that child asked for food, how much more will God be eager to bless anyone who prays?

We again bring this Word into context when we pray for the bishops at the Synod on the Family in Rome this month. Will they hear the knock at midnight, the cries of a desperate world for understanding and assistance in living out the difficult challenges of life?

Will Christian pastors hear the pleas of thousands of lay pastoral ministers on the front lines of parish life trying to respond to the hunger of millions of God's people for mercy, for eucharistic bread and fish, or eggs, not stones, scorpions and snakes?

It is midnight for so many people, and their only hope and last resort is to come home. But will the door be locked, its owners asleep? Or will they rise to the occasion and open the doors, set the table of God's mercy, welcome both neighbor and stranger?

Jesus promises that if we ask, seek and knock, we will receive, find and be welcomed. Now is the hour of prayer, the midnight hour.


The Family Prayer

Posted on 07 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1-4).

Prayer means many things to many people, and ways of praying range from reciting words to sitting in silence, talking to God or seeking personal balance and peace.

For Jesus, prayer is always about relationships. The first word of his most basic prayer is addressed to God as "our Father." When his disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, Jesus invites them into his own relationship with his Abba, who is their Abba, the source of their very existence.

To stand in that relationship is also then to acknowledge all other persons as brothers and sisters. The core of Jewish spirituality and ethical responsibility is the idea of "right relationships." If we listen to the words of the Our Father, we will hear the structure of the most basic Jewish prayer of all, the Sh'ma: "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.” Jesus ties this first command to the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

The Our Father first directs us to God, then asks that our own needs be met and for the ongoing grace of forgiveness that makes community possible.

Christian Prayer is all about maintaining relationships. Baptism defines us in relationship, first with God, as members of the one body of Christ, then as one family with all other persons. We pray not just to enhance our individual perfection or to preserve our personal tranquility apart from the chaos of other people, but to enter the mess and mystery of God incarnate in the common good.

We should join the Synod of the Family today by saying the Our Father, the prayer of the one family of God in the world. The Synod is seeking right relationships, God's will on earth as in heaven. But within that divine will it also seeks our human good-- bread for the hungry, mercy and reconciliation among God's diverse family of people, all striving to find happiness and peace. We pray not to be subjected to the "test," which for some may be the temptation to abandon others to save themselves.

The Our Father reminds us that with are all in this together, the righteous and sinners, the strong and the weak, the whole and the wounded. But God is with all of us, and it is God's mercy for all of us that makes possible the holiness we can only find together.

Lady Wisdom at the Family Synod

Posted on 06 October 2015 by patmarrin

"Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her" (Luke 10:42).

What is remarkable about the story of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary is that it defies social convention by both Jesus and Mary. Sister Martha accepts her assigned role in the kitchen while Mary boldly joins the group of disciples in conversation with Rabbi Jesus.

Luke records Martha's complaint that she is left to do the serving -- "women's work"--, but the underlying affront is also that her sister has entered the privileged world of men to openly discuss Torah. Luke does not tell us the reaction of the male disciples. The Gospels show them to be not very bright, and so Mary’s presence suggests that she may have had her hand up a lot and knew many of the answers the men did not.

Jesus not only accepts Mary into the company of the disciples, he praises her for her courage and discernment. Food is essential for bodily nourishment, but the Word of God gives life. It is the one thing necessary, and Mary's grasp of its primacy is a sign that she has been visited by Wisdom, the great womanly manifestation of the Spirit of God.

Mary is not the first wise woman in the Bible, and she was hardly the last in the history of the church. Paul valued women enough to identify them by name as key helpers in his ministry of preaching and church building. Brilliant women like Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana of Mexico and Catholic Worker cofounder Dorothy Day have all chosen the better part as brilliant intellectual equals among men in shaping the direction of the church.

They have not always been welcome, opposed by men and often by women for breaking the code of proper gender roles and separate spheres of influence. Jesus' approval of Mary has meant little to church figures who have persecuted women for seeking greater participation in the church. What they chose has in fact often been "taken away" by men who attacked their ideas, silenced their voices and belittled their contributions.

Yet today's Gospel brings Lady Wisdom into the elite circle of 318 participants at the Synod in Rome -- 279 male, celibate prelates, the rest non-voting laity, including a small number of women – invited to join the bishops, who will decide what family life, marriage, even gender, ought to look like for 1 billion Catholics in the 21st Century. The church continues to mirror a patriarchal culture impervious to global advances for women in every arena. By so patently limiting more Mary's from sharing the discussion, the synod risks having its conclusions, however wise, seem irrelevant.

We pray for the Synod. It is too important to dismiss and too complicated to simply parody. In its hands lies the fate of Pope Francis' vision of Holy Mother Church as a house of mercy where all are welcome, respected and loved. The price of doctrinal immutability and pastoral obtuseness could be the defeat of Francis’ desire for effective evangelization within and beyond the Catholic church.

Francis’ own voice surely echoes the significant women who helped form him, but will it be enough among the robed naysayers to allow Jesus to speak as boldly as he does in today’s powerful Gospel story (Luke 10:38-42)? Stay tuned, and pray for the synod.

The First Rule is Mercy

Posted on 05 October 2015 by patmarrin

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

God's Word comes to us in context. The Synod on the Family in Rome is perhaps the most important context for the whole church as the pope, bishops and experts meet this month to debate about family issues. Today's readings-- the story of Jonah and the parable of the Good Samaritan-- become the presence and voice of Jesus to that gathering as it grapples with fundamental questions about God's will for human relationships.

Jonah is a reluctant prophet who flees rather than accept God's call to be an evangelist to the brutal Assyrians, Israel's sworn enemy. Jonah books passage on a ship heading the in opposite direction, but during a storm he is thrown into the sea by the pagan crew to appease Jonah's God. A giant fish swallows him and, after three days, delivers him to his assignment. The image of Jonah in the belly of the whale became a Christian symbol for Jesus' descent into the tomb, while the story of Jonah was used by Jesus to challenge his contemporaries for their refusal to accept God's universal love for everyone, including their enemies.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is prompted by the question from the scholar of the law about just who he is obligated to love as his neighbor. Jesus' story depicts a Jewish victim, left for dead on the side of the road to Jericho, ignored by two legalistic Jewish officials, but rescued by a hated Samaritan stranger, Israel's worst enemy. The triumph of love over legalism defines neighborliness. The greatest commandment, love of God and love of neighbor, the very heart of the Law, is determined not by ritual purity, legal perfection or piety, but by how we respond to anyone we encounter who lies wounded on the side of the road.

In a stunning reversal of the Jewish audience's anticipation that a Jew would be saved by the priest or the Levite, the naked, wounded victim is saved by a Samaritan. The scholar's perfectly defined world is turned upside down and its parameters blown out to universal responsibility by the parable. "Who then, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbery victim?" Jesus asks the lawyer." He can only answer: "The one who treated him with mercy."

What will the participants in the Synod on the Family make of this powerful story today? What do you make of it in your own life and situation? The Good Samaritan or --fill in the blank-- your worst enemy, comes to you to help you understand the mystery of God's unconditional love for everyone. The face of God is mercy. To respond to this God, to be transformed by this God's loving gaze, to love each other, even our enemies, as God loves us, this is the first and greatest commandment.

The Best Interests of the Child

Posted on 03 October 2015 by patmarrin

“What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:6).

Today’s Gospel passage has always been difficult for preachers who feel the impact of Jesus’ words on couples in their assemblies who are part of a growing number of second marriages after a divorce and their complicated blended families. This is not to speak of same-sex partners, young couples who are cohabitating, and the hidden reality of dead marriages and others that are publicly praised but private disasters of abuse and infidelity. Saints and sinners fill the pews.

A sensitive pastor will be looking out at good people he knows are in various stages of seeking annulments, faithful parishioners who give themselves generously to ministry and even leadership in the parish, even as they sit out Communion while they wait for the church’s judgment.

The nuances of failure are many and broad-ranging, from ill-advised marriages by immature teens to abandonment by spouses in midlife crisis, but in every case, the suffering has been deep and pastoral response limited by official church teaching about second marriages and exclusion from Communion.

The second and final session of the Synod on the Family opens today in Rome. The date may have been chosen because it is the calendar feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, but the Sunday readings, including the Gospel on the indissolubility of marriage, will also be on the minds of both traditionalists and progressives as they begin three weeks of debate over some of most controversial challenges the church is facing, on marriage, gender, cohabitation and birth control.

Pope Francis, who seems to be a doctrinal traditionalist, has at the same time tipped his hand on pastoral accommodation by declaring a Year of Mercy. He wants open discussion and honest collaboration in drafting the synod’s recommendation, but he will have the final say as pope. Observers on all sides know that his papal themes of the “Joy of the Gospel,” evangelization and mercy will rise or fall on the outcomes of the synod.

The exegesis of Mark 10:2-16 (and other Gospel and Pauline passages that seem to suggest evolving positions by the early church) will explore the original setting of Jesus’ recorded words about God’s will for marital union, as well as the question of just what kind of unions "God has joined together.” Are all sexual unions images of the covenant between God and his people? Are all marriages sacramental? Should all broken marriages be preserved at any cost? Should sinners be forgiven, failures be welcome at the Eucharist? Should Communion be linked to all standards of moral behavior? Is it a reward for the perfect or, in Pope Francis’ words, “the medicine of mercy,” available especially to those who struggle the most?

Mark joins Jesus’ teaching on marital stability with his concern for children. In Jesus' time and place, children were the least concern of a society that saw them as cheap labor, expendable and troublesome. He placed their welfare at the top of his list of concerns. Strong families, loving fathers and faithful spouses, men who treated their wives fairly, these were values sustained by solid marriages and good for children.

As the pope and bishops, their experts, lay and clerical, male and female, debate the many issues facing today’s family, Jesus’ words should be the heart of their discernment, but always in full context. And this context ultimately supports the image of God Jesus showed most, the divine face of mercy, the divine eagerness to forgive and heal, the open invitation to all in today’s Mass, that Jesus sought out sinners, sat down and ate with sinners, and gave his life that we all might be joined forever in the Trinity, the Holy family of God.

Guardian Angels

Posted on 02 October 2015 by patmarrin

"See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly father" (Matt 18:10).

In a beautiful 1987 Franco-German film titled "Wings of Desire," angels are depicted as "pure observers, visible only to children, and incapable of any physical interaction with our world" (see Wikipedia plot summary). They watch over people in post-World War II Berlin, listening in on their thoughts, and when they find individuals in extreme distress and loneliness, they silently comfort them.

As immortal beings, these angels are detached from human feelings, but they also have the option of surrendering their angelic status to take up the human condition, and one angel decides to do so in order to be with a woman he has been observing who is at the point of despair.

The Catholic imagination has always accepted the existence of guardian angels, heavenly companions assigned to watch over us. They are part of a whole transcendent world of spiritual realities that give ultimate meaning to our human and material existence.

Jesus adds to his teaching about the importance of caring for children the warning that their angels continually behold the face of God. In other words, divine surveillance of innocent children is direct and constant, and anyone who violates the innocence of these little ones is defying God.

Jesus understood the human condition intimately. Like the angel in "Wings of Desire," he surrendered his heavenly status to become one of us. He immersed himself in the world and both witnessed and experienced the immense suffering and loneliness caused by sin. He offered his life to set us free from the power of evil and death.

Each of us, in a sense, has the same choice to either remain detached and aloof from the pain of others or to surrender ourselves to embrace the common challenges of human life together. We can ignore the needs of others or be angels to the rescue. It is our choice.

Jesus invites us to live now the values of the Kingdom of heaven, where love makes us whole and opens us up to transcendent life, here and now, and in the world to come.


St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Posted on 01 October 2015 by patmarrin

”Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).

It is both paradoxical and appropriate that the Gospel for today matches Jesus’ instructions to his missionary disciples with the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a French contemplative nun who lived out her short life in a cloister.

St. Thérèse’s devotion to simplicity and a spirituality focused on God’s mercy was celebrated after her death from tuberculosis at age 24 as the core impetus for missionary evangelization. Her life, as presented in her journal, The Story of a Soul, was so popular, the church fast-tracked her canonization (1925) declared her co-patron of the missions (1927) and a doctor of the church (1997). She remains immensely popular and has been the subject of numerous books and films.

The idea that the mission of the church flows from the heart of mercy was reinforced by Pope Francis in his 2013 exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel." The pope also emphasized that the church is alive only when it evangelizes, moving outward from its spiritual center into the world. St. Thérèse’s “little way” makes the mission of the church accessible to everyone who seeks God in personal prayer and acts of mercy.

The paradox of greatness in simplicity, power in apparent weakness, fits Thérèse of Lisieux. It is her childlike innocence combined with spiritual clarity that people find so compelling. A single heart seeking God becomes a force more powerful than any purely human initiative, however influential and far-reaching it might be.

Her life and example invite each of us to begin where we are with whatever we have, however small, to direct out hearts toward evangelizing others with joy and complete trust. Jesus continues to send flawed disciples like lambs among wolves out ahead of him with few resources, so that the Kingdom of God will reach every corner of the world, especially those places where mercy is most needed.

Ordinary people like us, committed to simple acts of justice and love, along with the larger efforts to evangelize, are essential to the mission. All of us, to be real Christians, must also be missionaries.