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Mercy Is God's Gift

Posted on 17 August 2016 by patmarrin

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matt 20:1).

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers was another attempt by Jesus to present God’s unconditional gift of mercy. It was addressed to the good people who resented Jesus’ outreach to sinners. They could not understand why God would love sinners as much as those who had been obedient all their lives. They were the vineyard workers who had worked all day in the heat of the sun for the promised full wage. Why should latecomers and slackers enjoy the same full pay they had earned?

The parable applied again a generation later to Jewish Christians who wondered how gentile converts could be welcomed into the church without having to observe the Mosaic Law they had kept. The cry against such unlimited mercy for everyone: “It isn’t fair!” echoes down through history. How can God set aside the moral meritocracy that has made virtuous people conclude that they were better than others because they had somehow “earned” heaven?

It was precisely this self-righteous divisiveness that Jesus was addressing in his many parables of mercy. No one can earn eternal life with God because it is a gift. Virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. Human systems of morality bring order in this world, but they do not automatically promise life after death, and certainly not the “full wage” of salvation, divine life forever. The essence of that life is love, which is the very nature of God. God’s love is offered to saint and sinner alike. Only those who cannot bear such infinite and unconditional love will be excluded from it, but not by God. They will exclude themselves, the ultimate tragedy of pride that cannot accept the divine gift.

Jesus taught in parables because no single revelation of God is enough. The Parable of the Vineyard Workers continues to challenge our logic and sense of fairness. Only when we understand that we are all latecomers and slackers, lost sheep, prodigal sons and daughters, indebted servants and sinners, will we break through the illusion that we can earn heaven because we are better than others. Only then will we be able to open our hearts with gratitude to realize that God’s love is there for us, has always been there in full, needing only our surrender to the face of God, Who is Mercy. This is the Joy of the Gospel.

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Love's Narrow Door

Posted on 16 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:23).

The hard saying Jesus utters regarding a rich man entering the Kingdom shocked his disciples, who in that time and culture saw wealth as a sign of favor from God. Jesus saw instead how material possessions preoccupied the rich, consuming them and distracting them from the more important gifts of life—relationships, community, intellectual and spiritual development, humility and dependence on God. A rich man became like a fully loaded camel trying to get through a narrow door.

We see this mentality in the rich man who comes to Jesus to ask how he can guarantee his place in heaven. He thinks like a rich man. He has amassed virtue by keeping the commandments, but wants to top off his spiritual wealth with something more. Jesus challenges his quid pro quo approach to earning heaven by telling him to go and sell all his possessions, strip off his status and influence to come on the road as a disciple.

For Jesus, entry into the Kingdom was not a quantitative gain but a qualitative leap into grace, a total surrender to a relationship with God, which is a pure gift. The man cannot buy this gift or earn it with his virtue. He is too full of himself to receive God into his life.

This paradox confronts us all. We come before God with open hands and open hearts. The love we have is the love we give away. Our emptiness and powerlessness is what enables us to receive the gift of life only God can give. We enter this discipleship each day when we surrender ourselves to God, who will give us everything we need to find true wealth and abundant life.

Mary's Assumption Reveals Our Future

Posted on 15 August 2016 by patmarrin

“How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:41).

If Jesus Christ is the cosmic bridge between God and Man, then Mary, as mother of the Incarnation, provides the bridge between divinity and humanity. A divine Person enters history though a human mother. His flesh and blood is her flesh and blood. As Mary makes Jesus human, so Jesus sanctifies her. The Assumption of Mary is the culmination of her role in the Incarnation. The mysterious transformation of all those who are embodied into Christ by baptism is celebrated today in the Assumption of Mary, the first human being to have claimed the destiny that awaits us all — eternal life in God.

All of this theology tries to tell the much more tangible mystery of all the mothers giving birth in the great genealogy of salvation history. From Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, down through the tortuous twists and turns of the blood line that includes Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba, comes Mary of Nazareth. Her Yes to the Angel Gabriel, opens time to eternity, history to a divine destiny. The Spirit of the promise already present in the story that began with Eve becomes flesh in Jesus, son of Adam, son of David, son of Joseph and Mary, Son of God.

Even the cosmic scene in the Book of Revelation affirms that the New Creation is inaugurated by a woman giving birth. The woman surrounded by stars is pregnant with the future of the universe, and no evil or resistance can prevent God’s ultimate design from being born.

We rejoice to be part of this immense and enduring story of hope. Our birth, then rebirth by grace, initiates in us the same journey from "Yes" to our share in the paschal mystery of Jesus. Each time we die to self we consent to the challenges of love; but we rise to new life in the same surrender, until we complete our own baptismal journey. Mary knows the way because she has led the way through her son Jesus to the glory in God that awaits us all. Her Assumption reassures us that we, too, will be born to glory in the passages we make each day by faith.

How many births have been prepared for by saying the humble "Hail Mary," repeating her consent, asking for her help as we go forward in Christ? This is the joy of the Gospel.

A New World Coming

Posted on 13 August 2016 by patmarrin

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …” (Heb 12:1).

Jesus predicts great tensions and divisions along generational lines and even within families as the challenge of change confronts the world because of his preaching. Something new was happening, and it confronted older structures and attitudes. To be a follower of Jesus meant stepping apart from your family and religious identity. New wine was being poured into new and flexible wineskins. A new world was challenging the old, entrenched leadership faced a new generation of visionaries and dreamers.

We know that the gospels were being composed as profound changes were taking place in the Mediterranean world. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and a tumultuous diaspora took place from the region into North Africa and Asia Minor. New Christian communities were being formed by missionaries like St. Paul, made up of Jewish and gentile converts. This process must have produced the family divisions Matthew describes in today’s gospel passage. Just as Jesus had spoken of the baptism of fire he had to endure to pass from death to new life, so the church faced the same paschal passage of radical surrender and change.

While every time is about change, some periods in history seem particularly moved by forces that converge all at once to push renewal into rapid shifts and confrontations. We are in such a period, driven by technological innovation and self-conscious awareness of global change. We see it in the environmental crises, movement of populations due to war and political upheaval, rising expectations and as a matter of survival. How we respond will determine whether the world enters into a new era of shared prosperity and balance or into a long period of protracted competition and conflict.

We are not alone, for a great crowd of witnesses surrounds us made up of those who have endured similar challenges in the past and who now encourage us to be bold and confident that God is guiding history toward the beloved community creation was meant to be. Our eucharistic gatherings, made up of the great diversity of a changing world, are meant to be models of how this blessed community is both possible and necessary. There is room at the table for everyone and infinite love available if we keep our eyes on the prize that is Jesus, whose baptism is our baptism, whose glory is our promised destiny.

Nuptial Love as a Sign of the Covenant

Posted on 12 August 2016 by patmarrin

"What God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:5).

We see in Jesus' teaching about marriage his knowledge of the scriptures serving as continuity and precedent. He quotes Genesis about the ideal union of man and woman as the full image of God
imprinted on humanity before sin enters the picture, insinuating the division that has confounded relations among the sexes ever since.

But Jesus also knew the great narrative of the Prophet Ezekiel about how nuptial love represents God's covenant with Israel. It is because this faithful union is so important to salvation history that those marriages that God has blessed with the divine image must be signs of indissolubility. As God never stops loving Israel, so husband and wife must reflect that kind of fidelity.

Yet even Ezekiel includes the frailty of human love that often fails. Israel was in fact unfaithful, practicing idolatry and forming alliances with pagan neighbors instead of trusting exclusively on God. So the narrative includes God's steadfast love even in the course of human failure. The ultimate revelation of God is less about our perfection than about mercy. God forgives and heals when we sin and wound our relationships. The community of the Covenant witnesses to this ongoing history of mercy.

In the current debates over the indissolubility of sacramental marriages at the synods on the family, one focus is on the power of mercy to encompass human failure and hold people within the covenant even when they fall short of the ideal. The question, even for Canon Law, is just how many unions have been "joined by God," among the many attempts by people to constitute of true bond, freely entered into with full knowledge and maturity. It may be that only marriages that last 25 years can be held up as signs of the Covenant, if that is why they strive to witness indissolubility to the rest of the community.

We all walk in the mercy of God, who alone knows the hidden dimensions of our intent and effort to be faithful to the graces we have received, especially in our relationships. We know this for certain, that God is always faithful and never stops loving us, no matter what.

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Forgiveness Begets Forgiveness

Posted on 11 August 2016 by patmarrin

“How often must I forgive?” (Matt 18:21).

Because it is Peter who asks Jesus about the limits of forgiveness, we know that the other disciples have asked him to represent their shared skepticism about such extravagant generosity. Seven is the max. How could anyone forgive after seven offenses? The world would fall apart if the hammer did not come down on any sinner who pushed the limit past that.

But, of course, Jesus is not talking about quantity, whether seven or seven time seventy. He is talking about the quality of mercy that is never withheld. Jesus clearly meant forgiveness as a way of life, an essential characteristic of the person who forgives. Because it is not about the one who offends; it is about what defines the one who forgives. It is an invitation to imitate God: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”

The mercy of God is the point of the powerful story Jesus tells about the two debtors. If we really understand that our very existence is a gratuitous act of mercy from God, who called us into existence, sustains us in each moment of our lives, healing and loving and forgiving us continuously as we stumble toward maturity – if we really knew how much God cherishes us even when we ignore or turn away grace after grace – we would never think to be any less generous with our fellow human beings for their faults and trespasses.

Peter is chosen to lead the church because he needed God’s mercy more than any of the other disciples. His debt to Jesus was more than he could have ever hoped to settle, yet Jesus forgave him. His failure opened up a chasm or shame only divine mercy could fill, and this is what he preached to others.

From the smallest apology to the most difficult repentance, we advance in holiness each time we forgive or ask to be forgiven. It may take us seven times, or seven times seventy, because mercy is a lifetime lesson that only God can accomplish in us. This is the joy of the Gospel.

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Service with a Smile

Posted on 10 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24).

Jesus used the image of the sower and the seed to describe a disciple, who “broadcasts” the word as a preacher, but who is also surrendered like a seed that dies to itself to be multiplied in the harvest of the Kingdom of God.

The church commemorates such a disciple today in St. Lawrence, a third-century deacon who was martyred during a Roman persecution. Ordered to produce the “treasures” of the church, Lawrence pointed to the poor. For this bold affront to Roman authority, tradition records that he was tortured and killed on heated grate. Even in death he mocked his torturers by asking to be turned over to be done evenly on both sides.

Like other accounts in the church’s martyrology, this gruesome story has made Lawrence memorable for his sense of humor and his example of courage. His greatest contribution as witness to the faith may be his reminder that the church is always defined by its service to the poor. A church that does not treasure the poor and the vulnerable cannot claim the gospel as its inspiration and identity.

By word and example, each of us is sent to be both sower and seed. Our natural gifts are meant for building up the community and for the service of others. This fulfills us personally and reveals the joy of the gospel.

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Angels Watching over Me

Posted on 09 August 2016 by patmarrin

"I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father" (Matt 18:5).

When the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, his answer may have surprised them. A child? In what way is a child great? In that time and place, children were a burden until they were big enough to work in the fields or contribute some other service.

Jesus’ estimation of children as first in the Kingdom and especially loved by God fits his consistent message that worldly priorities had to be turned upside down to understand how God sees what is important. The first shall be last. Greatness is measured in humility, leadership in service, moral authority in innocence.

The new creation that Jesus proclaimed was to be built upon the first creation, especially from the beginning, before sin entered the garden to estrange humanity from God. In the beginning, God walked with human beings in their first innocence, as a parent walks with children in the cool of the evening, delighting in their curiosity and playfulness, cherishing a face-to-face intimacy with them unspoiled by any hint of shame or self-consciousness.

This pure relationship is captured in Jesus’ description of children, whose angels in heaven “always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.” God’s gaze is direct and continuous care, unbroken by the turning away from God that was the first sin, as Adam and Eve hid from God after their disobedience. The memory of their first innocence is preserved in the faces of children, and their simple intimacy with God is why they reflect the image and likeness of God. Jesus will restore this image to all of humanity by his redemptive self-sacrifice.

Children renew the world, generation by generation, reminding the adult world of the innocence lost to sin, compromise and competition. They are first in God’s eyes because through their eyes God watches us and invites us to recover our own innocence by restoring our sense of wonder and gratitude for life and by showing compassion and care for the most vulnerable among us.

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The Church in the World

Posted on 08 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Heaven and earth are filled with your glory” (Psalm 145).

Today’s gospel about paying the temple tax is similar to another famous story about paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:21). The early church was not isolated or disengaged from the world. These two stories show an effort to fulfill worldly obligations while preserving an otherworldly character. Jesus tells Peter to pay the temple tax by catching a fish in whose mouth was a coin, so as "not to offend," though he also notes that because they are “children” of the household, not foreigners, the disciples are not obliged to pay the tax.

The distinction between the church’s transcendent mission and its impact on the world of political, cultural and economic concerns has not always been easy to maintain. Historically, the church has often been a major player in a world of money and power. Pope Francis has used the papal pulpit to criticize aspects of the global economy and the role of nations at war or for supporting economic practices that exploit the poor and destroy the environment. While the church has little secular power, it has a real obligation to uses its spiritual voice to support justice and the common good.

Today’s commemoration of St Dominic (1170-1221) in this 800th year of the Dominican Order’s existence illustrates the complex relationship between the church and the world because the church is in the world, not apart from it and its problems. The mendicant orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans responded to a changing feudal world by sending preachers and gospel witnesses not limited by monastic rules into the cities and universities to help shape a different kind of society.

St. Dominic founded a community of preachers because he saw the need for well-trained preachers and teachers in a world facing great changes and conflict. He was moved with compassion for the suffering that resulted from the spread of error and distorted cultural values. We are all in the world, and what we say and do has an effect on the lives of others politically and economically. Let us take up our obligations to others with compassion and our obligations to God with trust and faith.

Be Ready!

Posted on 06 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Luke 12:40).

Jesus’ parables about household vigilance are clearly addressed to the pastoral leadership of the primitive churches during the transition from believing that Jesus’ return was imminent and the realization that the risen Christ was already with the church for the historical long haul.

The parables in Luke Chapter 12 warn those appointed as pastors not to grow slack in their watch over their faith communities. The warnings suggest that some leaders had assumed that Jesus would not return any time soon and had begun to abuse their authority, to get drunk and take advantage of those entrusted to them.

”You know not the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come,” the parable warns. Those in positions of responsibility will be held accountable. Those who have been given extraordinary gifts and abilities for the sake of the community will be held to a higher standard. Whether we live in dramatic times or ordinary stretches of routine duty, we will be judged on how faithful we have been. The history of the church belongs not only to the heroic saints in times of crisis but especially to the humble servants who have held the church on course during the quiet periods of gradual growth and consolidation.

Jesus’ words, “To whom much is given, much will be expected,” are addressed to most of us who have been blessed with comfortable lives, advantages in education, job opportunities and connections. We will be held at a higher standard than the many who have spent their lives facing adversity and lack of access to the resources that made it easy for us to get ahead. How many gifted people have grown bored and restless in their lives for lack of challenge or adversity, and have wasted their chance to mature and find deeper meaning in helping those less fortunate than they have been as a matter of inheritance? Woe to those who learn these lessons too late to change course.

The good news is that God is merciful and always ready to offer second chances to those who seek to do their best, are learning from their mistakes and willing to listen to their experience through each life stage. This includes most of us, and certainly those who will gather in community around the Lord’s Table this weekend to acknowledge their need for God’s grace and the support of others to do what is right. We rejoice to be among the pilgrims who, day by day, step by step, little by little, are being faithful in doing their small part to build up the kingdom of God.