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The Sign of Jonah

Posted on 21 July 2014 by patmarrin

“There is something greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:40).

The story of Jonah was a fantastic, popular story (think Pinocchio) with a powerful religious message. It was addressed to Jews confident of their exclusive status as God’s chosen people and eager to see their enemies punished. Jonah is a reluctant prophet sent to Nineveh (Assyria) to preach repentance. He does not want to go, does not want to make this offer to Israel's worst enemy, fearful they might accept it and be saved.

So Jonah runs away, but he is shipwrecked, swallowed by a sea monster and delivered to his assigned destination. He walks to the center of the huge foreign capital, tells the Ninevites to repent and retreats to see God’s wrath fall on them. But, they repent and, after a parable within the tale about a broom plant given to shade Jonah, then taken away, the story of Jonah concludes with the message: God freely shows mercy on anyone he chooses.

There were two signs of Jonah applied to Jesus by the early Christians. First, Jesus was a prophet sent to preach to a reluctant people. The self-righteous rejected him, but sinners responded. Second, as Jonah was swallowed up by the sea monster (death) and then restored, so Jesus fulfilled this image in his death and resurrection. Matthew, eager to apply every prophecy to Jesus, sees in the figure of Jonah a foreshadowing of the Messianic secret and paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. This message is for us as well. We have been given a clear call and every chance to turn our hearts to God, whose mercy is being freely offered to everyone, even those outside the institutional and religious circles we belong to and take comfort in as Christians and Catholics. Reluctance is costly and postponement is folly. Now is the day of salvation. Don’t be afraid. Enter the sea of God’s mercy, the flow of grace, the falling and rising rhythm of life in Christ. Let him take you wherever your life can be a sign of love to others, even your enemies. This is the sign of Jonah.

A Work in Progress

Posted on 19 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Let them grow together until harvest” (Matt 13:30).

The phrase “work in progress” is crucial for anyone who works in and with communities or with people who are struggling to learn and grow. Teachers, organizers and pastors know that any long-term goal requires great patience and a tolerance for ambiguity. Perfectionists need not apply. The arc of human development reveals that we all learn from our mistakes and that at the end of the process, maturity comes to those who risk, restart, repent and renew themselves along the way. Those who lack resilience often avoid life’s complex challenges and the hard work of making choices. Stage development experts say that a child who does not push back at age two postpones that natural rebellion until adolescence, and that repression at that age erupts in midlife crisis or, much later, in senior years marked by resentment, regret and a panicked sense of having never really lived.

The parable of the wheat and weeds takes on universal significance as a lesson in mercy, tolerance and patience. All our communities are works in progress, and we all live more freely and with less rancor and judgmentalism by adopting a spirit of letting go and entrusting everything to God.

The owner of the wheat fields infiltrated by weeds takes this approach despite his workers eagerness to root up the invading plants. He knows that any attempt to selectively purge one from the other will likely destroy the harvest. The parable served to instruct Matthew’s community of mixed Jewish and gentile converts from going after one another in the quest for pure orthodoxy. The message of the Gospel was that mercy was more important than perfection, if this was even possible. The process of mutual forgiveness and negotiated coexistence was the real life and witness of the church, not some future harvest only God can supervise.

Today’s parishes mirror the same tension between progressives and traditionalists, political partisanship, pro and con positions on a wide range of social and economic issues. Yet everyone comes to the table, everyone makes up the communion that is the clear sign of God’s mercy and power to heal a complicated, diverse world.

We rejoice to be works in progress, and we pray for the courage and freedom to grow together in a spirit of tolerance and humility.


Mercy First

Posted on 18 July 2014 by patmarrin

“The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8).

The distinction between clergy and laity is as old as religion. It may have started to designate function, but seems to have evolved to assign special status and authority to those who saw themselves as controlling access to God. High priests wore sacred clothing and used special symbols to go before God on behalf of ordinary people. They burned incense and offered sacrifices to please or placate God in order to insure a desired outcome; the birth of a child, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy. The exalted and necessary role of the clergy was job protection and warranted them honor and privilege, which distinguished them from ordinary people, whose need for mediation increased their feelings of distance from God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus erases the distinctions. The freedom of hungry disciples to glean as they walked alongside the fields ripe with grain raises the question. Jesus affirms the natural authority of the “Son of Man” over religious rules and rituals. Common men – ordinary people—come first, and necessity trumps rules with common sense and compassion for those in need. “God desires mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus argues, echoing the prophets who placed social justice and the care of widows, orphans and aliens above temple rituals and laws for their own sake.

The principle Jesus asserts that people come first should illumine many contemporary issues: the humane care of vulnerable mothers and children at the border; a living wage for workers; protecting civilians in a war zone; addressing economic rules that allow glaring disparities; religious privilege that insulates doctrine from lived reality. Add your own controversies. Complexity clouds policy debates, but the failure to respond to suffering shames us all.

In the evening of life we will be judged on one thing only, whether we showed mercy to someone in need. It is a basic measure that touches us all, high and low, important and ordinary.


Just for Today

Posted on 17 July 2014 by patmarrin

“My yoke is easy, my burden light” (Matt 11:30).

Parables await me on my morning drive into work. The city is awake. Delivery trucks rumble past, cars, busses and bicycles deliver people to their respective jobs. Street crews take advantage of the morning cool, surrounded by orange cones and signs that slow and divert traffic. Dog walkers and joggers are out in the leafy neighborhoods, and in Midtown a man sits on the front steps of an apartment building smoking a cigarette.

A line in the first reading from Isaiah has posed a question about the pervasive anxiety that keeps us alert to life’s uncertainties: “My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you” (26:9). Even our dreams are on edge, unfinished memories and familiar strangers who mumble secrets. The morning paper spills out images of a world coming apart with cruelty that, even far away, intrudes on our busy, insulated lives.

Where does peace come from, and how do we find just enough of it to give us a small space to meet the day with confidence?

One block to go, and my parable is there, a woman carrying her child. She is smiling and saying something to the thick curls tucked in close against her chest. Everything is going to be OK. This will be a good day within this small circle of love. It is someone else’s dream, but for a moment I share in it and open my own heart to life’s simple goodness. Even the distant shadow of death is held off. If love is the beginning and the end of the story, the days in between, one moment at a time, are still gifts to be lived fully and with gratitude. Just for today, my yoke is easy, my burden light.


Like Father, Like Son

Posted on 16 July 2014 by patmarrin

“No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matt 11:27).

I never met my Irish grandfather Martin, who died in 1921, but I knew him by the imprint he left on my own father, who was just 17 when his father passed away at age 66. My father was the youngest of 11, and his deep sense of responsibility for his mother and for the family carried forward during the rest of his life. Specially chosen to get two years of college, he managed the family business, a small gray iron castings foundry that helped support his sisters and brothers. Like his father, who was a stonecutter, my father worked hard, was as honest as the day was long and a great dreamer that his children would not suffer the privations his immigrant family had endured. My own brothers and sister bear the imprint of his outsized personality and influence.

Christian faith is all about relationships. Jesus was the icon of his Father, the face of God to the world. To know Jesus is to know the Father. The gift of their Spirit imprinted the mysterious inner life of the Trinity on the Christian community. Divinity indwells us and inspires the ever expanding web of relationships that is the church. Without having met most of our baptized brothers and sisters, living and dead, we still know them in the Holy Communion of the body of Christ, crucified and risen in the world today, God among us.

What we do with our belonging to such a big and talented family is our decision, but all the love and resources are there for us to live full and generous lives. As Jesus and the Father choose to reveal themselves to us, we can also share their love with others. So the web expands. This is true evangelization, the joy of the Gospel.


The Scandal of the Gospel

Posted on 15 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Unless your faith is firm you shall not be firm” (Isa 7:9).

Early in his Gospel, Matthew (4:15) quotes Isaiah 9:1 describing the appearance of a great light for the gentiles in northern Galilee, people “who lived in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Jesus was that light appearing not just to the chosen people but also to gentiles and foreigners. Seven chapters later, in today’s Gospel (Matt11:20-24), Jesus reproaches the Jewish towns in that same region for not responding to the Good News he had announced.

What happens if we reject or ignore God’s invitation to “repent and hear the Good News”? Matthew follows his pattern of applying the words of the prophets to Jesus. As they preached conversion to ancient Judah and Israel but were rebuffed, the same thing happens to Jesus. The Gospel narrative has Jesus preach to deaf ears in Galilee, then travel south to Jerusalem to be crucified. But at this point the Gospel leaves behind the need to fulfill the old covenant prophecies. Something new is about to be revealed. For rather than end in defeat, the narrative holds a “messianic secret.” Jesus is revealed not as God’s conquering hero who saves the righteous, but as a suffering servant whose very rejection reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.

Therefore, the Good News is not a predictable story of God offering a second chance to a sinful world and then saving those who respond, but an even deeper and more mysterious story of God’s inexhaustible mercy for unrepentant sinners. God’s love is never withdrawn. The Good Shepherd never abandons even a single lost sheep. The Father never gives up on the prodigal son or his angry brother.

In the end, salvation is always free, always available, always leaving a light on for the last sinner to come home, even at the 11th hour. This is essence of God, to be merciful, and God never ceases to be God. The only variable left, therefore, is us, our freedom to say yes or no, to accept or reject God’s offer. The basis for the church of mercy Pope Francis preaches is that we must be merciful because God is merciful. We can never know what happens in the heart of another person, whether some final grace is at work in their journey. Therefore, we can never give up on anyone or close the door on another to satisfy our own sense of justice.

This is a scandal, but there is more. The final surprise and paradox of the Gospel is this. The one way we can exclude ourselves from God’s mercy is to exclude someone else. In doing that we extinguish the light we ourselves need to complete our own journey home to a loving God. The last step is to let go of all judgment, to be stripped of all pride and self-righteousness. Only then will we be ready to meet God.


Continuity and Conversion

Posted on 14 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth” (Matt 10:34).

Jesus made clear to his disciples that following him would mean placing all other loyalties in second place. This included family and tribal loyalty, no small demand in a culture in which that fealty was near absolute. To be with Jesus was to make a fresh start, stepping apart from father and mother, religious and legal obedience and even Jewish blood, to become a new creation, a new family defined by God’s gracious invitation open to everyone.

This new order disrupted tradition and radically reinterpreted what it meant to please God. Jesus turned accepted social structures of power and privilege upside down, making the poor first in God’s eyes and care of the poor the highest expression of religion. Today’s Gospel reflects the divisions this created as young disciples walked away from family businesses and inheritances to join Jesus and his mendicant band on the hills and beaches of Galilee and the dusty roads south to Jerusalem.

What reward could possibly make up for this sudden downward mobility, this madcap surrender to the charismatic carpenter from Nazareth whose kingdom was more mystery than substance, whose movement was drawing outcasts and beggars, zealots and dreamers? Jesus promised that anyone willing to lose his or her life for his sake would find it. A cup of cold water to one of his followers would bring a blessing from him, and from the One who had sent him.

Saying yes to Jesus today, just for today, as a simple assent to the mystery he offers us at the most vulnerable edges of our lives, could be the start of a different kind of living. Without knowing the implications of such a decision, we might unmoor our world from the captivity of habit and attitude that makes every day just like every other, another spiral within our cautious quotidian smallness, the tight knot of loyalties that bind us to the past.

Today might be our exodus, the first step forward and outward in the company of a poet whose invitation is like nothing we have ever heard before. “Come, follow me, and I will show you new horizons, how to breathe again, how to be true to yourself at last. The first step is the hardest, because it feels like loss, but it is how we find life.

Turning Point

Posted on 12 July 2014 by patmarrin

“My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).

Good storytellers, in the ancient world and today, build anticipation with predictable patterns that set up an audience for the end of the story, either as confirmation of what they saw coming or as a surprise. The structure of the story is the key to its success as entertainment or instruction.

Jesus’s parable of the sower is a brilliant example. A sower goes out to sow, carrying precious seed held back from last year’s harvest, but also the hopes of the community for a bountiful crop. Success means feast, failure means famine. There is tension in the story, and it grows as three times the sower tosses seed onto the footpath, on rocky soil and among thorns. Half the seed has been lost.

But at the depth of this threefold failure there is a turning point; the seed finds fertile soil and springs up, a hundredfold, sixtyfold and thirtyfold. A sigh of relief passes over the crowd. The pattern builds tension, then relieves it. The community has been saved.

As God created the world with the divine Word, so that same Word is sent to salvage and redirect the story when it goes awry, turning hope into despair. Even when one failure after another spoils our human attempts to provide for ourselves, God’s turning point saves us. The prodigal son goes as far away as he can, but in his despair hears his Father’s love calling him home. Lazarus, three days dead in the tomb, hears the voice of Jesus and is restored to life. At the crossroads of our salvation, Jesus goes down into the ground like seed for the sowing, but springs forth green in the power of God’s reconciling love.

Wherever we are in life, on track or in the ditch, full of hope or paralyzed with doubt, the grace of the turning point is never far away. God’s word never fails.

Benedict the Revolutionary

Posted on 11 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Be wise as serpents and as simple as doves” (Matt 10:17).

Benedict of Nursia (480-547) might be today's college dropout pursuing an alternative lifestyle within a collapsing imperial culture. Rome was being swamped by immigrants from the once conquered Germanic and Asian tribes at the fringes of the empire. Benedict lived in a cave, but soon gathered a following of like-minded young people. The monastic life they fashioned became the cornerstone of an emerging Europe and centralized church. His order took the vow of stability and in effect helped stabilize Western Christendom until its next great transition in the 12th century from agriculture-based feudalism to the era of cities, universities and mobile mendicant reformers in the church.

When Jesus sent out the first apostles, he was sowing the seeds of an enormous axial shift from ancient regimes toward a more egalitarian world. It would take millennia and have to go through long periods of chaos and regression to produce the tenuous global order we know today. The vanguard of the revolution were pacifist communities of Christians promoting reconciliation, justice for the poor and greater equality among men and women, slaves and their owners. They went out like sheep among wolves, but, as Jesus had promised, became like leaven in the mass and over the centuries have shaped world culture and helped define the ethical and moral debates that will decide the future.

The Christian message has often been so successful in infiltrating the culture, we forget how subversive and radical it is in its pacifist and paradoxical way of upending conventional notions of power. Another revolution is underway to reveal what Pope Francis calls the “church of the poor.” Young radicals like Benedict of Nursia are needed and wanted.

Today You Will Be Sent

Posted on 10 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons” (Matt 10:8).

The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Being an apostle is inseparable from mission. In Jesus' mind, there were no ecclesiastical figureheads or princes of the church who just did ritual stuff. Today’s Gospel describes the terms of service. Go, preach, heal, raise, cleanse, expel. Go without shoes, money, a walking stick, even a change of clothes. Stay with people who welcome you; If they don’t, shake the dust from your bare feet and move on. There is urgency and electric possibility in the air. God’s reign is at hand, grace is being poured out.

St. Francis no doubt had this description in mind when he assembled his followers and sent them to preach and minister. Holy Poverty was their hallmark. The friars were without resources, exposed to the elements, to hostile rejection and abuse. Their very powerlessness made clear that what happened for those who opened their homes and their hearts to these mendicants was not their doing but the hand of God. It insured that all ministry would be collaborative, reciprocal and mutual, not hand outs or benefaction. People were invited to participate in the mission, become apostles themselves.

The hidden dynamic of ministry has not changed. Wounded, vulnerable people are sent to others just like themselves. Need encounters need, invitation elicits response. God’s healing and liberating love appears in between, in relationships, and everyone says, “Look what we have done together in God’s name.” Here is the joy of the Gospel in its simplest form, webs of care extending into the community that reveal God’s inexhaustible, patient, forgiving and healing love.