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The Face of Jesus

Posted on 16 November 2015 by patmarrin

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

(Stare for 30 seconds at the image with today's reflection, then look at a blank surface. What do you see? Was this what the blind man in today's Gospel saw after he was healed?)

The Lectionary brings us again the familiar story of the blind man who has to shout his prayer over the din and dismissive abuse of the crowd in order to get to Jesus.

One message of today's Gospel is that God always hears the cry of the poor. The divine ear, even when jammed with the clamor of every conceivable request and the roar of words being constantly directed at God, is fine-tuned to pick up the voice of suffering that comes from the heart.

Jesus hears the voice of the blind man, stops and "orders that he be brought to him." Real authority is shaping this tumultuous scene on the road to Jericho, and the crowd gives way as the poor blind beggar approaches him. The crowd is silent, every eye fixed on Jesus, who asks the man, "What do you want me to do for you?"

The question goes to the heart of every person in the crowd. What would I ask for? What is my greatest need, my heart's desire, the one wish that would change my life dramatically?

The blind beggar answers from the darkness that has defined his entire life, made him helpless and dependent on others, brought him to a life of misery sitting on the side of the road calling out to passerbys to throw him a coin so he could eat that day. With utmost courtesy and determination, he says to Jesus: "Lord, please let me see."

We know the rest of the story. Jesus not only restores the man's physical sight, but gives him the insight to rise from his beggar's place on the sidelines to follow Jesus on the road. He is now a disciple. He has heard the voice of Jesus, and now he has seen the face of Jesus, and his new life will be with Jesus.

Let us rise from whatever darkness we have known in our own spiritual quest to find God. Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Bring your deepest prayer to the surface and tell him what you want. Then be prepared to dedicate yourself to him as a disciple, for the road ahead is the road to glory.


The Coming of the "Son of Man"

Posted on 14 November 2015 by patmarrin

"Learn a lesson the fig tree” (Mark 13:27).

Tom Wolfe, American fiction writer and essayist, wrote a 1998 bestseller titled “A Man in Full,” about a Georgia real estate mogul who rises to the pinnacle of financial and political influence, then falls from grace, then rises up from the bottom by sheer willpower to defeat his enemies. The term “man in full” is satirical in that Wolfe’s hero is deeply flawed and a complete image of the worst characteristics of macho American power. He is a racist, womanizing wheeler dealer who flaunts his wealth at every turn, and whose redemption comes only from being stripped of status and grounded in the struggles of ordinary life.

The term helps us understand the meaning of the biblical title “The Son of Man,” which Jesus takes from the Book of Daniel to describe the coming of the complete Human Being (male and female) God intended his creation to produce, the fulfillment intended for Adam and Eve but marred by sin. Jesus is himself the Man in Full sent to restore the full measure of human maturity that reveals the destiny God has in store for everyone who responds to the grace being offered in him.

As Mark comes to the end of his Gospel, he draws on this apocalyptic imagery to describe the end of the world and God's judgment on human performance. The material world will collapse, the sun and moon and stars go out and the heavens will be shaken. But in the midst of this tribulation, the Son of Man will appear on the clouds. He will send out his angels to harvest the chosen from the wicked. What we know as reality, that artificial construct we come to believe is necessary and stable, will be broken like a spell, and God’s vision will be reaffirmed as absolute and decisive. Human success will be judged by whether it meets the standards of justice and love. Everything else will be exposed as only self-serving illusion.

Jesus brings this day of tribulation to earth with simple imagery of the life cycle of a fig tree. We need only observe the growth stages and seasonal changes of this common tree to know that when its branches grow tender and its leaves appear, summer is near. This image is used again in Luke’s dramatic parable of the owner who finds no fruit in season on one of his fig trees and directs the gardener to cut it down. That parable was preserved as a story about mercy, since the gardener begs the owner to give the tree another chance. The message remains: If we want to be saved, we must show the fruits of repentance, compassion and justice.

For many of us as we age, the message is clear. We pray with the words of Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” To whom much is given, much will be expected. Now is the hour of salvation for us to decide to abandon the quest for power and control, security and status based on wealth at any cost. These temporal values fade and of themselves have never produced an authentic “man in full.”
We pray for the 128 victims of the callous, indiscriminate killings in Paris, the latest round of attacks and retribution in what Pope Francis has called World War III flaring up in countless locations around the globe. Only God's mercy and a common effort to seek dialogue and reconciliation can protect civilization itself from coming apart in our fragile world.

Fair Warning

Posted on 13 November 2015 by patmarrin

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17:26).

We are approaching the end of the church year, and the Scripture selections for Mass will focus on the question of the end of the world as we know it. Jesus lived at a time when expectations were high that God was going to intervene in history to save his people and punish their enemies. Today’s Gospel touches on this theme.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and the climactic end of his own life, his preaching emphasized decisiveness. God was inviting Israel to receive mercy, but people had to accept the offer by changing their lives. If they did not, disaster loomed.
An actual disaster in history was looming as Jewish zealots, confident of God’s support, sought a war with Rome. In 70 C.E. Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Over a million people died and the rest fled as part of the great Jewish diaspora into north Africa and Asia Minor.

The language Jesus uses to warn people was apocalyptic, a biblical genre found in prophets like Ezekiel, Daniel and Joel, filled with imagery about the end of the world. The precedent for global destruction was the great flood, when only Noah and his family escaped. Jesus refers to this dramatic story to show how quickly disaster could come to those who were unaware and unconcerned. When his disciples asked Jesus where this occur, he used a common expression: “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather,” which means, “It will be obvious.”

Threat of destruction coming from Jesus is disturbing to us, to whom we turn for comfort and reassurance. Yet, like every prophet, he told the truth. We reap what we sow. If we do not heed the obvious consequences of our own actions, we will pay the price.

Pope Francis is saying much the same thing to a world slow to learn and even slower to change. If we do not address the causes of global warning, we will destroy the planet we depend on. If we do not change economic systems that abuse the poor and create gross inequality, we court upheaval. If we arm the world and use violence to prevent necessary and just change, we will know only perpetual war and terrorism.

The simple, sobering truth is that we hold the future in our own hands. God will not punish evil: it inflicts its own punishment. What goes around, comes around. But it does not have to happen this way. A different world is possible. Let those who have ears to hear, listen, and then act.


Local Call. Pick Up!

Posted on 12 November 2015 by patmarrin

“Behold the Kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 20:21).

"She [Wisdom] is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God..." (Wisdom 7:25).

Read together, the two Lectionary selections for today give us a glimpse into why Jesus was so wise and purposeful as he completed his mission in the midst of so much opposition, misdirection and false expectation.

The Holy Spirit, described as the feminine principle of God, was the guiding voice within the consciousness of Jesus. She inspired his discernment and his words. She was the genius of his parables, the power of his motivation to go forward in the face of threats and criticism as he proceeded to Jerusalem, where all the prophets went to die.

So when the Pharisees demanded to know when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus told them that all their theological and legal expertise was useless for discerning God's Spirit. All their authority and official status was irrelevant if they could not hear the inner voice of Wisdom, given freely to the poor and the simple (see Matt 11:25).

In fact the answer to their question was right under their noses, and they had not recognized it. The Kingdom was right there, within and among us, the intimate and ever present breath of Wisdom, but they were blind and deaf to her movements.

The power of God cannot be predicted or controlled. It is like a flash of lightning racing across the sky. It is like the wind, blowing mysteriously when and where it wills (see John 3:8). So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. The astonishing truth was that God was right there speaking to them, and they could not see or accept him.

There is no way to know God except to bring our busy lives to a halt and enter the still point and center of personal prayer: “Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). You do not need a 4G I-phone to contact God, only openness of mind and heart. For God is already reaching out to touch and inspire you. “The Kingdom of God is within you.”


The 10th Leper

Posted on 11 November 2015 by patmarrin

"Stand up and go, your faith has saved you" (Luke17:19).

Two kinds of healing occur in the story of the 10 lepers. Nine of them are healed physically and restored to their families and the Jewish community. One, a Samaritan -- an outcast among outcasts -- is also healed physically, but also "saved." which means he was also redeemed and destined for eternal life.

The overwhelming gratitude this one leper felt at being healed was an invitation from God to return to Jesus to acknowledge that something wonderful had occurred not just to his body but within his very being.

He is the only one to respond in this way, and for his response in faith he encounters the Living God in Jesus. His gratitude brings full circle the gift of new life from God. Jesus rejoices with him and helps him up from his knees, saying, "Rise up." The Samaritan has entered the Kingdom of God, experiencing the promise of resurrection already surging through his restored body, stirring up in him the "blessed assurance" of one who now knows the thrill of union with God.

Today in the United States, we pause to remember all veterans, men and women whose lives were interrupted by war and who voluntarily or involuntarily entered the armed services. Many lost their lives, and countless others lost the trajectory of ordinary lives to be utterly changed on the battlefield and to return home to struggle with addictions, psychological and physical disabilities that came from their war-time experiences.

In our national history, many men and women who served in the military often returned to an indifferent and even hostile society as lepers, their lives spiraling down into disillusionment, drug abuse and homelessness. Physical care and support address only the surface of their many needs. Restoration to community and spiritual healing are also needed. Many good people are devoting themselves to this effort.

We, as members of the body of Christ, must be part of this mission to heal not just our veterans but also our nation as a whole. Epidemic gun violence, prejudice and neglect have made the home front a very unwelcome place for millions of people in the United States. Restorative justice will require a national effort. Redemption is God's gift, always offered freely and received gratefully, especially when we as images of Christ in the world are there to welcome, honor and help the lost and the forsaken.

What better way is there to salute and honor our veternans today?


Be Good for Nothing

Posted on 10 November 2015 by patmarrin

"We are unprofitable servants" (Luke 17:10).

Childhood is filled with parental expectations and commands: "Time to get up!" "Go to bed." "Do your chores." "Study hard."

Some parents tie allowance or other rewards to good behavior. The joke is told about a boy who promised his mother to be good if she paid him." She looked over at her husband, then told her son, "Why can't you be like your father-- good for nothing."

The truth in the story is that reward is built into goodness. Doing what we are supposed to do, fulfilling our obligations to others, is baseline behavior, not exceptional performance. If a child does not go to bed, get up, do her chores, study hard, she suffers and everyone around her suffers.

Jesus tells his Apostles a little parable to remind them they are blessed to be called his followers, because they are growing and learning how to be mature, complete human beings and servants of God.

A servant who serves well does not need praise for for keeping their commitments. Their reward is integrity, trustworthiness. Service brings joy. Emptying yourself for others allows you to travel light, free of the quid-pro-quo mentality that always expects a reward for any good deed. Laying down your life for others is the highest possible calling, not a job we do for pay.

Jesus taught by example, becoming a servant to all, laying don his life out of love. He is the measure of our own discipleship, and if we imitate him we will know the joy of the Gospel.

God's Temple

Posted on 09 November 2015 by patmarrin

"Stop making my father's house a marketplace" John 2:17).

It is noteworthy that in John's Gospel, the last and most theological of the four Gospels, the dramatic cleansing of the temple is presented at the start of Jesus’ public ministry rather than deeper into the story after he has established himself as a teacher and miracle worker in Galilee.

John places the scene immediately after the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine, symbolically replacing the old religion's purification rites and stones jars with the nuptial wine and joy pouring freely and abundantly from hearts of flesh to celebrate the nuptial covenant between God and his people. Jesus comes from a wedding to the Temple and there, the holy center of faith, he finds a marketplace.

It is not hard to see in this stark contrast why Jesus was so indignant. He comes from a love feast to a den of thieves.

Scholars tell us that his personal protest may well have been part of a much larger movement to reject the Second Temple -- built by King Herod to replace the first Temple destroyed at the time of the exile—as a monument to the complicity between Herod, the Romans and the High Priests, who divided the temple taxes. Jesus’ public act of “civil disobedience” marked him as a dangerous radical at the start of his ministry.

The existence of large temples, churches and shrines in the history of religion has always been a source of tension. If worship is a spiritual offering or a commitment to the poor, what role do enormous, ornate and expensive buildings play? Today’s feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome serves as an historical bulwark for the Roman Catholic Church and its assertion of primacy for the bishop of Rome. It is the Mother Church of Western Christendom and the pope’s cathedral.

The Word of God, as always, functions to both bless and challenge the church to remain true to its mission and identity as the body of Christ. We take up this same challenge when we offer our lives -- our bodies -- as members of the body of Christ in the world and as temples of the Holy Spirit.

The Widow's Witness

Posted on 07 November 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury” (Mark 12:40).

If there was a particular moment when Jesus may have decided that the Temple in Jerusalem needed some cleansing, it was probably the scene presented in today’s Gospel.

Jesus sat and watched as wealthy patrons ostentatiously dropped large sums of money into the treasury, gold and silver coins clattering into the large bronze receptacles, sometimes accompanied by trumpets announcing their public generosity. But what he chose to point out to his awe-struck disciples was a poor widow who dropped in two small coins, all she had.

The Temple treasury, like the US Treasury, was the symbolic and de facto center of the Jerusalem economy, a bustling court for transactions, money changing, sin offerings, the purchase of animals for sacrifice. Every Jew paid a temple tax to support the high priests and scribes, the upkeep of the buildings regarded as God’s dwelling place on earth. This was where you bought salvation, or networked with the movers and shakers, who brokered their interests with King Herod and the Roman occupation to protect the status quo.

Jesus put the simple faith of the poor widow into the balance with all of this business as usual, and he decided that it was time to expose the nerve of complicity and the corruption of the Covenant he had witnessed all his life in Jerusalem. His symbolic protest would cost him his life, but this was his prophetic mission, to restore the Temple as a house of prayer from what it had become—a den of thieves.

Can we see this as more than a Sunday School lesson about generosity? Current headlines report longstanding and ongoing corruption in church finances in the Vatican, rivers of cash, money laundering, secret accounts operating under the noses of regulators and new rules about transparency and accountability. Behind the debates at the Synod on the Family were revenue from annulments, stipends for pastoral care, sacramental services, favors in exchange for ecclesiastical honors to big donors so cathedrals could be renovated, or special causes funded for bishops, but kept off the books, like the cash from collection plates flowing freely to pastors for personal expenses and pet projects.

A harsh view, but surely what Jesus witnessed and what has stained the history of the church from the beginning, the truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and money is the root of all evil. Anyone who exposes this is likely to be quickly silenced, whether in our national life or the back channels that connect religion to empire.

A poor widow stands in history to indict this blasphemy because Jesus saw her and Mark recorded the story in his Gospel. When it is read and preached upon, the plate will be passed in a hundred thousand churches . It is in that moment that ordinary Catholics get to decide what kind of church they want to be.

Generous to A Fault

Posted on 06 November 2015 by patmarrin

"The master commended the dishonest steward for acting prudently" (Luke 16:7).

We ought to be grateful to the scribes and Pharisees, for without their criticism we might not have many of Jesus's best parables, which are responses to their claim that he was too lenient with sinners and undermining the moral authority of religion to represent God.

Yesterday's parables of the lost sheep and lost coin were in response to their accusation that Jesus "welcomed sinners and ate with them." Today's parable of the "Dishonest Steward" is a response to their criticism that Jesus was "giving away the store" by preaching unlimited mercy from his Abba.

In the end, Jesus will be excommunicated by the Sanhedrin as a blasphemer and crucified by the State as a subversive, so it is not hard to see the conflicts that culminated in his rejection and death in these powerful little stories. The religious leaders saw their intermediary role and control of access to God undermined by Jesus' teaching of God's unconditional love for sinners.

Like the steward in the story who lets his master's debtors off the hook, Jesus was opening wide the gates of heaven to sinners in what appeared to be total disregard for the intricate codes and requirements for sin offerings and sacrifices that funded the Temple and supported the clergy. He was therefore "dishonest" and a law breaker, a charge Jesus does not deny in the parable, but lets the master (God) praise the steward for acting prudently.

The parable challenges us with its ambiguity but clearly affirms the creative possibilities of showing mercy whenever we can, even by bending the rules. God's infinite "wealth" allows us to steal heaven for ourselves and others. It is a scandal to the righteous, but exactly what Jesus was revealing about an extravagant and prodigal God who pours out his love on everyone all the time.

Today would be a good day to check the account books we all keep on who owes what to whom, and write off a few debts if it will set others free. It will also set us free from the mentality that made the scribes and Pharisees, both then and now, so hard-hearted.

Now Hiring: Physician Assistants

Posted on 05 November 2015 by patmarrin

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

Table company has always reflected people's personal preferences and loyalties. Think about the people you invited to dinner at your house in the past year, or how students segregate themselves at cafeteria tables. We rarely eat with people outside our circle.

In Jesus' time, table fellowship followed strict norms for kosher purity, caste and honor codes, gender separation, social standing and public reputation. Formal meals were intimate affairs, with people leaning in on couches to dip from the same bowl, conversing within the "nasal bubble" of their closest associates. To defy these norms was to contaminate yourself, ruin your reputation and court being ostracized from family and respectable circles.

Jesus did all of the above by "eating with sinners.” Luke uses this fact, and the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees, to introduce his three parables of mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin; and the lost boy (prodigal son). These moving and challenging stories reveal the mind of Jesus as he sought to convince religious people just how much God loved sinners and never ceased to gather them into the divine embrace.

Each of the parables contains the extravagant logic of God’s unconditional love. Any reasonable shepherd would have cut his losses rather than leave 99 sheep in the desert to go in search of one that is lost. There is something obsessive and quirky about a woman turning her house upside down to find a single lost coin. And the father of the prodigal son disgraces himself and his authority by being so lenient with both his obnoxious sons.

Yet this extravagance is exactly what God’s mercy looks like. Jesus seeks out sinners, social outcasts, lawbreakers and moral reprobates, shares their table and opens his heart to them the way a physician would engage a dying patient to begin the healing process. Why did this so infuriate the scribes and Pharisees? Because it broke down all the barriers that protected them from people in need, the messy world of struggle and compromise, the human temptations and weaknesses they themselves hid behind masks of piety.

The debate at the Family Synod over who should or should not be welcome at the Eucharistic table in our churches might have been resolved by simply quoting the verse: “Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.” As Bishop James Johnston said at his installation Mass here in Kansas City yesterday, Jesus is the head physician in the field hospital Pope Francis has called the church to be, and bishops are physician’s assistants. All believers, clergy, religious and laity, are ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers and night nurses. We are defined not by our status but by the needs of others.

The sound of Jesus sighing is the breath of the Holy Spirit. His tears are the waters of baptism we all must undergo to carry out the mission he gave us. Do we dare join him at the table with sinners so we can share his urgent ministry to a broken world?