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God is Near

Posted on 25 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Sing to the Lord a new song” Ps 96).

Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for making God seem inaccessible. They are self-appointed gatekeepers who devise complicated rules, rituals and systems of thought only they understand and control. They fail to find God for themselves and in turn prevent others from finding God. Jesus’ own teaching was that God was already intimately present to everyone, loving us first and showing mercy on sinners. If he was right, official representatives of religion were out of a job. Everyone can go directly to God.

Religion and effective pastoral leaders can serve to facilitate and welcome people. Houses of worship, simple ritual and music give regular structure to our prayers within community. Personal prayer is aided by icons, candles, incense, special blessed objects that remind us of our commitment to spend time with God, reflecting on the mysteries of the life of Christ and the faith of Mary and the Saints.

What Jesus objected to were those who put barriers and burdens on ordinary people who were sincerely seeking God. The Good News he preached was that God was seeking us. St. Paul understood this well when he wrote: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

Who's in Charge? We Are.

Posted on 23 August 2014 by patmarrin

“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:18).

Recent national events have shown how important it is to have good leaders. The crisis in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer was at a boiling point when Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was assigned by the governor to coordinate law enforcement in the city. His presence as someone from the area, a parent with children and a black man who looked like and spoke the language of the community inspired confidence that authority could be trusted to listen, keep order and ensure that due process would follow in the complex circumstances of the incident.

Other examples of either poor leadership or no leadership abound in international affairs. Politics is about supporting or rejecting leaders based on their performance during a crisis. The church has been blessed with a good leader who inspires confidence and models the ability to keep his balance in dealing with many longstanding challenges to church authority and credibility.

Today’s Lectionary readings invite us to reflect on the basis for authority in the church. The prophet Isaiah describes God’s choice of Eliakim to be leader of the house of Judah, the keeper of the keys of the House of David. The image of the keys is repeated in the familiar passage from Matthew 16, in which Jesus calls Simon Peter the rock and the keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

This scripture has been used to claim that the pope, the successor to Peter, is the Vicar of Christ and God’s representative on earth, an infallible voice in matters of faith and morals, truly the most absolute religious ruler on earth. Pope Francis has been quick to remind the church that he is like everyone else, a sinner, emphasizing that his papal authority is part of a broad collegial leadership which includes the voice of the laity, and he has eschewed titles like “supreme pontiff” for the official designation “Bishop of Rome,” a brother among brother bishops, accountable to the People of God. He has slowly opened up a difficult but crucial conversation regarding the role and dignity of women in church leadership, without which the church will continue to suffer a serious credibility gap in both its governance and teachings on many social and moral issues.

For ordinary Catholics, the message of today’s liturgy is that the church is a work in progress that requires all of us. Authority bestows rights and responsibilities, requires ongoing dialogue and models of generous collaboration in our parishes and dioceses. "We are the church," we often hear, but this will not be real unless everyone finds their place, exercises their rights and duties within our communities of faith, even where there is tension and conflict. This is where genuine leadership shows itself.

Dry Bones to New Life

Posted on 22 August 2014 by patmarrin

“I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD” (Ezek 37:14).

Today’s first reading vividly depicts the prophetic vision of the valley of dry bones raised up by the breath of God, a promise that the defeated and deported nation of Israel would be restored. God’s promise is more powerful than the worst devastation we can imagine. At Ezekiel’s call, the bones clatter and stand upright, are reassembled, covered with sinews and flesh, then animated by the four winds. It is a new creation.

In today’s gospel from Matthew, the Pharisees ask Jesus to identify the greatest commandment of the law. In reciting the sh’ma, the daily prayer said by all Jews, Jesus was also invoking the animating breath and purpose of God’s people: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your minds, all your strength.” This is the foundation of the law, the source of all “right relationships,” beginning with God, then self, and then neighbor. To keep this commandment is to live. God has promised to care for us, and God keeps every promise.

Faith is always about being in relationship. The loss of relationship brings death, dry bones, even for those who still live physically but without hope. The Word calls us today to stand up and receive the breath of God anew, to be moistened by the waters of baptism and nourished by the Eucharist as members of the body of Christ. This body will live forever, and in union with Christ, so will we.


Come to the Feast!

Posted on 21 August 2014 by patmarrin

“The kingdom of God is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matt 22:2).

The parables we find late in Matthew’s Gospel seem to take on a tone of urgency and decisiveness that may reflect both the situation in Jesus’ life toward the end of his ministry as he gets closer to his death and the situation of the early church struggling to convince skeptics and critics. The parable of the great wedding feast in today’s gospel is similar to the parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matt 21), the foolish bridesmaids (Matt 25) and the apocalyptic warnings (Matt 24). Time is running out; people must choose and then act, or risk being excluded from the invitation Jesus has been freely offering to all.

Some details in today’s parable (the king sending his army to destroy those who abused his messengers) are clearly tied to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Another disturbing scene – the casting out of the guest without a wedding garment — seems related to the debate over excommunication of dissidents in Matthew’s church in Antioch toward the end of the first century.

The basic parable and its message – you have been invited into the kingdom of God, so respond – stands before us as clearly as the choice presented in Deuteronomy 30: “I put before you life and death; choose life.” It recognizes human freedom but affirms the hard reality of the laws of life: You will reap what you sow. Even God’s infinite mercy is thwarted by the free choice to exclude ourselves from the life of grace.

This does not mean that there are no second chances or that God will not seek out every lost sheep. Jesus’ willingness to die for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8), is the measure of God’s love for us, which never ceases, even for someone who chooses to cast himself into the outer darkness. This is why we are to go to any length to bring everyone home to God. For, as Jesus says at the end of the parable of the lost sheep, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

God's Generosity for All

Posted on 20 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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

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


Nothing Is Impossible for God

Posted on 19 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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

Hands Up!

Posted on 18 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Borderlands

Posted on 16 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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

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


The Assumption of Mary

Posted on 15 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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


Why Forgive?

Posted on 14 August 2014 by patmarrin

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

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

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

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

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