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Come Closer

Posted on 28 March 2014 by patmarrin

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

Jesus‘ encounter with the scribe in today’s Gospel may have started out as an official probe into the orthodoxy of a hill country preacher. “Which is the first of all the commandments?” the scribe asks. But then it turns into an exchange of scripture passages and insight that literally glows with fervor. Jesus quotes Deut 6, the familiar prayer called the sh’ma – “Hear O Israel, …” and Lev 9, the command to love neighbor. These two texts comprise the foundation of the Covenant. Caught up in the moment, the scribe repeats the formula and then adds that to love God and neighbor is greater than any burnt offering.

Jesus affirms the scribe, then ends the conversation with his own probe into the legal scholar’s journey toward full understanding and with an open-ended invitation: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Close, but still not there. Take the next step. Cross the threshold from your intellectual righteousness into the realm of actual love. It may be the most difficult yet important decision you will ever make.

This story has a parallel in another encounter between Jesus and the rich man who had kept all the commandments but wanted to do more (Mark 10:17-25). When Jesus tells him to sell his belongings and give the money to the poor, he balks at the invitation and goes away sad. We are not told what the scribe in today’s reading does, but he might have become a disciple in that moment, or not, considering his status and perceived spiritual security as a teacher of the Law.

T.S. Eliot, in his poem “The Hollow Men,” says it well: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” How many of us have faltered in that shadow space between inspiration and action. Like the scribe, we are not far from the Kingdom of God, but still not ready to embrace the full implications of loving God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. The threshold is before us today, and now is a good time to take the next step.

The Finger of God

Posted on 27 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11: 23).

When people feel discombobulated, they say their thoughts are scattered. The meaning of the word diabolic is to cast apart, scatter; it is the opposite of symbolic, to gather together. In an interesting popular expression of the philosophical debates raging at the end of the 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was about restoring order and reason to a world challenged by the forces of chaos. Moriarity, Holmes’ nemesis, was a caricature of Nietsche, the brilliant German philosopher whose critique of culture and thought seemed to Doyle to presage nihilism and threatened to open the door to chaos.

The theme of the struggle between order and chaos runs through human history, culture and religion. In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God provokes alarm in the existing order and its underlying ideas of dominance, division and conflict as defining human affairs. Evil spirits ruled by the prince of demons, Beelzebul (literally, “lord of the flies”), have controlled the world with fear and the threat of death. When Jesus drives out evil spirits, his critics accuse him of being in league with the devil. He responds that the scattering of demons is proof that and greater power is at work, “the finger of God.” A new world order of love, healing and reconciliation has overcome evil.

The cost of this restoration is Jesus’ willingness to die for love, thus overcoming death by embracing it and taking it with him to the grave. But at the moment of ultimate disintegration, God reverses the power of sin and death with the greater power of love and life. Where death would scatter the human race in diabolic triumph, Jesus mounts the cross and draws all things to himself. With the resurrection, a new creation is revealed. God’s original plan is restored.

Each day we have the ability to either choose to gather with Christ, the Symbol— rallying center– of God’s loving plan for the universe, or to disintegrate. The most radical act we have is to say, “Today, Lord, I gather with you, today I choose love.

New from Old

Posted on 26 March 2014 by patmarrin

"I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Matt 5:17).

Resistance to change makes the charge that the reformer is destroying tradition. Conservatives at Vatican II accused progressives of surrendering the continuity of the church's teaching authority back to the apostolic tradition based on Jesus' choice of Peter. Progressives held that they were in fact recovering the original sources of faith from layer upon layer of institutional accretions that had produced a monarchy.

The early church defended Jesus' radical orthodoxy as the fulfillment of the original covenant. New wine needed new wine skins; The Law and the Prophets pointed to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew, writing to a community of Jewish Christian converts, reassures them that Jesus did not break even the smallest command of the Law of Moses, but brought it to life in his teaching and example of love.

We cannot underestimate the power of tradition to shape human culture, establish a rule of law and protect the benefits for everyone of a coherent social structure. At the same time, tradition by definition has to be handed on from one generation to another. For it to function in a changing world, tradition has to be adapted to new circumstances, questions and problems. We experience this personally, in family life and in every community. Change is not easy and vigorous debate is part of tradition. The test of every change is whether it increases life for everyone. To be radical is to revive and nourish the roots of a tradition.

Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, once described its goal: "The Catholic Worker believes in creating a new society within the shell of the old with the philosophy of the new, which is not a new philosophy but a very old philosophy, a philosophy so old that it looks like new."



Posted on 25 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).

When someone says, “I have an announcement to make,” everyone listens. The news to follow is surely important, either good or bad, so pay attention. “We’re getting married.” “We’re expecting.” “I’ve decided to move to Alaska.” “Uncle Fred passed away.”

The Gospel began with an announcement, delivered two millennia ago by an angel to a young girl in a village in lower Galilee, the hill country of Roman-occupied Palestine on the edge of the Mediterranean. Salvation history awaited her response. She said yes and the Word became flesh. The rest of the story, including our commitment to the Christian faith, was made possible.

The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated exactly nine months before Christmas, reminds us within the liturgical calendar that our lives are defined and framed by a mystery. To take part in it fully, we are invited to imitate Mary by saying yes to the life of Christ set in motion in us at our baptism. Conception has occurred, gestation follows, then birth. The Word of God is made flesh in you and me, and every time we live the Gospel, God is born again in the world.

It is a fantastic offering, and so it is no surprise to anyone that there are moments when we wonder if it is true. So it was the first time when Mary received the angel’s announcement. She opened her life to a mystery she did not understand, and it made all the difference, for her and for us.


Great Expectations

Posted on 24 March 2014 by patmarrin

"Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away" (Luke 4:30).

President Obama will meet with Pope Francis this week in Rome. A column in the morning paper spoke about the desire of politicians to share in the limelight the pope has so far garnered in the media. Hollywood showed up last week in Rome at a papal audience hoping to get a nod for a new movie about Noah's ark. Last year Harley Davidson gave the pope a custom motorcycle, which was auctioned off and the money given to the poor. It occasioned a brief photo op, but don't expect to see a TV commercial with the pope endorsing bikes.

Expectations are high as the pope moves into his second year, appointing commissions and changing structures to address some serious church problems. It is yet to be seen how much Francis can do to alter the enormous disparities and institutional dysfunctions afflicting the global economy or the conflicts that are creating so much suffering and displacement for millions of people. It is apparently much easier to be a popular pope than one able to make everyone happy. He bristled at graffiti suggesting he was a superhero.

Jesus faced similar expectations when he went home to Nazareth. In today's Gospel, he seems to exacerbate their disappointment by reminding people that prophets in the past focused their attention on outsiders, healing a Syrian leper and restoring the son of the widow in Sidon -- but not in Israel. They get the point and try to throw Jesus over a cliff. The pope similarly offends when he reminds European and North American Catholics that they are in the minority in a church with most of its 1.2 billion members in the southern hemisphere.

When Andy Warhol said the most anyone gets is 15 minutes of fame, he did not say what happens next. Gifted people are devoured and then disposed of quickly to make room for the Next Big Thing. But Jesus succeeded by siding with the poor and being rejected by those in power. The pope may be on the same path, and he apparently hopes to take the whole church with him.


Thirsty? Come to the Well.

Posted on 22 March 2014 by patmarrin

“The water I shall give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13).

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well provides rich catechesis for those preparing for baptism this coming Easter. Many biblical themes converge here at Jacob’s well. Jesus fulfills the promise of water as the main symbol of life for a desert people. Moses gave the Israelites water from the rock, but Jesus gives living water, a fountain flowing within the believer from the Source of Life.

By offering this living water to a Samaritan woman, Jesus negates the ancient quarrel between Jews and Samaritans and the patriarchal prejudice against women, and he lifts religion itself to another level. No longer is worship at this mountain or that shrine or temple sufficient, but God is found in spirit and in truth. Those who believe in Jesus will be wellsprings of life, channels of pure, fresh water to anyone who thirsts and has not found satisfaction.

A thirsty woman who has had five husbands (an allusion to false gods), twice an outcast as a Samaritan and a pariah in her own community, becomes an apostle of universal salvation. She has encountered I AM in Jesus, the human face of the invisible God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. All of salvation history arrives in Sychar at high noon that day. And it comes to us who hear this story today.

The first step toward conversion is to acknowledge just how thirsty we are. All our wells and buckets, spigots and bottles offer only temporary satisfaction, but we must return to drink again. Baptism in Jesus makes us walking wells for our own thirst and the thirst of others. No religion, no prejudice or failure can keep us from the Source of life. Jesus is giving it away in spirit and in truth.


My Friend Had a Vineyard

Posted on 21 March 2014 by patmarrin

“When the harvest came, he sent his servants to obtain the produce” (Matt 21:35).

Today’s Gospel parable of the vineyard tenants who abused the messengers and killed the owner’s son invoked the same story in Isaiah, applying it to the temple establishment’s rejection of Jesus. Adding to the poignancy of the scene is the fact that the original story was a love song: “Let me now sing of my beloved a song concerning his vineyard” (Isa 5:1). The Lectionary pairs this story with the story of Joseph, a beloved son whose beautiful coat prompted his jealous brothers to sell him into slavery (Gen 37).

These readings join love and tragedy, weaving a textured thread that runs through all great literature and often through life itself. There is no great dream that does not pass through suffering. Jesus brings salvation to a world that rejects him. His self-sacrifice reveals the depths of God’s love for sinners.

Every life, including our own, is meant to be a love song. And as even the simplest narrative unfolds, we realize that life is a school for love that must be honed in trial, purified by fire. The deeper the love, the greater the testing.

Today is just another day, but if we are blessed with someone to love or something bigger than ourselves to accomplish, we can fill today’s blank page with loving words that will, page by page, guide our story to completion.

Rich Man, Poor Man

Posted on 20 March 2014 by patmarrin

“’ ... neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke16:31).

Jesus took a familiar Egyptian parable about a sudden reversal of fortune and turned it into one of the most compelling warnings we have about not treating the poor as invisible. The rich man does not even see poor Lazarus lying at his doorstep, and the gap between them in this life becomes an impassable gulf in the next. When the rich man realizes how blind he was and how dire the consequences, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus as a messenger to his five brothers to warn them, but Abraham says that if they haven’t gotten the message of the Law and the prophets, not even someone rising from the dead will convince them.

This parable ties the promise of eternal life to our response in this world to those in most need—the outcast and homeless rejects at the edges of our gleaming cities and outside the self-help ideologies that blame the poor for being poor. If we join this scripture to Jesus’ equally powerful image of final judgment (Matt 25) in which he himself is identified with the hungry, thirsty, naked stranger, then we, too, have been told in the scriptures that how we live now will become either heaven or hell for us as we pass into eternity.

Sometimes the Good News lies in the fact that conversion is possible and blindness curable, but we must choose to turn around and open our eyes. The rich man was not asked to give away his wealth or save the world, only to be compassionate to a poor man on his own doorstep.


Posted on 19 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Mary said to him, ‘Your father and have been looking for you with great anxiety’” (Luke 2:49).

We celebrate today Joseph’s role in protecting and loving Jesus during his most vulnerable years. He is entrusted with a woman he cannot have and a child who is not his. Joseph provides a name for Jesus, who will be known as the “carpenter’s son” and tribal affiliation with the House of David, his own bloodline. The pulse in his own strong arm holding this mysterious baby is essential to the human identity of the Word made flesh.

The so-called “hidden years” of Jesus’s upbringing must have held a wealth of stories about the intimate relationship between this good man and the man Jesus was to become. We know Joseph in Jesus, the father in the son. Jesus’ parables reveal a knowledge of construction, foundations and hard work, and an eye for selecting good wood for building the church. The disciples were like unseasoned lumber whose strength and flexibility under weight had to be predicted. Joseph’s firm hands and strong back held Jesus on course to finish the job, his own back chafing against the wood of the cross.

Joseph’s eloquence is made greater by his silence. He is a man known by his deeds, in right relationship and integrity with everyone, fair-minded and just. But he was also obedient to dreams in which grace exceeded rules and reputation. Jesus would later be guided by the same expansive vision that would require him to rebuild the temple itself in his own body.

We are blessed to have such a good man as patron and guide for the church.

Real Authority

Posted on 18 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Do not follow their example” (Matt 23:2).

Jesus upholds legitimate authority and office, but frees his disciples from giving automatic status or credibility to those who do not practice what they preach. The trappings of power – special robes, reserved places at table, titles, formal pronouncements – become meaningless if individuals do not lead by example or show that they, too, have carried the burdens of responsibility they impose on others.

Leaders who flout their authority but do not inspire anyone to follow them are like teachers who fault their students for not learning. If no one follows, you are not leading. If no one is learning, you are not teaching.

Jesus exhibited a different kind of leadership by serving others and placing his own life on the line for the message he preached. We can find his model of authority in any organization, whether it is a company, a cause or a church. Real leadership resides in those who do the work, bear the burdens, serve from within, give themselves for the common good. All the rest is just talk.