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Hit the Road

Posted on 01 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58).

The radical nature of discipleship is no better expressed in the Gospels than in today’s reading.

Jesus responds to three applicants to his movement with images that confirm the total loyalty required of a disciple. Jesus himself has nowhere to rest his head; he has gone beyond all accepted ideas to a place that transcends human logic. The deep connection people have with their own tribal or family identity is now secondary. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he says to a man who asks to go first to bury his father, an essential act of piety for any Jew. Or to another who asks to say goodbye to his family. The image of the plow is one of absolute attention to the purpose at hand. Anyone who hesitates, looks back, is "not fit for the Kingdom of God."

The severity of this language strips all romantic or purely idealistic notions from the reality of discipleship. It is not a weekend activity, an occasional or partial commitment, but rather a way of being. If we choose to follow Jesus or, in another image, once we step into the harness with him, we are accepting intimate personal transformation. We cannot withhold ourselves or harbor conditions and reservations should the demands increase. The first band of disciples must have grasped this as they approached Jerusalem and realized that Jesus, as he said, was going to lay down his life.

If we rightly feel overwhelmed by the same realization, we are on track. Only the grace of God cane enable any of us to continue the journey that will bring us to full union with the death and resurrection of Jesus. What God began in us when we first said yes will be brought to perfection. And not because of our courage or determination, but because it is God’s will, God’s work, not ours alone.

Thunder Road

Posted on 30 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Lord do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” (Luke 9:56).

James and John, nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder,” were eager evangelists, but they had missed the message entirely. In asking Jesus if they might call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them, they revealed their total misunderstanding of the Gospel of mercy. So Jesus rebuked them. The invitation to enter the Kingdom was voluntary and a matter of attraction, not threat of punishment.

Today’s “new” evangelization signaled by Pope Francis begins with the transformation of the church from a tollbooth and torture chamber, Francis’ own description of what many churches and confessionals had become, to a house of mercy. All are welcome, especially the wounded. The church is a field hospital where, the pope said, those who minister must first care for those who are suffering, not single them out for scolding.

If Francis is being listened to, the church must move away from a model that has become fashionable among some bishops of a smaller “holy remnant” church toward the “big tent” gathering of concentric circles of believers seeking the truth, despite their failures and compromises, always in need of mercy and healing as they move closer and closer to full discipleship.

The Gospel accounts inspire us not because disciples like James, John and Peter are perfect, but because they are not. Like us, they are on the road, learning every day by listening to Jesus and imitating his example. Our pilgrimage will take us deeper and deeper into the mystery of mercy, God’s unconditional love for sinners, beginning with us, showing us how to give others what we have ourselves have received.


Angels Ascending and Descending

Posted on 29 September 2014 by patmarrin

"You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).

One of great theophanies in the Bible is found in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s dream about a stairway, or ladder, connecting heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending on it. Jacob awakens awestruck and declares, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

This same vision is invoked in John’s story of the call of Nathaniel, who is astounded when Jesus greets him as a “child of Israel, in whom there is no guile,” and tells him he will see "angels ascending and descending" just as Jacob did. Jacob, the son of Isaac, son of Abraham, was famous for his guile, but he is transformed when he wrestles with a mysterious being in Genesis 32 and has his name changed to Israel ("one who strove with God and prevailed"). These two encounters are about God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants that they would be in perpetual covenant with God, heaven coming to earth.

Nathaniel appears to have had some kind of revelation while sitting under a fig tree. We are not told what he saw, but the fact that Jesus knows about this when they first meet moves Nathaniel to exclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” He recognizes that Jesus is the connection between heaven and earth, the human with the divine, as visualized in the dream of ascending and descending angels. John’s use of this imagery is one of the richest examples of how all the evangelists layered texts from the Hebrew Bible to reveal who Jesus was.

Because of our baptism, we are part of the fulfillment of “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is the body of Christ. The dream of the world reconciled with God is fulfilled in Jesus, who is the gate of heaven. As members of Christ, we already live in he House of God. Angels, or divine messengers, are constantly revealing the covenant that bridges our human experiences to their divine destiny. All prayer, like Nathaniel’s, opens us up to the presence of God and calls us to discipleship with Jesus. We are invited each day to stand in this interchange of glory, healing and reconciliation. This is our privilege, our purpose and our joy.


Go into the Vineyard

Posted on 27 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Which of the two did the father’s will?” (Matt 21:30).

Obituaries are as close to autobiographies as most people get, and someone else actually writes them for us. Pay-by-the-word summaries of our life can feature a long list of accomplishments, memberships and honors or just a glimpse of family connections, jobs held, services scheduled and where to send flowers. The basic question is always, what did a person do with his or her life?

Jesus told a simple parable that let his critics decide what really counted in life. Two sons are asked by their father to go work in the family vineyard, One said no, but went anyway. The other said yes, but never went. At the end of the day, what matters is not what you say but what you do. Jesus noted that many religious people had heard the invitation to enter the kingdom of God announced by John the Baptist and later by Jesus himself, gave lip service but did not act. Paradoxically, many others deemed outcasts and rejects by the religious people did respond to the invitation and entered the kingdom.

Our autobiographies, stripped of all good intentions and virtue by association, will tell what we actually did with our lives. The son who resisted his father’s request but later thought better and went, will be found in the vineyard at the end of the day. The son who talked a good game but dallied and postponed, got distracted and forgot, and in the end never entered, will find himself on a road paved with good intentions, but not to the vineyard.

Now, while there is still time, is when we can write our own story, fill it with deeds and not just words. Enter the larger story already in progress, join all those who have found their way to the harvest underway in the vineyard of the Lord.


Turn, Turn, Turn

Posted on 26 September 2014 by patmarrin

“God has put the timeless into their hearts” (Eccl 3:11).

Today’s first reading is the powerful poetry of Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for every thing under heaven,” which became the folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” composed and first performed by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. The song became the anthem for a whole generation of social activists longing for a new world salvaged from the violence and injustice of an older world seemingly trapped in patterns of endless conflict and repression.

The ancient author of Ecclesiastes was also observing the wisdom of the ages – that human life moves through seasons as inevitable as nature itself, from weeping to laughter, killing to healing, grieving to dancing, birth to death. Every generation is caught up in the sweep of these broad patterns. Wisdom lies in seeing beyond this world to the timeless longing God has placed in every human heart.

The Gospel’s universal appeal lies in its capacity to hold both the experience of life’s real hardships and losses and the irrepressible dream of something better, more complete and fulfilling. If this is all there is, life is only pathos and tragedy. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate pattern that underlies all the seasons of human experience. And it promises an ultimate triumph of love over hate, life over death.

It is easy to dismiss this faith as only a dream, and many hard realists in the 1960s saw those advocating peace and love as flower children and hopeless idealists. But, the music of that era, including Seeger’s many songs for justice, have survived their critics and continue to inspire people to work for a better world. Wisdom has children, and their voices will never cease singing.



Posted on 25 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90).

The juxtaposition of today’s two readings, the famous “vanity of vanities” lament from Ecclesiastes and Luke’s account of Herod’s interest in meeting Jesus, invites us to reflect on one of the great challenges of modern life: Boredom.

In past ages, when life was relatively short and taken up with survival, boredom was hardly an issue for most human beings. But people of leisure — the wealthy classes of Greek and Roman society in Jesus’ time and many people in developed nations today—have been confronted with idle time to fill up with diversions and entertainment. When this proves less than satisfying, people explore their curiosities and need for stimulation in increasingly creative ways to stave off indolence and boredom.

Ecclesiastes was among the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. The author voices the ennui of an intelligent seeker of the meaning of life who realizes that once you have identified the endless cycles of natural and human existence and accepted that death erases all ambition and importance, there is little left to celebrate in life. Wisdom lies in a disciplined commitment to ordinary life and enjoying the simple pleasures that come our way. All else is vanity.

Herod is described in the New Testament as a monstrous example of vanity, boredom and dissipated living. He is an adulterer whose lust for his stepdaughter pushed him to behead John the Baptist in prison. He is paranoid about Jesus as possibly the ghost of John come back to haunt him, but eager to witness one of Jesus’s reported miracles. In the 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Herod taunts Jesus, sent to him by Pilate, with the challenge, “Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool.”

Real purpose in life is the organizing principle around which time and energy come into focus. Even a short life filled with purpose is preferable to longevity without meaning. Jesus promises abundant life and fulfillment to all those who step into the yoke of discipleship with him. Vocation is by definition our response to a call, either from within or through the people and circumstances in need of our gifts. Each day has its own graces, prompting us to get up, show up, do our best. Small things done well lead to larger tasks, longtime responsibilities, being needed and loved. This is wisdom, pure and simple.


Send Me

Posted on 24 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Jesus sent them to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).

If you have ever spent a long time composing an important e-mail, you know the experience of pausing after you have read it over carefully with the cursor poised over the “Send” button. Unless you actually send the message, nothing will happen.

The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Jesus selected a large group of followers called disciples, which means “those who are learning,” and from them chose the Twelve Apostles. In today’s gospel reading, he sends them on ahead of him with the same authority he has demonstrated over demons and disease, and with the same message he had been preaching: “Repent, believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

We might ask ourselves where we stand in relationship to Jesus. Are we still in the crowd, stopping to listen to his word, to consider his invitation to deepen our encounter with God? Are we followers, in name or in fact? Are we disciples, actively learning about Jesus and his mission. Or are we ready to step forward when called and eager to be sent as apostles. Every prophet, disciple and apostle in the Bible was someone called from ordinary circumstances and who somehow witnessed to God’s purpose in this world in their own way, great or small.

The small c “church” consists of all of us. God has composed a unique message in each of our lives. We have the final say, but our joy is to know each day that our message has been sent.


Becoming Nobodies

Posted on 23 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Your mother and your brothers are standing outside” (Luke 8:20).

Today’s short gospel account is long on implications for anyone considering discipleship. Jesus is surrounded by a crowd eager to hear his message and witness his miracles. Luke tells us that his family -- "his mother and his brothers” -- had come and wanted to see him. In the ancient world, blood relations and tribal loyalty defined a person. To dismiss this claim was tantamount to stepping outside the one reality that told you who you were, in name, inheritance and social acceptance. Apart from that you were a nobody.

The followers of Jesus had to step outside of their primary loyalties and become nobodies in a culture where connections and status were everything. The kingdom of God Jesus preached invited people to shed their cultural status to become “children of God,” a radically new way to defining how to live in right relationship with God and with all other people. Their new life was best described by the Beatitudes. Disciples became God’s anawim –- “little ones” -- the poor, the meek, the dreamers of peace and justice in a violent and unjust world, those who grieved, who saw clearly the world that was and the world that was to come, persecuted for their prophetic vision because it disturbed others.

If anyone was perceived to be insane, beside themselves or out of their minds, it was up to the family to come and take them home, reorient them to who they really were. At this stage in his ministry, Jesus’ family had come to fetch him and restore him to the only world that mattered. It was too late. Jesus was already lost to that world and living in a new one in which anyone who could hear the word of God and live it would be like a mother and a brother to him, able to “see” –- believe -- the new reality God was offering.

For the sake of the kingdom, are we ready to be nobodies, free of the need for approval from a world that rewards insiders and punishes outsiders? It is the biggest decision we will ever make and the longest step we will ever take, because it will determine who we really in this world and for all eternity.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Posted on 22 September 2014 by patmarrin

“There is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be made known” (Luke 8:17).

“Things are seldom what they appear to be.” That old saying covers much of life and certainly human interactions. People are opaque and hide their motives and intentions. Most of us have little insight into our own inner workings. But there is another saying: “In the end the truth will come out.” It may take time, but the outcome exposes everything.

Jesus tells the crowds that living transparently – with nothing to hide — is like lighting a lamp and putting it on the lampstand, not just for yourself but so that everyone can see clearly. Jesus is quoted in John 8:32, saying, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Transparency equips the disciple to live freely, travel light and tell the truth. We think of the importance and influence of even a single individual in an organization, in political life, in the church community, who can always be counted on to be sincere, candid and plain spoken. How much time and energy is expended on being silent and secretive to serve some hidden agenda rather than open to advance the process of seeking the common good?

Everything will come out in the end, Jesus says, so why not increase the chances for good by speaking the truth from the start. Save time, save your own integrity, serve the common cause, multiply the benefits to all rather than serve the interests of the few.


It's Not Fair!

Posted on 20 September 2014 by patmarrin

“You too go into my vineyard” (Matt 20:7).

Who could be against mercy? Who would resist Pope Francis’ call for the church of mercy, whose face is that of a compassionate and understanding mother instead of a stern judge?

The answer is to that question is the reason Jesus told today’s parable, perhaps the most provocative story in the entire New Testament. He wanted to address the complaints of the one group most opposed to a God who loved everyone. The parable of the vineyard workers was directed to the Good People of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, who were teachers of the Law and models of public virtue. It is remarkable in that Jesus actually creates a scenario that on the surface supports their claim that such a God would not be fair. In economic terms, the story begs the question -- is it fair to treat the latecomers who work only an hour the same as those who have been on the job all day? Jesus makes the case for his critics.

But only after he has roused their full sense of outrage at such a God who would treat everyone equally can Jesus position the Good People to understand God’s invitation to them to be merciful as God is merciful, or to grasp why he eats with sinners, seeks out the lost sheep, tells his disciples to love their enemies. Jesus wants the Pharisees to rejoice with him that God is so generous that he pours out his love on anyone who seeks him, whatever their merits or however late in the day they come.

This is how God is, Jesus pleads with these learned teachers of the Law, and this loving Abba cannot act differently, for this is what it means to be God, the source of all life and the giver of every gift. Their god is too small, and their devotion to a calculating judge has turned them into miserable moralists, always worried about their own perfection and that of others as the only measure they have of whether they are earning God’s love. Because God’s love cannot be earned; it is a total gift. A virtuous life is its own reward and a sinful life brings its own punishment. Salvation so far exceeds human morality because it is in essence not some quid pro quo but the awesome gift of friendship with God, who has no enemies. Mercy is God’s name, and those who know God become like God.

The central drama of today’s Gospel is not how God loves the workers who come late, but how much God loves everyone and wants everyone to enter his vineyard. The parable is Jesus’ appeal to the Good People not to absent themselves because they cannot love others who do not measure up to their high standards. God has only one standard — to love everyone unconditionally. Fairness cannot describe or encompass the gift of God's mercy to each person according to their need, nor can we be arbiters of anyone else's journey home to God.