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God and Caesar

Posted on 18 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Matt 22:20).

Money talks, and when it does, it echoes loudest in the halls of power.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters words that have reverberrated down through the long history of the debate over how to balance our obligations to God and the world, church and state, citizenship and discipleship. Is it moral to refuse to pay taxes to support some wars? Is it patriotic to criticize your government or take part in civil disobedience to protest laws you decide are unjust? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?

Ordinary people around the world are facing these dilemmas, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in Hong Kong, at the gates of Fort Benning, home of the “School of the Americas,” or outside the huge, nuclear weapons plant in Kansas City.

Jesus does not resolve the tension or offer an answer that fits every situation. He puts the question back onto our own discernment about what we owe God and what we owe the civil societies and systems we depend upon and often benefit from. He brilliantly traps the Pharisees and their colluding partners from Herod’s court in the trap they tried to set for him. Would he reject Roman taxes and face Roman censure? Would he cow to the threat and lose the support of the crowds who saw him as their messiah?

Jesus dodges the dilemma by going to higher ground—affirming that our first loyalty is to God, who owns and controls everything. All our obligations fall within this overriding loyalty to the Creator. Rome is but a passing phenomenon in the sweep of history, so give it its due, but know that God alone is absolute and eternal.

Jesus also exposes his critics, who reveal that they carry the coin of the realm and also bear its image and likeness in their hypocritical, craven obeisance to the Roman occupation and to the corrupt reign of King Herod. They must have retreated quickly as the gathering crowds jeered them and applauded Jesus.

Two millennia later we are left to resolve the same questions about where our loyalties lie. What do I owe God first and foremost? Whose image do I bear in my behavior and witness to others? Is it possible to be a citizen of heaven and a faithful disciple of Jesus in a world surfeited and drowsy with consumption and compromise, postponing commitment and living without higher purpose? Life is short, eternity is long. What shall we give to God today?

Ignatius, bishop and martyr

Posted on 17 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Beware of the leaven – that is, the hypocrisy – of the Pharisees” (Luke 12:1-7).

Today we commemorate St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first generation of bishops succeeding the Apostles themselves at the end of the first century. He was arrested by Roman authorities and died in the Colosseum in the year 107. During his transport to Rome for execution, Ignatius wrote seven letters that might easily have been incorporated into the New Testament for their powerful proclamation of the Gospel and for his personal imitation of the paschal mystery of Jesus.

Ignatius’ letters offer a glimpse into the life of the early church, the role of bishops, the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality,” and Ignatius’ understanding of his own martyrdom as participation in the Eucharistic imagery of the breaking of the bread, the very grinding of his body by the teeth of the wild beasts compared to the crushing of wheat to make the bread that gives life.

Today’s Gospel also continues Luke’s account of Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his own day. Beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus warns his disciples. Their distorted legalism and claims to absolute moral authority act like an invisible enzyme permeating the entire loaf. This leaven must be replaced by the “medicine of mercy,” what Pope Francis has told his fellow bishops is the essence of the Eucharist and the core teaching of the entire gospel.

It is an important time to hold up within the church a model bishop, one who understood that his authority was to serve the church and to lay down his life for the flock. The Word of God has powerfully addressed the 200 bishops meeting in Rome for the Synod on the Family. We have yet to see if this new leaven of love can permeate the church as it seeks to more effectively serve its own members and evangelize the world.

Where are today's prophets?

Posted on 16 October 2014 by patmarrin

“They were plotting to catch him at something he might say” (Luke 11:54).

Today’s gospel from Luke continues Jesus’ scathing criticism of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his time. They kill the prophets, then build monuments to their memory; they hold the key of knowledge but do not use it to open the doors, neither entering themselves nor letting others enter. Not surprisingly, the scribes and Pharisees are infuriated with Jesus and plot to destroy him.

If the technology had been available, imagine the relentless campaign of slick and misleading television ads the establishment could have mounted against Jesus: “Hillbilly messiah desecrates Temple!!” “Galilean demagogue disrespects High Priest.” “Nazareth fake seen with prostitute.”

Public life and politics are rough going. If Jesus had limited himself to preaching "love, peace and brotherhood,” he would have been a harmless irritant to the religious establishment, King Herod and the Roman occupation. But it is clear from the gospels that he was in the thick of controversy, speaking truth to power and not mincing his words about the failures of the nation’s leaders to fulfill their responsibilities to God’s people. His boldness cost him his life.

Religion has often been sidelined and silenced in the public square. The so-called separation of church and state, tax-free status, big money support, clerical privilege in exchange for limited involvement in political and economic controversy -- all of these arrangements would have kept Jesus in line and, in the words of novelist Thomas Hardy, “far from the madding crowd.” But Jesus plunged into the turmoil of his own time on behalf of the poor, the outcasts, the despised of society, enduring the hatred and violence inflicted on him by his enemies. All attempts to sanitize and sacrelize Jesus as simply a spiritual teacher fail to reflect the gospel story or account for his public execution as a heretic and subversive.

What we make of this is the measure of religious influence in our own time: so often minimal, misdirected, disconnected or silent when real issues of justice are raised. Seek the most despised and rejected voices in our world today, and there you may find tomorrow’s prophets.


St. Teresa of Avila

Posted on 15 October 2014 by patmarrin

“If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18).

Sometimes referred to as “Big Teresa” to distinguish her from “Little” Thèrése of Lisieux, today’s Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite reformer, was one of the spiritual giants of the Western church. Coming on the wave of the Reformation and on the cusp of the age of discovery as Spain and Portugal penetrated the New World of the Americas, Teresa helped refocus the mystical heart of religious life on Jesus.

She continues to fascinate to some measure because we are able to peer behind the hagiography to encounter a passionate, perhaps even neurotically charged woman who exercised full personal authority in her sphere within a still very male-dominated, postmedieval church and society. Her writings, like those of her contemporary, St. John of the Cross, charted the subconscious and laid a foundation for some modern psychoanalysis. Her intense mysticism explored the permeable border between spirituality and sexuality. She was said to entertain her sisters by dancing flamenco style on the table top in the convent. She overcame self-doubt and depression to wield decisive command while purging and founding reformed convents and even some houses for men. During her lifetime she was opposed, silenced and even subjected to the Spanish Inquisition for a time.

She was canonized in 1622, 40 years after her death, and in 1970, Pope Paul declared her a “Doctor of the Church.” Like other reformers, Teresa stands as a reminder in today’s church of the importance of recognizing the gifts of women and addressing the diminishment and distortion that occurs when women’s voices are suppressed. The Gospel readings from Luke this week only amplify this lesson in the confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his own time, men ensconced in their own authority but cut off from ordinary reality and bereft of compassion for those who are suffering.

Pope Francis, who took the name of one of the most important reformers in the history of the church, has expressed his desire to open church governance to more women. The ongoing Synod on the Family in Rome this week is one test of whether the gathered bishops are truly open to the “feminine genius” Pope Francis has invoked, but still not defined in practical ways or fully incorporated into the structures of the church.

St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of a Church in need of the medicine of mercy, pray for us.

The Law of Love

Posted on 14 October 2014 by patmarrin

"Woe to you, scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift a finger to touch them" (Luke 11:46).

Today’s Gospel is being read at every Mass throughout the universal church, from the local parish Masses in Latin America and Asia to the pontifical Mass celebrated in Rome for the bishops gathered at the Synod on the Family. We can only be struck by the directness of Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his own time. The Pharisees’ preoccupation with tithing for their herb gardens while neglecting the central commandment of love earns them his sternest rebuke. Their legalism had blinded them to the primary law of compassion. The so-called scholars of the law had lost touch with ordinary reality.

The balance between law and love begins with establishing priorities. Rules give order to our lives, but if the letter of the law becomes inflexible and absolute, it overrides the more important spirit of the law. It boxes people into judgments that may simply not apply to this or that circumstance. Jesus challenged the scribes and Pharisees to restore love as the central and organizing principle of their lives and their role as teachers. Without love, legal perfection is a kind of death. In his blunt imagery directed at the religious lawyers of his day, Jesus says they are like graves.

Love requires continual discernment and always risks making mistakes on the way to learning just the right balance of spirit and letter as applicable to a specific situation. This is why forgiveness is also part of the journey toward mature love. Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the ambiguities of life. We will never have the false satisfaction of being “perfect” in this life, but if we put love first, we will fulfill God’s will, the only measure that really counts.

Goodbye Columbus

Posted on 13 October 2014 by patmarrin

“This generation … seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and a national holiday honoring Columbus in the United States. The Gospel randomly assigned for Mass today prompts us to reflect on the role of the Word of God in human history. Jesus issues a warning to the people of his own day who want a sign he is from God. The only sign they will get, he says, is the sign of Jonah. As the prophet Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented, so should God’s chosen people also repent, “for a greater than Jonah is here.”

The civil holidays might seem an odd moment to preach repentance, except that both commemorations beg for deeper reflection. Canada pauses in gratitude for the many blessings First World countries enjoy relative to the rest of the world, and in the United States, we are honoring the Italian explorer Columbus, whose landing in “Hispaniola” set in motion the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

Another seafaring figure named Jonah preached to Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, the brutal enemy of Israel. The sudden conversion of Nineveh is the comic highpoint of the parable we know as the Book of Jonah. It was unthinkable that such an evil empire would repent and find God’s forgiveness, yet it did repent. Jesus compares that startling repentance to the rejection by his contemporaries of the Good News he was preaching.

The liturgy calls us to be conscious that our material blessings often come at the expense of others in a global economy that exploits and plunders so many to enrich the few. Some might say that the “conquest” of the New World has never ended. Our cultural celebrations are possible only because of historical amnesia.

The Word of God comes to us in today’s Gospel in which we hear the prophetic voice of Spanish Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred with his companions in El Salvador in 1989 for his eloquent defense of the poor, whom he called the “crucified of history.” If we want a different, more just future, then the trajectory of history set 500 years ago in this hemisphere must be altered.

In his last public address before his death, Ellacuria said this: “There is a lot still to be done. Only utopianism and hope can enable us to believe and dare to try, with all the poor and oppressed people of the world, to turn back history, subvert it, and send it in a different direction.”

A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.

Come to the Feast

Posted on 11 October 2014 by patmarrin

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding" (Matt 22:2).

This Sunday, like last Sunday, gives us one of Matthew’s longer parables from the end of his Gospel in which Jesus warns his audiences that the time of decision is near. There is an ominous tone to these stories about the vineyard owner whose son is murdered and today’s story of the wedding feast so many of the invited guests fail to attend. This apocalyptic mood reflects the situation in Matthew’s community, under increasing pressure and even persecution after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, when this Gospel was being composed.

The apparent layer of allegorical details added to the original parable about a joyful wedding feast open even to the street beggars and sinners suggests that the early church was dealing with the question of whether to excommunicate some of its members (represented by the wedding guests without proper garments) and the even more serious conclusion some Christians were reaching that they had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.

This idea, called “supersessionism,” held that because Temple Judaism rejected Jesus, God had rejected the Jews in favor of the rapidly growing new church of Jewish converts and gentiles. A new covenant had superceded the old covenant with Israel. Animosity between Christians and rabbinic Judaism would later lead to the notion that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus, thus setting in motion the long history of anti-Semitism that has so scarred relations between Jews and Christians. It took until 1965, when the Vatican Council officially declared that God’s covenant with the Jews remains in effect, that the church definitively rejected the ahistorical and distorted theological charge that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.

At today’s liturgy, we peer back beyond these controversies into the mind of Jesus, who characteristically promoted God’s infinite and unconditional mercy in his parables. For him, God’s covenant was a nuptial, a joyful marriage of divinity and humanity, what John’s Gospel celebrated at Cana with excellent and overflowing wine and at which Jesus himself was foreshadowed as the bridegroom. This image comes directly from the Hebrew testament. God’s love is everlasting, and Jesus preached that all are included.

We might even think of every Eucharist as a wedding, the culmination of a love story that touches every heart and transforms us in love. This the Good News we hear in today's Scriptures and the mystery we celebrate at the Table of the Lord.

St. John XXIII, pray for us.

Posted on 10 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Every kingdom divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:16).

When Pope John XXII was beatified, the first step toward sainthood, the day assigned to honor him was originally October 11, marking the first day of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. St. John XXIII now watches over the church, and today’s Lectionary readings offer us a reflection on the importance of his leadership 50 years ago, now still present and at work in Pope Francis.

In today’s Gospel, Luke takes up the text he found in Mark about the underlying spiritual struggle between demonic control of the world and Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This Marcan theme was brilliantly explored in Ched Myers’ 1988 book “Binding the Strong Man.” Its central thesis was that Jesus’ preaching, healing miracles and exorcisms were a sign that the “prince of demons” had already been defeated. Luke uses the image of a strong man guarding his house, which is broken into by a stronger man who binds him up and then despoils his possessions. Jesus is that stronger man. The rule of Satan has been shattered and God’s grace is loose in the world.

Jesus’ enemies acknowledged his remarkable power, but attributed it to Satan. Jesus dismisses their claim and its convoluted logic that he could use the power of Satan to overcome Satan. “A house divided against itself falls,” he replies. No, he has entered the world with the power of God.

One message is clear. The defeat of any pervasive force begins with going to the cause. A disease manifests many symptoms; heal the underlying illness and the symptoms disappear. An organization filled with dysfunction will not change unless its leadership is replaced. A culture based on distorted ideology or injustice must be attacked at the roots.

Jesus did not come just to encourage, heal, forgive and comfort people without also liberating them from the deeper causes of evil in the world. His redemption was a decisive strike at the roots of collective human sin. All that is needed to complete this gift of freedom and new life is for people to believe in it and live it. The strong man has been bound. Evil has no power over us except what we give it by falling under its deceptions and intimidation.

Hearing the Gospel in our lives opens us to this deep freedom. The church is itself a work in progress in announcing and living God’s reign of grace. New leadership is challenging the church from the top down and the bottom up to find the joy and freedom of the Gospel. All that is needed to complete this revolution is for every baptized member of the church to claim and live the redemptive love God has poured out on all of us. Holiness is God's gift. It was given to John XXIII and it is evident in Pope Francis. It is also at work in us if we open our lives to its guidance and power.

Praying with Confidence

Posted on 09 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:10).

All religion is about making contact with God. The Latin root of the word is religare — “to bind,” from which we also get English words like ligament and obligation. We call this desire for connection “prayer.” We negotiate our needs with God, exchanging obedience, praise and thanksgiving for a favorable answer to our petitions. At its deepest and best, prayer is an intimate conversation between friends, an ongoing encounter that forms a mutual bond.

For most of Jesus’ audience, success in prayer required keeping the law, offering sacrifice and observing the annual feasts. Jews practiced fasting, daily recitation of scriptural prayers and almsgiving as the pillars of religion.

Jesus sought to draw people into an even deeper intimacy and trust with God. He called God Abba, “Papa” or “Daddy,” to emphasize the unconditional nature of God’s love for his children. Jesus says little about sacrifices or law, except the law of love. Whatever our worthiness or credentials, if we persist in simply going to God, asking, seeking and knocking, God is eager to respond. The very act of turning toward God is the essence of prayer, to acknowledge that God is the source of everything, including our own existence. As German theologian Paul Tillich put it, “God is the ground of our being.” It is as natural for us to pray as to breathe.

The challenge for us in prayer is to stir up our faith, then express our deepest needs to God, even if we do not know how to pray or what to say. Paul reassures us: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness ... interceding for us with sighs and groans” (Rom 8:26). Only by gradual discernment do we know what we want, what we are seeking from God, what door we are knocking on. The Spirit breathes wisdom, courage and trust into our conversation with God.

The only way to know if prayer actually “works” is to pray, to begin our day by placing ourselves in the presence of God and asking what to do next. God is eager to teach us how to pray, for this is what life is about and what eternity is for.


Teach Us To Pray

Posted on 08 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us” (Luke 1:4).

Aristotle wrote: “A small mistake at the beginning is a big mistake at the end.” For example, even a small error in the orientation of a rocket at launch will alter its trajectory and destination downfield by a much larger distance.

This principle is powerfully illustrated in today’s first reading. The spread of the faith from its Jewish origins into the gentile world was possible only because of St. Paul’s insistence that we saved not by keeping the law but as the pure gift of salvation from God in Christ. Paul challenged the leaders of the Jerusalem church who were asking gentiles to become Jews before they could be Christians. This, Paul argued, nullified the gift of salvation by adding other requirements such as circumcision, kosher rules and observance of the 614 commandments derived from Torah. Either we are saved by Christ or we are not, but no additional criteria should be applied.

Paul saw that two standards for church membership would create separate communities, a rejection of the central truth of the Good News, that Jesus overcame all divisions by the blood of his cross. Separate groups would make a mockery of the Eucharist, the effective sign of our communion in love in the one body of Christ.

Paul’s description offers us an important window into the early church and how basic beliefs emerged from crisis. If the outcome had been different then, our church would be much different today, if it existed at all. A similar ideological struggle appears to be unfolding in Rome at the synod on the family, with Pope Francis espousing the Church of Mercy while some bishops emphasize strict legal observance as determining church membership. Love and Law must find that perfect balance Paul knew was crucial to advancing the church in the real world, where real people struggle with real life problems.

Because today’s scripture readings are also being celebrated at Eucharist by the Synod participants today in Rome, it will be worth watching how the Spirit moves through the Word to influence the debates in the closed meetings.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus also defines first principles when he teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” his own summary of the First Commandment of love. We are centered and grounded in God, who provides for all our needs, asking only that we love one another as we have been loved. This means forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. The whole law and all the commandments are contained in this one prayer. If we live the prayer, everything else will take care of itself. If we fail to answer the call to love and forgive, everything else will be distorted in our basic relationships with God and one another.

A small mistake at the beginning becomes a big mistake at the end.