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Who Am I to Judge?

Posted on 14 March 2016 by patmarrin

"You judge by appearances, but I do not judge anyone" (John 8:17).

Today's readings include the long, dramatic story of Susanna and the corrupt judges and a repeat of Sunday's Gospel from John 8 about the woman taken in adultery. This parallel presents Jesus as a fulfilling the wisdom of the boy Daniel, who saved Susanna from death after the lustful judges falsely accuse her of adultery.

The Gospel passage continues the dialogue Jesus initiates by refusing to judge or condemn the woman. The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by using the woman to force him to either approve of her execution or to defy Moses by letting her go. He does neither, and his silence forces the judgment back onto the Pharisees, who are trapped in their own trap.

Jesus alters the story of Susanna and exceeds the justice of Daniel by resolving the confrontation in a way to saves a guilty woman and also allows her accusers to escape judgment by withdrawing in shame, "beginning with the eldest" after Jesus utters the famous line: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

God is affirmed as pure mercy, the One who does not judge or condemn anyone and always leaves the door open for a sinner to repent. God does not need to judge us because every wrongful act contains its own consequences, even as every virtuous act is its own reward. Jesus does not discount the Commandments, because they are the minimum requirement and foundation of morality, bringing right relationship and order in life. But Jesus calls us beyond just avoiding evil to the higher realms of love and grace, where we find friendship with God, the ultimate goal of morality.

Jesus Stands with Us before God

Posted on 10 March 2016 by patmarrin

"Moses, his chosen one, withstood Yahweh in the breach, to turn back his destructive wrath" (Ps 16:23).

Today's responsorial psalm celebrates the role Moses played in Exodus 32, when the people fashioned a golden calf to worship while Moses was up on the mountain communing with God. This remarkable scene reveals the evolving understanding of God, who is depicted in very human terms as enraged when the people turn to a false god after all He has done to rescue them from Egypt. It is Moses who calms God down by reminding him of his promise to bring the people safely to the Promised Land,

Moses' role as mediator -- one who "stands in the breach" between God's wrath and a sinful, unfaithful people -- is fulfilled in Jesus, who reveals that God is always merciful to sinners. Jesus mediates this mercy, embodies it in his own openness to sinners, the lost sheep he has come to find and restore. This does not mean we do not need to respond to God's mercy, just that we can always count on Jesus to be with us in our human state, including our weakness. He is both God and one of us.

In one of his letters, John even says that even if our own conscience condemns us, God will still extend mercy. The Holy Spirit of Jesus is our Advocate before the Throne of Grace. The great enemy of faith is not disbelief but fear, which can paralyze us when we have fallen. We reject ourselves when God is lovingly calling us to repentance, which is always possible, always God's will. This is the joy of the Gospel.

For regular readers of Pencil Preaching, I will be traveling this weekend and unable to post, but Pencil Preaching will resume on Monday, March 14.

The Imitation of Christ

Posted on 09 March 2016 by patmarrin

"I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me" (John 5:30).

We have the saying "Like father, like son." It describes physical resemblance, family unity and also the notion that a son is an extension of his father, someone who acts and speaks as a messenger or representative of his father.

In the ancient world, personal identity came from the father, whose "seed" was nurtured in the mother in the same way the earth nurtured and produced a plant. This imagery of a son in perfect parallel with his father is used by the evangelist John to describe the mystery of Jesus' relationship to God. Just as the human Jesus was identified as a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, so is Jesus, the "son of man," also revealed to be the "Son of God."

The fourth Gospel, the last of the Gospels to be written, contains this complex and profound theology, and these dialogues between Jesus and the "Jews," representing the rabbinic opponents of the early Christian church, explore the evolving understanding of Jesus' divine identity that three centuries later would be expressed by the doctrinal councils at Nicaea and Chalcedon.

What are we to hear in these scripture readings? For one thing, discipleship places us in the same parallel relationship with Jesus that he has with his Father. We are to be in such intimate union with Jesus that everything we say and do reflects his identity in us. By our baptism we became children of God, incorporated into his risen body, sharing his mind and heart, imitating his life, death and resurrection in our lives. We exercise a spirituality of "listening" continuously to his voice within us, "watching" for him in every situation and "doing" whatever we see him doing.

Pope Francis has said that evangelization happens not because of ideas but by attraction. People see someone doing and saying things that attract them, make them want to be like that. Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that this is how the world will know he came from God, if we imitate him as he imitates God.

So for today, listen, watch and do. Like God, like Jesus, like us.

Living Waters

Posted on 08 March 2016 by patmarrin

"Do you want to be well?" (John 5:4).

Miracles in John's Gospel always serve as signs -- actions by Jesus that reveal deeper meaning, what we traditionally called sacraments -- "outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace."

The healing of the man who had been waiting for 38 years by the Pool of Bethesda is one of these signs, a story loaded with imagery and references to other events in the history of Israel. These include the importance of water, going down into the water to be healed, coming up out of the waters renewed and cleansed of sin, as in baptism, or by the ritual of passing through waters, as in the Exodus from slavery and the entry into the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan after spending almost 40 years in the desert.

With this powerful imagery in the story, Jesus acts as Moses, liberator and leader, as a prophet and healer like Elijah, as Temple of the Spirit (Ezek 47), and as the source of living (flowing) water for a people formed by a desert covenant to enter new and abundant life with God. The story also reveals the elements of a miracle: the person must want to be healed; faith is necessary; miracles occur in community. They are more difficult if there is no human collaboration but only the competitive spirit we see in this story among those seeking to get into the pool ahead of each other.

Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed. His long illness has become a way of life. In contrast to another Gospel story of a paralyzed man brought to Jesus by four friends, this man has no helpers. Yet his own faith is essential: he must want this life-changing liberation, which will end his life as a victim and a beggar and challenge him to live as a responsible individual.

Finally, John makes this miracle a confrontation over the Sabbath law. This links it back to another water story at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus changes the stone jars filled with water for ritual purification into an abundance of the joyful wine of nuptial love. In both miracles, what is old is replaced by something new.

We are invited to live the sign of our baptism today. We have passed through the waters of death to new life in Christ. We share the cup of gladness at Eucharist. We are summoned to "rise up and walk" with Jesus. This miracle is for us, about us, and if we respond with all our hearts, we will know the joy of the Gospel.

Signs and Wonders Galore

Posted on 07 March 2016 by patmarrin

"Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe" (4:47).

Today's first reading from Isaiah 65 proclaims the dream of human fulfillment within creation and history that the prophets foretold if the covenant was observed. It was a dream delayed and obscured by human injustice and selfishness. But the vision was there in the tradition like a memory projected into the future, the hope to be longed for and sought.

Jesus exhibited that hope in himself and in his ability to work miracles of healing and exorcism. He arrived in the world like the spring rain falling on the desert, producing a profusion of blooming flowers and the surge of new life awakened by the touch of the creator.

As he traveled from Galilee to Judea, passing through Samaria, people were alerted that something new and wonderful was happening. In today's Gospel a royal official, part of King Herod’s administration, pleads with Jesus to heal his son, who is at the point of death. The miracle Jesus works is long-distance, without the ordinary touch and spoken words. It reveals that what Jesus is doing is part of something much larger—the coming of the vision Isaiah proclaimed. God’s grace was loose in the whole world, and it was accessible to anyone with faith.

Do we believe that the same grace is available to us today? This is the truth of the Gospel, confirmed by the risen Christ, whose self-sacrificing love is the unmistakable sign that a new creation has already begun in those who believe. The dream is both here and not yet, depending on our active participation in using God's abundant gifts to build up the Kingdom of God in our midst. If we do not believe, few miracles will happen, for we are the hands and feet, faces, minds and hearts of the body of Christ in our world today. The Holy Spirit awaits our consent to become flesh in us, as the same Spirit needed Mary's consent to enter history through the Word incarnate.

The greatest sign and wonder we can have is a single believer who says "Yes" to God's will today. May that believer be you, and may it be me.

Mercy Me

Posted on 05 March 2016 by patmarrin

“A man had two sons” (Luke 15:11).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, the longest and most detailed of the three parables of mercy Jesus addresses to the Pharisees and scribes, takes us to the heart of the mystery of God’s hesed, unconditional and unmerited love.

The tale begins with words that resonate back through the Bible: “A man had two sons” invokes other famous brothers in the history of salvation: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Perez and Zerah, Joseph and his jealous siblings. In a patriarchal culture, where line and inheritance passed to the oldest son, the conflict among brothers was built into the history of the chosen people. The scribes and Pharisees were part of that culture and history.

In the setting of the parable in Luke's Gospel, Jesus himself is the scapegrace younger brother opposed by his older brothers, the scribes and Pharisees, who vehemently object to Jesus’ teaching about God’s mercy because they think he is literally giving away the store to sinners, thus diminishing God's honor and their role as gatekeepers and guardians of the Law.

The story Jesus tells actually enhances their case against him by depicting the younger brother as insulting his father, squandering his part of the inheritance, then shamefully returning home begging to be forgiven. The older brother has every right to be outraged at his behavior and at the father’s leniency. But the genius of the story is that Jesus reveals the higher beauty and dignity of the father’s compassion in the face of the son’s failure. He contrasts this moving response with the strict justice of the older brother, who proves unable to share the father’s joy that his own brother, who was lost and dead, has been found and brought to life again by love.

It takes nothing away from the older brother to be merciful to his self-destructive and devastated younger brother. He has remained faithful to his father and everything the father has is his, but he has allowed resentment to close his heart. He, too, has gone away to a distant land and squandered his inheritance by acting this way.

The point of the Parable is not that one brother is loved more than the other, but that both brothers are loved unconditionally and welcomed to the father’s feast of life. The return of the prodigal is complete, but the story is left unfinished regarding the older brother, namely, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is not scolding them for their hardness of heart; he is appealing to their compassion and begging them to come to the banquet of mercy that reveals the heart of God. Without them, the party will be incomplete.

Every parish Eucharist is a feast for sinners, a family table where all of us are welcome and invited to grow beyond our resentments and self-justification, or our self-excluding fear of being unworthy. All are sinners and all are welcome, for God sees in us only brothers and sisters, sinners on their way to perfect love. Let God be God. Let us open our hearts to the mystery of mercy. Come to the table. Let the party begin.

The Joy of God's Word

Posted on 04 March 2016 by patmarrin

“Which is the first of all the commandments?” (Mark 12:28).

Our parish has been engaged in a dialogue with a mosque down the street that has proven to be a wonderful learning experience on both sides. One thing I have received from our Muslim brothers and sisters is the witness of their joy in reciting the words of the Quran in Arabic, in particular the main tenet of their faith, (here in English) “There is no god but God.”

The same joy comes through in today’s Gospel. A scribe asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus recites the Sh’ma, the prayer said daily by all Jews: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus adds the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments are really one, for together they fulfill the entire Law and the prophets.

The scribe is so moved he recites the same prayer again, then adds that to obey this command is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

It is a remarkable exchange, considering that the scribes and Pharisees have in other encounters only been interested in trapping Jesus in some theological argument or error. This particular scribe is totally caught up in the joy of hearing and reciting God’s Word with Jesus.

Mantras are important in many people’s lives, short phrases they recite often to stay focused or for encouragement. They can come from religious sources or even psychological wisdom: “Keep it together;” “Always go forward;” or the powerful “Serenity Prayer.” For others, short prayers like the “Jesus” prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or “Give God the Glory,” get them through the day.

The scribe who questioned Jesus was “not far from the Kingdom of God,” because he understood the central truth of his faith. But he was also almost there because he was standing next to Jesus. A perfect prayer for us might be, “Lord, I want to be with you.” For if we stay close to Jesus, we will always be in the Kingdom of God.

St. Katherine Drexel, Pray for Us

Posted on 03 March 2016 by patmarrin

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house” (Luke 11:16).

Critics eager to dismiss Jesus’ astonishing power over disease and demons make the absurd charge that he is expelling demons because he is in league with Satan. Jesus responds that Satan can hardly be casting himself out. Therefore, Jesus must be in league with something more powerful than evil, namely the power of God. For a kingdom divided against itself is sure to fall.

Today we celebrate the vision and missionary zeal of one of north America's great saints, Katherine Drexel. She witnessed the poisonous divisions within U.S. society and culture because of the racism and poverty inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. The daughter of a wealthy investment banker, she inherited a fortune, which she expended on her missionary efforts to address the suffering of these two disadvantaged groups. Her work as a Sister of Mercy, then as foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, focused the unifying mystery of the Eucharist on the care of the poor in urban ghettos, rural pockets of poverty and discrimination across the South and on reservations.

St. Katherine died in 1955, and her memory and influence are perhaps more needed now than ever as our nation enters a critical time of demographic and cultural change that has aroused resistance from all the same forces that have fostered division, inequality and class conflict during most of our history. Fear-mongering and divisive political rhetoric threaten to polarize us on the threshold of either chaos or community, exclusion or inclusion.

It may seem beyond our modern vocabulary to describe this struggle as between grace and evil, but nations as projected entities have been known to follow the demons of fear and propaganda or, as Lincoln once said in his own time of crisis, the voices of “our better angels.” The great American experiment of self-government that serves the common good and unifies diversity is at stake. We will go forward together or not at all. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house” (Luke 11:16).

St. Katherine Drexel, philanthropist, prophetess and servant of the poor, pray for us.

Fulfilling the Living Law of God

Posted on 02 March 2016 by patmarrin

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Matt 5:17).

Matthew's Gospel was originally addressed to Jewish converts living in Antioch, and in both structure and content it emphasizes that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and all the prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. This served to answer Jewish critics of the early church who said that Jesus was a law breaker and heretic. There is plenty of evidence in the Gospels that Jesus challenged the strict interpretation of the Sabbath restrictions and ritual food and purification rules, and that he consorted with sinners and gentiles, touched lepers and was in continual conflict with the scribes, Pharisees and the temple establishment over their legalism. So Matthew had to respond to the church's critics.

Today's Gospel passage has Jesus addressing this concern directly and emphatically. "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it." Jesus does not quibble by distinguishing the letter and the spirit of the law, but claims that every letter or part of a letter has been observed in his teaching, and he condemns any other teacher who does not do the same.

Matthew's response rests on the idea of "fulfillment." First, because Jesus observed the most important commandments of love of God and neighbor, he essentially kept the entire law. Jewish rabbis said the same thing. Second, Jesus liberated the law from the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees. They kept small rules concerning tithing on their herb gardens and washing their hands, cups and vessels, but failed at love. By recovering the original intent of the Torah from Moses from their hypocritical nitpicking, Jesus made God accessible to everyone who prayed with a sincere heart and showed compassion to their neighbor. In this, he restored the simple truth that "love covers a multitude of sins" and makes even a sinner pleasing to God. This is the purpose of the law, not to make us obsessive about keeping rules but to guide us into a deeper and deeper relationship with God.

For both Jews and Christians, the Torah was more than a set of rules and commandments. It was the living Word of God, an encounter with God and a guide to help us be in right relationship with God, neighbor and all of creation. This brings order, peace and joy into a person's life. Jesus exemplified this because he was, as John's Gospel proclaims, the Word of God. He was the living fulfillment of the Torah, the human face of God visible to the world. To follow him is to fulfill the entire law as not just rules, but a way of life, a path to God.

This is Good News for us. We know that each day is a mix of effort and failure, grace and sin. But if our hearts and minds are intent on walking with God and if we do our best to love others, we will meet God in every encounter. This is the freedom of the children of God and the joy of the Gospel.

Mercy without Measure

Posted on 01 March 2016 by patmarrin

"How often must I forgive?" (Matt 18:21).

Jesus' answer to Peter's question about forgiveness is the key to mercy. The parable he tells about the two debtors goes to the heart of why we should always be merciful. It is not about being generous with those who offend us, but about being merciful because our very existence rests on the mercy of God.

The first servant in the parable owes a huge sum, impossible to pay back. His master is moved with compassion and forgives the debt, setting the man free. But when he encounters another servant who owes him a small amount, he refuses to forgive the debt.

The contrast could not be more striking, and the message hits home with Peter and with all the other critics of Jesus who were determined to put limits on God's mercy. The truth of the parable challenges especially those virtuous people who do not yet understand that their very existence is a gift, that sin is not so much individual failures as a condition of self-centeredness we cannot overcome without God's grace. They need mercy to grow toward full humanness, and they have already received it in full measure. Their lives, their advantageous circumstances, even their so-called virtue, are not a matter of their own merit but come from God's unconditional and undeserved love.

How can we, so blessed and sustained by mercy, not be merciful with others? If we have been set free from sin and death and welcomed to share in the divine life by God's favor, how can we hold keep others on the hook to satisfy our offended pride and need to force others to beg us for mercy?

Peter, a proud and profoundly weak and sinful man, wants to know how often he must forgive others. Jesus tells him the he must be forgiveness itself, unlimited and unconditional mercy, because this is what it means to be like the merciful Abba he will later proclaim as leader of the Apostles. Mercy can not be quantified, for it is the quality of being like God, who has shared the divine holiness with us beyond all measure. The only possible response to this gift is to go and do likewise.