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Stone and Scroll

Posted on 11 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19).

Jesus, whose Kingdom was not of this world, knew the power of tradition and institutional religion. In today’s Gospel, he affirms the value of keeping the Law and respecting the traditions.

In the first reading for today from Deuteronomy, Moses makes obedience to the Law the foundation of the covenant God formed with his people when he brought them out of Egypt and made them a nation. At the time of Jesus, the temple in Jerusalem and the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets kept in every synagogue represented the ongoing fidelity of the people to the covenant. Every human institution that has lasted has likewise tried to enshrine itself in stone and founding text and to transmit its values through education and cultural formation.

Yet it seems clear that symbols alone are not enough. Sacred texts and impressive structures are meaningless unless the principles they espouse are enacted. The true expression of any tradition is a living person who is honest and just. Institutions that fail to live up to their own ideals are undermined at the foundations and soon erode and crumble in times of crisis.

For Jesus, the test of the tradition was loyalty to the spirit of the law, obedience to the essence of the tradition, which was a living relationship of love with God and for neighbor.

The disciple must be imbued with the spirit of love and at the same time grounded in the teachings of the faith. A single faithful follower of Jesus is a living stone and a sacred scroll in the community of faith.


International Forgiveness Day

Posted on 10 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Matt 18:34).

I have been told that the Russian word for goodbye means “Forgive me.” It is a lovely thought, a whole world running on constant forgiveness, every encounter, every relationship cleared of any shadow of regret or offense as millions of people make their way through another day of stubbed toes and hurt feelings.

Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the Kingdom of God in our hearts. It sets everyone free of the slow drag of defensiveness and rationalization that robs us of creative energy to simply live. Once we recognize each other as flawed human beings in constant need of mercy and generosity, we can be about the business of doing our best, starting over each day, mending the world as we go.

Jesus’ parable about a man who is forgiven a huge debt and then bears down on another man who owes him a pittance is a masterpiece of Kingdom logic. Forgiveness is God’s constant attitude toward us. As Pope Francis has said, “God never tires of offering us forgiveness; it is we who tire of seeking it.” Lack of repentance or forgiveness on our part blocks the flow of love through the entire web of relationships that holds us in existence. That blockage narrows our ability to receive love or pass it on to one another. We stop living when we stop forgiving.

Today might be International Forgiveness Day. Imagine a world in which everyone forgave one other person. We can make it our own day to clear the books of old hurts and resentments, a day on which we get up the courage to reopen a “cold case” when a friendship fell victim to misunderstanding or communication stopped.

Better “Forgive me” than simply “Goodbye.”


Posted on 09 March 2015 by patmarrin

"Amen, I say to you. no prophet is accepted in his own native place" (Luke 4:24).

Rejection is what most human beings fear most. Teenage retreatants uniformly confess this in revealing themselves to their peers. Adults need therapy and support groups to face it, to rebuild their self-images and confidence. Recurring dreams take us to a place of anguish where no one recognizes us.

After his baptism and the dramatic start of his public ministry in nearby Capernaum, Jesus returns to his home village of Nazareth and is promptly rejected. Call it jealously or incredulity, his own family and neighbors found him too much after having known him all his life as just one of them. Where did this simple carpenter get all of this wisdom and power? When Jesus cited examples of other prophets who had to go to foreign lands to work their signs and be accepted, the good people of Nazareth tried to throw him over a cliff.

Acceptance is important, but rejection has the power to define us. It strips us back to essentials, to a solid sense of self grounded in truth and proven value no one can take away from us. Jesus must have been in full possession of his identity when he made the fateful journey home. So many prominent people have come home to be reduced to children in the presence of their parents, or belittled to their most vulnerable memories by sibling rivalry and ridicule.

Jesus had survived both his baptismal blessing and his desert encounter with Satan. He was beyond the need for approval from anyone. He had already set his face like flint in the deep prophetic tradition that would take him to Jerusalem to his death. He would stay the course even when his closest friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him to public humiliation and a brutal crucifixion.

Therefore the risen Christ would know and have overcome the worst that this broken world could visit on any human victim, and the mercy he would offer would already encompass the depths of weakness and sin any human perpetrator could imagine or inflict. He would go the distance and bring home on his shoulders the proverbial lost sheep from any conceivable rebellion or despair.

This is the Jesus we have pledged to follow on our Lenten journey. So let us entrust our self-doubt and anxiety to him, for he knows the road ahead and reassures us that, come what may, if we are faithful, we will be with him in paradise.


Spring Cleaning

Posted on 07 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2:16).

One of the most difficult and dramatic dialogues Pope Francis has opened up with the world is about market capitalism. While many critics are quick to argue that this form of economic exchange is better than state control or totally unregulated competition, few can deny that global systems as they now exist have contributed to enormous wealth disparity, political corruption, the abuse of labor, global instability and serious environmental damage.

The pope is not saying anything new; the principles he is advocating are taken from traditional Catholic social justice: the dignity of work, the common good, basic human rights, including a living wage, the right to organize, to participate in policy making, for education and healthcare, clean air, water and adequate food. Massive poverty, high death rates, poisoned ecosystems in many parts of world point to structural problems that favor profit, protect the status quo and ignore the legitimate aspirations of millions of people, leading to political instability and violence.

When Jesus disrupted business as usual in the outer precincts of the temple in Jerusalem, he was protesting more than the failure of piety in a place reserved for prayer. He was attacking a marketplace mentality that was corrupting religion, with the collusion of the priesthood with those who benefited from the revenue that flowed into the temple treasury from the sale of sacrificial animals, money changing and taxes skimmed by the Roman occupation and by King Herod.

Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, a non-Jew, had built the temple to strengthen his position in Palestine under the Romans. His brutal and scandalous reign was in sharp contrast to the sacred nature of the temple, and many people would have sympathized with Jesus’ symbolic action, which struck at the nerve of complicity among all the ruling entities that together ran the country. Money had become a form of idolatry, true worship co-opted by philanthropy, supporting a small, rich class of noblity and clergy in a sea of poverty and oppression.

The cleansing of the temple was the action that sealed Jesus’ fate. Like many prophets, it was not his spiritual reform that got peoples’ attention, but economic disruption. His protest at Passover, when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, likely triggered the official decision to arrest and execute Jesus as an intolerable threat to the temple establishment, public order and the power of Rome.

We can surely take a spiritual message from this Gospel story in our Lenten journey; it is never too late to examine our own idolatries and our need to cleanse our motives. But something larger is signaled in taking seriously both Jesus and Pope Francis when they point to the economic systems we share and benefit from when they are built on the backs of the poor. What is the real cost of our convenience, comfort and lifestyles if others suffer because of the way we live? How can we take the next step in our discipleship with Jesus?

Love the Dream, Follow the Dreamer

Posted on 06 March 2015 by patmarrin

"Here comes that dreamer Let us kill him ..." (Gen 37:19).

In today's pairing of the story of the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers and the plot by the vineyard tenants against the owner's son we see the rich texts the Gospel writers had at hand to apply to Jesus.

He is the beloved son of Jacob, opposed by his own brothers out of jealousy and sold into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. But he will save his people by providing bread in a time of famine. Jesus is again the beloved son of the vineyard owner, murdered when he is sent to ask the tenants for an account of their stewardship, a parable based on the powerful song in Isaiah 5.

By weaving these two themes from the Hebrew Scriptures into the New Testament, the early Christian community saw the rejection and death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Both ancient accounts are tragic love stories. The beloved boy in the rainbow coat and the innocent heir who comes to the vineyard are sacrificed within a much larger narrative in which we are saved and the first fruits of God’s investment in us are harvested. Jesus is that beloved son and heir to the promise, offered to those who share in his death and resurrection.

Lent is our time to see this larger narrative unfolding around Jesus and to take our place in the story. We are God’s beloved, but also stewards in the vineyard of redemption. Love dies when it is never reciprocated. No relationship takes hold and grows without conscious recognition and participation. Discipleship is our way to enter a love relationship with God that puts us on the road with Jesus to the events of Holy Week and Easter. He is the dreamer and we are the dream, a love story that begins here and leads to eternity.

The Poor: Our Lifeline to God

Posted on 05 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Father Abraham, have pity on me” (Luke 16:25).

Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, who knew Archbishop Oscar Romero personally and advised him on theological questions, said the secret of his spirituality was his encounter with God in the poor. This profound insight, expressed at the regional bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, as “God’s preferential option for the poor,” became the foundation of Romero’s theology and his understanding of church, not just as an idea but because he was experiencing it in his pastoral visits to the defenseless campesino communities suffering such violence in El Salvador.

Sobrino says that when Romero was with the base communities, “the poor fairly swarmed around them. He took them to his heart, and they were there to stay. And they took him to their hearts, where he has remained to this day” (Witnesses to the Kingdom, Orbis, 2003, p. 20).

Romero’s “conversion,” Sobrino reflects, was to discover a new image of God -- One who accompanies the poor, entering their innocence, their vulnerability and suffering. From the notion of a distant, powerful God, Romero met the self-emptying, self-sacrificing God in the midst of his beloved people, a God who becomes poor, accepting the fate of the "crucified peoples of history."

It is a conversion of mind and heart we are all invited to make this Lent. The story in today's Gospel of the poor man Lazarus, lying hungry and destitute at the rich man’s doorstep, warns us that the gap we put between ourselves and our suffering brothers and sisters in this world will define our eternity. If we do not recognize, know and love God in the poor now, we will not recognize God when we come face to face with him at the judgment. The story, like the call to serve the poor in Matt 25, the parable of the last judgment, is not just a call to help the poor, but a warning to save our own lives by seeing God in the least of our brothers and sisters while we have the chance to love and serve them.

Romero came alive in a new and deeper way because of his relationship with the poor in El Salvador. He is both a saint and martyr because he now witnesses to all of us that this is the path to life, the one place we are bound to find God, in this life and in the next.


Be Ready

Posted on 04 March 2015 by patmarrin

“You do not know what you are asking” (Matt 20:22).

Indeed, the mother of James and John, prompted by her sons’ ambitions, does not know what she is asking when she presses Jesus to place them on his right and left in his kingdom. Jesus had just told the group that when they arrive in Jerusalem he will be arrested, mocked and executed. On his right and left will be two thieves, crucified with him.

During Lent we pray to fulfill our Christian vocations. Do we know what we are asking? To be baptized is to enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We do not know how this will happen, but we are asking for it.

For most of us, our dying with Christ will not be dramatic or public, as it was for most of the Apostles, and for many other martyrs down through history. But the daily dying to self by serving others, surrendering our time, energy, personal preferences to respond to the needs of others, is sure to happen. Such self-emptying defines the lives of parents, teachers, social workers, ministers or all kinds, and anyone who consciously says “Yes” to God each morning. “Here I am; I come to do your will.”

Martyrdom, or witness, big M or little m, is built into Christian discipleship. Once we decide to follow Jesus, we open ourselves to his daily invitation to lay down our lives for others. For most, it will be ordinary, cumulative and anonymous. But God sees the heart, and God knows who is available for service in any given moment or circumstance. Be ready. Today may be your day to say, “Yes, I knew exactly what I was asking for.”


Posted on 03 March 2015 by patmarrin

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:3).

At the time of the Synod on the Family in Rome last October, it seemed evident to many observers that some bishops who spoke loudest about the indissolubility of marriage, exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from communion and absolute adherence to rules regarding artificial contraception, were speaking from some transcendent, academic world far from the actual experience of marriage.

Pope Francis made clear that he was not asking the bishops to abandon traditional ideals, but to consider the real problems millions of Catholics were facing and to ask how church teaching could be more effectively and compassionately applied at the pastoral level. At the same time, the pope was challenging bishops who seemed focused on ecclesiastical rank and privilege to consider their primary roles as pastors among their people, especially those who felt lost and alienated from their church.

In today’s Gospel, we hear echoes of Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his own time. The scribes and Pharisees were demanding minute and literal observance of the Law by ordinary people without helping them navigate its hundreds of ritual and moral obligations. They touted their own perfection, seeking public honors, titles and signs of respect. Jesus reminded them that we are all equal in the sight of God, who knows our hearts and raises up the humble.

Jesus cautioned his disciples that leadership was always about service. They were not to lord it over others or burden them, but to serve them and take their burdens on themselves. Where structures and rules were necessary, they should be applied with patience and the reality that people grow gradually toward maturity and its ideals. Everyone, including the leaders, was a work in progress.

What Jesus is describing is a church of mercy, a family in which the strong support the weak, a house that welcomes everyone and where forgiveness is the rule and not the exception. The call to love has always been more difficult than legal perfection. We never arrive at perfection in love; we can only keep trying, asking for and giving forgiveness along the way. But this is the community Jesus modeled and continues to guide as our crucified and risen Lord.


Full Measure, Pressed Down, Overflowing

Posted on 02 March 2015 by patmarrin

"The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you" (Luke 6:38).

Jesus often used common sayings to show that morality was based on essential "laws of life." We reap what we sow. Do unto others as you have them do unto you. What goes around comes around. Don't judge others and you won't be judged.

A stingy person will invoke the same response from others. A generous person will be treated generously. A judgmental person will impose the same judgment on himself, which is why the cranky perfectionist is often hardest on herself. The underlying dynamic goes back to the first and most basic commandment to love God, the source of all good, and to love our neighbor as we are being loved. In relationship with God, we overflow with love and are moved to give what we have received.

The imagery is helpful. Think the measuring cups in your kitchen, ranging from a full cup to an eighth of a cup. Imagine choosing each morning to take one of the cups with you that day to determine just how much love, patience, time and help you will measure out to others. Why not take the full cup? The quality of our day lies in this simple choice.

God So Loved the World

Posted on 28 February 2015 by patmarrin

“They kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:10).

Three theophanies, or revelations of who Jesus really is, occur in the Gospels. The first is Jesus’ baptism, the second is today’s account of the transfiguration, and the third is Jesus’ death on the cross. Each event is clothed in mystery and is unintelligible without faith. The Gospel writers layer these three moments with earlier scripture passages to show that Jesus is fulfilling his mission to overcome sin and death with the liberating power of love.

At his baptism, Jesus comes up out of the waters that symbolize the passage through the Red Sea at the Exodus of God’s people from slavery.

The transfiguration brilliantly backlights the story of salvation and shows Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah how his suffering will fulfill the Law and Prophets.

On Calvary, Jesus will complete his salvific work by offering himself as the Passover lamb by taking on himself the sins of the world.

To this theological tour de force the Lectionary for today’s Second Sunday of Lent adds the moving story from Genesis of Abraham and Isaac. With deliberate pathos, the narrative paces out the journey of father and son, the boy carrying the wood on his shoulders, asking his father where the animal of sacrifice is. Abraham tells him that “God will provide.”

The story, scripture scholars say, serves to put an end to human sacrifice, a common practice among ancient peoples. It also establishes the absolute faith of Abraham, the founding father of the people of the Covenant. The story sets the stage for another sacrifice, another moving dialogue between Father and Son, the weight of wood on the shoulders of one who is totally innocent to a place of sacrifice. But with one stark difference. Jesus, the only Son of God, is not spared, but goes to his death.

The death of Jesus should stun us, as would a different end to the story in Genesis -- the death of Isaac at the hand of his own father instead of a last-minute reprieve. Jesus empties himself to the last drop of his blood and his last breath on the cross. In the silence of his death only the eyes of faith can see the third theophany: “God so loved the world that he did not spare his only Son …” (John 3:16).

We ponder this offering, the most difficult mystery in the whole Christian story. How many theologies try to explain how God entered our history in the flesh to take upon himself the burden of human sin in order to liberate us, even while we were sinners, from our fatal estrangement from the source of Life? What are we to make of this terrible mystery?

We journey together through Lent, and like the disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration, we must enter the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only way forward and, for us, confronts us with the question on which hangs our own salvation.