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My Friend Planted a Vineyard

Posted on 04 October 2014 by patmarrin

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard” (Matt 21:33).

Jesus’ parable of judgment is made more poignant in that it is based on one of the great love songs of the Bible. Isaiah 5:1-17 describes the covenant God established with his chosen people with the imagery of a vineyard. “Let me tell you about my friend who planted a vineyard.” Each part of the vineyard is a described in loving detail. If you know someone who has planted a garden and is eager to walk you through it, you know the pride and the feelings invested in this special place.

What happens to God’s vineyard defies both logic and love. Those who would have been blessed by its bounty betray the owner and turn a love story into a tragedy. By confronting the religious leaders of his own time with this story, Jesus ties their rejection of him to the murder and rejection of a long line of prophets before him.

The story recorded in Matthew takes what may have been the original parable to the level of an allegory. The successive messengers sent to the tenants are the prophets. The owner’s son is Jesus himself. Matthew is composing his Gospel toward the end of the first century, so what happened to Israel and to Jerusalem is already known. The city was destroyed by the Romans, over a million people were killed, and the survivors were dispersed into the ancient world. Temple Judaism was destroyed and replaced by a diaspora of rabbis and their communities in cities like Alexandria, Rome and Antioch. It was there that the first Christian communities were established as the early church spread into the Mediterranean basin.

The produce of a vineyard is wine, a symbol of joy and celebration, especially at weddings like the one at Cana in John 2. Disciples spread the joy of the Gospel as workers in God’s vineyard. We are all called into this love story, not just as laborers but as branches grafted onto the vine of Jesus, sharing his life intimately, producing the fruits of his redemption with all those who thirst for the love of God. Our worship culminates in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Each time we receive the Beloved Son, body and blood, we say yes to God’s invitation to share the joy of both divine love and human love within the community. The owner has sent his only-begotten Son to receive the harvest of our own lives, planted deeply in his garden.

Guardian Angels

Posted on 02 October 2014 by patmarrin

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father” (Matt 18:10).

Jesus lived in a time and culture in which children had no status, were used as cheap labor and often subjected to physical and sexual abuse. His teachings and example regarding the inherent dignity of children surely had in mind the widespread abuse of children in the ancient world allowed under slavery and family codes.

The horror of this is brought home to us in reports of child labor, human trafficking and sexual abuse in today’s world and even inside the church. The scandal caused by clergy sexual abuse of children has shaken the church to its foundations, caused many to depart, damaged the church’s witness and eroded confidence in church leadership.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes to the heart of this tragedy when he describes the natural innocence and transparency of children as a window into their closeness to God. The Feast of Guardian Angels invokes an image of this intimacy between God and children. They are in direct, face-to-face relationship with God. To despise or abuse a child is not only a crime; it is sacrilege, an affront to God so serious that, in another passage, Jesus says that it would be better for someone who causes a child to stumble to have never been born, or to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks. It would be hard to find a stronger warning in the Bible than this. Jesus is talking about behaviors that can cause spiritual death.

Even as our understanding that pedophilia is an illness deepens, the responsibility for safeguarding children only grows more serious, as does the accountability of those in authority who might have prevented abuse by removing offenders from all contact with potential victims.

As we pause to commemorate today’s feast, we should also stop to acknowledge and praise those who have had the courage to act as guardian angels on behalf of the youngest and most vulnerable treasures of the church and of every society.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bored

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.

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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.

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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.