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What Comes First?

Posted on 04 June 2015 by patmarrin

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

What is the first commandment in your life? There can be many. For some, success drives every decision they make. For others, loyalty to family or group defines their daily actions. Or personal honor, or finding approval and avoiding rejection are the red thread that runs through their life stories. This makes sense, for these commandments flow from the primal instinct to survive, to compete, to win.

Jesus, as a faithful Jew, based his entire life and identity on the Great Commandment to love God first and foremost, mind, heart, soul and body, and then to love others as he loved himself. We might say that this was the only commandment he needed, for in keeping it he kept every other law. His life path was based on this simple but radical guide.

His relationship with God and neighbor was also at the heart of his preaching, his acts of healing and mercy, and even the confrontation with official religion that led to his death on the cross. If we love, we will be just, compassionate and truthful. If we put God first, we will never compromise God's will for us as it unfolds in the circumstances of our lives, even if we must sacrifice ourselves for doing what is right in all our relationships.

Jesus lived in the peace and joy of obedience to the commandment of love. Discipleship is our school for learning how to do the same. It is no small challenge to place this commandment ahead of other, deeply imprinted and ego-centered instincts for personal survival, success, approval and loyalty. But if we commit to this, we will know our true selves in the image and likeness of God, who made us to love and be loved.

The Challenge of Resurrection

Posted on 03 June 2015 by patmarrin

"God is not God of the dead but of the living" (Mark 12:27).

His critics take turns trying to bring Jesus down. Yesterday it was the Pharisees and Herodians (an unholy alliance) testing him on taxes to Caesar. Today it is the Sadducees, the ruling conservatives who did not believe in resurrection, testing Jesus about who will be husband in heaven to a woman who had married seven brothers.

In both cases, Jesus forces his interlocutors deeper than they intended to go into the challenges of believing in the living God. The absurd and artificial scenario about marriage and the importance of progeny as a kind of immortality elicits Jesus' rebuke: "Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?"

Then Jesus says something that resonates with some our own debates over the nature of marriage and procreation. He distinguishes both as important to earthly life but simply not needed in eternity, where life is forever. Resurrection transforms us and transcends sexuality and the need to procreate.

This is a profound mystery. Theology has yet to really explore Paul’s insight that in the risen Christ there is neither male nor female. Nor will there be straight or gay or transgender, but the fullness of our human identity and capacity to love. We know nothing of Jesus’ sexuality, but so much about his boundless capacity for friendship and love for everyone. Isn’t this a window into what we ourselves will be like in our risen selves?

Questions about gender and sex pass forward into the challenges of holiness and love. Human life will blossom into friendship with God and one another. What we intuit now as communion in the body of Christ is our life in glory. Sexual longing is only a glimpse of the intimacy we will enjoy with everyone in heaven. Procreation foreshadows the expanding circle of divine love that will gather the entire universe into one, new creation.

To miss all of this to protect their small-minded ideology was the mistake Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for. Your God is too small, your hopes too contained and your hearts too constricted. God is the God of the living, so get beyond your self-righteous ignorance and absurd quarreling and join the circle of life.

God or Caesar?

Posted on 02 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Whose image and inscription is this?" (Mark 12:16).

Jesus' famous words about giving to Caesar and to God have been the starting point for endless debates about the separation of the church and state, the obligations Christians have to civil society and religion, the tensions inherent in paying taxes to fund war, living in the world and keeping a spiritual focus, or just about the ethics of money. God or Caesar? Just what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?

The setting for the original question was a deliberate trap set by the Pharisees and the Herodians to get Jesus in trouble with either his Jewish followers who hated the Roman occupation or with the Roman authorities, always alert to potential troublemakers.

It was a clever ploy, but Jesus' response went much deeper than the political and religious dilemmas that defined life in Palestine at the time.

Jesus asks to see the Roman coin used to pay taxes. It is readily produced by one of his critics, exposing their complicity in the system. Jesus' answer was simple: If you use the system, pay. But then he goes to the heart of the dilemma. Whose image do you define yourself by? The image on the coin is that of Caesar, the supreme ruler of the world. Can this image supersede the essential image and likeness of God, absolute creator of everything? It is this deeper imprint that determines who we are and why we are in the world. Even Caesar is subject to this absolute reality.

So go figure. We carry the dilemma into our daily lives and dealings. We benefit from all the interlocking secular systems that hold the world of commerce and civil society together. We belong to our banks as much as we do to our churches for the capacity to function. The challenge is to remember who we really are and to whom we must give an accounting.

The image we prize most will decide who we are and become. To bear the family resemblance of God is our ultimate reality and our guiding principle. Where there is a conflict, toss a coin. God is on both sides and owns everything.


Our Stories Shape Us

Posted on 01 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus began to speak to them in parables” (Matt 12:1).

We begin the Book of Tobit in today’s readings, a marvelous story about true love and healing. Composed in the 5th century B.C.E., it shows the influence between biblical literature and theater in the ancient Greek world. Tobit is threatened for burying a fellow Jew in Nineveh during the exile, just as Antigone defies the authorities by burying her brother in Sophocles’ play named after this heroine, composed around the same time.

Tobit’s piety, like another famous figure named Job, wins him little favor, and he is blinded by bird droppings before the second part of the story unfolds, the sending of his son Tobias to marry a kinswoman named Sarah, whose six previous husbands have been murdered on their wedding night by a jealous demon.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the provocative parable of the greedy tenants at a vineyard who reject the owner’s claims on the produce, abusing messengers and finally killing his son. It is an allegory of Jesus’ own rejection by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. It ends with the image of the cornerstone of the building being rejected by the builders.

Both readings illustrate one of the key functions of the Bible to form our imaginations and faith. God knows human affairs and in the end justice prevails, virtue is rewarded and evil is defeated. As evidenced by the role our overheated media play in our contemporary culture, storytelling is at the heart of our values.

But film, television and the Internet rarely match the power of ancient stories like the ones in today’s Lectionary. Instead they often just reinforce stereotypes, stir up fear and hatred, trivialize sexuality and distort human dignity, besides being just hokey and formulaic. To be formed by the Word of God is a dynamic and indispensable encounter that counteracts that influence as it sets our priorities and clarifies our values.

In both cases, formation is an invisible process. Just as we are what we eat, we become what we watch, so caution is always warranted, especially for the young.


Holy Trinity, Holy Family

Posted on 30 May 2015 by patmarrin

"Behold, I am with you until the end of time" (Matt 28:20).

My favorite image of the Trinity is the memory of a couple who delighted their child by whispering messages to him and sending him back and forth across the room to deliver them. The game held a profound secret, for this joyful child was not just carrying messages; he was the message between his father and mother, bone and flesh, their resemblance shining back at them, their pledge to the future.

We can only approach the mystery of the Trinity with metaphors and symbols. It is the primal sacrament — the inner life of God somehow made visible in our human attempts at loving one another to make community out of our separate selves. It is goal of creation -- unity in diversity. God is the ultimate source and model for what it means to be a human being in relationship with others, for we are made in the image and likeness of the divine community.

The words fall on the page, wholly inadequate to even point by analogy to the ineffable reality of the family of God. Yet we only need to search within our own consciousness and our longing for completeness in love to feel the cosmic pull to the center of creation. Our human bodies, our faces, the dynamic tension within each us between solitude and communion, self and others, alone and with, this experience whispers to us of the paradox of human nature as a glimpse into the divine nature that made us.

Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Savior, Sanctifier; Eternal Voice, Spoken Word, Holy Paraclete; Our Father, Jesus, Son of God and son of man, Advocate, dove, holy wind and fire. Faith tells us that God is no distant, solitary being, but an intimate presence, calling, naming, loving us toward lovableness, beyond selfishness and sin, holding us against death for an eternity in the Family of God.

The Solemnity of the Trinity is a celebration of every kind of love we know, our marriages and partnerships, friendships and networks, real and virtual. Baptism seals our communion as members of one body, one Spirit, one destiny. To believe in the Trinity is to know ourselves and the lifelong journey from self-filling isolation to self-emptying love.

We rejoice today to have this mystery dwelling within us, telling us how to live and showing us the way home.


The Fate of the Fig Tree

Posted on 29 May 2015 by patmarrin

“All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you wil receive it and it shall be yours” (Mark 11:25).

In 1936, in the depths of the Depression and “Dustbowl” years in the United States, journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were hired by Fortune Magazine to do a story on the conditions of sharecropper families in Alabama. The result, rejected by Fortune and not published until 1941, was the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a powerful and achingly intimate portrait of poverty in America.

The title is from Sirach 44, a sweeping look at history that reveals the patterns of heroic courage and tragic folly that mark human participation within God’s plan for the world. The fate of the earth lies in what human beings do with God’s gifts of free will and insight. Success leads to blessing and failure brings its own punishment according to the laws of nature. We reap what we sow.

Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus' encounter with a fig tree on his way into Jerusalem. Lack of fruit on the tree becomes a parable for what Jesus finds in the Temple, a den of corruption and commerce overtaking God’s house of prayer. On his way out of the city, Jesus again sees the fig tree and curses it. He spends the night in Bethany, then returns the next day to challenge the money changers and sellers and the temple establishment for failing to understand that their infidelity would doom the temple and the city, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70.

In another passage from Luke 19:44, Jesus weeps over the city for its failure to know the hour of God’s visitation and the offer of the grace of repentance.

In the long view, how will history judge us for our care of the earth and our commitment to change unjust systems that abuse and destroy the poor? We will reap what we sow, and we now hold the fate and future of the global family in our hands.

Jesus saw in the parable of the fig tree and the challenge to reform Temple religion an invitation to deepen our faith in the power of prayer. At what was likely the most discouraging moment in his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that whatever they pray for will be given to them, even miracles. He will complete his own prayer by going to the cross to offer his life for the sins of the world.

We are a small part of the larger picture, and our commitments and faithfulness may seem of no consequence in determining the direction history takes. But faith urges us to choose courageously, to do our small part for the greater good. Pray, then act, and what you ask for and work for will be given.


Blind Faith

Posted on 28 May 2015 by patmarrin

“What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see” (Mark 10:51).

The story of Bartimaeus is the story of how we all come to faith.

Life on the sidelines keeps us from commitment; we live in the shadows, dependent on the reactions of others to define us. Like blind beggars, we wait for some opportunity to come our way -- a better job, a relationship, some challenge to get us up and moving.

For Bartimaeus, Jesus was his ticket back into the flow of deliberate living, independence and purpose. He made his move, risking ridicule and rejection to find the source of the voice he was hearing beyond the clamor of the crowd, but more especially, in his lonely heart. "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me."

Because he took the first step, Jesus heard him and called him. The same people who had told him to be quiet now helped him up and opened the way for him to go to Jesus. In his excitement and confidence, Bartimaeus left behind his most valuable possession-- his cloak -- security blanket, his begging spot along the road.

The most important question Jesus will ask each of us is "What do you want me to do for you?" Faith begins with knowing our deepest need. To admit that we are blind, or wounded, or sinful, is the first act that opens us to God's grace. Bartimaeus prays wisely: "Master, I want to see." In those simple words he expresses both his deepest need and his belief that Jesus is Master and has the power to change everything.

Physical sight is a miracle, but spiritual insight opens us to eternity, the wholeness we can only dream about in this life. Jesus calls us beyond our limitations to follow him on the road that leads to life with God, the ultimate answer to all our prayers.

Jesus is passing by today. This is an invitation to pray for what we want and need. God always hears the cry of the poor, the blind, the brokenhearted, the sinner. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Be a Winner!

Posted on 27 May 2015 by patmarrin

"The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

Human beings are competitive, and we all want to be winners. The drive for success is built into our culture, economy and educational system. But everything depends on how we define success.

Today's Gospel shows how profoundly the disciples misunderstood the upside down path Jesus was leading them on as they made their way to Jerusalem. They were already basking in the reflected light of this eloquent preacher and miracle worker. Their success in Jerusalem would be to take their places around him in triumph.

Instead, Jesus repeatedly warns them that he will be rejected and killed. On the throne of the cross, Jesus will redefine success not as power and prestige but as self-sacrificing love and service. If they truly want to follow him, they must embrace the same downward journey.

Artist and activist Sr. Corita Kent gave us the poster with the words, “To understand is to stand under.” Only those who see the world from the bottom up, beneath its structures and systems, really know the weight of oppression and injustice the poor understand all too well. Jesus completed his human sojourn by descending to the depths of suffering in order to take on his shoulders the full burden of sin. When the “Son of Man” was lifted up in death and resurrection, he raised up all of humanity to its true destiny – life with God.

Jesus’ descent was about revealing God not as distant and all-powerful, but intimate and frail with loving concern for all people, especially the poor, called the “crucified of history.”

Only by going there to share in the brokenness of human striving could God reveal the self-emptying love that makes us whole. This is what Jesus revealed on the cross. To follow Jesus is to imitate him. Here’s to success!


My Reward?

Posted on 26 May 2015 by patmarrin

“There is no one who has given up house or family for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more in this present age... with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come" (Mark 10:30).

If there is anything close to a joke in the Gospels, it is when Peter, on behalf of the other Apostles, asks Jesus what their reward will be for giving up so much. Jesus tells them that they will get 100 times their loss of houses, brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, but adds the words "with persecution."

This summary describes the lives of so many pastors, ministers and missionaries whose commitment to serve encompasses hundreds of families, children, buildings and property. Their discipleship will be rewarded here and in the age to come, but not without anxiety and exhaustion.

Jesus must have smiled when Peter went back to announce the huge return on their investment to the other Apostles. Even as they set out for Jerusalem, the Apostles imagined themselves as sitting on thrones to judge the 12 Tribes of Israel.

What is our reward for being Christian? What is our investment? Each of us knows the cost of discipleship in the burdens we carry to keep our promises, the demands we face each day because of our choice of vocation, the paths we did not choose that might have compromised our values. In the end, one thing is sure. As St. Paul wrote: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Come, Follow Me

Posted on 25 May 2015 by patmarrin

“All things are possible for God” (Mark 10:27).

Pope Francis recently spoke about the power of the “gaze of Christ” to reveal us to ourselves and attract us to our true vocation.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the rich man who must have fallen under that gaze and decided to approach Jesus about becoming one of his followers. He first sought Jesus’ approval for his virtuous life. He had kept the commandments since childhood. But when Jesus “looked at him with love” and challenged him to take the next step, give his wealth to the poor and follow him, the man went away sad. Jesus had exposed the one thing he could not part with— the security and status his wealth afforded him.

As a story about priorities and attachment, this Gospel is for us all. It stirs in us the question, “What is the cost of my discipleship, and what am I willing to give up to claim it?" How many of us would give up our credit cards, bank accounts and pensions to hit the road with Jesus?

But what exactly was Jesus proposing? The kind of poverty he offered his disciples was not abject want or suffering for lack of basic necessities. What Jesus himself experienced and asked of his disciples was dependence on others to provide for them. Wherever they went, they found hospitality and the resources they needed to carry out their mission. What Jesus challenged the rich man to accept was not poverty but Providence and the willingness to share himself within community, where everyone gives what they have and receives what they need. Community is the goal, not want.

Community is also where we find life. How many people pursue self-reliance and total independence, only to find themselves isolated from others? Only mutual interdependence and the risk of trusting others bring real happiness and shared purpose. It is within networks of love that we escape ourselves, our attachment to things in order to experience the freedom of generosity and the joy of compassion.

Jesus is looking at you with love today, saying, "Come, follow me."