Persistence

"Suppose you have a friend who comes at midnight to ask for bread" (Luke 11:5, paraphrase).

Jesus tells a parable about the importance of persistence in prayer. It has been called "A Knock at Midnight' to dramatize the urgency of need in the face of resistance. The householder is in bed and does not want to get up to answer the door, but because his neighbor persists, he finally rises to respond. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once applied this theme to the mainline Christian churches, asleep and resistant, to rouse themselves to support justice for those deprived of their civil rights. It could be applied to many other needs.

If we say it is the "eleventh hour," we mean that time is running out. So if it is midnight, failure to act is near irreversible, grace is passing us by and judgment is not far behind. 

How many urgent issues in our world are approaching the midnight hour?  It is midnight in America when religious people ignore the plight of the poor and the oppressed. What time is it? It is time to pray, throw off sleep and  do what is right while we still can. Why? Because God is at the door. 

At the Crossroads

"Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:2).

Learning to pray as Jesus did is the heart of Christian formation. When we pray as he did, we articulate our baptismal unity with him, and the Christ within us, our true self before God, emerges within our unfolding human maturity to reveal our divine destiny.

How did Jesus pray? Like every Jew, he said the Sh'ma each day, the most important text and mantra from the Torah: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, there is no other. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Note that this prayer is not asking God something, but God commanding us to listen, to obey the very ground of our existence. Our bodies reveal this when we stand vertically within the creative will of God, totally dependent and totally responsive to the One who has loved us into being, heart, mind, soul and strength, enabling us to stretch our selves horizontally to our neighbors to share the same love we have received.  

These two directions, vertical and horizontal, make our bodies a crossroads between our divine source and our human responsibility.  To stand in God's love and to stretch our arms to  one another is the perfect expression of the Christian life, the imitation of the crucified and risen Jesus, who completed our human and divine identity, restoring us to the full  image and likeness of God. 

When his disciples observed Jesus at prayer, standing with his arms extended, they asked him to teach them how to pray.  He taught them the "Our Father," his personal communication with his Abba. He gave them more than words. He invited them into his own intimate relationship with God. "Come, stand with me before our God. Feel the flow of love going back and forth. You, too, are God's beloved, and because of this you exist to love. 

The Our Father simply repeats the Sh'ma. The first part  is about God, supreme Source, divine name and will, heaven to earth. By aligning yourself to God, everything you need to love your neighbor as yourself -- bread and mercy and freedom from evil -- will be provided.

Before Jesus arrived at Golgotha to mount the cross of his death, he was already the crossroads between death and life, the portal between time and eternity, transforming sin and death to grace and resurrection. This is the pattern of our baptism: If we die with Christ, we will rise with him. This is what Christian formation does, and it happens because we pray as Jesus prayed. 

One Thing

"You are worried and anxious about many things. There is need of only one" (Luke 10:40).

The beautiful story of Martha and Mary is less about who is right than about focus, Both sisters love Jesus and are eager to show him hospitality. Jesus arrives with two hungers, for food and for welcome. Martha welcomes him with her attention to table and her skills in the kitchen. Mary welcomes him with her face, her eyes and ears and her heart. 

Think of the last time you had a meal with a friend and ask what you remember most about that encounter. Delicious food and drink, the perfect setting, excellent service and all other amenities quickly fade before the intimacy of the moment as two souls come to rest in each other's company. Time disappears as the bubble of attention shapes and deepens the conversation, and as peace descends on the miracle of two solitudes becoming one transcendent communion. 

Without Martha's practical skills there would have been no meal. But what threatened the moment most was her anxiety and her resentment of her sister. Jesus reaches out to draw Martha into the feast of love Mary is already serving by her attentiveness to the Word, the main course and perfect gift wherever Jesus goes. He is the host and the meal, the bread of life, manna from heaven, the one thing necessary.  

Like another parable, Luke's "Prodigal Son," the goal is not to choose one son over the other, but to bring both of them to the table in love. Jesus rescued a dinner party at the house of his beloved friends by restoring them to a single focus, himself. In that miracle, salvation came to that house.

Who Is My Neighbor?

"Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

By combining two of the most potent stories in the Scriptures, the Lectionary sheds fresh light on a familiar theme, the mercy of God expanding beyond our human prejudices to include everyone, even our enemies. 

The story of Jonah was a tale produced within the Wisdom literature to challenge the Jewish notion of exceptionalism. Jonah resisted his assignment to preach to the Ninevites, Israel's greatest enemy, because he did not want them to be spared punishment. He flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish, but is thrown overboard by the pagan sailors who understand the supreme power of his God.  Even when he arrives in Nineveh, he barely preaches, but the whole nation, from the king down to animals, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and everyone is spared.  

The Parable of the Good Samaritan repeats this theme. The lawyer wants Jesus to define the limits of his obligation to love his neighbor. By telling the story of the rescue and care of a Jew beaten, robbed and left for dead, not by a fellow Jew, or even a priest and a Levite, but by a hated enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, Jesus turns the lawyer's world inside out.  Salvation is revealed not just for the Jews or by the Jews, but by an enemy who has compassion. Whoever shows compassion to another in need is neighbor, and even more, they imitate God, who is always merciful to all.

It was a stunning challenge to the lawyer who had spent his entire life and career  fulfilling the letter of the Law, or so he thought, because he had missed the core of the Law, the command to love God and neighbor, a limitless invitation to love unconditionally wherever love is needed. 

This Gospel of unconditional love denies us the comfort of limiting our love to predictable recipients-- friends, family, neighbors, by race and religion or any other distinction. The test of this limitless love is to substitute for "Samaritan" the name of your worst enemy, the last person on earth you would feel any obligation to help. We can no longer exclude anyone as neighbor, and we must be prepared in our own hour of need to look up from our suffering to find the face of someone we have rejected and hated.

Put aside you guidelines, your rule book, your certitudes about who is worthy or unworthy,  insider or outsider.  Anyone can potentially be your neighbor, and God will come to you  by surprise if you live by love. There is only one rule: "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate." This is an unbearable yet wonderful invitation to life, and to the joy of the Gospel. 

New Wine

"He looked for the crop, but what it yielded was wild grapes" (Isa 5:3). 

The papacy of Pope Francis is summarized in his apostolic letter, Amoris Laetitia, "The Joy of Love." His central message is that God is merciful, and the most significant application of this message will be to get the church's most conservative hierarchy and theologians to open their minds and hearts to a different approach to the pastoral care of married people and families.

Hardline opponents of the pope continue to insist that Communion, the core sign of God's love, be denied any Catholic in an irregular marriage situation. The pope is pressing for a more realistic and compassionate pastoral accompaniment for couples who are struggling in real dilemmas in a conscientious desire to go forward within the church. 

The Word of God speaks to the challenge of mercy in this weekend's powerful readings and sheds both light and grace on Pope Francis' effort to preach the Good News to millions of Catholics suffering exclusion because of traditional teachings that emphasize legal absolutism.

Jesus's parable of the vineyard invokes the lyrical song of Isaiah about the Lord's beloved vineyard -- the people of God. This vineyard has been lovingly fashioned to produce the finest grapes, and from them the finest wine, the symbol of joy. But in Isaiah's lament, Jerusalem and Judah have not produced the harvest God sought. Instead, the vineyard place in their care has produced only wild grapes -- rebellion and shame.

For Jesus, this image described the failure of the leaders of Jerusalem to provide a harvest of justice and love. Despite God's generous gifts and Jesus's own preaching of God's mercy and forgiveness, the scribes and pharisees yielded only sour grapes. The history of their failure included rejection of every messenger and prophet sent by God to ask for an accounting.  The parable foretells that even the owner's beloved son would be murdered by the tenants, who wanted only to claim the vineyard for themselves. 

This stark outcome is in fact what Matthew saw when he composed his Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus' own people had rejected his message and murdered him, like all the preceding prophets. Because of this tragic failure to read the signs of the times, God had built the beloved community on the very cornerstone they had rejected. The kingdom of God would come despite this tragedy, built on a new foundation, the crucified and risen Christ. God was doing something new, and it was marvelous to behold, Matthew declares.  

We ponder this imagery and the parable Jesus told to try and grasp the struggle today to free the church from traditions and approaches to law and pastoral practice that seem only to preserve the power of leaders who reject any attempt to apply the Gospel of mercy to those who have fallen short of the strict ideal and the most literal interpretations of the Scriptures. For them, the church must be a tribunal that punishes and excludes sinners and those wounded on the battlefields of life. Pope Francis sees the church as first a field hospital that tends to the wounded before it passes judgment. Only this kind of church will ever evangelize the world; only this kind of church will show the face of the merciful God Jesus revealed and modeled.  

What is at stake is the Vineyard of the Lord. Without a harvest of sweet grapes there will be no wine, and without the new wine there can be no joy, the joy of love. 

Woe to You

"If the mighty deeds done for you had been done for them, they would long ago have repented" (Luke 10:13).

Today's short Gospel continues yesterday's account of Jesus sending his disciples out to preach the Kingdom. The theme is one of intense urgency and the need for decisiveness. God is offering an incalculable gift, and today's message is a sharp warning to those who reject God's grace when it is being offered.

The backdrop for this urgency is the memory of what happened to Jerusalem when it failed to keep the covenant and was defeated and exiled to Babylon. The prophet Baruch recorded the misery and suffering of the long exile in Babylon. The restoration of Israel became a dominant history lesson. Never again fail to respond to God's grace while you can. Jesus tells his missionaries that if any town rejects them, the are to shake the dust from their feet as a curse on them, for the consequences will be real and serious.  

We prefer a Gospel message of endless mercy and an image of Jesus who never really calls us to decide. No doubt God is infinitely forgiving and merciful, but we live in reality and in history, where evils we set in motion or ignore do not disappear of themselves, but have their effect.  Injustice leads to conflict and often to violence, sweeping both the guilty and the innocent away in its path. 

A wise mentor once told me, "God never told anyone to be stupid." If we see problems growing in our lives, our culture, our national life, but do nothing to solve them, we should not be surprised if they cause us suffering. God's mercy will not spare us the lessons of history we bring down on ourselves.

Pope Paul VI once said, "if you want peace, work for justice."  We might add, "If you want to be comforted, seek wisdom and then do what it tells you to do."

Harvest Time

"Ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers..." (Luke 10:2).

In his masterpiece novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens began with the words, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." It is the nature of history that every crisis is also a moment of great opportunity. Times of tragedy also produce enormous courage. Disasters purify motivation and force wavering, indecisive people to act in ways that will define them for the rest of their lives. 

Who is know if we do not live in such a moment now? Only in hindsight will the world realize that it was brought back from the brink by heroes we cannot predict but will some day honor for their wisdom and bravery.

When Jesus sent out the 72 disciples to prepare the way for his arrival in the surrounding villages, he knew that forces were marshaling against him in Jerusalem and Rome, in the palace of Herod and the precincts of the Temple and the Sanhedrin. At the very moment he foresaw his own death and rejection, he proclaimed that a great harvest was ready, He sent out the 72 disciples "like lambs among wolves" to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, to heal and drive out evil spirits.  The fact of his own death was for Jesus the fulfillment of his call to be God's Suffering Servant. He embraced his call with confidence that from the chaos would rise the beloved community, the New Creation. 

Do we feel this same call in our lives now? For many it is only the worst of times, reason to withdraw and seek personal safety, or to go passive and give up hope, or to grow cynical and detached about the fate of the world as inevitabilitly takes its course and vents its pathological fury in one calamity after another. 

Or are we being called to be laborers in the harvest of insight and compassion and solidarity with others, to enter the fray and work for peace and justice, to join with others in creative solutions and community building. Recent tragedies in storm ravaged areas of the country and the shocking violence in Las Vegas display examples of people choosing hope over despair, active engagement over flight and detachment. Love triumphs over death when people choose life in the face of suffering and loss. 

Dickens' novel ends with a lone hero going to the guillotine, giving his life to save another, knowing that despite his many personal failures, "It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done." 

The Lord is calling,The harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Who will come into the fields to do the Lord's work? 

Christ in Our Midst

"I will follow you wherever you go" (Luke 9:58).

To visit the Italian city of Assisi is to know the difference between being a tourist and pilgrim. The preserved sites of the life of the 13th century saint draw the visitor into an encounter with this extraordinary individual who was determined to follow Jesus in a radical and almost literal way. St. Francis uncovered the mystery of Christ in his brief life, and it was like exposing a light buried under centuries of historical accretion and distortion. In Francis, Jesus was again fully visible.

St. Francis was called in an encounter with an image of the crucified Christ  hanging in the sanctuary of an abandoned and broken down church, saying to him, " Repair my church." In his fervent idealism, the young Francis first thought he was to restore the physical building, but soon realized that Jesus was asking him to rekindle the radical gospel of poverty and peacemaking in a church corrupted by wealth and power.

The example of his simple life, compassion for the poor and mercy for all caught on among the young people of his time, creating a flood of vocations into the mendicant orders. The papacy rushed to get these new orders of uncloistered, itinerant preachers and servants under ecclesiastical control, recognizing that a fundamental shift in culture and perception was taking place that would eventually open the door to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. A feudal and monastic model of centralized control could no longer contain society.

Pope Francis has recovered all of the ideals espoused by St. Francis by taking his name:  The call for a church of the poor for the poor, the care of our common home, the Earth, and the demand for justice and peace as the only way the world can go forward.  The pope has also lived in the spirit of St. Francis by his simplicity, joy and compassion. We will honor and celebrate the feast of this great saint for our time by doing the same. 

Angels Watching Over Me

"The city shall be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets" (Zech 8:4). 

At a time when hope seemed like a distant dream, the prophet Zechariah tells the people of Jerusalem that God will restore Zion and fill the city of Jerusalem with peace.  One image of that peace is that children will play in the streets. It is an image from my own childhood, growing up in a neighborhood whre we could play ball in the streets into the early evening in the summer, until the street lights went on and our parents called us to come home. 

It is a fitting scene for the feast of Guardian Angels, so often associated with the protection of children. Belief in angels also requires a childlike faith, and some of the best theologians convey that faith in describing these intermediaries who communicate God's mysterious presence in our lives.  Angels emanate from the divine heart of God, pure spiritual beings who cross over into our material realm to remind us of God's immanence and protection. 

Jesus had a lively sense of angels, whose faces always beheld the Face of God as they watched over innocent children. To despise or abuse a child is to violate the intimacy they have naturally with God, and why it is a sin of profound and frightening consequences. For children are our models for what it means to trust God, to believe in God with open hearts and confidence.  

As we go through today, it is no small thing to believe in and look for signs that we are surrounded by God's love, manifested in the care of angels, or that each of us has a special angel.  And some of us, perhaps two or three.  

Late? Come On In!

"What is your opinion?  A man had two sons ..." (Matt 21:28). 

The spiritual journey of St. Augustine to God is beautifully captured in two quotes from his writings that bracket his response.  As a young man engaged in life's pleasures, he said to God, "Make me good, but not yet." Toward the end of his life and after his conversion, he lamented the years lost to sinful postponement: "Lord, late have I loved you." 

In today's short parable, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders who are criticizing him for being merciful to sinners, "Tax collectors and prostitutes said no to God, but then obeyed him, while you said yes, then did not obey."  Like the two sons of the vineyard owner, sinners refused God's invitation, then changed their minds, while the leaders claimed they were doing God's will, but never acted accordingly. 

We have the saying, "Better late than never," and this describes the rush of sinners to John the Baptist's call to justice, while the religious leaders held back. It also describes how sinners came to Jesus when he announced God's mercy, while the priests and elders had only criticism and self-righteous scorn for Jesus' message. Who was being saved? The sinners, even if they were late in coming. Who was being lost? The self-righteous who excluded themselves because God was being just too generous.

The opening line of this simple yet powerful parable, "A man had two sons,"  reminds us of another parable, "The Prodigal Son." Perhaps today's parable was an early version of the more developed and dramatic appeal to be merciful. The younger son rejects his father and squanders his share of the estate, but then repents and is welcomed back, while the older son obeys his father on the surface but lives in bitter resentment and refuses to accept his brother when the father welcomes him home. 

The Word comes to us today to remind us not only to let God be God in how merciful God is with others, but also to invite us to imitate our merciful God, who loves all of us in the same way.  The only thing that can keep us out of heaven, both now and in eternity, is our own self-righteous resentment of others we judge to be less worthy of God's love than we are. 

The challenge is to respond to God quickly and fully and not waste our lives measuring our virtues against other people's sins. If we do this, we will miss the gracious relationship God is seeking with us here and now, and we will know the regret of having come late to divine Mercy when it was always there, waiting for us to say yes. 

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