Feminine Genius

"Accompanying Jesus were th Twelve and some women ..." (Luke 8:2).

During a recent talk to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis acknowledged that the church has moved too slowly to address the problem of the abuse of children and the transfer of problem priests to new situations where they abused again. 

Among the issues facing the commission is the loss of one of its most outspoken members, an Irish woman who is herself an abuse survivor. She left the commission to protest its slowness and failure to enact policies it had promised to implement. 

One criticism of the church's response in the past is that women were systematically excluded from the diocesan bodies that examined cases and proposed remedies. It seems inconceivable that had women been at the table when credible accusations of abuse were discussed, offending priests would have been quietly reassigned to other places, or criminal acts not reported. Strategies to protect the institution at the expense of victims and their families would never have become the extensive cover up that has so damaged the official church and its ministries and led to the loss of billions of dollars and bankruptcy for so many dioceses. 

The absence of women at the highest levels of church governance and decision making has impoverished the church and damaged its credibility. The practice of excluding women has also ignored evidence that Jesus' own inner circle included women. By protecting an all-male clerical culture, the church has lost the benefit of the wisdom and experience women bring to the human family and the essential gender balance that characterizes the human community.

Pope Francis has sought to change this, and it must seem clear to him that his larger effort to renew the church as the face of divine Mercy has also been hurt by this larger, historical failure to renew the church from within. Today's Word is the voice of Jesus asking, "Where are the women?"


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St. Matthew the Evangelist

"Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift" (Eph 4:7).

Matthew the Evangelist composed the account of the life of Jesus for a community of Jewish Christians probably in Antioch of Syria toward the end of the first century. His church was primarily Jewish, but expanding to include gentile converts, which caused tensions evident in the Gospel over the question of just how Jewish a gentile had to be to be a Christian.  St. Paul's gentile ministry forced the early church to decide this difficult question. 

Matthew's Gospel repeatedly shows Jesus fulfilling prophecies and figures from the Jewish scriptures. The phrase, "this was to fulfill the scriptures" repeatedly shows how intent he was in reassuring his Jewish converts that Jesus was the promised messiah and that their conversion to Christianity was not an abandonment of their original faith. Jesus is presented as the new "Moses," whose Ten Commandments become the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel is divided into five sections to parallell the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Infancy narratives connect Jesus to the story of how the Hebrews went down to Egypt, with another Joseph the dreamer as God's instrument. and God's call of Moses to liberate his people fulfilled in the destiny of Jesus. 

The layered complexity of all the Gospels reveals to us just how profoundly impacted the first generations of believers were by the mystery of Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection breaks open all of history to the the grace of God liberating the world from sin and death.  

Matthews many parables tell the impact of the Gospel on the lives of the first converts, including their struggle to come to faith (the Sower), to form community (the Wheat and the Weeds), and his powerful depiction of the final judgment in Chapter 25 completes the Beatitudes with the Corporal Works of Mercy as the way Jesus continues to confront us in the world in our poor, hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, alienated and persecuted brothers and sisters.

We rejoice in Matthew's gift to share the Good News with the church, at its inception and now, for us, who struggle with the same challenges they faced.  

Where is the Wisdom?

"To what shall I compare the people of this generation?" (Luke 7:31).

American television audiences who are willing to watch the 10-part series on the Vietnam War are getting a timely and tragic history lesson. Some 50 years after the war, the verdict of historians, combatants, politicians, victims and eye-witnesses is that the U.S. government's belief that it had to destroy Vietnam to save it and the West from a Cold War communist take-over in all of Southeast Asia was both a misreading of the reality on the ground and a colossal and delusional act of hubris. 

Lessons are too late for the past but critical for now. An American president who avoided serving in the Vietnam War and who seems to know very little history is promising to destroy an entire country on the Korean peninsula for challenging American power. As the world watches and waits to see who will blink first, the use of deadly force is the only option on the table in a stand-off between two leaders who prefer theater to dialogue, with millions of lives at stake. 

With the destruction of Jerusalem looming in the Jewish-Roman War in 70 C.E., a war that that claimed over a million lives, Luke's Gospel recalls the utter frustration of Jesus when he tried to direct history away from catastrophe. Jesus described the nation's leaders as behaving like children who sit in the market square unable decide on what game to play. Paralyzed by indecision and pride, the moment for conversion was passing by quickly, with dire, irreversible consequences. Jerusalem killed the prophets, then realized too late the folly of rejecting their wisdom when it really mattered. 

We pray for Good News, for safety and rescue, and the Word of God invites us to an examination of conscience and a commitment to work for peace, first in our own hearts, then in our culture, mesmerized by violence, and finally in our  precarious world.  We should not be caught unawares, for the choices we  make now will decide the world  being shaped by our action or inaction. 

Trading Places

"When Jesus saw her he was moved with pity ad said, 'Do not weep' " (Luke 7:13).

There are several scenes in the Gospels in which the situation Jesus encounters mirrors his own life and intended mission. One is the story of Zacchaeus, who climbs a tree to see Jesus. When Jesus calls this public sinner down from the tree to restore him to God's mercy, he is clearly trading places with him. For in a matter of months, he will be hanging from a tree in Jerusalem, crucified for the sins of the world.  The other parallel story is today's gospel account of the raising of the dead son of the Widow of Nain.

Jesus meets the funeral procession as he enters the city with the crowd.  Here is a widow on her way to bury her only son. His death, and the death or absence of a husband, means that the woman will be left defenseless and without support in a culture where women's status derived from their relationship to the men in their lives. 

Does Jesus see his own widowed mother in this distraught woman? Her only son is also on his way to die, and the death of Jesus will expose Mary, his mother, to the same poverty and anonymity. This fact is addressed in John's Gospel, where at the cross the dying Jesus entrusts his mother to his faithful disciple and him to her. 

Jesus is moved with pity for the widow whose son has died. His wrenching sorrow touches deeply the anguish his own death will inflict on his widowed mother.  By raising the young man and restoring him to his mother, Jesus is again trading places with them, applying the benefit he believes will flow from his sacrifice to her loss. 

The raising of the dead boy is also a spectacular miracle, the only such miracle in Luke's Gospel. In John's Gospel, Lazarus will be raised and restored to his sisters, Martha and Mary, but it will also serve as one of the final "signs" that make up this gospel. It is a foreshadowing of the final and greatest sign of all -- the mystery of Jesus' own resurrection revealed to eyes of faith that behold and understand the meaning of the crucifixion. When the Son of Man is "lifted up" in his death, he will also be raised to glory, the outpouring of eternal life on believers that is the point of the Gospel. 

Jesus will trade places with each of us.  At the moment of our deaths, Jesus will take upon himself the penalty of human suffering and death to set us free to life in God.  This is the joy of the Gospel, that God so loved the world, and each of us, that God gave his only begotten Son that we might have life. 

Expanding Faith

"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Luke 7:9).

Luke's Gospel, like his other book, "The Acts of the Apostles," promotes a perspective prevalent in the early church, that the future of the Christian expansion was in the Gentile world. Luke was linked to Paul, who took the Gospel to the Graeco-Roman world, and his Gospel is addressed to "Theophilus," a representative figure of that larger realm.  Especially after the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of both Jews and Christians into the empire, the effort to appeal to a gentile audience was clear. 

So today's story in Luke about Jesus praising a Roman centurion for faith greater than any found in Israel works to this intent.  The centurion ( a commander over 100 soldiers) does not ask Jesus to ignore the Jewish prohibition to enter a pagan household in order to heal his slave. He understands authority, and he assumes that Jesus can order the sickness to depart. For this assumption, Jesus praises his faith, and the slave is restored to health. 

During Jesus' time, the presence of the Romans was hardly welcome by most Jews. Even if a particular commander had contributed to the building of the local synagogue,he was still part of a brutal occupation, and as Pilate often demonstrated, Rome did not hesitate to use violence to deal with Jewish resistance.  Jesus' outreach to this man would have been controversial. But it was nothing new for Jesus to go beyond expectations in many areas by reaching out to lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and other outcasts, so he undoubtedly was also open to even the Romans. 

The Gospel is an ever-expanding mission, and this was true from the very beginning.  Pope Francis insistence that evangelization is always about going to the margins, to the borders of doctrinal safety, to the ends of the earth and to anyone who hungers for God no matter what their beliefs are.  We are part of this mission, so our attitudes toward the stranger, the outcast and to the unchurched and unbelieving must continually be stretched if we are to keep up with Jesus.  

Radical, Unlimited Forgiveness

"Lord, how often must I forgive?" (Matt 18:21).

One reading of history suggests that the rule of law emerged from more primitive times in which a kind or reign of terror predominated. Roving bands of hunter gatherers competed over food, land, water and any other desirable resource in the struggle to survive. Might made right as tribes pillaged weaker neighbors, seizing livestock and enslaving people. It was survival of the fittest. 

Against this grim backdrop, the law of the talon -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- was real progress. No more wanton killing and unlimited vengeance on someone who hurts you. Do no more harm to another than what was done to you.  

The next level up,  to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," was truly a golden rule, advocating mutual interest and a proportionality applied to an otherwise Wild-West-anything-goes morality. The Code of Hammurabi and the Jewish Decalogue made possible rational societies with rules that brought some order and structure.

When Jesus preached unlimited forgiveness, he was drawing on an even more radical idea of compassion from Israel's founding experience of the Exodus. Because God had chosen to rescue the Hebrews from slavery and give them the Promised Land, Jews were to treat others in the same way. The Sinai covenant included the obligation to show compassion for alien residents, slaves, widows and orphans, the sick and the poor, because God had shown the same compassion for them when they were oppressed in Egypt. The measure of mercy was no longer justice but God's own extravagant mercy towards Israel when its people were nobodies. 

For Jesus, this call to show mercy included even your enemies, those who offend and hurt you, those who are beyond your obligations to tribe and race, family and friends. Everyone is your neighbor, especially anyone in need. To love everyone unconditionally was to imitate your heavenly Father, who loves sinners and the righteous alike, who never stops forgiving anyone who asks for it.  

Today's Gospel parable is one of the most demanding examples of this core teaching. How many times must we forgive another who offends us? Seven times seven? No, Jesus says, "Seventy times seven," or endless forgiveness. To illustrate this radical demand, Jesus describes a servant who is forgiven a huge debt by his master and then refuses to forgive a small debt owed him by a fellow servant.  The message is clear: How can we limit our love for another when our very existence is a gift from God who has loved us unconditionally and beyond measure?  

Just how radical this teaching was is seen in the way the Gospel writer (and the early church 50 years later) ended this parable. Outraged by the behavior of the forgiven servant who refuses to forgive, the king pounces on him and gives him over to the torturers until he has repaid his entire debt.  This makes sense and satifies our own outrage, but it also contradicts the logic of the parable Jesus told.  Can we speculate that the ending was added onto Jesus' original lesson about  mercy because even the church could not abide such unlimited love as it struggled to establish order in its faith communities? It was simply too radical, like other teachings on poverty and pacisfism. There had to be some limits if the church was to survive internal conflicts and attract converts.  

So what was Jesus intent? Perhaps the core of the parable and the heart of Jesus' radical call to mercy was his insight that if we limit our capacity to love others we will limit our capacity to understand the mystery of God, who is Mercy itself, unconditional love, endless forgiveness. If we narrow our vision and let reason and justice define our hearts, we will miss the grace God gives us to go beyond all human measure in our compassion for everyone, even our enemies.  We will never grasp the invitation to love the unlovable, to encounter the Good Samaritan who rescues his Jewish brother who hates him, or the prodigal Father who astonishes his oldest son by taking back his younger sibling after he had wasted the family inheritance on sinful living.  

St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love." God has loved us into being ex nihilo. When we were nobodies, God called us by name and loved us as his beloved children. This is the mystery we must embrace if we want to know God, if we want to be God's children as holy as God is holy. 

Stabat Mater

"And you yourself a sword of sorrow will pierce so that the thoughts of many will be revealed."

Among the sentient animals of Creation, only the human animal is aware that it will die. This self-conscious realization of eventual death means that every mother giving birth holds her child with the awareness that the life begun with such joy will also end some day in sorrow.

What may seem a curse, this foreknowledge of natural death is also what make human life so unique. Persons get to plan their limited time on earth, They can choose to live purposefully, projecting goals that use all their gifts, knowing they only have so much time before aging and illness limit their activity. 

When Joseph and Mary took the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to make an offering and present him to the Lord, they met Simeon and Anna, who proclaimed the special destiny of Jesus. He will be a decisive force in the story of Israel, the cause for the rise and fall of many. His destiny will also be like a sword of sorrow piercing his mother's heart. She will accompany him in his redemptive suffering and death. At this moment, a long shadow was cast over Mary and Joseph that even the light of glory surrounding their son could not take away.  

To be alive is to anticipate our inevitable deaths. To be intimately united to others in love is to suffer with them. Is there any real escape from this common fate, and if we could escape, would we want to be relieved of the experience of love that binds us together as human beings?  

Mary stands at the cross with all other mothers, and fathers, in the common bond of love they have with their children. We are all in this together, for death is the threshold to resurrection. If we die with Christ we will rise with him. This is the whole story. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

The Power of the Cross

"He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7). 

The death of Jesus by crucifixion must have shocked his followers, and the scandal of such a death must have made preaching his Lordship and power as Savior of the world a challenging prospect. When Paul preached in Athens, he held his audience with eloquent arguments from philosophy but was laughed at when he spoke of Jesus as a crucified man who had been raised from the dead. 

It seems to have taken the early church a generation to understand how Jesus' suffering, death and apparent failure had in fact fulfilled the Law and the prophets. God was in on the paradox and the scriptures had foretold it. The world was saved not by a triumphant warrior messiah but by a suffering servant, rejected by his own people and murdered by the empire. 

We struggle ourselves with the idea that suffering is in any way redemptive, or that the cross is somehow a sign of power. At the same time, we experience the power of a sacrificial death when someone who sought justice is assassinated, as was Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We are moved by the death of Rutillio Grande and Oscar Romero in solidarity with the people of El Salvador. We honor anyone who sacrifices their own life to save the lives of others. They suddenly stand out in contrast to the many people who seek power but only for self-aggrandizement. 

Jesus revealed what it means to be a human being. He lived his life for others, eve to the point of death. Because he humbled himself to serve others, then laid down his life for them, we recognize in him the pattern of a truly good and honorable life. By his cross we were all lifted up to a higher consciousness of what life is for. This is the way to live, and this is what a good death looks like. If we imitate Jesus, we will share in the eternal life he revealed on the cross. 

A Time to Decide

"Rejoice and leap for joy on that day" (Luke 6:24)).

One of the great folk songs from the labor movement has the question: "Whose side are you on?" It reminds us that there are times in life when we need to take sides, decide where we stand without equivocation. We cannot be on every side of an issue or call ambiguity our final position on a matter of real importance. 

In today's gospel passage, Luke offers his version of the Beatitudes. Unlike Matthew, who focuses exclusively on the blessed, Luke matches each call to discipleship with the woe that will come those who reject discipleship instead. Luke's list of blessings and woes leave no room to straddle. They demand" "Whose side are you on?" 

Those who commit to live as God's poor, hungry, weeping and persecuted for the sake of ithe Kingdom will leap for joy. Their reward will be great in heaven. But those who lived only to satisfy themselves, consumed and laughed and basked in the approval of this world, they will be cast out.

We hear in Luke's litany of blessings and woes the same fierce decisiveness he places in the mouth of Mary when she proclaims her Magnificat. On the day God fulfills his promises, the rich and powerful will be pulled down from the their thrones, the satisfied will be sent away empty. At her meeting with Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps for joy. John the Baptist will be the voice of God's justice, warning the proud and powerful of the wrath to come. 

The Gospel of mercy is not a reprieve from conversion or an indefinite delay of justice or truth. The Good News is an invitation, not just a suggestion, to get our lives into right relationship with God, one another and the world. God's infinite love will come as fire to those who ignore reality or deny accountability for their actions.  

We ponder these things because without shadow there is no light, and our freedom to say yes to God is meaningless if we can't also say no.