Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The Handwriting on the Wall

"By your perseverance you will secure your lives" (Luke 21:19).

The Christian church Luke was writing for no doubt felt the threat of persecution as Christianity began to spread in the Roman empire. Believers were being brought before magistrates for refusing to offer incense to the gods and patriotic fealty to the State. Followers of Jesus were regarded as radicals, and joining the church caused conflict between generations in families. Spies turned in dissenters and neighbors betrayed one another. 

Luke's account of Jesus' prediction that persecution would happen drew on older scriptural texts about brave believers who resisted rulers. The Book of Daniel tells how God protected the Jews during the Babylonian captivity, even when they confronted their conquerors, as today's reading describes. Daniel, who in yesterday's passage did not hesitate to tell the king that his kingdom had "feet of clay," again tells the king today that the "handwriting is on the wall' and that his rule was about to fall apart. These example of prophetic courage were intended to inspire Luke's community under persecution. 

How much courage does it take to live the Christian life today? In some part of the world it can be a matter of life an death. Pope Francis' decision to go to Myanmar and Bangladesh has put him and the small Catholic community there in the crosshairs of controversy between Buddhists and Muslims. To speak of everyone as worthy of human dignity and basic rights is a courageous thing to say in some places. But the pope has stepped in where most other world leaders have remained silent. 

Everyone who advocates for justice is walking a radical line in our own society. To protest for an end to nuclear weapons, prison reform, racial equality, a living wage, protection of refugees and immigrants takes courage. The promise of the Spirit to give eloquence to those who witness for what is right invites all of us to step into the breach where we live to defend the most vulnerabie and to speak for the voiceless. This is a matter of faith as much as maintaining our religious practices and orthodoxy. 

 

Bring on the Revolution

"Teacher, when will all this happen?" (Luke 21:8).

When Luke composed his Gospel, he focused on Jesus as the champion abd fulfillment of the many promises and prophecies found in the scriptures. From Mary's canticle, based on Hannah's song at the birth of her son, Samuel, to Jesus' inaugural address in the synagogue of Nazareth, based on Isaiah, It is clear that God was intent on revolution.  

The coming of God's kingdom gave notice that the world was about to be turned upside down. The mighty would be brought down, the poor raised up. The first would be last, the last first. Prisoners and the oppresssed would be set free. A jubilee year would challenge the income gap of ownership, and economic advantage would be reset to give everyone a fresh start. 

What then and now seemed a utopian dream was in fact a warning, that without fairness and social justice, the world was courting disaster. Voluntary change rooted in conversion and reconciliation was necessary not as an option but  to avert violent overthrow and endless war. 

Luke found in the apocalyptic themes of Ezekiel and Daniel the imagery we find in today's readings. Even great empties would have "feet of clay" and come crashing down. Cosmic disturbances and  and natural cataclysms would  signal a time of judgment. 

We read these ancient texts and wonder just how they could apply to us. Several truths are laid at our doorstep in the 21st century. First, God works with human freedom. A world that refuses to read the signs of the times or learn from history will repeat its mistakes and cycle through another round of failure and suffering. Second, our freedom means we must not wait passively for disaster to overtake us, but  we are called to take responsibility for our human institutions, systems and structures. Third, God provides every grace and resource we need to change history. The Kingdom of God is always at hand when we join hands with God to make a difference. 

 

God Sees the Heart

"This poor widow put in more than all the rest" (Luke 21:3).

Jesus praises a poor widow for putting more into the temple treasury than all the rich donors making a great fanfare of their donations because her gift was all she had to live on, while the rich only gave from their surplus wealth. 

The image begs comparison with the current debate over a tax bill in Congress that many critcs say will benefit the wealthy at the expense of ordinary tax payers over time. Tax rates will determine the impact on different groups, and while in a graduated system the amount the rich pay is more than others, the impact is much less, because it comes from great wealth, not from their sustenance. Middle income people will pay a higher percentage of their livelihood, while also losing deductions and programs they benefitted from in order to pay for this shift in total tax burden. 

Jesus used the impact rule, not the amount, to compare the generosity of the widow to the big donors. While this Gospel might be regarded as only a lesson about generosity, it is impossible to separate it from the the context. Jesus had only recently "cleansed" the temple in a dramatic protest, calling it a "den of thievers." In today's Gospel he critiques the wealthy donors as part of a system that made them rich and so many others, including this widow, desperately poor.  To point out this shameful income gap and neglect of the poor in God's own house should not be lost on us.  

The current  income distribution enabled, aided and abetted by our political system has created vast wealth for the few and hardship for the majority. Good government and a fair tax system are the only way this dangerous gulf can be addressed. Corruption threatens the whole system. It is not just economics and politics, but a matter or dire moral necessity. Today's poor widow confronts us, and Jesus makes this a personal challenge for us all. 

Real Power

"As long as you did it for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me" (Matt 25:40).

Diplomacy is often called "soft power." To avoid open conflict, diplomats use every kind of inducement, persuasion and logic to reach a settlement. The use of force is kept off the table as a last resort. War seldom resolves the underlying issues, and often only lays the groundwork for the next conflict. War also has enormous consequences, many of them unpredictable and devastating. War, someone once observed, reverses the corporal works of mercy. Hungry people starve, thirsty people die of polluted water, millions suffer harm, are turned into refugees and prisoners.

Jesus revealed God as the ultimate source of soft power. God's real authority is as the Creator, not the Destroyer. God provides everything people need in a bountiful natural world meant to be shared. God gave us a share of the divine nature--the ability to think and choose in community for the common good, for it is our very nature to be communal, collaborative, rational and compassionate. We know God when we care for one another, when we heal and create and celebrate together. Built-in natural laws and the principle of causality teach us that good actions bring peace and order, while bad behavior wreaks havoc and eventually comes back to punish those who ignore its limits and rules. 

To speak of Jesus as Christ the King is to acknowledge him as the epitome of God's soft power. His nonviolence was not a tactic or option, but a demonstration of the way reality works. The use of force disrupts the way God intended the world to develop and flourish. HIs ministry was always about restoring, healing, building, welcoming and cooperting toward a beloved community, where love rules and justice protects the welfare of everyone. It is the standard of humanity written into creation and our human DNA. It is the script for human success and the key to human holiness  

The vision of such a beloved community can seem weak and foolish in a world where might makes right and force seems to get the job done. Yet we see the misery and destruction that brings, the short term gain of the winners and the endless repeated cycles of violence and retribition that afflict the human community generation after generation. Is a world of walled borders, armed camps and the constant threat of destruction the best we can do? 

Matthew 25 is both a vision of the beloved community and a warning to anyone who would ignore the needs of others. God is hiding among the poor, the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned and outcast of the human family. The failure to love God among our brothers and sisters is the ultimate failure and denial of the meaning and purpose of life. Behold the king of humanity, the model for maturity and divine destiny. As the author of life, Jesus demonstrated for us the authorty that underlies everything.  To obey that authority is to choose life. 

House of Prayer

"All the people were hanging on his words" (Luke 19:48).

In many respects the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Israel's economy. Returning pilgrims exchanged foreign currencies for the local coin, votive offerings and animal sacrifices tied to annual liturgical feasts created  a market for birds and livestock. The Roman occupation skimmed the temple tax generated to support the high priests and Herod's court. Major holy days like Passover must have created an unholy cacophany and crowdlike atmosphere in the outer courts. 

Luke tells as that Jesus was teaching daily in the temple after his arrival in Jerusalem toward the end of his ministry. Jesus observed everything, including the trumpeted announcements of a major donor dropping coins noisiy into metal cauldrons, or the humble offerings of widows and the poor. 

The Temple itself, buit by King Herod to ingratiate himself to his Jewish subjects, was a focus of protests by purists who regarded it as an affront to the covenant and a constant reminder of the complicity of wealth and power. Jesus' decision to stage a symbolic "cleansing" of the Temple was one expression of that ongoing protest. It dramatized the claim that the Temple, instead of being a house of prayer, had become "a den of thieves." Jesus' public action was serious threat to the authority of the high priests, and it must have hardened their resolve to put a stop to his ministry at any cost. 

Jesus' "zeal" to restore the Temple to its purpose as a house of prayer was a visible expression of his core mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God-- the full reorientatin of Jewish life back to the covenant. It was his call to restore every Jewish heart to being a house of prayer, a place of obdience to the commandment to love of God and neighbor. Without this organizing principle, the essential identity of Israel was being corrupted to a kind of consumer culture focused on hypocritical show and material competition rife with injustice and the neglect of the poor. 

We can draw our own conclusions about whether our own society is a house of prayer or a den of thieves, but the judgment should begin within our own hearts. Where is the focus of our time, treasure and talent? Are we defined by our principles or our possessions? Today's reading is an invitation to cleanse our own houses in preparation for Advent, our annual chance to restore God to a central place in our lives. If we do this, everything else will take care of itself. 

The Attitude of Gratitude

"Has none but this foreigner retured to give thanks?" (Luke 17:19).

What was it about the one Samaritan among the other lepers that moved him to return to Jesus to thank him? Was it because he was the outsider, the last person to think that he would share in the healing given the Jewish lepers from a Jewish healer? His astonishmnt at being cleansed must have overwhelmed him. In any event, his outcast status meant he could not go with the others to show himself to the priests and offer sacrifice in the temple.

As they went off rejoicing, he stood alone, looking at his hands, feeling his face to be sure that everything was smooth and whole again. He was free to go home, to return to his famiily in Samaria. How long had he been separated from his wife and children, his parents, relatives and the community he had once been part of? When he got home and everyone had shared his astonishment at what had happened to him, perhaps they would have a feast. Everyone would be there, crowded around the table, hearing his prayer of gratitude to the man from Galilee who had not hesitated to heal him, the Samaritan. 

But first he would go back to find Jesus to say thank you. Was it then, in that chance to reflect even more deeply on the source of the gift he had received, that he began to understand that Jesus was more than a miracle worker? 

Finding Jesus, the man fell to his knees, tears running down his cheeks, unable to find words to express his gratitude. Jesus turned and reached down and lifted him to his feet. He looked at him with love and praised him for seeking to grasp the meaning of this encounter, not just for his physical health, but because salvation had come to him that day. His faith had saved him. 

We will pause today to take stock of our blessings, hopefully at a family table surrounded by those we love. May our feasting also be a Eucharist, with Jesus presiding, sharing the ultimate sign of Thanksgiving. May there be at least one or two outcasts among us, family members perhaps, or a leper, or strangers welcomed to share our bounty. May we have eyes to see the hidden blessings, always more than we had imagined, and multiplied because we opened our hearts in gratitude. 

Accountability

"He told this parable because he was near Jerusalem" (Luke 19:11).

Today's Gospel is Luke's version of the same story we heard last Sunday from Matthew. Servants are entrusted with wealth and judged by how they invested it. Luke gives the story added urgency by reminding his readers that Jesus told it as he was getting near Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. Accountability was drawing near, and everyone ought to understand that to whom much is given, much will be expected.

When Jesus arrived at Jerusalem, he wept for the faiure of its leaders to respond to God's invitation. God has poured out every gift on Israel, giving his chosen people every grace needed to find abundant life. God has sent generation after generation of prophets to remind the people of the Covenant, of the gift of the Law, of their rescue, firste from slavery in Egypt, then again from exile in Babylon. But they had turned their backs and failed to keep faith or to show any return for all that God had investd in them. 

The parable was a warning. Accountability would come not as punishment from God but as the logical consequnce of their refusal to read the signs of the times. Within a generation, the city of Jerusalem would lie in ruins and its people killed to scattered in a suicidal war with Rome. Luke offers this parable of Jesus as the verdict of history. But its lessons would be writ large on the whole of human behavior: For every gift there is a reckoning. You will reap what you sow. 

Enfolded in the glad tidings of God's merciful plan for human happiness is our need to respond. Salvation is not imposed. Our participation is required. We are free to reject God's invitation. We are not free to do nothing, for not to decide is to decide. 

As the end of the church year approaches, the urgency to choose life will increase. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and his cross, when the ultimate gift of love will be revealed. Will we be there to receive what God is offering? 

 

Come On Down

Today salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:10).

The familiar story of Zacchaeus is a favorite because it has so many of the elements of a conversion story. 

Zacchaeus first hears about Jesus, that he, unlike other religious figures, loves to eat with sinners. Knowing himself to be a sinner, a hated collaborator with the occupation who has enriched himself by extracting imperial taxes from his own fellow Jesus, Zacchaeus is curious to see this traveling preacher when he passes through Jericho. But he quickly realizes the obstacles to that encounter. His righteous neighbors will have nothing to do with him and it will be hard to get close to Jesus in the crowd. Zacchaeus is also short in stature, which can be a symbol for his shortcomings and lack of prominence in the community. 

Not to be deterred, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He has done his part to show his openness to what is to come. For at this point in the story, it is Jesus who takes the lead. He looks up, sees the tax collector in the tree and promptly bids him come down quickly, "for I must stay at your house." 

Now it is Jesus who meets resistance from the crowd, disappointed that he must be a poor prophet indeed not to recognize that the man he has invited himself to stay with is the town sinner. They express their disapproval with loud grumbling. But when Zacchaeus announces his intentions to repent, Jesus rejoices that salvation has come to his house that very day. 

What obstacles, including embarrassment or a sense of unworthiness, would you be willing to endure in order to see Jesus? Would you expose yourself to public rebuke, appear the fool to be seen by Jesus, then give up your whole way of life and its benefits to surrender to his decisionn to come and stay at your house? 

The man in the sycamore tree meets the man on the cross, and a sinful, wasted life is transformed by the unconditional love of Jesus, who takes on himself the sins of the world. Jesus is passing by this very day. Go and do whatever you need to to do to see (believe in) him. He will indeed stay at your house today, and your life will never be the same. 

I Want To See

"What do you want me to do for you?" Luke 18:40).

Jesus asks the blind man the most important question directed at all of us: "What do you want me to do for you?"

What would you ask for?  It may seem obvious in the case of the blind man. He wanted the one thing that would free him from his beggar status, what would allow him to get up and take charge of his life again. He did not want to be sitting on the sidelines while the world walked past. He wanted to see the world so he could decide where to go. 

The Gospels often use sight in more than one meaning. There is physical sight, but there is also that deeper sight called faith. When the blind man heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he was moved to cry out because he had heard that Jesus could heal him. His faith was stirred up as the first glimmer of hope in the possibility of a new and different life. When he receives his sight, he decides that what he wants to do more than anything else is to follow Jesus. 

What would you ask for? We return to the question in our own lives. Asking for sight is a good start, for though we may be already able to see physically, the gift of faith can open our eyes to an even deeper need to find our place on the road of life, our purpose in the world. How many have been sidelined by indecision, even indifference, and life is passing them by. 

If you want more out of your life, perhaps you can, even now, hear the news that Jesus is passing by. He is always passing by, and the chance to come alive, to really see, is always the opportunity we have been waiting for.  If your heart moves you, cry out to Jesus. Don't let the crowd silence you.

This is the one prayer that God inspires and will never fail to answer.  If Jesus calls you to himself and asks you what your want, ask to believe in him. When your eyes are opened, the first thing you will see is his face looking back at you, inviting you to come and follow him. 

Invest

"For everyone who has, more will be given" (Matt 25:29).

Our small Midtown Kansas City church paused today to celebrate the life of a young woman, 26, who died after a four-year struggle with a brain tumor. The loss, devastating for her parents, family and friends, resonated deeply in the faith community, which has witnessed its share of births and deaths over the past year. Yet, even in sorrow, as so many voices from her circles of friends and colleagues testified to Renee's impact on their lives, the spirit of her brief, amazing life overflowed into the church. We had witnessed a work of grace in her young life, enriching us all. 

Jesus' parable of the talents was made real. Talents are given to be invested. Renee multipied her gifts by becoming a catalyst, inspiring others with her honestly and generosity. Her gifts grew exponentially when mixed and matched with the gifts of others in common purpose. A great harvest of joy was the result.

Jesus wanted his disciples to experience this kind of harvest, for the challenge to change the world was so great. But if everyone brought their gifts, partial and incomplete and seemingly small, to the larger process of bulding community, wonderful things would happen. The two servants who invested their talents reaped a return. The servant who out of fear buried his talent had nothing to show. Disciples were to invest, to use their gifts freely, even risking them in the service of others. They would experience the power of grace and know the joy of the Gospel. 

Our encounter with the Word this week urges us to inventory our gifts and to ask just how we are investing ourselves. The basic laws underlying life are clear: Those who sow reap. Those who sow generously will reap generously. Those who do not sow will harvest nothing. Those who have will get more, while those who let their potential wither and atrophy will never know the satisfactions of living productively. 

The parable is a plea to the servant who let fear of the master's expectations keep him from investing his gifts. God would rather have us risk our gifts than let them lie fallow. God is eager to reward even our smallest efforts at using our gifts, for God wants us to experience greater and greater life. 

We come from the eucharistic table immeasurably blessed, having received the very life of Christ in communion. How will we communicate that to others? How can we radiate his life in the coming week?  Grace will find a way if we are open to it. Even the smallest effort will not go unrewarded. 

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