Monumental Hypocrisy

"If we had lived in th days of our ancestores, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophet's blood" (Matt 23:30).

We have seen much in the news of late about the power of monuments. Figures chosen for statues in public places  as heroes often do not meet the test of time, and changing perspectives challenge their roles in history. Civil War memorials glorifying men who fought to preserve slavery are rightly seen as an affront to the descendants of slaves and to the national ideal of equality that emerged from that bloody conflict.  

Jesus pointed to memorials to the prophets in Jerusalem to criticize those who claimed to honor them in death, though in life their ancestors had killed those same prophets. It was the height of hypocrisy to praise them now that they were safely dead while rejecting their powerful call to reform. 

Many prophets are not accepted in their own time and place because their message is ahead of history. How many of us regret that we came so late to protesting the injustice of voter suppression and lack of civil rights for blacks in the 1950s and 1960s? Even the churches were slow to advocate the human rights of millions of citizens. In the future, will we admit our failures now to stand with the poor and the oppressed of today because they seemed invisible to us even as we benefited from their suffering?  Low-wage workers, migrant field labor, exploited women, immigrants and refugees turned away from from our abundant table of life because of fear and greed.

The Living Voice of Jesus calls out any kind of hypocrisy. If we profess high ideals and preach love, we must practice them. Otherwise history will judge us to be white washed tombs filled with dead bones.  Jesus' stinging rebuke of the scribes and the Pharisees is our wake-up call to live our faith now so that history will honor us tomorrow. 

Surprise!

"Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come" (Matt 24:42).

We spend so much energy trying to bring order and predictability to our lives. And when we succeed, our lives settle into familiar patterns that create the illusion of normalcy. 

But consider the catastrophic disruption millions of people on the Texas Gulf Coast are facing because of the storms and flooding there. Driven from their homes by rising waters, lining up for basic services and supplies in crowded shelters, many realizing that they have lost everything and that there will be nothing to return home to.  

A different kind of reality will bring strangers together, create new bonds of mutual dependence, break down differences based on race, income and education, reveal the common humanity that has always been there but blocked by artificial barriers and divisions and prejudices.

Psalm 90 prays that God will "teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart."  We imagine that we are in control or have all the time we need to direct our lives deliberately and productively. But life teaches us that everything can change suddenly and that the only time we really have is now, and that today is the most important day of our lives. 

Jesus tells us, "Stay awake!" For you do not know the day nor the hour." He compares the inbreaking of God to a thief in the night, breaking suddenly into our lives when we least expect it.  Today's gospel passage was addressed to a church awaiting the return of the Lord, but growing weary and lax in faith as the night gets heavy with doubt and disappointment.  Stay at your posts, do your duty, be faithful, for the Lord will surely come.

We are people of the Beatitudes, which describe a time of waiting for a Kingdom that is both here and not yet. We are called to live lives of deep longing and hope, even as we go about our days serving and caring for one another. God will come when we least expect it, but the time will be right, for God knows us perfectly and loves us completely. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Herod and John

"Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody"  (Mark 6:20).

One of the crime mystery programs on television concludes its promos with the words "don't watch alone." The promise of something shocking is meant to tease the audience into watching, but there are some stories that are more than shocking in what they reveal of human weakness, cowardice and brutality.  The death of John the Baptist is one of these stories.

John's popularity was a problem for both Herod and the Romans. He preached a coming catastrophe and judgment unless the nation repented. The sign of repentance was baptism in the Jordan. This symbolic cleansing was also reminiscent of the crossing of the Red sea by the Israelites as they were liberated by God from slavery to Egypt. So it had political as well as religious significance.  

What triggered John's arrest was his public condemnation of Herod's scandalous taking of his brother's wife, Herodias. John's imprisonment set in motion the lurid and twisted plotting by Herodias to force Herod to execute John, accomplished by her daughter's provocative dance at a dinner party. Herod promises her anything, and after consulting with her mother, she demands the head of the Baptist. Herod cannot refuse before his guests, and so John is decapitated and his bloody head is presented to the girl on a platter.

The impact of this martyrdom is a sign for Jesus that the ministry he is beginning after his baptism by John is a dangerous game that will likely lead to his own death. At the news, he withdraws with his disciples. The coming of the Kingdom of God will not be without its cost.

The church celebrates the passion of John the Baptist at a time when radical faith clearly does have a cost. Many disciples have lost their lives in recent years because of persecution and violent repression.  While most American Christians are not likely to lose their lives, anyone who stands up for justice or who sides with the poor, the outcast and the oppressed within our own society is likely to pay a high price.  Now is the hour to show what faith means. John reminds us of this today, and Jesus reminds us of this every day.   

Indignation

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites" (Matt 23:13).

Someone once said that indignation is the strongest expression of love.  We measure Jesus' criticism of the scribes and Pharisees in the light of this truth. The Gospels show countless scenes in which Jesus tries to connect with these religious leaders, eating with them, debating with them, answering their questions and attacks with an attempt at genuine dialogue. 

What causes Jesus to finally overflow with indignation is their hypocrisy. The term is from the Greek meaning "mask," what play actors wear. Whatever their public face or approach, the scribes and Pharisees were not sincere and had no real interest in reaching any accord with Jesus, whom they regarded as a hill country preacher from Galilee, a populist rabble rouser and a scandal for his free association with sinners and the outcast.  

What seems to disturb Jesus the most is that these so-called religious guides and exalted experts were only making it harder for ordinary people to find God. "You lock the Kingdom of God to people. You don't enter yourself, and you block those who try to enter."  The obstacles they put down were literally "scandals" stumbling blocks before innocent people seeking God.  These so-called models of righteousness were full of themselves and their rules, which they piled up on the backs of others while offering no assistance. They keep the small commandments and publicly flaunt their "virtue" while failing to obey the fundamental commandment to love. 

We are not used to hearing  and seeing Jesus this angry, but realize that he is actually trying to call these men back from the edge of self-destruction. Their closed-minded hypocrisy and refusal to repent is leading the entire nation to catastrophe. Jesus pulls out all the stops to shock them with his stinging criticism.  They are hurting people and distorting the image of God. 

Have you every felt indignant? Have you ever felt the need to come to the defense of others? If you could address the leaders of our country and our church at this time, what would you say?  Just as we are called to love others, we are also called to be indignant when defenseless people are treated unfairly by those in power. We are called to protest and to actively oppose policies that hurt others.  This is as much our Christian duty as refusing to be passive, silent and disengaged when others are suffering. 

Church Authority

"Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven" (Matt 13:17).

Matthew 13:18 has long been used to prove that the Catholic church and in particular the succession from Peter to the current pope is God's authorization on the one true church.  Peter is the rock on which the church is built, and Peter receives the keys that open and close the gates of heaven.

Matthew might not object, but he loaded nuance into this passage in the first century before anyone imagined such a thing as papal succession.  

First of all, he calls the man who would emerge as leader of the Apostles "Simon Peter," using both names to describe him.  Simon was derived from the word for "reed", a plant in water that swayed in the wind. It described perfectly the personality of the fisherman who bragged of his steadfastness in crisis, then folded when the test came, denying that he even knew Jesus.  Peter is the name Jesus gave Simon, indicating his later role as a "rock" on which the church would depend.  Throughout the Gospels, Simon Peter reflects both qualities.

For Matthew, the insight that Jesus is the Christ does not come from Simon Peter, but is a sign to Jesus that God had revealed his true identity to him, "not flesh and blood." It is his Abba's blessing that Peter understands, and so Jesus affirms him, calling this wavering reed a rock. But Peter is like the rock in the desert that a wavering Moses had struck to bring forth water for the people. Peter will become that promised leader of the apostles not because of his courage and strength, but because he is broken open by his failure at the time of Jesus' death. Peter will be baptized in his own tears.  Jesus will restore him with forgiveness, then assign leadership to him because he really does understand that mercy is the real bedrock of the church.  Peter is first in mercy because he has received mercy. 

It has alo been pointed out that if the church claims authority based on this story, then the church rests upon a pun-- the play on words between Peter and rock. It is Matthew's way of telling a story immersed in irony and even parody. Indeed, the first will be last and the last first.  Peter becomes leader because he is the least of the Apostles. And so must the pope, to exercise any authority be the servant of the servants of God.  

We rejoice to celebrate God's mysterious ways. We rejoice to have in Pope Francis a leader who publically calls himself a sinner, and whose central mystery is God's everlasting mercy.  

Above All, Love

"Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" (Matt 22:35).

It is fitting that the Lectionary is beginning the Book of Ruth by matching it with the Gospel passage about Jesus and the greatest commandment. The story of Ruth has been called the most endearing love story in the Bible, and when Jesus is asked by the lawyer to go the heart of the Law, he recites the Sh'ma, the commandment to love God and neighbor.  

Religion has a way of making things complicated. The Jewish study of God's revealed word was multiplied by a rich tapestry of every conceivable application of the Law into 613 sub-commandments, with oral and written commentaries that fill libraries. Christianity has produced its own mountain of theological reflection from every angle and theme. 

When a scholar of the law tests Jesus orthodoxy with the question of what was the most important commandment, Jesus answers brilliantly by reciting the short prayer every Jew said daily: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is God alone. 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."  The entire Law is summarized here, and if someone obeys this commandment he or she will automatically keep every commandment. 

Simplicity is often harder to fulfill that complex rules that specify exact behavior and practices.  Love is a many-splendored thing, and seldom do we know how to apply it until a situation arises that tells us how. So we must prepare for anything and be open to endless surprises and adventures as we try to live lives of love. But isn't this the joy of the Gospel?

Set out to love God today with all you heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Before you go to bed tonight, recount all the ways this intention shaped your day.  The decision to love is the greatest decision we can make, and it will change everything. 

Come and See

"How do you know me?" (John 1:48).

Today's Gospel is about Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew among the Apostles.  John's Gospel from the start takes us into a rich multi-layered narrative filled with allusions to other texts and biblical figures, and introduces us to some of the themes and literary devices that will define his entire Gospel. For example, John introduces several meanings for the verb "to see," which can be physical sight or spiritual sight, or faith. The phrase "Come and see" will be repeated as the followers of Jesus move from first sight to second sight, or insight, whereas others, including the learned Pharisees, will say they see even though they are blind to who Jesus really is. 

After Philip, the brother of Peter, is called by Jesus, he brings Nathaniel to Jesus.  Nathaniel is first dismissive, asking "What good can come from Nazareth," a slur on the small village in Galilee. But when Jesus tells him he has seen him "under the fig tree," Nathaniel is blown away by this statement because Jesus has apparently seen him at prayer. Jesus alludes to the story of the Patriarch Jacob's dream of heaven and earth joined by a ladder of ascending and descending angels. Jacob, who was first a man who schemed to trick his brother, Ishmael, into giving him their father's blessing, later has his name changed to Israel after night of wrestling with God.  Nathaniel somehow fits this profile as a "true child of Israel."

These rich associations are built into the text of John's Gospel, for his central message is that Jesus is that divine connection between heaven and earth, the Incarnation of God in the world. Nathaniel is astonished and calls him "Rabbi" and "Son of God." 

A believer does need to know the complexities of the Gospel texts to experience the same encounter being described between Jesus and Nathaniel, or any of the other disciples.  What we are invited to see-- and believe -- is that Jesus knows us intimately and is eager to call us by name. Jesus sees us when we pray, and is continually speaking to us. We are all meant to be disciples.  Our relationship with Jesus makes us transparent to him and enables us to see him deeply with faith. Once in that relationship, we begin to grow more and more like Jesus, for he reveals the divine image and likeness in us, which is our true self.

This interplay of minds and hearts with God is why we exist, why the Word of God seems to come alive in our hearing. For it speaks to us, heart to heart, as a living Voice, calling us to grow toward our divine destiny in God.  All of the Gospels were written not just to tell the story of Jesus, but to help us read the story of our own lives in the light of Jesus. The invitation to Nathaniel, "Come and see," is given to us as well.  If we respond we will surely find life. 

Fairness and Mercy

"The vineyard workers grumbled against the landowner" (Matt 20:13).

Growing up in a large family brought both trials and benefits. My parents had to deal with all of us one at a time and in different ways.  I remember that one of my brothers got lots of attention for being in trouble a lot, and those of us who were doing our best to please grumbled, "It isn't fair!". My mother said to us, "Your brother needs more love right now, so let me love him the way he needs to be loved.  

Looking back I know that we all were loved unconditionally and that everyone got more than enough love from both our parents. But the lesson stayed, that need determines response, not simple equality. 

Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers to critics who complained because he was spending too much attention on sinners. They saw themselves as deserving more because they had kept the rules and done everything asked of them. Why then should failures and losers get so much undeserved love?  

The truth of the matter, both in the parable and in real life, is that everyone gets God's unconditional love and mercy, no matter what. The workers who came early and worked all day in the vineyard were promised a "full days wage," and at the end of the day they received it.  As the day wore on, the owner found more and more workers looking for work, and he hired them. Everyone was going to be treated fairly.

Resentment  took hold in the early workers when they stood in line at the end of the day and calculated how much more they deserved than the later workers who were all receiving a full wage. The owner, whose compassion exceeded the requrements, chose to give all the workers what they would need to support their families. And he gave the first workers what was promised, a full day's wage.  

The challenge at the heart of the parable was Jesus saying to the first workers, "These latecomers need more love, so let me love them they way they need to be loved."  The righteous are fully loved by God. Sinners are fully loved by God.  It takes nothing away from the righteous when God also loves sinners.  But if they turn away out of resentment, they will lose everything.  

It is a parable worth pondering. Can we let God be God? Can we rejoice in being saved without comparing ourselves to others, or without questioning God's generosity? Can we love this way ourselves? This is the real sign that we have witnessed the harvest that reveals the mercy of God.   

Mary as Disciple

"Who then can be saved?" (Matt 19:25).

One of the key debates at the Second Vatican Council was about whether to give The Blessed Virgin Mary her own document. Marian devotion ran high for those who wanted Mary to be the "Mother" of the church. Some even lobbied to have Mary declared "co-redemptrix" alongside Jesus.

For others, this emphasis on Mary as special seemed to distance her from all other woman, enshrining her in her silence and obedience instead of in her role as a faithful follower of Jesus. They argued that Mary best serves the church not by lifting her up beyond everyone but by recognizing that she modeled discipleship for us all. Putting her on a pedestal only separates her from us, when what she, as a human being and our sister, inspires most importantly in the life of the church is that we imitate her Son as she imitated him. 

Today's Feast emphasizes Mary as an elevated figure, the queen of heaven and an intermediary between us and God.  Instead of distinguishig Mary with her own document, the Council decided that Mary should be part of the Constitution on the church She is one of us as the disciple who hears the word, conceives the word in her heart, gives birth to the word in the world.  Every disciple is called to be like Mary by doing the same thing.  

In today's Gospel, the disciples are surprised that a rich person would have difficulty in entering the kingdom,  Rich people, they thought, were favored by God. But Jesus dispels this belief by saying the the last will be first.  Those who serve and offer their lives for others are the greatest in the kingdom.  

Mary exemplifies this reversal of expectations.  It is not because she was different or better than us, but because she was humble, among God's anawim, the poor and powerless of society. Mary's greatness -- her wealth, if you will -- was in her poverty, her total dependence on God.  Her greatness was in being so available to God's will that God magnified her. God chose to be the mother of Jesus an anonymous girl from a small village in the far corner of the world, blessing her lowly state with glory because she said yes to be the mother of the Word Incarnate.  

We honor Mary and go to her in prayer not as a powerful broker or a figure so far above us that we must beg her help, but because she is one of us. Mary is a wife and mother, a widow, a village woman who influenced her neighbors by her simplicity and compassion. So she understands who we are and the way we live in our own simple and insignificant ways.  This is the Mary we celebrate today. 

Are You Saved?

"I have observed all these commandments. What do I still lack?" (Matt 19:21).

The young man who came to Jesus wanted to know if he was going to be saved. When Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he felt reassured because he had kept all of them. Was there something more?  Jesus saw his openness and took him to the next level.  "If you want to be perfect," Jesus told him, "go, sell what you have and give to the poor, Then, come, follow me."

The cost of discipleship proved too much for the young man, He thought that if he kept the commandments, most of which were about what we are not to do, then he could live out his life without further demands or the need for conversion. When he thought about letting go of his "many possessions," he realized how attached he was to them-- or they to him -- and he turned away in sadness.  He had come so close to an intimate companionship with Jesus and the chance to follow him, and he knew he was not ready for such a leap of faith or the courage to let go of his former life. 

It is indeed a sad story. Matthew tells us that this was a young man, someone with his whole life ahead of him, able to freely choose his ideals and to act with the generous abandon that the young have, before commitments and responsibilities limit their options. He would not likely ever have this chance again. 

Discipleship is first a journey of the heart. We see goodness in someone or something and we want this for ourselves. We may begin by inventorying our lives to see what is holding us back, then decide to risk everything to be what we dream of being. Who wants second best, a second-hand faith or a life of compromise and ambiguity?  

What Jesus offered the man was a way of life that would free him to follow his heart. "Come, follow me" meant, "Live as I am living." Jesus traveled light, unburdened by attachment to things, trusting that what he needed would be provided day by day. He lived simply, using what he needed but no more, seeing material things as belonging to everyone for the good of all. He lived a life of purpose with priorities, attentive to others and alert to their needs, especially the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.  He lived joyfully and spontaneously.  No wonder the young man was attracted to him. 

Our discipleship offers us this same way of life. Day by day, little by little, we can answer the call if this is what we want. Do not turn away sad. What is so important that it could keep us from saving our souls?   
 

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