To Whom Do I Belong?

"Whose image is this and whose inscription?" (Matt 22:20).

The Pharisees set the perfect trap to undermine Jesus, but Jesus turned it into a teachable moment that exposed and entrapped them in their own malice. 

The question was whether Jews should pay taxes to their Roman occupiers. If Jesus said yes, he would lose popular support and anger the zealots, who saw any compliance with the empire as treasonous. If Jesus said no, the Pharisees could prove to the Romans that he was a dangerous subversive.

Jesus asked to see the coin used to pay the tax. One of the Pharisees produced the coin, showing that they were themselves complicit in the practice. Jesus then asked them whose image and inscription were on the coin. "Caesar's," they admitted. The simple logic of Jesus' reply forced his enemies to admit their allegiance and collaboration with the occupation. The coin belonged to Caesar, so give it back to him. But then also give to God what is God's, which is absolutely everything.  

Jesus' answer changes the question. Participating in the imperial system had its benefits, so let those who benefit from Roman spending on roads and aqueducts, temple improvements and public order, pay into the system. The real question is, who do you belong to?  Whose image and inscription are imprinted on your identity and your activities? Who owns your soul? 

For Jesus, there was only absolute answer to this basic question. We belong to God because we bear the divine image and likeness. Our freedom and dignity are signs of that image. No other loyalty supersedes this one. No other obedience or worship comes ahead of our relationship with God, who alone is worthy of our love -- given with our whole mind, heart, soul and body. There can only be one God in our lives.

Our contemporary situation reveals just how many seductions we might accede to by passively immersing our lives in the benefits of our consumer culture, our national loyalties, our personal habits and social priorities. These will absorb all our attention and  energy. How easy it is to live day to day never even asking whether God is present or if our religious identity is even relevant. When does the worship of money or the pursuit of pleasure cut us off from the call to live out our basic identity as Christians? When does our conscience grow silent in the face of injustice and the suffering of others? When does indifference and spiritual indolence accept as normal the compromises and complicity that gradually lead to the death of the soul? 

The antidote to such death is to rouse ourselves to who we really are, called into existence by God, named and destined for service and selflessness as the only path to peace and joy. Those who save their lives for themselves will lose them. Those who lose their lives for the sake of others will save them. Jesus leads the way into paradox, laying down his life for his friends, then turning to us and saying, "Come, follow me." 

The question is, who do you belong to? Whose image do you bear for all the world to see? This will decide who you are, who you belong to and who you are becoming. 

Be Not Afraid

"Even the hairs on your head hav been counted" (Luke 12:6).

Jesus was at the height of his popularity, The crowds were surging in around him wherever he went. His enemies were doing everything within their power to undermine and discredit him. We get a sense of this in Jesus' warning to his disciples to "beware of the leaven of the pharisees,"  In other words, their opposition was not direct and out in the open, but in subtle efforts to sow doubt nd confusion, to slander him and distort his message.

We see this kind of subversion and disinformation in our own political life. Anyone running for office has to be ready to face a vicious undercurrent of lies and gossip, accelerated by social media, nameless sources that traffic in insinuation and rumors, or people who distract audiences with talk of scandal and conspiracy. A worthy candidate tries hard to be transparent and to stick with the issues, only to be inundated on the eve of an election with attack ads, fear mongering and sleazy tactics meant to distract voters. 

Jesus tells his disciples that the truth will always win out, what is said in the dark or whispered behind closed doors will be exposed. He warns them that the greatest threat they will face is not physical harm but spiritual seduction, being drawn into poisonous lies that destroy hope.

Knowing their vulnerability, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid.  They are worth more than many sparrows. The very hairs on their heads have been counted. Be faithful, and God will always protect you as you complete your mission. . 

In our information society, with so much data, opinion, propaganda, and so-called news flowing through the Internet 24/7, the truth has become a precious thing, simple objective fact a casualty of the war of words and images that compete for our attention. The Gospel offers a still point and cornerstone with which to begin our own formation of conscience. Jesus proclaimed the values of love and peace and justice as the standards against which to measure other proposed values. Will this or that program or policy serve the common good, provide for the most vulnerable among us, respect human dignity, protect the planet?  

The most insidious threat is fear, which false leaders use to turn us against one another, or to distract us from the real issues of fairness and compassion.  If we are not afraid, we can remain calm and objective in dealing with crisis and addressing problems with common sense solutions. We can remain civil in discourse, never needing to demonize an opponent or exclude views hat challenge our own. Blessed are they who bring more light than heat to a debate. Blessed are they who listen patiently and respect others. They are the evangelists the world needs now more than ever. 

Martyrs

"They were plotting to catch him in something he might say" (Luke 11:54).

Institutions survive only when they evolve by reform and renewal. It takes courage to change institutional practices and directions because so many people want predictability and stability. So reformers are resisted, even punished for their new ideas.

The Church has a history of honoring and even canonizing reformers who, in their own time and place, were seen as troublemakers and heretics. Many of our great saints endured years of suspicion and rejection by the church authorities. Only when the institution catches up with their ideas are they praised for their wisdom.  

Jesus railed against the blind intransigence of the scribes and Pharisees. These teachers of the Law held to their narrow views, refusing to enter the mystery of God's love contained in the scriptures and keeping others from entering.  Leaders built monuments to prophets they or their ancestors had murdered. Jesus himself was condemned as a heretic.

Saints are those who devote themselves to obeying God's inspiration whatever the cost. It is no easy thing to stand up to experts and guardians of the status quo. Suffering is often the only way the truth is revealed and holiness is made evident. Our journey may take us on roads that are long and lonely, but God affirms those who do what they believe is right. We pray for this kind of grace and for the endurance to follow through when opposition tests our resolve.  

Luke the Evangelist

"The Kingdom of God is at hand" (Luke 10:9). 

It is appropriate for this feast of St. Luke that today's Gospel describes Jesus sending out evangelists.  The 72 disciples were sent to prepare the way for Jesus' own coming. They were to travel light, enter the homes of those who received them, share their food and hospitality, dispensing peace and preaching the good news. 

Luke certainly did all of this, composing his Gospel in a way that reached millions upon millions of people down through history. He extending the Good News beyond its original Jewish audience to the gentile world, where it was absorbed into the Greco-Roman world along with Paul's preaching and letters. Luke emphasized Jesus as healer, storyteller and preacher of mercy. Women receive special attention, as do the poor. Luke gave us the stories of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the birth account of Jesus and his childhood. 

Luke continues his Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles, describing how the ministry and mystery of Jesus were lived out by the church as it spread into the Mediterranean world.  

It has been suggested that each of us could write the gospel according to our own witness and experience. If this were your assignment, what would your gospel include and emphasize. What are your stories of Jesus? How have you spread the Good News of hope, the challenge of justice, the message of mercy within the narrative of your own life? 

Real Purity

" Did not the maker of the outside also makes the inside?" (Luke 11:40).

We understand why the name "Pharisee" has become synonymous with "hypocrite" when we realize that this group of religious leaders often invited Jesus to dine so they could observe him to find fault. 

Just as they were obsessed with the Sabbath rule and condemned Jesus for healing on that day, they were also keen on ritual washing of hands and of dishware.  What in ancient times was a matter of cleanliness to prevent disease had become a spiritual practice focused on avoiding moral contamination, which took the form of avoiding any contact with the poor and the uneducated, called the "unwashed masses" by the elites. 

This spiritual mandate justified dividing reality into what was sacred and what was profane.  Good people were spotless, while others were tainted. A religious person had no obligation to help a neighbor who did not keep the purity rules.  We live in a consumer culture in which cleanliness and smelling nice is a social marker. We segregate our lives into zones to avoid contact with the grit and odor of ordinary people, working class people, entire groups by racial stereotype and prejudice. 

Jesus tells his critics that everything in God's Creation is sacred, both things and especially the inner, invisible realm where the soul resides. This is where sincerity and purity of intention and attitude are most evident. What goof is it to be obsessed with ritual perfection and appearence if you neglect moral maturity and compassion for your brothers and sisters? 

The Sign of Jonah

"There is something greater than Solomon here" (Luke 11:31).

Jesus reaches back to history to compare his contemporaries to two previous generations in their response to a prophetic call to repentance.  Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, came all the way to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of Solomon. The people of Nineveh repented  when Jonah preached to them. But this generation rejected Jesus, who is greater than either Solomon or Jonah, and it will be condemned for it.  

The force of this comparison falls on every subsequent age, including our own.  We have to ask, just how will history judge us for our blindness and refusal to change things that will seem so obvious for their destructiveness and injustice. What will future generations say about our failure to respond to the signs of the times when it came to gun control and nuclear arms proliferation, climate change, economic exploitation of the the poor, closing the door on desperate refugees and immigrants, paralysis in the face of racial prejudice, modern day slavery and the trafficking of women and children for sexual abuse? 

The sign of Jonah is that his audience, as evil as the Ninevites were, did repent at his preaching.  How many prophetic voices are now sounding the warning that the world must change?  Pope Francis has been a clarion call on every issue, trying to avert self-destruction. How many prophets have been murdered for speaking truth to power? When will things be any clearer than they are right now, that change is needed to redirect history to avoid calamity? 

Does it seem exaggerated, even hysterical, to speak in these terms? Not to the victims of injustice and oppression, not to the millions of people who go hungry in a world of extravagant consumption and waste, not to those abandoned to poverty and ill health in the sight of gleaming cities and protected life styles insulated from care or even awareness of their plight.  How long before God, who loves the poor and sides with the oppressed, is roused to action?  Do we feel the heat?

Do we recognize that God's love is at work in our troubled world, breaking the spell of complacency, stirring up our consciences, calling us to action, not just for others, but for ourselves?   

Come to the Wedding

"Behold, I have prepared my banquet ...come to the feast" (Matt 22:3). 

The parables toward the end of Matthew's Gospel all show how the evangelist took an original story from Jesus and applied it to the contemporary situation of his church. It seems likely that Jesus described the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. His message was about the love story between God and his people, and Jesus often drew on the rich imagery from the Hebrew scriptures to show that his mission was to fulfill the covenant of love and the nuptial feast of heaven coming to earth. 

John's Gospel is especially rich in these themes. At the start of his Gospel, Jesus attends a wedding feast at Cana and changes water into wine. His first public miracle revealed the central theme of the Good News. The ritual jars of the first covenant filled with water for ceremonial purification were transformed into the new wine of God's grace. Jesus is the bridegroom, the divine lover come to woo the world back to God. The best wine had been saved for last. Jesus is a walking wedding, a feast to which sinners are invited. The bridegroom is among us, and ultimately the new wine will be revealed as his blood for sake the world, the laying down of his life for all of us, his friends 

Matthew takes up the wedding theme and adds other elements that reflect the need for  decisive action after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE during the Jewish-Roman wars. Because the original guests failed to respond tto God's invitation, the banquet is thrown open to the crossroads of the world, and gentiles pour into the hall to partake of the feast.  Yet, Matthew says, these guests must come prepared, and a wedding garment is necessary, which is faith. This same theme is found in the parable of the foolish bridesmaids, who ran out of oil when the bridegroom was delayed (the parousia -- second coming).  

This layered exegesis of Matthew does not hide the original theme, which for us is this--  that our relationship with God is meant to be a love story. God's mercy is already poured out in Jesus, the divine lover, whose body has claimed and incorporated us at baptism. His blood flows in our veins and our experiences. He is already the Bread of Life, and now wedding cake in our mouths, a song in our hearts we sing and dance to at the wedding of the Incarnation.  God is with us in our very flesh, our humanity already married to its divine destiny, an eternal nuptial of joy.

Everyone is invited. The church is the new creation, the new humanity. The doors are open to the feast .  Get ready, for in the wondrous words of James Joyce, "Here comes Everybody!"

Binding the Strong Man

"Whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11:26).

Jesus' day to day ministry, healings and exorcisms had cosmic implications. His power to drive out evil spirits showed that he drew his authority from the spiritual realm, where the real battle between Good and Evil, God and Satan, is being decided. The Kingdom of God has overcome the kingdom of Satan, and this is reflected in all the lesser defeats going on in the world. The demons and evil spirits recognized Jesus' superior authority. By knocking out the organizing principle of evil, Jesus neutralized all its manifestations. 

While we may not see the universe in these terms, we can certainly recognize that the most powerful forces in our modern society are not individual criminals but distortions in the larger culture itself. When fear overtakes and divides a society, or when blind ambition and greed permeate the culture, the evil that results is much harder to identify, control or eliminate. People participate in evil without even recognizing it, because its values seem normal.

When we speak of a "gun culture" or a "consumer culture" or we observe people indulging in a "culture of hate" based on race or ethnicity or gender, we are describing deeply rooted assumptions and prejudices that contribute to the breakdown of common values.  Violence becomes the norm, sexual predation and abuse becomes socially tolerated, homophobia and zenophobia seem justified, even praiseworthy in a twisted way. What an individual might be ashamed to say or do alone becomes acceptable in the crowd.

Only time or crisis can expose this kind of spiritual influence, break the spell that blinds people to how destructive their collective behaviors can be. Jesus apparently had the authority to challenge dominant, controlling assumptions and distorted social behaviors.  When he spoke, evil fled, those held captive were set free, physical symptoms disappeared. 

We participate in his power to speak truth to power, love to hate, goodness to evil.  The bigger the distortions and lies, the more prayer and fasting may be required to break their control over our minds and hearts.  But Jesus holds the upper hand, and we are to live without fear by imitating his courage. 
 

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. 

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