Prodigal

“A man had two sons”) Luke 15:11).

The intriguing question that has always pursued the parable of The Prodigal Son is this: “Where is the mother?” The extravagant “prodigal” father in the story might have inspired Shakespeare’s King Lear, who apportions his kingdom to his three daughters in a bid to measure their love. A man who has three daughters makes a very different story than the man who has two sons, but we know from the outset that we are in for a probing and challenging tale.

Henri Nouwen, in his analysis of Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, finds in its play of light and shadow hidden elements that reveal a whole narrative of how family relationships challenge us to psychosexual maturity. The apex of the process is the father, giving himself away to both his sons. Where is the mother? Nouwen sees in the two very different-sized hands—one masculine and the other feminine — of the embracing father that, in his unconditional love, he has become both father and mother. The scene is both anguished and magnificent for the long journey to love it portrays for them and for us. No one comes to maturity without the heartbreaking interplay of male and female relationships.

Catholics await a new "holy father." The selection of a leader raises the possibility of change in the church, but of what kind, and how deep? A failing monarchy may reveal the even more complex challenge of a failing patriarchy. Too many fathers and sons, brothers and rivals; too much wealth and power to fight over; a lopsided theology of male figures in heaven being protected to preserve male prerogatives on earth. Where are the women?

Wasn’t this what Jesus was parodying in the parable – so much male pride that a father can only free himself by becoming a mother?

Pontiff

“Here comes that dreamer” (Gen 37:20).

Today’s Lectionary matches the story of Joseph (Gen 37) with Jesus’ parable of the vineyard tenants (Matt 23). The readings parallel the jealous fury of Joseph’s brothers, who sell him into slavery in Egypt, and the murderous plotting of vineyard tenants who kill the owner’s son when he comes to ask for an accounting of their stewardship. Both stories are dense with implications. What happens to Joseph explains how the Hebrews came to be in Egypt, and Matthew’s parable reflects the conflict between rabbinic Judaism and the early Christian church over the death of Jesus and the question of messianic succession. The violence of both stories shows the complex mix of sin and grace at work in salvation history and just how much healing will be needed to advance interreligious dialogue.

Pope John XXIII will be remembered for his exquisite touch on this difficult topic. Jewish leaders came to visit him early in his short papacy. He greeted them with the words, “I am Joseph, your brother.” In that simple evocation of the story from Genesis 37, the pope depicted himself as a brother whose exile in Egypt was God’s way of preparing a profound restoration of the family bonds between the church and Judaism around the common hungers that had inflicted famine on the human soul. John’s welcome did more to bridge the possibilities of dialogue than any formal process imagineable in the early 1960s.

We who are popeless for a short time need not be hopeless. This kind of love still exists in our institutional capability to reach across time and difference to heal a wounded world.

Chasm

"If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent" (Luke16:30).

Today marks the historic departure from the world stage of Pope Benedict XVI, first by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo (think Richard Nixon in 1974) in order to distance himself from the upcoming conclave that will choose his successor, and then into the confines of a monastery within the Vatican (think Jimmy Durante fading into a path of spotlights, calling wistfully, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”). The pope’s disappearance will generate more intrigue than if he had died, and we will face years of rumors that a rival loyalty survives in the labryinths of power (think Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast trilogy) or that a madman howls in the courtyards and secret gardens.

Fantastic possibilities await this symbolic transfer of symbolic power in a majestic yet largely stagecraft world of religion and politics, where projected power exists only the adherence of the imagination, what we call faith in absolutes mediated by mere mortals. As the world turns.

Today’s bracing Gospel account of Dives and Lazarus frames another view of what is true and powerful. A rich man clothed in purple robes and fine linen and dining sumptuously each day does not notice the poor man lying at his gate. Only in death does he awaken to the judgment he has brought on himself for failing to respond to a brother in need. The chasm he left unbridged will remain for eternity. He begs Abraham to send the poor man to warn his five brothers of the deathly path they are on, but it is by then too late. They ignored Moses, and they would likely ignore even a messenger from the dead.

Like the famous story of judgment in Matthew 25, the parable of Dives and Lazarus reduces all theology to our response in love to one another. The man in the Vatican is moving quickly from one role to the other, as the poverty of age and infirmity takes him from adulation to anonymity, from throne to entombment in the silence and resignation that awaits us all.

What Do We Wish?

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” (Matt 20:22).

Shakespeare perfected the ironic tension created by misdirection and misunderstanding in his plays, including most of his comedies. Characters reveal things to the audience that they themselves do not fully grasp.

The Gospels achieve the same level of dramatic tension, almost to the point of comic frustration, using the same technique. Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to go up to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed. They fight to be first in line to sit at his right and left hand as rulers of Israel. James and John get their own mother to lobby Jesus for the honor. They have not heard or understood a word he said.

A cartoon seems appropriate to what is happening in Rome these days. If the pope is the prisoner of the Vatican, the Vatican has become the prisoner of its own mystique. In the name of Jesus, the last monarchy on earth is about to engage in the protocols of choosing the next pope. Clothed in the panoply and pomp of renaissance court ritual, men wearing scarlet robes will retire in secret to cast paper ballots for one of their number who will emerge wearing a white robe as supreme leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and to be formally proclaimed the vicar of Christ on earth.

Jesus warns his followers that he is on his way to the cross of rejection and humiliation and that if they would imitate him they must become the servant of all. Unless there has been some huge misundertanding, many are eagerly awaiting his arrival in Rome at any moment.

Two-Edged Sword

Two-edged Sword

“Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Isa 1:18).

When the U.S Catholic bishops met in Dallas in June 2002 to respond formally for the first time to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, their meeting coincided with the Lectionary-assigned scripture readings from Ezekiel 34 and John 10 on the true shepherd. Who among the bishops themselves that weekend could doubt that the voice they heard in the readings as they celebrated Eucharist was confronting them for their failure to protect children? The meeting produced a charter with sweeping guarantees for the future protection of young people.

The living Word of God addressed to the church and recorded in the Bible is the very source of the church. Revelation initiated the relationship with the People of God and sustained Israel in the great story of salvation. The Word-Made-Flesh in the person of Jesus is the source of baptized incorporation of all believers as Christ’s Body, the church. Faith expects that the voice of the Word, always present, becomes acutely present to the ears of the listening church in times of special need and crisis.

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Matthew roar to life as the Catholic hierarchy focuses itself worldwide on the selection of a new pope. The message is a scathing indictment of religious leaders who seek titles, power and privilege, who lay impossible burdens on others, who fail to practice what they preach. But it is also reassuring. There is one Master, the Christ, and the only model he established for leadership is one of humble service and self-sacrificing love. There is no other church than this one. So says the Word of the Lord.

Going with the Flow

"The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38).

Call it karma, a rule of life, the physics of Zen. What we give out is what we get back. Or, elegantly put, “What goes around comes around,” a phrase that originated with rodeo bull riders. It warned that the bull twirling right will arrive from the left in short order. Get out of the way.

Jesus taught a morality based on imitating God’s generosity. Loving everyone unconditionally, forgiving others repeatedly are ways to free yourself from the burden of thinking your judgments bring order to the universe. There is some logic and fairness to a quid-pro-quo world, but it measures out love in small, calculated portions and makes debtors of us all. We need extravagant mercy to risk life, to learn from our mistakes, to be foolish when folly is the wisest course. The parables of Jesus are all about this kind of foolish wisdom.

Hear a parable: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” Ah, to live like this, even for a day!

See the Light

Transfigured

“It is good that we are here” (Luke 9:33).

Photojournalists will shoot rolls of film (or gigabytes of memory) to get that one “decisive moment” that tells the whole story. The Transfiguration is such a moment, a theophany that backlights Jesus from his baptism to his crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation. Like the three disciples, we witness in a single frame the meaning of Jesus’s suffering as he prepares to enter Jerusalem. He will fulfill the Law and the Prophets, open the path to a divine destiny for all of us in a new creation.

The late Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, who volunteered in 1990 to go to El Salvador to help replace six colleagues slain at the University of Central America, once described what happened to delegations of college students when they came to El Salvador. He said; “First you fall in love, then it breaks your heart, and then you are ruined for life.” This is transfiguration, a decisive moment that brings the whole story together. But you are now in it, offering yourself to bring justice to a troubled, violent world.

Like Jesus, we are first grounded in solidarity with others, then the sky opens and all our horizons are blown down. We would not be able to endure it if we did not also hear a Voice saying, “You are my beloved.”

Perfection

“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

A popular T-shirt saying announces: “I’m Nobody. Nobody’s Perfect. I’m Perfect.”

We joke about perfection because no one ever attains it. Those who strive for it disturb others or become paralyzed in legalism or self-rejection and frustration. Perfection has given religion a bad name and kept countless therapists in business.

So what does Jesus have in mind when he proposes not just human perfection but divine imitation as the goal. He tells his disciples that the logical standard of loving your friends and hating your enemies is morality for beginners. If they want to be perfect, they must love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them. As God sends sunshine and rain on both the just and the unjust, they are to love everyone unconditionally.

Enemies are those who stand outside our forgiveness. They need not be distant abstractions but are more likely people we know and are close to. Daily energy goes into negotiating the judgments we pass on one another, letting this one off, holding that one accountable until they meet certain conditions or show proper repentance. The courts are open late, into the night when brooding over injuries or reviewing our caseload invades sleep. Entire life narratives are made up of remembered hurt, real or imagined, unresolved conflicts, even with the dead.

What Jesus proposes is freedom. Let everyone off the hook. Start over every day. Clear the docket, close the court, declare a holiday. This is the perfection God offers to those with the courage to just let go.

Upon this Rock

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17).

Official history is written backwards to affirm the status quo. The actual path from the historical Jesus to the Vatican is obscure and complex with competing interpretations. Yet, don’t expect any scholarly theories about the role of James (the brother of Jesus), Mary Magdalen or Paul as the theological founder of Christianity to edge out any time soon the version that asserts a direct hand-off from Jesus to Peter and the Apostles on which apostolic succession and today’s feast of the Chair of St Peter are based.

The open question is what kind of foundation did Peter give the church? Biblical portraits of leaders, from Saul to David to Peter, typically flout their weaknesses to show that God’s power is at work. But in the case of Peter, his personal failures seem essential to his witness to the Gospel of mercy and forgiveness. The actor James Farentino, who played Peter in Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” conveys powerfully the anguish Peter experiences as he realizes Jesus is drawing him beyond his life as a simple fisherman into responsibilities he is totally inadequate to shoulder.

We might hope that today’s feast is a sobering meditation for the men now considered “papabile,” qualified to succeed to the chair of Peter. Will the Spirit guide the conclave to select someone with just the right weaknesses? What happens in Rome may or may not have much to do with our ordinary lives. Yet, if weakness qualifies, all of us can assess our chances to serve well within our own assigned world of responsibilities.

Bread

“Which of you, if your child asked for bread, would give him a stone?” (Luke 7:10).

The short parables Jesus uses to encourage people to trust God in prayer bring light to many of our contemporary questions. Of course, no parent would give a hungry child a stone, yet how many of our young need basic healthcare, nutrition, education and a chance to make a decent life. What they receive instead is poverty, hunger, street survival and prison. Or how many children ask for time, attention and love, but receive things, diversion and isolation?

Bread, broken and shared, is at the center of Jesus’ teaching about self-surrender and community. The strong hands of the parent break open the loaf and hand a piece to the child. Parents share their substance to nourish their children. The only thing worse than starvation is to watch your own child go hungry. Anyone who wishes to understand the flow of migration in our world will know that a father will do anything rather than have his children go to bed hungry.

At the heart of every family and community are those who feed others. The breaking of the bread is the one sign Jesus asked us to do in his memory. In every Eucharist, we make him present, especially if we carry away this sign in our own lives. Gandhi once said that in a world of starving people it is not surprising that God appears as bread. We are that bread for one another. Which of you, if someone asked you for bread, would not share what you have?

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