Why We Must Forgive

"Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?" (Matt 18:21 ff).

The call to show mercy -- the heart of Pope Francis' attempt to renew the church from within - is presented in compelling detail and drama in today's Gospel parable from Matthew.  

In answer to Peter's question about how often we should forgive someone who has offended us, Jesus tells the story of a servant who is forgiven a huge debt and then refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owes him a paltry sum. The point of the story goes to the core of the Covenant between God and Israel after the Exodus. Israel had to show compassion because it had received compassion. The basis of the entire code of justice and love that was to define its national life was that God had rescued them from slavery and blessed them beyond measure. Therefore, they kept the Covenant by having the same mercy on others, especially widows, orphans and alien foreigners in their midst. 

The servant  whose very existence was a gift of mercy refused to extend the same generosity to a his fellow servant in a small matter. We must forgive seven times 70, or infinitely, because our entire lives are a gift from the God of infinite mercy. This is the logic of mercy that overwhelms any attempt to limit our own mercy to one another. It is a radical invitation to be like God because it is the very root of Jesus's message: "Be holy as your heavenly Abba is holy."  

What an amazing thing to be called to this kind of unconditional love, yet isn't this the "Amazing Grace" we have already received?  To grasp the immense gift of mercy we have been given is to let it flow through us to others without limit. This is the challenge of Jesus's commandment to love others as he has loved us, and this is the joy of the Gospel.

To experience this kind of beloved community, check our St. Albert the Great parish in Minneapolis, where Pastor Joseph Gillespie has opened the doors of mercy with humor and unlimited Gospel generosity.  Happy Birthday today, Fr. Joe.  

Be Reconciled!

"Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst" (Matt 18:20).

We have the rule at family gatherings, never talk politics or religion.  Jesus must have known that arguments would strain the unity of his disciples, so he speaks often on the importance and power of reconciliation and forgiveness. In today's gospel, Matthew gives us a good example of the not always successful struggle to hold the community together. Tomorrow we will read one of Jesus' most dramatic parables about the necessity of forgiving one another. 

The process of reconciliation described today give us a glimpse into Matthew's community in Antioch a gneration or two after the time of Jesus. The three-step effort to settle a difference -- first personally, then with witnesses, and finally before the whole church -- exhausted every means of preserving peace, but still might end up in ejecting someone from the community.  

Antioch was the city where the pagans said of Christians, "See how they love another," so it was tragic when a quarrel went public. The main witness of the church was that reconciliation was possible and forgiveness was Godlike. There is no small amount of irony and self-accusation in Matthew quoting Jesus as saying that if someone cannot abide by church rules, "treat them like a tax collector or a gentile," for Jesus actually loved tax collectors and gentiles.  His teaching was to never stop loving, even your enemies. This radical example was proving difficult for the early Church. 

In our fractious world, where commuter frustration leads to road rage and any perceived affront becomes lethal with guns everywhere, every witness to the power of reconciliation is heroic. World leaders who taunt and threaten war endanger the entire planet.  Peaceful people who can defuse a tense situation, promote talk instead of violence, who can get angry people to stand down and cool off, are life savers.  Where are the two or three believers who can make Jesus present wherever they are?  Now they are needed more than ever. 

Mary's Assumption

"Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Luke 1:45).

When Pope Pius XII made the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven a doctrine of the church in 1950, the great psychologist Karl Jung noted with joy that the sensus fidelium, or ordinary faith of the Catholic people, was affirming that any patriarchal notion of God was incomplete without the presence of the feminine and the maternal. Mary, the mother of God, was now incorporated into the divine mystery of her Son as the first fully human being to share in his redemption.  What for centuries had already been part of popular devotion was now officially declared a teaching of the church. 

Mary's complete pilgrimage in faith, including her death, was also an affirmation of the destiny and dignity of every other human being. The timing was significant. After a world war that had killed over 50 million people, civilization itself had been brought to the brink of destruction. The value of human life had been abased and degraded in the death camps and bombed out cities of Europe and the incineration of whole populations in Asia with the first atomic weapons. The lifting up of Mary was a sign of rebirth to an exhausted world that needed to be reminded that every person is created in the image of God and possesses an eternal destiny. 

In celebrating Mary, we also celebrate our own divine destiny, for the promises made to her will be magnified in our lives as well. Mary lived the mystery of her Son by first receiving the Word into her being so fully that it became flesh in her. Jesus' human body was formed in her womb and nourished by her very substance. She gave birth to Jesus, the first proclamation of the Incarnation-- God among us. She gave her son to the world and shared in his suffering at each stage of his life and at his death on the cross.  How fitting to affirm that she also shared fully in his resurrection and now in his glory. She was present with the disciples on Pentecost when the Spirit again breathed life into the church, the risen body of Christ in the world until the end of time. 

In Mary, God has a mother's touch and feminine face. Her example of fidelity is the model for our discipleship. Her compassion and advocacy for justice for the poor is a constant reminder to us of the kind of lowliness and service that God glorifies.  Our devotion to her blesses us and makes us Christlike. 

What Is God Asking of Us?

"What does the Lord, your God, ask of you?" (Exodus 10:12).

One sign of our covenant with God is a willingness to share our time, treasure and talent in the service of others. The idea of tithing, giving a portion of our income, is a standard measure.

Today's gospel tells of the requirement for Jews visiting Jerusalem to pay a small temple tax. Jesus makes this a teachable moment by saying that the tax was like a royal toll on foreign visitors, not subjects. Even though the disciples were therefore exempt, Jesus tells Peter to find a coin miraculously in the mouth of a fish to pay the tax for them. 

This curious little story about tithing, tolls and taxes reminds us of the deeper message in the Scriptures that the one thing God expects of us before all else is to show mercy on others.  Moses reminds the people that just as they were rescued from slavery and brought to the Promised Land as aliens, so they must care for the foreign alien, the widow and orphan in the same way.  In truth, if we do not care for the needy, no amount of time, treasure and talent has any meaning. 

The United States is facing a profound crisis of its most basic identity and values in the current headlines about the rise of violent racism, policies that impact immigrants and refugees, and economic policies that enrich some at the expense of the poor, the sick and the disabled. Internal problems are also reflected in a foreign policy actions that could lead to war with unimaginable global consequences.These crises threaten the  fundament human ideas of a social compact and the common good that are the foundation of all our national life and international standing, and they reject the even more basic covenant underlying civilization itself, found in every religious tradition. 

Our tithe is to both pray and act on behalf of our beliefs. We should not expect miracles to bring us back from the brink if passivity and lack of concern have brought us there. Now is the time to make our voices heard, to work for justice so that peace will prevail. 

It Is The Lord!

“When Elijah heard the tiny whispering sound, he hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:13).
Today’s Lectionary presents us with two of the most dramatic yet nuanced theophanies in the Bible. Elijah the prophet and Jesus teach us how to know to find God in our lives.
 Elijah encounters God on Mount Horeb. He is told to prepare for God passing by, and he knows that the contact with be in passing, mediated in some way, as it was for Moses in the burning bush, since direct interface with the timeless eternal God is not possible from our limited, time-dependent dimension. It was believed that no human being would survive such an encounter.
Elijah experiences three manifestations of awesome power — a rock-crushing wind, an earthquake and fire – but God is not in any of these. What follows is a “tiny whispering sound,” and because Elijah is truly a prophet he actually can hear this and recognize that it is the sound of God passing by. Still, he wraps his face in his cloak to protect himself from any glimpse of glory and steps to the entrance of the cave.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples encounter Jesus on the lake during a furious storm. Jesus’ ghostlike appearance suggests that this could be a post-resurrection story inserted into the narrative. Matthew uses a series of lake crossings to indicate how Jesus prepared his disciples exist in two dimensions as they were transformed by faith from earthly to transcendent life in Christ. They would learn to see their risen Lord and even “walk on water” as the church made its way through the storms of history.
 What would it be for us to encounter God and the risen Christ? Our own faith grows from more miraculous or literal expectations to a layered process of discernment. Isn’t this the meaning of Elijah’s grasp of God’s presence as a tiny whispering sound? It says that we know God in this life only with faith. Faith comes with discipleship, which is about learning to see and hear in a new and deeper way. Our encounters with God will be mediated by the people we serve and love, by the signs all around us of grace at work in acts of mercy and justice. Our faith in Jesus is to trust his living presence in the sacraments, in the community, and especially in our own daily experiences of joy and suffering as part of life.
If you have helped a brother or sister, not with force or power but with a word of compassion, you have encountered God in a tiny whispering sound. If you have grasped a friend by the hand who was sinking in despair, you have encountered Jesus. If you have dared to step out of your own security to help another, you know how to walk on water.  These powerful scriptural images contain promises and become real in action. 
Behold, today the living God is passing by and the risen Christ is revealed to his church.

What Matters Most?

"What profit is there to gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" (Matt 16:25).

In a scene from Robert Bolt's play about Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons," Thomas, imprisoned by the king for treason, tries to explain to his daughter why he cannot sign a pledge of loyalty to save his life. Thomas cups his hands tight as one might to hold water, then says that if he moved even one finger the water would drain out. So his conscience holds his integrity, and if he compromises it even in secret to save his life, he will lose his very self. 

What do we have that is more important than our integrity, our very self? What kind of life would we have if we betrayed our basic principles for gain? To live with ourselves, we would have to quiet our conscience every day by denying that it made any difference that we sold out. 

Jesus called his disciples to follow him with courage and steadfastness. They were to be prepared to lose everything to remain faithful. He promised them that if they lost their lives for his sake, they would keep their lives. The self is a sacred trust, the one treasure we cannot afford to squander or betray.  What price can equal the value of our very self, and what gain could fill the emptiness we would feel if we lost our self in exchange for the whole world? 

We know that life is filled with compromises and failures, and that we can lose our way as well as consciences from time to time. The call of Jesus is never withdrawn, and like many of the first disciples who first failed before they were restored by his forgiveness, we must go forward with faith and try again.  Without mercy, everyone would be lost. God wants us to be saved, and grace will help us no matter how we stumble and fall, as long as we rise again and continue our discipleship.  

Sowing and Reaping

"Where I am, there also will my servant be" (John 12:26).

The imagery of seeds and sowers is found in all the Gospels and was surely part of Jesus' central message. The coming of the Kingdom of God was not so much an announcement as an invitation. We are invited to enter a process of transformation. The first Covenant under the Law could only take us so far. The pursuit of legal and moral perfection produced a life of justice and order, but it could only lead us to the threshold of grace, where everything is gift and holiness is initiated by the life changing encounter with God. 

Passage to the new Covenant with God in love asks us to surrender ourselves in a new way. Anyone who has entered a love relationship knows that the thrill of crossing that threshold is in the risk involved. We are placing our lives on the line. What we desire will cost us everthing. We do not know the future. We surrender control of our lives to the shared life being offered us with the beloved. We freely enter a commitment whose outcome does not yet exist but will be created by the love that makes us a new being. 

This is the meaning of the seed, which is pure potential. If the seed is not sown, it remains pure potential, self-possessed but alone. Only in surrendering itself to the earth and to the process of coming out of its protective husk to be acted upon by the nutrients and moisture of the soil, to participate in the labor of thrusting roots into the ground and shoots into the air, will the tiny seed fulfill its destiny to give its life for the many.  The seed that falls to the ground and dies, multiplies itself manyfold and shares in a harvest that is its intended purpose and fulfillment. 

Perhaps this image and the parables Jesus told about seed and sower inspired him as he made his ways through the fields in spring planting en route to Jerusalem. Jesus knew that he would die there, and he must have reflected deeply and urgently on the meaning of his death as Suffering Servant.   The fate and miracle of the seed was the answer to his prayer.  By his death he would multiply the grace God was offering that would usher in the new Covenant.  

Can we also entrust ourselves and our fate to this same promise? Are we not the seed that falls to the ground in order to spring up anew as the green harvest of the new Covenant and the new Creation? We all will face the fact of death. Here is our invitation to unite both our life and out death with Christ in order to share in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Teaching Jesus

"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24).

This extraordinary story, preserved in Matthew's Gospel, seems to suggest that even Jesus had to learn the extent of his ministry. If this was the case (and not a teachable moment by Jesus meant for his disciples), then the woman at the border and the Holy Spirit conspired to convince Jesus that his vision was at that moment too small.

The Canaanite woman is both persistent and persuasive, using every tactic at hand because she is desperate on behalf of her possessed daughter. Jesus was encountering an irresistible force-- a mother who refused to let her child suffer.  In the exchange with Jesus, she takes the insult to her pagan status (non-Jews were regarded as "dogs") and turns it back on Jesus. If the children's food should not be given to the dogs under the table, at least the scraps that children are known to drop ought to go to the "puppies."  

Her logic is not only compelling, but Jesus seems to sense that there is a higher power at work here. He who preached so often about his Abba's love for his children, or about fathers who would never give their child a stone if he asked for bread, was cornered by the woman's compassion. Was this not a direct message from the God of Mercy Jesus was announcing to Israel?  And if mercy is infinite, how can he say that it stops at the border?  

Jesus knows he is witnessing a miracle of healing that has already been granted because of this pagan woman's great faith. He commends her and learns from her that the Holy Spirit wants him to extend his mission beyond Israel to the whole world.  

We will know that our faith is genuine if it keeps expanding beyond our expectations and assumptions.  Need will show us where God is at work, not borders or rules or exclusive standards that define who is and who is not worthy of our love. It is a hard lesson, but if Jesus could learn it, so should we. 

Walking on History

"Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matt 14:28).

Matthew's account of the storm at sea and Peter walking on water was addressed to an early church launched on the rough seas of history. The barque of Peter would face many squalls, and those in leadership would have to keep the ship focused on the risen Jesus, even when it meant stepping beyond the institutional structures into an uncertain future.

An honest look at church history shows how often the institution seemed off course, rudderless and in danger of faltering because of corruption and the quest for power. The 13th century witnessed a major shift from feudalism to new social structures based in on the rise of a mercantile class and the universities in large cities. Popes and a hierarchy weighted down by land and the lifestyles of princes were slow to respond to the cultural changes and faced turbulent movements of reform and new ideas.

The Mendicant orders founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic provided a major course correction for a church sinking from corruption and greed. The poverty of Christ and the intellectual power of faith combined with reason helped reinvigorated the faithful and reform the church from within. Today we celebrate the life of St. Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans gave the church St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings renewed sacramental theology, and St. Catherine of Siena, who, a century later, brought her passion to church unity and spirituality. 

We rejoice in these water walking saints who helped guide the church though difficult transitions in history, and for Jesus, who keeps his promise to be with us in every storm. 

Shared Load

"I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me" (Num 11).

There must have been days when even the human Jesus felt overwhelmed. In today's Gospel, he has just received word of the beheading of John the Baptist. His ministry has just taken a deadly turn, and Jesus knew that resistance to his message could have mortal consequences. So he and his disciples withdraw in the boat to grieve and consider how to proceed. 

But as they arrive on the far side of the lake, huge crowds are waiting to be taught and, as it runs out, fed. Jesus responds with compassion, seeing not needy mouths to be fed, but people who were like "sheep without a shepherd."

Moses was likewise overwhelmed with a hungry and complaining crowd in today's first reading. The people actually long for slavery in Egypt again, because at least there they had enough to eat.  Moses complains to God about the burden of leading such a people. He would rather be dead that continue: "Please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face this distress."

The difference between Moses and Jesus lies in Jesus' understanding that the mission he was announcing was being accomplished by God and not him. He is so confident that the people will be fed, he places the task on his disciples: "Give them some food yourselves." Because Jesus trusts his Abba so completely, and because the disciples trust Jesus so completely, the crowds are fed, with large baskets of leftovers.  The story of Moses and Manna in the desert is fulfilled in Jesus.

Who among us has not at times felt overwhelmed by the burdens and responsibilities of work and family? Who has not complained, if only in their own mind, about how difficult other people they are trying to help can be?  Jesus knew that frustration, but was also filled with the compassion his Abba had for those in distress. It was this Compassion he knew was driving the situation, and that his Abba was already at work in preparing to feed the crowds, not with Manna, but with the miracle of Jesus as the Bread of Life. That same Bread is always available to us as we give ourselves in compassion for others