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Storing Up Treasures in Heaven

Harvest cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – July 31, 2016 

In addition to setting the stage for Luke’s parable on possessions and hoarding, today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23) drives home the fleeting nature of life and the inexorable passage of time with blunt realism: “Vanity of vanities […] vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2).

The word “vanity” usually refers to an excessive love of one’s appearance, but in the book of Ecclesiastes it has a different meaning. The English word means “emptiness” or “nothing,” so a “vanity of vanities” means something like “a complete waste of time.” The author of Ecclesiastes calls himself Qoheleth, which is translated “one who assembles” or “teacher.” He is cynical about life, having lived a long time and seen the futility of much of his work. His book ends with a simple truth: the only worthwhile thing about life is the knowledge of God.

A parable on possessions and hoarding
In today’s Gospel, Luke (12:13-21) has joined together sayings that contrast those whose focus and trust in life is on material possessions, symbolized by the rich fool of the parable (12:16-21), with those who recognize their complete dependence on God (12:21), those whose radical detachment from material possessions symbolizes their heavenly treasure (12:33-34).

The subject of coveting or hoarding arises because of a request by someone in the crowd for Jesus to intervene in a matter of inheritance. Jesus refuses and turns the conversation into a lesson against materialism. This he illustrates with a story about a prosperous farmer who decides to hoard his excess crops. The rich man decides to build extra barns or grain silos. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the farmer should have shared his extra grain with the poor.

The craving to hoard not only puts goods in the place of God, but it is an act of total disregard for the needs of others. The parable is not about the farmer’s mistreatment of workers or any criminal actions on his part. The farmer is, in the end, careful and conservative. So if he is not unjust, what is he? The parable says he is a fool. He lives completely for himself. He only talks to himself, plans for himself, and congratulates himself. His sudden death proves him to have lived as a fool. “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (9:25)

Possessions and greed become more important than people. In other words, “possession fixation” destroys relationships. The man who interrupts Jesus’ teaching is unaware of his inappropriate intrusion. He cannot connect appropriately with his outer world because of the urgency of his inner world and personal needs.

Destructive power of possessions
Jesus uses this man’s “possession fixation” to talk about something that can harm the soul. The man’s family relationships are obviously in turmoil because of material possessions. Whoever depends solely on worldly goods will end up losing out, even though there may seem to be an appearance of success. Death will find that person with an abundance of possessions but having lived a wasted life (12:13-21).

To covet is to wish to get wrongfully what another possesses or to begrudge what God has given him or her. Jesus restates the commandment “do not covet,” but he also states that a person’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. Jesus probes the heart – where is your treasure? Treasure has a special connection to the heart, the place of desire and longing, the place of will and focus. The thing we most set our heart on is our highest treasure.

Wealth and greed
In many societies, wealth is a sign of God’s approval, and poverty and hardship are the signs of God’s disapproval. Jesus does not say that being wealthy is wrong. True, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report Jesus’ words, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (19:24; 10:25; 18:25). But Jesus does not say it is wrong to be rich. Greed is the real culprit. Greed can turn the blessings of wealth into the burden of desire for more. Jesus’ warning can properly be expressed as, “Be careful – very careful – that your possessions do not possess you. Life is not about things!”

Jesus’ parable is a distinct warning that greed can lead to a point where life’s meaning is reduced to material things. The driving force of living becomes a search for “more” – a search for “things.” Greed, in fact, breaks the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and hence the statement in Colossians 3:5 (today’s second reading): “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.”

Challenging the “prosperity gospel mentality”
The Gospel of Jesus challenges the “prosperity gospel mentality.” Jesus is not speaking against material wealth, but condemns being enslaved to and enchained by wealth. It becomes a blessing when it is shared with others, and it becomes an obstacle and a prison for those who do not have the wisdom to share it with others.

We are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of his providence for our neighbour. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, material goods bear a social value, according to the principle of their universal destination (#2404).

Storing up “treasures in heaven” does not mean setting out to secure a place in heaven. It means relying on God as the source of our security. It means having a genuine and sincere relation with God who knows us, accepts us, and gives meaning to our lives. It means having God as the singular object of our “heart.” It means being totally committed to seeking out God’s Kingdom, confident that God will provide us with what we truly need (Matthew 6:33). If we have the Lord as our “treasure,” then there is nothing more we need desire. We can forego everything else.

Making room for God
In his third encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, on integral human development in charity and truth, Pope Benedict XVI addresses the essence of today’s Gospel parable. Paragraph 11 reads:

Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him. In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity’s right to development.

Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.”

Showing one another the Lord’s kindness
Finally, let us make the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen our own this week:

Brethren and friends, let us by no means be wicked stewards of God’s gift to us. If we are, we will have to listen to Saint Peter saying: Be ashamed, you who hold back what belongs to another, take as an example the justice of God, and no one will be poor.

While others suffer poverty, let us not labour to hoard and pile up money, for if we do, holy Amos will threaten us sharply in these words: Hear this, you who say; Where will the new moon be over, that we may sell; and the Sabbath, that we may open up our treasures?

Let us imitate the first and most important law of God who sends his rain on the just and on sinners and makes the sun shine on all men equally. God opens up the earth, the springs, the streams, and the woods to all who live in the world. He gives the air to the birds, the water to the fish, and the basic needs of life abundantly to all, without restriction or limitation or preference. These basic goods are common to all, provided by God generously and with nothing lacking. He has done this so that creatures of the same nature may receive equal gifts and that he may show us how rich is his kindness.

[The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; and Luke 12:13-21.]

(Image: A Golden Harvest by Gregory Frank Harris)

Abraham and Jesus Teach Us to Pray

Abraham Praying cropped

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – July 24, 2016

The biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, home to Abraham’s nephew Lot, were full of sin. Israelite tradition is unanimous in ascribing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the wickedness of these cities, but tradition varies in regard to the nature of this wickedness.

In many earlier interpretations, the sin of Sodom was homosexuality (Genesis 19:4-5), also known as sodomy; but according to Isaiah (1:3-10), it was a lack of social justice. Ezekiel (16:46-51) described it as a disregard for the poor, whereas Jeremiah (23:14) saw it as general immorality. Further studies have revealed that the sin of Sodom the grievous sin of inhospitality in the biblical world – an assault on weak and helpless visitors who, according to justice and tradition ought to have been protected from danger (Ezekiel 16:49).

Biblical bargaining session
Today’s first reading from Genesis (18:20-32) presents the famous bargaining session between God and Abraham over the destruction of the two cities. When Abraham heard that God was going to judge the cities where his nephew lived, he began with a general question: will you destroy the innocent along with the guilty (18:23)?  Abraham appeals to God’s better nature, as one does when one is trying to persuade a powerful person to do the right thing!

God starts at 50, if there are 50 righteous men, Sodom will not be destroyed, and Abraham gradually brings God down to 10. A subtle difference emerges in the way God speaks of the matter: God says that if a certain number of righteous persons are found in the city, God will not destroy it (18:28-32). Interestingly, after Abraham has rested his case on the basis of the righteous 50, God does not say, “I will not destroy it,” but that “I will spare the whole place for their sake” (18:26).

This intriguing story of Abraham interceding for Sodom is not really about a numbers game but about the significance of salvation for the righteous in a corrupt community. Abraham’s fervent intercession points to the central theme of biblical faith: the steadfast love of God that refuses to be frustrated even in the context of immoral societies and cultures and sinful people. Christian theology teaches us that humanity is saved by the life of one righteous person!

Elements of good negotiation
What are the essential elements of good negotiation? First, the demand or request must be clearly articulated and understood. Second, the logic behind the demand or request must be presented and agreed upon. Third, the person requesting or demanding must persist in the negotiation. What are ultimately required are clarity, logic, and persistence. We cannot give up!

Abraham involved all three of these in his prayer to God. Abraham pointed to Lot’s faith and character, not to the fact that Lot was related to him by blood. While he never clearly stated his request, Abraham clearly made his point to God: save those who worship you and act morally! Be faithful to those who are faithful to you; be merciful to those who treat others with mercy. Abraham persisted until God and he agreed upon the number 10 (18:26-32).

The number 10 did not only tell us the size of Lot’s family; it revealed the minimum number of believers necessary to form a community of faith. It gave the raison d’être for a minyan in the Jewish tradition. Judaism refers to the quorum of 10 male Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. Ten was the minimum number needed for public prayer, and the minimum number needed to hold services at a synagogue.

When we pray to God, we should take Abraham’s example to heart. We must pray with a clear request, seek God’s will, and persist in prayer – even when we pray for something small. How are we clear in our prayer, logical in its implications, and persistent in its petition? How does our prayer reflect these wonderful Abrahamic qualities?

Centrality of prayer in Christian life
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus at prayer is a model for us. In each prayerful moment, Jesus lives out the story of God’s great dialogue with the human family by remaining totally open to the power of God. We must pray unceasingly, for prayer is a sign of our faith in God. Prayer is not something that we use to put pressure on God to get our own way. Authentic prayer opens us up to the action of God’s Spirit, bringing us in line with God’s desires, and making us into true disciples, obedient to Jesus and to the Father who has sent him. Prayer becomes one of the ways by which we follow Jesus in the Christian life.

Three episodes concerned with prayer
In today’s Gospel scene, Luke presents three episodes concerned with prayer (11:1-13). The first (11:1-4) recounts Jesus teaching his disciples the Christian communal prayer, the “Our Father”; the second (11:5-8), the importance of persistence in prayer; and the third (11:9-13), the effectiveness of prayer.

The Matthean version of the “Our Father” (6:9-15) occurs in the context of the “Sermon on the Mount”; the shorter Lucan version is presented while Jesus is at prayer and his disciples ask him to teach them to pray just as John taught his disciples to pray (11:1-4). His disciples watch him from afar, and are keenly aware of the intensity and intimacy of his prayer with God. Jesus responds to them by teaching them the Our Father. Jesus presents them with an example of a Christian communal prayer that stresses the fatherhood of God and acknowledges him as the one to whom the Christian disciple owes daily sustenance (11:3), forgiveness (11:4), and deliverance from the final trial (11:4).

The prayer of the community

The “Our Father” is taught to the Twelve in their role as disciples, not just as individuals to be converted but also as persons already co-responsible for the community. This prayer is an apostolic prayer, because it is said in the plural and takes for granted one’s awareness of a people, of co-responsibility, of solidarity – linking each of us to the other.

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we reveal our deepest longing to see the day when the triumphant, sovereign lordship of our loving God will no longer be a mere hope clung to desperately by faith, but a manifest reality in all human affairs. Our souls can never be entirely content until God’s honour is fully vindicated in all creation. These words utter a heartfelt plea: when will the reign of evil and death end?

When we beg for bread, we are really pleading for more than food. We beg the author of life for all the necessities of life: “God, give us what we need in order to enjoy the gift of life – bread for today and bread for tomorrow, to sustain us as a community.”

We ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive everyone their debts to us. This may possibly reflect Luke’s concern that possessions not hinder community fellowship. The final petition is most likely eschatological: do not lead us into trial: i.e. the final, great and ultimate test and agony of evil before the end.

The “Our Father” becomes the prayer of the poor, of those who plod along – weary, hungering, and struggling for faith, meaning, and strength. It is perhaps the first prayer we ever learn, and the last prayer we ever say before we close our eyes on this life.

God’s assurance of good gifts
The parable of the friend at midnight is found nowhere else in the New Testament. Its message, too, is about prayer and its point is that if our friends answer importunate or shameless appeals, how much greater still God, who desires to give us the Kingdom (12:32). The concluding section (11:9-13) builds on the previous section. The analogy moves from friends to parents: if parents give good gifts, how much more so will God. Prayer is continual asking, seeking, knocking, but this persistence is within a parent-child relationship, which assures good gifts. Authentic prayer opens us up to the action of God’s Spirit, bringing us in line with God’s desires, and making us into true disciples, obedient to Jesus and to the Father who has sent him.

I conclude this reflection by offering you two thoughts on Luke’s great lesson on prayer in today’s Gospel. First, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #239:

By calling God “Father,” the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood (cf. Is 66:13; Ps 131:2.), which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard (cf. Ps 27:10; Eph 3:14; Is 49:15): no one is father as God is Father.

I also draw your attention to one of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s homilies on today’s Gospel. The great cardinal wrote in the 19th century words that still ring out clearly today:

He (Jesus) gave the prayer and used it. His Apostles used it; all the Saints ever since have used it. When we use it we seem to join company with them. Who does not think himself brought nearer to any celebrated man in history, by seeing his house, or his furniture, or his handwriting, or the very books that were his? Thus does the Lord’s Prayer bring us near to Christ, and to His disciples in every age.

No wonder, then, that in past times good men thought this Form of prayer so sacred, that it seemed to them impossible to say it too often, as if some especial grace went with the use of it. Nor can we use it too often; it contains in itself a sort of plea for Christ’s listening to us; we cannot, so that we keep our thoughts fixed on its petitions, and use our minds as well as our lips when we repeat it. And what is true of the Lord’s Prayer, is in its measure true of most of those prayers which our Church teaches us to use. It is true of the Psalms also, and of the Creeds; all of which have become sacred, from the memory of saints departed who have used them, and whom we hope one day to meet in heaven.

[The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; and Luke 11:1-13.]

(Image: God’s Promises to Abraham by James Tissot)

The Art of Biblical Hospitality

Mary and Martha cropped

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – July 17, 2016

What does it mean to be hospitable? Biblical stories extol hospitality as both a duty and a work of mercy. The desert “Bedouin” hospitality is a necessity for survival; and since this necessity falls equally upon everyone, any guest is entitled to hospitality from any host. The guest, once accepted by the host, is sacred, and must be protected from any danger even at the cost of the life of members of the family.

The good host makes a feast for his guest unlike any that is ever prepared for his own family. The duty of the host to protect the guest is illustrated by the stories of Lot at Sodom (Genesis 19:1, 8) and the man of Gibeah (Judges 19:16-24). Job boasts of hospitality (Job 31:23). God is most certainly the generous host (Psalms 15:1; 23:5).

Many stories from the Books of Kings also speak of hospitality. Each of the four stories of Chapter 4 describes in some way the power of God, at work in the prophet Elisha, breaking into hopeless situations and shattering them with a word of life. One of those stories is about a couple from the village of Shunem (just over the hill from the New Testament village of Nain in northern Israel) who provide food and lodging for the prophet Elisha. He in turn promises them a son, even though they had been married for a long time and remained childless.

The couple cares for a stranger who had impressed them by his dedication to God, prayer, and social concerns. What the couple does seems quite simple at first – after all, they seem to be influential people. Nonetheless, they interrupt their ordinary activities and private lives to care for Elisha, first with food at their table, then with overnight accommodations. And in their giving to him, they received much more in return – the promise of new life, despite the bitter years of barrenness. Their own gift to Elisha was magnified beyond their comprehension.

Abraham and Sarah welcome the world
Today’s first reading from Genesis 18:1-10 presents Abraham as the model of the generous and hospitable host. In the charming biblical story, Abraham and Sarah welcomed the messengers of God with opened arms at the oaks of Mamre. Abraham is host, bringing water for the washing of feet and providing the shade of a tree for rest. The meal is a banquet, humorously described as “a little bread”: a bushel of flour, curds, milk, and a choice calf! Sarah remains in the tent; society’s customs forbid her from mingling with the male guests. She does the cooking, and nine months later the promise is fulfilled in the birth of her son, Isaac.

During the outdoor meal at the oaks of Mamre, God’s word was shared in a carefully staged play. Hospitality is an art form that requires careful staging! The strangers at Mamre (whom we know to be God and his angels) come to dinner to deliver a message: God promises Abraham and Sarah that the barren will rejoice.

Abraham’s hospitality may appear to us to be a bit too lavish and excessive, but we must never forget the demanding tradition of the Middle East from which springs the Christian conviction regarding hospitality: in the guest, Christ is seen. In our every conversation, he is the silent listener.

Hospitality in the New Testament
The Greek word for hospitality is philanthropia, meaning love of human beings, kindness. The virtue of hospitality is praised in the New Testament and it is enumerated among the works of charity by which we will be judged (Matthew 25:35ff). Jesus depends on it (Mark 1:29ff; 2:15ff; etc.). He regards it as important in the parables (Luke 10:34-35; 11:5ff; etc.). God’s hospitality is an essential part of his message (cf. the divine generosity in Luke 14:16ff; 12:37; 13:29; etc.). Jesus had no home and was frequently a guest (Luke 7:36ff; 9:51ff; 10:389ff; 14:1ff).

It was the practice of Paul on his journeys first to visit the Jews and to stay with them, and to stay with the Gentiles only if the Jews refused him (Acts 14:28; 15:33; 16:15, 34; 17:1ff; 18:3, 27; 21:16). With the rapid growth and expansion of the Church, organization was needed, and we are told that fourth-century Antioch cared daily for 3,000 widows, sick, and strangers. Bishops and widows were especially expected to be hospitable both privately and officially. Bigger churches and sanctuaries later set up hospices, and where care focused on the sick. These developed into hospitals.

Hospitality, Bethany style
Today’s Gospel is the delightful story of Martha and her sister Mary in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). It illustrates the importance of hearing the words of the teacher and the concern with women in Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel story about Mary and Martha has often been used to provide guidelines as to how women are to act. The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t have much to do with the roles that any particular individuals should play. It points out that God doesn’t just look at how well we carry out our duties. No man or woman should lose him or herself in busyness. Mary of Bethany understood that.

Martha is so caught up in the many demands put upon her by societal and cultural rules for serving guests. In reality, there is little that is needed – or rather, only one thing. Much of Martha’s anxiety and concern in serving has more to do with conforming to society’s demands or with the desire of the host or hostess to shine as a model of accomplished and generous hospitality.

Verse 39 presents us with a unique image: Mary sitting at the feet of the Master. Against the backdrop of first-century Palestinian Judaism, that a woman would assume the posture of a disciple at the master’s feet is nothing short of remarkable (cf. Luke 8:35; Acts 22:3)! It reveals a characteristic attitude of Jesus toward women in the third gospel (cf. Luke 8:2-3).

Activity, passivity, or receptivity?
Mary of Bethany, disciple of the Lord, has chosen the most important thing required in welcoming others – her presence and full attention, so that it is her guest who shines. Martha and Mary stand forever as symbols of the two modes of life between which we continually oscillate. Activity can become a shield against facing the issues and questions and truths that must be allowed to surface if we are to survive. There are times when we simply must contemplate, must step back, must think, if we are to be capable of returning to meaningful activity.

The key of the Gospel story is not found in the tension of activity versus passivity, but in receptivity. The one necessity in welcoming others into one’s home or community is being present to them – listening to what they have to say, as Mary does in today’s Gospel.

Hospitality’s enemy
Thus far we have considered the positive aspects, elements, and manifestations of hospitality. But hospitality has an enemy: selfishness and pride. When we are so wrapped up with ourselves, our own problems and difficulties, or we wish to jealously preserve what we have and exclude foreigners and strangers from our lives and riches, we are inhospitable. Too much introspection and inwardness will prevent us from truly being present to others. Or perhaps we are so concerned with external appearances, and so caught up with the details and activity, that we have no time for listening and welcoming.

At the dinner party in Bethany, Martha learned a profound lesson: perhaps a simple pita bread was better than a full Middle Eastern feast, if it got her out of the kitchen and in the company of such an important guest as was sitting in the living room with her sister, Mary. Perhaps Martha was finally able to sit down and grasp the full impact of what was unfolding in her very home – that her own sister was behaving as a true disciple of this man Jesus. And hopefully Martha discovered that the meal was only the scenery, not the script!

Hospitality, Cardinal Newman style
On September 19, 2010, in Birmingham, England, the long awaited beatification ceremony took place for the beloved and great Victorian Catholic theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman was born in troubled times, which knew not only political and military upheaval but also great turbulence of soul. He journeyed from Anglicanism to Catholicism and used his great intellect and masterful writing ability to win over thousands of people to Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. He was an exemplary model of graciousness and hospitality, especially to young men and women at the university. He is the patron of university Catholic chaplaincies around the world known as “Newman Centres.”

In preparation for Cardinal Newman’s beatification, I read once again his homilies based on the Sunday Gospels. I was struck by his reflections on today’s Gospel of Martha, Mary, and their honoured guest in Bethany.

Newman wrote the following about today’s Gospel scene:

There are busy men and men of leisure, who have no part in Him; there are others, who are not without fault, as altogether sacrificing leisure to business, or business to leisure. But putting aside the thought of the untrue and of the extravagant, still after all there remain two classes of Christians – those who are like Martha, those like Mary; and both of them glorify Him in their own line, whether of labour or of quiet, in either case proving themselves to be not their own, but bought with a price, set on obeying, and constant in obeying His will. If they labour, it is for His sake; and if they adore, it is still from love of Him.

And further, these two classes of His disciples do not choose for themselves their course of service, but are allotted it by Him. Martha might be the elder, Mary the younger. I do not say that it is never left to a Christian to choose his own path, whether He will minister with the Angels or adore with the Seraphim; often it is: and well may he bless God if he has it in his power freely to choose that good portion which our Saviour especially praises. But, for the most part, each has his own place marked out for him, if he will take it, in the course of His providence; at least there can be no doubt who are intended for worldly cares. The necessity of getting a livelihood, the calls of a family, the duties of station and office, these are God’s tokens, tracing out Martha’s path for the many.

Questions for Reflection
Here are some questions to reflect upon this week, as individuals and as parish communities.

How do I (we) practice hospitality?

What are the signs of a hospitable community?

What are the enemies of hospitality?

How can we become more hospitable?

Do I (we) really love other human beings?

[The readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:24-28; and Luke 10:38-42.]

(Image: Jesus with Mary and Martha by Alessandro Allori)

Loving Means Acting Like the Good Samaritan

Good Samaritan cropped

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – July 10, 2016

The story of the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) is one of the most treasured parables of the Bible. During my studies in the Holy Land, no matter how many times I traveled that perilous yet spectacular highway from Jerusalem to Jericho, I always found myself musing on Luke’s provocative story.

Luke’s story is powerful, for it speaks of the power of love that transcends all creeds and cultures and “creates” a neighbour out of a complete stranger. The parable is personal, for it describes with profound simplicity the birth of a human relationship that has a personal, physical touch, transcending social and cultural taboos, as one person binds the wounds of another. The parable is a pastoral one, for it is filled with the mystery of care and concern that is at the heart of what is best in human beings. The story is primarily practical, for it urges us to cross all barriers of culture and community and to go and do likewise!

Let us look closely at Luke’s parable. The legal expert who responds to Jesus’ counter-question is certainly a good and upright man. The words, “wished to justify himself” may often be understood to mean that the lawyer was looking for some loophole to demonstrate his worthiness (10:29). In fact, the lawyer wishes to be sure that he understands just what “love your neighbour” really implies. In response to a question from this Jewish legal expert about inheriting eternal life, Jesus illustrates the superiority of love over legalism by means of this beautiful parable.

The priest and Levite (10:31-32) are religious representatives of Judaism who would have been expected to be models of “neighbour” to the victim they would pass by on the road. Levites were expected to have a special dedication to the law. The identity of the “neighbour” requested by the legal expert turns out to be a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jew. Samaritans were hated by the lawyer’s racial group. In the end, the lawyer is even unable to say that it was the Samaritan who showed compassion. He resorts to the description, “The one who treated him with compassion” (10:37).

Spectator sport

To show compassion is to suffer with the wounded and the suffering, to share their pain and agony. Compassion does not leave us indifferent or insensitive to another’s pain but calls for solidarity with the suffering. This is how Jesus, the Good Samaritan par excellence, showed compassion. At times we can be like the priest and the scribe who, on seeing the wounded man, passed by on the other side. We can be silent spectators afraid to involve ourselves and dirty our hands.

Compassion demands that we get out of ourselves as we reach out to others in need. It means that we get our hands and even our reputations dirty. Indifference is worse than hostility. The hostile person at least acknowledges the presence of the other while reacting violently to it; the indifferent person, on the other hand, ignores the other and treats him as if he did not exist. That was the kind of indifference and insensitivity shown by the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side, leaving the wounded and waylaid traveler completely alone.

The Good Samaritan shows us what compassion and commitment are all about. He could have easily passed by on the other side. He could have closed his heart and refused to respond to a genuine need. But he stopped and knelt down beside the stranger who was hurting. At that moment, a neighbour was born. Everyone who stops beside the suffering of another person, whatever form it may take, is a Good Samaritan. This stopping and stooping, this pausing and kneeling down beside the suffering, is not done out of curiosity but out of love. The Samaritan’s compassion brings him to perform a whole series of actions. First he bandaged his wounds, then he took the wounded man to an inn to care for him, and before leaving, he gives the innkeeper the necessary money to take care of him (10:34-35).

Loving means acting like the Good Samaritan. We know that Jesus himself is the model of the Good Samaritan; although he was God, he did not hesitate to humble himself to the point of becoming a man and giving his life for us. More than 2,000 years after this story was first told, it continues to move people deeply. It teaches us what authentic compassion, commitment, and communion with others are all about.

Concept of neighbour

In his 2005 encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (On Christian Love), Benedict XVI wrote (#15):

The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now.

The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members. Lastly, we should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.

A good knight

When I reflect on the ways that this parable has taken on flesh in human history, I cannot help but think of Father Michael McGivney, a parish priest who lived in 19th century America. He ministered to his flock with Christ-like compassion. Father McGivney recognized the material and spiritual poverty of so many members of the Catholic community of his day, and he understood that it was part of the lay vocation to become actively involved in offering assistance to brothers and sisters in need. He knew that it is not only priests and religious who have a vocation, but that every Christian is called by Christ to carry out a particular mission in the Church. He left a lasting legacy in founding and establishing the Knights of Columbus, a lay Catholic fraternal organization that now has close to 1.8 million members worldwide. On August 14, 1890, Father McGivney, a priest of the Diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, died at the young age of 38 years old.

The Knights of Columbus are nothing more than the continuation of the parable of the Good Samaritan in history. This fraternal order specializes in preparing other Good Samaritans for our time. Like the Good Samaritan, Christ’s care for the sick and the suffering was an inspiration to Father McGivney who, as a priest, sought to be a living sign of Christ for the people he served.

Father McGivney and his brother Knights throughout history have been binding the wounds of those they discovered lying by the wayside of history and helping restore them to health and strength. In so doing, they imitate Christ, who came that we might have life in abundance.

“Nowhere is the face of our Church more attractive than in our open embrace of our neighbour,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson once wrote. “Each encounter with those in need is actually an opportunity to create a civilization of love, one person, one act at a time.”

Prayer for canonization

The existence of the Knights of Columbus in the Church and in the world is cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving. They give flesh and blood to today’s wonderful Gospel story. I encourage you to pray for the intercession of Father McGivney and ask him to help you become a Good Samaritan to those around you. Pray for the courage to reach out beyond boundaries, the boldness to get your hands dirty as you touch the outcast, and the grace and consolation to recognize the face of Jesus in those to whom you minister.

God our Father, 
Protector of the poor and defender of the widow and orphan, you called your priest, Father Michael J. McGivney, to be an apostle of Christian family life and to lead the young to the generous service of their neighbour.

Through the example of his life and virtue may we follow your Son, Jesus Christ, more closely, fulfilling his commandment of charity and building up his Body, which is the Church. Let the inspiration of your servant prompt us to greater confidence in your love so that we may continue his work of caring for the needy and the outcast.

We humbly ask that you glorify your servant Father Michael J. McGivney on earth according to the design of your holy will.

Through his intercession, grant the favour I now present. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

[The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; and Luke 10:25-37.]

(Image: The Good Samaritan by William Henry Margetson)

Jesus Prepares Witnesses to Himself and His Ministry

Jesus seventy cropped

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – July 3, 2016

The theme of “peacefulness” appears in all three of today’s readings, and there is a definite link between the first reading from Isaiah (66:10-14) and the reading from the Gospel of Luke (10:1-12, 17-20). Isaiah’s poetry celebrates the long-awaited return of Israel from exile and imagines their triumphant return to the nurturing arms of Jerusalem, the Holy City and Mother of all cities.

There is certainly a parallel and a contradiction in today’s Gospel. Both Isaiah’s reading and the Gospel speak of the rejoicing that characterizes the return of exiled Israel to Jerusalem and the return of the disciples after a successful mission.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, like Israel, is also journeying toward Jerusalem, where he too will be welcomed by the city – only to then suffer rejection. It is in the holy city of Jerusalem that Jesus will inaugurate the new kingdom of God by his passion and death.

The mission of the seventy-two

Only the Gospel of Luke contains two episodes in which Jesus sends out his followers on a mission: the first (Luke 9:1-6) is based on the mission in Mark 6:6b-13 and recounts the sending out of the Twelve; here in Luke 10:1-12, a similar report based on Q narrates the sending out of seventy-two. The episode continues the theme of Jesus preparing witnesses to himself and his ministry. These witnesses include not only the Twelve but also the seventy-two who may represent the Christian mission in Luke’s own day. The instructions given to the Twelve and to the seventy-two are similar in that what is said to the seventy-two in Luke 10:4 is later directed to the Twelve in Luke 22:35.

By ordering his followers to carry no moneybag and greet no one along the way (Luke 10:4), Jesus stresses the urgency of the mission and the single-mindedness required of missionaries. Attachment to material possessions should be avoided and even customary greetings should not distract from the fulfilment of the task.

Evangelization and healing

Luke relates evangelization with healing in Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve. He summoned the disciples and sent them on mission to engage in ministries that would restore health and well-being to individuals, families, and communities. Jesus also sent the seventy-two, our predecessors, saying: “Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you’” (Luke 10:8-9).

In the sending of the seventy-two, Jesus confirms that through his disciples and those who came to believe through their word, his peace and the news that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” would be proclaimed to all the world. At their joyful return, despite rejection, Jesus rejoices at their success in the submission of the evil spirits in his name: the message is never to cease, never to give up. And yet the call to repentance that is a part of the proclamation of the kingdom brings with it a severe judgment for those who hear it and reject it. As the kingdom of God is gradually being established, evil in all its forms is being defeated; the dominion of Satan over humanity is at an end.

Proclaiming the Word brings healing

For Jesus, healing is never just the healing of the body but also mind, heart, and spirit. It is not just about making people physically better, but it is about hearts made whole, sins forgiven, and a world healed. The very proclamation of the word is meant to heal and cannot be separated from care of neighbour. As we share meals with the stranger, as the seventy-two did, we naturally build relationships, which will lead us to a deeper concern for their health and overall well-being. As we let go of our self-interest and focus on the healing needs of others we will restore God’s covenant with those who have been denied the opportunity for good health.

Healing has always been a significant concern and an ongoing activity of the Church. Reconciliation, healing, and salvation are recurring themes in Luke. Jesus called his followers to repentance and to a transformation of their old attitudes and way of living into a radically new set of relationships and attitudes.

Rejoicing in the Holy Spirit

Commenting on today’s Gospel, Pope John Paul II, in his masterful 1986 encyclical letter Dominum et Vivificantem (On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World) wrote in #20:

Thus the evangelist Luke, who has already presented Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit … in the wilderness,” tells us that, after the return of the seventy-two disciples from the mission entrusted to them by the Master, while they were joyfully recounting the fruits of their labours, “in that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was your gracious will.’” Jesus rejoices at the fatherhood of God: he rejoices because it has been given to him to reveal this fatherhood; he rejoices, finally, as at a particular outpouring of this divine fatherhood on the “little ones.” And the evangelist describes all this as “rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.”

Continuing our reflection on the Holy Lands

After the Council of Nicaea in 325, Palestine began flourishing with Constantine’s churches, especially in the three most venerated places: the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary in Jerusalem; the traditional place of Christ’s teaching on the Mount of Olives (the so-called Basilica of Eleona); and the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem. Some of the works were supervised by Helena herself.

For the pilgrims journeying to Palestine in the 4th century, those sites constituted the core of their interests. Holy spots became so popular and desirable that one of the Christian traditions placed Jerusalem – and specifically the hill of Golgotha – at the centre of the world. This is evident on many ancient maps of the Holy Land from this period. In 333, a Christian pilgrim from Bordeaux made the journey to Jerusalem by land. As a remembrance, but more likely for the benefit of future pilgrims, he compiled a detailed record of the stages and distances on the road both there and back in his important work called the Bordeaux Itinerary.

Here in this city of Jerusalem

St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (349-384 AD) had the unique privilege of presiding over the church in Jerusalem immediately after the completion of the new buildings begun during Constantine’s reign. Cyril is the envy of every bishop, pastor, chaplain, parish council, finance committee, and pastoral minister! Imagine walking into a situation where everything is newly built and no fund drives or building campaigns are needed! Cyril preached magnificent sermons within feet of the actual places of Christ’s death and resurrection. He said of Calvary, “Others only hear, but we both see and touch.” Cyril wrote: “Here in this city of Jerusalem the Spirit was poured out on the Church; here Christ was crucified; here you have before you many witnesses, the place itself of the Resurrection and towards the east on the Mount of Olives the place of the Ascension.”

In the Diary of Egeria (or Etheria), written by a wealthy Spanish woman while making her pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381-384 (a trip that also included Sinai, Egypt, the Valley of Jordan, and Transjordanian region), we read not only about the vivid impressions made by the impact of the biblical sites, but also her vivid observation of the liturgy celebrated in the shrines. With many details she describes the Sunday and weekday celebrations throughout the liturgical year, focusing especially on the Holy Week prayers in which she participated in Jerusalem. From Egeria’s Itinerary we learn how she enjoyed the cordial reception of local Christians who met all her needs as a pilgrim, showing her biblical sites, conducting appropriate acts of worship in the spots, escorting her, giving hospitality and advice. Egeria’s positive experiences might be very indicative of the experiences shared by most pilgrims at the end of the 4th century, and of pilgrims today who have the privilege of meeting the local peoples of the Holy Land.

Those who settled in the Holy Land

Another pious practice linked to the pilgrimages was settling in the Holy Land. Some pilgrims explicitly decided to set out for the Biblical Land in order to live there, or during their sojourn made up their minds to remain there. Such is the case of St. Jerome and his women companions. After arriving in Palestine in 386 he established a community in Bethlehem. Jerome would exclaim in his writings: “Here, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes; here he was seen by shepherds, here he was pointed out by the star; here he was adored by the magi.” Jerome later wrote to his friend Paula in Rome urging her to come and live in the Holy Land. He wrote: “The whole mystery of our faith is native to this country and this city.” Nowhere else in our Christian experience can make this claim. No matter how many centuries have passed, and no matter how far Christianity has spread, Christians are wedded to the land that gave birth to Christ and Christianity.

[The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, are: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; and Luke 10:1-12, 17-20.]

(Image: Jesus sends the Seventy disciples, Two by Two by James Tissot)

A Unity Transcending All Differences

Peter and Paul

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – Wednesday, June 29, 2014

June 29th marks the great solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Peter’s journey was from the weakness of denial to the rock of fidelity. He gave us the ultimate witness of the cross. Paul’s pilgrimage was from the blindness of persecution to the fire of proclamation. He made the Word of God come alive for the nations.

To be with Peter means to preserve the unity of the Christian Church. To speak with Paul is to proclaim the pure Word of God. Their passion was to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Their commitment was to create a place for everyone in Christ’s church. Their loyalty to Christ was valid to death. Peter and Paul are for us a strong foundation; they are pillars of our church.

Affirmation, identity and purpose at Caesarea Philippi

Today’s Gospel story (Matthew 16:13-19) is about affirmation, identity and purpose. Jesus and his disciples entered the area of Caesarea Philippi in the process of a long journey from their familiar surroundings. Caesarea Philippi, built by Philip, was a garrison town for the Roman army, full of all the architecture, imagery, and life styles of Greco-Roman urban civilization. It was a foreign place to the apostles who were more familiar with towns and the lakeside.

Sexuality and violence ran rampant in this religious shrine town known for its worship of the Greek god Pan. In this centre of power, sophistication and rampant pagan worship, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks what people are saying about him. How do they see his work? Who is he in their minds? Probably taken aback by the question, the disciples dredge their memories for overheard remarks, snatches of shared conversation, opinions circulating in the fishing towns of the lake area. Jesus himself is aware of some of the stories about him. He knows only too well the attitude of his own town of Nazareth, and the memory probably hurts him deeply.

The disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. And these names reveal the different expectations held about him. Some thought of him as fiery Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Others considered him more like the long suffering Jeremiah, concentrating more on the inner journey, the private side of life. Above all, the question asked of the disciples echoes through time as the classic point of decision for every Christian.

Everyone must at some point experience what happened at Caesarea Philippi and answer Jesus’ provocative question, “You, who do you say I am?” What do we perceive to be our responsibilities and commitments following upon our own declaration of faith in Jesus?

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus

In the year 35 AD, Saul appears as a self-righteous young Pharisee, almost fanatically anti-Christian. We read in Acts chapter 7 that he was present, although not taking part in the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. It was very soon afterwards that Paul experienced the revelation that transformed his entire life. On the road to the Syrian city of Damascus, where he was going to continue his persecutions against the Christians, he was struck blind. Paul accepted eagerly the commission to preach the Gospel of Christ, but like many another called to a great task he felt his unworthiness and withdrew from the world to spend three years in “Arabia” in meditation and prayer before beginning his mission.

His extensive travels by land and sea are recounted in his letters in the New Testament. Paul himself tells us he was stoned, scourged three times, shipwrecked three times, endured hunger and thirst, sleepless nights, perils and hardships; besides these physical trials, he suffered many disappointments and almost constant anxieties over the weak and widely scattered communities of Christians.

The final earthly moments of Peter and Paul

According to the ancient tradition, on the morning of June 29, Peter and Paul were taken from their common cell at Rome’s Mamertine prison and separated. Peter was taken to Nero’s Circus where he was crucified upside down, while Paul was taken east of Rome to the area now known as Tre Fontane. The name records the legend of the saint’s beheading, when his severed head reportedly bounced three times, creating three fountains. Artists through the ages have dwelt on their goodbye, often depicting the last embrace between the two friends. The Golden Legend records their parting words:

Paul to Peter: “Peace be with you, foundation stone of the churches and shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!”

And Peter to Paul: “Go in peace, preacher of virtuous living, mediator and leader of the salvation of the righteous!”

The connection between the two saints is also evident in their respective basilicas. Emperor Constantine built the first six Christian churches in Rome from 313 to 328, and among them were St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s “outside the walls.” Five of the churches face east, as was common in orienting churches at the time. St. Paul’s faces west, so that across the city, both basilicas watch over the sheep and lambs of their city.

A text from St. John Chrysostom is very appropriate at the end of the year dedicated to St. Paul. It comes from his final homily on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. After expressing his ardent desire to visit St. Paul’s tomb in Rome and see there even the dust of St. Paul’s body, St. John Chrysostom exclaims:

Who could grant me now this to throw myself around the body of Paul and be riveted to his tomb and to see the dust of that body which completed what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions; which bore the marks (of Christ) and sowed the Gospel everywhere … the dust of that mouth through which Christ spoke. …

Nor is it that mouth only, but I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s heart too, which one should rightly call the heart of the world, the fountain of countless blessings and the very element of our life. … A heart which was so large as to take in entire cities and peoples and nations … which became higher than the heavens, wider than the whole world, brighter than the sun’s beam, warmer than the fire, stronger than the adamant; letting rivers flow from it … which was deemed to love Christ like no one else ever did.

I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s hands, hands in chains, through the imposition of which the Spirit was given, through which this divine letter (to the Romans) was written.

I wish I could see the dust of those eyes which were rightly blinded and recovered their sight again for the salvation of the world; which were counted worthy to see Christ in the body; which saw earthly things, yet saw them not; which saw the things that are not seen; which knew no sleep, and were watchful even at midnight. …

I wish I could also see the dust of those feet, Paul’s feet, which run through the world and were not tired, which were bound in stocks when the prison shook, which went through parts populated and uninhabited, which walked on so many journeys. …

I wish I could see the tomb where the weapons of righteousness lay, the weapons of light, the limbs of Paul, which now are alive but in life were made dead (to sin) … which were in Christ’s limbs, clothed in Christ, bound in the Spirit, riveted to the fear of God, bearing the marks of Christ.

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 32 on the Epistle to the Romans,” Migne, Patrologia Graeca 60, 678-80

Together they built the Church

As ordinary men, Peter and Paul might have avoided each other from time to time. Peter was a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee and Paul a Greek-educated intellectual. But Jesus brought them together as a sign for his Church in which the entire spectrum of humanity would find a new place to call home. Together they worked to build the church. Together they witnessed to Christ. Together they suffered the death of their Lord, death at murderous hands. Paul died by the sword and Peter was crucified head-down. They had a unity that transcended all differences. They teach us about the depth of Christian commitment. For Peter and Paul, insight into Jesus’ true identity brought new demands and responsibilities.

At the close of the Year of St. Paul on June 29, 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI invited each Catholic to hold up a mirror to his or her life and to ask, “Am I as determined and as energetic about spreading the Catholic faith as St. Paul was?” “Is spreading the faith both by example and by my conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances even a concern for me?” “What do I perceive to be my responsibilities following upon my own declaration of faith in Jesus?”

[The readings for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul are: Acts 12.1-11; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16.13-19.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Let Us Go up to Jerusalem With Jesus

Jesus Jerusalem cropped

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 26, 2016

In the opening words of today’s Gospel, Luke clearly states where Jesus is headed. He is going up to Jerusalem where, as we heard predicted in last Sunday’s Gospel, he will be put to death.

Without a doubt, Jesus speaks forcefully to us about the call to discipleship, of following him. He invites all of those he meets along the way to follow him, and there are many and varied responses to this invitation. Some will not even listen to him (i.e. the Samaritans) because they are prejudiced against the one who issues the invitation. Others respond to the invitation without fully realizing what it entails.

Discipleship is a total commitment, and Jesus wants us to know from the beginning that following him will lead to the Cross.

Luke’s travel narrative

Luke’s journey narrative is based on Mark 10:1-52, but his Marcan source is only used in Luke 18:15-19:27. Before that point he has inserted into his Gospel a distinctive collection of sayings of Jesus and stories about him that he has drawn from “Q” – a collection of sayings of Jesus used also by Matthew – and from his own special traditions.

Much of the material in the Lucan travel narrative is teaching for the disciples. During the course of this journey Jesus is preparing his chosen Galilean witnesses for the role they will play after his exodus (Luke 9:31): they are to be his witnesses to the people (Acts 10:39; 13:31) and thereby provide certainty to the readers of Luke’s Gospel that the teachings they have received are rooted in the teachings of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

Just as the Galilean ministry began with a rejection of Jesus in his hometown, so too the travel narrative begins with his rejection by the Samaritans (9:51-55). In this episode Jesus disassociates himself from the attitude expressed by his disciples that those who reject him are to be severely punished. The story alludes to 2 Kings 1:10, 12 where the prophet Elijah takes the course of action Jesus rejects. In so doing Jesus rejects the identification of himself with Elijah.

Christian discipleship is severe

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the severity and the unconditional nature of Christian discipleship (9:57-62). Even family ties and filial obligations, such as burying one’s parents, cannot distract one no matter how briefly from proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Discipleship requires a wholehearted commitment to the Lord and a generous spirit of service toward his people. The demands are severe. Jesus says unambiguously: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).

The people of Jesus’ time understood this agrarian imagery. The farmer has to keep his eyes fixed straight ahead, otherwise the neatly organized field required for planting would be turned into a chaotic nightmare at harvesting time. The demand sounds harsh, especially when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (9:60). This is not disrespect for our deceased, but simply a realization that we must live without regret over the past. If we keep our eye on the present, then the fields of our lives will have the grace and freshness of newly plowed spring fields. Our lives will hold great promise for a rich harvest.

Luke also uses the journey motif to teach something about the road that Christians must walk. It is similar to the road Jesus himself journeyed, involving gross misunderstanding and rejection and requiring a great deal of internal strength and energy.

To be a disciple of Jesus requires total commitment on our part. It involves homelessness, not really belonging anywhere. To belong to Jesus must supersede all other obligations. The journey is final, its consequences ultimate. To be called does not require our perfection. Elijah, Elisha, the prophets of Israel, the fishermen of Galilee, and even the tax collectors that Jesus called were certainly not summoned because of their qualifications or achievements. Paul says that Jesus calls “the foolish,” so that the wise will be shamed (1 Corinthians 1:27). Our discipleship of Jesus must be much more than staying with him in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Bethany, Bethsaida, Capernaum, or atop Mount Tabor. It must also include being with him in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane, on Calvary.

There is no possibility of a lukewarm response; the Gospel requires all or nothing. The disciples speak the ultimate message of the Lord, “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). As signs of victory over evil, the disciples have spectacular powers, demonstrating the awesome power of God. They are to rejoice, though not in the power of God active in them or even in the success of their message: joy comes from the promise of life that has been given to them.

We are today’s disciples. Our mandate is the same: to speak by our words and deeds the love of our God, and most of all, to rejoice, because he has called us and gifted us with such abundant life.

Let’s go

Today’s Gospel also invites us to reflect on journeying with Jesus in his own land, up to the Holy City of Jerusalem, not only in our Christian lives as disciples, but also as pilgrims in history. Beginning today and continuing next Sunday, I would like to offer some reflections on the meaning of pilgrimage or holy journey.

The phenomenon of the “holy journey” was known a long time before the Christian era and precedes even the Jewish tradition of pilgrimages. Devotional trips have always been related to the ancient reality of “holy places” or “sanctuaries.” Such destinations were considered sacred because they acknowledged the presence of a superior power that subsequently became an object of worship. In ancient times people journeyed individually as well as collectively to the “shrines” where they performed special acts of worship for devotional, penitential, or votive reasons.

It is very likely that in the first three centuries Christians did not make pilgrimages to the Holy Land if we understand them as devotional journeys toward a holy place. It seems that the reluctant attitude towards pilgrimages in early Christianity was basically due to two factors: political and religious. The lack of recognition of Christianity, which was practically an underground life in most of the Roman Empire, was a highly discouraging fact in the recognition and veneration of holy places.

From the writings of Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist from the second century, we learn that despite the widespread pagan custom of making therapeutic pilgrimages to the sanctuaries of Aesclepius, Christians did not exercise a similar practice because Christ was the unique healer of bodies and souls. Though these myriad factors portray a rather negative attitude of the first Christians towards Holy Land pilgrimages, we do have some information pointing to sporadic journeys. Those journeys however appear to be classified more as scholarly trips than as pilgrimages.

Tracing the footsteps

The first, as far as we know, was made in 160 AD by Bishop Melito of Sardis. He wanted to acquire some details about the names and order of the books of the Old Testament. Another scholarly trip was made by Origen when he came from Alexandria to the Holy Land circa 235 AD. Before settling down in Caesarea, he decided to retrace “the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.”

Probably the first attested pilgrim in the actual sense of the word dates back to the year 216 AD, when a bishop of Cappadocia, Alexander (a future bishop of Jerusalem), arrived in Jerusalem to “pray and know the holy sites.” Therefore, in the first three centuries, besides a few sporadic cases, we cannot talk about the practice of pilgrimages neither to the Holy Land nor to any other places.

The scenario shifted quite drastically after the year 313 when Christianity obtained the status of the legal religion of the Empire. The Golden Age of the Holy Land had begun. The Holy Land itinerary inspired all other devotional journeys. It seems that the desire to experience the biblical sites overshadowed the previous reluctant attitude towards pilgrimages. In fact, many people enthusiastically and courageously overcame the hardships and risks of long and perilous travel in order to embark on a holy and exciting trip toward the earthly homeland of the Lord.

Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century Christian historian, portrayed Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, as the noblest of all Holy Land pilgrims. Eusebius asserts that Constantine wished to be baptized in the river Jordan like Christ. We unfortunately do not know if the emperor’s desire was fulfilled and whether he came to the land of the Bible. The Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena played very important roles in the life and history of God’s land.

These reflections on the Holy Lands are continued in the reflection for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

[The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, are: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62.]

(Image: Jesus Goes Up to Jerusalem by James Tissot)

Laudato Sì for the World God so Loved: A Reflection on Pope Francis’ Ecology Manifesto One Year Later

There is a story within the story of Laudato Sì – Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical letter “On the Care of our Common Home.” The letter is an overview of the environmental crisis from a religious point of view. Until the publication of the Pope’s important document one year ago on June 18, the dialogue about the environment had been framed mainly using political, scientific and economic language. Now, the language of faith enters the discussion – clearly, decisively and systematically. 

The encyclical is addressed to “everyone living on this planet” and calls for a new way of looking at things. We face an urgent crisis, when the earth has begun to look more and more like, in the Pope’s vivid image, “an immense pile of filth”. Still, the document is hopeful, reminding us that because God is with us, all of us can strive to change course. We can move towards an “ecological conversion” in which we can listen to the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. This is a deeply uncomfortable encyclical because it is not content simply to face up to the institutional and moral issues of climate change and environmental degradation, but addresses the deeper tragedy of humanity itself.

“Laudato Sì” is a privileged instrument of Evangelization of our contemporary world because it strives to answer the deeper questions about ecology and the environment within God’s revelation as found in his creation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. At this critical moment in history, what is at stake is not just our respect for biodiversity, but our very survival. Scientists calculate that those most harmed by global warming in the future will be the most vulnerable and marginalized. The dignity and rights of human beings are intimately and integrally related to the beauty and the rights of the earth itself. After all, who will dare to speak for the voiceless resources of our planet? Who will step up to protect the silent diversity of its species? Will our generation accept responsibility for pushing our environment over the tipping-point?

Pope Francis Laudato Si2

Photo Courtesy of CNS/Nic Bothma, EPA

Christian spirituality has a precious contribution to make in responding to the environment crisis because it “can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world,” (LS §216). For Francis, spirituality does not mean turning away from the world. There is a mystical meaning to be found in everything in the universe. A good spirituality finds God not only in the interior of our hearts but also in creatures outside of ourselves, whether it be “in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (LS §233)

At the heart Laudato Sì is this question: What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Pope Francis continues: “This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal”. (LS §160) This leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the base of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (LS §160)

Laudato Sì is not simply a random sampling of issues that the Bishop of Rome considers important for our understanding of the environmental crisis of our times: “the noise and distractions of information overload”; access to clean drinking water; the crisis of hope in a “better tomorrow”; “the myth of progress”; modern architecture; the “culture of relativism”; drug abuse in rich countries; the need to accept “one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity” and how it is “not healthy to cancel out sexual difference”; the diversity of species; rising sea levels; global inequality. Pope Francis’ tone is passionate, personal and urgent. He has drafted this major encyclical letter with the mind and heart of a disciple of Jesus and the pen and voice of a prophet who has seen and personally experienced the grave injustices and ugliness that human beings can cause on this earth.

With Laudato Sì, Pope Francis has encouraged us all to care for others and for the gift of God’s creation. He has touched people’s hearts and moved them to action. Laudato Sì addresses a moral issue. It is a call to care for others. It is a call to care for God’s creation. It speaks of Catholic distinctiveness. It invites us to an integral ecology. We are called to live an integrated life rooted in what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology.” We’re called to cooperate with God’s design in our relationship with the natural world and with one another. When we get these intertwined relationships right, we grow closer to God. We understand that our individual decisions have social consequences. We recognize the strong link between respecting human dignity and care for the natural world. We know that population isn’t the problem: it’s the throwaway culture that’s the problem.

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Photo Courtesy of CNS/Nancy Wiechec

Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Pope Francis’ document on ecology puts the human person firmly at the center and draw attention to the connection between environmental problems and poverty. Such a document is urgently needed to correct many philosophical and theological errors that have crept into the environmental movement. Ecological efforts that seemingly begin with the program of saving our environment quickly run their logic to the point where the environment takes absolute priority over human beings. When taken to the extreme, many make the erroneous claim that the human person is simply one of a very large number of species, all equally valuable and enjoying the same rights. 

Over the past year I have had the privilege of addressing many groups, including Church leaders, throughout North America on this important encyclical. I am convinced that Laudato Sì is a privileged instrument and catalyst of dialogue with other Christians, with believers of other religions, with people of little or no faith, and with people of good will. The questions that the encyclical raises have elicited intense, serious and passionate dialogue. One year after the publication of this masterful teaching document of the Roman Catholic Church, let us ask some questions of how we have truly “received” the encyclical in our ecclesial community and put it into practice.

  1. What does Pope Francis mean by a “throwaway culture” (22)? Do you agree with him? Why?
  1. What are the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development, and the throwaway culture (43-47)?
  1. Why does Pope Francis think that simply reducing birth rates of the poor is not a just or adequate response to the problem of poverty or environmental degradation (50)?
  1. Why does Pope Francis argue that “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139)?
  1. What does Pope Francis see as the successes and failures of the global response to environmental issues (166-169)?
  1. What does the Pope mean by an ecological spirituality, and how can it motivate us to a passionate concern for the protection of our world (216)?
  1. Pope Francis proposes that the natural world is integral to our sacramental and spiritual lives (233-242). How have you experienced this?
  1. How is this encyclical changing your life and your way of thinking about the world that God so loved?

Laudato Si’ must be read not only as a work of Catholic social teaching, but also as great instrument of the first Evangelization and the new Evangelization, and a witness to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis’ letter reflects a profound confidence and openness to the world. The encyclical is a perfect example of how the Church, at the highest level, understands the modern world, enters into a profound dialogue with the world, and repeats again her age-old message of salvation in a new way. With this landmark encyclical letter, Pope Francis lays the groundwork for a new Christian humanism, rooted in the simple and beautiful image of Jesus that he presents for the world’s consideration. For in the end, it is in the name and mission of Jesus of Nazareth that the Pope issues his call to conversion – a compelling invitation to each of us to look at the earth and all of its creatures with the loving eyes and heart of Jesus Christ.

 

For more information, teaching and discussions tools on Laudato Sì, visit:

http://saltandlighttv.org/laudatosi/

Order six-part video series and guide “Creation”

http://saltandlighttv.org/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=198

 

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. He also serves as English language Media Attaché to the Holy See Press Office.

What I Understood About Mercy

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“Apart from God’s Mercy, there is no other source of hope for human beings.” – Pope John Paul II

A few days ago I came across this quote from St. John Paul II, a statement that sounds almost like a sentence, a truth impossible to remove. God’s mercy is the only hope we have, with no other alternative.

While it indelibly marks a way forward, at the same time it is a wonderful idea to believe in.

In this Year of Mercy, this theme is professed repeatedly. Pope Francis has made this the hallmark of his pontificate, especially in recent months. Mercy has become the central theme of catechesis in his general audiences. There is an underlying theme of a call to prayer and listening, to welcome and be available, particularly now in a historical period punctured by tragedies, bombings, and people fleeing from despair and persecution and looking for a new home.

I have wondered many times what it means in practice to be merciful. I pondered the meaning of this term and its Latin roots helped me to dissect this word. Misericors, misereor and cor, heart and compassion, this is mercy, a heart with mercy, rich in mercy.

I think that is the first step to delving into the concept of mercy. It gives reference to our heart and to his mercy, and with that, a sense of compassion, respect and above all forgiveness.

Months ago, I was asked what I defined as mercy and I instinctively responded forgiveness.  Quite simply, I think this is the main form of piety. The first step is knowing how to acknowledge mistakes, and more difficult is accepting others despite their mistakes. As they say in Latin “Porta Itineris dicitur longissima esse.”  Going through the door is the longest part of the journey. In my view, forgiveness is of vital importance to mercy.

 

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On December 31, while my vacation time in Rome was running out, I went to St. Peter’s to pass through the Holy Door accompanied by my parents.  I joined them in a symbolic gesture, in duty, but also of commitment. It was the best way to close 2015 and a promise to ourselves for the upcoming new year.

Obviously, going through the holy door of the main Basilica in my hometown had a unique flavour, and I was reminded when I had gone through the holy door for the first time on January 7, 2000 on the occasion of the previous Jubilee. Years later, the feelings were different, particularly with a greater understanding of the context this time. I was witness once again to something big and what and honour to be able to tell these stories first hand, having lived through it.

There are still several months to live before the end of this Year of Mercy. Living our lives by this principle remains the most difficult challenge, and is a Christian commitment to accomplish with faith, hope and trust. Being Christian 24 hours a day, means always doing actions and gestures in our daily lives, as mercy can only be practiced in this way, with time and with the little things.

If there is one aspect that I learnt about mercy, it was this one.

The Only Question That Matters

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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 19, 2016

The second half of Luke’s Gospel is one continuous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the city of destiny. For Luke, the Christian journey is a joyous way illuminated by the graciousness of the Saviour of the world.

Along that way, Jesus asks a very important question of his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” is the same question asked of every disciple in every age. From today’s Gospel onwards, Jesus is on his way to the Cross. Everything he says and does is another step toward Golgotha – where he will demonstrate perfect obedience, perfect love, and total self-giving.

The incident in today’s Gospel (Luke 9:18-24) is based on Mark 8:27-33, but Luke has eliminated Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus as suffering Son of Man (Mark 8:32), and the rebuke of Peter by Jesus (Mark 8:33). Luke also softens the harsh portrait of Peter and the other Apostles found in his Marcan source elsewhere in his Gospel. Luke 22:39-46 similarly lacks the rebuke of Peter that occurs in its Marcan source (14:37-38).

The disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. And these names reveal all the different expectations held about him. Some thought of him as an Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Some saw him as one of the ancient prophets.

When Jesus asks his disciples of their perception of him, he asks what people are saying about him. How do they see his work? Who is he in their minds? Probably taken aback by the question, the disciples dredge their memories for overheard remarks, snatches of shared conversation, opinions circulating in the fishing towns of the lake area. Jesus himself is aware of some of this. The replies of the disciples are varied, as are those of each of us today when Jesus, through someone else’s lips, asks us the same question, and with increasing frequency and intensity.

The concept of “Messiah” in Judaism

There was no single concept of “Messiah” in Judaism. The idea of Messiah (“anointed one”) as an ideal king descended from David is the earliest known to us, but in the Maccabaean period (about 163-63 B.C.), the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs preserved for us in Greek, give evidence of belief in a Messiah from the tribe of Levi, to which the Maccabaean family belonged. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain various other ideas: a priestly Messiah and the (lay) Messiah of Israel (1QSa); a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18-19) who is also the star out of Jacob (Numbers 23:15-17) (4Q175); but also the Davidic Messiah (4Q174). Melchizedek is a deliverer also, but is not called Messiah (11QMelch).

To proclaim Jesus as the Messiah was a loaded and dangerous statement. It was all that Jesus’ enemies needed to use against him, and already there were many who were ready to enlist under the banner of a royal pretender. But, far more than this, such a role was not Jesus’ destiny. He would not and could not be that kind of militaristic or political Messiah.

Identifying Jesus Today

The struggle to identify Jesus and his role as Messiah continues today. Some say the individual Christian and the whole Church should be Elijah figures, confronting systems, institutions, and national policies. That was the way Elijah saw his task. We only need to read the First Book of Kings (chapters 17 to 21) to confirm this fact. Some say, like Jeremiah, that the domain of Christ, through his Church, is the personal and private side of life. Significantly, Jesus probes beyond both and asks, “You, who do you say I am?” (Luke 9:20)

In Peter’s answer, “You are Messiah” (9:20) – blurted out with his typical impetuosity – we are given a response that involves both of the concepts above and transcends them. The Messiah came into society, and into individual lives, in a total way, reconciling the distinction between public and private. The quality of our response to this question is the best gauge of the quality of our discipleship. Let us remember certain facts and truths about Jesus’ background and world mission that have prepared for Christianity to be a truly global Church:

1) Jesus was born of the political tribe of Judah – neither the priestly tribe of Levi nor the priestly family of Zaddok. Yet Jesus was not a politician.

2) Nevertheless Jesus did have a sense of politics. A world mission cannot be undertaken without serious interaction with politics.

3) Jesus established himself at Capernaum rather than in the desert or in some remote village. In his town along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, there was a main road, tax collectors, and relations with the Roman centurion. Jesus was very much at home in Capernaum, not in Jerusalem.

4) Jesus bonded himself with all those who were sick and dying, with sinners, and those living on the fringes of society. Through his life, Jesus puts biblical justice into practice by proclaiming the Beatitudes. Authentic justice is a binding of one’s self with the sick, the disabled, the poor, and the hungry. Yet he did not neglect those who fell outside these categories. He dined with the rich and the mighty as well as the poor and downtrodden. He teaches us an authentic spirit of inclusion of all people.

5) Jesus did not preach the political kingdom of David but the Kingdom of God. He had a great ability to appeal to everyone and incorporate everything into his vision of the Kingdom.

Piecing together the mosaic

If you have ever attempted to piece together an ancient mosaic, you would know of the painstaking work involved in such an endeavour. During my biblical studies in the Holy Land, I participated in several archeological expeditions involving the discovery of ancient mosaics. Every little fragment matters in putting the whole picture together. In a similar way, when we attempt to answer Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20), we are being invited to piece together a magnificent mosaic.

In the context of today’s Gospel, Jesus will be the Messiah only when he lays down his life for others. Likewise I will be like Jesus only when I lay down my life for others. Jesus’ identity is found in doing the will of God. Luke applies the same principle to all of us as his disciples. Our true identity and purpose is found in going beyond ourselves. This task is a daily one: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If I lose my life for Christ, I find it!

Remembering Tor Vergata 2000

One of the most powerful and memorable reflections on Jesus’ identity that I have ever experienced took place on the night of August 19, 2000 during the evening prayer vigil at Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome during the World Youth Day of the Great Jubilee. I shall never forget that hot night, when silence came over the crowd of over one million young people as Pope John Paul II asked them the only question that matters: “Who do you say that I am?”

The elderly Pope addressed his young friends with words that rang out over the seeming apocalyptic scene before him:

What is the meaning of this dialogue? Why does Jesus want to know what people think about him? Why does he want to know what his disciples think about him? Jesus wants his disciples to become aware of what is hidden in their own minds and hearts and to give voice to their conviction. At the same time, however, he knows that the judgment they will express will not be theirs alone, because it will reveal what God has poured into their hearts by the grace of faith.

This is what faith is all about! It is the response of the rational and free human person to the word of the living God. The questions that Jesus asks, the answers given by the Apostles, and finally by Simon Peter, are a kind of examination on the maturity of the faith of those who are closest to Christ.

It is Jesus

The Holy Father continued:

It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.

He concluded his memorable address with these words:

Dear friends, at the dawn of the Third Millennium I see in you the “morning watchmen” (cf. Is 21:11-12). In the course of the century now past young people like you were summoned to huge gatherings to learn the ways of hatred; they were sent to fight against one another. The various godless messianic systems that tried to take the place of Christian hope have shown themselves to be truly horrendous. Today you have come together to declare that in the new century you will not let yourselves be made into tools of violence and destruction; you will defend peace, paying the price in your person if need be. You will not resign yourselves to a world where other human beings die of hunger, remain illiterate and have no work. You will defend life at every moment of its development; you will strive with all your strength to make this earth ever more livable for all people.

Who is this Jesus for us? This is indeed the only question that really matters.

[The readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1; Galatians 3:26-29; and Luke 9:18-24]

(Image: Jesus Teaching by James Tissot)