Finding the King in the poorest

Dear Folks,
We finish off the liturgical year by celebrating Christ the King, the ultimate victory feast.
Our Gospel reading is the final word of Jesus’ public teaching in the Gospel of Matthew,
and it is about the Last Judgment. Jesus first refers to Himself by the title “Son of Man,”
then compares Himself to a shepherd, then refers to Himself as “king.”
“As the visions in the night continued, I saw come with the clouds of heaven One like a son
of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, he received
dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, people and tongue will serve him. His
dominion will not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-
14).” The term “son of man” is in contrast to the horrible beasts that rule before Him
(Daniel 7 is quite a chapter).
Our first reading is from Ezekiel 34, and that entire chapter is about the image of the
shepherd. It is also worth reading. There is another well-known image of God as shepherd
in Isaiah: “Here he comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; here is
his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his
arms he gathers the lambs, leading the ewes with care (Isaiah 40:10-11).” We remember the
greatest king of Israel in the Old Testament was David, and he started out as a shepherd.
The first two parables had main actors who were regular folks: a “bridegroom” and a
“man.” This time He is pulling out all the stops to get us to be fully aware and conscious of
His glory, power, grandeur, and importance. This should get our best attention. If we are
going to get anything right, we need to get this right.
In those days, when a king came to power and reached the throne, it was common to settle
accounts. If you had been a faithful supporter, life was good. If you had undermined him,
not so good. See Luke 19:11-27 for a familiar example.
The disciples would have known the Old Testament, and all of these images would have
been evoked in their minds when Jesus told this story. They would all seem fitting and
proper for the One for whom they had been waiting. The surprising thing was how the king
defines the sheep and the goats. The Old Testament, of course, spoke about concern for the
poor and those in need. That was a concept that most of the world did not recognize, but it
was familiar in the nation of Israel. Jesus, however, ups the ante: to care for those in need
is to care for Him personally. We are told to look for the highest and most exalted in the
people who are lowliest. This is a new thing. This is revolutionary. Throughout the
Gospels, the more clearly we see Jesus’ glory, the greater His emphasis on the cross and
servitude. Caring for those in need in not just a nice thing that Jesus encourages, but it is
responding directly to Him.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and Father is this: to care for orphans and
widows in their affliction and keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).”
This is an essential component of how we practice our faith, and an essential component of
how we proclaim the faith. I rejoice that our community does so many things to help those
in need. Now the question is do we have room to grow? Are there ways we can draw more
people into this work? Given how many people have drifted away from the Catholic
Church, is there a way we can show more powerfully that the love of Jesus is at work here?
Would it make Jesus happy if we grew in this area? Many people would like to be more
involved but don’t know how they can do it with their circumstances. My fond hope is that
we can make it more possible for people to be more connected in 2021. I ask everyone to
pray for this, and to be attentive whenever there is a call for help: is Jesus calling us?
Blessings
Fr Jim

How are We Called to Respond?

Dear Folks,
Our Gospel today is about the servants who were given talents and sent to invest them. It is
a reminder that to be a Christian is to see oneself as a servant of God, entrusted with
resources of various kinds
Here at St. Charles and St. Joseph – St. Mary, we are adjusting to having one priest instead
of two. The people at Our Lady of Consolation in Rockford are having a similar
adjustment. For years we had a full-time vocation director, but now he is also assigned to a
parish. There are still two slots that are empty, and priests are driving back and forth to fill
in temporarily. We have just received word that one of our colleagues is going on a leave
of absence. Things are tight. What comes next? If you look at our seminarian poster, we
see that if all the men currently in theology become priests (God willing), we can have nine
priestly ordinations in the next four years. According to my calculations, there are nine
priests currently running parishes who will turn seventy in that time and be eligible to retire
(go to senior status). How many will retire? Some have already shared their plans to do so,
but we shall have to see. We also have seven priests who are currently running parishes
who are already over seventy. How long will they continue? We shall see. In any case, the
priest situation promises to be interesting for the next several years.
Do I have your attention?
Whenever we are faced with a challenging situation, there are two questions that are worth
asking: “What is God trying to teach me here?” and “What sort of response is God calling
me to make?”
Our community, of course, can rejoice that a man who grew up here was recently ordained
a priest, and we have another man in theology. This does not mean that we can sit back,
however. The issue is larger than this.
There are two things that we can do: We can learn how to be a stronger Church with less
priest power, and we can be a Church that better nurtures vocations to the priesthood. When
people think of nurturing vocations to the priesthood, many start and end with cornering a
young man and saying, “Have you considered becoming a priest? You’d make a good
one.” (By the way, no one in church said that to me. I wasn’t really looking like priest
material when I was growing up.)
We should first recognize how many young people are not excited about Church in
general. If they are not excited about Church, why would they consider the priesthood, no
matter how much people suggest they consider it. If they believe that what priests do is
really important, really worth doing and makes a difference in the world. We can all
contribute to that. I believe the most important thing I can do in this regard is to be a
healthy, happy, effective priest who is living a life worth living. Everyone else can help by
treating as important the things that priests are about. The more a young man is surrounded
by adults, especially men, who are excited about the liturgy and most especially the
Eucharist, the more they can believe the priesthood is worth doing. The more they are
surrounded by adults, especially men, who are excited about learning more of the Catholic
faith, the more they can believe that priesthood is worth doing. The more they see adults,
especially men, who are zealous for the mission of the Church, the more they can believe
this is worth doing. The more they see men dedicated to growing in holiness, the more…
You see the pattern?
As we consider the talents that God has given us, and how He is calling us to invest them,
this is something we might keep in mind.
We are not helpless. We can build a glorious future.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Keeping our Lamps Lit

Dear Folks,
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ public teaching closes with three parables about the Last
Judgement, and we will be reading them from now until Advent. It would probably be a
good thing to think about the Last Day on a regular basis given that is where we are all
headed, and this is the most pivotal day of our existence. If we have a good day on that
day, none of our bad days will matter. If it is a bad day, none of our good days will
matter. Reading through the New Testament leaves me with a strong sense that we can’t
take this day for granted; we are not called to live in fear, but neither can we be complacent
(see, for example, Matthew 7: 13-14, 21-23; I Corinthians 9:27).
Our Gospel today speaks of bridesmaids who are phronimos (wise /shrew /prudent /clever/
cunning/crafty) and bring extra oil for their oil lamps. This echoes Jesus’ teaching that a
man who is phronimos will build his house on rock rather than sand (Matthew 7:24-27) in
the Sermon on the Mount. Both speak of the importance of enduring. It is one thing to start
out with enthusiasm. It is quite another to continue through obstacles, persecutions,
disappointments, failures, and all the things that come with being a disciple. In Matthew
chapter 10, Jesus warns that there will be persecution, sometimes from the people closest to
us, but the one who “holds out to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:22).”
Last Friday we did the Gospel reading about the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13).” He
finagled himself a severance package by using (misusing?) his power as steward. Jesus said
that the master commended him for being phronimos, and said, “For the children of this
world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than the children of light
(see Luke: 16:8).” As we read on, we see Him calling us to use our resources well for the
sake of the Kingdom, knowing that we will not always have the chance to do so.
There are countless stories of people who have left the practice of the faith because they
were mad at the Pope, the bishop, the pastor, other parishioners, etc. Others left the practice
of the faith because they did not believe Church teaching, or someone had sat down with
them and showed them some Bible verses that convinced them that the teaching of the
Church was wrong. I would suggest that in each of these cases, they did not have enough oil
for their lamps; they did not build their houses on a firm enough foundation. We were
warned there would be challenges of all kinds, coming from the world or the faith
community, and we are called to navigate these treacherous waters.
In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus sends the disciples forth and tells them not to bring “gold or
silver, or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or
walking stick (see Matt 10:9-10).” Extra oil for our lamps, then, would not necessarily
mean material supplies. “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be
phronimos as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16).”
Lately, many have expressed frustration about things that are happening in the Church and
things that are happening in the government. Some are tempted to despair or panic. It
would suggest reflecting on these texts, as well as the whole of Matthew 10 and then Luke
14:25-33. These suggest we were warned from the beginning that our journey as disciples
could entail all sorts of trials (all sorts!). That does not make it easy, but it does tell us that
this is part of what it means to be Christian, and our faithfulness now is more important
than anything that happens around us.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

God and Caesar

Dear Folks,

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, as Jesus says in our Gospel this week: Matthew 22:15-21. Christians cannot ignore the government and how it runs, but must remember there is a higher authority. We are called to follow the law except when it requires us to break God’s law in the slightest way. St. Thomas More was a faithful Catholic, who tried to follow the law, and when it became impossible to do his job and be faithful to God, he resigned from his job. The king did not let that lie and had him executed. His final statement was: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”Christians are called to exercise our voices as citizens, not because we seek to force others to follow our faith, but because our faith, properly practiced, gives us a deep sense of human good, and a sensitivity to the cause of human flourishing and to the lives and dignity of all people, especially the marginal.For many years since the forming of the United States, many Christians worked to abolish slavery, impelled by their Christian faith. Those who were pro-choice about owning slaves said that such people could believe what they wanted, but should not force their Christian beliefs on others, and the government should not interfere with such decisions. Many thought the abolitionists did not understand the complexities of the issue, and should be focusing more on other moral concerns. There were, of course, other moral concerns to deal with at the time, but this issue was special: It explicitly set aside a group of human beings as not being worthy of human rights, and so could be treated in a way we would object to being treated ourselves. Those who tackled the issue changed the course of history, and we now regard them as heroes. As we look back, we do not admire those who were personally opposed to slavery, but did not want to force their beliefs on others. In our current situation there are important issues that call for a serious response, but the solutions are not obvious, and people of good will might disagree. We need to do something about violence, but good people can have different ideas about whether more gun control laws will do more good or more harm. We need to care for the poor, but we can disagree about how to best do it. We can agree we want everyone to have access to health care and disagree about how best to do it (more government administration or more free market solutions?) Eight years ago Bishop Barron did a very interesting YouTube video called “Bishop Barron on Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq8KRIkGtLQ. It talks about striking the balance between the values of solidarity and subsidiarity, and how different takes on that balance can lead good people to differ on how we best help the poor, and what role government might play in it. That said, if we use that as an excuse to do nothing, we will answer to God for it (Matthew 25: 31-46! Could Jesus have been any more emphatic?).We need to find a way to improve our system for processing immigrants. We need to ease and heal race relations, and deal with violence in the streets. I have written some thoughts about these issues, but it seems that much (most?) of the conversation is about saying how bad the situation is, sharing slogans, and assigning blame. I’m not seeing nearly as much rational discussion about how to move things to a better place. I think it would be helpful to tone down the rhetoric, cool the anger (James 1:19-20), hear each other’s concerns, and try to work together. It might be helpful to be careful about believing what we hear, because sometimes the narrative can get ahead of the facts. In our society, we have a right and a responsibility to help move our country to a place that better promotes flourishing for all people. Blessings,Fr. Jim

Giving God His Grape

Dear Folks,
In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus continues to call the nation of Israel, particularly the
leadership, to account for their behavior and lack of faithfulness. Matthew chapters 19 –
22, they are testing Jesus and He is testing them. He will unleash judgement in chapter 23,
and finish that chapter by weeping over Jerusalem and their refusal to respond to
Him. When we are angry at someone we love, underneath that layer of anger is a deeper
well of sadness. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn (Matt 5:4)” and now He shows
what that means.
Matt 21:33-43 reflects the history of Israel. God gave them the nation, and called them to
follow His teachings. Jesus compares God to the owner of a vineyard, who provided for his
vineyard owners, and calls for a return. God sent the prophets to call the people to
faithfulness, but many were beaten, mistreated, and some were killed. Jesus was the Son
who was sent, and He would be killed. This rejection of God’s call would have
consequences.
God has given us many blessings, and calls us to give a response, not because it would
benefit Him in any way, but because a love relationship with Him is the greatest good for
us, and we cannot be in such a love relationship without responding to His love with our
actions.
What are we called to do in response to God’s gifts? The Scriptures for our next three
Sundays will serve to highlight three areas of response: Worship, Christian citizenship, and
love of neighbor. These are, of course, interrelated (everything is connected to everything
else), but we will take them one at a time for clarity. These are not multiple choice, of
course. It is common nowadays for some people to pick the parts of the practice of the faith
that they like and leave the rest.
In any love relationship, we seek the presence of our Beloved, and seek to express directly
our love, admiration, and other aspects of our stance toward the one we love. We are not
fully responding to God without worship, and worship according to His teaching. The
central act of worship that God gives us is the Eucharist. We can discuss this in the context
of call to the banquet next week.
In any love relationship, we must be willing to do things that please our Beloved, and with
God that cannot omit helping people in need. Two of the ways we can do this are
exercising our citizenship driven by our Christian consciences, and directly helping others
with our resources. We can discuss these in the context of rendering to Caesar what is
Caesar’s and rending to God what is God’s, and the greatest commandment.
To be good tenants in God’s vineyard, we must have some understanding of how to grow
grapes. Imagine vineyard workers who did not understand how to plant, cultivate, and
harvest grapes. They might put in a lot of effort, but not produce much fruit. We have read
that in a recent Pew poll only 31% of those who call themselves Catholic hold the Catholic
belief about the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Robert Mixa in a recent Word on Fire blog
said, “The recent ‘State of Theology’ survey alarmingly demonstrates that US Catholics are
far from uniform in believing in the divinity of Christ. In fact, many tend not to believe in
his divinity. When confronting the statement ‘Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not
God,’ a shocking 30% of Catholics ‘agree,’ 27% ‘somewhat agree,’ 9% are ‘not sure,’ 12%
‘somewhat disagree,’ and 22% ‘disagree.’” These are among the most basic, fundamental
truths of the faith, and if we are going to be productive tenants in God’s vineyard, we shall
need to open (much) more widely the wonderful treasure that is the Catholic faith. This is
why I am such a fanatic about Catholics learning more about their faith (If you think I talk a
lot about it, you have no idea what I would be saying if I really opened up).
God is calling. How will we respond?
Blessings,
Fr Jim

It’s Not Fair

Dear Folks,We have all been told that life is not fair. This phrase has been used in various ways. Some say it to say they don’t care that your rights and your dignity are getting violated. It can alsobe an acceptance of the complexity of life. There are many factors that affect our lives that we did not choose, and it seems that sometimes we get handed the dirty end of the stick. Other people seem to have it easier, and we see people giving them slack like they don’t seem to give us. Ever had that feeling?Our Gospel today (Matthew 20:1-16a) deals with the issue of envy, and people who seem to be handed a better deal. This is a common problem in life, and in the early Christian community there was the issue of pagans who became Christian. Some of the Jewish Christians were perhaps thinking, “We have been doing the hard work of trying to follow God’s commandments for generations while these people have been worshipping false gods and practicing drunken, perverted debauchery all this time, and now in the Church they are equal to us? What gives?” You know how we human beings get. St. Paul was dealing with that question in Romans, and he said, “But who indeed are you, ahuman being to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the samelump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one (Romans 9:20-21)?” St. Paul is remembering the text “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you ourpotter: we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:7).”
But how we perceive things doesn’t give the whole picture. I think life is like running an obstacle course with a backpack. We can feel how heavy our own backpack is, but we don’tknow how heavy everyone else’s is. We can perhaps make an educated guess by how they look, but we might be horribly wrong. At the end of the course we get to see how heavyeveryone’s backpack is, and there could be some surprises. We might find out that some people we thought weren’t trying very hard were actually carrying a much heavier load, andwere actually working harder than we were, even though they did not get as far as fast. Perhaps some people we envied for their situation were carrying a much heavier load thanwe thought. We might have thought that ours was one of the heaviest but find out that many had heavier. On the other hand, we might find that ours was heavier than a great manypeople’s, and we accomplished greater things than we thought.We know that sometimes it is a journey to accept that, and that can mean asking the very questions of God why He is doing what seems so wrong. Intellectually, we know He isright (always), but parts of our minds have not yet accepted that. We turn to the great school of prayer, the Psalms. We see “I will say to God, my rock: ‘Why do you forget me? Why must I go about mourning with the enemy oppressing me?’(Psalm 42:10).”Of course, the journey is to go from there to recognizing and rejoicing in God’s wisdom andprovidence. I suggest a meditation on Psalm 73 to follow that journey.The goal is to move more and more to embrace the situation we are given, and from here to do what we can to make things better, to be as faithful to God’s call as possible. The morewe are focused on that, the less and less we will worry about how our situation compares with others’ situations. That will save us time and energy. Growing in faith means realizing more and more that God knows what He is doing.Blessings,Fr. Jim

Ministry of Healing Relationship

That all May be One

Dear Folks,
In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about dealing with conflict in the Church. He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking directly about how to do Church, so I figure Jesus thinks this
issue is especially important. I have addressed conflict resolution before, and will do it again, because I think this is a huge ongoing issue for the Church, for the nation and for the
world. I think it is worth spending time on it. We see so much anger and hate in our society, and it seems to be getting worse. There is much talk about racial reconciliation. I think
part of the solution is to develop our own reconciliation skills.
The first thing Jesus talks about is going directly to the person with which you have the issue. It can be tempting to go to other people and tell our side of the story to garner
sympathy, hoping to collect people on our side. It is crucial to resist and come to the person directly.
I think just as important is how we approach. How would we want someone to approach us when we are wrong? We might be tempted to say that we would never do such a thing, but
we can easily overestimate how well we know ourselves, and underestimate our ability to mess up in ways that can hurt people. To deal with these issues requires humility and
charity. It requires truly loving those people with whom we disagree. Only if we approach a conflict with sincere love for the other can we be doing the work of Christ. To suggest to
people they are wrong can cause pain, but it can still be loving. If we are approaching in love, we want to cause the least pain possible, and have the best possible chance of doing good. It is necessary but not enough to tell the truth. We must be intentional about seeking to make the situation better. We need to be aware of our anger and pain, but not ruled by
them. One of the problems these days is people venting anger for the sake of venting anger, and not directing their efforts toward solutions.
There are some Scriptures worthy of meditation. James 1:19 teaches us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil (Ephesians 4:26-27).” “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only
such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has
forgiven you in Christ (Ephesians 4:29-32).”
“Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).” “But even if you
should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an
explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who
defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16).”
I have recommended Ann Garrido’s book Redeeming Conflict before. There are many books on how to deal with conflict, but I think if a lot of people have a common set of principles and a common vocabulary, that might make conversation easier.
Where in our lives can we begin?
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Gift of Self

gift of self

Dear Folks,
Our second reading today is an immensely powerful text from Romans. When we hear Scripture, the danger is that we will hear it as something that sounds beautiful, but is very distant from our lives. If we really hear what St. Paul is saying it is about as fierce a demand as it can be.
“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God , to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).” He is encouraging us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus when He talked about suffering and dying in our Gospel today (Matthew 16:21-27). This is Jesus’ first mention of His passion in the Gospel, and Peter objects. This is contrary to all his expectations, and did not fit at all with what he was expecting of “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16:16).” Jesus responds harshly, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do (v. 23).” This echoes His words in the desert talking to the real Satan (Matt 4:10).” I expect this was a severe test for Jesus’ will: He would not have been any more anxious to get crucified than you or I would, and He was sharing this secret with His closest friends hoping they would get it and support Him, but He was disappointed. He had floated a similar concept before in chapter 10 while talking about the trials disciples would face “and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:38-39).” Very likely the saying floated right over their heads, seeming distant, perhaps a figure of speech, and was lost. When it got up close and personal it was a no go.
Notice Jesus talking about how God thinks and about how human beings do. This echoes St. Paul’s concern to be transformed by renewal of our minds so as not to be conformed to this age.
Here is the key: the mindset of the world, living according to the flesh tends to think about clinging to what we have, and perhaps acquiring more. God’s thinking is about giving ourselves away. Many people want to reduce Christianity to a call to be a little nicer and a little kinder. It is really about giving ourselves completely to God, and we are only able to do it because He giving Himself completely to us.
This is reflected in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one…as we are one” (Jn. 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason. For He implied a certain Likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and in the union of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self (G.S. 24).”Throughout the Bible is the notion of sacrifice, a form of worship involving a gift to God. In the Old Testament there were animal and grain offering. Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, offering Himself once for all (Hebrews 9:12; see Her 7:27). Romans 12:1-2 says that we are to offer ourselves (see also Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 5:1-2). We do not add to His sacrifice, but become participants in it.
This is done sacramentally in the Eucharist and in action as we live the Christian life, Christian service, and at the proper time, Christian death. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Liturgy says, “The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a proper appreciation of the rites and prayers they should participate knowingly, devoutly, and actively. They should be instructed by God’s word and be refreshed at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands go the priest, but also with him, they should learn to offer themselves too. Through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever closer union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all (S.C. 48).”
Can we hear the full weight of this call?
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Rocky Truth

Dear Folks,
Today we read a Gospel about which there is much disagreement. Jesus says, “You are rock, and on this rock I will build my church (Matt 16:18).” Catholics tend to see this as Jesus giving Peter and his successors a unique role in the Church. Others view it differently, and there has been much conversation about that in the last 500 years.
I want to broaden the frame of the question a bit.
The context is first about God’s truth vs. popular opinion. Jesus starts the conversation with “Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Mat 16:13).” Lots of people had opinions, and
these opinions were wrong. Peter comes up with the right answer, and it came from God the Father (v. 17).
We tend to go by our experience, but our experience can lead us astray.
Holding to the truth has been a problem from the beginning. We see St. Paul, “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a
different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach
to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-8).”
From the beginning, it was held that Christianity is not only good and beautiful but true, in fact, the fullness of truth about God, and there was no new, improved truth coming later.
Throughout history, holding to the truth was a constant battle. In the early Church, there were voices claiming that Jesus is not God, but more like a super angel (Arians), while
others claimed the Jesus is divine, but never really became human (Docetists). In case that doesn’t get your head spinning, there was a group that said Christ is God and Jesus is human, but they are two different people, and the Christ came into Jesus at baptism and left before the agony in the garden (Nestorians). Each of these groups had arguments for their positions, and could point to different Scripture texts that they were sure supported that position. Each of these positions would have weakened the message of God’s love beyond our imagining, by which He came and paid the ultimate price for our salvation, with nothing to gain for Himself. This makes Christianity unique, but it is hard to swallow that God would be so loving and give such a gift, for it calls for a unique level of gratitude and challenges us to a unique standard of loving God and neighbor (think about it; it is mindstretching).
This has often lead to standing against what was accepted in society. In the 18th century, the Catholic Church forbade dueling, like the kind where Alexander Hamilton was shot. People said the teaching was ridiculous and unrealistic because a man had to defend his honor. In the early twentieth century, there was a push for eugenics, and the Catholic Church’s vocal opposition was called against science and destructive to the good of the human race. Fashions of thought come and go, but the truth remains.
We humans tend to start from our experience and our perceptions. The trouble is our thinking falls way, way short of God’s thinking. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways – oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isaiah
55:8-9).”
Another problem is that we humans tend to believe that our point of view is obvious to those who would only look. This can lead to underestimating what it takes to teach the faith in a compelling way. Then people reject the truths of the faith because they find them unreasonable, when in fact, there is much more reason behind them, but they did not learn enough of it. As a result, many who call themselves Catholics will often give more weight to what society believes than to the Catholic faith.
This is why I’m such a fanatic for encouraging Catholics to learn more about their faith. It is such a wonderful treasure, and there are so many resources to help.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

An Uncomfortable Gospel

Canaanite woman

Dear Folks,
The Gospel for this Sunday (Matt 15:21-28) is one of the most uncomfortable readings in the Bible. This is not how we like to think about Jesus. It almost (almost?) looks like He is being mean to a woman who is desperate. If I didn’t know this story was in the Gospels, and someone told me Jesus had done this, I’m sure I would have said no, it is not possible.
And yet, here it is.
I haven’t gotten completely comfortable with it (and maybe that’s not the goal), but I do have some thoughts. I think it is helpful to see the larger context of the Gospel first being offered to the Israelites (Jews), and then to Gentile (non-Jews, in this case Greeks/Hellenists). One of the themes in the Gospels is those who should be the most open were closed tight, and some of the Gentiles were very open (like the story of the centurion’s servant Mat 8:5-:13). This lead to some tension in the early Church (see Acts 6:1 and Romans 10 and 11). Romans goes into detail about how they fit in, and neither side should be looking down on the other. The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) talks about those who came late being made equal to those who have been serving since the beginning, and I suggest this is about the relationship between Jews and Greeks.
Let’s look at the larger narrative. Matthew 13: 54-58 shows Jesus being rejected by His home town of Nazareth. Chapter 14 we meet Herod (son of the guy who caused so much trouble in chapter 2, a story that echoed Pharaoh’s slaughter of the innocent in Exodus 1. The death of John the Baptist foreshadows the death of Jesus, the new Passover Lamb. Jesus feeds the 5000 in Jewish territory, and there are 12 baskets of fragments gathered, a symbol of the gathering of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Echo of the Passover and foreshadowing of the Last Supper). Then Jesus walks on water (doing Moses and the Red Sea one better). Then, we see the Scribes and Pharisees who insist on doing things their way rather than God’s way. Notice this section starts and ends with those who should be the most open are the most closed.
Jesus goes to Gentile territory. Now we meet the Canaanite woman and she demonstrates her faith. Those who demand things their way don’t do well. Those who recognize they are not entitled to anything do very well.
Jesus now feeds 4000 in Gentile territory, and there are seven baskets left over. This reflects the gathering of the seven Gentile nations: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1).
Chapter 16 shows the Pharisees demanding a sign (once again, they want things done their way. They don’t get it. Jesus tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which is their teaching (See also Mark 8:14-21 ad Luke 12:1)). Leaven as a sign of sinfulness is also in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, and he says, “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened, for our Pascal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed (v. 7).” In Jewish practice, there is a ritual for clearing all the leaven out of the house in preparation for Passover.
This brings me to John. In the Gospel of John we see three Passover times (2:13; 6:4; and 13:1). In the first there is the cleaning of the temple and miraculous wine. In the second there is miraculous bread and walking on water. In the third Jesus becomes the Passover Lamb. To fit this pattern, it suggests that the cleaning of the temple reflects the clearing out of the old leaven.
Perhaps Jesus testing the Canaanite woman was clearing out of spiritual leaven to draw her into the Pascal mystery. I don’t know if this makes sense, but I hope you enjoyed the ride.
Blessings, Fr. Jim