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Jesus teaching: be phronimos

 

Phronimos

There is a teaching of Jesus that does not get talked about much, but I think it’s important (full disclosure: I think everything Jesus taught is important).  I’m going to break one of the rules they taught me in theology and mention a Greek word: phronimos (wise, shrew, prudent, clever, cunning, crafty).

I first encountered the word in the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-8.  The parable is about a steward who is going to be fired, so he crafts for himself a retirement plan by calling in those in debt to his master and reducing the amount of their debts. This way they owed him a favor, and when he got canned, they would take him into their homes as a guest. “And the master commended that steward for being phronimos (v. 8).” Then Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public teaching begins with the Sermon on the Mount and ends with three parables about the last judgment.  The Sermon on the Mount ends with the admonition that a man who is phronimos will build a house on rock rather than sand (Matt 7:24-27). The first of the parables about the judgement tell us that a bridesmaid who is phronimos will bring extra oil for her oil lamp (although nowadays she would bring extra batteries for her smart phone) (Matt 25:4).

Jesus also has some sayings that don’t use the word, but seem to be teaching something similar: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? (See Luke 14:25-33).”

What really got my attention was “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (phronimos) as serpents and simple as doves (Matt 10:16).”  What makes that even more interesting (at least to me) is that if you look at the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was popular at Jesus’ time (the Septuagint), in Genesis chapter we meet the serpent in the garden and learn that “the serpent was the most cunning (phronimos) of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made (Genesis 3:1).” I think Matthew’s readers would have immediately made the connection.

Why am I going through all this?  I’m glad you asked.  There is a lot of energy being expended in public discourse today that I don’t think is moving us forward. I want to move forward. Consider, for an internal combustion engine to move us forward, there have to be explosions (rapid burn of fuel).  But that isn’t enough. The explosions have to be contained, first so that they are not destructive, and second so that energy can be channeled in a useful direction. There will always be some energy dissipated because of friction between the parts, but engineers who design the engines try to keep that to a minimum so that as much of the energy as possible may be channeled toward getting the work done.

It’s one thing to want something to happen (that is motivation). It’s another to be willing to do something about it. It is yet another thing for that something to be effective in moving us toward where we want to go.  I suggest that being phronimos is about giving our efforts the best chance of moving forward.

More on this later.

Body and Blood of Christ

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Dear Folks,
We celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. The hard part of writing this is there is so much to say, so very much, and I must select.
The essence of the Gospel is the gift of self. The Lord gives Himself to us completely and invites us and enables us to give ourselves to Him in return, that we may know the fullness of love and joy forever. The Lord, with nothing to gain for Himself, became one of us, like us in all things but sin, so that He could pay the ultimate price for our salvation. The story of salvation, indeed the whole human story, pivots around Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. He gave Himself in love’s perfect act on the cross, and we encounter that gift in a uniquely intimate way in the Eucharist. That is the center of what we do. Learning more about it over the years, and especially recently, has been especially rewarding. It is a well that never dries up.
We learn that God was working to prepare us for it from the beginning. We learn how the teachings and practices of the Old Testament lay a foundation for Jesus and His saving work. The Passover, the Bread of Presence in the Tabernacle, the teachings of the prophets and countless other elements form pieces of the puzzle.
Understanding that helps prepare us to see the connections between the Eucharist and our daily existence. It is one thing to learn the words: the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of our lives as Christians (as the Second Vatican Council taught); it is something else entirely to see it at work in what we do, to recognize and appreciate that reality deep down to the core of our beings. Can we see ourselves bringing our life throughout the week to the Mass on Sunday, place it on the altar as the priest places the bread and wine, and ask Jesus to consecrate them? Can we look to the Eucharist to transform us? Can we see ourselves being sent forth from Mass to live according to that transformation, bringing the presence of Christ to all we meet?
If we want a stronger Church, let us develop a greater appreciation for the Eucharist. If we seek to be a holier people, let us grow in appreciation for the Eucharist. I know it has been a challenge that people have been separated from the Mass, but when we have special challenges is often when God does His best work. A good number of people have been working to deal with the details of the gradual process of opening up, and the hope is that we will be able to do more and more. Everything we are about is meant to bring us closer to Jesus and help others come closer to Jesus (If it doesn’t help do that, we shouldn’t be doing it). Jesus gave us unique ways of encountering Him, worshiping Him, being transformed by Him. He did it at the most pivotal time in His earthly life. He used the strongest language imaginable when talking
about this. Sharing this teaching cost Him most of His followers (John 6:48-71). What else could He have done to get us to realize this is important?
How we respond is critical (see 1 Corinthians 10 and 11). How can we respond more fully to Jesus?
St. John Vianney said, “If we could truly understand the Eucharist, we would die of joy.”
What a way to go.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Trinity: Why Do We Care?

trinity

Dear Folks,
Imagine, if you will, buying a car, but what they delivered was several crates with the
individual components and no instructions about how they fit together. I’m guessing you
would be less than thrilled. In the Great Adventure Bible Series, Jeff Cavins talks about
some people coming out of their religious education having a “heap of Catholicism.” They
know tidbits but have no idea why they matter.
One of the biggest occasions of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Many people fought to
defend this doctrine for centuries. Basic Catholic religious education teaches this truth, and
we recite it in the creed on Sundays. But how many Catholics can explain why it matters?
How does this affect living the Christian life?
When we say “God is love” we are not just saying that God is loving, but that love is His
essence. The Father is eternally giving Himself in love to the Son, who is eternally
receiving and returning that love to the Father, and that love is so great it is Himself a
person, the Holy Spirit. Without creating anything, God is already the perfect community of
love, and has no need for anything, but love is fruitful, love is creative, so God created us
out of love. This defines for us the fullness of life: to receive love and give ourselves in
love. It also defines love: to give oneself. Jesus said there is no greater love than to give
one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In everyday practical terms it is to will the good of
another. The pursuit of holiness is both a personal and communal effort, and following
Jesus involves connecting to the community. To lose oneself in love is to become more
fully oneself.
Christianity is not only the greatest love story that has ever been told, but the only love
story that could ever be told. The Lord Himself, with nothing to gain, paid the ultimate
price for us, and we didn’t deserve it. If Jesus is not God, that that means God sent
someone else to do His dirty work, and then Christianity is just another religion. If Jesus
didn’t really become human, that means He didn’t really pay the ultimate price, but just
pretended to.
Different starting points make everything different. The materialists believe that we are just
a collection of chemical reactions in a temporarily self-sustaining system. Personhood,
consciousness, and love are just byproducts of chemical reactions. Love will then often be
defined as a feeling that can come and go, rather than a decision. That is going to affect
how we view the value of individual lives and how we respond when we are disappointed
by other people. That will affect how we view the concept of life fully lived. If love served
pleasure, it might be seen as a good thing but if one were disappointed too often, it could be
discarded as a value. I read one Hindu thinker that said the Absolute reality was not
personal, and that personhood is a result of a lapse from the Absolute. To achieve perfect
oneness, one needs to lose one’s individuality. Those who believed in many gods
envisioned them fighting amongst each other. In such religions, being good is not necessary
so long as you keep your god happy and your god happens to be winning.
All these truths fit together into the ultimate story, and no doctrine is expendable. Whenever
people teach something contrary, it will always result in something less. No one will ever
come up with a story as good as the one God weaves. The Catholic faith is the greatest gift
we can give. Knowing how it all fits together and why it is so good, so beautiful and so true
is part of being ready to share it with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world needs a
lot of God’s call to love.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Reform

charlesborromeo

I’m going to bring up one of my least favorite topics in the whole wide world: the priest abuse scandal. A small percentage of priests did terrible, terrible harm, made far worse because priests have a sacred position of trust, and it was abused. Many times people in leadership positions were not effective in stopping them. It seems many were more concerned about protecting their friends and protecting the system than in protecting and helping victims, and that was as bad or worse than the original crime.
The priest who are trying our best to do what is right have been deeply angry, profoundly hurt, and bitterly disappointed.
Then came the moment when we had reached a tipping point, and something was ready to happen. The work was not perfect, but it was substantial. Much work was done to develop a transparent and accountable process for dealing with complains, one that would not allow things to get swept under the rug.
New practices were developed and new training was given. We put a lot of time and energy into making the Church a safe place and helping the Church to re-earn credibility. We learned practices that clarify what actions are innocent, and where the line is crossed. We learned to watch for signs that someone might be preparing to do something bad, actions that seem harmless, but are part of grooming victims and grooming families to give cover for crimes. This would also provide some protection against innocent people being accused because of misunderstandings or malicious accusations. We organized our buildings and our programs so that we could squeeze out any opportunity for a predator to act. It is not enough that everyone be safe; but people must also feel safe. Statistics are important, but they are not enough. They had to see in us that we were really trying to do it right. Priests also needed some confidence that if they did things right, people would have their back.
It has taken everyone’s cooperation. I said repeatedly, “We did not make this mess, but we must be a part of cleaning it up.”
It has also been necessary to challenge a culture that made things worse. Many priests, teachers, and people in leadership positions had absorbed some of secular society’s belief that sexual sins are no big deal and that the Church had been making too much fuss over them. This meant that when someone was tempted to do something horrible, they were not prepared to resist the temptation and take the danger seriously, possibly seeing a sign they needed help. Those who taught what they taught did not intend this, but consequences don’t care about intentions.
Some made it harder by using the situation for their own agendas, agendas that did not serve the protection of children. Some would condemn all priests or the whole Church. Some would treat every accusation or even rumor as a conviction.
It was essential not to let them drain the energy from the real work of solving the essential problems.
Imagine if, instead of doing all that, there had been a lot of hand-wringing, virtue signaling, and mouthing platitudes like “This must stop” and “We will no longer allow this” and nothing of substance was done. The moment would have been wasted, and nothing would have changed.
The horrific killing of George Floyd has cast a spotlight on another issue. A small percentage of police officers can do terrible damage. I have read that the guy who killed poor George had had seventeen complaints against him, but no action was taken. If that is true, it calls the question whether those in power were more interested in protecting their friends and protecting the institution than protecting the victims. I’m speaking carefully here, because I don’t have inside knowledge, but I do have questions.
How can people be confident that if they have an interaction with the police that their dignity will be respected and their safety protected? And if there are bad actors who violate their rights how can they be confident that they will be held accountable? How can police be confident that if they do things right, the community will have their back?
Can there be transparent standards that when there is an interaction between the police and a civilian, this is what the civilian should expect from the police, and this is what the police should expect from the civilian? Can there be a transparent process for complaints so if something goes wrong people know what they should expect? Can there be gatherings of local police and the local community so there is buy-in from all sides?
How can we all be more aware of how we perceive and misperceive each other? Perceptions can be are skewed by our experiences and stories. How can we have experiences and hear stories that will draw us together and not divide us? This problem seems to go deep, and the solution needs to be deep also. Can people share stories, experiences and concerns? Statistics are important but they are not enough. I don’t know about these issues; I just have questions. I’m desperately hoping that people who know more than I can build a path from here to where we need to go.
I have not heard one voice defending the killing of George Floyd. Not. One. Voice. The act was condemned by all sides. What if we start with what unites us? Please, please, let us not waste this moment.
St. Charles Borromeo was one of the great reformers of the Church at a time when the system had gone terribly wrong. He worked patiently, persistently, and selflessly, calling priests and bishops to get their act together and leading by example. He could have taken a much easier path. He chose not to. He didn’t make the mess, but he did a lot to clean it up. What will really help clean things up now?