It’s interesting to see the way Jesus revealed himself to his disciples. It began when he brought them to Caesarea Philippi, an important place for Jews and non-Jews. The city’s central feature was a magnificent white marble temple dedicated to the emperor-god, Caesar. The Syrians had worshiped their god Baal there and some of their temples still remained. The Greeks believed the god Pan was born in a cave there. The Jews revered the place because the water that flowed from the spring in the cave was one of the sources of the Jordan river. So much of Jewish history was connected to the Jordan.
Immersed in this religious ambience Jesus asked the most important question he could ask: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Simon immediately gave him the answer he had hoped for: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus’ response was powerful and totally unexpected. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
This was an extraordinary moment for Simon Peter and the other disciples. But almost immediately, a crisis hit. Jesus told them that he was traveling on to Jerusalem. There he would be rejected by the religious leadership and killed. Peter jumped on him over the comment. Jesus retaliated. “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do!”
Without missing a beat, he turned to all the disciples. He shocked them all by telling them the price they would have to pay to be his disciple. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In a few short moments Jesus had anointed Peter as the “rock of the church,” told him to “get behind me,” called him a “Satan,” and challenged each of them to “take up his cross and follow him.” There was probably very little talking after that short altercation. But there was more to come.
Six days later Jesus chose three from the group, Peter, James and John “and led them to a high mountain by themselves where he was transfigured before them.”
It was no accident that Jesus chose to bring the witnesses of his transfiguration to a mountain top. Sacred places were often elevated. Think of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Mayan pyramids, the temple mount in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill, or even the churches on the Upper East Side with grand staircases lifting the worshipers up from the street level. Jesus was lifting them up from the earth physically and spiritually. The vision was clear. He took on the divine light. He revealed himself glorified in heaven in conversation with two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah.
Elijah was the prophet who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. It’s still common belief among Jews that Elijah will return to inaugurate the Messianic Time. Moses was the charismatic leader and law-giver during the Jewish Exodus. Luke adds in his account of the Transfiguration that Jesus, Elijah and Moses were speaking about Jesus’ personal exodus from this world back to the Father.
Peter, frightened and bewildered by what he saw, tried to somehow normalize the event – to bring it back down to earth. “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he was interrupted by the overshadowing of the shekinah, the cloud of divine glory. This was the cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai when Moses was given the commandments. That day God spoke in thunder and lightning. At the Transfiguration God spoke clearly and directly. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
At hearing the voice, the three collapsed with terror. A terrifying silence followed. Then each of them felt the touch of a gentle, reassuring hand.
“Rise, and do not be afraid.” Everything was back to normal. Or was it? “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
Why are we asked to contemplate this passage at the beginning of every Lent? Because it’s essential that we look beyond the Jesus we so easily know, the first century rabbi, healer and mystic, to the Christ, the crucified and resurrected Lord. The transfigured Christ blinds our earthly eyes so that we can see him through the eyes of our soul – the eyes that see the path that leads us through the Paschal Mystery.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel puts this into a context for us. “To those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Transfiguration is an invitation for us to be reborn, to experience the mystery of Christ. Paul puts it this way: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14) Clothing symbolizes the person. He’s asking us to become, not Jesus, but the transfigured Christ. When Jesus told Peter, James and John not to speak of the vision until he had been resurrected, he was telling them that he was walking the path of the Paschal Mystery but he had not yet completed his personal Passover. Though we look at the transfigured Christ, we have not yet entered fully into his Paschal Mystery.
During Lent we’re asked to contemplate our participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. We asked to ponder our life, death and resurrection. We’re challenged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We begin Ordinary Time by reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel. The scene opens with John the Baptist at the Jordan. The Jewish authorities had sent emissaries from Jerusalem to ask him a very direct question: “Who are you.” He had no hesitation in telling them that he was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. By quoting Isaiah he told them that he was the herald of the Lord who was already among them.
The next day, John was again baptizing. Surrounded by his disciples he stopped what he was doing and pointed at a man. His eyes wide, his heart racing, he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Then he testified. “I saw the spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”
Unlike the report of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, here, there is no drama. God’s voice isn’t heard speaking. Instead, John attests that he has personally seen the Spirit come to rest on Jesus. The remainder of the chapter clarifies what the evangelist is teaching us.
The following day, John is again at the Jordan. Two of his disciples are beside him. Again, Jesus walks by. Again, John points to him, “There is the Lamb of God.” The disciples leave John, and begin following Jesus who turns to them asking, “What are you looking for?” “Where do you live?” they ask. “Come and see,” he invites them.
The evangelist is laying out the dynamic of the Christian life for us. One person of faith who can see beyond the obvious, points to Jesus, not only the man, but the Lamb of God. This simple account is meant to fan our faith. Each of us is called to contemplate the mystery of the Lamb of God to internalize it. Each of us is called to testify – to point him out. From that moment on, the Spirit will guide all who can hear, and the journey will have begun.
When it came to telling the truth, Jesus didn’t hold anything back. He was especially blunt with the religious leaders. For them, scrupulously following the rules and regulations of the law was the benchmark of true religion and what made a person righteous. Jesus often challenged their
teaching. Today’s parable is one of his most direct criticisms. Luke tells us that, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteous- ness and despised everyone else.”
Right off the bat, Jesus focused the story on a particular group, the Pharisees, an ultraorthodox group that evolved from the scribes and sages and adhered to the strictest observance of the law. They reveled in their orthodoxy, and even took on themselves the name Pharisee, which means: “one who is separated.” They were haughty, and believed that, when it came to religion, they were better than most people.
In the parable Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember that in the political climate of the day the tax collector was looked upon with loathing. Let’s face it, every- one hates paying taxes – and the tax collector would naturally carry the brunt of that hatred. But there’s more to the position of tax collector. Palestine was occupied by a foreign power,
Rome, and was taxed heavily. The tax collector was, by definition, a traitor be- cause he worked as an instrument of a foreign government to the detriment of his own people. Jesus begins the parable with a description of the Pharisee’s prayer.
He took a position in the temple where he could be easily seen by the people and spoke aloud. “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The picture I get from this one sentence is of a man looking over a crowd of worshipers with his nostrils flared as if smelling something quite disgusting. He’s haughty and filled with deepest disdain for the people he sees. His gaze rests on the hated tax collector. He immediately
voices a prayer thanking God that he isn’t like the tax collector. The Pharisee goes on to inform God of the depth of his commitment to the law. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Jesus then focuses the parable on the tax collector who has found a private place to pray away from the people. He doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He bows his head, and begins to beat his breast as a sign of his sinfulness and repentance. He then quietly and simply pours out his heart. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In this simple scene Jesus spins a teach- ing about the power of truth and the emptiness of self-delusion. The Pharisee proclaims himself the model of righteousness, bragging that he’s not dishonest, or greedy. He’s certainly not like this tax collector. How very true! In his prayer, the tax collector pours out his heart, honestly, and humbly con- fesses his frailty and struggles. He prays truthfully, and is rewarded. He returns home justified.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is an empty shell of a person. He has abandoned his heart and soul. He doesn’t pray to God – he prays to the idol he has created. He worships himself and invites others to worship him. He did not go home justified. He went home more inflated and less alive.
Jesus ends the parable by warning us that “whoever exalts himself will be hum- bled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable is giving us a very simple teaching. When you or I honestly open up and, in painful humility, present our wounded and broken selves to God, God’s healing love rushes into our hearts. Will all our wounds disappear? Some will. Some won’t. Will we no longer be broken people? Maybe not! What will happen is much more important. God’s love of us will assist us in truly loving ourselves.
The Pharisee was in love with a false image of himself. That kind of idolatry doesn’t invite God’s healing love. Only our honest self- assessment, no matter how bad we may seem to ourselves, opens the floodgates of God’s healing love. When we accept ourselves for the broken and limited individuals we are, we can lay down our heads and rest peacefully in the knowledge that God loves who we are.
The first scripture we hear today is taken from the Second Book of Kings. It relates the story of a highly esteemed and respected Syrian army commander, Naaman. Sadly, he suffered from leprosy. His wife’s slave, a Jewish girl captured during a raid on Israel, told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure her master. Naaman responded to her suggestion. He went to the king of Syria who gave him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel along with gifts of ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces and ten festal garments. Naaman and his retinue then set out to Israel. After delivering the letter of introduction and the gifts to the king, he went to the house of Elisha the prophet.
Naaman was told, through a messenger from Elisha, to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He became enraged because the prophet didn’t come out to greet him personally, and that he was told to bathe in the Jordan, a river much inferior to the rivers of Syria. However, his slaves encouraged him to perform the simple task. What did he have to
lose. He bathed in the river seven times and was cured. He sent word to Elisha that he would, from that day on, wor- ship only the God of Israel.
The Gospel relates the story of Jesus curing a band of ten lepers. Unlike the highly respected Naaman, these men were social outcasts. The law prohibited them from approach- ing anyone, including family. They had to keep their distance from all healthy people. So, “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us.’” He told them to go and show themselves to the priests. This
was to receive from them an official declaration of health, and the freedom to return to their former lives. One of them, realizing that he was cured, be- gan to glorify God. He came to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan.
Both of these accounts remind us of the importance of faith. Naaman discovered the true God through his healing. Jesus told the Samaritan who returned to give thanks that his faith had saved him.
Both of these stories focus on the outsider – the person who doesn’t fit in or isn’t in harmony with the society around him. Naaman wasn’t a Jew. His country had been in conflict with Israel. Yet he dis- covered a new life by entering the faith life of his enemy.
The Samaritan, despised by Jews, and separated from his own people because of his illness, found salvation and healing because his faith made him strong enough to reach out to the Jewish prophet, Jesus. Where can we go with these accounts?
We always need to bring the scriptures into our
present-day experiences if they’re going to be a source of spiritual enrichment and guidance. Then perhaps the first question we should ask is, what does the image of the leper evoke for me, personally?
We may not have a physical illness, but we all suffer quietly within ourselves. We all experience what seems like an incurable sense of shame. Think back to your adolescence when you felt ugly, or overweight, or perpetually awkward. It was a period when the slightest comment about you could be the source of tremendous inner pain. You covered up the pain. You smiled in public but wept when you were alone. That adolescent shame rarely leaves us as we immerge into adult- hood. Perhaps we don’t feel it the same way, but it festers quietly within us, and subconsciously affects the way we act and our relationship with others.
Each of us needs inner healing. In one way or another each of us can relate to the painful isolation of the lepers in today’s readings. Each of us can cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on me!”
On the societal level we continue to suffer tremendously because of the hidden shame we carry as a society. We don’t seem to be able to unite as a community of diverse people. Just when we think we’ve healed some of our societal wounds like racism and sexism, another painful ulcer appears. Witness the brutality of our immigration policies. Witness the harassment, and sometimes even murder, of transgender people. Our society can cry out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
Each of us needs to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Each of us needs to cry out for healing from the Master. We haven’t been able to heal ourselves. We have to trust a power greater than our own to heal the inner shame that continues to torment us and our society.
Each of us has to ask ourselves the deep question, “What am I ashamed of?” When we honestly answer that question, we can call out a sincere plea for heal- ing. We have to have faith that the Divine Physical can cure us and our society. We have to have faith that the love of God can cure all our ills. We have to heal our shame in order to free the divine love that is within each of us. We have to ask for heal- ing so that we can all walk in the glory of the children of God.
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
We’ve all heard this teaching many times. I don’t know about you, but I question the depth of my faith every day. Right now, as I’m writing this reflection, I’m asking myself, “When was the last time you had enough faith to uproot a tree or to move a mountain?!”
Jesus’ declaration makes me, a supposed man of faith, feel guilty about my lack of faith. I know that Jesus was using hyperbole in this teaching, but still, I don’t feel that I’ve ever done the equivalent of uprooting a mulberry tree or moving a mountain with the power of my faith! I take this teaching as a tremendous personal challenge. I wonder if my faith will
ever grow to the size of a mustard seed. With this personal confession, I’ll move on to the second part of his teaching.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’ Would you not, rather, say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished?’ Is he grateful to that servant be- cause he did what he was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are un- profitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The second part of this teaching doesn’t leave me feeling as guilty as the first part. I work very hard. But often, I put too much on my plate, and so don’t always do my best. There’s a discipline that I lack. I rarely say no. I feel guilty about this, too.
When I first entered the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament as an impressionable teen- ager, I was impressed by an image our founder used to focus our call to serve Jesus. He asked us to be like the vigil candle that burns before the Blessed Sacrament. Its flame can continue to be a sentinel of faith only because the candle gives up its life to feed it. When I feel the stress, and sometimes pain, of working, I often think of the image of the candle. It helps me renew my energy and I keep going.
These are my thoughts about the gospel passage today. I’m sharing these personal thoughts with you to encourage you in your own reflections. Faith is a very personal matter. You have your own, very special and
unique experience of faith. You hear the call to be God’s servant in your own way, and your response is unique to you.
Try not to let any feelings of guilt you may experience as you reflect on these teachings paralyze you from taking a positive step as a disciple of Jesus. I’ve always found that my feelings of guilt were a hindrance to my accepting God’s loving call. Don’t let negative feelings dis- tract you from what Jesus taught us: that God is love. He clearly manifested that in his own life.
The two teachings we’re thinking about to- day, faith and service, point us to his call to love as God loves – unconditionally and sacrificially. To teach that we’re here on earth to serve God, means we’re on earth to love. That’s the challenge we all face as his disciples.
We have two very interesting readings for our reflection this Sunday. The first comes from the prophet Amos. He lashes out in condemnation of the businessmen of his day. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and destroy the poor of the land!” He then enumerates how they cheat and abuse the poor, and reminds them that God will not forget the suffering they’ve caused.
The Gospel passage that follows stands unique in the New Testament. Throughout the Gospels we read Jesus’ wonderful par- ables – short stories teaching about the Kingdom of God. Today’s parable is the only one of Jesus’ parables that’s not about the Kingdom. It’s a story that stands as the antithesis of the Kingdom. It’s a glimpse into the systemic corruption of the earthly kingdom.
Jesus presents a situation in which a hired steward is going to be fired for squandering his employer’s wealth. The steward, in
those days, was the CEO and general man- ager of his employer’s businesses, wealth and often his household. We’re not told what he did exactly. He may have made bad business deals, or perhaps found ways to enrich himself through this most important position. It doesn’t make that much difference to the story. It’s the steward’s response to his firing that’s central to the parable.
The corrupt steward goes immediately to his employer’s business ledger to find out which of his clients have outstanding ac- counts payable. He contacts two of them, probably the most prestigious accounts, and the ones that owe the most. He then cooks the books. One client owes one hundred measures of olive oil. The steward rewrites the contract to show a debt of fifty measures of oil. Another owes a hundred kors of wheat. He chops it down to eighty. The two clients would have been very pleased by this bit of corruption.
The part that really stinks in this story is that this manipulation of the books is a personal investment by the steward. This move will entangle these two clients in his web of thievery. He did them a huge favor. Now they owe him. As he says: “When I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” They can’t say what he did to anyone because they would be exposing their role in the thievery.
The cynical chuckle that concludes the story is provided by the employer. “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” That’s the way of the world, the earthly kingdom.
The parable having been delivered, Jesus then addressed his disciples. Our translation of his message is confusing. “I tell you, make friends with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Let’s interpret the sentence in this way. As “children of the light,” we must be trust- worthy even “with dishonest wealth” so that we can be trusted with the true wealth of the Kingdom. We have to learn to navigate through the corruption that so often surrounds money. The children of the light can’t be entangled in the world’s web of corruption. Jesus concluded this parable with his well-known principle. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
I conclude this reflection with a challenging anecdote. One of the great “children of the light,” was Mother Teresa. To continue running the many institutions she established throughout the world, she was continually putting out her hand begging for money. Many people responded to her pleas. I’m sure she thanked them personally – in the name of the poor she was serving. In the public arena, when she wasn’t asking for financial assistance, but was teaching the principles of the Kingdom, she was often heard to say, “Don’t tell me how much money you’ve given away. Tell me how much you have left.” Mother Teresa knew the meaning of detachment, and the liberation it brings. Jesus put it this way to his disciples, “the foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Each of us, rich and poor alike, have a great deal to ponder today.