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Sunday, 10 October 2021 / Published in Church Reflections

WISDOM 7:7-11 HEBREWS 4:12-13 MARK 10:17-40

In the Gospel passage today, Jesus and his closest disciples were about to set out on a missionary journey. Suddenly, a man ran straight up to him, threw himself on his knees and blurted out, “Good teacher, what must I do to attain eternal life?” No Hello Rabbi. No excuse me. Just right to what was on his mind. This man was overly-exuberant, even verging on the rudeness that sometimes clings to people of privilege. Was he expecting a quick and easy answer to a question as deep as the meaning of life?

Jesus, taken aback by the man, immediately clipped his enthusiasm. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He then gave the man a quick answer to his question: “Follow the commandments.” He even went on to enumerate some of them. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and your mother. All but one of these were simple don’ts. The man proudly announced that he had “kept” those commandments from his youth. Then something interesting happened. We’re told that Jesus “looked at him.”

The verb, “to look at,” is used a number of times in the New Testament. This particular Greek word doesn’t refer to seeing. It has to do with perceiving – looking into the soul of a person. Looking at him, Jesus understood him, his motivations, his desires.

So far, life had been easy for this man but he wanted something more. He wanted eternal life. He thought Jesus could give him a simple formula to possess it.

Looking at him, Jesus perceived the roadblock that this man had come up against in his quest. It was his wealth and privilege. This man’s path to eternal life would be painful and challenging.

Lovingly, Jesus gave him the answer to his question. “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven: then come, follow me.”

The man heard what Jesus told him, but sadly wasn’t able to take that step. “He had many possessions.” He turned away from Jesus and returned, crestfallen, to his familiar life.

Jesus used this incident to teach his disciples an important lesson. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This statement is as shocking to us as it was to those disciples. They threw their hands up in the air. “Then who can be saved?” The answer was simple – those who trust enough to offer themselves completely to God. “For human beings it is impossible but not for God.”

There’s nothing wrong with wealth. But, many times, wealth is marred by an attitude of privilege and self-absorption. Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man addressed the spiritual danger that can come with wealth. The rich man was so consumed with his own self-gratification that he never noticed the starving beggar languishing just outside his dining room window. Wealth and privilege can isolate a person from the totality of God’s world – a world of comfort and power and struggle and suffering and powerlessness.

Jesus showed the rich man the path to eternal life but it wasn’t the glory road the man expected. It was the road shared by the poor and suffering. It was the road of painful awareness of the world. It was the world where sacrificial love was the highway to eternal life.

Sunday, 03 October 2021 / Published in Church Reflections

GENESIS 2:18-24 HEBREWS 2:9-11 MARK 10:2-16

Divorce is a problem. It was a problem in Jesus’ day, and it’s a problem today. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife he answered their question with another question. “What did Moses command you?” In other words, what does the law say? They answered by referring to a law in the book of Deuteronomy. “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent,” he may write out a bill of divorce and hand it to her.

There are a number of things we need to look at before we look at Jesus’ response to them. First, a woman had no say in the bill of divorce because she had no legal rights. The only case when a woman could divorce her husband was if she could prove that he had committed adultery. Second, if a man was displeased with something that was “indecent” about his wife he could simply write out a bill of divorce, hand it to her, and dismiss her from his home. She was left penniless and abandoned.

At the time, there were two schools of thought about the definition of the word “indecent.” One said that it was to be interpreted solely as adultery. The other left the definition of “indecent” to the discretion of the husband. It could be chronic illness. It could be poor housekeeping. It could be the loss of physical beauty. It could be anything.

Jesus trumped their reference to Deuteronomy by quoting a more ancient text from the Book of Genesis. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined no human must divide.” He went on to say, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

In a way, things are in the same state as they were in Jesus’ day. We still have two schools of thought. The Roman Church, focusing on “what God has joined no human must divide,” doesn’t allow divorce. Even adultery isn’t automatic grounds for divorce. But…highly influenced by Roman law, it sidesteps allowing divorce by applying a different approach; it permits the annulment of the marriage covenant.

People requesting an annulment must prove that there was a fatal flaw in one or both of the parties that existed before the marriage. This flaw would eventually surface causing the breakdown of the relationship. One example would be if one of the parties, for some reason, felt forced into the marriage the validity of the covenant would be in question. Premarital pregnancy would certainly question the couple’s freedom to marry. Immaturity at the time of the marriage could be another reason to annul the covenant.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the other hand, didn’t take the legal path the Western Church did. They allow divorce. They, too, quote Genesis, but interpret it differently. They chose a spiritual approach to marriage. Should a marriage not work out, it means that God had not “joined” the couple.

This brings me back to the first sentence in this reflection. Divorce was a problem and is still a problem. One out of two American marriages will succeed. About two out of three Catholic marriages will succeed. We’re doing better than the national average. In addition to the pain of a relational break-up, there’s additional suffering felt when Catholics the community divorce.

Men and women who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are barred from receiving the Eucharist. They may attend the Eucharistic celebration but are not permitted to partake in the Communion. (Please take note that Catholics who are divorced but NOT remarried are free to receive Communion.)

Where do we go will all of this? Jesus’ altercation with the Pharisees only goes so far, I think. His answer stayed within their legal milieu. If we look at his interactions with ordinary individuals, however, we see that he took a heartfelt approach, not a legal one. I immediately think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the town well.

In the course of their conversation he told her to go home, and to bring her husband back with her. She told him that she had no husband. He told her that that was true; she had had five husbands and the man she was with now wasn’t her husband. He didn’t preach to her. He certainly didn’t condemn her. He simply recognized her life. She had already been ostracized by the townsfolk because of her history. He gently acknowledged her present situation without any judgment. This changed her life. She ran back to the town and announced to everyone that she had met the Messiah. She converted the entire town to Jesus!

I’ve been a pastor for thirty-one years. I’ve witnessed hundreds of marriages. Many are still intact and life-giving. Many have broken apart. I know many divorced and remarried couples, as, I’m sure, you do also. I know many people who have gotten annulments and feel fully engaged in the Church. Sadly, I also know many men and women who are divorced and remarried and don’t join me at the communion table. This breaks my heart. I feel that, somehow, our Eucharist is incomplete without them.

I want so much to conclude this reflection with words of hope that the situation with divorced Catholics will change. Some change has been taking place in the annulment process making the process faster and less painful. Some couples have told me that they experienced a degree of healing by going through the process. That’s good. I’m happy for them. In general, though, divorced Catholics whose marriages haven’t been annulled bear the cross of judgment and separation. At the Last Supper Jesus prayed “That they all may be one.” Please pray that prayer with me today. May the Lord, heal our community. May we all, married, divorced, single, truly be one in faith and love. May we all accept each other with the love that Jesus modeled for us. May we join together as one body at the table of the Lord.

Sunday, 26 September 2021 / Published in Church Reflections

NUMBERS 11:25-29 JAMES 5:1-6 MARK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

In the first part of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus addresses an incident that involved the apostle John castigating an exorcist who was using the name of Jesus to dispel a demon. John told him that he had to be a part of Jesus’ company in order to use his name. What was going on here?

In Jesus’ day, people believed that malevolent spirits were everywhere. Note Psalm 91:7. “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrows that fly by day, nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come.” The thousands and ten thousand refer to demonic spirits wandering throughout the night in search of vulnerable people upon whom they could inflict pestilence and plague.

Illness, especially mental illness and epilepsy, was perceived as demonic possession. Part of the work of the exorcist was to align himself with a spirit more powerful than the spirit possessing the person. He would invoke the stronger spirit by name using its superior power to free the person from the grip of that particular demon.

Recall the incident from Matthew 12:22. “They brought him a demonic who was blind and mute. He cured the mute person so that he could speak and see. All the crowd was astounded and said, ‘Could this perhaps be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard this they said, ‘This man drives out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.’” Jesus must have exhibited tremendous power for the Pharisees to accuse him of aligning himself with the most powerful of all demons, Beelzebul.

As Christianity evolved, this “practice” of invoking a superior power to liberate a person from possession by a demon took the form of invoking the name of Jesus to cure a person from “illness” or possession. This incident from the Acts 3:26 is a good example. “A man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.’ Then Peter took him by the hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles became strong.”

Let’s get back to today’s gospel passage. Jesus listened to John’s report of the confrontation he had with the exorcist who was using Jesus’ name to perform the exorcism. His response was simple. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can, at the same time, speak ill of me.” But his response reached beyond this particular incident. There are other “mighty deeds” that people can, and will, perform in the name of Christ. “Anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”

This response is so very interesting. The “mighty deeds” that can be performed in the name of Christ are exorcism, curing illnesses and…..charity. Jesus is teaching two things here, and both are important. Reaching out to people who are suffering in any way – even simply giving a cup a water to someone who is thirsty – can become a powerful event when connected to Christ because Christ can, and will, work through us. So, we call on the power of Christ to heal. We call on the power of Christ to liberate a person’s spirit. We can also call on the power of Christ to address the needs of suffering humanity. This is a challenge for us.

We might believe in faith healing. We might believe in exorcism. But it’s often difficult for us to believe that Christ’s power, working through you and me, can heal a society, or end starvation, or eradicate poverty? We tend to invoke the power of Christ to heal individuals of illness but shy away from calling on that same power to heal toxic governments or oppressive societal systems.

It’s something for us to think about. It’s something we can integrate into our personal prayer.

Sunday, 19 September 2021 / Published in Church Reflections

WISDOM 2:12,17-20 JAMES 3:16-4:3 MARK 9:30-37

In today’s short passage from Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus introducing the Paschal Mystery to his disciples by prophesying his death and resurrection. We’re told “they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” Were they really afraid of questioning Jesus? Or were they afraid of what this saying might mean for them? They weren’t touching this. It was best to remain silent.

So, unwilling to let this important moment go by unaddressed, Jesus asked them a seemingly unrelated question. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Again, the disciples remained silent. They were like children caught doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. This was very revealing.

At the beginning of this chapter Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John. They saw his glory in a blaze of light, and in the light, they saw him conversing with Moses and Elijah. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they were discussing Jesus’ coming departure, his death, his Passover. The disciples focused on the glory they saw. They ignored the road to that glory that Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah. And they weren’t even focusing on his glory, but on the glory that could be

theirs as his special disciples. They were looking for golden crowns, not crowns of thorns. They needed another teaching. “Then he sat down and called the Twelve.”

He showed them the road to glory. It would take them a long time to digest the power of the simple statement he shared with them.

Take off the polished shoes of privilege. Barefoot, like a slave, become “the servant of all.” Don’t work for a place with the powerful. Embrace the powerless, the childlike. Follow the example of the children. Let them guide you to the glory road. Once on that road don’t falter. Keep walking, even when you see a cross.

PRAYER

Lord, your teaching seemed clear enough to me.

“Unless you turn and become like little children,

you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I only understood part of your teaching.

I never thought it involved the cross.

Lord, increase my faith.

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