Today we’re presented with three parables. The context in which they’re delivered is the key to their interpretation. “Tax collector and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to com- plain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus has not only been welcoming to sinners, he has been eating with
them, an action that means he’s in communion with them! These three parables are Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism of him, but more importantly, though them, we discover Jesus’ understanding of what the Pharisees label sin.
The first two parables are similar. The parable of the lost sheep presents God as a devoted shepherd anxiously pursuing a sheep that has gotten separated from the flock, and can’t find its way back. When that sheep is found, not only does the shepherd rejoice with his friends, but even the angels in heaven throw a party!
In the second parable, God is a woman who lost a coin – one tenth of the wealth she has. She scours through her house until she finally finds it. She’s so happy, she calls in her friends and parties – as do the an- gels in heaven.
The third parable is the well known story of the loving Father, the prodigal son and the unforgiving brother. God is the father who, from the time his son leaves him, stands at the window hoping for his return. When he does return, after loosing one half of the family’s wealth, the father runs out to hug and kiss him. The unforgiving brother, like the Pharisees, rejects his brother as a sinner.
Jesus is giving a twist to the idea of sin. It’s not an offence against God; it’s the experience of separation from the community. The sheep, the coin and the son are lost. When they’re found, the community on earth and in heaven rejoices. The father in the parable captures God’s joy at the return of a lost one who has suffered separation from God and the community. “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
Dear God, thank you for never giving up on me. I confess that sometimes I don’t know where I am or where I’m going, but your love, like a magnet, continually tugs at me, pulling me in the right direction. Deep in my soul I know you stand with never tiring, open arms, waiting for me – waiting to hug me to your heart.
Most of my reflections focus on the message of the Gospel. This week, however, I felt attracted to the second reading of the day taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Some background is needed to understand the relational dynamic that’s the central focus of the letter. Three people are involved, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
During his third missionary journey, Paul spent two years preaching and ministering in Asia Minor. Many were converted to Christ through his preach- ing, especially in the cities of Ephesus and Colossae where he established Christian communities. Philemon was a convert from Colossae. Later on, when Paul was under house arrest in Rome, 61-63 AD, Philemon’s runaway slave came to him and was converted by him. Paul put his relationship
with the slave, Onesimus, in an interest- ing way as he writes to Philemon: “on be- half of my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
This letter gives us a unique glimpse into one moral dilemma that the early Church lived with, slavery. The Roman Empire flourished under a slave economy. Some estimates put the number of slaves as high as 40% of the population. Some were captured in wars, many were kid-
napped by pirates and sold into slavery and, of course, many were the children of slaves. Some slaves were lucky enough to work in the house- holds of the wealthy. Others, not so lucky, were worked to death in mines or shackled together as they worked the fields. Onesimus was probably a house slave. It seems he also stole either money or valuable objects when he fled because Paul volunteers to make amends for him.
In the letter, Paul tells Philomen that he would like to keep Onesimus by his side as a worker from the Gospel, but is, non-the-less, sending him back to his master. But Paul is quite clear that the relationship between master and salve is quite differ- ent now. “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back for- ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a
brother, beloved especially to me, but even moretoyou,asamanintheLord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” This is powerful stuff!
A slave had the status of a chair or a table. A slave was an object that had no rights. A slave was not a person. Paul, however, elevates Onesimus referring to him “a brother” and “man in the Lord.” Paul didn’t condemn slavery outright, but we can see in this short letter that he recognized the challenge that the concept of slavery posed to the Christian way of Christ.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, articulates the moral foundation of a life in Christ. “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
Christianity wasn’t able to come to grips with the immorality of slavery until the nineteenth century. Enlightened thinkers crafted our Declaration of Independence stating: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pur- suit of happiness.” Most of the men who signed this document were slaver owners. Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves! It wasn’t until 1865 that slavery was abolished in our country. But the depth of its depravity lingered on to this very day.
I find Paul’s letter to Philemon a wake-up call for us today. We still struggle with gender inequality. We still struggle with racial inequality. We still maintain a cast system that fosters the separation of the rich from the poor. Like the first century Christians we still hesitate to name our social sins. I don’t understand how any Christian can be a racist or white supremacist. I don’t understand how Christians can turn a blind eye to the horrors being inflicted on immigrants. I don’t under- stand how Christians can witness a government putting men, women and children in cages and remain silent- even if it means having an argument at a cocktail party.
Two thousand years ago Paul, the apostle his life to Christ, understood the deeper teachings of Jesus and articulated them in his letters to the Churches. Today, Pope Francis is regularly highlighting some of those teachings. He’s often degraded as a socialist and ultra-liberal by pseudo-Christians. Jesus spoke the truth and was crucified. Paul spoke the truth and was beheaded. What are we afraid of that we don’t speak the truth?
In the Gospel passage for today Luke sets the stage for an interesting scene. “On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were ob- serving him carefully.” OK. Jesus is under the microscope. Is he nervous or put off by this? Just the opposite. HE ob- serves the guests! He notices that they’re vying for the places of honor at the table. So, he slaps a parable on them.
He tells them that when they’re invited to a wedding they should take the last place at the banquet table. This will
prevent them any embarrassment should a more distinguished guest have been invited and was supposed to sit in the seat you’ve chosen on your own. He tells the guests to take the lowest place so that the host can
direct them to a higher seat. This will stimulate the guests’ admiration of them. Makes social sense; but then he adds a universal truth to the advice. “For every- one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is also a subtle attack at the Pharisees and their cohorts.
The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They followed the minutiae of the Law so perfectly that they were considered to have achieved religious perfection. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will challenge their multiplication of laws
calling them “blind guides” that lay “heavy burdens” on the people. (John the Baptist wasn’t as polite as Jesus. He referred to them as “a brood of vi- pers.”)
Jesus then shifts his full attention to his host. “When you hold a lunch or dinner do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they invite you back and you have repayment.” This must have been a shock for the Pharisee. Jesus had already taken a swipe at him in the teaching he gave to the guests. Now he singled out his host in the presence of his guests.
The scene concludes with Jesus delivering a teaching on the Kingdom. Speaking to the host, but not excluding the guests, he makes a reference to Isaiah’s description of the messianic time. For Jesus, this was THE sign of the arrival of the Kingdom. “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their in- ability to repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
I wonder what Jesus would get up and say if he were invited to a dinner at the White House.
In the Gospel last week Jesus announced, “I have come to set the earth on fire.” He was referring to the global purification that was, in common Jewish belief, to accompany the
coming of the Messiah. This week the disciples follow up on his statement by asking, “Lord,
will only a few people be saved?” In the Jewish way of thinking, Jews would be saved from the fire of the purification because of their special place with God and their fidelity to the covenant. The Gentiles would not find a place in the Kingdom.
Jesus challenged this way of thinking. Jews, as well as Christians, sometimes coast on automatic and depend on their religious fellowship to carry us along the spiritual road. But eventually each one of us has to negotiate “the narrow gate” for ourselves. Jesus told his disciples that being a member of the chosen people wasn’t enough to get them into the Kingdom. “The gate to the Kingdom is narrow, and the per- son who enters it needs to be strong.” Entrance into the Kingdom is not guaranteed to
anyone. It’s a rough road to the Kingdom. The disciples will better understand how difficult it is after the resurrection. The narrow gate to the Kingdom may lead to Gethsemane. The narrow gate may lead to the cross.
Many things can block the way to the Kingdom. Sometimes we focus all our energy on being
“happy,” to have a life with no worries, no illness, no anxiety. This is perhaps one of the most common blocks to the narrow gate. Jesus didn’t promise this kind of “happiness” to any of us. Remember, the rich young man who turned away from Jesus’ invitation to follow him because he wasn’t strong enough to separate himself from his possessions. But there’s more involved than merely letting go of our at- traction to possessions. Entering the narrow gate involves dying to self.
As Jesus himself modeled for us, dying to self doesn’t need to involve penance or mortification. St. Paul explains dying to self in this way. Speaking of Jesus, he wrote, “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are. He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7) Dying to self means pouring one’s self out for others. Or, as Jesus put it, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
We walk the path to the narrow gate every day of our lives. Each day affords us opportunities to empty ourselves for others. It’s easy for us to give up smoking or drinking, or chocolate or carbs. Divest- ing ourselves of our self-centeredness, our ego, is a difficult challenge. To enter the narrow gate, we might even have to sweat blood.
Are we celebrating “Conflict Sunday?” Look at the three scriptures for our reflection! We firsthear of poor Jeremiah having to prophecy that the Babylonian army would soon conquer Jerusalem. Hearing this, the military leaders petitioned King Zedekiah to have the prophet put to death for demoralizing the soldiers defending the city and the people Jeremiah was thrown into a muddy cistern and left to die. The king eventually rescued Jeremiah, but Jerusalem still fell to the Babylonians. Jeremiah would continue to be asked to speak harsh prophecies against the hard-hearted people of Israel. His suffering continued throughout his ministry.
We then listen to the letter to the Hebrews. “Persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” and reminds us that “in your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood.” Was this bombshell of a statement meant to help them, and us, commit more deeply to the Christian way?
Finally, in the Gospel passage Jesus hits his disciples with a harsh and frightening prophecy. He shares that he was commissioned to begin the great purification. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it was already blazing.” He assures them that it will not be an easy task. It will involve a baptism of suffering for him. “How great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” He warns his followers that conflict and division will follow them.
We’re reminded in each of the scriptures today that the Christian way is difficult. It stands in opposition to the sin of the world – injustice, the idolatry of fame, wealth and power, bigotry, inequality, revenge and retaliation. Our call is noble and powerful but never easy. Let’s end with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
Lord Jesus, as I approach your table today, I beg you to cleanse my heart with the fire of your love. Give me that strength and courage I need to commit myself to the work you have begun. I cry to you from the depths of my heart: may your Eucharistic Kingdom come.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus assured his disciples that his Father was pleased to give them the kingdom. They were looking forward to that great day when the kingdom of God would materialize, but their thinking about God’s kingdom was tainted by their ideas of worldly kingdoms, so Jesus gave them some things to think about.
He began by presenting them with a challenge. “Do not be afraid…Sell your belongings and give alms.” He was telling them that when they opened their hearts to the kingdom they would find themselves questioning the value of the things and the possessions they cling to for “security.” He stressed that their hearts must be firmly rooted in the values of the kingdom of God, not in the illusions of strength and security that the kingdoms of the world so boldly offer. This teaching led to an important related topic, the mindset of the disciple.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding ready to open immediately when he knocks…be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Here Jesus was teaching his disciples that, as children of the kingdom, they had to conduct themselves as if each day was the last day of their lives and the day of final judgment. They must never coast along. They must be prepared and ready to serve the kingdom every moment of their lives. Jesus continued by assuring them that they would be rewarded for their loyalty and perseverance. The reward would be quite extraordinary. The Son of Man will have them recline at the table in the kingdom of God, and he himself will wait on them!
Peter then asked Jesus if the teaching was meant for the inner circle of apostles or for all disciples. Peter was speaking from his old mindset that the kingdom of God would function like a worldly kingdom. The “top brass” would be treated differently from the rank in file. Jesus couldn’t let this go by. He addressed Peter’s question by asking, and answering, another question. “Who, then, is that faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants.” Jesus answered his own question by painting the picture of an unfaithful and imprudent steward.
In Jesus’ day the steward was a household slave who was given the authority to manage his master’s entire household and estate. He was very powerful. This particular slave thought that, because his master was away for an extended period of time, he had free reign to do whatever he wanted. He mistreated and beat the other slaves and went on a drinking binge. He was so very foolish to forget that a day of reckoning would inevitably come. His master would return and that steward would be severely punished for his lack of judgment and reckless behavior.
Jesus ended this series of teachings with a warning to his inner circle. The Father was most happy to give them a place in the kingdom. However, there are no “privileged” people in the kingdom. The children of the Kingdom are expected to devote themselves completely and wholeheartedly to the work of the Kingdom. They must never forget the fundamental principle of the Kingdom of God: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with much more.”
“What profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has la- bored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.” Our reflection this week begins with these words of wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
A friend shared a family fact with me re- cently. He said that for many years his rela- tives, who lived in Spain, would come to the United States to visit during the summer. How- ever, a few years ago they stopped. The reason for their decision was quite interesting. They found our driven pace of life exhausting. They said that their relatives’ inability to stop and rest was off-putting to them. They didn’t enjoy vacationing in a place where people didn’t know how to stop to smell the roses. I understand exactly what they were saying because I’m the perfect example of the work-driven American.
Jesus addressed this very topic in the Gospel passage we read today. The pas- sage begins with someone in the crowd shouting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus’ answer must have been very jarring to him. “Take care to guard against all
greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus seemed to have looked into the person’s heart but, instead of seeing a genuine de- sire for justice, saw greed.
It’s no secret to any of us that the distri- bution of an estate can become a family trauma. I knew a person who died in 2013. The estate still hasn’t been settled because of family squabbling. Everyone in the family is well-off financially, but everyone feels they deserve a larger piece of the pie.
Jesus was trying to redirect that man in the crowd. He saw that he was drowning in his desire for wealth and possessions. Je- sus was throwing him a life-jacket. By tell- ing him the story of the wealthy farmer, he was telling the man that he couldn’t take his wealth with him, and that true inner life could not be replaced by possessions.
I marvel at the super rich who so often act as if they need more money and possessions to be happy. They may have ten million, a hundred million, a billion, fifty billion dollars in assets, but it’s never enough. Would a few hundred homes make them happy? Would owning a thousand cars eventually make them happy? Jesus is teaching that wealth, though it can make us famous, and though it even has the potential to give us great power over the human family, isn’t permanent. The day will come when our wealth and power fades away with our last breath.
At the moment of our death we will free- fall into God’s hands without our wealth and fame, without our possessions. Will God look into his hands and ask, “What happened to you? What happened to the magnificent child I created? Where is the love I planted in your heart? Where is your glory? On that day God will look into his hands and weep for a life unlived.
Rich and poor and everyone in between, let’s end this reflection with Jesus’ greatest teaching.
“How happy are the poor in spirit – the kingdom of heaven is theirs. And how happy are the meek and the pure of heart, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And how happy are those who mourn for others and are merciful to others. And oh, how happy are the peacemakers – the children closest to my heart. Rejoice and be glade, your reward will be great in heaven.”
Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is, in my opinion, one of the most annoying passages in the Old Testament. God shared with Abraham that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because the sins of the two cities were so great. Abraham then began to question God’s sense of justice. “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” Great question, but then the annoying part of the story begins. Abraham puts question after question to God. “Suppose there were 50 innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the 50 innocent people within it?” God gave him a good and direct answer. “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for the sake of the fifty.”
This answer wasn’t good enough for Abraham, though, so he continued with the questioning. What about 45? God answered, no. What about 40? God again said, no. What about 30? No, Abraham! What about 20? No, Abraham!! What about 10?
Enough already, Abraham!!! You should be thankful God hasn’t smitten you for being so intolerably annoying! But God is more patient than I am. God answered calmly, “For the sake of those 10, I will not destroy it.” At that point Abraham was satisfied and the story concluded.
There are two ways to interpret this passage. First. Abraham was testing God’s justice. Would God punish good people along with bad people? The answer was a loud, no! Abraham found that God was truly a just God. He wouldn’t destroy the cities even if there were only 10 good people living in them. God’s last answer stopped Abraham’s questioning. But if we were to expand Abraham’s basic question, is God just, we confront a problem. So, God’s not going to rid the world of sinners and people who do terrible things. But what about the good people trapped in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Are they to suffer at the hands of these evil people?
We could, in our day, put the question this way. What about the victims of the holocaust!? What about the good people in North Korea? What about the Muslims in Chinese concentration camps? What about the people in Turkish and Russian prisons? Or even, what about the innocent children in our own detention camps in Texas? This question leads us to a second interpretation of the passage. This comes through our focusing on not the evil ones but on the 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 good people.
The passage is telling us that good people are the most powerful presence in the world even though their number may seem insignificant. Jesus gave us an insight into this. He taught that his disciples should be salt for the earth and light for the world. He told them to pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The righteous 10 or 50 or 1,000 are the foundation upon whom God can, and eventually will, build a world of justice that reflects the divine will. They’re essential to God’s process of evolution – their steadfast commitment to goodness and justice and love will assure that the time will come when God will be “all in all.”
Might they suffer at the hands of evil people? Yes, they might. But because they cling to what’s right and just, they, through their sacrificial love, feed the energy that moves the evolution God has set in motion. They’re the roots of the Tree of Life in the world. Under God’s loving care, those roots will grow and blossom in the fullness of time. May each of us claim our place among the 10, the 20, the 30…
The account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is well known. Let’s think about some of the elements contained in the story.
Mary and Martha are close friends and disciples of Jesus. They’ve opened their home to him and a number of his other disciples and so have taken on the sacred obligation of hospitality. In the first reading for this Sunday we see what Middle Eastern hospitality involves.
Three strangers appear at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. He runs up to them inviting them to rest under the shade of the Terebinth tree. He has their feet washed, commands Sarah to make bread, and has his servants prepare a choice steer for their dinner. There’s no limit to Middle Eastern hospitality.
As Jesus is teaching his disciples it would be presumed that his hosts, Mary and Martha, would be running about making sure that the guests’ feet are washed, that they’re given something to drink and begin preparing food for them. Martha is fully committed to these tasks of hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, is brazenly breaking two strong social norms. She’s ignoring the obligation of hospitality and, she’s sitting with the men! Martha’s protest is quite understandable.
When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part,” he’s inaugurating a radical new way, the Christian way. Saint Paul make it very clear. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) As disciples we’re asked to take up the radical, counter-cultural way of life Jesus modeled. We can’t allow anything to separate us from one another. Sometimes we even have to break the social norms. Sometimes we have to “welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Jesus, when asked by a “scholar of the Law,” what he must do to inherit eternal life, threw the question back into the scholar’s court. “What is written in the Law. How do you read it?” The answer was right on the tip of his tongue. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, (Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) But knowing the answer and putting it into practice are two very different things. So, the scholar, “to justify himself,” asked Jesus a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave him a very down-to-earth example. He told him a story.
The story takes place along a 20 mile stretch of road that runs from Jerusalem, about 2,300 feet above sea level, to Jericho, about 1,300 feet below sea level. It’s a rough road with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of places for robbers to hide. A very imprudent man decided to walk the trek alone. Sure enough, he was attacked. Not only was he robbed but badly beaten and left for dead.
Jesus then inserted two people into the story. The first was a priest. At the time, many priests and wealthy citizens lived in Jericho. It was a pleasant oasis and was far less crowded then the Holy City with its continual stream of pilgrims. Yet it wasn’t so far from Jerusalem to discourage the periodic trip to serve at the temple. On his way to perform his ritual duty, the priest looked over at the man, but presuming that he was dead, didn’t dare go over to check on him lest he make himself unclean by touching a dead body. He would remain ritually impure for seven days and so be unable to fulfill his duty at the temple.
The second person to walk down the road was a Levite, a man assigned to a lesser role in the temple cult. He looked over at the man and, like the priest, made the decision to move on to Jerusalem without getting involved in this messiness. With these two examples Jesus was turning a subtle light on an important moral question. Is caring for someone in need less important than fulfilling a religious ritual?
The story continues with the appearance of a Samaritan businessman. The Samaritans were despised because they had broken from the Jewish communion when they erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, the area between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. This man had no hesitation. He immediately went over to him. Discovering that he was still alive he proceeded to clean his wounds with wine, seal them with some oil, and bandage them. He put the man on his own animal and brought him to a local inn that he would regularly frequent. After caring for the man overnight, he paid the innkeeper up front to cover the length of the victim’s stay, promising when he returned again, to pay for any added expenses if the man needed to stay longer.
The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan had no idea who this man was. He had gotten himself into trouble by traveling along a dangerous road by himself. He had been left to die along the side of the road. All three men saw him. All three recognized his distress. Jesus then hit the “scholar of the Law’ with an easily answered question. “Which of the three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
On the way home from Mass today take note of the people you see who are in distress. Are any of them your neighbor?