THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 31, 2021
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus answers a question posed to him by a scribe: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Now, the scribes were the lawyers in Jesus’ day. They wrote up the legal documents for mortgages, loans, divorces and marriages as well as being editors, teachers and experts in the interpretation of the law. Often enough ultraconservative scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus with questions concerning the law hoping to catch him in an unorthodox interpretation. But on this occasion the scribe seemed to be sincere in his question.
Jesus answered him by quoting Deuteronomy: 6:5, our first reading in today’s liturgy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He then added a second commandment to it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.
It’s interesting that just a few weeks ago we read the account of a man who ran up to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and asked the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was direct and simple. Follow the commandments! “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” Exodus 20:12-17.
Jesus’ two answers come from the law but are quite different. The reference from Exodus is a legal, civil law: don’t, don’t and don’t. His referencing verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are a call to act, to love God and neighbor.
I see two different approaches to the commandments here. One approach is related to the rule of law necessary to maintain a civilized society. It’s against the law to steal, or defraud, and if we do, we’ll be punished for breaking these basic laws. The other approach is spiritual in nature. Love of God and neighbor is essential for each of us and society to enjoy life in a deeper way, a way that mirrors the harmony of God’s creation. Both approaches are important for creating and maintaining a civilized society and for the individual to grow in holiness – God-like virtues. However, Jesus took a tremendous step and added a “new commandment.”
At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples as they sat at table with him, “This is my commandment. Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13.
This is a totally new commandment. It isn’t modeled on civil law. It goes beyond a general call to love God and neighbor. It’s modeled on the very life of Jesus. It’s a commandment to love radically as he loved radically. Every day, Jesus opened his heart to anyone and everyone who needed the healing power of love. He reached out to the adulterous woman, the lepers rejected and isolated by society, the deaf, the crippled, the mentally ill, and political and religious enemies like the Samaritans. His commitment to love put him in dangerous opposition to the religious leadership of his day. His commitment to love put him on the road to the cross, and from that cross he showed us the meaning of his new commandment. “Love one another as I love you.”
This commandment is more than the call to love God and neighbor. It’s the call to love as Christ loved, sacrificially. There’s no more perfect love than sacrificial love. It’s, as Dante wrote, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
- Published in Church Reflections
THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 24, 2021
JEREMIAH 31:7-9 HEBREWS 5:1-6 MARK 10:46-52
We are graced with the wonderful story of Timaeus, a blind beggar. He was sitting along the road just outside the city of Jericho. It was a noisy road because many people came to vacation there. Many traders also came and went through this oasis city as it was on the trade route that ran from the northern countries of Iraq and Iran down to Egypt. Suddenly there was a great deal more noise than usual. Asking what was going on, Timaeus was told that Jesus of Nazareth was leaving the city and that a crowd was following him.
Timaeus knew of this Jesus, and he became so excited that he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” This was no ordinary cry for help. Timaeus was shouting a Messianic exclamation, “Son of David!” He wasn’t just trying to get Jesus’ attention he was declaring him the Messiah. But even the second part of his cry had a powerful, implied meaning. We use the phrase in the liturgy, “eleison.” It means to have pity or compassion. It was a cry shouted out by crowds as military heroes or emperors entered a city in triumph: Kyrie eleison! Lord, be merciful to us! Timaeus was calling Jesus the Messianic King.
People tried to quiet him but he kept shouting. He caught Jesus’ attention. Jesus called him. He was so excited that he threw off the tunic he had been wrapped in and ran up to him. A simple verbal exchange followed. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came, “Master, I want to see.” Ironically, the blind man saw what the people didn’t, that Jesus was the Messiah.
The short conclusion to this account is worthy of our attention because it contains an important lesson for us. “Jesus told him, ‘Go on your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
The word “way” is very important here. Christians were called, at the time of the writing of the gospels, “Followers of the Way.” Jesus is telling Timaeus that his strong faith has delivered him from the world of darkness. He’s free to enjoy life in the world that he was never able to see.
But that was only the beginning of his new life. He always sat at the side of the road listening to the world go by. Now he’s free to walk the road he sat beside – the world is open to him. Timaeus decided to take a very special road, though. He followed Jesus on the way. He became a disciple.
I’ve always interpreted Timaeus’ request, “I want to see,” as the Christian’s special prayer. Here’s a thought for your personal reflection. If you told Jesus, “I want to see,” what would you want him to do for you?
- Published in Church Reflections
TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 17, 2021
WISDOM 53:10-11 HEBREWS 4:14-16 MARK 10:35-45
Today’s gospel passage reports the well-known incident when James and John asked Jesus to promise them a favor. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your left and the other at your right.” They asked this question immediately after Jesus had revealed to them, for the third time, that his passion and death were imminent. They hadn’t been listening to him. They were remembering the glory they had seen just a short time ago when they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. They wanted that a piece of that power and that glory.
I think that most of us give a little nod to this passage. “James and John, you should have known better, tut, tut. Shame on you.” And we move on. Well, at the time of the writing of the Gospels, this incident was a scandal. So much so, that when the account was later repeated in the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John was reported asking for that special favor, not James and John. It was too scandalous for two revered Apostles to have stooped so low. So, Matthew put the blame on mom.
Why isn’t this incident scandalous to us? I believe it’s because we make this all about Jesus, not us. He told them that day, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as the ransom for many.” We listen to that and reflect on Jesus’ self-sacrifice, but we shy away from his second teaching, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Jesus was teaching that giving up one’s life doesn’t always mean martyrdom. It means making the gift of self, offering oneself to God, diminishing one’s ego and committing one’s self to the service of others, especially the poor. This is the way of the cross, the path the disciple is called to follow. This is the glory road.
Lord Jesus. I want to be your disciple.
I want to offer to you the gift of my self.
In my work and in my daily life, I want to redirect my energy towards others.
I want to diminish so that you may increase within me.
Strengthen me as I work to follow in your way, and following your example,
may I wash the feet of my brothers and sisters.
- Published in Church Reflections
TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 10, 2021
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.
- Published in Church Reflections
TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 26, 2021
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.
- Published in Church Reflections