In the scriptures for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 30, 2016) we will hear about a man who has changed. Zaccheus (Zack), unlike the tax collector from last Sunday's Gospel, has done very well for himself. Yet he is willing to go great lengths, running ahead and then climbing a Sycamore tree, just to see Jesus. When he does, he changes dramatically. He doesn't just offer amends: he will give half his possessions to the poor. Further, he will repay four times any amount he "might have" extorted.
The point of Sunday's readings is that God is merciful, even to tax collecting extortionists. Psalm 145 tells us that:
"The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works."
Accepting this, we can still wonder how Zack the extortionist reached a state of mind enabling him to make an instant conversion. I suspect that his conversion started well before the story we hear in the gospel. It was also more gradual, occurring in stages. This is what we read in our first reading from the book of Wisdom:
"O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!"
Zack may have been surprised by his conversion. I imagine that his taxpaying victims were even more surprised.
We need to be patient with our selves and with others. God is working silently within. If we turn ourselves over to the care of God, change will come when we are ready. Not too soon - or too late.
Somewhere (I don't remember where) in John Henry Newman's writings there is a magnificent paragraph about how self confidence and humility work together.
Confidence, aka self esteem, helps us to undertake tasks when we are hesitant or afraid the we might fail. Overconfidence, on the other hand, is a danger as many athletes have learned. Overconfidence leads us to be lax in preparation and ignore help from others. The result is likely to be failure. Humility protects us by reminding us that failure is possible.
This Sunday's Gospel (Lk 18:9-14) makes this point about a Pharisee:
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.
If the Pharisee had simply thanked God that he was able to fast twice a week and tithe, he would have been alright. Overconfident, he compared himself to the tax collector. He, in contrast, knew he had harmed others by collecting unjust taxes. He simply asked "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." He went home justified and, presumably, with some serenity.
Last Sunday we heard about the importance of gratitude for having been healed. This Sunday we should be reminded to continue in our gratitude. We can easily begin to think that our gifts belong to us alone and give credit to ourselves. We forget, or don’t know, that our virtue is a product of circumstance and grace. We would do well to remember this line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
The scripture readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Oct. 16th, 2016) emphasize persistence in prayer. In Ex 17:8-13 Moses needed help in praying during Israel’s day long battle with the Amelek. In the gospel (Lk18:1-8), Jesus commends the widow who nagged a dishonest judge until she got a decision in her case saying:
“Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.”
We can ask about the motives of the widow. She was asking for a decision against an adversary. Was she desperate because she had left destitute? Persisting in hope because she knew the judge could restore her to a better state? Maybe she was just angry against her adversary and stubbornly kept after the judge.
In the end, her motives did not matter. She acted on the hope that the judge could settle her case. It did not matter to here whether or not the judge cared about her. She just wanted action.
Many - maybe all - of us reach a point in our prayer lives when we wonder if we will ever get results. Does God even know we are here? If so, does God care?
Jesus wonders: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
We can learn from the widow. While we do have a God who cares for us, we don’t even have to believe that much. All we have to do, is come to believe that God can restore us. that is enough.
There is, to my mind, a convergence between a recent Peanuts cartoon and the scripture readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 4, 2016). In the cartoon:
Lucy: "Why are you hiding under the bed?"
Charlie: "School starts next week."
Lucy: "You hid under the bed last year and it didn't work."
Charlie: "I'm better at it now."
In Luke 14:23 we hear Jesus saying "...anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple." This seems to be an impossibly hard saying. A few, like Francis of Assisi, have taken it literally. Others, like Francis de Sales, advocate a life of devotion compatible with the life of a soldier, prince, tradesman or married woman. Even these must come to terms with Luke 14:23 in a spiritual, if not literal, sense.
In the cartoon Charlie Brown gives us a clue. He has adopted a behavior that protects him from an apparently hostile world. He fools himself into thinking that, even though it didn't work last year, he can make it work this year. He clings to what Thomas Keating calls "programs for happiness" - those behaviors that we adopt to protect basic needs. At some point in life we discover that those programs no longer work for us. They worked before, but now they are self-defeating. At that point we can cling to them even more tightly. Ben Franklin defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Charlie Brown is clinging to his behavior of hiding from trouble even though he knows it won't work.
The gospel give us a different choice. We can renounce our preferred behavior and take the chance of turning over our life to the care of God. Most of us will not do this until, unlike Charlie, we recognize our insanity. When we do, we will find a new freedom and a new happiness. We will be able to march out of our home and go to school.
The gospel choice only looks hard while we are hiding under the bed.
In the scriptures for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 28, 2016) we hear the story from Luke about a wedding reception in which a guest chooses a place of high honor at the table. Jesus advises that we not seek the highest place, lest we be asked to clear the table for a more distinguished guest. (I saw this happen a few years back. A couple left in a huff because they did not get the table they thought they deserved. The situation was discreetly hushed up and the other guests barely noticed.)
I have been a loyal member of the institutional church, a long term civilian employee of the US Army and active in civic organizations. The temptation of lusting after the perquisites of position and symbols of prestige and power is familiar to me. I can name teachers, civic leaders and executives who have used their prestige to benefit the public more than themselves. On the other hand, we can all name celebrities who will inflict harm on the public to gain honor and recognition.
The wedding guest who was asked to move to a less prestigious seat risked more than just embarrassment. The greater risk came after he left. Then he would have been tempted to resentment and the desire for revenge.
“…good men seeking to grow in grace can take their natural rank and position, so long as they are not engrossed by such things, and do not involve themselves in anxiety, contention or ill-will on their account. I am not speaking here of those whose position is public, or even of certain special private persons whose dignity may be important. In all such cases each man must move in his own sphere, with prudence and discretion, together with charity and courtesy.”
On the 21st. Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 25th) the lectionary readings pairs Is 66:18-21 with the Gospel reading (Lk 13:22-30.) Isaiah writes that brothers and sisters from far away (and unlikely) nations will find their way to Jerusalem. This includes places such as Tarshish. Some of them, the LORD says: "I will take as priests and Levites." In the Gospel we are reminded that many will think that they are deserving to enter. But the gate is narrow, some self-satisfied souls will find that their attitudes and behaviors disqualify them for entry. On the other hand, people will come from the east, west, north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
I'm reminded that St. Augustine, trained in the elegant rhetoric of Cicero, was initially repulsed by the scripture. How could people accept such crude and inelegant prose. It took a deep conversion for him to realize that God speaks to all people and that deep truths are often found in crude languages spoken by people from unlikely places.
We need to strive to be ready to enter. The people we look down upon as being foreigners, unlettered or simply strange may gain entry ahead of us.
August 19, 2010
Three Images of God as Father
The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time focus on entering through the narrow gate, how we should maintain our spiritual fitness, and how we will be surprised when we find that some unlikely people make it through the gate.
The second reading, Hebrews 12:5-13, emphasizes the discipline of training. When we read "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?" We (or at least I) tend to move over towards that old time religion image of God as the stern disciplinarian in the sky. This is a contrast of the image conveyed by the name of God as abba - the word little children use to call out to their daddy. It also contrasts with the image of the father who eagerly welcomes the return of a son who has betrayed him.
The contrast can be resolved by looking at the word discipline as training for an athletic event. (I'm told that this is much closer to the meaning of the original Greek.) Last week we saw an example of how a good trainer/coach might act. When the Nationals played the Arizona Diamondbacks, Stephen Strassburg overthrew first base costing two unearned runs. The coach, I'm sure, did not say "Stephen, God is punishing you for the baseball sin of rushing your throw." He probably said, "Stephen, you were in a hurry and paid a price for your mistake. Next time set your feet and then throw."
From that perspective we can agree with Hebrews that "Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
By doing that we are striving "to enter through the narrow gate" and will find that we are "strong enough."
This blog posting below is from the Twentieth Sunday on August 14, three years ago. The scene is different in Europe and the United States now. Still we would do well to live by the words of Jeremiah 29. ——————————————
On the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 18th) we will hear an uncomfortable and challenging message. It was felt more deeply in the first 400 years of Christianity than it is today. The challenge is still present. It is just different. The selection from Jer 38 tells us how Jeremiah warned the Israelites that their city would be conquered as a result of their failure to keep the Law. For this unpopular message, he was punished and barely escaped with his life. In the Gospel (Luke 12:49-53) Jesus, having fundamentally reinterpreted the Law, warns that following Him will lead to division. Families will be divided against one another.
For the early Christians, following Christ meant changing one's ethnic identity. For changing their message, Jewish Christians would no longer be united to Judaism. Roman and Greeks had to give up identification with their own people and religious practices - sometimes at risk of life and livelihood. Often they risked separation from family. In modern America and Europe we have learned how to tolerate deep differences over religious messages under a code of tolerance. In many ways this is a good thing. The history of warfare over religious and ideological differences is not likely to be repeated. Yet deep differences remain and Christians often feel as if they are living in enemy occupied territory as C.S. Lewis writes. Our values differ in deep and fundamental ways, often invisible to the predominant culture.
To put it another way, we are exiles in a city as alien as ancient Babylon was to the Jews. Jeremiah wrote the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. We Christians are not in a physical exile. Yet we live in a society that has values as alien to ours as the Babylonians were to the Jews. We can be said to be in internal exile. Here is what Jeremiah wrote:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
As modern Christians we need to remember that our values are in conflict with our society. The question is: how do we deal with it? The gospel warns us that there will be times when families and friends will be divided over basic values. (As an example consider the message implied in the words pro-life and anti-abortion in the news media.) I'm inclined towards Jeremiah's view. We live in this society and should help it prosper and survive. At the same time we must never lose sight of our core values and consider ways to assert them while preserving a level of "domestic tranquillity." It is not up to us to end our exile by forcing a change in society's values. It is up to us to hold to our message and live by it.
For many of us the doors to faith seem closed and it is not clear how they can be opened. On August 4, 2010 I offered this approach:
We read in Luke 12 that "...if the master had known when the thief was coming, he would long have let his house be broken into." Good words, but the question for us is "how do maintain the motivation to be prepared when there is no urgent challenge?" This is especially true when we don't even see a challenge on the horizon.
The challenge isn't on the horizon; it is inside of us. In The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation Thomas Keating tells of hearing a woman holocaust survivor tell how her experience led her to found a humanitarian organization to prevent such horrors from being repeated. She remarked "You know, I couldn't have started that organization unless I knew that, with the situation just a little different, I could have done the same thing the Nazi's did to my parents and others in the concentration camps." I was reminded of my struggle to understand a shooter could have murdered 32 others at Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007. Somewhere in the aftermath I ran across this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Keating goes on to describe how regular prayer and reflection will help us locate that line. When we do, we can become aware of our constant need to seek help and maintain readiness. We realize our basic goodness as well as the tremendous energy that resides in our "shadow side." The possibilities for spiritual (and physical) progress are immense.
As the Sunday's gospel reminds us, we need to seek progress not perfection. If we think we've achieved perfection our effort will slacken. Then the thief will show up and we won't be ready.
When we come to the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 31, 2016) the Scripture Readings challenge us to the core of our being. The lectionary readings for Sunday are in a three year cycle. Here e reflections from the 18th Sunday from 3 and 6 years ago.
"We may still have idols residing outside of ourselves — if we allow our things, our possessions and creations to stand between us and God, and to essentially own us — but we are very adept at burnishing the godlings of the mind, the ideas and opinions and beliefs formed interiorly. These are petted and loved and fed, and they grow directly in proportion to how much we indulge them, until they become the object of our enthrallment and the entity we serve. If our ideology, for instance, has become an idol, then we nourish it by reading only what suits our point of view; we speak and gather with only those who think as we think; we visit websites that echo our thoughts back to us, until we lose sight of anything beyond it — even the humanity of the one who does not conform to our beliefs. We begin to serve the idol of the idea, alone."
This book will be a good read. There is something here to challenge both liberals and conservatives. Even without reading it, we can ask ourselves about the extent to which our chosen causes turn into idols and control our lives.
In The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, Fr. Keating describes the development of the "home-made self." (Most often called the "false self.") When we are little we mature in an environment that is somewhat hostile - in spite of the best efforts of our parents. We develop coping mechanisms that provide us with happiness and satisfy three energy centers or needs:
Safety and Security
Esteem and Affection
Power and Control
We develop a set of routines and behaviors that satisfy these needs. Keating calls these routines "Programs for Happiness." One might, for example, think that gathering all the information and developing a good plan will insure safety and control needs. As long as this works, it is fine and one might see one's self as a successful planner. A problem arises when one cannot get enough information or the situation is rapidly changing. One possible response is to obsessively seek more information, losing sight of responsibilities in many other areas of one's life. Many kinds of self destructive behaviors can follow in an attempt to compensate. This obsessive seeking of information is part of the "home-made self." Through this process a legitimate attempt to meed basic needs evolves in to a set of character defects.
If we can detach from our defects, turning them over to the care of God, we will find that our whole selves are much larger and more capable of achieving happiness. The energy that was part of the homemade self will still be present, but can be more productive.
So we can ask: Is Paul being too harsh when he urges the Colossians to "Put to death the parts of you that are earthly..." If the "homemade self" has parts of it that are destructive or even self defeating, I think not. We need to recognize that the "home-made self" can lead us to a number of disordered attachment - work, possessions, control, money, etc. There is hope. After putting that part of the homemade self to death we can "...put on the new self, which is being renewed ... in the image of its creator." The new self - the God-made self - will contain all of the strengths of the homemade self, plus hidden strengths and the freedom to use them.
The lectionary is structured so that the Old Testament and Gospel readings are thematically related each Sunday. The relationships for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time is based on persistence in prayer - and trusting that God will supply what is needed.
Too often we act on the subconscious belief that "if a little is good, more is better." Then we find that no amount is enough. We need only look at celebrities to see where this leads. Yet is not just celebrities who have this problem. We all know people who can't get enough work, food, possessions, time looking at facebook, knowledge, etc.
Gregory Pierce, in his book Spirituality at Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life on the Job sets forth ten disciplines, Number nine is "Deciding how much is enough - and sticking to it." (Go here for my review.) Setting goals is good. Reaching them is also good. There does, however, come a time when we have enough and wishing for more becomes self destructive.
So, how does this relate to the readings? In Gen. 18:20-32 We find Abraham asking the Lord how many righteous ones he must find in order to save Sodom. He negotiates until he reaches the number of ten righteous men. These will be enough.
In Luke 11:1-13 we are told to pray for our daily bread. We need not fear that we will not have enough for tomorrow. We don’t have to pray for twice as much bread as we will need today. We can ask for that tomorrow. We should not be afraid to consume what we have today, fearing that we will starve tomorrow.
Are we sure we won't get enough of the right things for tomorrow? On a human level, we can never be absolutely certain - but we can turn our lives over to the care of God today. That will be enough for today. We can do the same tomorrow.