Saturday, September 29, 2007

Com-passion

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In order to start reflecting on the good news that Luke gives us today, we have to think back a few Sundays—thirty-two in fact—to the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time when we heard Luke’s beatitudes and woes. Recall Luke’s first beatitude:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

And recall the first woe that goes with it:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

In today’s Gospel, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, this beatitude and this woe come true. The rich man who enjoyed himself—all the while ignoring the needs of others—dies, is buried, and goes to his torment. But Lazarus the poor and sick man, neglected by those who could have helped, dies and is carried off to the “bosom of Abraham.”

The story illustrates for us the spiritual danger of riches. Riches can easily make people arrogant, and arrogance is the opposite of the fundamental virtue we are called to before God: humility. And this isn’t just the riches of material wealth! It could be riches of talent, of education, of class, of position in this world. It can even, as we know so well in our shallow culture, be the riches of something like good looks. Any of these forms of wealth and influence carry the danger of making us arrogant.

Look how arrogant the rich man in the Gospel is! Even after he dies and goes to his torment, he is still trying to boss the poor man around! He says to Abraham, ‘send that poor man down here to get me some water.’ Even after the warning of the beatitude and woe come true, he still thinks he’s better than Lazarus the poor man. He hasn’t learned his lesson. His arrogance has blinded him.

We must all be on guard against this kind of arrogance. In place of it we must cultivate sensitivity and humility. We need to pray for the willingness to see the poor who lie at the gates of our civilization. The prophet Amos accused the arrogant rich of his own time with not being upset about the “collapse of Joseph.” We too are called to be upset at the sin, violence, and suffering that is so common—and so needless—in our world. It’s like the old bumper sticker says,

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

But we need to be upset in such a way that we are led to action—to beginning to change our own hearts and to seek to change the world around us. And to do this we need God. For without God, the question of what to do about the poverty, hunger and wars of this world will leave us overwhelmed and paralyzed.

If we want to do something about poverty and suffering, if we want to learn compassion, we must look first to Jesus Christ who had compassion on us and suffers with us on the Cross. It is from him that we will learn how to act, how to “pursue righteousness” as Paul puts it in the second reading today.

God noticed the suffering and meaninglessness of death we had brought upon ourselves in our sins, and he sent his son to enter into our suffering and, rising from death, liberate us from it. In the same way, if we are to be true Christians, if we are to become the body of Christ we receive in this Eucharist, we must notice the suffering and poverty around us, and seek to do something about it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Radix Bonorum

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Many times I’ve heard people say that they hate hearing sermons about money. But in this Mass we have no choice, because that’s what the Scriptures are about today. In the prophet Amos, we heard about some of the dangers and injustices that arise from money. In the Gospel we heard about the so-called “dishonest steward,” who, oddly enough, ends up being a good example of how we should behave wit the resources of this world.

The prophet Amos is very strong in his condemnation of those who abuse and take financial advantage of the poor. As a prophet, he has intense sympathy with the hurt that God feels on account of such injustice.

Amos paraphrases the thoughts of the oppressors who look forward to the end of the Sabbath that they can do more of their crooked business. They are so greedy that even the weekly rest of the Sabbath has become an unwelcome annoyance.

And we hardly need to do any fancy interpretation on Amos’s words. Our world isn’t much different. Economic injustices such as the gap between rich and poor, the enduring legacy of race and class privilege here in the United States, these sins are deep scars upon God’s creation. And they break out into further problems and occasions of injustice: war, migration, cycles of domestic violence and drug abuse.

Each and every one of us needs to have a consciousness of the need for economic justice, and to examine our conscience about our complicity in sins against the poor. As Amos puts it, God does not forget sins committed against them.

In contrast to the stern warnings of Amos, in the Gospel we have a parable of someone who used money well. It’s somewhat humorous too. This so-called “dishonest steward” is about to lose is job managing his master’s accounts. But before he’s fired, he goes, and, “cooking the books,” reduces the debts of two of his master’s business partners. By this little ruse, the steward accomplishes two things: First, he makes friends with his master’s debtors, so that, once he is out of a job, he has some friends to call on! Second, he makes his master look like a generous and kind man in the community. In business, that’s often worth just as much, if not more, than money.

In contrast to the merchants that Amos describes as robbing the poor and destroying community, the dishonest steward uses money to create and reinforce relationships in the community. He makes friends for when he falls on hard times, and he makes his master look good in the process.

And there’s a moral for us in this. We too ought to use whatever it is that we have—whether it be wealth, or the wealth of talent or time—not to build up just ourselves in selfishness, but to create relationships and build up community. Whatever it is we have, we need to be stewards of what God has given us in such a way as to build up the body of Christ. Yes, it’s a little altruistic, but it’s also practical. If we have used what we have to build relationships, we will have friends when we find ourselves without it.

Our model in all this is the Son of God himself. He had the greatest wealth of all—his divinity. And yet, as Paul tells us, he didn’t consider his divinity something to be clutched to himself. Instead, in the most perfect act of generosity there has ever been, he poured out his divinity into our humanity and became one of us. And he continues to let go of all that it means to be God by pouring his blood out in this Eucharist for the forgiveness of sins.

Let us take our Lord as our model, and pour out whatever treasure we have for the reconciliation of the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What God is Like

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

We have in the first reading today the consequences of what, in my interpretation, is the worst sin in all the Sacred Scriptures. Yes, I know, there’s our first parents who ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, but they were tricked, after all! But when the children of Israel got Aaron—who should have known better—to make the golden calf for them to worship, that was all on them.

God was very angry, and God resolved to destroy the people and to make a fresh start with just Moses. But Moses convinces God to change his mind. How? What strategy does Moses take in getting God to repent from his decision to destroy the people?

Does Moses say, “God, the people are really sorry, and it won’t happen again.” No. Does he say, “They’re going to put their mind to it, and really try to do better.” No. In fact, the tack that Moses takes in convincing God to spare the people has nothing to do with the people at all! It has everything to do with what God is like.

Moses says, “Remember you servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how you promised to make of them a great nation, powerful, and more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore of the sea.” Moses reminds God that he is a God whose good purpose in human history is not to be stopped by human sin or by our consistent failure to respond well. And God spares the people.

Moses’ intercession works because he knows what God is like. He knows that God is faithful in his covenant, and refuses to be foiled by human sin.

In the same way, if we desire to have a healthy spirituality, we need some idea of what God is like. It seems obvious, but there are a lot of unhealthy images of God out there—and in here. This is critical, because, as the letter of John tells us, no one has even seen God. In fact, if we have the courage to bring our ideas out into the sober light of day, it’s pretty hard to even know what we even mean by an utterance like “God.” What—or better, Who—are we talking about when we say, “God”?

This is why it is important for us to take our ideas of what God is like from divine revelation—from the Scriptures. And in this, a Gospel like we have today is very beautiful and useful.

The Pharisees from the Gospel had a certain idea of God as pure, holy, and righteous. And this is quite true. But their problem was in their next logical step: since God is pure, holy, and righteous, then he is the God of the pure, holy, and righteous. And this isn’t exactly the case.

But this is why they complain when Jesus receives sinners and welcomes them to table. In response Jesus offers two beautiful images of God: the diligent shepherd and the woman caring for her house.

God is like the shepherd who seeks after the sheep that has wandered off. God is like the woman sweeping her house, looking for the lost coin—and the valuable coin is our soul.

It changes our idea of what repentance means, no? Sometimes we have the idea that if we have sinned or drifted away from God or from prayer or from our faith entirely, well, then we need to somehow claw our way back. We need to return to prayer, return to the diligent practice of our religion, and once we have done this, we will be acceptable to God again. The images of God in the Gospel today turn all of that on its head. When we drift away it is God who is looking for us! Repentance is not our turning back to God but our allowing ourselves to be found.

Let’s imagine ourselves as the lost coin. We’re under the couch or something, in the dark because of our distractions from God. We’re a bit dusty and tarnished because of our sins. But here comes God the little old lady sweeping the house. And she finds the coin, smiles, picks it up, dusts it off, and holds it to her heart. This is the same way God will behave with us if we only pray for the willingness to be found.

And what will be the response when the coin—our souls—are found? The woman calls her friends and neighbors and has a party. So let’s give heaven a chance to rejoice, and allow ourselves to be found by the God who seeks us, especially when we are lost.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Francis and the Sultan


(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: my first Mass)

Just in case there’s anybody here who doesn’t think divine Providence has a sense of humor, for my first Mass I get this gospel: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.” Fortunately for me, my parents aren’t here this morning; they will be at another Mass closer to home.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ words to us are shocking. Did not God create the family when he commanded our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply”? Did not Jesus himself teach us to call God “Our Father,” thus revealing that the structure of the family, which is so basic to our human society, has its origins in God himself?

So how are we to understand it when the Lord tells us to hate our families? First of all, we must interpret them in the context of the honor-shame culture that Jesus came from, rather than in the world we live in—one in which our concept of love and hate has been so influenced by the sentimentality of greeting cards and the easy-to-solve problems of sitcom families.

When Jesus says that we must hate our parents and families if we want to be his disciples, we should understand this “love” and “hate” in terms, not of feelings, but of priorities, of obligations, and of our social behavior. In the starkest possible way, Jesus is simply asking us, to whom do we give our first priority? To whom are we obligated in this world in the first place?

And the answer is clear: we must, first of all, give our love and allegiance to the God whom Jesus reveals. We must put God first. To put God ahead of all human prejudice and sin is only the first step. Jesus invites us to put our love of God before any human relationship or institution. But this never means than we forget or don’t love the people God has so graciously put in our lives! On the contrary! God is love, after all. But when we put God first, it is only then that we will learn how to love everyone else.

For me, Francis of Assisi is my hero in this. You’ll notice him on the souvenir holy card I had prepared for this Mass. The other man in the icon is the sultan Al-Kamil, brother of the more famous Saladin. Francis met him when he went on one of the Crusades. Francis was hoping to be martyred, but it didn’t work out. Instead, after trying to convert the sultan, Al-Kamil refused to carry out the required death sentence on Francis. Why?

I believe that the sultan was able to perceive that Francis simply loved God. Francis had no motive of human accomplishment or vanity in trying to convert the sultan. Francis didn’t see him as an enemy, or an infidel, or even a danger. He only loved God and wanted to share it. And that, my friends, as this story shows, breaks down even the burning violence of human war and the crippling entropy of human prejudice. The courage to love God first gave both Francis and the sultan the power to overcome, between the two of them, for a brief moment, one of the most enduring and damaging scars upon our Christian history—and one with a legacy with which we still suffer today.

If we too put God first, he will teach us, as he taught Francis, not only how to love our parents and our children, but also to love those whom the world tells us are our enemies. But if we try to love each other without reference to the God who is love, we will succeed in loving only partially. As our first reading from the book of Wisdom puts it today, our plans are timid on their own, and our choices unsure. We grasp the truth only with difficulty. If we are to love fully we need God.

So thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ and in this, the Eucharist he left us, God wills to become graspable by us! This means that the perfect love and truth that is God becomes available to us on our terms—as a human being, and as food our journey. So Let us approach this altar with joy and take his presence in this Eucharist into ourselves, become his disciples first of all, and learn how to love each other with a love that can change us, change the world, and even change history.