Saturday, October 25, 2008

How To Read The Bible

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

This Sunday we hear another Gospel in which Jesus is tested. You will recall how last week they tried to trap Jesus in what he would say about the Roman census tax. Today a scholar of the law tries to test Jesus with a specifically religious concern, and it has to do with the very old question of how to read the Sacred Scriptures. What’s the right way to read and interpret the Bible?

This problem was very much alive in Jesus’ time, as it is in ours. All you have to do is flip around on your television or radio to find a preacher delivering some homemade doctrine supposedly based in the Scriptures, or you can walk down the street until someone gives you a pamphlet. And when you hear some of these things you think to yourself how it doesn’t sound right. But then you ask yourself, how do I know? How do I know that one way of interpreting the divine revelation contained in the Bible is better than another? Whom should I believe?

I think that an awareness of this problem can help us to enter into the spirit of the Gospel we hear today. This question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” was very much alive at the time of Jesus. A little bit later on, the Jewish tradition will decide that there are, in fact, 613 precepts of the law: 248 in the form of “thou shall” do this, and 365 in the form of “thou shall not.”

In his response Jesus answers once and for all the question of how to read and interpret the Bible. He delivers the great double commandment: we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jesus says, the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” That means that the whole of the Sacred Scriptures depend on the love of God and neighbor; it means that these loves are the point and purpose of all divine revelation.

To love God means to always seek to put God first in our lives, to seek and to consider the happiness that God wants to give us. To love our neighbor means to desire and act for what is best for those around us, to seek their joy and happiness. We are called to do this just as much for those we like as for those we don’t. In fact, often the great work of the Christian life is to make the effort to love those we don’t like. Some of this we hear in the first reading today from the book of Exodus, though it’s expressed negatively: we are to make sure that in our dealings with the vulnerable they are not cheated or oppressed.

So, anytime we want to ask ourselves what the Sacred Scriptures mean, or to judge what somebody else tries to tell us they mean, all we have to do is ask ourselves: would this interpretation lead us to a greater love of God and neighbor? If so, it’s probably a good way to understand the Bible passage in question. If the interpretation seems to point away from love of neighbor especially, then we already know that the interpretation is wrong.

Sometimes the point at question doesn’t seem to make a difference for love of God and neighbor. Take for example the burning question of creationism vs. evolution. Scientists tell us that the earth is something like four and half billion years old. In stark contrast, if you take the Biblical account on its face, the world seems to be just six thousand years old or so. Hence, in the Jewish calendar, we have just entered the year 5769. So which is right? Did God create the world in precisely six days about six thousand years ago, or have we and all the rest evolved over a much longer time? It’s a live and open question, even in our national discourse. But does it make a difference for how we love God or our neighbor? Not really, and so it’s not something we should really worry about. That’s why, in her wisdom, the Catholic Church has not found it necessary to declare anything on the question of so-called creationism against the theory of evolution. For what the Scriptures are actually about, the love of God and our neighbor, it doesn’t really matter.

Indeed, we who are Catholic Christians, who, along with our Orthodox brothers and sisters belong to the Churches founded on the apostles, are very fortunate. For we belong to the communities whose reflection on their faith produced the New Testament in the first place. We are the direct heirs of the tradition Jesus begins in the Gospel we hear today: it is the love of God and our neighbor that is at the heart of hearts of all divine revelation. What nurtures these loves is to be followed, and what injures them is to be discarded.

(With thanks to St. Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, chapter 36)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Repaying To God What Belongs To God

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

(Mass of Thanksgiving at parish of Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation)

In today’s gospel we see the Jesus of the clever comeback. We shouldn’t miss this simple point; we are meant to cheer for our hero who eludes both the trap and turns the challenge back on his enemies.

They try to trap Jesus, because in the question of paying the tax to Rome he can’t win. Let’s notice who is sent to give the challenge: the disciples of the Pharisees, who, as devout Jews would have been set against the Romans who were occupying their country, and the Herodians who were the ruling class. Now as we all know, the ruling classes are always interested in having people pay their taxes. So Jesus can’t win. If he recommends paying the census tax, he’ll be in trouble with the Pharisees. If he says that the tax shouldn’t be paid, he’ll be in trouble with the local authorities.

But Jesus eludes this rhetorical trap by elevating the whole conversation. He offers a comeback that says: Would that we were so concerned with how we pay our debts to God! And this is a fine reflection us who find ourselves in a pretty intense election season in this country, when there is endless talk about taxes, who should pay them, and how much. (As my father used to say, the trouble is that the United States was founded on the principle that you shouldn’t have pay taxes.) But imagine what the world would be like if we were so concerned as all this for how to pay our debts to God.

To get this point across, Jesus uses a very clever analogy. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and when he sees Caesar’s image on it, he recommends returning to Caesar what seems to belong to him. But then Jesus gives invites his adversaries to repay to God what belongs to God. And so we are invited to reflect on the question, what bears the image and inscription of God in the same way that the coin bears the image and inscription of Caesar? The answer is clear: it is us ourselves, created in the “image of likeness of God.”

This thing with the Roman money is a powerful analogy, and it’s worth some sustained reflection. Let’s bring it into our time though, and replace the Roman coin with one of our standard forms of money, say the $20 dollar bill. Here it is, with the image of Andrew Jackson on the front, and the image of the White House on the back. So if we are paying attention, and even if we’re not, each time we use one of these bills we are reminded of who we are as Americans. The history and the ideals of our country pass through our hands whenever we use this money, and by using it, we remember who we are as a country and what we stand for.

Now, our soul is the same way. It bears the image and imprint of the God who created it. So each time in the course of a day when we use our soul by loving, learning, praying, or just by trying to be fully present to another human being, we can be reminded, we can notice the imprint of God on ourselves. Just by paying attention to ourselves as we relate, work, and pray with each other, we can remember God. In the same way that the images of our secular history pass through our hands whenever we use our money, so the image and likeness of God in which each of us is created, passes into our relationships and becomes a holy communion between persons.

Once we have noticed the image and likeness of God in the loving actions of our own soul, we are ready to fulfill Jesus’ invitation to return to God what belongs to him. But what does it mean to return to God the soul that belongs to him? How do we do that? Well, here’s the really good news: it’s already been done for us.

This is the saving meaning of the Lord’s Resurrection. In his Passion and death Jesus takes our humanity, having borrowed it from us through our Blessed Mother, brings it through the suffering and alienation from God we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, and returns it to God in his Resurrection. So if we want to fulfill Jesus’ command to offer our souls back to God who made them in his own image and likeness, all we have to do is allow our humanity, our hearts and lives, to be caught up into the humanity of Jesus Christ. We do this by faith, by prayer, and especially through the Holy Communion we receive here at Mass. It’s here in the Eucharist that we become what we receive, become who we most truly are. It is here that we become the Body of Christ risen from the dead, offering our humanity back to the God who created us.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Well here we are in church on Sunday. We should take a moment to notice that our presence here together is a remarkable thing. Even among us Catholic Christians who are fully initiated into our faith through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, we who actually practice our religion and make an effort to remain faithful to God are a minority. In our culture, at this point in history, most of our sisters and brothers in Christ who once professed—or had professed on their behalf—the catholic and apostolic faith are no longer with us here at the Sunday Eucharist.

I think at one time or another, each of us who are religiously observant people have asked the question: Why me? How is that other people, even members of our families and those are otherwise dear to us, can be indifferent or even hostile to the presence of God which, though always obscure, is nonetheless somewhat obvious to us? Why do I have the faith which someone else seems to lack?

Is it because God is kinder to us than he is to the others? Certainly not. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims in the first reading we hear today, the salvation God prepares—which the prophet imagines through the wonderful image of the messianic banquet—is a salvation for “all peoples” and “all nations.” God wills and desires the salvation of everyone, and is inviting every heart and soul to his banquet at every moment. But as Jesus says at the end of the Gospel we hear today, though “many are invited, few are chosen.”

Now the parable of the banquet, much like the parable of the tenants in the vineyard we heard from Matthew last week, is meant by the evangelist to be an allegory for the mixed reception Jesus received among his own people. Just like the tenants of the vineyard mistreated or killed those who were sent to them, so in today’s Gospel those invited to the banquet mistreat and kill the representatives of the king. In this we are meant by Matthew to understand the rejection of Jesus by the chief priests and rulers of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this applies to us as well in our situation in which some accept the invitation to the wedding feast and others do not.

For the wedding feast is here and now. This Eucharist that we celebrate is the wedding banquet for the marriage of heaven and earth. As we hear each year in the proclamation at the great Vigil of Easter, “this is the night, when heaven is wedded to earth, and man is reconciled with God.” Why is that we have accepted the invitation to be here and so many of our brother and sister Catholics seem to have rejected it, like those in the Gospel who go off to their own business rather than attending the wedding feast? It’s not because God likes us better. It’s not because we are less sinners than they are. It’s only our good fortune. The particulars of our own personal histories and many other variables made it so that we were able to consent to the grace of God with less distraction than the others.

And for this we must be eternally grateful, literally. Though we haven’t done anything to deserve it, it is our privilege to be the ones who are faithful to God. We ought to rejoice in our presence here at the Sunday Eucharist, grateful that faithfulness to God and the virtue of religion have taken root in our lives and hearts. But this isn’t the end. It is our privilege to be here, but it is also our task to become more and more the Body of Christ we receive here.

In the Gospel the guest who was found without a wedding garment was thrown out of the party. We need not fear this happening to us, because we have received the wedding garment; it was symbolized by the white robe which we wore at our baptism. This baptismal garment will cover us again when we arrive at the door of the church for our funeral and the white pall is placed upon our coffin. But in between the beginning and end of our life of faith on this earth, it is up to us to keep that baptismal garment shining. We must consent to the grace of God working in us so that our baptism bears fruit and the garment of our baptism shines more and more brilliantly, reflecting the goodness and mercy of God to those around us.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Performance Review

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

For the last couple of Sundays we’ve heard a lot of parables about vineyards. Indeed, this is a common and potent image that the Sacred Scriptures use for both the people of God and for creation as a whole.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we hear this image in its most classic form: The prophet sings of the vineyard of his “friend”—his friend being God. God planted and set up this vineyard with all the best and everything it needed. But when God comes to collect the produce of his vineyard he finds only “wild grapes,” not the nice, cultivated grapes he is looking for. At this God enters into what scripture scholars call a “covenant lawsuit.” God calls for judgment between him and, we may presume, the workers in his vineyard for failing to produce what God intended.

In all of this we find in the prophet a strong image of the relationships between God, ourselves, and the creation. When God creates us and the world it is only the beginning; as we heard in the parable of the workers in the vineyard two weeks ago, God’s creation requires cultivation. God expects that each of us will be an active participant in the work of creation, and bring forth a harvest of peace, justice, and love. More often than not in the history of creation thus far, this hasn’t been the case. To the God who seeks peace and justice, we have more often returned war and oppression. In response to the God who commands us to ‘love one another’ we human beings have more often displayed a disregard for human dignity and even human life itself. And this continues here in our own country even today.

The Gospel we hear today is all about this sad situation. In the parable the landowner is trying to collect his harvest from the tenant farmers. Of course the landowner is meant to be God, and the tenants are the people of God. The first servants who are sent to collect the produce of the vineyard represent the prophets whom the people of God have always abused and rejected. When the landowner sends his own son to the tenants they kill him too. In this we see a strong allegory for the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem, where the priests and leaders of the people handed the Son of God over to death.

And what does God do in the face of this horrible treatment of his messengers and even his own Son? He says to them, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” In this the allegory of Matthew’s historical situation continues. We know that he is imagining the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the beginning of gentile Christianity. Nevertheless, there is a lesson for us in this too.

The history of salvation proves that God does what he has to do to accomplish his loving purpose in creation. God expects us to cultivate ourselves and our world in order to bring forth a harvest of justice and so create a world of peace and mutual care. If we who call ourselves the people of God fail to do this, the history of salvation shows that God has no problem taking this privilege away from us and giving it to someone else. Let us consider ourselves warned, and redouble our efforts to consent to God’s will and cooperate with his grace to create the world anew.