Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tues. Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time—Cycle I

A reflection on 2 Corinthians 8:1–9; Matthew 5:43–48

Do you have those mornings when you get up and don’t want to give an inch to anyone? I have days where my patience with life is thin, and it takes a bit more than one full cup of my industrial-strength coffee to be on speaking terms with the waking world. The last adjective I would use to describe myself in those times is “generous of spirit.” But generosity of spirit is vital to the Christian life, and that is part of the message in today’s readings.

In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul exhorts the people of Corinth to demonstrate their spirit of repentance by giving generously to the support of the saints in Jerusalem. This passage just goes to show you that capital campaigns enjoy a long tradition in our Church. No doubt we would have met our goals much sooner if St. Paul had been involved in our fund-raising efforts. All kidding aside, though, St. Paul speaks here to our obligation as Christians to aid those who are less fortunate—giving from our need, not from our excess. If we give only of what we have in excess, we’re simply giving someone what they should already have. If all goods are given to us in stewardship, then our obligation is not to hoard but to act justly and to give all people what is due to them—at very least, the basic necessities for life.

This principle is what the Church calls the universal destination of goods. Paragraph 2405 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says specifically that “Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor,” and the same teaching has been presented in encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII through Benedict XVI. I am my brother’s keeper—not the state or the US government. I am personally to see to the welfare of those in need. Sometimes I do better than others.

The gospel passage today comes from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” which is essentially a recasting of the giving of the Law on Mt. Nebo—a reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law by the giver of that Law, the Word Himself. Matthew wrote for a Jewish Christian audience, which is why his version of this sermon varies so dramatically from the sermon as presented by Luke. In this particular instance, Jesus is countering a contemporary interpretation of Jewish Law. He wasn’t alone in this particular interpretation. In fact, another influential rabbi of His time, Hillel, taught something very similar: “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jesus inverts that and gives us what we now know as the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” But here, Jesus goes even further. We’re not to return good for good. Even sinners and tax collectors do as much. This is not a quid pro quo. We’re supposed to return good for evil. We’re supposed to love those who treat us with contempt and those who wish us harm. We’re supposed to pray for those who persecute us. We’re supposed to love others as God has loved us.

The Jews held up the Law as their standard of conduct. Jesus is telling His disciples that it is not enough to follow the Law and to conform our lives to it. In fact, He frequently condemns the literalistic application of the Law touted by the Pharisees. Jesus’ standard is Jesus Himself. God blesses the righteous and unrighteous and makes the sun and the rain fall on both. Jesus forgives those who crucify Him.

That is generosity of spirit, and that is what we are called to do. If the disciples’ standard for behavior is God, God who is love, then our spirit must be guided and inflamed by that perfect love.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tues. Week 9 of Ordinary Time—Cycle I

A reflection on Mark 12:13–17

The Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in the story Mark tells today. Both groups represent the clear interests of the times in First Century Judea. The Pharisees, of course, represent Jewish religious authorities over and against the various Jewish factions, and the Herodians represent the puppet Tetrarchy put in place by Rome. They are often presented as being on the two opposite sides of the question, but in reality, both parties submitted to Rome and paid the census tax. They are trying to get Jesus to reveal Himself as a Zealot, one of a party of patriotic Jews from the Galilee who resented Roman rule and refused to pay taxes to a pagan ruler. Pharisee and Herodian probably agreed on little else, but the Pharisees were perfectly happy to coax Jesus into the Herodians’ pit, where the Herodians could then take over and condemn Jesus as a revolutionary. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the Arab proverb goes.

Of course, Jesus outwits them. He knows that they simply want to draw Him into controversy for their own ends. He does not deny the tribute owed to the government, but He also affirms the obligation we have to God. We have things of this world and things of God. We need to be able to distinguish between the two and meet each obligation appropriately.

What a challenge that is these days, when government regulations and doctrines of faith seem to be at odds in so many ways. We’re told to keep our faith to ourselves, not to legislate morality, to keep our noses out of people’s bedrooms. Oddly enough, many of the same people who say we should stay out of their bedrooms still think we should pay for what happens there. The old rule about never discussing politics and religion in polite company has become more about not mentioning the two in the same breath, and of course not allowing religion to taint our political opinions.

We can also be pulled in this direction by our own patriotic impulses. I will be the first to admit that I have always had this patriotic streak in me. I grew up with stories of George Washington and John Paul Jones, of the colonies and the War of Independence. I grew up with a sense of self as an American—with pride of being in this blessed country with a unique commitment to personal freedom. But that belief in personal freedom can often be twisted into an idolatry of license over liberty: a belief in the right to do whatever we wish instead of the right to follow our faith-formed conscience. Pope Leo XIII warned Cardinal Gibbon in 1898 of the dangers of what was then called Americanism—a focus on individual initiative over obedience to authority, a tendency toward assimilation into this country’s generally Protestant culture, and a division between Church and State that puts them essentially at odds to each other.

We as Catholics, of course, need to remember that we are called first to obey Christ and the Church He founded. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, we are citizens of this nation, but of God’s first. Sometimes, we get those two obligations switched around, giving allegiance first to the political ideologies of our times, then subordinating our faith to them. This happens on both sides of the political spectrum, and it unfortunately reverberates into our communion and causes divides. We attempt to enact our view of heaven on earth through our own obscured vision. Like Tobit in our first reading, we’re so convinced by our own virtue that we’re unaware, in our moral blindness, to the virtue of others.

But we’re not called to remake heaven on earth. We are called to be heavenly on earth.

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, formerly of Denver, wrote a book a few years ago titled Render Unto Caesar, in which he argues that our role as Catholics and US citizens is to inform our lives by our faith and the teachings of the Church, and to carry that faith out into the political and social realm. That is the job of the laity, and that is one way in which we can take part in this New Evangelization. We can live our faith in active witness in our public lives, proclaiming the Gospel in both our words and deeds.