Thursday, February 27, 2014

Millstones and Salt: Thursday, Seventh week of Ordinary Time—Cycle II


James 5:1–6; Mark 9:41–50

I’m not going to dwell much on the reading from James today. I mentioned last week how much I like this epistle. But I will say that I found his title James the Less to be rather ironic given how fiery he can be. And to think he was “less” in comparison James, the brother of John, the two boanerges or “sons of thunder.” I can just imagine how they must have stormed and raged. Anyway, James isn’t saying anything more than what Jesus said in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain—just saying it with a lot more intensity.

The gospel reading from Mark contains passages that are also used in different parts in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, the central part is used in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke the same pieces are spread throughout the gospel, as that evangelist tended to reuse Jesus’ parables as a way of exemplifying his teaching after he laid down the principals in his Sermon on the Plain. Mark’s gospel narrative account came first, so we get a lot of these sayings just sort of strung together in his gospel.

I want to highlight two images that Jesus uses in this gospel because I think they are fitting symbols both of what ails us in our world and the solution to it. The first is verse 42: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

The culture in which we live is in the business of handing out millstones. It’s like there’s a blue-light special on aisle three for extra heavy millstones. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus twerking at the American Music Awards, the appalling state of television, the decline in general standards of decency, or something as heinous as human trafficking, there are plenty of us deserving of a millstone. And sadly some of us are all too willing to put them around our necks and be dragged down. Wherever we engage in self-absorption, materialism, and narcissism, we are neglecting the little ones.

And for those of us parents who continue to choose our desires and inclinations over the well being of our children, we’re not only loading up on a millstone for ourselves. We’re hanging one around the necks of our children because they will do what they see us do or even when they see what we appear to be doing. That’s called scandal. Some sins are generational, especially habitual lifestyle sins, and we do harm to our children when we teach them these harmful ways of being. Our sins harm us and they harm the people around us. There is no such thing as a personal sin. All sin is communal.

The second image I want to highlight is in verses 49 and 50: “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”

What does this mean? It’s a rather obscure phrase, but it alludes back to the sacrifices offered in the temple, which were salted to prevent corruption. We as Christians make sacrifices of ourselves and are purified through sacrificial living. Through acts of reparation and sacrifice, we are “salted with fire.” But when does salt become insipid or tasteless? When it loses its salty character. The character of sacrifice includes loving worship. If we carry out our actions here solely as obligations, they lose the character of true sacrifice. When we carry out our tasks at home as solely burdens, they lose the character of love. Salt only has value if it tastes like salt. Sacrifice only has value when it tastes like love. The sacrifice we offer here was offered out of the greatest love for us.

This week, go to your work and to your families and be Christ to them. Live the gospel in front of everyone you meet. Go out and be salt for the world.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Partiality—Thursday, Sixth week of Ordinary Time, Cycle II

James 2:1–9; Mark 8:27–33

I think the Letter of James is my favorite non-Pauline letter and may be my favorite New Testament letter all around. It is one of the Catholic epistles, those letters that were addressed not to a local church or an individual but to the whole Church. I like it because it really lives up to the name “Catholic” in its teaching. Martin Luther was tempted to drop James from his canon, calling it the “epistle of straw.” Traditionally, this letter is attributed to James the brother of the Lord, most likely the Apostle James the Less. We would call him a cousin of Jesus. Aramaic had no word for cousin, and the Semitic usage carried over into the Greek of the time. So here’s Luther who wants to toss out a book written by an apostle, a relative of Jesus, and the leader of the Church of Jerusalem because he’s somehow a better authority on what gospel Jesus preached. Luther didn’t like James because it taught thoroughly Catholic theology, but in the end he had to leave it be.

The letter notes the sinfulness of partiality when dealing with fellow Christians—favoring those with wealth and giving less honor to those who are poor. As someone who tends toward more conservative political ideology, I can’t help but feel a bit convicted when James points this out. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions about people based in their dress. If I’m honest with myself, I can see that there is a bias operating, even implicitly, in the way that we treat those who have greater means.

Of course, there’s injustice against the poor on both ends of our political spectrum. From the other end we usually hear directed at our Church the charge of hypocrisy for holding so much wealth in the form of art and architecture. These churches, some say, should be sold off and the food given to the poor. The people who utter such things forget that our beautiful churches and cathedrals belong to the poorest and the wealthiest together. Where else can a homeless person go to spend time in silence and warmth in such opulence without being harassed? Inadvertently, these people would rob those for whom they claim to advocate.

The real problem is that we are not looking at the poor as people. We see them as a problem. We see the man holding the sign, and we might respond in several ways. Some of us fumble around in our pockets and pull out a dollar or two to give him. Some of us look right past him, refuse to make eye contact, and act like he isn’t there. Both responses fail to see that there is a man standing there. They see a homeless man standing there. We encapsulate the man in his circumstances, and maybe we choose to address the circumstances around the man. But are we addressing the man?

In a way, that’s really what James is talking about—our common tendency to look superficially at each other and to neglect the human person standing before us. We forget that each of us has dignity as a rational creature and a child of God. We forget that that man right there has a name.

Within our own church, we can extend this to so many subgroups: people with special needs, single adults, and minorities of different types. When we come to this altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, do we see the other people here as our brothers and sisters? As our neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves? Do we recognize how this sacrament joins us to each other and makes us sharers in the same dignity? Is it just “Jesus and me,” or are we truly the body of Christ?

I want to suggest a positive action for you. The next time you see someone holding a sign, go get a sandwich or something and take it to him or her, and then ask them for their name. Introduce yourself. Talk with them for a minute or two. Notice how completely this changes the dynamic between the two of you because you have stopped looking at this person’s circumstances and have seen and acknowledged the person. How much easier it will be, then, to look at our fellow parishioners and see them as our family in this body of Christ.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fulfillment of the Law: Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37

Our first reading today is from the Book of Sirach. It also has a Latin name: Ecclesiaticus. It was used from the third century on to instruct catechumens and neophytes, and perhaps it will now be of more interest to our catechumens and candidates after their dismissal in a few minutes. This book is one of several wisdom books that were part of the deuterocanon or second canon, which were excluded from the Protestant bible. That’s a shame because Sirach is a book of tremendous wisdom, much like Proverbs.

In this reading, Sirach alludes to Moses’ blessings and curses on Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim in Deuteronomy 30. In it, Moses recounts the 10 commandments and the Levitical law to the Hebrews and exhorts them to choose life—which in his time means to reject sin and ungodliness. Deuteronomy is the second pronouncement of the Law of Moses. Essentially, then, both Sirach and Deuteronomy are pointing back to the law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Both books of scripture point the way to life. We should not be surprised that scripture has so many of these references back and forth. That is a sign of its inspiration: that these individual books could be written on their own and yet hang together so well.

Besides, the Word Himself is its origin, so having this internal coherence makes sense.

Our gospel reading is notable because of its extraordinary claim. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law but fulfill it. What he meant was that He was not abrogating—or invalidating the law—but completing what the law intended. That is why the ritual law of the Jews passed away for Christians. The ritual law included circumcision, dietary and Sabbath restrictions, and the many sacrificial requirements that Jews had to perform regularly.

What Jesus doesn’t set aside is the moral law. In fact, he increases its demands on us. He says that to resort to angry speech against a neighbor is a form of murder: murder of reputation. He says that looking lustfully is a form of adultery: taking someone else’s spouse in your mind and objectifying them. We can pretend that we don’t understand what he’s saying in this passage, but we know exactly what he means. We’re all prone to such sins, and Jesus is calling us to something more—something better.

It’s rather common these days for people to lump the moral laws of the Old Testament in with the ritual laws of the Jewish people. Here’s how I commonly here the argument phrased:
Didn’t the Old Testament also condemn eating shellfish or eating dairy with meat? Should we be excommunicating people now for eating a cheeseburger or fried shrimp? 
These statements are used to suggest that somehow Jesus didn’t himself believe in the moral law of the Torah or in any moral restrictions about sex outside of marriage, either heterosexual or homosexual, or any of the other moral laws that seem so old fashioned to us modern sophisticates. Surely, Jesus didn’t believe or preach any of that stuff. The moral law of the Church just sprang up because a bunch of angry old white men in Rome wanted to ruin everyone’s fun.

But right here, smack in the middle of the first gospel, is Jesus being all judgey and telling us not to sin, not to lust, not to commit adultery. And in the Jewish understanding, adultery was simply a category of sexual sin and covered numerous sins including all of our culture’s favorite vices. Jesus was a Jew, and he taught the moral law of the Jews. We don’t have to guess what He thought because he was a Jew and lived by and fulfilled the Law of Moses. This is evident enough because Paul, who wrote his epistles before the gospels were written, condemns very clearly many of the same acts that are condemned earlier in Leviticus. The Church Fathers from the Apostolic age on confirmed the same beliefs. But to us it’s somehow a mystery what Jesus taught regarding morality?

What would Jesus do?

He would tell us not to commit sin.

He did so right here in the “Sermon on the Mount.” He did so in the account in the Gospel of John with the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.” He saves her from death, which is just what He does for us. He saves us and then sends us away to sin no more. He isn’t trying to ruin our fun, and neither is the Church when it warns us away from sin. Jesus and the Church warn us away from sin as good parents would warn their children away from poison. Jesus forgives us and leads us to repentance because we will otherwise die spiritually

 “I set before you life and death. Therefore choose life.”

Moral instruction is not condemnation. Moral instruction is a fence to keep us from death. The moral law is a law of love and a law of life. The moral law is not just etiquette—not just a set of table manners that we use to get along with each other. The moral law has eternal implications—implications about the state of our souls.

Now how do we transmit this message? That’s really the question. Pope Francis, as did Benedict and Blessed John Paul before him, stresses the need for conveying the truth with love. We have to start with the most basic truth: God loves us. God doesn’t just love humanity. God loves you. God loves me. God loves us each individually. He loves us so much that he came down and did that for us [pointing at the crucifix]. The greatest sign of his love is that which we will shortly share together: His body and blood given to us in His memory.

Jesus comes to us in our brokenness and sin, puts His arm around us, and says, “I love you as you are, and I forgive you. But you can’t stay here or you will die.

Admittedly, the basic gospel message gets drowned out if we begin by shouts of condemnation. We must preach the good news of the gospel before all else—that’s what the Greek word evangelion means, good news. Pope Benedict’s very first encyclical was titled, “God is Love.” Pope Francis has repeatedly noted the need to share God’s love first. God’s love and the grace of the Holy Spirit do the work of conversion. Only then can we see the fruits of the spirit at work. We need to make our Church a space where this kind of healing can take place. The Church is not a shrine reserved for the saintly or a country club for the biggest donors.

It’s a hospital for sinners,

a refuge for broken people,

for people like me, for people like you.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Feburary 6, Saint Paul Miki and Companion Martyrs

Proper of the Saints: Galatians 2:19–20; Psalm 126:1–6; Matthew 28:16–20

I chose to use readings from the proper of saints today because they seemed more fitting (proper?) than the readings from ordinary time.

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Our two readings and psalm today highlight the evangelical spirit: that spirit which we encounter when we have opened ourselves completely to God’s will and made ourselves available to his call. We also celebrate the feast day of the martyr St. Paul Miki and twenty-five Japanese Catholics who were executed along with him during the reign of the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 16th century Japan. This feast and the readings all share a common theme: the cost of discipleship.

It costs something to believe in and follow the teachings of Christ and His Church.

In the first reading, Paul says that our crucifixion with Christ means that we have died to self and are risen in Him. The life in us is not our own. And of course, Paul notes elsewhere that we die and rise with him in the baptism. Our risen Lord Jesus, in the reading from Matthew, places on the remaining 11 apostles the obligation to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe what Christ has commanded. So Paul’s letter states what discipleship has cost him, and the same burden is laid upon all who become disciples: to die to self so that we can live in Christ.

We have to learn to accept the cross in our lives if we are truly going to die to self and live in Christ. That’s the mission of the disciple. Sometimes the cross is simply the sacrifice of earthly goods that we set aside for penance. Sometimes it’s rejection of a worldly good that our friends and neighbors claim as their just reward. Sometimes it’s the white martyrdom that comes from joyfully turning the cheek at the negative comments of a non-Catholic neighbor or family member. Sometimes it’s the weight of ministry or mission work. Some of these crosses we bear can be merely inconvenient. Others can be painful and even heartbreaking. But we try to bear those crosses in Christian joy.

Let’s not forget that the cost of discipleship can also be quite literally death. In the “Letter to the Hebrews,” a letter written to the Jews who had long before converted to Christianity, the author writes, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” The author of this letter is evoking the spirit of the earliest Christian martyrs: James the son of Zebedee, James the less, and Stephen. The early Jewish Christians very likely knew the teachers in question and perhaps even witnessed their martyrdom. You can bet they knew the cost of discipleship. Out of the eleven apostles mentioned in the reading from Matthew, all but one, our patron St. John the Evangelist, went to a martyr’s death.

Likewise the Church in Japan in the 16th century understood the price. St. Francis Xavier started a mission to Japan early in the century, and the Jesuits were well established by mid-century, even having converted some Samurai warlords. Hideyoshi decided to expel all foreign missionaries and began persecuting Japanese Catholics. St. Paul Miki was possibly in his early 30s and was a Jesuit novice. He came from the samurai class—the nobility. Instead of taking the trappings of a warrior, he chose the black Jesuit cassock of service. He and twenty-five other Japanese Catholics were crucified on this day in 1597 and became the first Catholic martyrs of Japan.

Tertullian wrote in his famous apology for the Christian faith that “the blood of Christians is seed for the
Church.” It’s a famous line from the third century that underscores the both the cost and the attraction of discipleship. It strangely complements the last stanza of our responsorial psalm today:
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
A faith worth dying for is a faith worth living for. As we approach the altar today, let’s remember the millions of Catholics in our past with whom we share this communion, those Christians of the past who have made witness with their lives, and those Christians worldwide who even in this day regularly die for their faith.