Wednesday, Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Ephesians 6:1-9, Psalm 145:10-14, Luke 13:22-30

These are not warm fuzzy readings today. These are in-your-face readings. Which means we should probably really pay attention. There are two images that stand out for me. Neither of which I like very much. First, in Ephesians, the author is talking about slaves and masters. Second, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is saying we should work to enter through the narrow gate. Together however they have something we need to hear. Whether we like it or not.

The problem with slaves and masters is that we have finally rejected this arrangement as a society so talking about it in any way other than condemnation sets off emotional and mental resistance. However, translations can make a huge difference. So here is the New Jerusalem Bible version of this slave/master section of Ephesians:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are, according to human reckoning, your masters, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ: not only when you are under their eye, as if you had only to please human beings, but as slaves of Christ who wholeheartedly do the will of God. Work willingly for the sake of the Lord and not for the sake of human beings. Never forget that everyone, whether a slave or a free man, will be rewarded by the Lord for whatever work he has done well. And those of you who are employers, treat your slaves in the same spirit; do without threats, and never forget that they and you have the same Master in heaven and there is no favoritism with him.”

I find this slightly easier to read and it helps get us to why I think this matches with the narrow gate idea and can help us face its demands. This passage doesn’t condemn slavery any more than the New American translation but it more clearly demonstrates that the author was upending the slave/master relationship. The text is making slave and master equal before God. Which interestingly puts both the slave and the master under the demand to use that narrow gate. This passage expects both slave and master to act out of a different set of standards, God’s standards. No more threats from the master. Slaves are to work willingly. Because both are under obligations to God that are bigger than their current human relationship. That is one heck of a narrow gate. It is suggestive of the jarringly discontinuous reality Jesus asks us to enter. It is possible this is a bigger challenge than social change. How could people be generous and loving in an inherently unequal slave/master situation? It makes no sense. Yet I think this is the kind of monumental challenge we are asked to confront. The author asks slaves not just to be obedient but act with deep respect and sincere loyalty and then tells masters to do the same thing. This behavior goes way beyond dropping threats as a management tool.

We don’t have institutional slavery today. However, these readings suggest that we must live in a loving, caring, generous way even when our human structures and relationships are tearing us apart. That’s a crazy narrow gate. That’s more than just not going along with what everybody else is doing or saying. It means more than serving on a committee or giving to charity. I think it means looking at people, situations and life goals in a totally different way. A way so different that Luke, like Mark and Matthew, repeats Jesus’ observation that, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” It is a total reversal. Are we capable of totally reversing how we think, how we feel, how we operate each day mostly when we aren’t really thinking about it? You know, the run of the mill daily interactions and relationships we take for granted. We can’t do that anymore if we are to change ourselves. We have to change what’s inside, no matter what circumstances, people or situations challenge us. Knowing it’s going to be hard, that it means choosing the narrow gate, maybe we’ll be in a better position to succeed, actually making the tough choice and coming out that narrow gate doing what builds a land flowing with milk and honey. Where everyone’s not only equal but loved, cared for and having a really great time.


Friday, Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Ephesians 4:1-6, Ps 24:1-6, Luke 12:54-59

Today Luke is telling us how frustrated Jesus was that not just the Pharisees but all kinds of everyday people did not recognize the key time of salvation that is before them. And Ephesians is reminding a later church community to preserve the unity that has been given to them.

Jesus asks the question, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I think there are two issues contributing to resisting Jesus’ call for change.

First, like the Pharisees, people saw God’s action as long ago, something in their Scriptures. The Jews may be the chosen people but God was a power beyond reach. To see God as present in their lives as a person was sacrilegious. I think that problem still happens today, somehow things of Gods are spiritual and separate from the hard knocks of everyday give and take. Jesus’ accuses them of being hypocrites. His examples of what clouds and wind predict, point to what at the time, would have been simple adult awareness of the conditions of life. As we say today, “This isn’t rocket science.” People knew how the world worked. But this also applied to their social environment. The hypocrisy was not admitting that they also knew whether something new and good, was entering their lives. They could tell the difference between good deeds and bad deeds, status quo and significant change. They would know if someone was trying to introduce something new and transformative.

If that’s true, then the second issue is they simply didn’t want to take responsibility. Jesus second question points right at it, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Jesus’ example suggests that the smart person who is headed to court tries to come to an agreement before she gets there. That way her fate is still in her own hands. Once the judge takes over she will be subject to forces beyond her control. Still we aren’t always so eager to take the responsibility for making life changing judgments on our own. Too often we would prefer to find comfort or a ready answer from some outside authority. Let’s call it an excuse. It’s easier than taking a close look at ourselves. A look that might reveal things we would rather avoid. I’m not suggesting we should make our life decisions without talking to others or without seeking advice. What is important is that we remember that every decision we make, every action we do determines who we are. The stuff we do everyday is our decision. We can’t blame others for the kind of people we become. We too know, if we admit it, “which way the wind blows.”

These readings can remind us there are no separate parts to our lives. It’s all connected and it all contributes to who we are and what we will be tomorrow. It is a reminder of an amazing unity that is a call to us and a comfort. A call to see what is happening around us, to notice how we are reacting, to listen to what is being said and to live up to the gifts God has given us. A comfort in that we are in God’s care no matter what happens. Ephesians itemizes the list: one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God, the Father of all, over all, through all, and I think most importantly, in all.

Thursday, Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Ephesians 1:1-10, Psalm 98:1-6, Luke 11:47-54

All this week in the Gospel readings Jesus has been criticizing the Pharisees for being insincere and taking advantage of their positions. Not surprisingly at the end of today’s Gospel Luke makes the point, “the Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him … they were plotting to catch him in something he might say.” No big surprise, given Jesus’ treatment of them.

Also remember that Pharisees, Scribes and Lawyers were the privileged, the religious elite of their day. They made the rules. So we know Jesus wasn’t afraid to be blunt about things he thought powerful people were doing wrong. But the question is, what does this Gospel have to say to us today?

Of course, nobody today is oppressing others by creating unrealistic demands on them. Nobody puts down people they have power over … wouldn’t that be nice? We are certainly aware of prejudices in society at large, but do we recognize that behavior in ourselves?

Let’s consider, for a moment, Galatians and the Psalm for today. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells about how God has chosen us and saved us through the action of Jesus. We have come to believe that we are forgiven for things we do wrong and Jesus’ life was an announcement of God’s intention for us to be free, and happy together. If we want to know what is important in this life we simply need to look at Jesus, he sums it up in the way he lived and what he said.

The Psalm is essentially a celebration of the same thing. God saves us from guilt and fear and we should be really happy about it. We have reason to be pleased about our faith, to feel that God has blessed us. That can be a good thing.

I think the question that Jesus is pointing to in the Gospel is this: the Pharisees, Scribes and lawyers all knew the details of their faith, they too knew the history. The prophets were their own people. In fact, they were building monuments to them all the time. But these same Pharisees weren’t paying attention to what that history and what those prophets had to say. They were burying them all over again. They liked the privileges, the power and the prestige that comes with office, they liked knowing they have been saved by their religious practice, by their faith. Or so they thought.

We may not be people who wield political or religious power but we may have to be careful we don’t get too smug about what is ours, whether it’s what we believe, what we think we have or what we have accomplished. We need to remember that Jesus was always fighting for people who were at the edge of society. The people who were outcasts, people who were looked down upon because of how they lived, who they were related to or what they didn’t know. We have to take that seriously. We too, probably have groups of people with whom we are uneasy. People we might refer to as “those people” when we’re with friends. That’s not good. That’s what the Pharisees did. The Pharisees excluded people because “they” didn’t measure up. That’s what we have to think about. I think we have to be very careful about the status quo and what we think is appropriate and proper and required of others before we would accept them. Like asking them to dinner. You may have heard about the 1967 movie, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” It was about a young white woman who is engaged to a black man and has to bring him home to meet mom and dad who don’t know he’s black. That might be a good way for us to picture the situation. Who would make us uncomfortable if they were seated around our dinner table? And when we consider who might be in that group, let’s just remember that for the Pharisees, at least one of “those” people was Jesus! That’s the mess we get ourselves into when we become privileged.

Monday, Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Galatians 4:22-24, 26-27, 31-5:1, Psalm 113:1b-5a, 6-7, Luke 11:29-32

Today’s readings prove once again that the human condition doesn’t seem to change. At least, I think we are often asking the same questions today that people did when Jesus walked with us physically.

In Galatians, Paul is writing to people who have converted to Christianity from paganism. He wonders why they want to put themselves under the law of Moses instead of Christian freedom. He argues that to put oneself under a set of laws is to become like a slave, while Jesus offers a freedom of one free born. Not a slave.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus bemoans the fact that people want a sign, they want proof of who he is. They want proof that what is happening is the work of God. Jesus points to Jonah as the kind of sign they will receive. In Luke the reference to Jonah is about his going to Nineveh to announce the destruction of the city. After just one day the whole city and its King had a change of heart. Jesus is saying that the sign of God’s presence is a change of heart. This kind of change isn’t showy or often very public. It is not the kind of sign that you can seek out in advance for reassurance. It’s a personal lived reality.

The thread that connects these readings for me is that we so often want the comfort of external assurances. The Galatians after coming to believe in Jesus through Paul’s preaching have been talked to by people who were promoting a much more structured religion, Judaism had plenty of rules and regulations that marked whether a person was “clean or unclean.” There were lots of markers so you knew where you stood. Christianity at the time had next to no formal structure. People of all sorts came together, ate together, believed that Jesus opened a new relationship with God and would return to take them all to paradise. All they had was Paul’s word and each other. No Gospels, no bishops, just local leaders who probably had received the Spirit, i.e. who had a change of heart. It is apparent that for a good number of those people having a little more structure felt good. It felt reassuring.

Jesus is saying to the crowd don’t look for external assurances, look for a change of heart. Look for what the Spirit is doing among you. If the preaching of Jonah, a total stranger to Nineveh, can change the ways of a whole city and its King in a single day, what will happen if you believe in me?

So we have Jesus dismayed that people seem to be fixated on the externals. Paul trying to help the Galatians withstand a group that is preaching a Jewish form of Christianity that offers more assurances in the form of Jewish law.

So today, what assurances, what signs do we demand of God? Can we hear the story of the virgin birth or Sarah’s pregnancy with Isaac in her old age and recognize that it is God’s Spirit that gives birth to new life? What are we facing today? What challenges us? Do we think we have to muscle it through on our own? Where is it that the Spirit of God comes into play with everyday problems and losses? Are we mostly looking for outside assurances or could a change of heart be what is needed? Are we even thinking a change of heart might be what is needed? Perhaps we have to face it that if Jesus, the Son of God, was killed on a Cross by the people he wanted to help, a change of heart may be the most challenging choice of all.

Thursday, Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings

Galatians 3:1-5, Luke 1:69-75, Luke 11:5-13

These are amazingly strong readings about the Holy Spirit. So much so that for the Psalm we have the words of Zachariah, filled with the Holy Spirit after he gets his voice back when he names his son John. It is a classic example of being given the Spirit and a change of heart. The other readings are just as pointed. Paul adamantly questions what’s wrong with the Galatians, why aren’t they being faithful to how they received the Spirit in the first place. Jesus says praying is about stepping up and doing it with persistence. The result is receiving the Spirit.

I believe the Spirit is especially important today because the Spirit is God’s presence among us. Seeing that presence as part of our experience is key to living a life of faith, which often takes strength, courage and compassion. That is what Paul is yelling at the Galatians about. They have gone back to some practices dictated by Jewish law as if that is necessary for maintaining their connection with God. Paul is reminding them that their experience of the Spirit and “the mighty deeds” the Spirit worked among them didn’t come from following the law but believing in Jesus Christ.

The issue that is relevant for us today is thinking about the Spirit too narrowly. As if the Spirit only comes to really holy people like saints or in dramatic biblical events. I would like to take the Spirit out of the interventionist highly demonstrative category and place Spirit into the everyday operating category. Let’s consider God’s Spirit as a presence that empowers and emboldens us to live and do things we might otherwise fear or dismiss as beyond our abilities. Also think about Spirit as a calming, reassuring presence that can bring peace and joy into the midst of everyday activities.

The Psalm is thanking God because God “has come to his people” to make us “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Wouldn’t that be an amazing gift if we accepted that we’re OK? If we accepted our own value before God as good? Wouldn’t that be a “mighty savior” who enabled us to worship God and live “without fear?” Jesus lived that way but it’s only the Spirit that can transmit that gift to us today.

Which brings us to Luke’s Gospel and Jesus telling his disciples and us to persevere in prayer. Not so God will improve our situation or even heal someone who is sick but rather send the Spirit to give us the best gifts of all. Aren’t what we really want “things” like confidence, peace, courage, insight, happiness, patience, appreciation, etc. That’s what Spirit is about. The challenge is, will we ask for this kind of help? Will we acknowledge the kinds of “things” we’re missing so we even see the need to ask? The man in the Gospel knows he needs three loaves of bread because he has a visitor at home who he can’t feed. He knows what he needs and why. It’s night time so finding the bread isn’t going to be easy or convenient yet the man is out there knocking on doors, probably being embarrassed. However, if he wants that bread he has to do it. That’s the persistence Jesus is talking about. Not “I wish, I wish” but taking the steps to find the help we need. If we do that, the Spirit of God will already be there giving us what we need.

Memorial St. Francis of Assisi

Today’s Scripture Readings

Galatians 1:13-24, Psalm 139: 1-3, 13-15, Luke 10:38-42

I think the Psalm response this morning is our best guide for talking about the readings. It says, “Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.” I think that’s what happening for both Paul and Mary and Martha. It’s what happened to a rich kid who renounced his wealth to live as St. Francis the street beggar and in crucial ways rebuild the church. It is, of course, what happens for us too if we listen and examine what life presents for us.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is giving them a little background on his life’s story. He was a Jew persecuting Christians until God reveals Jesus to him. After that he begins proclaiming Jesus to the Gentiles. What a shift! That’s an amazing change, a full 180 degree turn to go the opposite direction. He goes from persecuting Christians to converting people to Christianity.

I think it simply demonstrates that you can never really tell where God might take you. For Mary it seems a lot simpler. She decides to sit by Jesus instead of doing the usual work of serving. Mary having met Jesus responds by wanting to listen to what he says. Clearly Luke wants to emphasize that Mary has chosen the better part. But I don’t think we should try to draw broad conclusions about the relative value of physically active work versus reflective, contemplative processes. The immediate point to the story is Mary’s decision to give her time to Jesus instead of doing what another person expected her to be doing.

Sometimes we are presented with an opportunity that demands attention. Sometimes a blessing, a gift, is bigger than what we, and perhaps others, have considered our obligation. Remember the Psalm response, “Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.” The way may not be what we expect. Personally, I think the challenge is to decide if what is presented will bring us closer in our relationship with God or not. Which for me is measured by whether I’m happier and more at peace with myself. For Mary, she probably returned to help her sister after Jesus left. But for the time Jesus was there, she did not hesitate to just sit and listen. To take advantage of the moment.

Let us also not forget that this behavior breaks the social norms of the time and would probably have been ridiculed by more than a sister. Women weren’t involved in education and, in fact, had no standing or rights to own anything except through a husband or son. Mary was taking a risk and Jesus is saying something about the equality of women. Women, and all people without power, deserve to hear God’s word, they have a right to sit at the table too and not just be servants, something very radical and probably upsetting at the time.

“Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.” It’s a very good prayer. Guide me Lord. God surely has the best perspective on which is the best path for us each day. However, I also was caught by the last two words, the “everlasting way.” It suggests there will always be something coming, something new, an unexpected path opening up. Karl Rahner, a renowned Jesuit theologian, claimed that even in heaven we would be on a journey, forever getting closer to God, never arriving at complete union with God but always, always on the way, closer and closer. For us it is the way to keep life interesting and exciting, perfectly guided on that everlasting way.