Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Let me go and glean ears of grain..." (Ruth 2 ,2)

The Deuteronomic Code (1) demanded that Jews not harvest the corners of the field so that the poor might "glean" what they found there in order to eat and provide for their families.  Some rabbis even suggested that farmers should not go over a field twice in order that the poor might harvest what they did not plant and thus preserve their dignity. The Deuteronomic Code was a kind of "safety net" in the Old Testament, a system that provided for the poor without forcing them to beg.  Never forgetting their exile in Egypt, Jews were commanded to remember the poor and provide for them. 

In today's reading Ruth, who has no stature when she returns with Naomi to Bethlehem, suggests that she might go into the fields and "glean" something so that she and Naomi might eat. This act of humility leads her to Boaz who tells her not to glean in any other field, that she can always come to his fields to provide for herself and Naomi.  Of course, Boaz has purchased the field where Ruth is "gleaning" because he wants to marry her.  Ruth's humility leads to a marriage she could never have imagined, and with the birth of her son Obed who becomes the  father of Jesse, who becomes the  father of David, she enters the line that leads to the birth of Jesus.

Ruth's humility startles us.  Willing to abandon her chances for marriage in her own land to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem, she is willing to live a simple life of gleaning, of living off the charity of others.  Her relationship with Naomi is so important to her that she sacrifices everything in order to be faithful not only to Naomi but to Naomi's God.

Can we trust God, especially at a time when the Catholic church is under such a cloud from the scandal of sexual abuse all over the world?  Do we have the strength not to claim an authority or power that is not ours, and go to the "corners of the fields" where God continues to allow us to "glean"  what we need to stay alive in our faith tradition?  Can we commit ourselves to quiet and humility as we wait for God to show us the next steps as a people and a church?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Love God, love your neighbor

One of the tasks of great rabbis at the time of Jesus was to reduce the entire law and prophets to as few words as possible without losing the truth of the entire bible. (Bultmann) Today, we encounter Matthew’s Jesus as he gives his summary of the law and prophets. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22 38-39) Drawing from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus situates himself among the great rabbis.  

What words would you use to reduce the entire New Testament to the essential truth of Jesus’ teaching?  I often ask this question at baptisms, but it is a trick question. As Catholics we suggest that it is impossible to reduce the fullness of Jesus’ teaching to words alone.  We also use gestures, or actions, some of which are sacraments. The first of these great gestures in the sacrament of baptism is the laying on of hands or the “traditio.”  The word traditio in Latin comes from the verb “tradere”, to hand over.  With the laying on of hands by the deacon or priest, the church says through this sacred gesture that we “hand over” to the child and her family everything that we have become as Christians through the ages.  We hand over the memory of the covenants, the freedom from slavery, the unconditional love of God expressed over and over through God’s forgiveness. In other words, we hand over the entire experience of the Church as a living and breathing organism as it encounters Christ through the ages.  That means, of course, that we hand over our faults, our wars, and our selfishness as well as the hope that the one being baptized with live and celebrate the Covenants of God more faithfully than we have.

But  most of all we hand over the new Covenant in Jesus, the promise that God’s love for us is so great, so complete,  that God wants to spend eternity with us.  As the new Moses, Jesus wins our eternal freedom. We will never be slaves again. Christ’s obedience unto death, the handing over of his life, is the great Sacrament. We even say that Jesus is the Sacrament of the Encounter with God.  And it is when we gather for the Eucharist that we remember this new covenant, this eternally effective promise, over and over. 

A second question: If you wanted to sum up the entire message of Jesus what gesture(s) would you use? The laying on of hands, the plunging into the waters of baptism, the mutual love of husband and wife in handing over their lives to one another,  the breaking of bread?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jephthah's Daughter

Fr. Paul Steffan, (RIP) a wonderful friar, taught public speaking while I was in high school.  One of the techniques he used in the debate club to help us think broadly and openly was to have us argue for and against every topic we encountered.  Last week, as our Congress debated endlessly about our federal budget, I wished Paul could have had a few minutes to suggest this technique to the leaders of both political parties.  Putting ourselves in the shoes of our opponents is not only good debating technique, it reminds us of Jesus' command to, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Luke 6:31

Why this opening to a scripture reflection?  Because I think Fr. Paul’s advice would have helped Jephthah in the book of Judges. (Judges 11: 29-391) Today’s text tells us that Jephthah vowed to God, if he was successful in battle against the Ammonites, to sacrifice the first thing he saw when he returned home after the battle.  When Jephthah arrives home, he sees his only daughter dancing in joy because of her father's success. Though heartbroken, Jephthah felt like had no choice.  A promise is a promise, after all.  He would have to sacrifice his daughter!

Though the book of judges never says what Jephthah does, the rabbinic commentary for the first millennium was clear. Jephthah had to sacrifice his only child.  Only later, a thousand years later, did the rabbis ask: Why didn’t Jephthah know that human sacrifice was expressly forbidden by the Torah and seek an alternate solution? (Lev 18:21)   And why didn’t Jephthah’s rabbi remind him of the law?   
In a fascinating Midrash,(1) the rabbi’s of the 11th century suggested that both Jephthah and his rabbi were both too proud to speak with one another.  Jephthah says: I am a conquering hero, why should I consult a rabbi. I can talk directly with God. And Phineas, the name given to Jephthah’s rabbi says: Why should I share the wisdom of Torah with someone so uncultured and unlearned?  Clinging to a power that belongs only to God condemns both men.

Are you thinking the same thing as me?  How often my rigidity and need to be right makes it impossible for me to let go of my own righteousness and arrogance?  How foolish of me not to listen to others and seek counsel?  Are you guilty of the same fault? Are we as a nation and a church so committed to being right that we fail to hear the views and passion of others?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

God's faithfulness

For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11)

God's faithfulness is the bedrock of our faith.  God will not, cannot, revoke his Covenant with us.  It is unilateral.  Unlike other contracts or covenants which are bilateral or mutual, God's covenant with us is gratuitous. God's covenant does not need to be confirmed by our willingness to accept it or live within it.  It is pure gift.

At the same time, when we remember the nature and power of God's covenants with us, especially the New Covenant in Jesus, we realize again that we are made in God's image and must strive to love others, even our enemies, as God loves us.  We love others in faith not because they appreciate, celebrate or return our love. We love others in faith to be like God. 

This is something we must practice daily.  It is rarely, if ever, easy.  But like so much else about life and faith if we don't practice it, it withers and eventually dies.  Many friends of mine, committed to getting in shape and living a healthy life, bought a simple piece of exercise equipment, and rode it, walked on it or lifted it for a week or more, but before long it found its way to a closet or the basement where even now it gathers dust, a humbling reminder of our failure to be consistent and faithful.

When we fail to practice our faith by gathering regularly with others, reflecting on the scriptures, celebrating the sacraments and serving those most in need, our faith weakens and crumbles.  All of us know this, and today's scriptures remind us to remember that God, despite our failures to live the Covenants he has made with us, remains faithful. Like the Canaanite woman in today's gospel, who keeps asking Jesus for help even when he ignores her and remains silent, God keeps pestering us in the hope that we will hear and respond to the call of discipleship.  

Just for today, go to church, read a passage from scripture, or respond to someone in need.  Practice, a day at a time, will eventually become a habit and will strengthen us for the journey ahead.

Though this blog is only a few days old, I will not post again until the end of this week because I will be on my yearly retreat.  Please say a prayer for me that I might root myself again in the advice I give to others. And say a prayer for yourself that God  might make you consistent, transparent and vulnerable in the practice of faith.