Saturday, October 15, 2011

Christians and Jews

Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.

Among my great delights during the years I was stationed at our friaries in Boston was the opportunity to work with Protestants, Muslims and Jews, among others, inside of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Together we worked as community organizers in the areas of health insurance, youth violence, and elder care. Getting to know people of different faiths through joint action for justice is a powerful way to challenge the assumptions and prejudices we sometimes harbor, and while the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jews has been rocky to say the least, advocating and organizing together for the good of all is not only a bromide, it can actually heal broken relationships, and there is much to heal. As Pope John Paul II reminds us: "In the Christian world--I do not say on the part of the Church as such--erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability (for the death of Christ) have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people" 1

In the first centuries after Christ, the interpretations of which John Paul II writes were much worse, so much so that the theology which emerged was often called Adversus Judaeos, (Against the Jews) Unfortunately, one of its main proponents was St. John Chrysostom, doctor of the church. St John, suggesting that he is a like any good physician who wants to ward off disease before it advances to the point that there is no cure, writes, “Do not be surprised that I called the Jews pitiable. They really are pitiable and miserable. ...Indeed the synagogue is less deserving of honor than any inn. It is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews, as I shall try to prove at the end of my homily.” 2 This is only one small sampling of St. John’s writing, and while some might suggest that he was not really against the Jews, but against the Judaizers within the Christian community, his homilies are difficult to defend. That is why it is so good to return to the texts of New Testament, as Pope John Paul II did so often, for insight and understanding about our relationship with the Jews.

In 1993, the Pope wrote: “As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world (cf. Gen. 12:2 ff.). This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another (L'Osservatore Romano, August 17, 1993). Clearly, Christians and Jews together follow the faith of Abraham and John Paul II further reminds us that Jews are our “elder brothers,” and that the first Covenant was “never revoked by God [cf. Rom. 11:29].”3

Thinking of our Jewish brothers and sisters as our “elder brothers” and sisters can change everything. While families struggle and even separate at times over perceived or real slights, when they remember their unity as a family they can find the impetus to be united again for the good of all. Separations between us as communities of belief are natural, but unnatural fissures built on prejudice and anti-Semitism must be faced and overcome.

Today, take a moment to be grateful for the faith of Abraham that allowed the Patriarch to leave everything to follow God’s will and ask God for the same grace in your life.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Belonging to God

“Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows." Lk 12:7

The disciples were drawn to Jesus for many reasons. He spoke to their hearts. He addressed them with dignity. He was a healer and prophet. He spoke with power. But they were also cautious and afraid. When Jesus spoke to and about the Pharisees he was dangerous. Like poor people everywhere, the disciples rarely chose to confront the the powerful. Because the Pharisees were able to intercede for them and help them with a meal or clean clothes, they were not going to bite the hand that fed them. That is why today’s gospel from Luke is so telling.

Luke tells us that there are so many people trying to get close to Jesus that some are being trampled. No doubt Jesus’ disciples were impressed and hopeful. The prophet they were following was popular and powerful. More important, he was a rabbi who cared about them, but his warning about not being swayed by the leaven of the Pharisees had to make them very anxious. No doubt some moved to the background where they might escape the wrath of the Pharisees if necessary. Jesus’ suggestion that some of them might die as a result of following him was not what they wanted to hear. But others heard him at a deeper level. Rather than retreat, they moved closer to him where there was no reason to be afraid. Since they were worth more than many sparrows, God would protect them, guide them and strengthen them when they were threatened.

Being willing to hear Jesus’ word today is no different. There will be times when we want to fade into the background, afraid that we might lose the little we have. Jesus’ assurance that we should not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul will fall on deaf ears. When we feel threatened it is natural to retreat, but we should resist. Allowing ourselves to feel the fear will help dissipate it. More important, when we ask the Lord to enter the fear with us, we will sense a kind of companionship that is empowering and helpful. It also often releases the anxiety we are carrying.

Today, ask God for the faith to believe in your own worth and not to let your fear get in the way of a deeper relationship with the Lord. Ask also to believe that in dying to self absorption, we will learn how to live for others.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Boasting about God's love

What occasion is there then for boasting? Rom 3:27

It is easy for our heads to get too big for our hats. Someone kindly offers an affirming word. Another says how much they like a homily we gave. A friend drops a note of gratitude for a kindness shown them. We walk around in the glow of appreciation, all of which is normal, natural and understandable, but when we fail to give God the credit for life, goodness and our own successes, we risk becoming full of ourselves.

Paul’s reminder that there is no room for boasting is a good and important one. However, we must also be careful. While boasting is always inappropriate, we can be so defensive about our tendency to pride that we forget to be grateful for all God’s gifts. Each of us, Paul also reminds us, have a gift that does not belong to us but is given to us by God for the good of all. It is impossible, I think, to meditate too often on the image or metaphor of the Body of Christ.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. 1 Cor. 12: 7-11

A young friend of mine writing her college essay took a uniquely interesting and evocative slant on helping people understand how interconnected we are in Christ. “Maggie” suggested that we are all small broken branches that when put together carefully become a nest of safety for those who come after us.

I love Maggie’s image. Clearly each small stick or branch is important to the nest, but if it falls out there are many others that can take it place. Being grateful to God for being chosen, even though we sometimes appear or feel dead and useless, is the key to celebrating the nest we can be for the children of tomorrow.

Clearly, Paul does not want us to boast about any gift we have received, but he does want us to be grateful. Whether we can read a spreadsheet and help a company grow or we know how to fix a car just by listening to the engine is not the point. Remembering that these gifts are given to us for the good of all makes all the difference.

Today ask God to show you again the gifts you have received for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ask him also to let you see and celebrate the gifts of others knowing that together we can build a nest of safety and hope for the next generation of believers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Judging others

“Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.” Rom 2:1

Paul’s caution to the Romans is stark. Don’t judge and you will not be judged. None of us who risks judging others has an excuse. Judging does not belong to us, but to God. Even as a priest in the confessional I am not free to judge others. I can ask a question or three to determine the seriousness of the acts confessed, but I am judging the acts which the person had done or failed to do, not the person. In the confessional, very honestly, this is not difficult. Because I very rarely know the person sitting with me, I can listen with compassion and try to offer words of hope and life. I wish it was this easy in life.

Like most of you, I suspect, I often sit in judgment about others. I judge priests who seem not to be prepared to preach or lead. I judge the very wealthy as greedy and question whether anyone needs a 29 million dollar bonus. I judge parents whose children seem out of control or are acting as if they are entitled to a good life, and every time I do this I know that it is not my place or role to judge others, but to ask for the grace to see others as God sees them. Unfortunately, when I don't ask God for the help to see others as God does, it is as easy for me to judge others about whom I know little as it is not to judge people seeking reconciliation in the confessional.

There is a wonderful example of not judging in Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Covey tells the story of a group of children who enter a subway car with their father. Almost immediately the children begin to talk loudly and even throw things at each other while the father slept. Finally, distressed that the father was not disciplining his children, Covey gently told the man that his children were disturbing everyone and perhaps he might restrain them a bit. The man agreed that his children were out of control but then told Covey that they had just come from the hospital where his wife and their mother had died. “I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either."(Seven Habits)  Knowing the circumstances behind the disruptive behavior of the children changed everything for Covey and for those reading his book.

Most of the time we don’t know the whole story of another’s life, nor do others know the whole of our story. Remembering how little we actually know about others can change not only our thoughts but our behavior. Paul’s reminder in today’s passage should act a wake up call. Acknowledging our own sin and asking God’s forgiveness is a simple daily practice that can keep us from seeing the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. (Mt 7:5)

Today ask for patience with yourself and compassion for others whose behavior you do not understand

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning from the Pharisees

“The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” (Lk 11: 39)

Almost fifty years ago the friars sent me to barber school. It was an interesting experience for many reasons. Almost all of the people we “practiced” on were street people and most of them were not very interested in a haircut, but in sneaking a drink of the Bay Rum tonic that we rubbed on people’s necks after a haircut. In any case, even today I notice people’s hair. As a barber, it is almost impossible not to look at the quality of the cut others have, and this lingering habit made me ask the question this morning: What are the things we pay attention to on a daily basis? Gardeners look at their flowers and plants. Cooks check the quality of the produce or the fruits they will use. Carpenters notice how well something is made.

You get the idea. We all pay attention to things according to our training or interest. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that a Pharisee was amazed that Jesus did not observe the washing rituals expected of observant Jews. Though the Pharisees were in many ways the liberals of their day since they valued the not only the Torah but the oral traditions that grew up around the Torah, they were also devoted to a careful, even obsessive, observance of the Laws of the Torah especially the ritual washing taught by the Rabbis. Unfortunately, like all of us, they sometimes spent so much time and effort in making sure that the ritual washing prescribed by the Torah was observed properly that they forgot the person doing the washing. The same thing can be true for barbers. We can spend so much time making a hair cut perfect that we ignore the sadness or joy that another is carrying, and that is the problem for the Pharisees and us.

It is one thing, as Luke suggests, being amazed that Jesus doesn’t wash properly, but it is another thing all together to ignore the power of Jesus presence, words and attitudes towards others. When an obsession about doing something right gets in the way of seeing and caring about the person in front of us, we fall into the fault that Jesus challenges in the Pharisees. A cook who slaves over a meal to make it perfect, but forgets that the purpose of the meal is to bring people together can easily miss the joy of those who have gathered.

Clearly, the gospel wants us to ask a simple question today: What gets in the way of our seeing the presence of God and the power of the spirit all around us? Examining this question with a peaceful heart can make all the difference in our relationships. If we are more interested in how much money someone else makes, the car they drive or the friends they have, we know our values have become skewed and we have to change.

Today ask God for the grace to be interested in each person you meet, to listen carefully to what they are not saying, and to celebrate who they really are.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Signs of God's love

“Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” (Lk 11:30)

How many signs do we need to believe that God is among us? It is a beautiful morning in Boston. Cool with a promise of clear skies and a warm afternoon, it is difficult not to rejoice in the glory of another day. I know there are some, especially the chronically ill, for whom a day like this means little. Others are struggling with family difficulties or the lack of a job that allows them to support their family, but there is no excuse for not breathing deeply, enjoying the simple wonder of clean air and asking God for the faith to live this day fully in Christ.

Jesus warned the people of his day about very similar things. Although he was among them as a clear sign of God’s love, many refused to look at him as a gift to the world and kept challenging him to prove himself according to their narrow standards, but Jesus would have none of it. He reminded his listeners of God’s delight in the willingness of the people Nineveh to repent, and told them not to be vengeful like Jonah who was angry at God for being so forgiving. The message remains constant. No matter how often we turn away from God, God is waiting for our return.

Last evening I had the chance to meet with a small but eager group of young(er) parents who came out on a Sunday evening to learn about family spirituality. No doubt some of them were carrying heavy burdens, but they were willing to put all of that aside to gather with other families seeking a path and a plan to hand on the great gift of faith they had received to their children. Knowing that the methods and style of their parents might fail to move their children, they nevertheless wanted the values their parents taught them to endure. How delighted I was to be with them. To remind them that the church wanted them to see themselves as little churches with their own rituals and prayer life gave me energy, and I hope, stirred up the Spirit of God among them. God is alive and active. They were a sign to me of God’s love and desire for his people. To miss or ignore the signs God gives us each day in the midst of a very troubled world would be to fail like those who refused to see the glory of God in Jesus.

Today, don’t ask for a special sign. Look for and give thanks for the signs of God’s love in the ordinary events of the day.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Come to the Banquet!

"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son." (Mt 22:2)

It is always amazing to note how often the Bible uses the setting of a meal to help us understand God’s care for us. Today is no exception. Both  Isaiah and Matthew tell of a grand banquet that God has prepared for us. In the gospel, however, God’s anger also emerges in two parts. First the King is upset that so many people who he invited to his son’s wedding banquet fail to come. It even seems likely that he sent wagons or a horse for them, and still they did not respond. The king is troubled a second time when he spots someone without a wedding garment, and it is this small detail that often fascinates and confuses us.

Why would the King, God, be so upset when someone from the highways and byways comes to the banquet without a proper wedding garment? St Augustine suggests that people were provided with a wedding garment at the door to the banquet hall and while this insight helps a bit, a further cultural factor seems to be at play.

There were two distinct kinds of feasts in the ancient world. The first known as a ceremonial feast would have been something a local political leader might host. He might invite people to the anniversary of his ascension to power, or the wedding of one of his children. Everything would be provided for his guests. They had only to enjoy themselves and be grateful. The second kind of feast was known as a ritual feast. A king or local tetrarch might host a ritual feast when his son came of age or entered the military. This kind of feast signaled a transformation in someone’s life, a time when new expectations were thrust upon the one being celebrated, a time to rejoice but also to change.

Today’s gospel seems to have elements of both kinds of feasts. The king is both honoring his son’s wedding, but also, and in a powerful symbolic way, he is ritually telling the poor that they belong, they count, they are persons worthy of honor. Anyone refusing to wear the wedding garment provided for the guests is not only dishonoring the king’s generosity, she is refusing to accept her designation as God’s child, and to change in gratitude for the gift of her own dignity and worth. While the gospel may be challenging Jews specifically who reject the Messianic identity of Jesus, it is also about all of us. We are God’s children, his beloved, his chosen one’s. In gratitude we must wear the wedding garment which symbolizes God’s love and assurance that we have great dignity, that we are the body of Christ, that we must go about in the world as disciples of the King and proclaim good news.

Do we accept God’s mantle of love that calls us to live a life of gratitude and service? If we do not then we place ourselves with the man who chooses to come to the wedding banquet, but is not willing to change. In fact, we condemn ourselves. It is not God’s generosity that is lacking, it is our unwillingness to accept ourselves as God sees us and live in gratitude.

Pray today to see yourself as God sees you, a person of great dignity and value. Pray too to see others as God seems them.