March 9, 2014
Begin With Jesus’ Assumption
Thoughts on the Gospels -by Joe
1st Sunday of Lent
When I was growing up, my siblings and I had a simple understanding of right and wrong: you couldn’t do something bad to someone else unless that person had done something bad to you. We considered, “He hit me first,” an iron-clad justification for anything short of permanent maiming. And any grown-up who didn’t accept this reasoning was grossly unfair – even incomprehensible.
There are days when I wonder if my moral instincts have advanced much in 65 years. Whereas the weapons of most of my currant battles are social and emotional blows rather than the bloody noses and black eyes of playground days, the rational for my violence is about the same: “I can’t let him make a fool of me . . . I have to stand up for what’s right . . . If I let this (whatever the offense) go, he’ll think it’s alright . . . For evil to triumph all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing.”
Jesus faced the temptation to accomplish his good goals by whatever means would succeed. He lived in an acutely evil situation where Rome afforded Judea no more humanity than was necessary to keep its hatred from exploding. The right person could have easily set a match to this hatred and Jesus had that capability. Who, but the Romans, would have questioned his right – even duty – to lead his people in rebellion.
The Satan in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ temptation isn’t a horned, personified evil. Satan is the urge to use the very behavior that keeps the world in an uproar to rescue the world from uproar. Use violence to stop violence. Use force to promote justice. Use hate to spread love. Use ridicule to nurture respect. Use the methods of the world’s history to bring about God’s Future. It all seems realistic – until we think deeply about it.
The Satan that Christians need fear isn’t a red, pitchfork-toting demon; it’s the idea that we can further the world Jesus promised without living the way Jesus lived. Our temptation is to believe that, if we pray correctly and believe correctly, we can do everything else our way. That temptation is real, it’s now and it’s huge.
March 2, 2014
Faith Demands A Choice
Thoughts on the Gospels -Joe
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Decide where your heart is; decide what you believe and commit to it. That challenge appears over and over in the gospels. Some understand Jesus’ words as an effort to elicit statements of personal loyalty from his followers. But Jesus’ words don’t rise from a desire to have others second his ideas or a need to shore up his self-confidence. For Jesus, the goal was always to advance God’s Future.
Realization of God’s promise of a world fulfilled relied on his followers’ faith in it – a faith strong enough to create in its adherents a willingness to reflect God’s love in their relationships with a world that did not.
Though the 6th chapter of Matthew’s gospel inserts the lot of those trusting followers into a lovely picture of lily-filled fields, ten chapters later the same gospel promises us a cross to bear.
As the saying goes: Christian faith ain’t powder puff; if you’re going to play, play all the way or don’t suit up.
That’s a difficult thing for us to accept sometimes. Since, as we constantly proclaim, we are a Christian nation and, despite those who see Catholics bullied on every street corner, we comprise 25% of the American population, being Christian and Catholic is a very socially acceptable thing. We can easily overlook the fact that true faith entails a radical commitment to a drastically different way of living. Loving our enemies and sharing the lot of the poor until they aren’t poor anymore isn’t an oh-by-the-way element of life.
“You cannot serve two masters” isn’t a statement about choosing between following someone obviously good and someone obviously evil. It’s a way of saying that though we can be casual Christians in our society, we can’t casually live the faith of Jesus. It simply won’t work.
February 23, 2014
A God For Grown-ups
Thoughts on the Gospels -by Joe
7th Sunday of Advent
Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . . . Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus had a clear vision of how those who accepted his promise of God’s Future should act towards others. He taught it plainly. He didn’t offer new laws. He mined Jewish Law for its underlying goal and encouraged people to make that their guide. Many overlook the respect Jesus showed his followers. He treated them as adults and encouraged them to see themselves as such.
Too often we view God as a power we must serve rather than a lover whose gift we have a chance to accept and enjoy. As we would any other authority we study God to imagine what he wants then we give him as little as we can safely get away with to stay in his good graces. Yet, even while we are doing this, we have an intuition that the whole idea is childish and something inside us refuses to take this kind of relationship with God seriously. Too many of us then see ourselves left with a choice between denying God or denying religion.
When I was 17 my dad taught me how to drive. In preparation for the dreaded Highway Patrol driving exam he went over the speed limit laws. At the end of the discussion he said, now remember, regardless of what the signs say, the police can arrest you if they judge that you are driving too fast for road conditions. “That seems really unfair,” I responded. “Look,” my dad said, “ the point is to keep you and everyone around you alive and safe. It’s not a game of gotcha with the police. I hope you’re smart enough to see that. If not you’re not smart enough to be driving.”
Living a life of love and justice for every person in every circumstances isn’t a game of gotcha with God. It’s the essential condition for human promise, advancement and happiness. That is the foundation of Christian morality. We do our level best to live always with love and justice out of hope for God’s Future, not out of short term cost/benefit analysis. We will fail at times but God will not abandon us. And we get up and keep on trying.
February 16, 2014
Not A New Law; A Deeper Investment
Thoughts on the Gospels -by Joe
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The gospels present differing pictures of Jesus’ attitude towards Jewish Law and scholars debate about his precise views. For those of us who would like a working understanding of Jesus’ thinking though, here are a few observations. First, Jesus respected the Law of his people. Second, Jesus seemed to want folks to focus on the heart of Law, not on simply the externals. Third, he oriented his thoughts about The Law around his promise of God’s Future.
Jewish Law (capitalized because it is sacred in Jewish faith) preserved civility among the people, protected the powerless and united the people in their relationship with God, the core of their communal being. In a way foreign to us, there was and could be no separation between sacred and profane law. Jesus honored this vision of Law. He also tried to turn a spotlight on its heart.
His message was, don’t do things by halves; don’t play hide and seek with God. Look at what the Law promotes and commit yourselves completely to that goal. Don’t begin by seeking the minimum that you have to do. Begin with the determination to live the heart of the law as completely as possible.
The issue isn’t how much you have to love but how you can love completely. The issue isn’t how much you have to share with the poor but how you can help the poor find their rightful power and move into security and dignity. The point isn’t how much you can legally and socially get away with in your sexual relationships; the issue is how you can treat others in the most respectful way possible in every circumstance. Ask these questions not to avoid punishments from a judgmental God. Ask to them to advance the Future that God offers.
With Jesus, the assumption is that we and our Creator have a common goal and we are determined to do all we can to achieve that goal as quickly as possible.
February 9, 2014
Faith: The Love To Keep Trying
Thoughts on the Gospels -by Joe
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
For many of us, today, the idea that Catholics should see ourselves as “the light of the world” is absurd. Some in our community have embarrassed us repeatedly in the most egregious ways. We along with much of society celebrate Pope Francis simply for being a decent and down to earth human being. “Finally,” many are saying, “a public Catholic that we don’t have to apologize for.” Yet his acclaim carries no little irony. The pope is only living the basic gospel that we hear every Sunday. That so few of us who call the Gospel our own are willing to stand up and invite others to find in us the example of human potential and the promise of life’s future raises important questions.
The core of Jesus’ message was the promise of God’s Future for all humanity. He delivered that message in the midst of and in spite of our egotism and failures. There’s a wonderful story in John’s gospel of Jesus rescuing and forgiving of a woman caught in adultery. We miss the power of that story if we overlook the serious harm adultery does to real people: to spouses, kids, relatives and society. Death by stoning was an ancient nomadic people’s way of punishing the most dangerous threats to their welfare. Marriage wasn’t if-it-works-it-works-and-if-it-doesn’t-it-doesn’t thing for Jesus or his world. For him to rescue then forgive this woman was astounding and the lesson it held about God’s Future was profound.
All of us fail – morally and every other way. We fail in ways that do serious harm to ourselves and others. That is a fact of life. God promises the fulfillment of our dreams in the face of those failures.
The light that we bring the world isn’t our virtue. It isn’t that we always get it right or that we don’t at times make a shameful spectacle of ourselves. Our light is that we acknowledge our failure, we forgive ourselves and we keep moving toward the Future God promises. We do that for ourselves. We do that for everyone else. Our light for the world is that evil – anyone’s evil – is never the last word. The Creator’s Love is.