You have heard that it was said

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

I’m tired of feeling angry. Aren’t you?

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of good reasons to be angry and I’m not diminishing the constructive value of anger. Without a doubt, healthy expressions of anger hold a valid place in the human experience.

In fact, it is due to our outrage over injustices perpetuated by oppressive regimes against men, women and children, and greed-driven exploitation of the Earth that we work tirelessly to secure human rights and to conserve our planet’s resources for future generations.

As a Christian—like members of many faith traditions—I believe that humans carry the divine imprint: that we are each created in the image of God.

This belief is foundational to our faith: we bear the presence of God. I become so angry when I hear the words and witness the actions of professed Christians who seem to have a selective understanding of this belief. My anger and frustration has compelled me to add my Christian voice to the historical conversation surrounding basic human rights.

Constructively channeled anger is the driver behind our progression towards a more just society, but anger that does nothing but foment more anger is deadly and frankly, I’m pretty tired of it.

I’m talking about an unattended-bonfire-in-a-forest-of-dead-trees-on-a-windy-day kind of anger. I’m talking about anger that feeds off fear and seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand. I’m talking about anger that is capable of causing figurative and literal death.

Anger is the core of Jesus’ saying against killing, which we hear on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). It is the first of six sayings about conduct, also known as the antitheses, included in Matthew’s gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each saying begins with Jesus introducing a known and accepted teaching of the law, “You have heard it said…” which he then follows with “But I say to you…” and an expanded command that requires greater attention.

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.”  [MT  5:21-22a]

Yes, Jesus says, don’t physically kill each other. That’s pretty basic. But he adds that the kind of anger that leads to killing, that destroys relationships and causes deadly harm is to be avoided and reconciliation between peoples must always been sought.

Anger is growing, and it is wrapping its vines around every imaginable topic. While the vicious words exchanged online between people residing thousands of miles apart may not culminate in an actual murder, verbal expressions of hate wield the power to kill a person’s spirit and to shift the social dynamic away from the good.

We see this playing out in print and on television; we hear it coming from the mouths of our elected leaders. Virtual verbal combat also takes place where we live when we entertain private thoughts that diminish the dignity of another, even if we keep those thoughts to ourselves. We’re all guilty of it, sorry to say.

The other day— a particularly challenging media-saturated day—I watched a conversation between two strangers unfold into a hate-filled screed. Soon dozens upon dozens of people joined in the brawl. This kind of verbal pummeling between strangers is becoming commonplace all across the globe.

Many spirits were injured, if not slain, that day, including my own.

I took a step back and observed how anger was slowly sapping my spirit. A dark and brooding cynic with clouded vision was devouring my optimistic anything-is-possible, happy-go-lucky, creative self.

The constant reminder that the world is a mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy that like the sound of a dripping faucet can either drive us to madness or to a solution. Look, just because there is a 24/7/365 anger-inducing all-you-can-eat buffet of badness spread before us doesn’t mean we must partake in it. I think we forget sometimes that we have choices. I am choosing to push away from the hate buffet. (At least I’m trying to.)

In today’s first reading from Sirach (aka The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus) the great sage touches upon the concept of free will—the power of choice.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” [SIR 15:15]

Ben Sira’s lesson concerns the daily choices people face and what guidance, if any, they use to make them. Isn’t it true that each day we have multiple opportunities to choose life-giving words and actions over the alternative?

The author of the much abbreviated Psalm[1] which we sing today represents sojourners like you and me who are immersed in the world, its challenges and its joys, and who strive to choose the good and who turn with hope to the Lord for guidance, strength, stamina, wisdom, and spiritual knowledge.

Our choices reflect how we view the world and all of its occupants. We mirror the divine image in the ways we treat loved ones as well as with strangers. What we put in our bodies, and what we feed our brains, what we purchase, and the ways we steward the Earth: these are not easy choices, but we put our hope in what is good and just.

Consider the death of a seed and all the secret happenings that occur beneath the soil before the first tender shoot works its way into the light. The constant shock and awe of anger and our increasingly ugly and disingenuous attempts to protect and conserve our illusions seems to want to trample any tendril of hope trying to break through. We must not allow this any longer.

While many of Jesus’ teachings were framed in eschatological (end times) language, his concern was with the way his followers interacted with one another here on earth, that they love one another as he loved them. Matthew is very clear that Jesus expected his teachings to be observed: do what the teacher says.

Hope is not a wish. It is an expression of confidence. I want to return to that hopeful side, and hold tight to the expectation that with God’s grace the goodness of humanity will prevail, and that we will continue to harness our fiery opposition to injustice and use it creatively to seek understanding, and quite literally save lives.

This is the only way for me, at least.

______________________

Readings for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: SIR 15:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119
2nd Reading: 1 COR 2:6-10
Gospel: MT 5:17-37

______________________________

[1] Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest in the Book of Psalms. A poem of 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was sung or recited in worship with the goal of encouraging the faithful to walk blamelessly through life, to turn to the Lord for refuge, guidance and strength and to seek with praise and thanksgiving a greater understanding of God’s ways as found in the law, testimony, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements, and promises.

Come celebrate with us!

Feast of Christ the King (C)

Years ago, my husband and I received a printed invitation from a family we had recently met to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with us!” We barely knew this family and my initial reaction  was a sarcastic “Wow, I didn’t know Liza (not her real name) was such a church lady.”

To be honest, both my husband and I were a little nervous to accept the invitation which only included the date, time and address. We did not know what to expect: would this be a prayer service, a faith sharing group, would we know anyone, was there going to be spontaneous prayer and if so could leave early? We devised a plan to stay for an acceptable period of time and cut out if things got weird.

Turns out our concerns were unfounded. It was a big party with loads of food, crown shaped cakes and cookies, music, games and laughter. It felt like it was Christmas day. To be clear, the hosts made sure the reason for the party, the Solemnity of Christ the King, was front and center, but believe me when I tell you, it was a lot of fun.

We moved away before the following year’s fest, but I think about that family every year around this time and recall their sincerity, their hospitality, and how they seemed to take this feast so seriously, far more seriously than I ever had, at least.

But they were right to do so. The feast of Christ the King overturns all of our worldly ideas about “Kingship” and invites us to reject the dark and narrow focus dominating much of our social discourse. Instead we are urged to take the long view and “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” [PS 122:1] and to receive, even in our brokenness, the divine inheritance which the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gained for all of creation.

Dear readers, take this to heart, for it is love; it is redemption; it is human-divine solidarity.  It is the foundation of our faith and it has not only sustained generations of believers through unspeakable trials, it has been the driver behind breathtaking examples of human compassion, forgiveness, justice, self-sacrifice, fairness, and freedom.

Furthermore, Sacred Scripture has an indisputably redemptive, life-giving, and transformative message for contemporary readers and our world. We would be foolish not to attune ourselves to it and respond as our religious forebears did, to God’s movement in our lives.

Carroll Stuhlmueler, C.P., says, “Every part of ourselves belongs to the Kingship of Christ, our politics, our theology, our humanity.”[1] Fortunately for us, each of the readings for this year’s feast of Christ the King provides particularly relevant wisdom in that exact order.

Beginning with the first reading, we hear about the appointment of David as the King of Israel [2 Sam 5:1-3]. “All the Tribes of Israel came to David.” They identified him as one of their own saying “here we are, your bone and your flesh” and recalled his recent leadership on behalf of the Israelites: “it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.” They, “All the Tribes of Israel” anointed him, unanimously.

The story of Israel—the whole of Hebrew Scripture contained in the Old Testament—is the story of human discernment and cooperation and trust in a God who promised to be faithful to them. This particular acuity to God’s faithfulness became the filter which revealed, and continues to reveal God’s direction in every aspect of life.

St. Paul’s profound understanding of Christ’s divinity and role in the redemption of humanity[2] is expressed in the second reading, which is taken from the letter to the Colossians. Notice the writer’s poetic use of the word fullness which he uses to describe “everything,” even that which is hidden in the folds of cosmic and earthly realms, visible and invisible, from time’s inception and into infinity, all of which is drawn together in the person of the beloved Son, who reconciles—a word that conjures images of balancing, smoothing, forgiving, returning, uniting—everything, the fullness of creation which was once separated with the Creator.

This is high Christology; it is mind-bending and almost too beautiful to contemplate. Our existence is infinitely greater than our mortal experience. Paul’s grasp of the immeasurable, universal message of Jesus’ life is light years ahead of the narrowly defined interpretation which many Christians want to accept.

The feast of Christ the King urges us to open our hearts and our minds and permit the whole of this theological truth to saturate us.

Finally, Luke’s gospel brings us back to earth and allows us to witness an intimate conversation between Jesus and one of the two condemned criminals who were crucified with him. [Luke 23:35-43]. The criminal, forever known as “the good thief,” recognized Jesus in a way no one else had.

His eyes were opened, and to my mind the words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” recall the human connection heard in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel: “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” Jesus’ response, even as he was dying inspired hope in what seemed a hopeless setting, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43].

As we can see, the feast of Christ the King is more than the annual last hurrah before the first week of Advent. True, the feast concludes the liturgical year that officially begins each January with Jesus’ baptism and which follows one of the three synoptic gospel[3] accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry throughout “Ordinary Time,” but it is more.

With the exception of Christmas and Easter, many Christians tend to limit their participation in the celebration of Feast days to attending the liturgy, but the expression of deep faith and theological understanding shown by our friends who invited us to their annual “Christ the King” party tells me we might be missing out on something greater. I witness that “something” every week in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where my husband and I, the sole Catholics for several blocks, now live

I find the religious observance of my neighbors to be extraordinarily moving. Not only the Sabbath rituals, but every feast day (and there are many!) is observed with great reverence and respect, not to mention the quality family time, meal-sharing, kindness, and authentic joy that surrounds these observances. On more than one occasion I have tried to imagine what the Christian response to the words “Go in peace to love and serve the world” might be if Christian men and women practiced their faith with the same passion our Orthodox Jewish neighbors do.

Perhaps, as Stuhlmueller suggests “in our own human way of life, with its tragedies and political moves, with its mistakes and successes”[4] we can discern the path that the Kingship of Christ points us towards, and in doing so lead us to live in ways that give everyone reason to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with Us!”

________________________________

[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

[2] Vincent M. Smiles. “The Letter to the Colossians” in  New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, edited by Daniel Durkin. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2009. 635-650, here 638.

[3] The three synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke

[4] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

Forgive Us Our Sins

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Are you having a hard time? Me too. I’m a prayerful person, a faith-filled person. But the world feels heavy; bleak is too flowery a word to describe it. Frankly, what I’ve witnessed in the past twelve months has nearly stunned me into silence. And when there are no words I know it is time for me to enter into a period of even deeper prayer and reflection.

The concise version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel—just 38 words in my translation—provides a much needed anchor. That economy of words does not equate simplicity however, particularly as regards the reciprocal nature of forgiveness.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God will forgive us in the same manner that we forgive one another [Luke 11:4]. Considering our track record I think we need to attend more closely to our end of that bargain. Shall we?

I’m also struck by the last verse of today’s gospel in which Jesus reveals that the answer to our prayers comes in the form of the Holy Spirit [Luke 11:13].

How often have we complained that our prayers go unanswered, and how close are some of us to giving up on prayer altogether (a.k.a. Is God deaf to our cries?) when perhaps it is we who aren’t listening. Maybe we ignore the stirrings of the Spirit, especially when the alternative means we are the ones who must change our ways.

All that ignoring has somehow brought us to this place.

The response to fear which is playing out in social, economic, political, and religious arenas here in the United States and all around the world is to seal ourselves off from having to deal with one another, but in doing so, we are in danger of suffocating in the stench of our own waste.

Come on. Please forgive my ineloquence, but we have to do better than this.

_____________________________________

(I’ll be taking the next few weeks off from posting on The Good Disciple to air out my house.)

What is Your Better Part?

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

This weekend Christians around the world will hear the story of two sisters—followers of Jesus— who welcomed Jesus into their home. In this story, the behavior of one sister, Martha who was “burdened with much serving” [10:40] is contrasted with the behavior of the other sister, Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet “listening to him speak.”[10:39]

Here’s the translation from the New American Bible (Revised Edition). And here’s how some contemporary readers might hear it:

Jesus was welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha. Her sister Mary sat next Jesus so she could listen to his words. Meanwhile, Martha went into the kitchen to put the final touches on the feast she prepared. Soon, overwhelmed with mixing drinks, serving appetizers, setting a perfect table and making sure everyone was comfortable—all with no help from her sister—Martha went to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help her. But instead of the response she expected from Jesus, he reprimanded Martha by saying she was focused on all the wrong things, and that Mary had chosen the better part.

Hmmmph. I can’t like that[1].

In the first place, why is it that when we envision this story unfolding we automatically put Martha in the kitchen? Nowhere in the text is food or drink or any of the other acts of domestic hospitality mentioned. Luke was a clever writer; if food was part of the story, he would have included it.

Second, how is the exaggerated competition between Martha and Mary helpful, knowing that among the Christian faithful there have always been those whose service leans more heavily towards ministerial service, and others more towards prayer and spirituality? Furthermore, wouldn’t we agree that a life well lived involves a delicate balance of both? Is Luke suggesting Jesus thinks one is better than the other?

Are we to infer from Jesus’ words that Mary’s example is superior to Martha’s?

Here’s what Jesus actually says to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]

The pastoral interpretation, of course, is that Mary represents contemplation and Martha represents action, and that “one who serves actively can only do so after having listened to the word at the feet of Jesus.”[2]  Obviously that is true. There’s nothing wrong with this explanation, plus, it takes some of the sting out of Jesus’ words to Martha. But this understanding is too simple, too literal, and it sidesteps the elephant in the room.

Was Jesus singling out Mary’s “better part” at the expense of Martha’s service?

As a woman in ministry, this question makes me uneasy. Two millennia after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, women of faith continue to struggle to participate in the life of the church beyond Mary’s “better part.” Even while there have been advances in women’s involvement, and Pope Francis continues to call for greater roles for women in the church and he has agreed to create a commission to study the role of the female deaconate in the early church, the partial interpretation of Jesus’ words to Martha for contemporary men and women is concerning.

Of the various methods and approaches to biblical interpretation recommended by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Historical-Critical method is deemed indispensable. “Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the “word of God in human language,” has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them.” [3]

Each of the books of the New Testament was written with the purpose of presenting the story of Jesus to a specific community during a particular time in world history, in response to their circumstances. Therefore, as part of our interpretive method, it is vital that we attempt to understand the focus and intended message of every author.

Barbara Reid, O.P., esteemed Professor of New Testament Studies, Vice President and Academic Dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and author of numerous acclaimed titles[4] and articles on Luke-Acts, and Paul, offers compelling scholarly evidence in her book, “Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke,” that the common interpretation of the Martha and Mary story may not be what Luke intended.

Reid notes that in the original Greek, Luke uses both the noun diakonia, and the verb diakonein in verse 40. Both words “in the Christian communities of Luke’s day, designated a wider variety of ministries.”[5] In our translation, found in the NABRE[6], verse 40 reads “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” [Luke 10:40; emphasis mine]

St. Luke was a brilliant writer who artfully connected the experience of the early Christian Church, his community, to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Due to his frequent depictions of women interacting with Jesus—far more than any of the other gospel writers—Luke is frequently portrayed as a friend to women, but this theory has been questioned. Stories like Martha and Mary provide valuable insight into feminine presence in the early Christian mission, but are we to infer that by their inclusion Luke’s community supported their involvement in ministerial service?

Since the word diakonia was used throughout the New Testament to mean ministerial service there is no reason to believe that Luke intended it to mean anything else. In other words, Martha was overwhelmed with the amount of ministerial service that needed to be done, and she took it upon herself to do more than she could, perhaps like many of us do today.

So why then does Jesus praise Mary’s part when she is seated silently at his feet? Is Jesus saying that Martha should stop ministerial service? Is Jesus saying that Martha should sit down and be quiet?

Other New Testament texts[7] make it known that divisions over women’s ministerial service (diakonia) were on the rise, therefore the presence of women in the gospels did not necessarily indicate acceptance of their ministerial participation. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “The interpretation of what Luke says on any subject must take into account where in his story he says it.”[8]

For example, is it possible that Luke’s intention in positioning the story of Jesus, Martha and Mary after the empowering stories of the mission of the seventy two disciples, the affirmation of the privileges of discipleship, and the story of the Good Samaritan may have been a subtle way to curb women’s participation in ministerial service (diakonia)? It seems possible that this could be what Luke intended.

Still, when I read and reread and then read Jesus’ words again, I don’t hear them supporting Luke’s intention, if we are to believe it was to diminish Martha’s service.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]

Jesus is not suggesting to Martha that she should throw in the towel, sit down and be quiet. If this was the case, what could possibly be life-giving about Jesus words?

What Jesus said was an affirmation of Mary’s part, not a negative judgement against Martha’s. Mary had chosen “the better part” and it would not be taken from her. What Mary was doing was “the better part” for her.

That means there were other “parts,” one of which Martha was involved in (diakonia). Martha’s fault, which Jesus pointed out, was that she was “anxious and worried many things” when there was “need of only one thing.”

Barbara Reid asks her readers to consider, “What would it mean for our day to “choose the better part?” Would it be different for each person and each community and each age? If this last question is answered affirmatively, then we might begin to act out of a vision that allows for the rich diversity of gifts in the community to be used in service without regard to gender distinctions. Both men and women called to contemplative listening and women and men called to all forms of ministry would together hear Jesus’ approval of their having “chosen the better part.”[9]

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[1] “I can’t like that,” the frequent, now classic, words of protest spoken by my eldest daughter as a child.

[2] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 144.

[3] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993 (as published in Origins, January 6, 1994) http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp-FullText.htm#Sec4

[4] Barbara E. Reid, O.P. is the author of Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011; Year C, 2012, Year A, 2013), Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations Through Latina and Feminist Eyes (Fortress Press, 2007; Spanish translation: Reconsiderar la Cruz, Editorial Verbo Divino, 2009), The Gospel According to Matthew. New Collegeville Bible Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2005), Parables for Preachers (3 volumes; Liturgical Press, 1999, 2000, 2001; Spanish translation: Las Parábolas: Predicándolas y Viviéndolas (Ciclo A, B, 2008, 2009), Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press, 1996), A Retreat With St. Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and many journal articles.  Forthcoming is Wisdom’s Feast: An Introduction to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures (Eerdman’s Press, 2016).  She is General Editor for Wisdom Commentary Series, a new 58-volume feminist commentary on the Bible (Liturgical Press).

[5] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 147.

[6] NABRE, New American Bible (Revised Edition). Released on March 9, 2011, the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) is the culmination of nearly 20 years of work by a group of nearly 100 scholars and theologians, including bishops, revisers and editors. The NABRE includes a newly revised translation of the entire Old Testament (including the Book of Psalms) along with the 1986 edition of the New Testament.

[7] 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:12, Titus 2:3-4, for example

[8] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1991. p 5

[9] Reid, 162

Are You In? Brace Yourself

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We are free to choose whether or not to take up the yoke of discipleship and follow Jesus, but to those who accepted the call, Jesus was absolutely clear about his expectations. It won’t be easy, and there are no alternative routes on the journey.

 “I will follow you wherever you go” —Luke 9:57

There’s no rest, no downtime, and no relaxing of the rule to love. When Paul told the Galatians that “Christ set us free,” [Gal 5:1] meaning, free from adherence to the 613 Mitzvot[1] of Judaic law, Paul reminded them that there was still the one all-encompassing, non-negotiable rule that Jesus left them with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:14].

Some early Christians, and some still today, misinterpreted “freedom” or “being saved” to mean they were now somehow separated from and therefore not responsible for the rest of God’s creation. Paul warned them against such self-centeredness, telling them to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” [Gal 5:13]. It is too easy to misread Paul’s use of the word “flesh” to mean illicit sex, debauchery, and licentious behavior. But by “flesh” Paul was saying that any act of selfishness was an act of self-gratification and therefore opposed to the rule of love, or as Robert J. Karris puts it, “Flesh is the entire world turned against God.”[2]

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to his crucifixion, when he responded to the person who said: “I will follow you wherever you go.” The text says Jesus was “resolutely determined” to be on his way, and as shocking as this is to our systems, so too should we.

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” —Luke 9:59

There’s no time like the present. Jesus’ response “Let the dead bury their dead” seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? After all, don’t we have responsibilities to our family members? And this guy only wanted to go home and bury his father. Or did he? The text doesn’t say his father was lying there dead in his burial cloth; he might have been in perfect health for another twenty years for all we know. The one who Jesus called hesitated, not because he didn’t want to answer Jesus’ call, but because he didn’t think the time was right. Jesus is saying, “No, I will not hold.”

John Shea writes, “With Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” a new and vital possibility has entered his life, a possibility that demands immediate and wholehearted response.”[3]

Spiritual inspiration is like a spark which unfanned, will die. And like the one who wants to follow Jesus but who isn’t ready, those of us who hesitate —the wait-and-see followers —“will be in the position of a son who is spiritually dead burying a father who is physically dead.”[4]

Following begins the moment we’ve been called. Don’t wait until the calendar is clear to accept Jesus’ invitation.

“I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” —Luke 9:61

There’s no turning back. The Prophet Elijah allowed Elisha to return to kiss his parents goodbye before following him, [1 Kings 19:20] but Jesus’ invitation demands a full and immediate commitment from those he calls. He says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:62].

Elisha destroyed the plow he had been using and fed the twelve oxen leading it to his people. He literally changed his occupation and did not turn back. Once called, life looks different.

Obviously, the single focus that discipleship commands does not say we all quit our jobs and leave our families; what it does command, however, is our determination and resolve. “It is only sheer individual resolve that will overturn the earth significantly enough for the seed of the gospel to be planted. A determined hand on the plough is Jesus’ concern.”[5]

Are you in?

________________

[1] Mitzvot (Commandments) includes positive (acts to perform), and negative commandments (acts from which to abstain).
[2] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 598.
[3] John Shea. 2006. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 182.
[4] Shea, 182.
[5] Shea, 182.

Here I am! Send me!

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In a reflection on Luke’s gospel account of the call of Simon-Peter, the theologian Jack Shea writes “The purpose of hearing the word is to be “caught” by it, to have it illumine the mind and inspire the will to such an extent that is changes the processes of thinking and acting”[1]. He goes on to say that when fish are caught, they move from darkness to light, just like people who hear Jesus’ word do.

But when fish are caught, they die and become food for people. In a similar sense, when people are caught by the Word, and practice Jesus’ way, they die to themselves; they become more others-centered, and become “food” for others.

Simon could not catch fish. He tried all night without success. Obviously this was not always the case; he had a fishing business, and the text says James and John were his partners. [LK 5:7]. It’s safe to say they were able to support themselves as fishermen, perhaps even up to that day. But after they were “caught” by Jesus’ word, everything changed.

Jesus’ word caused Simon to go deep, to go out into deep water. Deep waters are risky, but the greatest variety of fish dwell in them. When he did what Jesus told him to do, Simon experienced an abundance that frightened him. He knew it was not through his expertise as a fisherman that he brought in the catch. It is not through our abilities that we are able to do what we do either.

Simon’s nets were filled with fish to the point of tearing and the catch was almost more than the boat could bear. He was overcome with a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy. But Jesus shut him down. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians points to his prior sinfulness as a malformation, and yet he received the gospel, he experienced the risen Lord, and he was transformed. [1 Cor 15:1-11]. The prophet Isaiah, when he received his calling thought he was doomed, saying “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” But when he heard the Lord calling “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah cried out “Here I am! Send me!” [IS 6:1-8].

God chooses the least expected ones; no one is beyond the reach of the net; no one is too sinful to do God’s work. Listen, something greater is at work within you. Go deep. Be small. Always work to build up the church–the people of God. Do everything in Love; recognize what is of value and what should be tossed overboard. Be a good disciple. Never stop studying, learning and practicing what Jesus taught. Don’t be afraid of transformation; your likeness to Christ is coming forth. You can do so much more than you believe yourself to be capable of doing.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] John Shea. 2006. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 37.

The Journey Begins with Prayer: The Baptism of the Lord

 The Baptism of the Lord (C)

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is found praying with and for others, as well as seeking a quiet place to pray by himself.  He prayed before meals, before and after healings and other miracles, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving and prayed for the faith of his disciples. Jesus prayed when he had decisions to make, and taught his followers how to pray. Jesus prayed on the way to the cross, and moments before he died, Jesus breathed his final prayer.

The first prayer of Jesus’ public ministry occurred immediately after his baptism.

 “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  

—Luke 3:21-22

I wonder what Jesus was praying about, was it a prayer of thanksgiving? Discernment? Guidance?

Many people admit they don’t know how to pray on their own; they say they don’t know what to say; it feels awkward, or they aren’t sure if they are speaking to God the right way, or if they are being heard. I remember one friend who told me she doesn’t know when to “sign off” so she just sort of, ends it. Thanks! Love ya!

The variations of prayer are endless. Plus, other than the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself, there is no one right way to pray. The best form of prayer is the one that draws us closer to God. Prayers can be contemplative or centering, a meditation or a chant, a favorite prayer said before bed or upon waking, spoken before meals, or with others during a liturgy or prayer group, to name only a few. The best prayer for me occurs when I share my hopes, fears, gratitude, or anguish with God while doing everyday tasks like cooking and gardening. Regardless of how we pray, if we open ourselves to it, we might sense a holy stillness that expresses God’s presence and love for us.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism beckons us to place ourselves in the crowd of the newly baptized and witness the moment Jesus’ earthly ministry began: with prayer. I wonder what Jesus felt when the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit filled him, and he heard God’s voice.

We can do more than wonder. Have you ever felt God’s presence in times of prayer? Perhaps you have experienced the stillness pulsing in your ears, keeping time with the chant of your heart, “beloved, beloved, beloved.” Maybe you felt the heaviness of the world dropping away, along with your words. Or a sense of well-being, unlike anything ever experienced that blankets you in lightness, and it is just you and God, and nothing else matters.

If we could remain in this state, we would. Because in that moment, which might last only a second or two, God’s delight is evident, and the Holy Spirit of God fills us, like it did Jesus. But, like Jesus, we can’t remain—we can always come back to prayer—but, for now, we must act.

Imagine hearing the words “You are my beloved (son, daughter); with you I am well pleased.” How would you respond?

Christians are baptized as infants, as children and adolescents, and as adults, as in the case of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Regardless of the age of the person receiving the sacrament baptism is a forward moving, future-oriented event. It’s not “done and over.” It’s not the first sacramental stamp on a passport to heaven. Baptism is a fiat, a yes, a birth. What comes next is life.

Do we remember to pray for the newly baptized after the day has passed? Prayers of gratitude, discernment and spiritual guidance for ourselves and others are needed, because, with baptism, we begin our lifelong journey as disciples.

With today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we bid the Christmas season adieu. Tomorrow begins Ordinary time, a new cycle of discernment, faith formation, and spiritual growth. Let’s begin by reflecting upon Jesus’ baptism, and our baptism, and pray for guidance in the coming year, and let’s strive not only to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus but to act upon it.

“Lord Jesus, we end our Christmas season by celebrating our rebirth in baptism. We enjoy what prophets and kings longed to see. Help us during this New Year to grow more conformed to you in our thoughts, desires, words and actions. Enable us through the Scriptures as well as through the sacraments of your food and forgiveness to grow to full maturity as your disciples.” 

—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,
Prayer for the Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings can be found here. .