Talkin’ bout a revolution

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

What would it take for you to leave your nets, your boat, and your father as the disciples did?

He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. [MT 4:19-20]

He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. [MT 4:21-22]

(Long pause while we shift uneasily in our seats and decide whether or not to continue reading)

Few conversations cause more discomfort than those that begin with unsolicited advice about changing the direction of our lives. For one, it makes us feel defensive. It also threatens our sense of responsibility. It would be ridiculous, we protest, to forsake our stability (even if it is wobbly), and relinquish our control (even if that is an illusion).

Yes, for the majority of us, it would be irresponsible to quit our jobs, abandon our homes and ditch our families. But, rather than counting off the reasons why it would simply be unfathomable in the 21st century to do as the disciples did, let’s widen the aperture of our lens so we can see the bigger picture.

But just to be clear, most of us have a lot more freedom to roam than the people living in Jesus’ day. It is not unusual for our children to head off to college in another part of the country and settle in cities thousands of miles away from home and form tight bonds with “surrogate” families. In contrast, given the centrality of kinship in Jesus’ day,[1] leaving one’s family and seeking a new way of life or livelihood would have been deemed abnormal.[2] But the first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus.

The immediate response of Andrew, Peter, James and John to Jesus’ invitation provides valuable insight to 21st-century disciples: Jesus did not work alone: then or now.

Don’t you know? They’re talkin’ bout a revolution

Matthew’s gospel tells us “all of Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan” went to John the Baptist to be baptized. [MT 3:5-6]. Clearly, a movement was afoot. No doubt King Herod and the religious authorities were less appreciative of the odd and prickly, anti-authoritarian preacher and despised him for calling them out for their sinful lifestyle and religious hypocrisy.

Some suggest that the gospel writer exaggerated John the Baptist’s popularity by saying ALL of Judea and THE WHOLE REGION of Jordan came for baptism. The point is that huge numbers of Jewish citizens experienced a conversion—a change of heart—which may not have jibed with that of Herod and the religious leaders. They wanted him gone.

So they did what institutions threatened by grassroots activists do, and continue to do today—they tried to shut him down. They arrested John the Baptist and eventually killed him. But they did not know it was too late to stop the revolution. That caravan had already left the stable, so to speak. John paved the way, and Jesus took the lead (or lede since it’s his story, after all).

So, here we have Jesus receiving the news that the authorities had arrested John the Baptist. Jesus lived in this culture; he knew why John was silenced. But Jesus fearlessly picked up where John left off, in Galilee, walking the radical path the Baptist prepared for him—preaching the same message in the same kingdom ruled by the same king who had just imprisoned John.

Anyone else would find a safer place to preach. Not Jesus. Matthew tells us Jesus even used John’s same words “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” —except the future event to which John referred was now present in Jesus, the Autobasileia.[3]

Jesus was not the messenger, Jesus was the message.

Let’s take Jesus out of the blue sky, sunny day pasture with the rosy-cheeked children and the baby animals and get real.  Jesus’ public ministry was inaugurated under ominous circumstances in a Roman occupied territory in which political and religious leadership were inextricably entwined.

Sure, Jesus is Love. Jesus is also steely; he is brave. He does not back down in the face of opposition; he walks steadily towards it. He does not sit in his doorway drinking tea and waiting for followers; he seeks them out and prepares them to be leaders. Jesus is forthright and smart. He narrows in on corrupt practices and shows how to correct them. He liberates the oppressed and the alienated, restores the senses, embraces the outcasts, and repairs the damage human evil has wrought. Jesus speaks the Truth with words and actions that resonate in the hearts of those who are willing to follow him. He flips the tables; he turns the status quo upside down.

He’s hot Jesus. And he’s here to set the world on fire. [LK 12:49]

The truth cannot be silenced.

Make no mistake; the threat of suppression is an ongoing and present danger today, more so than in recent times. The thing about people who work for justice is that their hearts undergo a change; their capacity for love and generosity increases and with changed hearts come changed attitudes. The last thing authorities want is a rising populous of dissenters so they’ll try to shut it down either by distraction or by force. Think about it.

The disciples eventually realized that following Jesus, learning from him, and being commissioned to preach and heal also meant following him to the cross. At the end of Jesus’ earthly life some followers, literally fearing for their lives, went into hiding and abandoned him.

But not all. The job Jesus prepared his apostles for—to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth—was taken up by brave souls like St. Paul and others who brought about the early church’s extraordinary growth. This job is passed on to disciples like you and me.

We are not asked to give up our jobs, our homes, and our families to respond affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, although we are obliged to detach ourselves from self-serving worldly loyalties and reattach ourselves to him.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Work for the unity of all peoples; seek the transformation of society, mirror the courage of Jesus’ and seek the confidence that inspired countless disciples throughout the centuries, and with each step draw closer to the kingdom of God, Jesus.

Readings for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: IS 8:23—9:3
Responsorial Psalm PS 27:1, 4, 13-14
2nd Reading 1 COR 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: MT 4:12-23

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[1] Bruce J. Malina, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Second Edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003) 397-398.

[2] Malina, Rohrbaugh p414: “giving up one’s family or origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family (…) was a decision that could cost one dearly. It meant breaking ties not only with the family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part.”

[3] Autobasileia, literally auto=self, basileia=royal power. The Kingdom of God and the person of Jesus are one and the same.

Take the Long View

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Here we are again. Back to plain ole winter. Just over one week ago the Christmas season ended, and our families and friends, like the three kings, have departed for their distant lands. Like many of you, I reluctantly boxed up our decorations and my husband dragged our still-hanging-on-to-life Christmas tree out to the curb, both of us bemoaning the shortness of the season (but secretly happy to say good bye to the pine needles in our socks).

With our houses swept clean, it’s time to begin our progression through Ordinary Time, at least for the next eight Sundays, that is. Lent is right around the corner.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time always eases its way into a fresh and shiny new calendar year, but this year for many people agita, insecurity, and apprehension about the future have dulled that shiny newness.

At times like these the temptation is to circle the wagons, allow ourselves to complain for a while and hope for the best. Happily, most of us care too much about the future to consider sitting on our hands. I’m in that camp, or at least I strive to be. Despite my occasional “Chicken Little” tendencies, I fight hopelessness and stagnation by taking the long view and making plans.

Earlier this month I reflected on the need for restoration, specifically restorative practices. I was reminded of the work of the late Dr. Erik Erikson, the brilliant German-American psychologist of the past century, whose exploration of human psycho-social growth from infancy through death identified a motivation which he named Generativity.

Generativity resembles the concept of “paying it forward” popularized by the heartwarming movie, Pay it Forward [2000], which, through a series of events showed that the world is a much better place when we share, ad infinitum, our good fortune with others.

Still, paying it forward is just the tip of the iceberg. Generativity is more nuanced; its source is nothing less than primal and its energy emerges from an expectation of a future—a hope for humanity. It is the longest of the long views. Generativity explains why some adults will, for example, plant a fruit tree they may not live to harvest, but do so knowing future generations will be nourished by it. Our current situation and how we handle it is far greater than how it impacts us.

Taken another way, when “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation” is contemplated Theologically, i.e. “where is God in all this?” we have to see that the compelling impulse behind generativity is love. Love of God, and love of neighbor, and love for God’s creation.

The writers of Sacred Scripture could not help but take the long view. They gave witness to the fruit of generativity; they grasped its divine source, they drank from its fountain and endeavored to illuminate the way so future generations would see God’s goodness as they did, and believe what they knew to be the truth.

The Prophet Isaiah, relaying the words God spoke to him, identified Israel as the Servant of God [IS 49:3, 5-6]. Israel’s return to their homeland after 70 years of exile was the evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. Yet, Isaiah made it clear that their survival alone was not the end of the story. “It is too little,” the prophet proclaimed. The future of all involved entailed carrying the message of God’s liberating power to the ends of the earth. In other words, Israel’s stunning transformation would be like a light to the nations: the entire world would see God’s greatness and be converted.

St. Paul understood this too. It was not enough that he had a personal experience of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He was compelled to take what he knew on the road and share it with the greatest number of people for the rest of his life. Paul’s “generativity” is evidenced by the colossal growth of the Christian church in his day. Today’s second reading gives us a clue to Paul’s mission [1 COR 1:1-3]. At first blush it looks to be a typically wordy Pauline salutation, but attend carefully to Paul’s words. Far more than a “Dear friend, how are you, I am fine” Paul’s salutation discloses his grasp of the divine origins of his apostleship and the enduring nature not only of his role, but that of the Corinthian church, sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, from now on, and for all to witness. Pay it forward.

Even John the Baptist understood it was too little to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. He knew it was not enough to preach a message of repentance and then baptize countless individuals for the forgiveness of sin. When he recognized Jesus, he knew there was more.

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” [JN 1:29]

I wonder if the Baptist’s words comparing Jesus to a sacrificial animal sent a ripple of shock through the crowd. And, as if to explain how he arrived at this astonishing conclusion John continued, piecing his experiences together until everything he had done up to that point made sense:

“I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” [JN 1:31-34].

I also wonder if John realized then that his role in preparing the way for Jesus was nearing its completion. Didn’t he later take a step back from his work, out of the first-century spotlight, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”? [JN 3:30]

Be a light for the nations.

Who is expected to carry this light today? Look in the mirror. It is the Church—you and me—it is our prophetic role to be a light so that God’s goodness is visible to all, so that all may receive it and be transformed.

That’s generativity, that’s paying it forward. That’s how we keep moving forward, despite the darkness.

Happy New Year, light bearers.

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Readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading IS 49:3, 5-6
Responsorial Psalm PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
Second Reading 1 COR 1:1-3
Gospel JN 1:29-34

Restorative Practices

Restoration. As the owner of a 111-year old home I tend to associate the word with architecture, and as the occupant of a middle-aged (but, thank God. still flexible) body I make restorative yoga part of my daily practice. What does the word Restoration mean to you?

Many people make resolutions at the start of a new year with restoration in mind for things like motivation, health, organization, work-life balance, and even their sanity. The human condition presents countless opportunities to restore interpersonal relationships. Environmentalists attempt to restore ecosystems and wildlife habitats. And of course, regardless of one’s religious denomination, our relationship with our Creator-God always requires restoration.

Restoration is nuanced. Unlike do-overs, second chances, or refurbishment, restoration holds out the promise of an upgrade, a better than ever version. Not only is the broken piece restored to working order, it is stronger, more valuable, and has a promising future.

I have not published in more than a month. I allowed the entire season of Advent to pass without a word (although I continued to write every day, nothing made it to The Good Disciple blog). My attempts to reflect in a meaningful way resulted in forced, dry, and preachy prose that even I couldn’t bear to read. There’s enough of that out there already, and I didn’t want to add to it.

I spared you my socio-religio-political rants; they were too raw, too broken and therefore defeated the original purpose of this blog, which is to shine a light on what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

But wait, discipleship is one thing, and I will never stop being a disciple. But there comes a time when good disciples mature into good stewards. I’m not saying I’m either, but I’d like to explore that in-between space and maybe discover something new and restorative.

Just today, a very dear friend and mentor messaged me “Sometimes the Lord wants us to speak to one another from a place of brokenness, so together we can find healing and hope.” She’s right.

Perhaps like me, dear reader, you find yourself in need of restoration? If so, by way of a fresh start can we imagine our adult selves emerging, radiant and hope-filled, dripping with the restorative waters of our baptism, eager to live out our given roles of priest, prophet and king?

I am grateful for your readership and will do my best to publish regularly. Please subscribe to the The Good Disciple blog, if you have not already done so, and share your thoughts with me in the comment area that follows each blog post or on the facebook page. If you prefer, you can message me privately here.

And as always, please pray for me, as I pray for you.

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!”

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[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

What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

Today I Must Stay at Your House

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Oh Zacchaeus! Who doesn’t love the story of the diminutive, status seeking, tree climbing tax collector [Luke 19:1-10], the greedy and sinful man whose curiosity about Jesus led to the cleansing of his name, his reconciliation with those he had cheated, and his restoration to the house of Abraham, and thereby to the household of God.

At its core, this is a story of salvation and communal reconciliation. In church-speak, salvation is preceded by conversion which follows a radical change of heart. In Zacchaeus’ case, his transformation began when he responded to Jesus’ command to “come down quickly” and found himself on the same ground as the people he had made a career of cheating.

The story of Zacchaeus is beloved because it is good news for all of us; at first blush it affirms that the sinner is not forever lost. But it also speaks to the joy of being identified by our name instead of by our sins. It invites us to enjoy the relief that comes from shedding social pretenses and in finding acceptance for who we are. It affirms our deepest desire, which is to belong, and to be home in community.

The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “clean[1] but the occupation he chose was anything but. He was a tax collector, and not just any tax collector. Zacchaeus was the “chief, rich tax collector, the sinner supreme”[2] who likely enjoyed multiple streams of income working as a contracted government collections agent overseeing and amassing dishonest wealth from the equally fraudulent collections of those in his employ.

Still, Zaccheus wasn’t so far removed from the goings on in his town that he hadn’t heard about this man named Jesus who would soon be passing through. His curiosity was piqued and he determined to see for himself “who Jesus was” [Luke 19:3].

Bobbing and weaving in and out of the crowd that gathered along the roadside, the diminutive Zaccheus tried to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but the crowd was standing in his way. Being a clever man, Zacchaeus ran ahead of them and climbed up into a sycamore, a fruit-bearing tree. There, standing above everyone else where he was most comfortable, he had a clear view.

It’s a comedic, pathetic, and prophetic image: a man of power scrambling up a tree, peering between fig-laden branches to see what everyone else could plainly see. But then Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus there in his isolation, and he called him down—by name—plucked him like one of the ripe figs hanging from the sycamore’s branches.

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

The crowd was appalled. They grumbled. Not only did Jesus call on Zacchaeus, he announced he “must” stay at his house. Of all the choices Jesus could have made, it was this guy, the most despised man and the greatest sinner in town who Jesus decided to stay with.

But the crowds were always appalled weren’t they? Aren’t we still? Christians have a notoriously hard time doing more than waxing poetic about Jesus’ habit of socializing, dining, and preferring the company of sinners.

Let’s be clear, Jesus always goes to the house of the sinner. Sinners may be lost, but at least their eyes are open. The same can’t be said about the righteous.

All Jesus said was, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” and Zacchaeus’ eyes were opened.

And Jesus, by going to Zacchaeus, calling him by name, and remaining with him, recognized him for what he truly was—a child of God who got lost along the way.

Sigh. Aren’t we all?

Like Zacchaeus, you and I share a compelling need to be made “clean” and to be restored to right relationship with our families, friends, neighbors, the communities in which we live and work, and, with our Creator.

But true reconciliation requires humility and a willingness to meet one another on equal ground. We need to listen. In our homes, our churches, our communities, and in our country, and surely in the months to come we must devote ourselves to the difficult work of reconciliation, and be willing to see Jesus and hear him say, “__________, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

______________________________

[1] Robert J. Karris, O.F.M, The Gospel According to Luke, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Raymond Edward, Roland Edmund Murphy, and Joseph A. Fitzmyer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) 675-721, here 711.

[2] John O’Hanlon, “The story of Zacchaeus and the Lukan ethic,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 12 (July 1981) 2-26, here 9.

#SoBlessed #TheWrongPrayer #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Late one night last week when driving home from a local restaurant with my husband I noticed a push cart near the corner of the street where we live. It was the type of cart that many apartment dwellers use to do their shopping. This cart appeared to be loaded to the top with laundry bags. I craned my neck as we turned the corner; in the shadow of the street light I made out the shape of woman standing beside the cart.

I live in what might be called urban suburbia; our town, an incorporated city, is situated just 8 miles west of Times Square. Like city-dwellers we can set our clocks by the screech of city buses stopping for passengers; we barely take notice of wailing emergency vehicles and find comfort in the train whistles. We can walk a short distance to the deli, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, houses of worship, the theater, even the grocery store. Some city folk might not agree with the “urban” descriptor, but I know better, having lived in suburbia most of my life: this is city life.

My part of town is a poster child for how successful mixed housing works. Our neighbors live in flats over stores, apartment buildings and townhomes. Turn-of-the-century mansions, pre-war homes both grand and modest nestle together on narrow lots on the same block. We are a blend of socio-economic-religious diversity and it is beautiful thing to behold.

But I’ve never seen a person who was obviously experiencing homelessness standing on the corner of my street.

We pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, opened the door to our house and went inside. I thought to myself, “What should I do, what is the appropriate thing to do?” Then, as I contemplated walking outside perhaps to talk to the woman I lost my nerve. I have poor night vision and thought I might be mistaken. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw; and how would I handle the awkward moment when I offered a sandwich to a neighbor who was simply waiting for the bus? #SoManyExcuses.

Early the next morning I looked outside to see the woman and her cart still there, only this time someone was talking with her. I stepped back in the house to grab something to bring her, but when I returned she was gone.

That same day I read a New York Times op-ed written by David Brooks, a journalist I respect greatly. The article, entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table” concerned some friends of Brooks who host Thursday night dinners for some of their son’s classmates—kids who don’t have enough to eat. As Brooks reveals, this family’s loving and generous hospitality fills more than hungry stomachs. The table guests, he says, “have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand.” Brooks writes from his place at the table, where for the past two years he has joined the couple and their guests at these dinners. #MakeRoom

And then I read the readings for this weekend, the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The text from Sirach assures us that God hears our cries, judges fairly and without favoritism, and in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directs a parable to those who believe themselves to be #SoBlessed.

Jesus is so clever. He knows his listeners. If they don’t recognize themselves in the Pharisee whose prayer is to thank God he is not like the despised one who stands off in the distance beating his heart and asking for mercy, they will take the higher, even more hypocritical seat of judgement that looks down on everyone. Thanks be to God we are not like that Pharisee or the toll collector! Suddenly this parable is about the prayer of three people, and we don’t get the irony. And so it goes. Who then will judge us?

To judge another is about as natural a human behavior as can be had. We compare our progress against one another in nearly every capacity of life. Taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, stingy, generous, educated, ignorant, poor, rich, too rich, greedy, lucky, unlucky, lazy, persistent, worthy, unworthy, good Catholic, bad Catholic, true Christian, false Christian, sinner, and saint.

Honestly, is there anything that we don’t judge? To be fair, constructive comparisons and judgments often help us set goals to better ourselves. And that’s a healthy approach. But, when we judge in order to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our own sense of superiority that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s not prayer. That’s self-exaltation.  And that’s not Godly.

Oh Lord, I am glad I am a respectable citizen, and a churchgoer, I thank you that I am not like those who look down on the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that dollar I dropped in a cup last week. #TheWrongPrayer

I did not judge or look down on the woman standing on the corner of my street with what I presume was everything she owned. I did not count my blessings or mumble something lame like “there but for the grace of God go I.” But my sin was what I did not do, and that was to delay showing her the mercy that God was urging me to show her. And then it was too late. #NeverAgain #HaveMercyOnMeASinner