The _______ who _______.

5th Sunday of Lent (C)

(A timely repost from 2016)

A frightened and humiliated woman slumps to the ground, surrounded by her accusers. She shields her face and her body from their stares, covering herself with what little clothing she managed to gather before they dragged her through the streets to the Temple. She braces herself for the sting of the first, second, and then countless stones hurled at her. She expects to die: she is the woman caught in adultery.

But this story, which is the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is not about her; she is merely the pawn of her accusers, who care as much about her as they do the meaning of the Law which they profess to uphold. The story is not about her crime, although we are confronted with it; it’s not about forgiveness, although it appears to be given; and it’s not a lesson about judging others, although it can be inferred to be. The story of the woman caught in adultery is about the nature of God.

Jesus knew what the Scribes and Pharisees were up to. Yes, they hauled a woman whom they claimed was caught “in the very act” of adultery into the Temple, and thrust her before him as he sat teaching, and demanded that he acknowledge the punishment prescribed by the Law—death by stoning.  The irony of their challenge to Jesus was not lost on him. If they were so inclined to adhere to the letter of the law regarding adulterers, they would not have left the man behind. The law insists both parties be stoned to death [Leviticus 20:10]. That is not to say Jesus’ response would have been any different; his refusal to look at them, his silence and doodling in the sand would have sent the same message. Jesus declined to participate in their charade.

I think a more accurate name for this story might be, “the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees,” because it was they who were unfaithful through their continued attempts to trap Jesus, to sideline his teaching, to find reason to kill him; they were unfaithful to God and the meaning of God’s word, which they claimed to know so well. It is they who had been caught “in the very act” and their departure from the scene, one by one, confirmed their guilt.

But even they were not condemned by Jesus. They condemned themselves.

This Gospel is about Mercy, and Jesus shows it both to the accused and her accusers. He chooses not to stare at the Scribes and Pharisees, as they stared at the accused woman. He did not watch them as “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” [JN 8:9]. To the woman whose life was spared, whose name was “adulteress,” Jesus restored her humanity. No reprimand, no lecture, just the freedom to begin anew. Jesus said to her, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” [JN 8:11]

Over and over and over again, Scripture and our Christian faith encourage us to begin again. We may be lost, confused, living with the consequences of poor choices, but we are never trapped in that identity, “the one who…” We are more than sinners, more than the labels that describe our failings, and as much as it is our human nature to tag and box and prevent one another from moving forward, our faith tells us to keep going. This is what St. Paul, possibly the greatest convert in history, tells the Philippians, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” [PHIL 8:13-14]

Sin separates us from God. It’s a simple equation: remain close to God, avoid sin. Not so simple in practice, however. Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who felt it was their right and duty to end a woman’s life for her sin, it has been the church itself, in the course of her history, whose lack of mercy served to box and label countless women and men. And when I say “the church” I am referring to you and me, not just our leaders. Look no further than today’s headlines showing “Christians” speaking and acting in ways that outstrip the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees. Our lack of mercy is so far from the truth of Jesus’ teaching—the truth of God’s nature. We who so readily slip into the robes of the Scribes and Pharisees and accuse others of the crimes we ourselves are guilty of miss the point entirely. Mercy is for everyone, including ourselves. Jesus asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” [JN 8:11].

The depth of God’s mercy is expressed most eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah when he says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”[IS 43:18-19a]. How refreshing these words are. Our Creator is not a God of the past, but of the present. The same God, who led the Israelites to freedom, is the one who continues to restore, liberate, and make a way for us today.  Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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In 2016, the year this reflection was first published, the Church was celebrating the Jubilee year of Mercy. Then, as now, we are reminded to mirror God’s mercy in all that we do. How do you think we are doing?

Papa Francis: The Good Disciple

Look no further than Pope Francis to see Good Discipleship in action. What is discipleship if it is not grounded in the studied practice and fearless proclamation of the challenging teachings of Jesus Christ?

I, like many, love this pope and have done little since he arrived in the United States this week other than tune into live feeds of his speeches and homilies in order to soak up his every word. The man is a prophet on a mission to deliver the Gospel message to the whole world.

His demeanor and style of delivery have made him wildly popular with people of all faith traditions as well as many non-believers. His words are refreshing and compelling, and urgent. There are a few who wish he would be silent. Francis has alluded to the possibility of a short tenure, and knows his popularity may be brief. This awareness led him earlier this month to remark “Jesus also, for a certain time, was very popular, and look at how that turned out.”[1]

Pope Francis is the Good Disciple, but I can’t help but notice the volume of grumbling against Francis’ pastoral focus on the impoverishment of the earth and its people. It suggests his opponents, many of them Christian, do not share my gushing definition of him as a good disciple.

As soon as word came out that Pope Francis was writing an encyclical letter on the environment, many hard core capitalists, again many of whom are Christian, got prickly. And ever since the May 24, 2015 publication of Laudato si‘ (On Care for our Common Home), his critics have suggested he’d do well to keep his church business out of the political realm and stick with the things he’s “qualified” to do. Things, I suppose, like lead prayer, administer sacraments, and celebrate the mass.

Call me crazy, but the first commandment, “Love God and neighbor” implies loving all of God’s creation. Still, one does not need to share the view of creation as divinely inspired in order to understand that greed-driven environmental deterioration and its effect on human life, particularly the poor, is so great a threat to the continuation of life on this planet that a global effort to correct it is now essential.

Pope Francis’ message is one of hope and encouragement that changes are possible, changes both to the way people understand ecological and financial responsibility, and changes to a public policy focused on serving the common good. Care for our common home (and its inhabitants) is a humanitarian issue and indeed a serious political matter.

I hope that many people, after having heard or at least read some of the Pope’s powerful words which he delivered this past week will be inspired to make meaningful changes in the way they live and view our precious common home. Clearly, voices of dissent will linger. But it is up to those of us who take to heart Francis’ message to give witness to them, starting today.

For Christians, discipleship—living out Jesus’ teachings— involves a commitment to social justice—loving our neighbors, forgiving them as many times as is needed, and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. No one, especially Jesus, said it would be easy. He told his disciples they would be hated because of him [MK13:13; MT 10:22; LK 21:17].

Jesus did not come to build a church to house the Trinity and to “assist nicely washed and appointed people to maintain the status quo.”[2] Christianity is not about having a comforting religious experience. We have responsibilities.

Pope Francis’ iteration of Catholic social teachings comes directly from the words and examples of Jesus as well as the prophetic books found in the Hebrew Scriptures. What Francis says challenges those who believe the earth and its riches are at their disposal. In his encyclical, Pope Francis says “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, ch2 no.67]. In like manner, Francis insists that society has a responsibility to care for the least of our brothers and sisters, many of whom suffer as a direct result of policies driven by human greed.

Caring for the poor and being good stewards of the earth and its resources is not a debatable topic; all are woven into the fabric of a civilized society—especially an extremely wealthy capitalist society in which people of good faith and character ought to recognize that the common good, indeed a peaceful world, depends on sincere generosity and compassion for all.

I want to be a good disciple like Pope Francis. This means continued prayer and study of scripture, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. It means attending to the wisdom of other like-minded traditions and respecting our profound and beautiful tapestry of differences. It means taking an active role in conserving earthly resources, reducing my footprint, and becoming more aware of what I consume and what I waste. It means stepping out of my comfort zone and seeking ways to level the field of opportunity on which all humans stand.

I understand that this ministry, for indeed ministry is what it is, begins in my home with my husband, and daughters, my parents and siblings, my extended family, and my friends and neighbors. I will attempt to season all that I do with the love of God which I feel so deeply. I will try to be the salt, the good disciple. I will try my best. Who would like to join me?

[1] Interview with Portugal’s Radio Renascenca, Monday Sept 14, 2015

[2] Bonnie B. Thurston, Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2013. pg xi

Insiders, outsiders, and everyone in-between

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It’s hard to believe, but the stigma of leprosy is still alive and well, and by that I do not refer to the unacceptable social alienation suffered by many of our brothers and sisters. I mean it literally. In a report dated January 22, 2015, Reuters news agency reveals the presence of discriminatory laws in around 20 countries where leprosy survivors’ rights to marry, work, study and travel are limited.

Although leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious, nowadays cases are quite rare and are easily treated with antibiotics. Still, being cured is apparently not enough; millions suffer a lifelong stigma rooted in antiquated laws and fears. In some countries entire families are regularly evicted from their neighborhoods and left to live a life of unbearable loneliness.

In Biblical times, any variety of dermatological conditions could be suspected as leprosy. Once spotted, a person afflicted with a “scab, pustule, or blotch” was obliged to meet with the priest whose positive diagnosis included no cure, only immediate isolation from the community. Of course, the reason for quarantine was to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly in public worship spaces. However, the outcome was the creation of colonies which separated the clean and the unclean who also could be understood as the whole and the broken, the insiders and the outsiders, the useful and the useless.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus removing barriers, bridging the gap between insiders and outsiders, returning broken people to wholeness, liberating the socially alienated and bringing people to a new understanding of what his Father’s kingdom was really about. Jesus is both the great emancipator and the great unifier. In her book of reflections on the lectionary, God’s Word is Alive, author Alice Camille writes “Jesus understood that people needed community more than they needed a cure.” She’s right. And while we might not be lepers, nor are we possessed, and we might not have a wilted hand or a sensory disability, many of us suffer from isolating social conditions. Loneliness, for example, is one which continues to magnify the distance between social insiders and outsiders.

A friend of mine who struggles with loneliness told me it reaches its peak when she is in a crowded place. There, she says, she is neither an insider nor an outsider because from her point of view those two labels still imply some kind of community to which she does not belong. When she shared with me her sense of Jesus in the midst of her desolation I suggested that perhaps her loneliness and desire to belong were a mirror of God’s longing for her and for the entire world. Think of this. Might the divine spark which dwells in each of us, and in whose image we were created, drive our desire to build meaningful and life-giving relationships? Yet, for countless unacceptable reasons a vast gap still exists between those who fit in and social outcasts. As an evangelizing people  we are compelled to seek the missing, widen our welcome, eliminate barriers, heal brokenness and loneliness, practice forgiveness, and work to unify God’s people in all that we do, just as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/us-health-discrimination-leprosy-idUSKBN0KV27T2015012

Image © Depositphotos.com [Daniel Dunca]