Monday, February 21, 2011

Faith: Mark 9: 14-29

Today's gospel is the story of Jesus curing the possessed son of a man who had asked His Apostles to do the same but could not.  It is in this gospel that we witness the frustration of Jesus very clearly.  A little background is necessary.

The passages just prior to this gospel recalls the story of Jesus' Transfiguration.  He took Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain to pray and while they were there, he became transfigured, appearing as dazzling as the sun and speaking with Moses and Elijah.  The three Apostles with Him were so awestruck that they fell to the ground in fear.  We can only imagine the glory of the vision and the breath-taking site of the Lord speaking with these long-dead prophets.  You would think that if there was anything that would seal their complete belief in Jesus as the Son of God it would have been this incident.  But no!

Today's gospel story is a continuation of the journey of Jesus and the Apostles down the mountain of Transfiguration.  Arriving at the base of the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples and a crowd.  There appears to be some sort of dispute going on.  Jesus asks what the matter is.  A man with a son who is mute steps forward to tell Jesus that His disciples could not cure his son.  It seems that no matter what they did, nothing was effective.  Jesus must have been beside Himself.  He had, up to this point, lived with the Apostles and disciples for quite some time.  Most had been present for all of His teachings.  They had been witness to several other miracles.  Still, even after all of these experiences, they were unable to cure this man's son.

Jesus' answer reflects His exasperation.  "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am  I to bear with you?"  (Mk 9: 19)  He then instructs the father to bring Him his son and subsequently cures the young man.

How does this event apply to our lives today?  We who are Christians now have centuries of evidence of Jesus as the Messiah.  We know more about God than the Apostles and disciples who followed Jesus could possibly have known because of the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We have been witness to many things throughout history that speaks of the existence of God and His willingness and desire to intervene in our lives in order to help us.  Yet, could we do any better than the followers of Jesus spoken of in today's gospel?  Probably not!  Why?  Our lack of faith!

All that was required of the Apostles in order to cure the father's son was complete  belief in Jesus without any hint of doubt.  Had they possessed this quality, they most certainly would have been able to effect a cure for the young man.  As it was, Jesus, Himself, had to intervene because the Apostles had yet overcome their human and sinful tendencies that blocked their complete faith in the Lord.  So it is with us!

We often fall into the trap of feeling good about our faith.  We pray, go to church, treat others with kindness and consideration and believe that we have followed our Lord completely through all these gestures.  But how often do we begin to rely on ourselves for guidance for our actions and and the way we live.  How often do we act on human impulse while knowing at the same time that our impulse does not lead us on the path to God's will for us?  Do we really believe that if someone were to come to us asking for a miracle from us that we could do it because of our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah?

Faith is both difficult and easy.  We make it difficult by allowing our human tendencies to guide us without any reference to the Will of God.  We throw barriers in the way of faith, distracting us from what is so abjectly important in our lives: that of following the Father's Will.  It can be easy if we but override these same human tendencies and listen to the voice of God that speaks to us from within.  Do we really want Jesus to say to us as He once said to His Apostles, "How long must I bear with you?"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Jesus' Words and Our own

I have run across a homily based upon today's Gospel that I thought bears repeating.  It is a marvelous read and I encourage all who happen upon this page to take the time to read it.  The author is Father James Martin, SJ.  Enjoy!

Homily: Mt 5:17-37
Feb 13, 2011 (Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time) 
 How do we know that when we read in the Gospels is what Jesus actually said? 
 Well, for one thing our tradition tells us so.  As Catholics, we believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and so the writings that were chosen for inclusion into the “canon” of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were the ones that the early church felt most closely represent what Our Lord said and did.  And we believe the Holy Spirit guided this process.

But even if you want to think of it in secular terms, it also makes sense to trust in the Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written relatively soon after the death and resurrection of Christ.  Mark, the earliest Gospel, is generally thought to have been written about A.D. 60, only 30 years or so after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. At the time, there were still plenty of people around who had participated in Jesus’ ministry and could say to St. Mark, “Hey, that’s not the way it was!”  Or, “You forgot to put that story in!”  Or, “Actually, Jesus said it this way.”  It would be like someone in our time writing about Ronald Reagan, or the end of the Cold War.  It’s hardly a long period of time.  There were still enough people around who would be able to inform whatever was written, by their first-hand experience.

So we trust in the Gospels. 

On the other hand, Catholics are not fundamentalists.  We do not take every word in the Bible literally. We know that the Gospels were compiled after a generation of oral histories, in which stories were probably altered slightly.  That’s just what naturally happens as stories are passed on.  And the Gospels were written by four different writers writing for four different communities.  So even though it’s about the same person, Jesus, the evangelists wrote things slightly differently, stressing different things, focusing on different things (depending on their audiences) are so there are bound to be a few discrepancies.  And there are bound to be contradictions, too.

A few examples will suffice. Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels, while he makes several in St. John’s Gospel.  The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph is living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving for the first time to Nazareth; while Luke has the two originally living in Nazareth, and traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home again.  And when retelling the same stories and miracles, the Gospel writers use different words, even when they’re quoting Jesus. What Jesus says on the Cross differs from Gospel to Gospel.  But again that’s not surprising, since you have four different people writing.

They’re all true—and not in some vague philosophical sense, but in the sense that these things actually happened—but it’s not like reading a court transcript.

So when we look at different versions of the same story, or consider stories that seemingly conflict in the Gospels, how do we determine what it is the closest to what Jesus said?  That’s always been a fascinating question for me.
Scripture scholars use a number of ways of meditating on these questions. For example, one of the most interesting is the criterion of “embarrassment.” If something seems like it could be potentially embarrassing about Jesus to the early Christian community, it seem as the most accurate of the retellings. The most common example is Jesus’s baptism.  Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would be baptized by John the Baptist? After all Jesus is the sinless one, right?  So considering that, Scripture scholars suggest that it’s close to impossible that the Gospel writers would’ve invented something of that nature, create something that might have been embarrassing to Jesus and place it in the story.  So we can be almost 100% sure that Jesus was baptized by John in precisely that way. 

Another interesting criterion scholars offer is the use of Aramaic words. Many Scripture scholars suggest that when an Aramaic word as preserved in the text of the Gospels, it most likely represents a striking phrase that Jesus himself used, which was remembered, pondered and treasured by his disciples and reverently passed on to the evangelists.  Examples of this are Jesus calling his Father “Abba,” his raising the little girl from her deathbed by saying “Talitha cum,” or his opening the ears of the deaf man by saying, “Ephphatha”  Be opened.

These are wonderful, almost miraculous, connections with the very words—literally—of Jesus.  It’s beautiful to think that we’re hearing the precise words and sounds that came from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth.  Amazing, really.

In today’s wonderful reading we have another example: Jesus talks about calling someone raca.  Now raca is an ancient Aramaic word meaning “fool.”  And, as I mentioned, given that the Aramaic has been preserved is most likely that we are hearing the precise word that Jesus used with his disciples.

Now you might be surprised at my focus on this almost throwaway line, which usually gets short shrift in homilies. After all, the Gospel reading raises issues that are seemingly far more important. Jesus talks about himself as the fulfillment of the Law, for example. That’s pretty important.  He talks about adultery. He talks about divorce. He talks about lying. All these things are significant things to ponder as Christians and Catholics.

But he also talks about speaking kindly to one another, not slandering one another, not calling one another’s names, and does so quite in the strongest terms.  And so we forget this little passage at our peril.

“Whoever says to his brother raca will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says “you fool” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. That’s pretty strong stuff.  If you engage in name-calling, you’ll go to hell.  Pretty surprising stuff, given what we often focus on in our church. 

You know, I’ve often thought that 50% of the Christian message can be boiled down to two words: “Be kind.” Jesus is reminding us watch our tongues, to refrain from calling people names, to refrain from putting others down, to refrain from gossiping. To be charitable in our speech. Now of course being Catholic is a lot more than simply being kind; but without kindness we’re not Catholic.  We’re barely even Christian.

And it’s an especially important thing to hear Jesus’ words in our digital age, when snarky blog posts, terrible texting, snotty Facebook posts, and mean-spirited Tweets zip around the web and cause serious harm.  “Fool,” raca, is probably the mildest of imprecations that you’ve heard lately. And that also goes for speaking about other Catholics, and other Catholics with whom we disagree. Take a look at any opinionated Catholic blog, on the right and the left, and you’ll see all manner of terrible name-calling, again much worse than raca.

We ignore the invitation to practice personal charity, to treat one another with respect, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to avoid name-calling, to curb our tongues, and to simply be kind, at our peril. And this is not simply feel-good religion. It’s not simply wishy-washy niceness. It is at the heart of the Christian life.

Speaking charitable about others is a simple thing, but hard to do.  Trust me, I engage in this kind of talk myself from time to time. I gossip. I may even call people names, like “fool” behind their back. It’s a terrible thing to do.

How do we know this? Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms.  So don’t overlook this somewhat overlookable passage, which contains a word that we can be certain comes to us directly from the lips of Jesus.

Listen to his words and allow them to change your words

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

God's Love

"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."  (Jn 15: 9)  We who believe in Jesus and His good news of salvation find comfort in these words and well we should.  They are of supreme comfort especially in times of distress when God seems so silent to us.  But have you ever contemplated what this truly means?  Have you ever thought just how God loved Jesus and now Jesus assures us that He loves us in the same manner of His Father?

Think about it for a moment.  When we find ourselves in distress, those moments that accompany every life, we seek comfort.  What we often mean by comfort is relief from our troubles.  We want them to go away as quickly as possible.  That is completely understandable.  None of wants pain or suffering in our lives and when we experience these powerful moments, we want to be rid of them as soon as possible.  We turn to God and may plea with Him, "Take my troubles away from me, O Father of us all!"  We may call out to Him using one of the Psalms.  "Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord!  O Lord, hear the sound of my voice!  Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!"  (Psalm 130: 1-2)

Jesus is certain to have used this very Psalm at times in His life.  He was a good and faithful Jew and not only knew well the Psalms but used these sacred poems as prayer day in and day out.  But we must look at the relationship between Jesus and His Father to gain a better understanding on how God's love was manifested to His Son. 

The prime example of this is Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here, as His Passion neared, Jesus, alone and isolated, cries out to His Father that His suffering may be eliminated.  He knows what is ahead for Him and He is gripped with fear in this humbling moment.  But Jesus, understanding His Father's will for Him, sets aside His own will and surrenders to the will of the Father, the God of us all.  This did not come automatically.  Before Jesus surrenders to His Father's will by saying, "Not my will, but thine, be done."  (Lk 22: 42)  From this moment on, Jesus followed God's will completely even though it meant an excruciatingly painful and humbling death at the hands of the Romans.

In the process of His death and resurrection, Jesus obtained relief for the whole human race.  He suffered under the brutal hands of the Roman executioners who represented us because it was through our sins our Lord was brought to this point.  But before relief, eternal life, could be obtained, it was necessary for the Son to succumb to untold pain and humiliation.  He could not escape this because He surrendered to the will of God and the will of the Father is the beginning and end of everything.

When we suffer in this life, be it suffering from physical sources, psychological reasons, or even spiritual darkness, we must seek out God's will for us.  How should we handle this situation?  We must not automatically seek instant relief from the moment because our current state of life may very well be the will of the Father for our lives in that moment.  We can never pretend that any of us understands the mind of God!

We must go to the Father in prayer just as His Son did on the night before He died.  There are many ways that we can seek out the Father's will for us.  We can look to sacred scripture to find the will of the Father for us.  We can send out from our hearts a plea to the Lord of all for direction.  We can plunge ourselves into silence to wait to hear the voice of the Lord for the Lord's voice is often that still, small voice which goes unnoticed amidst the bustle of daily life. 

Most importantly, we must acknowledge the will of the Father as our will so that we will achieve true eternal happiness one day, even though it may mean we must suffer for the time being.  When we suffer, we must understand that God often uses this suffering to help us understand our complete dependence on Him.  After all, we are more apt to go to God in our pain then when we are experiencing the good times of our lives.  It is only human.

Jesus, again, is our example in this.  As Jesus hung on the cross, He was stripped entirely of everything.  He had no possessions.  He had no comfort.  He had no friends.  Everyone, it seems, was taunting Him.  His complete aloneness must have been frightening!  However, instead of becoming discouraged and giving into the desolation of the moment, He turned to His Father and gave to Him His life for all.  He did not turn away from the will of the One Who sent Him.  In the end of His mortal life, Jesus not only understood His complete dependency on the Father, but He embraced it in the wood of the cross.  He did not give up, nor did He turn His back on His Father.  He kept His focus clearly on the Father and emerged from the experience victoriously.

Here is our perfect model.  We, like Jesus, must embrace our suffering as a sign of the Father's love for us for it is through this suffering that we are reminded of the depth of the love of God for us.  This is not the way the world sees suffering.  We are to escape suffering at all costs using any means possible for the escape.  I am not suggesting that when we suffer we should not seek relief, but I am saying that there are many times throughout life when suffering is inevitable.  We cannot escape it!  So, rather than fight it, feeling rejected and dejected, we must embrace it.  In that moment we can truly claim the love that God has for us and we can truly find the relief that the world cannot provide.

God's love is not some sort of fluff ball all warm and fuzzy all the time.  It can be the most challenging thing we encounter, but if we embrace that love as did His Son all throughout His life, our reward shall be great and we shall not be denied eternal life.  Because the Father allows suffering into our lives, we know that we can turn to Him in any moment of life with our innermost and most intimate of pleas and know we shall be heard! 

God is, indeed, love!