Friday, November 29, 2013


Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, most of us point our direction towards Christmas.  In fact, even as I write this, there are millions making the journey to the local shopping malls, box stores, and electronic establishments to key in on the best bargains and save money while filling shopping carts with the latest gizmos that are sure to make us more prosperous and life easier.  But as we start our annual march toward the big day, I would like to turn your attention to another kind of journey and something we can learn from it.

This journey took place some twenty-one centuries ago in a far off corner of the world that barely anyone alive at that time even noticed.  It was an arduous journey for anyone fit to travel, but to someone who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, the thought of such a journey, some ninety miles in length, would seem to have been unthinkable.  And, yet, there was no option.  The trip must be made.  It was the law!

The journey to which I refer is, of course, one of the most famous journeys ever recorded.  The two travelers were two peasants who lived in the northern reaches of ancient Israel.  They came from a small hill town called Nazareth.  The man, a carpenter, was probably in his late twenties.  The woman (if she could be called such) was most likely in her mid-teens.  Their names were Joseph and Mary and the journey they were undertaking would be a journey that quite literally would alter history.

This journey must have been one of the most uncomfortable few days for the young mother-to-be.  Nine months pregnant and atop a donkey is most like not the way a woman would like to spend the last few days before the birth of her child.  Nonetheless, because of the decree from Caesar Augustus, the couple set out from Nazareth.  I believe we tend to take this journey for granted, but I would like to have you stop and think for a moment and imagine the difficulties and even the dangers they faced along the way.

Travel some two thousand years ago was not for the faint of heart.  We must remember that much of the route taken by Mary and Joseph was desert country, arid and forbidding.  There were no Comfort Inns & Suites.  Rest areas did not exist.  And there was no highway patrol to come to your aid should something happen.  You were on your own.  And these are the more tame problems.  Oftentimes, bands of marauding robbers prowled the roadways, sweeping down on innocent, unsuspecting travelers such as Mary and Joseph robbing them and, as often as not, beating them and leaving them for dead.  Jesus Himself included this peril in one of His most famous parables, that of the Good Samaritan.  (cf Lk 10: 25-37)  Yet, this couple pressed onward despite the dangers not just out of respect for Roman law but more from the love each had for God.

While the couple was complying with the law to report to the ancestral home of the husband, both, it can be seen, understood that this was only a smaller part of the plan that God had for them.  Shortly before this dangerous trek, both had visitations from angels sent by God to invite them to participate in His exquisite plan to save humanity.  It had been a tumultuous time, certainly a time of doubt, a time of uncertainty, and a time of emotional ups and downs.

Think of it.  What would you say or believe if someone was to come to you and announce that an Angel of the Lord had appeared to them and announced that they were to bear the Son of God?  If you were the woman's betrothed, what would you think of her story and then, after you had a dream about your own encounter with an Angel, what would you feel?  Chances are, if you are like me, you would be highly skeptical of the whole thing.  Yet, Mary and Joseph's response was to travel all the way to Bethlehem in Judea because, somehow, God must want that.

While we often forget the difficulty of this journey, either because of the end of the story or because we have managed to romanticize it through songs and picturesque Christmas cards, the fact is that this young Jewish peasant couple made the trip and made it because they trusted God completely and placed their safety and fate in His hands.  And their reward for following God's will turns out to be our reward for at the end of the journey, the Son of God entered the world, and a new journey was begun.  A journey made by the Son of the couple to a hill called Calvary and to a tomb where, after a brutal death, he would rise again thus bringing salvation to the world.

In a sense, all of us are on a journey and we have been from the time of our conception to the present.  For many of us, our journeys have been easy and rather relaxed, free from major difficulties and few troubles.  However, for most of us, the journey has not been without troubles.  Our journeys have often encountered times of enormous challenges and many times we have reached the very edge of defeat.  Are we any different from Mary and Joseph?

Like their's, our journeys are often fraught with the unknown danger and uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.  But so unlike that Jewish couple of centuries ago, we fail to trust completely the will of God in our lives.  We fail to develop a faith that will weather everything if we but surrender fully to our Creator.  Joseph and Mary had no idea where they would stay once they arrived in Bethlehem.  They had no idea when they would return to their hometown.  They even were not certain where their next meal would come from if it came at all.  Yet, they pressed on completely trusting in God to provide for their needs.

The question I have for all of us as we begin our journey towards Christmas and the celebration of the Incarnation, God becoming man, is this.  Are we radical enough in our beliefs so as to turn our fates over to God completely?  Are we willing, like Mary and Joseph, to set out each day, trusting God and following His will completely?  If we were to do this, I am sure that life would become far less complicated for us, allowing us to focus on the reason for our very existence, God, Himself.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Marginalized

One of the most dramatic and disturbing pictures of the year was recently generated at the Vatican in Rome. Pope Francis, while greeting crowds in St. Peter's Square, reached out to a man who, suffering from a neural disease, was grossly deformed.  His deformity was almost so great that it was hard to look at him.  He nearly appeared inhuman.  In the fashion of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who once hugged a leper as a way of overcoming his fear of the dreaded disease, Pope Francis spent time with the man, embracing him, thus assuring him that he was loved despite his appearance.

Pope Francis' act of love and compassion was remarkable but really shouldn't be for all who call themselves Christian.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to reach out to the marginalized of society.  We are called to embrace those who have been isolated by society for whatever reason.  But how successful are we?  

Do we really embrace those who have been tossed to the curb with any sense of respect and dignity? Some, depending on their circumstances, may.  But many others never get our time of day, let alone the respect that is due them.  Jesus addressed this many times.

We, who call ourselves Christians, worship the most marginalized human being to ever exist.  He was at one time accepted, lauded, as a king.  Then, just as quickly, once He became controversial, He was pushed to the side.  So much so, that the government arrested Him and had Him crucified, suffering the ignominious death assigned only to the worst of society.  Only the worst kind of man was crucified and Jesus was, in the eyes of His world, the worst kind of man!  

With this in mind, one of the most famous quotes comes to us from Matthew 25: 40.  "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."   Christ's meaning is obvious here. Whenever we reach out to another in need, we reach out to Jesus.  But there are more examples of Jesus Himself reaching out to the marginalized.

In Matthew 8: 1-17, we find more instances of Jesus reaching out to those in need, those who are on the fringes of polite society.  In verses 1-4, Jesus encounters a leper who approaches Him, asking Him for a cure.  

"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." (Mt 8: 2)

Jesus touched him, saying, "I will; be clean."  (Mt 8: 3)  At that moment, the leper was cured.

This was no simple feat.  It must be remembered how vile and repulsive lepers were.  They were to be avoided at all costs and certainly never allowed to come so close so that they might be touched.  Yet, Jesus fearlessly did embrace the man.  The gospel explicitly goes out of the way to state that Jesus "touched" the man.  He did not just speak to him.  With one word, Jesus could have cured the man without touching him at all.  

However, Jesus, as an example to us all, showed us that we need to be fearless in our approach to the outcasts of this world.  We need have no fear of these individuals because in them, we find Christ.  In fact, in one way, we can come to see Jesus as the least of our brothers for He came to be servant to all.  Therefore, whenever we do something for the least of our brothers, we most definitely are reaching out to Christ to soothe His wounds, to ease His pain.  And in that moment, He embraces us with His compassion and mercy, healing and curing our wounds caused by our sinfulness.

So you see, as Christians, the photo and actions of the Pope really shouldn't make headlines because these actions truly need to become the norm rather than the exception.  Each one of us has our own definition as to who is one who is marginalized.  For one it may be someone with Aids.  For another, it may be the young woman who chose to abort her baby.  For another it may be that alcoholic or drug addicted brother or sister.  We must administer Christ's love to the weakest of those who are among us, for in doing so, we encounter the loving Jesus in a very special way.  Make this the norm in your life!  Come, embrace the Lord in the person of those who have been rejected.  Your life will never be the same!  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time--Zacchaeus & the Ranch (Lk 19: 1-10)

For those of you who have read this blog, you know that I am affiliated with a remarkable place called Renewal Ranch.  The Ranch is a facility whose purpose is to help men recover from their addictions to alcohol and drugs by teaching them how to realign their lives to Christ.  This Sunday's gospel reminds me of the men of the Ranch.  Let me explain.

The story of Zacchaeus from the Gospel of St. Luke is well known.  (cf Lk 19: 1-10)  Zacchaeus was a resident of Jericho.  Not only was he a resident, he was the chief tax collector of the city.  This made him in the mind of his fellow citizens the chief thief among the band of thieves known as tax collectors.  He was despised because he collaborated with the Romans who employed him in the exploitation of his own people.

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have pursued his career with great zest.  A tax collector typically paid Rome a fee for a certain territory.  In return for the payment, Rome guaranteed that this territory would belong exclusively to the collector.  The collector had the option of hiring others and would divide the territory among them.  The collectors could be ruthless.  Typically, tax collectors would not only gather the taxes as set forth by Rome, but assess an amount greater than what was required by Roman law.  Thus, the collector set his own commission and he was always generous with himself.

In plying his trade, Zacchaeus would have had no mercy.  If he went to collect taxes from a widow who would not or could not pay, he would put her out of her house.  If a man could pay the tax as levied by Rome, but not the excess demanded by the tax collector, he would take a mortgage out on the home and evict it's occupants.

However, there was a price to pay if someone decided to collect taxes for Rome.  The collector was forced to give up the practice of his religion.  Since he was viewed as unclean by Jewish standards and law, he was refused access to the temple.  This would have been a sore spot to Zacchaeus because, as we see in the story, he did have a good heart.  It was just buried beneath years of accumulated greed.

But Zacchaeus was not a happy man.  How do we know that?  Zacchaeus had heard much about Jesus. Jericho must have been abuzz about the approach of Jesus to the city.  Jericho was akin to the Las Vegas of today and many people were there vacationing meaning that there were large crowds present.   .Instinctively, Zacchaeus must have known that Jesus brought words filled with messages of hope and peace. Of all things that Zacchaeus possessed, the one thing that was missing was peace.

Now, Zacchaeus was a short man.  When word of Jesus reached Jericho, people began forming on the streets to see him.  Zacchaeus, like so many others of his city, wanted to get a look at this young rabbi of whom much was being said.  When Zacchaeus arrived at the point where Jesus would be passing by, he found that the crowds had already gathered.  Because of his stature, Zacchaeus could not see. Disappointed, he looked around for a better vantage point and spotted a sycamore tree.  Quickly he scaled the tree to gain a good vantage point from which to spot Jesus.

Because the tax chief was so hated and despised by his fellow citizens, they must have looked at him up in that tree and laughed and mocked him, causing some sort of commotion.  As Jesus made His way through the crowds, He certainly saw this raucous and looked up and spotted the little tax collector in the tree.  To Zacchaeus' surprise, Jesus spoke to him.

"Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

One can only imagine Zacchaeus' amazement.  The very man for whom he had climbed the tree to see had actually spoken to him.  And not only that, but this Jesus said that He was coming to his house!  This, despite the obvious disdain the crowds were showing him.

Undaunted, Zacchaeus couldn't come down from the tree fast enough.  He greeted Jesus with great joy and escorted the Lord to his house.

However, not all was well.  The people who witnessed this scene all began to talk among themselves.  They were shocked and scandalized; not an unusual thing for Jesus to experience in light of some of His actions. How could Jesus, a renowned rabbi, actually enter under the roof of this notorious sinner?  It is easy to think that many of them stopped following and listening to Him from that day forward.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus and Jesus went to the tax collector's home. Little is known of the conversation between Zacchaeus and the Lord.  However, what is recorded, says volumes.

Zacchaeus, at some point during His stay, said to Jesus, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any on of anything, I restore it fourfold."  (Lk 19: 8)  This was quite a statement.  Zacchaeus, in the presence of the Lord, stands, apparently without prompting, and declares that he is giving half of his considerable wealth to the poor.  Not only that, but the little man tells Jesus that if there is anyone whom he has defrauded in his life, he will repay fourfold.  Under Jewish law, this was the most stringent standard of restitution.  It was not demanded.  However, Zacchaeus, because of his love of Jesus, declares that he will do far more than the law demands.

Jesus, moved by the sincerity of Zacchaeus, replies, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."  (Lk 19: 9)

Now, those of you who do know about the Ranch may be asking yourself, "What in the world does this story have to do with the men of the Ranch?"

Zacchaeus can be seen as the men of the ranch.  They often have lived lives as men who will get anything they can get in any way they can get it to feed their addictions.  Many have had encounters with the law because they have reverted to stealing and even violence to get what they needed to keep their addiction going.  They walked in darkness, thinking that they were in the light lured there by Satan, the Father of Lies, who told them that it was fine for them to do what they needed to do to satisfy themselves because if they would not take care of themselves, then who would!

Zacchaeus rationalized his mode of existence.  He surely told himself that what he was doing was just fine because through his hard work and cleverness he was taking care of himself.  Besides, he must have told himself, I am acting in a lawful way as prescribed by the Romans.  It is those deadbeats who refuse to pay who are in the wrong.  Rationalization was Satan's weapon with Zacchaeus just as it is with those who become entangled in addictions.

But even in the deepest moments of addiction, the men of the ranch still felt that there was something more to this life.  There was something more than the next drink, the next fix.  Most had no clue whatsoever what that might be, but deep down, they felt a calling, an urging to step toward the light of living in a way that was healthy and stable.

Zacchaeus felt the same way.  Even though he was prosperous, he knew that there was something more to life than making a tidy profit to feed his own desires.  He knew that there was a way of life that promised a sense of peace and gratitude for the things already acquired and a zeal for sharing with others less fortunate what he already had.

The Renewal Ranch is like that tree that Zacchaeus perched himself in to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  It gives men who have been knocked down by life and the choices they have made a vantage point for seeing more clearly what is important.  They yearn for some real substance in their lives, substance that will lead them out of the dark slavery to addiction and the destructive force it becomes not only in their lives but also in the lives of all with whom they live and work.  But what is more important than this is the fact that, just as in the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus comes looking for the men of the Ranch before they go looking for Him.

And that really is the point of the whole story.  Zacchaeus felt the tug of Christ wanting to see him.  Jesus is the one who invited him down from the tree and it is Christ Who invites those men locked in the prison of addiction to the Ranch in order to encounter Him in their darkness.  In the gospel, Jesus comes to Zacchaeus' house at Jesus' invitation!  The same can be said for the Ranch.  The men may seek out the Ranch, however, long before they began their search, the invitation from Christ to come the Ranch has been extended.  The love of God always precedes our every action.  We do not first approach Him.  He approaches us and always in love.

Thus, the men of the Ranch come before Christ, seeking to surrender their every possession, to gain an eternal life, that unlike their possessions, will not diminish.  Just as Zacchaeus surrendered to the mercy and love of Jesus, the men of the Ranch surrender their addictions and addictive behavior to the Savior and, in the process, they, to can hear the words of Christ, "Today, salvation has come to this house...For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost."