Sunday, July 26, 2020

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 3:5.7-12; Ps 119:57.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8:28-30; Matt 13:44-52

To this day, while less frequently than in the past, we still hear the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon.” As the young and newly consecrated king of God’s chosen people, Solomon implored God to give him a wise and understanding heart. Wisdom and understanding are, of course, gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Because they are gifts bestowed by and through the Holy Spirit, wisdom and understanding are “charisms.” Unlike the popular parody, a charismatic Christian is one possessed of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These gifts, in turn, produce the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Being fruitful for God’s Kingdom is the fundamental point of the torrent of parables we have heard the past several Sundays.

Wisdom and understanding are more than apprehending the truth. This is especially the case given that culturally and religiously we tend to think of truth in an abstract, static, disembodied, and atemporal way. In short, a person can apprehend the truth and still be a fool.

The word “philosophy” is a compound Greek word: philo, derived from philia, one of the four words the Greek language possesses for love, refers to the deep love of genuine friendship. Aristotle thought philia the highest form of human love. He defines philia thus: “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”1 Let’s not forget that Jesus calls us not to be servants but his friends.2

“Sophy,” comes from sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. Love of wisdom should not be mistaken for possession of the same. After all, there are so-called “sophists.” A sophist is a person who convincingly plays the part of a wise person but who misleads either intentionally or unintentionally. Our world, especially in this age of mass communication, is full of sophists. Many are of the pseudo-Catholic variety. Wisdom requires discernment.

A wise heart is an understanding heart. An understanding heart is a listening heart. Wisdom, we might say, is understanding embodied or, better yet, personified. Wisdom is knowledge + understanding + simplicity x humility.

Wisdom can only grow in the soil of humility. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which refers to rich soil. “Humility,” it has been observed, “is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” A self-centered person cannot be a wise person.

Wisdom is simplicity itself. Simplicity is trusting God like a little child trusts her Mom. This is the point Saint Paul seeks to make in our second reading. All too often the phrase “all things work together for the good,” like many passages in Sacred Scripture, is ripped from its context and turned into a pious platitude, fitting for any occasion when the inevitable question, Why?, is asked in the face of suffering. Far from comforting, pious platitudes are hurtful, harmful, and often infuriating. As Rich Mullins sang concerning suffering: “… it would not hurt any less even if it could be explained.”3

Paul tempers the well-intended but misguided universality with which “all things work together for the good” is usually employed by adding “for those who love God” and “who are called according to his purpose.”4 In and of itself, suffering has no inherent meaning. Suffering needs to be redeemed and redemption, like childbirth, as Paul notes earlier in the same chapter from which our second reading is taken, is painful and life-giving.5

The suffering Jesus underwent during his Passion and Crucifixion was redemptive because he freely submitted himself when he prayed to the Father in the power of the Spirit: “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”6 As Paul notes earlier in Romans: “We were indeed buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”7 Baptism is your “not as I will, but as you will” offering to God. Paul, in our second reading, writes about being conformed to the image of the Son of God.8 The image of Jesus Christ is cruciform.

Let’s never forget that those who love God and seek to fulfill his purpose are those who not only love their neighbor but who also love their enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, found earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks: "For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?"9

“The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord,” which is why through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, in simplicity we need to ruthlessly place our trust in God.10 It is through this ruthless trust in God, who is love, that you realize “There is no fear in love.”11 This is to experience through the circumstances of your own life the cosmos-shattering reality that Christ has conquered death. Christus resurrexit qui Deus caritas est!- Christ is risen because God is love!12

“The kingdom of heaven is like…” We should always pay attention when this phrase is invoked by Jesus in the Gospels. If you pay attention, you will quickly see that when compared to how the world works, the Kingdom of God is a bizarro world. When approaching the Gospel of Matthew, it is also useful to keep in mind that it was written for Jewish Christians, members of what we might call a Christian synagogue.

Again this week, we hear multiple parables; four to be exact. All of these make more sense when understood from a Jewish perspective. In the first short parable, according to Torah, once purchased, a property, both surface and subsurface, unlike ownership in our society, belongs entirely to the owner.13 Therefore, to sneak into the field and unearth a buried treasure, even one the owner does not know exists, is thievery. So great is the wisdom of God in Christ that it is worth all that is you own, no matter how rich you are.

Several ancient rabbinic sources link Torah study to the great value of pearls.14 The wisdom of God is indeed conveyed in the scriptures. Hence, we must not only read scripture but develop wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to read fruitfully and not to only confirm our lazy preconceptions, which are very often misconceptions. Reading the scriptures faithfully and fruitfully allows us to be both challenged and surprised.

The image of fishermen sorting fish is one readily recognizable to Jesus’s immediate listeners. Remember, according to the inspired author of Matthew, they remain gathered along the shore listening to this teacher from Nazareth as he sat in a fishing boat. Jewish fishermen on the Sea of Galilee would have had to sort kosher from non-kosher fish15. Jesus redefines kosher by insisting that it is what comes out of a person, not what goes in, that ultimately matters.16 According to Jesus, orthopraxis- doing right- trumps orthodoxy- believing rightly- every time.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists that he does not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.17 This is likely what he refers to when he mentions bringing out the old with the new. For followers of Jesus, Torah teachings are still valid. Jesus's “new” teachings concerning them not only further reveal their meaning but clarify their purpose.18 In short, Jesus shows how the Torah provides the means for the end of loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor (and your enemy) as you love yourself.

This kind of love, self-sacrificing love, in Greek agape, in Latin caritas, is the culmination of wisdom.

1 Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1380c36-1381a2.
2 John 15:15.
3 Rich Mullins, "Hard to Get," off The Jesus Record.
4 Romans 8:28.
5 Romans 8:22-23.
6 Matthew 26:39.
7 Romans 6:4..
8 Romans 8:29.
9 Matthew 5:46..
10 Proverbs 9:10.
11 1 John 4:8.16; 1 John 4:18.
12 Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Urbi et Orbi address, 16 April 2006.
13 Footnote to Matthew 13:44 in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 36-37.
14 Footnote to Matthew 13:45 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.
15 Footnote to Matthew 13:48 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.
16 Matthew 15:11.
17 Matthew 5:17.
18 Footnote to Matthew 13:52 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Bearing fruit for God's Kingdom

Readings: Wis 12:13.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

Do you pray regularly? If you pray regularly, how often do you find it difficult to pray? I don't mind admitting that frequently I find intercessory prayer difficult. When someone is very ill or badly injured, at least as a first approach, I pray for healing. As the situation unfolds, perhaps taking some unexpected turns, do I stubbornly keep praying for the same outcome? Of course, the caveat for all prayers of petition and intercession is that God's will be done. It is rarely easy to know God's will. It becomes readily apparent that my will is not God's will.

Even when a situation has reached its conclusion, I can't always say that God's will was accomplished. No doubt, sometimes this is just denial but at other times it is not. I don't perceive God as a cosmic micromanager. Sometimes the answer to that most human of questions "Why?" is "I don't know." This is especially when true when the question "How could God let this happen?" is raised in the face of some undeniably evil or bad situation.

Silence is not only important but necessary when praying. Sometimes, all I can manage in prayer is a groan or a sigh. According to Saint Paul, this is just fine. Because we have been given the Spirit, it is the Spirit who searches to the very depths of our hearts and brings our prayers and longings that are too deep for words before God. In other words, sometimes what we might be tempted to view as our worst prayers become our most eloquent.

This focus on prayer seems to segue nicely into today's Gospel. Weeds do not only grow alongside wheat in the Church but in our hearts. Whenever issues of judgment arise in Jesus's teaching it becomes clear that judgment is reserved to God alone. You and I are in no position to judge. The answer to Pope Francis's rhetorical question "Who am I to judge?" is because I am not God, I am in no position to judge another.

Illustration of wheat and tare, which is which?

Jesus's moral teachings are most fruitfully taken in the first person singular. In fact, it is a mistake to take them any other way. Whose sins do you confess? Your own and nobody else's. Some of the most deeply rooted weeds that tend to grow in our hearts are religious in nature. For this, too, we need the Holy Spirit to search our hearts, shining light into the dark places, bringing what is found there into the light.

What is the yeast to which Jesus refers except the Spirit lovingly poured into our hearts? What is the mustard seed but the seed of faith planted by the Holy Spirit?

Once harvested, wheat becomes flour. Flour in turn is often made into bread. This allows us to give thanks saying, "Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life." Along with the divine word, the bread becomes the seed of faith. We must not be content to just "nurture" the seed. We have to let it grow. Plants can die from too much care and cultivation. When planted, sown, and properly nurtured, this seed of grace must become not just a large plant but also a fruitful one.

Many Western Christians read the writings of Saint Paul in a very attenuated manner, that is, in an antinomian way. In other words, Paul is read in such a way that it lets the Christian reader off-the-hook. While it may be true that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we have to be clear that faith without works is dead. To wit: dead faith is no faith. If faith without works is no faith then it has no power to save. Our often peculiar reading of Paul, rooted in a history of bad translation and even worse exegesis, must be overcome. This bad reading of Paul's letters is tantamount to sowing weeds in the wheat field.

It is important to note that Paul does not teach a different Gospel than Jesus taught. The inescapable core of the one and only Gospel is salvation through good works. A fruit-bearing plant can look healthy and yet be fruitless (ever tried growing tomatoes in an unsuitable spot?). A Christian can look pious and yet lack works of charity, failing to give alms, which means failing to help those in need. Just like the fruitful plant needs rain and sunlight, we need God's grace to be fruitful.

The teachings of Jesus Christ are more than a challenge. When understood properly, these teachings serve as a provocation. Being a Christian means letting yourself be provoked. By attending to the Spirit and letting the Spirit attend to you your concrete, that is, corporal works become works of the Spirit.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 5:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18.23; Matt 13:1-23

Receiving communion is our response to God’s Word. Receiving Christ is akin to God planting a seed of grace in us. This seed is planted to bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. This insight is revealed when, at the end of Mass, you are dismissed with words like “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”1 Being sent in this way is what makes the Church truly apostolic. In Greek, “apostle” simply means one who is sent. Apostolicity is much more than a controversial and likely dubious historical claim.

Mass is the privileged place for reading, hearing, discussing, and responding to God’s word. It is how Christ continues Christ to sow the word of the Kingdom. Perhaps we can think of the Liturgy of the Word, which immediately precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as the way we prepare the soil of our hearts to fruitfully receive communion. Of course, Jesus is really and truly present in the proclamation of word as he is the consecrated bread and wine. This means the readings we hear are in no way extraneous but are essential to the Eucharist. Preaching, when done well, aids our comprehension and appropriation of the divine word.

Our reading from Isaiah tells us God’s word does not return empty but accomplishes what God desires.2 Elsewhere in scripture we learn God desires “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”3 As those who profess not only to believe in God but to follow his Son, each of us should ask ourselves, “What do I desire?” We then need to examine your honest answer in light of God’s desire, asking, "Is my desire God's desire?"

It is worth noting that in today’s Gospel Jesus addresses a large crowd. It was so large that to effectively teach them, Jesus had to abandon the beach for a boat, which could be pushed away from the shore, creating a kind of amphitheater allowing him to address the entire crowd. These were people eager to hear this man from Nazareth.

When reading the scriptures we often miss details that are both obvious and important. What is easy to miss in today’s Gospel is how provocative Jesus’s message is in its given context. Perhaps more provocative is the Lord's reply to the question posed by his disciples concerning his reason for teaching in parables.

It seems that the concern of Jesus’s disciples about him teaching in parables is that people might fail to understand the message he intends to convey. Not only that but, as subsequent Christian history amply demonstrates, parables can be misunderstood and misapplied. Beyond this concern, there is another question that arises from what might be described as our meta-perspective. If it is God’s desire that “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth,” does Jesus really want to hide the truth from some people?

At least from a Christian perspective, this is something of rhetorical question the answer to which is “No.” Jesus wants those who hear the word of the Kingdom, especially those who listen grudgingly and whose hearts have grown crass, to hear with new ears and understand with their hearts. In other words, he desires that upon hearing the word of the Kingdom they will repent and turn back to God and by doing so be healed.

The Sower at Sunset, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Just prior to receiving communion, we humbly acknowledge our unworthiness and profess that if the Lord will but say the word we will be healed.4 Jesus speaks the word of healing as often as we ask. But to receive it we must listen. Otherwise, you are just taking it for granted, being presumptuous.

Sadly, we often hear without listening. Listening requires attention and intention. To really listen to someone takes a lot of energy. Again, given our meta-perspective, which, in this instance, we gain by “hearing” Jesus unpack the parable for his disciples, think about how it might seem if all you heard was the parable without the explanation. Holding the answer card makes Alex Trebek seem like a Jeopardy master. Without what you heard you likely would not know what the parable is about. What is the seed? To what does the soil correspond? Through the scripture Jesus pulls you close, revealing to you the mysteries of the Kingdom.

This meta-perspective is another way of referring to what Jesus indicates when he says to his disciples “many prophets and upright men yearned to see the things you see… and to hear the things you hear…”5 By your hearing today, you are privileged in that you are one of the disciples for whom Jesus breaks this parable down. This privilege contains the same call to discipleship, the call to yield fruit for God’s Kingdom. So, you are without excuse except to say, "I wasn't listening."

How is the soil of your heart cultivated? At least in part and only in part, the answer consists of one-word: suffering. Christians can endure suffering because we have hope. It often bears noting that hope lies beyond optimism. According to Saint Paul, hope is gained by the conviction that our present sufferings cannot hold a candle to “the coming glory that will be revealed to us.”6 The sufferings to which the apostle refers include even those that arise from our failures.

That the suffering to which Paul refers is all-inclusive is indicated by his insistence that “creation was made subordinate to pointlessness” by the Creator.7 God subjected creation to futility so he could liberate it from death and sin. Fundamentally, this is why hope lies beyond optimism. Without hope existence is absurdity. The difference between optimism and hope is the difference between seeking to realize your own desires and bearing fruit for God's Kingdom. As Americans, we've grown far too lazy in seeing what I want as God's will for my life.

At the great Easter Vigil, in the ancient hymn known as the Exsultet, sung at the beginning of this most important of all liturgies, the Church proclaims: “O truly necessary sin of Adam... O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer!”8

While it is assured, our redemption is still a work in progress as is creation itself. The “turn” about which Jesus speaks is often a slow one, one that includes turning back like “'The dog returns to a dog to its own vomit' and 'The bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire,'” to cite scripture.9 Keeping in mind we’re often our own worst enemy, let us not forget what Paul wrote later in the same chapter from which our second reading is taken: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”10

God is for us! This is the Good News, my friends. Let us receive it today anew so that by grace we reflect the Father’s love given in and through his Son, which reflection is the work of the Holy Spirit. To this end and confident in God’s promise that his word will not return empty, let’s continue to cultivate the soil of our hearts by listening to, reading, praying with, and responding to God’s word, listening with our hearts, humbly letting ourselves be provoked, challenged, changed, converted. This is how you bear fruit for God’s Kingdom.

1 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, The Concluding Rites, sec. 144.
2 Isaiah 55:11 in Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Prophets, 808.
3 1 Timothy 2:4.
4 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, The Communion Rite, sec. 132.
5 Matthew 13:17 in David Bentley Hart The New Testament: A Translation, 25.
6 Romans 8:18 in The New Testament, 303.
7 Romans 8:20 in The New Testament, 303.
8 Roman Missal, The Easter Vigil, sec. 29.
9 2 Peter 2:22.
10 Romans 8:31.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Body, flesh, Spirit

Readings: Zech 9:9-10; Ps 145:1-2.8-11.13-14; Rom 8:9.11-13; Matt 11:25-30

Given that is Independence Day weekend, for those of us in the United States today's Gospel reading is appropriate insofar as it pertains to being liberated from heavy burdens. But political liberation, whatever that might mean, is far from sufficient for our humanity in terms of being truly free. Life can be and often is very burdensome. If this life is all there is you are faced with two choices: carrying the heavy load or just dropping it and walking away. While choosing the latter may lighten your burden for a while, the freedom doesn't last. As a result, can't satisfy our longing. The idea of just carrying a load to the end turns such an end into a bitter one.

Properly considered, freedom is positive (i.e., freedom for) and not negative (freedom from). Sure, there are things from which one must be freed from before freedom can be positively exercised. Just as sea-going vessels inevitably accumulate barnacles, we acquire burdens sailing the sea of life. It doesn't take much wisdom to figure out that repeatedly dropping everything and moving on is not the road to happiness, fulfillment, or satisfaction.

Saint Paul, in the passage that serves as our second reading, taken from his Letter to the Romans, gives some insight into what we might call "the spiritual dynamics of human liberation." Once again, I think looking at a couple of terms from the original language in which the apostle wrote (Koine Greek) is useful. To really grasp what Paul was saying and to avoid a common mistake concerning what he was not saying isn't easy when reading an English translation. The reason for this is that there are two nouns that Paul uses to refer to distinct phenomena that are often mistaken as having the same referent, namely the body. In Greek, the term for "body" is soma and the word for "flesh" is sarx. The mixture of soma, sarx, and pneuma in several Pauline passages has proven to be a accelerator for a peculiar form of Christian gnosticism.

Like "flesh" in English, sarx can refer to the soft tissue, infused with blood, attached to the bones of living bodies. But Saint Paul typically used sarx to refer to another of its meanings: our sensuous nature that causes us to sin. Soma, by contrast, is the word the apostle uses to refer to the human body. This distinction is important because in nowise can Christianity, a religion rooted in the Incarnation of the Son of God, reject the human body.

According to any genuinely Christian anthropology, bodies are good. So good, in fact, yours will be resurrected. Stated simply, you are your body! Of course, the Greek word pneuma refers to spirit or, in this passage, the Spirit. According to Paul, it is the Spirit's power that empowers you to overcome "the flesh," in the sense he used it in this passage, through your body. This a very complicated way of saying that whether you live according to the flesh or the Spirit is about how you live your life, particularly how you think about, approach, engage, and relate to others. By "others," I mean "the other," the person who is not like you. The one who is the Jew to your Samaritan or vice-versa.

To live according to the flesh is something akin to living unreflectively and without intention. Following Jesus requires you to constantly examine your assumptions in the light of his teachings and example. He loves you too much to allow you to revel in smug assertions because to live that way is to close yourself to the beauty of the mystery you inhabit.

Losing your sense of wonder is to cease being one of the "little ones" to whom the Father unveils, by means of the Spirit, "hidden things." Therefore, the Gospel bids you to challenge yourself, to become aware of, engage, and with the help of the Spirit, overcome your hidden biases and your smug assertions. Being human means being a debtor to the flesh.

Because it is universal, Christianity must not be conceived of as tribal. You are not Christian because you come from a certain ethnic or national background. To be a "Catholic" or "catholic" Christian is to definitively reject all forms of sectarianism. Being Christian means rejecting tribalism, rejecting your all too natural tendency to strongly identify with your "in-group" to the exclusion of all "out-groups." Failure to do that is to remain in the flesh.

When read from a Christian perspective, the reading from the prophet Zechariah is a prophecy about Jesus. What it says is that God's reign, initiated and sustained by the Spirit, is not established by force or violence. It through meekness that Jesus conquers the world by first conquering our hearts. This is the Father whom reveals. 

Koinonia: One God, three persons

The end of our second reading is from the conclusion of Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Koinonia is the Greek word trans...