A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for October, 2013

Who is “better” than whom?

If we are honest with ourselves we should admit to being somewhat biased.  For example, how do I feel about the other person who comes from a different country and speaks a strange language?  Or what of the individual who has a different colored skin, or is economically downtrodden?  No matter how much we try, there appears to be a built in emotional distance.  The fact is that negative bias is definitely learned, and quite likely developed from sterotypes.

In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus speaks to people who are convinced of their own righteousnes, and believe that others are worthless.  His form of explanation is a parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The former would be considered middle class and be part of a well respected group in society.  The latter would not be popular with the people because of the job that he has collecting tax.

As the parable begins, both go to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee begins by bragging   what a good guy he is.  He tells God that he is glad that he is not like thieves, adulterers, or even like that tax collector in the temple.  He fasts semi-weekly, gives ten percent of his salary to the Temple treasury,   While on the other hand, the tax collector with eyes facing the floor, strkes his breast and says, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Then we notice a contrast between the two.

Their form of prayer is contrasted by centering on the themes of EXTERIORITY and INTERIORITY.  From an exterior point of view, the Pharisee is a well respected member of the community, and could be considered middle class.  On the other hand, the tax collector is not liked by the people for the kind of work that he does.  Sadly, the people make their judgement based  on their exterior observation.  Exteriorly, the Pharisee seems more respected.

However, from an interior point of view, it is the tax collector who comes out on top.  The Pharisee talks about his virtues as if he were totally responsible for them.  Seems as though he didn’t   need anybody else.  The tax collector, on the other hand, was aware of his own limitations and probably realized that he might have cheated others,  He asks God to be merciful to him.

Jesus said, in effect, that the tax collector went home justified, but the Pharisee did not.  Why?  Because what really counts is the interior part of the person, since that is where motivations, moral value judgements, and attitudes lie.  Actions follow decisions which are internal.

What can we learn from the above Gospel reading?  Basiscally, I would say at least three things.

First, it is necessary to make a distinction between the external and internal aspects of our personality.  Probable evaluation is made when the internal aspects are focussed upon.  They provide the motivation and value system for our actions.  The old adage no doubt has merit.  To wit:  “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  We don’t have total control of the exterior aspects of our person.  We are born into it.  However, we do have control over the internal aspects of who we are.  We make our decisions based on our motivations and values.

Second, in our dealing with other people, we should pay more attention to the interior dimension as the basis for judgement.  Quite often we are lulled by early stereotypes such as wealth and upper class status as basis of behavior.  This is sad.

Third, our prayer life should not be limited to always asking for something.  It would be well for our interior dimension to include a plea for mercy or an act of thanksgiving. This would give more meaning to prayer–and to our relationship with God.

Pharisee and Publican - Tewkesbury Abbey

Pharisee and Publican – Tewkesbury Abbey (Photo credit: Walwyn)

Recall the final words of Jesus in the parable as proposing the final contrast:  “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”  Our role in this contrast will be determined by our choice of whether our judgement on others is based upon external or internal criteria.

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How a widow got the best over a judge

In the 1920s  the suffragette movement made it possible for women to vote.  In the 1960s the civil rights movement helped to bring about legislation to give blacks a sense of equality in our society.  One of the principle causes for these results was “persistence.”

In the Gospel (Luke 18:1-8),  Jesus tells his disciples to be persistent.  “…pray always without becoming weary.”  Jesus underscores the notion of persistence by telling them  a parable.

There was a judge in a certain town who feared neither God nor any human being.  He did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.  However, there was also a widow in the same town who had a pending case.  The judge refused to handle it.  The widow refused to stop asking for a fair judgement.  This contretemp was finally settled when the judge said, in effect, “This widow keeps bothering me.  I had better do something about her case, otherwise she will come and hit me with her umbrella.”  The widow finally received justice, principally because  of her persistence.

But Jesus wanted a certain kind of persistence from his disciples.  He wanted a “faith based” persistence in prayer.  Well, what does that mean?  It means that we have to take seriously the realities of prayer and faith.   

Prayer is, above all, our conversation with God.  In conversation between friends, one speaks from the heart.  One needs no script.  And in that prayerful conversation, we can hear one of three answers:  yes, no, maybe.  “Yes”, my petition is granted.  “No,”  this is not the right time for my request.  “Maybe,” but I must make sure that my motivation must not be selfish.  The Lord’s Prayer is a good model, that is, the first part of the prayer is “praise” and the second part is the “petition.”  This combination of praise and petition in prayers keeps us from asking for something all the time.

Faith is based on trust.  IF we trust that Jesus is with us in bad times as well as in good times, then we have faith in Jesus, especially when our answer in prayer has been a “no,” or a “maybe.”

Above all, it seems to me that if we see prayer as conversation with God, we realize that we are communicating from the heart, which makes the communicarion REAL  No script.  And if our answers from prayer are “no” or “maybe,” then awareness of a faith based persistence will help us to hope for a “yes” answer.

 

And then there were nine…

Luke in his Gospel has Jesus “on the road” to Jerusalem where he will experience a passion, death, and resurrection, as the basis of our salvation.  Stops along the journey are contexts where Jesus teaches his followers items of significance.  This particular journey stop is about gratitude.  (Luke 17: 11-19).

When Jesus enters a certain village, ten lepers cry out from a distance, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us.”  As is his custom, Jesus responds to those affllicted.  He says, in accordance with the Mosaic law, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  As they are on their way, they are cleansed from their disease.  It turns out that Jesus has performed a miracle.

Curiously, only one of the ten healed lepers returned to give thanks to Jesus for the miracle.  The other nine took it for granted that the famous Jesus would heal them which he did.  They thought this healing was due to them for being fellow Jews.  It tutned out to be a moment when Jesus would continue the pattern of contrasts (lepers/non lepers; Jews/Samaritan; gratitude/ ingratitude) by concentrating on the gratitude/ingratitude contrast.

The person giving thanks was a Samaritan, a non Jew.  Jews and Samaritans did not get along well with each other.  Consequently, the gratitude/ ingratitude contrast was made all the more obvious.  You can almost see Jesus asking disappointedly, “Ten were cleansed were they not?  Where are the other nine?”  If ingratitude had teeth, a big bite would have been taken out of Jesus at that moment.  It was a Samaritan, not a Jew, who gave thanks.

Finally, Jesus turned to the Samaritan and said, “Stand up and go.  Your faith has saved you.”  What kind of faith did the Samaritan have that merited his salvation?  After the miracle of healing, many translations have, “And one of them, realizing that he had been cleaned returned….”  The word translated as “realizing,” in the Greek is odwn, which means “seeing.”  So what the text actually says is, “One of them,” seeing” that he had been cleaned returned….”  

We look at the word “seeing” and note its twofold interpretation, namely, seeing visually (the fact that the Samaritan was cleansed from leprosy), and seeing spiritually (conversion from ingratitude to gratitude).  Consequently, the FAITH  of the Samaritan which merited him salvation was the gratitude he acknowledged that Jesus was primarily responsible for all that happened to him–both good and bad.  Bad things allow us to appreciate the good things.

What can we learn from the above Gospel reading?   First, we are all sinners, much like spiritual lepers, who often cry to Jesus to have mercy.  This we do at the Confiteor at Mass and through the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).  Second, we would do well to pray for the spiritual vision of conversion so that we can SEE the works of  Jesus in our lives. Thirdly, Be thankful for all that we receive–good things and bad things.    

Recognizing our sinfulness, seeing Jesus/God at work in our lives, and being grateful for what we receive will help be more hopeful and effective Christians.  Though the feast of Thanksgiving comes but once a year, it can come every day for the believer.

 

 

 

I find that hard to believe…

In his Gospel, Luke has Jesus “on the road” to Jerusalem, making periodic stops to teach a lesson to his followers.  In the Gospel passage (Luke 17:5-10) Jesus touches upon two basic motivational virtues for effective discipleship–Faith and Service.  Throughout the Gospels much is said about the virtue of service, so it seems to me that the principal focus here is the gift of faith.

Why faith?  Because faith is the future hoped for out of this present morass.  Many of us in the  present encounter various difficulties, but have a hoped for future resolution.  Faith provides that continuity which makes future  solutions possible.  In the above cited biblical section, the disciples ask Jesus to strengthen their faith.  Why?

One can suppose that the disciples/apostles had a sense that something serious was going to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.  As his companions for quite some time, they were able to see how he treated people.    Mostly with kindness, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.  But, very likely, there was a dread that something bad  would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.  I suspect that there were some kind of rumors circulating about future Jerusalem events, possibly his passion and probable death.

No wonder that disciples/aspostles asked for an increase in faith.  They would then  be able to handle the disconnect between reality (Jeus’ behavior toward others) and future Jerusalem events (suffering and probable death of Jeus).

How did Jesus react to the request?  By telling a parable that emphasized the power of faith,  though it be small but sincere.  If one had the faith as small as the mustard see, one could say to it, “Go plant yourself in the sea,” and it would do so.

We have here an example of emphasis by hyperbole.  We often do it ourselves.  For example, we might say to someone, “I told you a million times not to do that.”  Well, it might has been only four or five times, but by saying a “million”  the point is thus emphasized.

What messages can we gain from this Gospel passage?  First, we receive the gift of faith at  Baptism, which faith has to be increased as we grow older. We commit a serious mistake thinking that  our faith  learned only with First Communion and Confirmation classes will suffice to deal with adult problems.  You can’t solve adult problems with a child’s understanding of faith.  Le me ask you this.  Would you prefer to have your cancer surgery done by a child applying a band aid or by a  competent physiciani?  I think not.

The first lesson would be to participate in a situation where you learn more about your faith in order to confront and deal with adult problems.  The second lesson is to fortify our faith by commiting ourselves to the person of Jesus.  Strength will come from fortifying that relationship.  Ongoing knowledge and constant reaffirmation of belonging to Jesus seem as close as you can come to being an effective disciple.  Believe it.  It’s true.

What do Scrooge and Lazarus have in common?

Around Christmas time every year we get a flurry of Christmas stories on TV that purport to tell us what moral values the feast day promotes.  One of the stories that is frequently presented is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  You know the plot.  Scrooge is a stingy and selfish person who is more concerned about making money than by expressing concern for people.

On Christmas Eve he refuses to give the holiday day off to his employees because there will be money to be made on Christmas.  Then that night he has a strange dream.  Jacob Marley, one of his predecessors, comes to him bound in chains and tells Scrooge to change his oppressive ways before it is too late.  The rest of the dream only reinforces that notion that “after death there is a reversal of fortunes.”  

The Gospel account in Luke (Luke 16:19-31) is somewhat similar.  In Jesus’ parable, there is a rich man who culpably ignores the needs of Lazarus, a poor, sick wretch who has nothing to eat; while the rich man, within the poor man’s view, eats sumptuously and offers him nothing.  Then both men die, and we see the aim of the parable, namely,  “After death there is a reversal of fortune.”

What does the comparison mean?  The theme “After death there is a reversal of fortune” was based on choice.  Scrooge chose one way and the rich man in Jesus’ parable chose another.  Scrooge chose to take his dream seriously, so while alive he became considerate of others.  The rich man of the parable did not make his choice while alive, and only became aware of his misdeeds after death.

For example.  After death, Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man to hell–a reversal of fortune.  There is a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham who was spokesperson for Lazarus.  The rich man asks for water “to quench the fire,” but this is denied him.  Then the rich man asks that someone from the dead be sent to his five brothers, who are now living as he was.  Abraham says solemnly, “They have Moses and the prophets.  If your brothers don’t believe them, how are they going to believe someone from the dead?”

Consequently, the matter is present choice which will determine future status.  Do I choose what Jesus tells me in terms of treating others–with justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding?  Or not?  Scrooge’s dream opened up the inner voice of conscience and so was able to treat others kindly and with compassion.  This was while he was still alive.  He chose well.  He learned his lesson, and I think we should learn ours as well.

 

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