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

Archive for April, 2015

Building Relationships

As any competent public speaker would know, one has to know something about the audience before a “message” can be adequately delivered.  The reason being, of course,  that if a “message” is to be considered significant and personally meaningful it has to “speak” in the imagery that is known to the listener.

When Jesus preached his message, his major audience was, primariy, the pastor and the farmer. So the imagery utilized was that of plants, trees, seeds, and animals of one kind or another.

Interestingly enough, one of the most frequent images in the Bible is the sheep and the shepherd.  Abraham, Moses, David were all shepherds.  It seems that some of the significant leaders of Israel were shepherds because of the relationship that the image tells us existed between sheep and shepherds.

We are aware that Jesus is often referred to as the ideal shepherd.  Remember the Gospel account (Luke 15:2-7) of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to search for the one who was lost? The point being that the one who repents is worthy of being saved.

The church carries on the potential impact of the image of that sheep-servant in the Mass.  Just before the celebrant distributes communion to the faithful, he raises a consecrated host and says to the congregation, “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world….”

In fact, it should be no surprise that the priest who is in charge of a parish, being responsible for the members, should be called a pastor.

In the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:11-18), Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. Why?  It is likely that there are two good reasons for this.  First, Jesus is willing to die for his sheep.  Second, Jesus knows his sheep intimately.

Regarding the first point.  In the text itself, the response of the hireling to danger is clearly expressed.  He works for pay, and the sheep are not his.  So, he can run away since he has no obligation to stay.  Regarding the second reason, again the text says that the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd.  Anyone who owns a pet is aware of this.  A bond is formed.

And the bond is stregthened when the sheep become aware that the shepherd will do anything to protect the sheep, even to die. What is particularly important is that the sheep become more aware of the love, care, and concern that the shepherd expresses to the sheep–because they are his.  There is a real intimacy that has developed in the bilateral relationship between sheep and shepherd in this context.

What are some of the probable lessons that we can learn from this Gospel reading?  Above all, the major lesson that we can learn is that by virtue of our Baptism we are responsible to/for others.  In that sense, the baptized person is destined to be a “good shepherd.”

This means that we have to be willing to “die” for others.  In this context, to “die” means to exert extreme effort to be of service to others.  For example, going beyond the normal to see that justice is done, compassion is expressed, forgivenes is experienced, and understanding exists.  There is always that challenge to go “beyond.”  We may be bothered by questions like, “Do I want to get involved?” “What is the basis for my wanting to help others?”  These questions demand an answer if our behavior is to have any meaning.

It is well to remember that Baptism reminds us that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, so that there is a predisposed equality among us.  And it is the willingness to “die” (exert extreme effort) for helping others, and the love and concern that we show to them that make this experience a good way of building relationships.  In time, reciprocity of behavior unfolds.

 

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Peace, Holy Spirit, and Thomas

Fear can cause many imaginary threats.  Children are afraid of the “bogey-man.”  Many people are afraid to go out alone at night.  In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31), some of the disciples were so afraid that they locked the doors in the room where they were staying.

If truth be told, they were close friends of Jesus, and Jesus had recently been killed.  They didn’t know what to expect.  All of a sudden, the risen Jesus had confronted them with his presence in spite of the locked doors.  No doubt, they were “spooked.”  They didn’t know what to make of the situation.

But to demonstrate that it was not a vision they were seeing, he showed them his hands and his feet.  This post-resurrection Jesus was the same individual they had known–the pre-resurrection Jesus.  The biblical text tells us that the disciples were overjoyed, and later expressed that joy in dealing with the public through their preaching.  What had happened to bring this about?

In the first part of this Gospel reading, I would like to make two suggestions that might try to deal with the “what.”  Namely, Jesus greeting the disciples with the greeting of peace.  Also, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples which will give them the energy to proclaim Jesus effectively.

First of all, Jesus greets his diciples with the phrase “Peace be with you.”  The Greek word is EIRENE which is virtually equivalent to theHebrew word for “peace,”  namely, SHALOM.  The Hebrew word does not mean the absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness.  That is, the “goodness” brought about by Jesus, such as dignity, respect, and fairness.

In fact, other languages appear to be entrusting the other person to God by way of saying farewell.  Spanish says “A-Dios” (to God I entrust you).  In English when we say “Goodbye,”  we are using the very shortened form of “God be with you.”  Am sure there are other examples in other languages as well.

Secondly, when Jesus breathed upon the disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit, I strongly suspect that this brought to the mind of readers the section in Genesis when God breathed life into Adam and gave him life.  There was an ancient belief that when a holy person breathed upon someone else, something special was passed on.

Regarding the phrase the “Holy Spirit” we understand that we talking about “breath” (God’s life giving force.)  In fact, it would seem to me that a better translation of “Holy Spirit”to be “the creative power of God.” In fact, we see the first chapter of Genesis where the text speaks of power of God creating the world.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (Hebrew=RUAH=wind, spirit, power) swept over the face of the waters.” Gen. 1:1-2 RSV).  Creation followed.

The disciple Thomas did not believe the other disciples’ joy at having seen Jesus unless he himself saw and touched the post-resurrection Jesus himself.  Jesus came a week later and told Thomas to see and touch him so the his faith may be complete.  “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'”  (Jn. 20:29) Focus was on the notion of BELIEF–in Jesus and in his ministry.

We can learn some things from this section of the Gospel.  First, that we wish PEACE to others be bringing about goodness, for example, justice, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.

Second, we live because we breathe.  We would do well to accept the fact that the HOLY SPIRIT is the “creative power of God” breathed into us at the time of our Baptism infusing us the power to do good to others.

Thirdly, BELIEF in Jesus remains a timely challenge, primarily because there are so many temptations today.  Thomas had to see and touch before he would believe.  It seems to me that the greatest challenge is to see Jesus in others, especially those disenfranchised by society.  Seeing Jesus in others and treating them correspondingly well, would be a way to receive that “blessing” that Jesus offered to us in the confrontation with Thomas.

In fact, the ability to grant peace, the awareness of the prensence of the Holy Spirit via our Baptism, and the growth of our belief system, are great giftes that we have received from the risen Christ.

 

What does “Alleluia” really mean?

A word that we often hear during the Easter season is ALLELUIA.  We have heard it often enough.  But what does it mean?  In fact, it comes from the Hebrew and means “All of you, praise God.”  The root verb is HALLEL which means “praise.”  The letter “u” at the end of the verb makes the verb plural.  The “YAH” at the end of the word is short for YHWH, the proper name of God.

So it is that the feast of the Lord’s resurrection becomes a time for “praising” God.  In reality there are many ways of praising God.  For example we have the case of Peter who shifted his relationship with Jesus.  During Jesus’ trial, Peter denied knowing him.  And after Jesus’ resurrection Peter made a shift in his relationship with Jesus from denial to proclaiming him to others.  (Acts 2:14-36)  This shift from denial to proclamation was an act of “praising” God.

In the Gospel for Easter Sunday (John 20:1-9) Mary Magdalen came and saw the empty tomb.  She ran and told the disciples that the tomb was empty and possibly someone had taken the body.  Peter and John immediately ran to the tomb and found it empty.

BUT, they also saw the burial cloths nearby and realized that no one had taken the body.  Something special had happened.  They “saw and believed.”  Everything that Jesus had told them about himself during his public life was true, especially his death and resurrection.  This seeing and believing was their way of “praising” God.

How are we able to “praise” God?  What will be our way of giving ALLELUIA to the Lord?  Actually, there are many ways.  The first would be an awareness of noting that every time that we come across the word “alleluia,” either at Mass or while reading, we can reflect on the many possibilities that exist for “praising” God. We can praise God in silence by deepening our prayer life.  Even extending continuous silent conversation with God, expresssing our thanks for the many blessings that we have received, is a form of praise.

But I think that we can praise God much the same way that Peter and John did in the Gospel for Easter Sunday (John 20:1-9).  Peter appeared to have a shifting relationship with Jesus.  Before the resurrection, Peter denied Jesus during his trial.  After the resurrction, Peter affirmed Jesus beause of what he saw in the empty tomb.  This turn-around was a form of praising God. In truth, we also have a “shifting relationship” with Jesus.  Whenever we sin, we are denying Jesus.  Affirmation comes about when we ask forgiveness.  This turn-around for us (from denial to affirmation) is a form of praising God.

Peter and John visited the empty tomb but they observed the burial cloths lying to one side.  They concluded that the body of Jesus had not been stolen.  The Gospel text strongly suggests that by that observation, Peter and John saw and believed. They began to understand what Jesus had said of himslf before the passion, death, and resurrection.

In our case, the more able we are to manage our relationship with Jesus, and the stronger our belief in Jesus, the better able we will be in our proclamation of Jesus.

Consequently, whenever we read/mention ALLELUIA, which means, “All of you, praise God,” we become aware of praising God not only in gratitude for our many gifts received, but also in prayer, in guarding our relationship with Jesus, and the growth of our belief in Jesus and in what he did.

 

 

 

The palms and “being shifty”

When we read the biblical account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-13), we see that people are so happy to see him that they wave palms to display their delight.  Palms have been used since ancient times in triumphal processions. (Leviticus 23:40; I Maccabees 13:37)

This entry into Jerusalem seems to be a joyful occasion.  However, something strange happens.  Not long after, we notice a rather sudden shift in the relationship of the people toward Jesus from joy to abandonment.  The joy turned into hostility.  What happened?

Two important themes in the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday are abandonment and hope.  First of all, abandonment.  There are several instances of it, but the one that seems to stand out is the betrayal by Judas.  How sad to see one of your close friends turn you in for financial gain.  We should ask ourselves, “How many times have I betrayed Jesus by not living up to my moral principles?”

Then there is the denial by Peter. Peter was in the courtyard while Jesus’ trial was being held.  Someone recognized him as being with Jesus.  He was asked if he knew Jesus.  This is something he vigorously denied more than once.  How sad to see another of your friends deny any knowledge of you for the sake of expediency.  Undoubtedly, our self question should be, “How many times have I denied to be a disciple of Jesus because the moment seemed to have required it?   What have I gained and what have I lost in terms of my relationship with Jesus?”

Secondly,  in spite of these examples of abandonment, there are some obvious examples of hope.  For instance, there were two thieves crucified with Jesus.  While one was berating Jesus, the other one, with the grace of immediate belief, told him ”…Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “…Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:39-43)  Wow!  How about that? Some say that he “stole” heaven.

And we also have the example of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross. When Jesus died, creation reacted.  Things began to happen.  When the centurion saw this, he said “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”  (Matthew 27: 54)  In the cases of the thief and the centurion we see a shift in behavior in their relationship with Jesus.

In our current situation, the palms that we receive on Palm Sunday can be reminders of the Gospel reading.  We recall the time(s) that we have abandoned Jesus because of our sinfulness.  We know also that because of the resurrection and our Baptism we are able to have hope in overcoming that sinfulness.  And it is that hope that makes possible a shift in the relationship with Jesus.  Simply put, the palms are able to help us in the shift itself.

 

 

 

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