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

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“Revolution” or not?

I have seen many representations of Jesus.  For example: on the cross, nativity scenes, Da Vinci’s painting of the last supper.  But I never would have imagined Jesus carrying a placard saying “Join the revolution.”  At least that is the impression one gets from the Gospel reading for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  (Luke 12:49-53)

The Gospel reading seems rather depressing.  But what is that Gospel reading actually telling us?  It has to do with “choice”  One has to choose for Jesus, his message, and lifestyle–or not.

Jesus’ whole life has been somewhat controversial.  When he was brought into the Jerusalem Temple soon after birth, Simeon  said of Jesus, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed….”  (Luke 2:34)  So, throughout his life anyone “choosing” Jesus’ message and staying with it would be problematic for that person. Nevertheless, there were others who did not choose Jesus’ teachings.

It seems to me that one of the classic examples of the “choice” for/against Jesus is the example of the woman taken in adultery.  (John 8:1-11).  Some Scribes and Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus to see if he was for or against the Mosaic Law.

They brought such a woman to Jesus and asked him, “The Mosaic Law says that such a woman should be stoned.  What do you say?”  If Jesus said “yes,” then he would be accepting the Mosaic Law which didn’t allow for mercy and compassion which would then reject his own teaching of mercy and compassion.  If Jesus said “no,” then he would be rejecting the Mosaic Law, which was at that time the only law for Jews.

Jesus looked at them, and said, “Whoever among you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”  The Scribes,  Pharisees and others looked at each other and knew that there were thieves among them.  So, one by one, they dropped their stones and left.

Jesus said to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?”  She said “No one.”  Jesus replied, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.”  We have here a key example of “choice.”  The letter of the Law which deals with action only, versus mercy and compassion which deal with motivation as well.  I suspect that Jesus made at least one friend at that moment.

Now we may ask how this Gospel reading affect us.  How do we make a choice for Jesus?  Well, throughout his life Jesus has been controversial.  So, being a disciple (as all baptized Christians are) will mean that there will be people who will be against compassion, justice, forgiveness, understanding, and the like.  There will always be opposition.

Some questions we will always have to face.  But I think the basic question will be, “Do I take seriously what the Gospels say about Jesus and the way he dealt with others in terms of justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness?”  If the answer is “yes,” then I have chosen for Jesus.”



What about the “Free Lunch” issue?

Usually, when entrepreneurs  try to sell something, they have a “free lunch” for potential customers in order to make them subsequent buyers.  Presumably, the “free lunch” is the come-on.

In the Gospel for the feast of Corpus Christi  (Luke 9:11-19), Jesus wound up giving a “free lunch” to the people present, but it was not a come-on to buy anything, but, rather, to provide a significant lesson.  And the lesson was to understand the importance of bread for the nourishment of life.

The story went something like this.  Jesus was preaching to many people in a relatively deserted place.  His disciples realized that it was close to lunch time, so they asked Jesus to let them go in order to find food for themselves.

Instead, Jesus said to the disciples,  “Feed them yourselves.”  No doubt, they were surprised at this.  In effect, they said, “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.”  According to the text there were several thousand people there.

But Jesus had a plan.  He had all the people sit down, and then asked for the loaves and fish.  Then he did something curious.  He blessed the bread, broke it, and had the disciples give the bread to the people.

What was curious was the similarity of the pattern of: bless-break-give the bread. Interestingly enough this tripartite pattern was used at the last supper.  “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it, and gave to his disciples, and said, ‘Take and Eat.  This is my body.'” (Matthew 26:26)

Consequently, we can surmise that whenever the pattern of bless-break-give appears in the New Testament, we can legitimately assume that the pattern is within a Eucharistic content.  In fact, this pattern is used in the Mass today.  During the Offertory, the bread and wine are blessed.  During the Consecration,  the host is broken and part of it is placed in the chalice.  At Communion time, the Eucharist is given to those who come to receive.

One of the things that we can learn from the day’s Gospel is to appreciate the importance of the nourishment of bread.  When we are physically hungry, bread nourishes us.  When we are spiritually hungry the Eucharist can nourish us.  Temptation often makes us spiritually weak.  The Lord knows that we can use all he help that we can get, even if it means taking advantage of this “free lunch” every time that we go to Mass.



That’s the “Spirit” !

In frequent conversations with his disciples, Jesus often spoke about the relationship between himself and his Father.  In today’s Gospel (John 14:23-29) Jesus speaks not only about his relationship with his Father, but also about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name…”  This is most certainly a trinitarian reference.

However, it raises the question, “Who/what is the Holy Spirit?”  John’s Gospel was written in Greek, so the word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.”  The Old Testament equivalent for “breath, wind” is ruach.  A classic example of the real meaning of ruah besides “breath, wind” is “power.”

The citation is from the early Genesis account of creation.  “…the earth  was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (ruah) from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)  And creation took place.  What came from God was “power” that brought things into being.

Interestingly enough, there was a strong belief, at the time of Jesus, that professional healers often breathed on the sick individual with the understanding that “wellness” was transferred through the health of the healer to the sick individual through the process of breathing.

The task of the Spirit (power of God) was to teach disciples the message of Jesus, which they were primarily to do by example.  Jesus promoted justice, was compassionate, forgave others and was very understanding.  The Pentecost experience was the proving point.  And how was this teaching to be done?  Through belief in strength and encouragement coming from the Spirit.

What can we learn from today’s Gospel?  Most importantly, that we all receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Baptism.  Then through our belief in the strength and encouragement coming from the Spirit, which is actually the ruah (power) of God.  And with that encouragement and strength we are able to give good example to others in what we say and do.

The fact is that we become believable because we believe in what we do.  And that is that we can teach others by means of our example, because we have received the spirit (power) of God at Baptism.  With that in mind, supported by strength and encouragement, we can actually say… that’s the “Spirit” in action.




“Mary, Mary. quite contrary…”

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalen is the first person to become aware of Jesus’ resurrection.

Why Mary Magdalen?  Over the years she has had the reputation of being a sinful woman.  How she received that reputation, I don’t know, but the only thing that the Gospels say about her background is that “she had seven devils cast out.”  (Luke 8:2) This phrase could mean many things.

Anyway, she had the reputation of being a sinner.  Yet, she was a close follower of Jesus, one of his female friends (Luke 8:1-3).  She was such a good friend that she was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25). With him until the end of his life.

However, Mary was also present at the beginning of Jesus’ resurrected life.  Based on that experience she went and told the other disciples what she had seen and heard.

In spite of her reputation, Mary had become a close friend of Jesus, being present at the end of his earthly life as well as the beginning of his resurrected life.  This “sandwich” style of presence makes Mary a special type of person.

What do these reflections tell us? I suspect that they tell us many things, but I would like to share with you a couple of ideas that make particularly good sense.  Both have to do with Mary Magdalen and sinfulness.

First, Mary Magdalen, considered a sinful woman, was such a good friend of Jesus that she was present for the beginning and end of his key moments.  This “sinfulness” was definitely not an obstacle to a friendship with Jesus.  If we are honest with ourselves, we also are truly sinners.  As with Mary Magdalen so with us. Our state of sinfulness is not an obstacle to a close relationship with Jesus, but we must have that state of willingness to be his friend. Sorrowfulness is what counts.

Second, since Mary Magdalen was present for Jesus’ “death and resurrection” we can take notice that all of us sinners experience a “death and resurrection.”  Every time that we have problems or difficulties which seem insoluble, that is the “passion/death.”  But our belief in the friendship with Jesus gives us hope for a “resurrection.”

This is to say, that all of us often experience problems/difficulties which seem like a “passion and death.”  And yet, because of our friendship with Jesus there is always the hope for a “resurrection.”

Mary Magdalen, considered a sinful woman, was visibly present for Jesus’ “passion, death, and resurrection,” because she was a faithful friend.  So, we sinners also experience difficult problems, which seem like “a passion/death,” but because of our willing friendship with Jesus we have high hope for a “resurrection,” that is, a workable solution.

As the nursery rhyme goes, “Mary, Mary quite contrary…” the contrary may well have to do here with the change from sinfulness to friendship.  The change in us from sinfulness to friendship may be a model from Mary Magdalen given to us.  This is reason enough to shout ALLELUIA.

Sorry about that…

When you say you are “sorry,” people assume that you have done something which is considered sinful.  It seems that much depends upon the value system under which one operates to call any situation sinful.

In the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32), we note that the Scribes and Pharisees are fully aware that Jesus associates with sinners and also eats with them.  I wonder if that value system was one that wanted to keep  class distinction separate so that Jesus would not “soil” himself by associating with sinners.

At any rate, when Jesus heard this complaint from the Scribes and Pharisees, he spoke of the parable about the Prodigal Son to show what sinfulness really was.  Many of you know the story.  A father has two sons.  The younger son wants his share of the belongings that belong to him.  He takes off, spends the money unwisely, and soon a famine strikes that land, and the son is left without anything.

He hires himself out for the sake of survival, and lands a job feeding swine.  He realizes what he has done to his father, and that the servants at his father’s house have it better than he does.  He expresses regret at what he has done, and decides to go home to his father and asks to be a servant at his father’s house.

The father sees him coming from a distance, goes out to greet him, and tells his servants to prepare a feast.  The older brother is angered by the father’s reaction toward his younger sibling, and refuses to enter the house.  The father tells him that his brother was “lost” but now has been “found.”  Because his brother has been “found”, the older brother should rejoice.

What is this Gospel telling us?   First, that when we sin, we are “lost,” but when we repent, we are”found.”  Second, that God, much like the father in the parable, loves us even at the moment of our sinfulness.  In fact, there is no sin so great that cannot be forgiven by a loving and merciful God.  I’m reminded that the prophet Hosea touches on this subject when he says, speaking about the Israelites, “I will heal their disloyalty.  I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.”  (Hosea 14.4)  The key word is “freely” because  it assures us of God’s gratuitous love.

Our lesson is this.  God loves us even when we are sinning, but, as the younger son does in the parable, first there has to be some kind of repentance on our part.  It is God’s gratuitous love that makes repentance possible.  And that repentance for us would be the sacrament of Confession.  During this time of Lent it would be a good thing to take advantage of that repentance.  So that when we do harm to anyone, it would be easier to say “Sorry about that,” and then repent.

The truth about the “Witness” program

A  job given to the witness in a court trial is to bring out personal knowledge about the accused.  It may sway the jury one way or another.  A typical question may well be “Is the accused individual generally a good or bad person?” Personal knowledge is very important in witness evaluation.

In the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:10-18), John the Baptist is a “witness” so has much to say about Jesus.  We can assume that John was well aware of much that Jesus was teaching and so was able to share it with others.  John was effectively preaching to a crowd .  I suspect that the crowd wanted to be baptized and thus “become” clean.

Different groups basically asked the same question: “What can I do?” John’s basic response was one of sharing with others.  He also pointed out that Tax collectors were told not to collect more than what is due.  Soldiers were told not to practice extortion nor to falsely accuse anyone.

Quite likely the people were moved by what John had said and wanted to be baptized by him so as to be thoroughly cleansed.  Then, John began to “witness” Jesus.  “Baptism” as a cleansing agent is what the people wanted, and John made a specific distinction between his baptism and that of Jesus.

John’s baptizing was with water only.  Jesus would baptize with the “Holy Spirit” and “fire.” No doubt a strange combination. Most likely, “fire” came from a later Tradition which referred it to Pentecost, thus making Jesus’ Baptism a plan of “action” fueled by the Holy Spirit.  (“Spirit” from the Hebrew [ruah] can also be translated as”power.”)

That is to say that for Jesus, the Baptism is basically a plan of action as exemplified by Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost who went out and preached Jesus’ message.  God’s Spirit (“power”) is what made this possible.

What does this mean ?  John was a witness testifying to the reality of Jesus’ teaching.  For example, justice, compassion, forgiveness among other things (summaries found in Matthew chapters 5-7).  Displaying our Baptismal responsibilities is a form of accepting Jesus’ teaching.

The fact is , if we display our Baptismal  responsibilities consistently, then others will notice and become aware that there is truth regarding our “witness” program.  That is to say, live what you believe.


Can you make “sense”?

If you had the chance of keeping your five senses (touch, taste, hear, see, smell) which one would it be?  Why?  If you would lose sight, would you not miss the magnificent landscapes, sunsets, sunrises, color of leaves, beautiful natural wonders?  What about losing hearing?  No more favorite music.  And the rest of the list could go on.

For me, it would be vision.  Not only would I not be able to see the beauties of nature, but also reading, visiting museums, and the like.  This would be depressing. This is probably why I feel a special sadness for Bartimaeus the blind in the Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  (Mark 10:46-52)

A brief recount of the Gospel.  Jesus is leaving Jericho, and by the roadside, Bartimaeus the blind is begging.  He hears that it is Jesus passing by.  Having heard some things about Jesus, he cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”  The more others tried to calm him down, the louder was his shout.

Jesus heard him and came and asked what he wanted.  He said, “Master, I want to see.”  Quite likely Jesus looked at him, paused, and said,”Go your way, your faith has saved you.”  Immediately, Bartimaeus’ vision was restored.

Doesn’t it seem strange that there is no touching or praying between Jesus and Bartimaeus as there was in other miracles of healing?  What do you think Jesus was trying to convey?  I suspect that Jesus wanted to point out the importance of faith.  It is Bartimaeus’ faith that was the basis for the miracle.  Why is this so important?

Quite likely, I suspect that faith is the basis for our judgements about people.  For example.  What do I really believe about Jesus?  Do I believe what the Gospels say about Jesus?  What about the Creed that I recite during Sunday Mass?  Do I truly believe what it says about the Holy Trinity?

Also, what do I believe about other people?  Do I believe what the book of Genesis say about all of us (Genesis 1:26-27), namely, that all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, no matter ethnic origin, place of birth, color of skin, economic status?  Our faith is telling us that there is equality among us all.

Bartimaeus was healed because he truly believed in Jesus.  Not only did he believe that Jesus could heal him but believed that he would heal him.  This miracle was an act of physical healing.

We can be healed from our spiritual blindness if we believe and do what our faith teaches us about Jesus and our fellow human beings.  Regarding Jesus, do we believe in what our faith tells us by way of the Bible and official church teaching?  Regarding our fellow human beings, do we believe and do what Jesus teaches in the Gospels, namely, treat all others with justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness.  Is there that feeling of equality in our interaction?

In fact, every time that we see again (spiritual insight) in terms of how we see and treat our fellow human beings, it is a miracle of God’s love.  This is really “making sense” of our spiritual insight.





The Cart Before the Horse

Quite likely most of us know of a friend, or a relative, who seems to be more concerned about the “reward” rather than the “challenge” to obtain the reward.  Or as the modern phrase would have it, “putting the cart before the horse.”

In the Gospel for the Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 10:35-45), two disciples, James and John, appear to be of this type.       They are concerned more about the “glory” than about working for it.  They prefer the “resurrection” to the “passion and death.”  It is quite clear that every true disciple of Jesus must accept the reality that there is pain and suffering before any  kind of resurrection.  It happened to Jesus, so it must happen to his disciples.

Looking at the Gospel, we can see James and John telling Jesus (not asking him) that there is something that they want Jesus to do.  Trying to be helpful, Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do?”  They replied, “In your glory, that one might sit on your right, and the other on your left.”

This was indeed a cheeky statement.  To sit directly on either side of the “master” was considered a great honor.  It would be analogous to have an Army private ask to become a General right away.  It is just not done.  It appeared to Jesus that this came across, perhaps unintentional, that this was a “power grab.”

Jesus was aware of this, so he explained what a true disciple of his must do.  Two things.  First.  Experience a “cross-suffering”  moment before expecting a “resurrection.”  James and John said that they could do this.  Second.  Know the difference between “to serve” and to “be served” and act upon it.  By virtue of their question, James and John were not completely aware of this.

Consequently, Jesus’ response concerning true discipleship embraced both the ideas of accepting pain/sorrow before any kind of “resurrection,” and acting on the obvious difference between “service” and “being served.”  The brothers were willing to do the former because of Jesus’ own experience.  But the issue of “service” needed some explanation.

Incidentally, the first reading for the Sunday (Isaiah 53:10-11) speaks of the Suffering Servant who exemplifies the difference between being a servant and being served.  In fact, Jesus put it quite clearly when he stated in the day’s Gospel, “…Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 10:35)  There are several examples of “serving others” in the Gospels.  One of the most memorable is the Good Samaritan.  (Luke 10:25-37)

What is it that the Gospel is trying to tell us?  Actually, two things.  The first lesson we can learn is to realize that all of us have to experience pain and suffering in our lives before there can be any amelioration.  It becomes easier to endure problems as long as we believe that the situation will improve itself.  Jesus established that experience in his own life.

Secondly, there is the question of service.  The challenge will be to note the difference between serving others, in the sense of the Good Samaritan, and being served by others.  Once we assume the fact that accepting the sequence of suffering before resurrection, and providing service to others, we won’t have to “put the cart before the horse” with regards to the effectiveness of our discipleship.




What do you do with your money?

One of the people I feel most sorry for is the man who is asked to sell his belongings and follow Jesus.  (Mark 10:17-30)  He seems to be a good person, wants to be better, but couldn’t say “no” to his wealth.  Apparently, he had a good intention but a questionable motivation.

What do I mean by that?  Reflection on the Gospel reading might give us an answer.  A man runs up to Jesus, and asks him, “Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?”  Simple question demands a simple answer.  Jesus responds, “…Keep the commandments.”  So he recites a few of them to reinforce the idea.

The man responds, ” Teacher, I have kept these for a long time.”  Clearly the man is not satisfied with the minimum, so he wants a greater challenge.  Jesus then gives him one.  It is in the response to this choice where the motivation is tested.

Jesus states, “You are lacking one thing.  Go, sell what you have and give to the poor…then come follow me.”  I strongly suspect that the man gave this some serious thought.  One could almost feel the silence.  Then the man’s motivation was prompted by his reaction.  The Gospel tells us:  “The man went away sad, for he had many possessions.”  He just couldn’t say “no” to his belongings.

The same choice is given to us in the sense that we are asked to share our gifts (and talents) with others.  This is our baptismal responsibility as professed disciples of Jesus.  Regarding talents, remember that no one has been cheated.  St. Paul brings this out clearly.  (I Cor. 12:4-11) All of us can do something that few others can.

The Lord does not expect everyone to be a St. Francis of Assissi giving away all one’s possessions.  But he does expect all of us to account for our gifts and talents.  The major question then becomes one of “motivation.” Why do we give or keep our gifts/talents?

We have to ask ourselves,”What do I do with my money after paying the bills?”  Do I buy some trivial items because I think they might be fun or interesting?  Or do I send some money to a missionary group taking care of very poor people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or people in these United States?

So much for the money.  But what about my gifts/talents?  Do I bother to share with others or not?  All of us have something to give. For example, singing, playing an instrument, being a good listener, an excellent reader for Mass readings, and the list could go on. Why I do it or not becomes the motivation.  Keep in mind that Jesus asks the difficult, but not the impossible.

The man in the Gospel was asked to do the difficult and not the impossible. But he was not ready. He had a faulty motivation in that he was too tied to his belongings. Because of our Baptism, we are also asked to do the difficult by sharing with others our gifts and talents.   Our question is constant.  What do I do with my money and/or gifts?Only my “motivation” can answer this, be it a “yes” (share it with others) or a “no” (keep it for myself.)



Dealing with “hyperbole”?

The Gospel for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time (Mark 9:38-48) tells us that Jesus discussed a two-fold message with his disciples, namely, working in Jesus’ name and reward and punishment in the after life.

The first part of the message was “working in Jesus’ name.”  To “work in someone’s name” means that the work was done with the implied authority of that person.

The disciple John raises the problem. “Teacher, someone is driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he does not follow us.”  Note the key words in this complaint:  “you” and “us.”

In John’s eyes these words of necessity belong together.  But from Jesus’ point of view, one cancels out the us, because as he says in the Gospel reading, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)  So he tells the disciples to leave the man alone.

In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who provides the “authority” and not the institution.  Whoever is not against Jesus is, by supposition, for him.

The second part of Jesus’ message to his disciples is “reward and punishment in the afterlife.”  It was becoming clear to the disciples that being a follower of Jesus could well result in suffering, betrayal and death as was true in the case of Jesus himself.  So, Jesus explained to his disciples that what you do in this life will affect what will happen in the after life.

If you do good things in this life, good things will happen to you in the next life.  For example, “…Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  (Mark 9:41)

Jesus was serious in the sense of good behavior especially for anyone who would be preaching in his name.  Thus when he spoke of bad things his followers might do, he emphasized the point by speaking in hyperbole.  This means that in order to get a point across one emphasizes it by virtue of exaggeration.  What does this mean?

We often do it ourselves.  For instance, when I tell someone, “I told you a million times not to do that.”  In fact, it may have been only two or three time, but by exaggerating the number there is the likelihood the person will be more easily convinced.

The three body parts that Jesus discusses are: hand, foot, and eye.  If the hand or foot is a cause of sin, cut it off.  If the eye is a cause of sin, pluck it out.  These are hyperbolic ways of dealing with sins.  The hand is often an instrument of sin (e.g. stealing).  The feet are means of transport to get you to commit the sin.  And the eye provides the source of temptation.

What is it that the Gospel reading can tell us?  First of all, because of our Baptism, we are disciples of Jesus and have the responsibility to speak and act in his name.  So our words and actions are very important in order for others to make a judgement about us.

Secondly, our speech and behavior in this life will definitely affect us in the next life.  By speaking hyperbolically, Jesus most likely convinced his listeners that hands, feet, and eyes would  be more effective by being of service to others rather than by giving them bad example.  Being of service to others would probably mean being hyperbolic in our own self judgement.  After all, we claim do things in Jesus’ name.


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