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

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Who’s sorry now?

If someone does me wrong, do I tend to get even or do I look for some other way to resolve the issue?  Vengeance comes to mind as a possibility.  But the fact is there are often unwanted results which wind up causing more problems.

In the Gospel for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matt. 18:21-35) Peter and Jesus deal with a similar question.  Peter asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?”

Jesus replies by way of a parable.  “A certain king decided to settle accounts with his servants.  He came across a servant who owed him much money.  If the servant couldn’t pay he and his family would be sold until repayment was made.  The servant realized what was happening, so he asked the king for patience and mercy.  The king had compassion and forgave the servant his debt.”

“That same servant, who had been forgiven, came across a fellow servant who owed him money.  The forgiven servant asked his fellow servant for immediate repayment, which was virtually impossible.  Then he asked for patience and mercy.  This was denied him, so time in jail was his only option.”

“Other servants, observing this interchange of behavior, were horrified because they knew that the demanding servant was forgiven his debt because of the patience and mercy of the king.  Yet, he decided not to exercise the same patience and mercy on his fellow servant as the king had exercised on him.  So the larger group of servants went to the king to share the news.”

“So the king called back the servant whose debt he had forgiven, and said to him, ‘You should have had patience and mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you.’  So the king then arranged that the wicked servant  would be responsible for repaying the entire debt immediately.”

What just happened here?  We know that the Gospel is about forgiveness of others.  And this “forgiveness” is not just a one time gesture but also a constant occurrence.  This “forgiveness” must be motivated by patience and compassion in order to be genuine.  Incidentally, the word “compassion” comes from the Latin which means “to suffer with.”

If the Gospel is about constant  forgiveness of the other, what about forgiveness of the self?  It seems to me that patience and compassion are very important in that area as well.  We often need forgiveness, which is what the sacrament of Reconciliation is about.  We often feel sorry for our failures.  In fact, we “suffer with” that repentance which brings us to confession.

There is a reminder which can be an ongoing reflection of what forgiveness is all about.  And that is the Lord’s Prayer.  How often do we pray it without reflecting on the words?  The phrase that touches the above Gospel is,
“Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive others…”

This means that forgiveness is a two way street.  We will not be forgiven unless we forgive others (including ourselves).

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The keys of the kingdom

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I learned a very important lesson.  One Sunday afternoon our family took a walk to the local park.  While there we enjoyed a boat ride on the local lake, had fun on the carousel, and too quickly came the time to walk home.  Dad was in a good mood, so as we began our walk back from the park he decided to do some cartwheels.  Very impressive!

Finally, when we arrived home Dad was about to get the key to the front door.  As it turned out, he lost the key doing the cartwheels.  The house key was in his shirt pocket.

However, we eventually got in.  My lesson was to appreciate the importance of the key.  Keep it in a safe place.  Later I began to appreciate the symbolism of the key.  It is a sign of authority.  The key holder can let people in or keep them out.

The Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matt. 16:13-20) appears to place a great deal of importance to keys.  It seems to me that in order to get a fuller picture of the Gospel, we should focus on two themes: The identification of Jesus, and the importance of the key.

First of all, the identification of Jesus.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do others say that I am?”  I could imagine the disciples with a quizzical look on their faces, rubbing their chins, looking heavenward, and replying, “Some say you are John the Baptist.”  “Others say you are Elijah.”  “Maybe Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Then Jesus focused his question, “But who do YOU say that I am?”  It was important for the disciples to know the master, since they were going to continue his work.

Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  It is necessary to point out what Peter was actually saying.  “Christ” is the translation for the Hebrew word “Messiah,” which means “The one who was sent.”  It appears that Peter was a believer in the Immanuel (=”God with us”) promise, that God would be with his people.

Secondly, the theme of the keys.  After this profession of faith and recognizing Peter’s leadership potential,  Jesus employs the image of the keys indicating authority.  “…I will give you the KEYS of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  (Matt: 16:19)

Now would be a proper time to ask the question of what this part of the Gospel could mean to me personally.  Actually, when we are baptized we become disciples of Jesus.  “Discipleship” means “the learning process.”  The disciple learns from the master, and we have much of the New Testament telling us what Jesus said and did regarding others.

Thus we learn about justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and other virtues.  Our belief system is manifested by our behavior pattern.  Our KEY is the constant reminder of our Baptism by which which we became disciples of Jesus.

That is to say, that every time we encounter the locked doors of resistance such as injustice, lack of compassion, anger and hostility, the “key” of our  Baptismal responsibilities, such as justice and compassion, would easily open those doors.  Indeed, we could share with Peter the disciple’s version of “the keys of the kingdom.”

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What are you afraid of?

Let’s face it.  We all seem to be afraid of something.  For some people,  it is driving in the dark.  For others, it is the fear of flying.  When you stop to think about it, many of us have some kind of fear which can limit our line of activities.  But in addition to material fears, there are spiritual fears as well.

Just what is “fear”?  Many dictionaries would likely describe it as a disagreeable emotion caused by the belief that someone or something can cause me pain or anxiety.  But can one handle “fear” once it makes its appearance?

In the Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matt. 14:22-32) the theme of “fear” plays a rather significant role.  Here is what the Gospel tells us.

Jesus goes up to a mountain to PRAY.  It is his way of coming into personal contact with God the Father, which is necessary for making proper judgements about other people.  Meanwhile, some of his disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Suddenly, heavy winds emerge and tend to blow the boat almost out of control, causing the disciples to panic.  No doubt, they were AFRAID.  And that FEAR  was intensified when they saw Jesus walking on the water towards them.  They presumed that Jesus was a ghost.

When Jesus was about to reach the boat, he told the disciples that it was he and firmly stated ” Do not be AFRAID.”  Impetuous Peter then asked Jesus if he (Peter) could walk on water toward Jesus.  After an affirmative response  Peter got out of the boat and started to walk on the water toward Jesus.

But the winds were still strong and Peter became FRIGHTENED.  He began to sink and called out for help.  Jesus reached out to Peter, helped him, and then said, “O you of little faith.  Why did you DOUBT?”  Peter doubted the power of Jesus because he was afraid.

What lesson can we learn from the Gospel?  Two of the themes appear to be bound together, namely, “prayer” and “fear.”  Our potential lessons can be learned from that juncture.

First of all, there is “prayer.”  Jesus goes up to the mountain alone to pray because  this is how he has his personal encounter with God the Father.  Consequently, we must constantly “climb our mountain” (whatever it is) to have our personal encounter with God.  It is that encounter that gives us the courage and authority to deal with fear, whatever its source.  Therefore, we should ask ourselves precisely what is this “mountain” where I can have a personal encounter with God.  Silent/sacramental prayer?  Close friendship?

Secondly, we must also discover what is that item of which we are afraid.  As a disciple we should be fearful of sin, particularly if it is easy to commit.  In fact, it is prayer that strengthens our faith and enables us to believe in the authority of Jesus.

Prayer strengthens faith and conquers doubt.  As he  stretched his hand to help Peter in his moment of doubt, so Jesus stretches his hand to help us in our moments of doubt.  Maybe it is time to ask ourselves what is it that we fear the most?  Not just on the practical level, but on the spiritual level as well.

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Keep or throw away?

For me, “spring cleaning” is a year around process.  As I rifle through boxes, a very distinct choice presents itself.  “Shall I keep this item or throw it away?”  The basis for the choice is generally founded upon either nostalgia or possible future use.

I may find photos or documents that bring back “interesting” experiences which may tell me of what I was like many years ago.  Or, discover written documents (courses that I taught in the past) that may be of use again.

The readings for the seventeenth Sunday on Ordinary Time (I Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52) present us with some choices that can help us decide what to keep or what to throw away when we deal with other people.

The first reading (I Kings 3:5-12) tells us that God appeared to King Solomon in a dream, telling him that he would give him what he wanted.  Instead of asking for wealth or permanent battle victories, Solomon asked for an “understanding heart” so that he could judge people more fairly.

In the second reading (Romans 8:28-30), Paul tells the Romans, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God….”

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 13:44-52) Jesus tells his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field….”  In effect, Matthew is saying that the kingdom of heaven is nothing more than making God present in our lives.

What can we learn from the above readings? The principal lesson, it seems to me, is to accept totally the fact that we are disciples of Jesus and, as such,  our main task is to make God present in all of our lives all of the time.

And how do we do that?  The above biblical readings can help us.  We do this by our example of justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.  Just as Solomon asked for an “understanding heart” in order to judge more fairly, so we can ask for such a heart in order to grasp the realities of good/bad example.

We can do this also by accepting the well intentions/actions of others in helping us make God present in our daily situation.  Paul tells the Romans, in effect,  that good people often make good choices.

The Gospel reading suggests to us that making God present in our situations is such a marvelous experience, much like finding a pearl of great price.

Understanding others in order to make good judgements about them, accepting the support of people to facilitate the process will help us make God’s presence in this world a year long job.  That is to say that “spring cleaning” could well last the entire twelve months of the year.  Very likely. we will know what to keep and what to throw away.

 

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Watch what you say

Sometimes in a moment of anger or frustration, we often say something to another person which can be very hurtful.  As soon as we see the reaction, we realize that we have “crossed the line.”  But it is too late, the deed is done.

How can you take back the awful thing that you have said?  The fact is, we don’t really understand the power of the spoken word.

The first of the biblical readings for the fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is from the book of the prophet Isaiah (55:10-11).  The reading is only a couple of verses long, but it does say something about the power of the word.

Isaiah draws a distinction between the word when it is spoken and when it is fulfilled–the secondary action is the automatic fulfillment of the first. That is to say,  that when a word is spoken, it will be automatically fulfilled.  For example:

“For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11 RSV)

The point of comparison (“as,” “so”) is the fulfillment of the spoken word.  As the rain and the snow make the earth fruitful, so the word of God will be completed.  In Isaiah, the Hebrew equivalent of “word” is DABAR, which has the sense of the spoken word which will be fulfilled.  It is an automatic process.

What can we learn from this reading of Isaiah?  First of all, we learn that the word of God has power.  Secondly, we as disciples of Jesus are committed to proclaim (preach, speak) the message of Jesus, which is one of justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.  Fulfillment of the message (“words”) is not just verbal, but comes to completion only by our behavior.

So, it is good to watch what we say.  Because if we believe what we say, only our behavior will be the proof.

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For better or worse

Possibly,  one of the most difficult things a person can do is to commit oneself.  A key example is the willingness of individuals to commit to marriage.  For a while I was  part of a team involved in a process called Engaged Encounter.  One of the goals was to prepare the couple to focus on significance of one of the marriage vows “for better or worse.”

The de facto situation was that after the marriage, problems seemed to develop.  For instance, apparently insoluble problems arose,  such as differences in living together, raising children, the apparent danger of extra-marital relationships.  And the list could go on.

In the Gospel reading for the thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 10:37-42), Jesus, in one of his post-resurrectional appearances, is asking his key disciples to continue to proclaim his message “for better or worse.”  This means, of course, that there is a likelihood that there may be worse times because family and/or friends may get in the way.  Consequently, the commitment to Jesus must be total.

A major part of that totality will be the willingness to “take up the cross.”  It basically means that unpleasant things may come our way and we will have to deal with them.  It may mean martyrdom or it may not.  The challenging aspects, however, will be the seriousness of our commitments to promote justice, manifest compassion, be forgiving, and to treat others with dignity.  If done correctly, that may be a form of martyrdom itself.

In truth, what is Jesus really asking of us as committed disciples?  First of all, that our willingness to pass on his message of justice, compassion, and forgiveness be a total commitment.  Secondly, although we might meet obstacles along the way, sometimes from family and/or friends, nevertheless,  we remain committed to pass on Jesus’ message.  Third, there are people out there who are as committed to Jesus as you and they can be a source of moral support.

Even more important, God has given gifts to all of us.  No one has been cheated.  Genesis reminds us that we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) so that there is a sense of equality among all of us.  Our task is to find out what those gifts are.  We have them.  All we have to do is discover them.

So, there we have it.  By being totally committed to the sharing of Jesus’ message with others, and by being grateful  for the gifts received, we can become more effective disciples of Jesus “for better…or worse.”

 

 

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Which of the five senses would you keep?

Sight.  Smell.  Taste.  Touch.  Hearing.  These are the five human senses and the principal ways we have of experiencing the world.  Let me ask you this.  If for some reason you were to lose all these senses but one, which one would you keep?

For me, it would be “sight” probably because I do a lot of reading and enjoy viewing nature throughout the year.  The gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent (John 9:1-41) reaffirmed the importance of sight.

In the gospel we have the story of the man born blind cured by Jesus.  It appears that one of the principal theological themes in the gospel is that of “darkness” versus “light.”  This theme appears to be symbolized in the encounter between the blind man and Jesus’ healing him.  To understand the theme we must look at two things.

First of all, the context.  As the blind man approaches, Jesus makes clay and places it on the eyes of the blind man.  Then the man is told to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam, where the man is miraculously cured.

Then the Pharisees complain about Jesus because he worked this miracle on the Sabbath, a religious “no-no.”  This, according to the Pharisees, makes Jesus a “bad” man.

However, the former blind man spoke the truth, which is that he was blind but now he could see.  So, for him Jesus was a “good” man thus supporting the idea that God was on Jesus’ side.  God was always on the good side.  Then Jesus asked him if he believed in him (Jesus) and the man said “yes.”  That answer strengthened the bond that existed between the cured man and Jesus.

Secondly, what can we learn from the above context?  Basically, it is the “darkness” versus “light” theme played out in real life.  Darkness is both physical and spiritual.  Physical in the case of the man born blind and spiritual in the sense that the Pharisees were placing greater strength on the law of the Sabbath rather than on Jesus’ cure of the blind man.

In the early part of the Gospel, Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world , I am the light of the world.” (John 9:4-5)  Jesus states from the beginning that he is the “light” who will oppose “darkness” in all its forms.

Jesus, as “light,” opposes “darkness.” He cures physical darkness by healing the blind man. But he is unable to cure spiritual darkness (sin) unless the sinner repents.  The Pharisees show no sign of repentance.  This seems to me to be the reason why Jesus asked the cured man if he believed in him (Jesus).

In addition, we note that Jesus performed his miracle with the use of water.  The blind man was told to go wash in the pool of Siloam at which time the miracle occurred.  Another example of the healing power of water is the story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the well.  (John 4:5-30).  For us, Baptism becomes a source of healing water.  Through Baptism we are bound to Jesus in a special way and are obligated to be responsible for each other by virtue of our good example.

I would suggest that some specific lessons we can learn regarding this “light” versus “darkness” theme are the following.  First, be conscious of our spiritual darkness (sin) and seek light  (forgiveness) when necessary (sacrament of Reconciliation).

Second, greater awareness of our Baptism (living water) by utilizing external elements, such as holy water (blessing ourselves when entering/exiting church).  The Easter Vigil presents us with concrete illustrations: The blessing of the Easter Candle (light out of darkness) and the blessing of water (to be used for Baptism).

The world in which we live is full of spiritual “darkness.”  The best way of bringing “light” would be by our example,  mentally nourished by the blessings of water (for Baptism) and light (the Easter candle) on Holy Saturday.

 

 

 

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