What Will Happen to Me?

Today’s Gospel includes Luke’s account of the well-known parable often referred to as The Good Samaritan.

Martin Luther King spoke of this parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated. Talking about the need for us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” he addressed the question of why the priest and Levite didn’t stop to help the man who fell among thieves. After cataloguing some of the answers often given to that question, he shared what his own imagination told him.

It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

And that, King suggested, was the question his listeners needed to ask themselves:

That is the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

It is the same question we need to ask ourselves today.  What will happen if I don’t help those who are suffering?

Is There Life After…

I just saw a post that reproduced a parable written by a Hungarian writer.  I thought it worth sharing, although, perhaps like my failure to understand the source of Superman’s superpowers (see yesterday’s post), everyone other than me has already heard this story.  Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

With thanks to Útmutató a Léleknek (the author) and Diane Roth (who posted it on her FB page).

Who Is My Neighbor?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus’ instruction to love one’s neighbor as oneself prompts “a scholar of the law” to ask the question “who is my neighbor.” Jesus responds by telling the story we refer to as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You remember the parable: A man is attacked by robbers, who leave him lying on the road half-dead. A priest notices him and passes by without helping. A Levite sees him and makes a wide berth around him. But then comes the despised Samaritan traveler, who stops and cares for the man. And not begrudgingly or minimally; he not only tends the mans’ wounds, but brings the man to an inn and pays for his being taken care of there.

I’ve shared before the account of an experiment that I always think of in connection with this parable. A class of seminarians was given the assignment to prepare a sermon on this parable of the Good Samaritan. They were divided into two groups – one group was given two hours to prepare the sermon and the second group was given twenty-four hours. They then left the building. On that stairs of the building lay a man obviously in need of assistance (the subject of the experiment).

Can you guess the results? Almost none of the seminarians who had been given two hours to prepare their sermon stopped to aid the man as they left the building. Indeed, it was reported that one practically jumped over the man in his haste to get home to get to work on his assignment. A much higher number of the group given twenty-four hours stopped to give the man assistance.

The priest and the Levite were very important men. Doubtless they had many important things they had to do and decided they couldn’t take the time to stop and help an injured man. And the seminarians in the first group had only two hours to prepare their sermon.

Sadly, I don’t think the reaction in either case is all that uncommon. Most of us have not jumped over an injured person on the street without giving assistance. But we do – more often than we’d like to admit – behave more like the priest and Levite than like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. Some questions for reflection:

Are there times when what I’m doing seems so important that I fail to offer a greeting or even a smile to someone I pass in the hall at work?

Am I so wrapped up in my important task that I fail to even notice that someone is suffering and could use a word of encouragement or a hand on the shoulder from me?

Have I squandered opportunities to do a kindness for another because of my preoccupation with my own projects?

The answer to who is my neighbor is simple: All of those with whom I come in contact during the course of my day. We might ask ourselves every day: How am I doing in loving my neighbor?

Leaven and the Kingdom of God

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus offers three parables to help the crowds understand the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with flour until the whole batch was leavened.

The one of the three parables that resonates the most with me is that of the yeast. Doubtless that is because we bake bread with regularity. I’ve seen the “magic” of mixing a few teaspoons of leaven into water and flour and seeing it turn into a beautifully risen dough. Here is St. Maximus of Turin’s explanation of the power and characteristics of leaven:

For although it is small in size, simple in appearance, and common in nature, it has such power within it that, when it has been concealed in flour, by its inherent energy it makes the whole mass what it itself is. And it so diffuses itself throughout the lump by the force of its spreading that it causes the whole mass of flour to become leaven, and thus the thing itself, by is own power, acquires for itself a mass that shares its own strength.

Maximus explains Jesus’ use of that parable this way: The leaven is compared to Jesus

who, when He was a man in form, little in humility, and cast down in weakness, was interiorly so powerful [that] when He began to spread Himself about through the whole earth by the power of His divinity, He immediately drew the entire human race into His substance by His own strength…He made it possible for everyone to be what He Himself was.

Sometimes when I have read that parable, I think of our job as being the yeast for others. But as I read this, it seems to me more accurate to say that our job is to help activate the yeast that already exists in all of us.

Jesus has already drawn all into His substance. Our much simpler job is to simply (a) realize that for ourselves and (b) help others to realize it about themselves.

Go forth and activate that yeast.

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches the crowds via a parable that likens the kingdom of eaven to a man who sowed good seed. After sowing his seed, the man discovers that his enemy has sowed weeds all through the wheat. As a result, when the crop grew and bore fruit, weeds grew along with the wheat. When his servants ask if they should cut down the weeds, he says no: pulling up the weeds might uproot the good wheat along with the bad. Thus he instructs them to wait for the harvest and collect it all, burning the weeds and gathering the wheat in his barn.

How do we read that?

One interpretation is: Don’t worry, at the end of the day the bad guys will get their due. They will get pulled out and burned as they ought.

Another lesson may be that while they are growing, we don’t always do a good job identifying the wheat from the weeds. We often draw conclusions about people based on our observations, which are partial at best and which don’t afford us the opportunity to see into another’s mind and soul. So perhaps we ought let God take care of sorting things out at the end of the day…especially since unlike a weed, which will always be a weed, people grow and change and can be pruned by God (directly and through others) to bear beautiful fruit.

There is also, though, a broader promise in the parable. A promise that there will come a time when evil will be defeated. However strong the effects of evil look in the world today, there will be a day when evil is completely destroyed.

What It Means to be Rich

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” – the parable of the phraisee and the tax collector.

The parable is one that is familiar to many of us. Two men went to the temple to pray. One, a tax collector, stood in the distance, and humbly and sorrowfully prayed, acknowledging his sins and asking for God’s mercy. The other, a Pharisee stood front and center and “spoke [a] prayer to himself,” a prayer that outlined his strengths and expressed thanks that he was “not like the rest of humanity.”

Jesus’ message from the parable was that it was “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Preaching on this parable, St. Augustine of Hippo held up the tax collector as a model: “He was looking at his own emptiness, but he knew what ample wealth the Lord disposed of. He knew that he was coming thirsty to the fountain,” in asking for God’s mercy. Augustine goes one to say that because of this, the tax collector “was already to some extent rich, since he had the idea of making such a request. After all, if he had been completely poor, where would he have been able to produce these gems of confession from?”

The pharisee, in contrast, lacked what the tax collector had: “He was boastful, but it was all hot air, no solid substance. He thought himself rich though he had nothing. The other man admitted he was poor, thought he already had something.”

The tax collector is a wonderful example of poverty of spirit, a poverty that is itself a sign of richness. When we know what we lack, and what we need, we have everything.

Going the Extra Mile

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a tale with which we are all familiar. A man falls vicim to theives, who leave him stripped, beaten and half-dead. As he is lying on the road, a priest passes by, and continues on his way without helping the man. A Levite comes by and does the same. Finally, a Samaritan traveler comes upon the man and is filled with compassion and helps him.

Jesus tells the story as a way to answer the question of a “scholar of the law”, who, upon hearing Jesus’ instruction that we must love our neighbor as ourselves, asks the question “who is my neighbor.” Jesus tells the story and then asks who was neighbor to the victim of the robbers, to which the answer is the Samaritan.

But there is something else in the parable it is important not to overlook. Here is Jesus’ description of the actions of the Samaritan:

He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, “Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.”

It is not just that the Samaritan didn’t walk away the way the priest and the Levite did.

He could have just bandaged the man’s wounds with the minimal effort necessary to make sure the man wouldn’t bleed to death. But he poured oil and wine over his wounds.

He could have bandaged the victim and left him there. But he carried him to an inn.

He could have dropped the victim at the door, leaving the man to hope for the generosity of the innkeeper. But he stayed and cared for him – delaying his journey by a day.

He could have given two coins to the innkeeper for his trouble and went on his way. But he promises the innkeeper he will come back and repay him whatever extra the innkeeper pays. And no upper limit!

This is no stingy offer of help. No doing the minimal amount required to “get credit” for doing good. This is a model of unbounded compassion.

And it invites us to examine our own behavior. Do we do just the bare minimum? Of do we go the extra mile as did the Samaritan?

Because Her Sins Have Been Forgiven, She Shows Great Love

Many people who operate under the misimpression that we need to mend our bad ways in order for God to want to be with us. So they feel the need to try to “be good” so that God will love them.

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke highlights the error of that way of thinking. It reminds us of the important fact that God loves us first and always. That we need do nothing to earn God’s love. That God does not love us because we do something to earn that love. Rather, it is God’s love that allows us to respond in love and gratitude.

The Gospel tells of the sinful woman who comes while Jesus is eating supper in the house of the Pharisee. She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her heair, isses them and anoints them with fine ointment.

The Pharisee is outraged that Jesus allows her to touch him. Jesus tells him a story: “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?”

The Pharisee gives the obvious answer – the one with the larger debt.

Jesus then contrasts the behavior of the Pharisee (who neither washed Jesus’ feet nor kissed him nor anointed him) with that of the woman and says, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” Her sins have been forgiven. Hence, she shows great love.

First God invites – God loves…and through that we are able to respond in love.

Service Over Private Agenda

A friend of mine recently sent me the text of Sr. Joan Chittister’s address at Stanford University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Program. The address was titled A Call To Leadership.

Her talk included a story about a Buddhist monk who was determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese. I’ve actually read an adaptation of this story before, in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic, which tells the story of a gifted woman who dedicates “her life to the task of translating the Word of God throughout her country.” The story teaches a wonderful lesson, whoever you put in the role of protagonist.

Here is the story as Joan Chittiester told it:

He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he’d raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.

Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.

Chittister framed the lesson of the story as a lesson of leadership, but it is a lesson for all of us: “no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.”

Visions of the Master

I am always delighted when I read or hear something that helps me to see a scripture passage in a new light. Especially when it is a Gospel passage I have prayed with or thought about a lot, I’m delighted when I hear a sermon that focuses it a bit differently than I’ve focused it before. That happened to me yesterday.

I attended Mass yesterday morning at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington, where I have been giving a Monday morning series on prayers (the last session of which is this morning). Since there was an adult education program yesterday I wanted to attend, I attended the 9:30 there.

The Gospel passage yesterday morning was the parable of the talents in St. Matthew’s Gospel. It is a story we are all familiar with. The Master of the house gave different talents to each servant. (In the translation we heard at Mass yesterday, it was expressed as a number of silver coins.) The first two servants invested the talents wisely and made them grow. The Master was pleased and gave them more talents. The third servant hoarded his talents and did not use them, nor did he make them grow, so they were taken away from him by the angry Master.

I always speak of this parable when talking to people about getting in touch with their giftedness. We are each given a unique set of gifts from God so that we can use them to give greater glory to God; we aren’t given a gift to bury it and give it back in its pristine state to God. We are given our gifts to use them for the life of the world. Nothing wrong with that message.

But the priest suggested something that I had not considered before, and that is that the servants in the parable had very different images of their Master and that those images had an effect on their behavior. The parable reveals explicitly the image of the third servant: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter;so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” The other servants, the priest posited, rather than seeing the Master as harsh and judging, saw him as loving and forgiving. That gave them the freedom to do something creative with the talents they had been entrusted with.

People have many different images of God. Some of those images are less healthy than others. Some constrict and others give us the confidence and freedom to be all that God intended for us to become.

Note: For a different, but very powerful, take on today’s Gospel, go listen to this reflection by my friend and hero, Aidan Rooney, currently working in the Vincentian mission in Bolivia.