It Is Not Enough To Be Good by Avoiding Evil

In a great follow-up to my power of yesterday about the examination of conscience we did at our reconciliation service the other night, in today’s Gospel, Mark records a man coming to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments – you shall not kill, you shall not steal, and so forth. The man assures Jesus he has done all these things, to which Jesus “looked at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'” Mark further tells us that the man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Five months before his assassination, Oscar Romero preached on this Gospel passage. Speaking of Jesus’ encounter with the man, he said

Here Jesus challenged the natural goodness of men and women. It is not enough to be good and it is not enough to leave evil aside. Christianity is positive and not simply a negation of things. These are many people who say: “I do not kill or steal or do harm to anyone!” This is not enough; something else is needed. The goodness of the young man was not complete. Jesus tells him what he lacks….

The young man had reason to fear following Jesus. He thought that in avoiding evil he could fulfill the commandments in some half-hearted, careless manner and that this was enough. There are many Christians today who judge others because these Christians believe they are good because they do no evil. This is not what Jesus desires. Jesus died for something more positive. Saint Paul states: For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8-9)

Romero invited his listeners to allow the Word of God to be “like a sword that penetrates the depths” of their hears and to reflect on the extent to which they are attached to the things of this world…the extent to which they fail to do more than avoid evil.

We would do well to do the same.

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Jesus Speaks: The Great Commandment

Yesterday was the fourth (and penultimate) session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  As I’ve already shared in my posts following the first three sessions, the reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ. Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience. In the first three weeks we focused on the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes and the Eucharist. (And we began our session today, as we usually do, by inviting the participants to share about their experience this past week reflecting on the Eucharist.

Today our focus was on Jesus’ response when he is asked which commandment is the greatest. Jesus responded,

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

I began my talk by pointing out that neither aspect of this twofold commandment was new to the people of Jesus’ time; both are rooted in the Torah. I then offered some thoughts about each of the two aspects, including what is challenging to them in us. I ended by talking about a precondition to our ability to grow in our adherence of the command to love God and love one another: our embrace of God’s unconditional love for us.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 27:01.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our series ends next week with a focus on our commissioning to proclaim the Gospel.

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?

Jesus Speaks: The Beatitudes

Today was the second session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  The reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.  Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

The focus of today’s session was The Beatitudes. Pope Benedict XIV wrote that “the Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship.” They are meant, not as a series of sweet platitudes, but as ways we ought to orient and live our lives.

Since I have given so many talks on the Beatitudes, I decided to do something different today. For each of the Beatitudes, I invited the participants to share something of their understanding before offering some thoughts of my own. It was a rich discussion and I think broadened how many (including myself) thought of some of the Beatitudes.

At the end of our discussion, I distributed prayer material on the Beatitudes participants may want to pray with this week. You can find a copy of the that handout material is here.

If you wish to hear a recording of a talk I have given on the Beatitudes, you can find one here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the Eucharist.

Jesus Speaks: The Lord’s Prayer

Yesterday was the first session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  The reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.  Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

The focus of today’s session was the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps the most well-known prayer in the Christian tradition, although as i shared with the participants the prayer comes almost verbatim from the Talmud. After giving a brief introduction to the series, I offered some thoughts about the various petitions of the prayer.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:44.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the Beatitudes.

Ruth’s Choice

Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Ruth, a book I love and that we hear from too infrequently during Mass.

In today’s passage, we meet Naomi after the death of her husband Elimelech and her two sons, both of whom had married Moabite woman.  Naomi makes the decision to return to Bethlehem, her homeland.  Her daughter-in-law Orpah bids her a tearful good-bye.  Orpah’s choice to remain in her homeland is a sensible, as well as honorable and safe decision.

Ruth however, makes a much bolder choice. Despite Naomi’s encouragement that Ruth do as her sister-in-law has done, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to a land where she will be an eternal outsider and where the national prejudice against Moabites, let alone single Moabite women goes deep.  (And remember, this is early Israel, where interracial marriages are frowned upon and where it is not easy to be a single woman in a culture where a woman’s social security depends on being linked to a man.)

Nonetheless, Ruth says to Naomi, in words familiar to us, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” 

Joan Chittister, in her book The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, describes Ruth as making the choice filled with faith “that the God of yesterday is also the God of today, that the God who took one thing away has something else in store for her. Ruth determines to follow a God who worked through Miriam, Rachel, Sarah and Leah, as well as through Moses, Jacob and Abraham to save a world and lead a people.”

Ruth seizes the moment to become someone new, to start again in a place other than the place of her beginnings. She stretches herself to the limits to find the God who waits for her in what she has not yet become. Chittister writes:

Life is not a mystery for those who choose well-worn paths. But life is a reeling, spinning whirligig for those who do not, for those who seek God beyond the boundaries of the past. All the absolutes come into question. All the certainties fade. A ll the relationships on which they once had based their hopes shudder and strain under the weight of this new woman’s newness of thought and behavior.

Suddenly – it seems to have been, but probably only slowly, one idea at a time – Ruth finds herself at odds with her culture, her country, her religion and her role in life. One by one, she chooses against each of them. A Moabite, she makes the decision to go to the Jewish city of Bethlehem where race and religion will marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she professes faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she opts for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her. Ruth has discovered what it is to be the self that God made and nourishes and accompanies on the way.

Do we have the faith and courage of Ruth.

Which (and Who) Strengthens Me

There is a line in the Letter to the Philippians that comes to mind often.  In the translation in which I usually hear it, it says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  It is a line that I have internalized and that I turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

The other day I saw the line quoted on a calendar, where it was quoted with a one word difference from the way I usually hear it.  It read, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”

I smiled when I read it.  It seemed to add to the power of the line to me.  My traditional translation conveys the reality that I do nothing without Christ that the strength comes from Christ.  The second seems to add the additional strength that comes from the knowledge and security that Christ is there.

Perhaps that is a distinction without a difference for many people.  Indeed, the line itself may have less significance for you than me (regardless of translation).   But it keeps coming back to me, and making me smile.

  

Mary Magdalene: Fiercely Loyal Friend and Disciple

Today the Catholic Church celebrates one of the most maligned women in history: Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple of Jesus.  She was one of the people who followed Jesus wherever he went. One of the few who didn’t run away at the end, but who stayed at the foot the cross until he died. And she is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection – the appearance that we hear about in today’s Gospel.

It is a beautiful encounter.  In The Twelve Voices of Easter, Woodrow Kroll and Keity Ghormley have a chapter on Mary Magdalene, which among other things, describes that encounter in Mary’s voice.  I share here an excerpt, which you might use as a meditation for today’s Gospel.

…when we arrived at the tomb, we were shocked: The stone was not there, nor were any soldiers to be seen. The stone had been rolled away–taken right out of its trough and tipped over.

As we stood and wondered at what had happened to the stone, two men dressed in dazzling white robes suddenly appeared. These garments were not the togas of Roman soldiers, nor were they the long white robes of the Pharisees. These were not men at all, but angels of God.

We were overcome and we fell to the ground. But the angels reassured us. They reminded us how Jesus had said that He would rise again. One of the angels bid us to look inside the tomb and see for ourselves. I ran as fast as I could to tell Peter and John. When we returned, the other women were gone. We looked in the tomb. Empty. I was convinced that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. The linen garments Joseph had wrapped Him in were lying there, neatly folded in their places. But the tomb was empty.

Peter and John ran from the garden, but I remained. I had nowhere to go. What had happened to the Master? Could it be that He actually did rise from the dead, or had the soldiers taken His body away? My heart was overcome again with sorrow. I just stood there, weeping.

Then I heard a voice behind me ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I assumed it was the gardener. “Sir, what have you done with Him?” I asked, wiping my face.

It was fully light, but tears blurred my eyes. I turned, but could not see clearly. Then He called me by my name. “Mariam.” That was my Aramaic name, the name my parents and my friends called me. A gardener would not have spoken Aramaic to me. A Roman would not know my name. I knew that voice. I looked up. I saw Him. It was Jesus. I answered in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” I threw myself at His feet, weeping, laughing, not believing, believing. My Master, my Teacher, my Savior, my Lord. He was standing there alive….

He told me to go tell the others, and I did. Marvelous news. A wonder beyond all wonders. God has accomplished great things in our midst. Jesus is risen from the dead!

To Lose One’s Life

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Gerhard Lohfink’s book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was.  In the first of his chapters addressing the “Who He Was” part of the title, Lohfink addresses Jesus’ statement in Luke’s Gospel that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Lohfink makes the important point that this is not just, or even primarily, about the surrender of life in death.  Human beings, he writes

are also desperately engaged in “saving” their own desire and dreams, their own guiding images and plans for their lives.  But these very rescue actions cause them to lose their lives – namely, the true lives that existence under the rule of God would give them.  “To lose one’s life” therefore refers not only to martyrdom but in given circumstances to the surrender of one’s secure bourgeoise existence for the reign of God.

This is important because if we put the focus on martyrdom, it is easy to let ourselves off the hook – Oh, I’m not being called to lay down my (physical) life for God.  Even when we understand Jesus’ words more broadly, we want to resist them.  Lohfink continues

Such radicality for the sake of God’s project is not everyone’s thing.  Normally we want not “either-or” but”both-and.”  In particular, people familiar with the Gospel and desiring to serve God can be deeply conflicted here.  They want to be there for God, but they also want space for themselves.  They want to make a place for God in their lives, but they also want to have free segments in which they decide for themselves about their lives.  They want to do the will of God, but at the same time, they want to live out their dreams and longings.

That description pretty much sounds like many, if not most, of us.  And Jesus is clear in his reaction to that way of thinking: “No one can serve two masters.”  That is, Lohfink paraphrases, “when it is a question of God an the reign of God, there can be nothing  but undivided self-surrender.”  And that, suggests Lohfink, is a central part of Jesus’ message.

I can see the tagline of the commercial: Discipleship in Christ – It’s Not for the Faint of Heart!

God Calls Moses

One of the early meditations in Week Two of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the termed the Call of the King.  The meditation is presented in the form of a parable designed us to get in touch with Christ’s invitation that we labor with him to bring about God’s plan of the world.

God’s call is not a distinctively Christian phenomenon. God has been calling on humans to aid him in his plan for the world from the very beginning.  We hear one of those calls in today’s first Mass reading: God’s call to Moses.

God has heard the cry of his people languishing in slavery in Egypt. At the time Moses is off tending the flock of his father-in-law and as he comes to mount Horeb, he sees fire flaming out of a bush. And God says to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people….The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

As I read the passage, I was struck with the ordinariness with which God makes this request, as though he were asking something on the order of, “run down to the corner store and pick me up a quart of milk.”  No big deal, Moses, just go and lead my people out of Egypt.

Moses’ first reaction is about what you’d expect: Are you serious? How in the world am I supposed to do this? Who am I to go to Pharoah and lead the people to freedom? And what is God’s response: I will be with you.

The conversation goes on after this, as God tells Moses how things will proceed, but Moses still says, “If you please, Lord, send someone else.”

But God will not be thwarted. God doesn’t say, OK, I’ll go ask someone else. Rather God persists, and throughout their conversation, in response to each of Moses’ objections, God promises the gift Moses needs to carry out this task.

And God persists with each of us.  Calling us over and over again for us to take part in God’s plan for the world.

Will you answer the call?