November 30, 2016 - The Nature of Belief

Brothers and sisters:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
The Scripture says,
No one who believes in him will be put to shame.
There is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all,
enriching all who call upon him.
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone to preach?
And how can people preach unless they are sent?
As it is written,
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!

Romans 10:9-18

Salvation is not something that is granted to those who believe in God but is denied to atheists.  Rather, it is good news that, like any good news, only has the power to comfort and heal to the extent it is heard and accepted.  If I don’t believe I won the lottery, it won’t do me any good.

This simple message is what Paul is trying to get across.  How can someone be comforted by an idea that no one shared with them?   

Image: Stained Glass.  St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, Norwalk, Connecticut

November 29, 2016 - A Shoot Shall Sprout from the Stump of Jesse

On that day,
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A Spirit of counsel and of strength,
a Spirit of knowledge and of reverence for the LORD,
and his delight shall be the reverence for the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

On that day,
The root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
The Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:1-10

Whether Isaiah predicted Jesus, or whether the Gospel writers massaged their text to fit the prediction doesn’t really matter.  Scripture is not about making us believe in Isaiah’s the magical ability to predict the future or make Jesus’s divinity more plausible by attaching magical properties to his life.

What matters here is the extraordinary image of God’s mercy.  Nearly three millennia since the Torah was written and two millennia since Jesus, the idea that God is loving, gentle and fair and that He inspires a vision of peace is so ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine an alternative.  But before God humanity imagined the divine to be brutal and capricious; the friend of the powerful and the enemy of the weak.  Ba’al, the image of the divine with which God competed directly in Canaan, demanded the immolation of first born children to bring fertility and rain.  In contrast, God is the protector of the widow and the orphan.  He is the friend of the poor, the sick and the weak. 

We may argue about whether God requires this or that, and how much, and for how long, but everyone of good faith agrees that God is loving, that He represents hope and inspires us to peace.   That is the innovation of Abrahamic faith.

November 28, 2016 - Universal Salvation

When Jesus entered Capernaum,
a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying,
“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”
He said to him, “I will come and cure him.”
The centurion said in reply,
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof;
only say the word and my servant will be healed.
For I too am a man subject to authority,
with soldiers subject to me.
And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes;
and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes;
and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,
“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.
I say to you, many will come from the east and the west,
and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 8:5-11

Yesterday we heard Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy of all nations streaming toward a renewed City of God.  Today’s reading illustrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy.  A Roman centurion, the symbol of Israel’s oppression by a foreign empire, recognizes Jesus’s promise even more than his own people.  Jesus requires no conversion of him – not a religious conversion nor a moral one.  The message of Scripture represents something universal.  It is not the salvation of one people to the exclusion of others.   It is not even the salvation of the moral to the exclusion of the immoral. 

Swiss theologian Krister Stendahl turned theology on its head in the 1960s when asserted that St. Paul conceived of sin as something shared by everyone rather than behaviors in which we as individuals may or may not engage.  Every Catholic will recognize the words of the centurion as those the congregation says together at the most sacred moment of the Mass.  We say it together and we find forgiveness together. Just as our sin is universal, so is our redemption.

Image: Paolo Veronese, Healing the Centurion's Servant

November 27, 2016 - Stay Awake! The First Sunday of Advent

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz,
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
the mountain of God’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of God from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:1-5

On this First Sunday of Advent, the first reading is Isaiah’s extraordinary vision of a world in which “many peoples” have recommitted themselves to faith.  It is a world of committed to peace, but we are not given the impression that peace is imposed by God with the threat of punishment.  Nor are we given the impression that peace followed successful military or political efforts (the Assyrians were in total and brutal control of the region in Isaiah’s time).  Rather, Isaiah describes a peace that arises naturally from a people who are in harmony with the divine.  Buddhists, more consistently than Christians, say that harmony is achieved by being fully aware and awake.  But it is a concept firmly within Christianity too.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to stay awake.  He acknowledges that those who are awake look and act just like everyone else.  They don’t display heroic virtue but are hidden like the thirty-six Lamed Vav of mystical Judaism or the forty Abdals of mystical Islam:   

Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Matthew 24:37-44

November 23, 2016 - Assurance

Jesus said to the crowd:
“They will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents,
brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Luke 21:12-19

In this passage, Jesus predicts that some Christians will be executed.  In the very next breath, though, he indicates that not a hair on their heads will be destroyed.  Is this double-talk? Clearly, Jesus does not guaranty we magically will not suffer.  In fact, he virtually guarantees that we will.  But at the same time he offers some other assurance.   

Buddhism suggests that we can end suffering by ending our attachment to impermanent things.  Maybe Jesus is suggesting something similar: that we are happiest when we stop investing in that which does not satisfy and instead develop our relationship to the divine and eternal.

November 22, 2016 - Apocalypse

While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

Then they asked him,
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
He answered,
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them! 
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”

Luke 21:5-11

The central theme of this blog asserts that Scripture is not intended to be about magic and today’s reading seems to support it.  The Second Temple was destroyed on August 30th in the year 70.  Luke was written sometime between 80 and 90.  So, when Luke wrote this passage in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the event had already occurred.  When the disciples ask when it will occur, Jesus could have said “August 30 in the year 70” but instead he ignores the question and talks about false prophets. 

Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers appear interested in making Jesus appear magical or prophetic.  He doesn't even seem that concerned with the apocalyptic signs of the apocalypse except to suggest that we ought not be afraid of them and shouldn't read too much into them.   Instead, in this case, he is more concerned with 'prophesying' that his message will be rejected.  Immediately following this passage, Jesus says, “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.”

November 20, 2016 - God Saves

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”

Luke 23-35-43

This is one of several examples where those who take what Jesus say literally are cast as villains. 

During his trial, the Pharisees get people to testify that Jesus said he could rebuild the temple in three days (Matt 26:61, 27:39-44).  When Jesus said that we had to eat his flesh to obtain eternal life, the Gospel of John recorded that many disciples left him and, instead of telling them he was speaking metaphorically, he let them go (John 6:53; See also Mark 15:29-32).  And in this Sunday’s reading, the soldiers taunt Jesus, demanding that he literally “save” himself from the torture of the Cross.

Scripture itself urges us not to take it literally, but also urges us not to stop there.  What does it mean to rebuild the temple in three days?  What does it mean to eat the flesh of the Son of Man?  From what does God save us?    The dogmatic answers come easy, but are there deeper ones?

Image: Sculpture in driftwood and seaweed.  Artist unknown

November 14, 2016 - Your Faith has Saved You

As Jesus approached Jericho
a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,
and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.
They told him,
“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
The people walking in front rebuked him,
telling him to be silent,
but he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me!”
Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
He replied, “Lord, please let me see.”
Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”
He immediately received his sight
and followed him, giving glory to God.
When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.

Luke 18:35-43

Why does Jesus never take credit for miracles?  Why does he always credit instead the receiver of the miracle? Is he proving his divine authority? Is he providing us an example of humility?

The balance of Scripture indicates Jesus has no interest in being seen as a sorcerer.  He doesn’t need to demonstrate divine power.  Nor does he need to exhort anyone to humility.  But he recognizes the tautology that to receive the benefit of faith, you must have faith.  To be comforted by the presence of God you have to feel the presence of God.  A few weeks ago, the disciples asked Jesus how to increase their faith.  Jesus ignored them and said that even a little faith will be enough.  Those who have even a little faith will grow in faith.  In this way, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.  Let those who have ears hear.

Image: Cape Cod

November 13, 2016 - The Politics of Faith

Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.

Luke 21:5-19

Among the most repeated themes of Scripture is that prophets will be persecuted and marginalized.  It is in vogue to assume that those on the opposite side of the political spectrum from us are the persecutors and we are the hapless, martyred victims.  But that is “motivated reasoning”*

Closer to the truth is that God requires us to ascribe neither to liberal nor conservative policies.  He is much bigger than that.  But that is unacceptable.  We want to wrap God in the political movement of the day and adorn our beliefs with divine approval.  If God is not useful in that regard we would rather forget all about Him.

Everything we usually think about faith is at stake:  What if God does not require us to serve the poor?  What if God does not require us to be virtuous?  What if He has no interest in arbitrating the culture wars that make us feel so overwrought? Can we recognize any value in such a God?

* Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyar.  A Truce for Our Tribal Politics.  The Wall Street Journal November 5-6, 2016

November 3, 2016 - The Lost Sheep

The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus addressed this parable to them.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

Luke 15:1-10

The idea that God places the last before the first is probably the most repeated theme in Scripture.  We are comfortable with the idea that the poor, the sick, and the oppressed will get God’s attention before the rich, healthy and socially connected.  But Scripture routinely goes beyond this and suggests that even the immoral will get preference over the moral: the prodigal son gets a party while his elder bother gets nothing, the vineyard workers who start at the end of the day get as much as the ones who start in the late afternoon. A shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to find one lost one won't be a very successful shepherd, but God's economy is different from ours.  

November 2, 2016 - All Souls

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.
For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”

John 6:37-40

The idea of an afterlife has lost favor with many Christians.  Maybe it just seems too good to be true, or like wishful thinking.  Why do we treat a pessimistic world view as more inherently trustworthy than an optimistic one?  

Judaism arose and thrived for several centuries without the expectation of an afterlife.  About two centuries before Jesus was born the idea took root until, in Jesus’s day, it was widely accepted.  Whether there was an afterlife or not was a principal difference between the Pharisees, who believed in an afterlife, and the Sadducees who did not. 

In multiple instances in the Gospels Jesus affirmed his own belief in an afterlife.  In today’s reading, Jesus indicates that we’re all going to make it: no one will be rejected, and none will be lost.  All will be invited - the good and the bad alike.