Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Gift of Mercy

Lk 6:36-38

Jesus said to his disciples:

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus goes up a mountain to teach his disciples. In Luke’s gospel, read on the Monday of the 2nd week of lent, the mountain is the place where Jesus prays with them. Then he descends and teaches them at length about loving others, especially one’s enemies.

We can hear his words as an extension of the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

Notice what mercy means. It means not judging, not condemning, being forgiving. However, mercy does not stop there, it goes on to give gifts to the other. That’s the way God shows mercy. Like the father of the prodigal son, whom Luke describes later on in his gospel, God not only forgives but offers sinners a feast of unearned graces– “bring a robe–the best one–and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and scandals on his feet.”

God doesn’t ration mercy or hedge it around with caution. He doesn’t keep remembering anyone’s wrong.

St Bernard says that the merciful “are those who see the truth in their neighbor and reach out in compassion and identify in love with them, responding to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.” Seeing the truth in our neighbor means, of course, seeing  human frailty, misguided dreams, selfishness and sinfulness in others and recognizing that truth in  ourselves. Mercy begins by knowing yourself.

Loving Like God Does

As the 5th chapter of St. Matthew begins, Jesus calls his disciples up a mountain to teach them and speaks the blessed words we call beatitudes. He calls for living in ways beyond our usual ways, ways the “children of God” live, patterns of life that let us “see God.” But climbing a mountain is challenging, isn’t it?

In the gospel reading for saturday, the 1st week of lent–also from Matthew’s 5th chapter and part of his teaching from the mountain– Jesus tells us to love our enemies as God does. Can we come up to his command?

God the Creator, who provides sun and rain for the just and the unjust, is the One Jesus proposes we imitate in this gospel reading.

Later, he will be the example, as he renounces violence when his enemies come into the garden to seize him. “Put your sword back into its place,” he says to Peter who’s ready to strike out.  Before his accusers who plot his death “Jesus was silent”. And when he rises from the dead, he embraces the disciples who betrayed him and tells them to go into the whole world, the world of the just and the unjust, and proclaim God’s loving call to be his friends.

We love those who love us; we love our families, we say.  But  we “really don’t know love at all.” Only when we love our enemies: those we ignore, those we exclude, those we condemn, those who have hurt us–do we love like God does. We have a mountain to climb.

The Lenten Gospels

The gospels, along with other readings in our lenten Masses, offer a grace to those who follow them day by day. Take an overall look. You’ll notice the frequency of Matthew’s gospel  during the first three weeks, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  As the 4th week of lent begins, John’s gospel provides most of the weekday readings.

Matthew’s gospel was a favorite of the early church for teaching and catechesis. “The confession by Peter at Caesaria Philippi along with Jesus’ promise for his church, is the midpoint and highpoint of the gospel,” writes Rudolph Schnackenburg, and in this gospel Jesus, “the Christ and Son of the Living God” speaks to his disciples “ words of everlasting life.” Now he’s speaking to us.

We shouldn’t forget the gospel’s author is Matthew the tax collector, as the gospel for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday reminds us; so you might say that Jesus wants to speak to people like Matthew and his friends, not very observant keepers of the law, but outsiders and sinners. If you identify with them, welcome to the lenten season.

Jesus teaches us how to pray and how to think and live in this world. A number of the gospels early in lent treat of prayer. ( tuesday and thursday, 1st week) Besides talking to  God, we have to live with one another. On monday of the 1st week, Jesus issues a powerful warning in Matthew’s gospel about neglecting “the least,” and in the readings for friday and saturday of the 1st week, he tells us to love others, even our enemies.

The love Jesus calls for is not just acceptable or normal or even good;  it’s Godlike. Can any of us love like God?  But there’s no watering down his challenging, radical words that are addressed, not to a few,  but to us all.

Lent’s not meant to make us comfortable; it sets our sights on loving more, but it sets the bar higher than we like. Like the Olympic games, lent calls for our best, and more. A bigger prize than a gold medal is at stake.

Ask And You Will Receive

Does God answer prayers? A question asked often down through the centuries. For some, God–if there is one–doesn’t pay attention to us at all. We’re on our own. No one’s listening and no one cares.

Certainly, Jesus believed in asking for things in prayer from a Father who cared, and he taught his disciples to pray as he did. For example, he asked over and over in the Garden of Gethsemani that his life be spared, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” He trusted a Father who loved him more than any human father could. No distant, uninvolved God for him.

As he knocked the door opened, the answer came, yet not as he willed, but as God willed. And to accept that answer “an angel came to strengthen him.” So also with us: we may not get what we ask for, but a strengthening grace is always given, and the promise of life always remains. God has something better in mind.

As the gospels make clear, Jesus prayed constantly during this life; he taught his disciples words of prayer and finally, in his darkest hours he gave them an example of prayers they would never forget. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” ; “I thirst”; “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” Heartfelt, trusting, real prayers.

We pray with our own voice when we pray; that’s true. But we pray best by following the way of praying that Jesus gave us. “Let us pray as God our Master taught us, asking the Father in the words the Son has given us, letting him hear the prayer of Christ ringing in his ears…Let the Father recognize the words of his Son; let the Son who lives in our hearts be also on our lips…” (St. Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer)

For more on the prayer of Jesus,

The Sign of Jonah

Jonah himself wasn’t much of a sign, if you think about him. He fled fear-stricken from the mission God gave to preach to the great city of Nineveh, and when  the sailors on the boat from Joppa saw him as the curse that caused a storm and  threw him overboard to drown, he couldn’t stop them. That would have been the end of him  if God didn’t send a whale to swallow him and vomit him up on the shore at Nineveh.

An arrival like that caught the attention of the Ninevites; they listened to this man who came from the belly of whale and responded to his preaching by begging God for forgiveness.

So Jonah wasn’t much of a sign himself. The Ninevites would have ignored him if he just got off the boat from Joppa and preached to them. Instead,  he was someone brought back from death and sure destruction. God made him a sign of life.

In Jesus, a greater than Jonah is here. The mystery of his death and resurrection is at the heart of his mission, his great word, his message of hope, his sign of love for us.

The Sign of Jonah was a favorite theme early Christians used to decorate the places where they buried their death. The whale of death, monster of the sea, would not destroy humanity but deliver it to another shore, where a kingdom was waiting.

It’s Raining Today

It’s raining today in Union City. Just the day for reading Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD:

Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

But isn’t it true, we don’t always like rain? Here it snarls traffic,  stops you from going places maybe. Like the woman above, you may not have a car and you get soaked waiting for a bus. It gets in the way of your plans.

We think of God’s grace as pleasant and good, but we’re not always “Singin’ in the Rain”. Like the rain nourishing seed in the ground or  filling reservoirs from thousands of distant streams, God’s grace isn’t quickly apparent. More often it’s slow and sequential. Without it, though, would we have water to drink and bread to eat?

So we say in the Our Father, “your will be done,” because God’s word goes forth. “It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” But his will isn’t immediately seen.

Turning Your Back On Your Own

During lent we’re supposed to turn to God, to pray, fast and give alms. Every church I know has something extra going on for Lent.

But there’s a line from Isaiah in last Friday’s first reading that keep’s coming to me.  It comes after he pointedly says that all the above can just be a gesture if they don’t lead to acts of justice, “releasing those bound unjustly…sharing your bread with the hungry…clothing the naked when you see them…not turning your back on your own…”

“Not turning your back on your own.” That’s the phrase I hear. Who are our own and how do we turn our backs on them? It’s the curse of familiarity that we so often misunderstand or peg into a category those we know. Often enough, we judge them by what they’re done or not done, and end up not knowing them at all. Our memories, unfortunately, are long and narrow. Our appreciation is often driven by self-interest.

Lent is a good time to turn to our own. Putting away our categories, our experiences, our memories and expectations, it’s time to look again at the promise in people we know.

I have some looking to do.