Monthly Archives: February 2014

Speaking the Truth

Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, in today’s reading Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. (Mark 8,1-12) Mark says the questioning took place as Jesus “came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan,” on his way up to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.

That was where John the Baptist was put to death for questioning the validity of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who divorced Herod’s brother Philip so that she could marry him. Mark tells the gruesome story of that powerful man and ambitious woman a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29)

Questioning Jesus in their stronghold, the Pharisees thought, might have two outcomes. Either it might incite Herodias and Herod to do to Jesus what they did to John, or if Jesus didn’t answer the delicate question about divorce, the crowds gathered around him might see him less brave than the Baptist.

Jesus’ answer is brave, and it’s not an abstract one. Marriage is not to satisfy human ambition, like Herodias’ ambition. From the beginning it was God’s will that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, seem to be a strong judgment on the man and woman who engineered John’s death:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

In Rome these days questions of marriage are being raised again, at a different time and place. We pray those engaged in the deliberations of our church will be brave and wise and merciful, and walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Rivalry

Today’s gospel is about rivalry between good people. Read it first, and then take a look at Pope Francis speaking to Pentecostals.

John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9,38-40)

The Sermon on the Mount


In his Sermon on the Mount, which we’re reading these Sundays, Jesus takes to another level what the law says or what most people say. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not kill’…you have heard it said ‘you shall not commit adultery.’…But I say to you.” “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’…You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I say to you.”

He asks for a higher, more nuanced morality from us, because we are children of God and not children of the world.

The British novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdock, describes in her novels a world of bright, successful law-abiding people who consider themselves above traditional morality. They’re not murders, or rapists or criminals, for sure. They wouldn’t think of breaking the law, because they and their interests are protected by law.

But civil laws say nothing about most of life, and Murdock’s characters decide for themselves how to live, according to their own wisdom. They make their choices based on what they want or what’s best for them. They’re sincere people, but because of the way they think morally, their lives and the lives of others get messed up.

Murdoch’s characters – and they represent a large portion of educated, western society today – have a strong belief in their own wisdom. They decide their own morality. They’re masters of their own fate and can’t believe that their wisdom might be limited or fed by their own fantasies or could affect others. What’s right for them, is right.

What are the consequences of that kind of moral thinking? You can see it in broken friendships, broken families, broken lives, and a society not built on common norms, but on personal choice.

How different is the idea of choice in Sunday’s reading from Sirach. “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you. (Sirach 15,15) The commandments are wise guides and Jesus extends them further, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. We should learn from this wisdom, search into it and hope it becomes part of the way we think and act.

“You have heard it said, ‘Choose for yourself’…But I say to you…

Desire

Here’s Augustine talking about one of his favorite themes: desire.

“The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

“Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

“So, my sisters and brothers, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.

“Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.

“We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Human versus Divine Thinking

DSC00804“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi. “You are the Christ,” Peter says in reply, going beyond what the crowds were saying then of Jesus.

But then as Jesus speaks of suffering greatly, being rejected, killed and rising after three days, Peter rejects his prediction. In reply Jesus says to him “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do. ” (Mark 8,27-33)

The Gospel of Mark, more than the others, presents us with the human Peter, thinking as humans do. He appears in the story of the Passion of Jesus failing miserably as he denies Jesus three times and deserts him in his last hours. If Peter is the voice behind Mark’s gospel, he certainly hasn’t made himself a hero nor does he excuse his failures. Many times he seems to say as he says elsewhere in the gospel; “I’m a sinful man.”

Yet, he was called upon by Jesus to lead and teach.

In a few days (February 22nd) we’re going to celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The chair is in the Vatican Basilica beneath the window of the Holy Spirit which sheds its bright light upon it. It’s a teacher’s chair, not a throne, and from Mark’s gospel we get a picture of the one who, with the Spirit’s help, leads and teaches the church.

A human hand reaches from the darkness to the divine.

The Mystery of the Cross

We’re reading the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark these weekdays at Mass, writings going back to the 60s, from Jerusalem and Rome respectively. Three important Christian leaders were put to death in that decade: James, Peter and Paul. We see their deaths now as the glorious death of martyrs; Christians then were probably more aware of losing three religious leaders they depended on for guidance.

The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark (traditionally acknowledged as the spokesman for Peter) were voices for these disciples in the churches they left behind.

In the 60s a growing turmoil engulfed the church in Jerusalem, as Jewish Christians faced growing opposition in the city. The death of James, their leader, at the hands of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders is evidence of this antagonism. Because of it, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and went into exile. The destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD canceled any plans they had for returning home.

In the 60s, the Christians of Rome experienced persecution of another kind. It was a sudden, unexpected persecution by the Emperor Nero that followed the fire that destroyed most of the city in 64 AD.

The Disciples' Unbelief

The Disciples’ Unbelief

It’s good to keep the background of these writings in mind when reading them. In today’s reading, Mark emphasizes a theme that runs through his gospel. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks his disciples. (Mark 8,21) What the disciples, led by Peter, don’t understand especially is the mystery of his passion and death.

Writing for the Christians of Rome, Mark wants them to see in the incomprehension of Jesus’ first disciples their own incomprehension before the vicious suffering inflicted on them at the hands of a powerful and unjust emperor.
They don’t understand. It’s a mystery slowly understood.

And they wont be the last to not understand the mystery of the cross. We’re seldom ready for it and slow to recognize all the forms it takes.

Watch the Way You Think

David penitentMatthew’s Gospel contains many indications of the Jewishness of Jesus. In today’s reading at Mass (Matthew 5, 17-37), we can see him as part of the Jewish world in which he lived. A loyal, practicing Jew, he participated fully in his religion and culture. He kept the Jewish feasts and observed the Jewish laws; he was in the synagogue every Sabbath.

Yet, Jesus was not uncritical of the Jewish world in which he lived. That’s what we hear in today’s gospel.

Some of his words seem harsh to us– “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” But this is Jesus speaking as the Jewish prophets spoke. They used harsh words to make their point. Like them, he spoke strongly when religious standards were neglected and not being fulfilled. “I came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” His criticism extended to the Jewish leadership of his day– the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus criticizes especially a way of living that focuses on externals–and sometimes just a few externals– and doesn’t focus enough on inner thinking and inner judgments. For example, he mentions a commandment “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But there are other ways you can destroy people. You may not go to jail for them either, but you can destroy people by anger or demean them by looking at them as fools. Strong words, but he’s making a point and his point isn’t just for his time and place.

“ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, you may not go to jail for your thinking, but your thoughts can poison your appreciation of people. I think that’s what pornography does. It poisons your mind and lessens your respect for others.

By the way, that picture above is King David. You know where his thoughts got him.

Watch your thinking and your judging, Jesus says. The way you think is critical to the way you live. The way you look at things within is crucial to the way you do things without.

The final parts of our gospel are about divorce procedures and taking oaths. Some people in his time loved to see life in terms of law; some today still do. All you have to do is keep within the law, be law abiding, live legally and that’s enough. As we see in this gospel, Jesus never saw keeping laws enough. They’re just a start.