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.


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)

Forgetful Listeners

One thing that happens to us all–more so as we get older–is we forget. We forget where we put things, what we’re supposed to do –even what day it is. We are forgetful people.

There are many degrees of forgetfulness. There’s a natural forgetfulness, but also there’s a spiritual forgetfulness.

They tell a story about one of the early desert saints– John the Short. John had a good spiritual guide to whom he went for advice; he listened carefully to everything he was told, but then as soon as he went out the front door he forgot everything that was said. It happened again and again. Finally, John gave up and stopped going.

One day his spiritual guide met him and asked where he’d been. John said it’s no use. “I don’t remember what you tell me.”

His guide told him to come into his house and he took him into the room where they prayed. There was one candle lit in the room, but all around were other candles unlit. “Take the light from the one candle and light all the others,” he tells John. Soon the room was filled with light. “Now take a look at the candle that lit all the rest; is it’s light in any way diminished because it keeps giving its light away?”

“No, it isn’t, and neither am I by giving light to you again and again. That’s what we all have to do here in the desert: to remind each other, because we forget.

That’s what God does for all of us. He reminds us, again and again. “Remember the deeds of the Lord,” the psalms say. How often we hear that word “remember.” How many times does God repeat. “Throw your cares on the Lord, and he will support you.” How many times do we hear words like that. How many times does Jesus take a child and put him in our midst and remind us to be children? How many times does he say “Do this in memory of me.”

Some people say prayers are only routine. They’re not. We say them because we forget. We’re “forgetful listeners.”

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…


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.

A World of Talking Trees

“Do you still not understand?”

Jesus’ words about his disciples’ lack of comprehension is followed immediately in Mark’s gospel by the cure of the blind man who gradually sees.Jesus has to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before he sees clearly.Is that the way our own lack of understanding is cured, gradually?

The kind of understanding the gospel speaks about is not something we come to ourselves, no matter how hard we try. It’s a gift Jesus gives.

The cross takes many forms and I wonder if one form it takes in our time is the cross of confusion. We like clear sight for ourselves and everyone else, but in times of great change confusion is inevitable. And a world of “talking trees” is hard to take. Reasonable, resourceful people that we are, it’s humbling to live in confusing times, even demeaning.

It makes us angry. That’s the temptation the Letter of James sees facing Christians in “the dispersion” – the changed world that’s not the world they knew. “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger for anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1, 19)

There’s a lot of anger around us today, the anger that boils over and lashes out, or the anger that retreats into a fortress of resistence and isolation.

The pope spoke of patience the other day. He said patience is what keeps the church going. He spoke of the music of patience, a patience that hears and waits, like the patient blind man who waits for the hand of Jesus to reach out again.

“When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”
(Mark 8,22-26)