Tuesday, February 25, 2014

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

Lent is almost upon us… that season of introspection and soul-searching reminiscent of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert (after his baptism).  Our readings for this coming 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time help prepare us for our Lenten Journey by helping us focus on what is truly important…

The Word for the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:14-15
Psalm 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

We’ve spent the past several weeks listening to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus’ teaching starts with the Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit), and then proceeds to teach his disciples about the Law – which we know to be the Commandments or the Mosaic Law.  In following this, Jesus teaches, is the key to salvation.  So now with our heads filled with all this “what to do” and “what not to do”, as if sensing our overload, our readings for this week take a decidedly different tone.  In liturgical terms, we call it “Divine Providence” – a reminder that we are God’s chosen and that He loves us.  If I had to put this idea into more contemporary terms, the words of Bobby McFerrin come to mind, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Our first reading is a very short passage from Isaiah.  Here the prophet (2nd Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah) tells us with a beautiful image of a mother and an infant as an example of how God could never abandon us.

This theme is further explored in our Gospel from Matthew, where Jesus reminds us that we shouldn’t spend so much time worrying about taking care of ourselves, but know instead that God will take care of us:  those that serve him.  This teaching, put in very poetic terms, also comes with a warning:  that we cannot serve two masters, God and “mammon” (mammon being an Aramaic word meaning wealth or property).  Jesus is trying to give us practical advice here… that our efforts are misspent if we focus too much on the things of this world and of our own troubles.  Put another way, God wants us to focus outwardly, not inwardly… to the actions of reaching out to others instead of ourselves, and in turn God will make sure we are cared for.

Also in this passage Matthew continues to employ exaggeration as a means of getting to the truth.  Surely we need to make provision for tomorrow, just as squirrels will store nuts for the winter, but Jesus is trying to show us a simpler way of living.  I like to think of this as his call to frugality… that perhaps a leaner lifestyle helps us better focus on what’s important.

We end appropriately with our continued exploration of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Here he reminds us that we are called to be servants, and stewards of God’s “mysteries”.  This allows us to explore the differences between ownership and stewardship.  One of the admonitions given to us on Ash Wednesday is “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).  By taking the long view, our time on this earth is limited.  Paul reminds us that we are just caretakers as Matthew reminds us to focus on what’s really important.  These two messages give us a lot to think about as we approach our 40 days in the desert. 

Catholic Update:
Ash Wednesday:  Our Shifting Understanding of Lent
Finding Our Way Again:  Daily Lenten Reflections

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

What does God want of us?  It’s a fairly common question for many people, especially during our most difficult times.  Yet amid the noise of our lives we usually forget that God has answered us, over and over again.  Let’s explore this week’s readings to hear what he says…
The Word for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Our first reading comes from the book of Leviticus… that book that falls right after Exodus which is essentially the second retelling of the Mosaic Law, only this time through priestly (Levite) perspective .  In this rather short passage, we are given two powerful commands.  First, God commands us to be holy.  What does he mean?  While the intervening passages (verses 2-16) provide some clarity through their retelling of the 10 commandments, the real clarity comes from our reading’s second command, “… love your neighbor as yourself.”  And as if God can hear your “why” coming before it makes it out of your mouth, he says, “I am the Lord.”  the ancient equivalent of “because I said so” from a parent to a child.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why is this phrase so familiar?  Because as Christians we know this to be part of Jesus’ Great Commandment… the “Golden Rule.”  As we’ve been learning during this year with Matthew’s Gospel, however, most of what Jesus is teaching is nothing new.  We, like the Apostles and rest of Jesus’ contemporaries are asking that same age old question… “What does God want?”.  Expecting that Jesus will have something new to say, he simply reminds us of what God has always said.  We don’t need to learn anything new… we only need to learn to apply what he's already told us and recommit ourselves to it:  To love God and l love our neighbor.  “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
So why do we keep asking the question?  Is it because we didn’t hear the answer?  Or rather is it because we don’t like the answer and keep hoping for something different?  Something easier?  I think our second reading might help add some perspective to this…
Continuing with our study of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that we ourselves are Temples of God.  We are his creation and he dwells in us.  Jesus said to “be perfect”… a pretty tall order for us mere mortals, but Paul is telling us that we too have the power within us.  Paul goes on to remind us that those of us who think we have the answers are just kidding ourselves.  God has passed down his wisdom consistently through the generations, and it is this wisdom that we should follow.  He closed by reminding us that we all belong to Christ… not to each other, not to him or Cephas or Apollos, or the other community leaders, but to Christ.  We need to aim for the higher purpose, and through that, we get that much closer to the perfection God knows is within us.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

Right is right, and wrong is wrong.  Is the world really that black and white?  While some might argue that it’s just that simple, our Catholic tradition recognizes that it’s not.  The extremes of darkness and light are easy to see, but much of our everyday life lives operate somewhere in-between.  The time we spend studying scripture and Church tradition are not so much to point out the obvious light and dark, but in learning how to, as I often say, “navigate the gray”.  Or put another way, finding the right balance between the letter of the lawand the spirit of the law.  On the surface, our Gospel this week takes a fairly strong, even harsh line with regard to the Law, but to view this passage literally is to miss the deeper meaning that Jesus is trying to teach…

The Word for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37 or Matthew 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37

Our first reading comes from the book of Sirach, named for the sage who lived around 200 BCE.  Ben Sira had a love of the Law and often wrote of relationships between one another and with God. Originally written in Hebrew, it was translated into Greek around 132 BCE, and it is the Greek translation that survived, and consequently caused it to be left out of the Hebrew cannon, but is often used in the Roman Liturgy.  This week’s passage is a poetic and poignant take on human free will.  It is not God who creates sin, or pushes us toward sin… instead it is our own doing.  It is also a good example of how those “bad” things are not directly God’s fault, but rather the result of the free will of his creation.  Understanding this concept helps to setup the teaching presented in this week’s Gospel

Moving directly to our Gospel from Matthew, this week’s passage comes in both an edited version and a longer version.  In most cases, the longer version of a Sunday reading provides helpful context that leads to greater clarity, but I would argue that the longer version of this week’s gospel tends to muddy the waters… but let’s unpack it anyway.

Our setting is exactly where we left off last week, with Jesus giving added instructions to his disciples. Continuing with our theme of free will (as setup by Sirach) Jesus asks us to use that free will to do what is right.  To help us (and Matthew’s Jewish audience) he uses examples of the Law, and takes it one step further.  This is another of Matthew’s rhetorical devices… using the Law (which his audience already knows), and taking it to the next level. 

At the time of Jesus there were many followers of many other “messiahs” that felt that the old Law was antiquated and needed to be tossed out… but for Jesus, this was not the case.  For Jesus (and the Church), not only was the old Law still valid, but he expected a much stronger commitment to it.  Matthew isn’t saying so much that we should literally do what Jesus is saying here (because in the longer text, much of this sounds quite harsh), but instead we should be focusing on the depth of our commitment.  We should remind ourselves that for Jesus, the new Law (love God and love your neighbor) is an extension of the old Law… a clarification that makes it easier to understand.  We need to also recognize that from the mouth of Matthew all these points made by Jesus now open themselves up for debate in the greatest of Hebrew traditions.  In writing these teachings down Matthew invites us to question what Jesus is saying in order to find the underlying truth in the same way the Talmud or the Midrash would do for Jewish Rabbis centuries later.

We close with a review of our second reading which is a continuation of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Here Paul reminds us that we don’t speak using the wisdom of the age (that is, contemporary Greek philosophy), but rather with the wisdom of God as revealed by the Spirit.  Just as Jesus doesn’t want to toss away the old Law, Paul is telling us that we shouldn’t toss out the wisdom of previous ages.

When something doesn’t seem to be working, our human nature has a tendency to “toss the baby out with the bathwater.”  We think that replacing it with something new will be the answer.  Instead, our Christian tradition asks us to pause and look back. Look at where we came from, examine our current position, and do what is necessary to get back on course.  This is how the Church works.

Catholic Update:
Making Disciples:  Matthew’s Gospel and the Christian Community
How the Spirit Guides the Church:  Two Views in Matthew and John
Infallibility and Church Authority:  The Spirit’s Gift to the Whole Church

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

We Catholics sometimes have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be.  Take for instance our use of certain words, like catechesis or liturgy to describe certain regular activities of Catholic life (to teach and to pray).  Their meaning gets lost because they’re just not part of everyday life.  Take for example the phrase Social Justice.  Within Catholic leadership circles this has certain meaning for a wide array of Church activity, but if you were to ask the rest of us what “Catholic social justice” means, you might be hard pressed to explain.  Perhaps this Sunday’s readings can help…

The Word for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7-10
Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Our first reading comes from later Isaiah, where we are reminded of what it is that God really wants to see of his people.  Not festivals, but works of mercy.  This passage comes from a period after the Exile… the people are back in the land… but a land not like what was there before.  The Israelites are practicing their ceremonies, but God does not respond.  Why?  Because God has grown weary of sacrifices and festivals.  He wants to see some action… to spread some of that love around to those who really need it.  God instead wants them to look around, and as in the old Mosaic tradition, reach out and help those in need.

Our Gospel from Matthew echoes this sentiment.  After Jesus speaks of the Beatitudes to the large crowd gathered around him on the mountain, (which we would have heard last Sunday if not for the special Feast day), Jesus then turns back to his Disciples to charge them with the call to be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World.  Jesus has just explained to the crowd what is needed, and now he expects his most trusted disciples to carry out this message (justice for the poor) by their actions.

Jesus gave us two simple rules to remember… Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Then he makes it even simpler… how do you love God?  By loving your neighbor.  And when it comes to defining who your neighbor is, Jesus and the other prophets have been quite clear… not just a select few, but everyone, especially those in need.  As Jesus himself showed us by his example, we need to be of service to one another.  Sacrifice is the language of love… giving of oneself for the benefit of others.  In its simplest form, this is what we mean when we speak of Catholic Social Justice.

Catholic Update: 
How Should We Think About the Poor?
Being Catholic Today:  Light to the Nations