All posts for the month September, 2013

Amos 6, 1,4-7 + Psalm 146 + 1 Timothy 6, 11-16 + Luke 16, 19-31

There is only one way for you and me to hear this parable. We are not Abraham. We are not Lazarus or the Rich Man. They are dead. We are not necessarily the Pharisees either. We are this rich man’s brothers, and according to Abraham who speaks with great authority, we have Moses and the Prophets. There will be no other signs and no wonders to teach us, just the Word of God.

This story, unique to Luke’s Gospel is probably not a parable because one of the characters has a name (which never happens in a parable): and what a name it is! “Lazarus” meaning, “God is my helper.” The rich man has no name inviting us into the story, into the character, into his experience. He is really something, and in spite of how his life has ended and where he is, he just doesn’t seem to get it. Look at his behavior and how he talks. He speaks to Abraham as though Abraham is his peer, and in spite of his situation, he thinks Lazarus is his servant. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus first to serve him with a drink of water, and then when Abraham refuses, he comes back again with the preposterous proposal that Lazarus should leave his comfortable place and go to those brothers who still remain behind. This guy just doesn’t get it at all. This story turns on the people who do not get it, and as the Word of God, it speaks to those who have Moses and the Prophets (The Word of God) with the hope that we will get it.

This story invites us to see what wealth looks like and what poverty looks like, and it invites us to look deeper and to look within. The rich man is described by externals, his dress and his food. It’s all shallow. He is only what he looks like and how he dines. There is nothing more to him; no depth, no soul, no compassion, no ability to see beyond the gate of his comfortable house. He cannot see a future and where this will all lead. The great chasm is already there in his blindness. Lazarus on the other hand has something the rich man lacks, an identity, a name that reveals his soul, the depth of his life in his relationship to God. The rich man has no relationships at all outside of his brothers who we can assume have been dining with him walking in and out of that gate oblivious of Lazarus. The rich man is not condemned because he is rich. He ends up in torment because he thought it was all his. Lazarus is not in blessed comfort because he was poor. He is rests in blessed comfort because he never forgot that God was his helper.

Wealth then consists of fine things and plenty to eat, but it does not seem to make one “Blessed” like Lazarus or provide what Lazarus has,  “comfort.” In fact, luxury has little to do with long-term happiness, and  it is no substitute for blessed comfort.

I find it fascinating that when Abraham talks to the rich man, his address is in the passive voice grammatically, but the rich man doesn’t get that either. “You received…” says Abraham, not you earned or you deserved Abraham simply says, “you received.” I think that one of the things the rich man received was Lazarus, but he didn’t get that either. The rich man’s wants keep him from being attentive to what others need.

I want and I need to hear this story as if I am one of this man’s brothers. There is no other way for it to bring life and hope to this world. I want and need to hear this story now because this nation of which I am a part is eating itself to death and living in luxury with Lazarus at the gate. It makes me think of the people just a little ways away on an island called, Haiti. Is at our door step, brothers and sisters, the poorest nation on the earth. I want to hear this story now so that I never think that I earned anything and always remember that everything I have is a gift that I have received.

I want to remember the ancient wisdom of John Chrysostom who said this in a sermon hundreds of years ago: “Remember this without fail, that not to share our wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life. We do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.” ……..and speaking about us, Abraham said: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

Amos 8, 4-7 + 1 Timothy 2, 1-8 + Luke 16, 1-13

Until something hits us right in the face most of us are content to live quite simple and shallow lives in the immediate moment. It is a comfortable kind of existence where we find it easier to survive in a world filled with danger and uncertainties of all kinds. “Denial” is what we call it; a life-style that marks our time in history quite clearly. It often takes the loss of a job, a health crises, or the death of a loved one to wake us up with the question of what lies ahead. Until something like that happens, we just keep our heads down plugging along day by day hoping that the future will take care of itself. No it will not take of itself. It will be the consequence of what we do today.

I think that mothers and fathers get a less frightening opportunity with the birth of a child. I can’t tell you how often I have watched and listened to new young parents reflect upon their experience of bringing a human life into this world with all the responsibility and new dreams of the future. It is the one unavoidable moment when they must look ahead, way ahead, and adjust their lives for the future.

This is what Jesus speaks of today a world not so much different from our own. The man has lost his job, and while he may have known that it could happen at any time, he’s never thought about it or worried about. The future has always been just that: the future, a time that never seems to arrive. But, then it does, and it will not take care of itself.

The Living Word of God still speaks to all of us who live in a comfortable kind of denial about a future that never quite seems to come.
This Living Word of God speaks to all of us who have jobs and possessions, opportunities, talents, and skills.
This Living Word of God raises the same question that Jesus raised to those gathered around him. It is raised again by Luke writing to a church that had grown comfortable in their present lives. Their earlier anxious readiness and anticipation of the end, of the second coming, was slipping away. They had forgotten that an accounting would be asked of them.

In a general way, this Gospel gives reason to restore that awareness. It is a wake-up call like being written up at work, or discovering that our blood pressure is high or cholesterol is climbing. It calls us believers to look up and look ahead, to remember that this is not all there is, to live not just for today, but for tomorrow. There is here no condemnation or any suggestion that there is something wrong with wealth, riches, and possessions. There is however, a question raised about how those are to be used, and a proposal that they would best be used with regard to a future that will come.  For the wise, what we do with what we have no matter how much there is or how little is the issue.

Prudence is a virtue found in the wise, and it is an appropriately developed virtue in disciples of Jesus. Not a fearful caution and leaves one afraid to act, Prudence is a way of acting and behaving, of relating to things and people with regard the the future.

For people of faith, like you and me, that future leads us to a steady and constant nurturing of a spiritual life; a life that will survive on and on into the future. The lives of faithful believers, disciples of Jesus, are not split into the physical and spiritual, or for that matter into the present and the future. Their lives, the lives of the wise, are integrated into a wholeness that brings them to live in the present as though it was the future. They live today the way they hope it shall be forever. Their spiritual lives are integrated into their physical lives knowing that what is good for the soul is good for the body, and what happens to the body affects the soul. It gives them a way to judge and measure what pleasures and how much pleasure is good and what is harmful, because what feels good may not actually be good.

This is the wisdom of prudence. It suggests to us who seek that wisdom that the use of what we have today has consequences for the future, for our very soul, and for the kingdom of God both now and when the time comes for an accounting. The future will not take care of itself.

Exodus 32, 7-11, 13-14 + Psalm 51 + 1 Timothy 1, 12-17 + Luke 15, 1-32

Those scribes and pharisees complain because they think Jesus should be eating with them. They don’t think that those tax gatherers and sinners deserve the attention and the presence of Jesus. They are the good and holy ones who deserve the pleasure and privilege of eating with Jesus. They think Jesus owes them his attention and favor.

Now look how this thinking and this attitude of privilege frames our Gospel today. It starts with the good and holy scribes and pharisees complaining; and it ends with the good, loyal, hard working son complaining in the same way. He deserves a party, the fatted calf, but the father waits and runs out with ring a robe for that other one who does not deserve it. It’s not fair!

As I say that, I am reminded of my little five year old grand nephew with whom I spent two months this summer. Other than, “I didn’t do it.” The next most frequently heard saying from his lips was: “It’s not fair.” It was his constant compaint when his older brother got to do something, play longer, or stay up later than he did. I would say to him: “Who told you life was fair? Get over it. It is not a matter of what you deserve. It’s a matter of what you do when you know it’s not fair.” Then he would look at me, wrinkle up his forehead, and walk away disgusted. The poor child is growing up under the impression that he deserves things because he is cute and clever, and that when he behaves nicely he is going to get some prize when in fact, good behavior is nothing special. When he looks at me like that, I think I know how God feels, and certainly how Jesus felt as the scribes and pharisees complained: “It’s not fair.” I think I hear that older son saying the same thing.

It’s a troubling and challenging situation in this fifteenth chapter of Luke. Troubling to people like you and me, the faithful ones who pray, attend Mass, contribute, and listen to God’s Word. It’s challenging too because often we are tempted to think we are not getting what we deserve, God is not attentive to our prayers, while others who don’t go to church or do not seem to lead holy lives and make any sacrifice for the work of the church get along just fine and sometimes have it better than we do! It’s not fair!

So we tell once again these Gospel stories in gratitude and wonder. Grateful first of all that God is not like us who are always measuring out so carefully what is deserved, fair, and just. Because this world over which we have authority is anything but fair and just to those we judge to be undeserving.

Grateful too because we have the undeserved faith to receive this revelation about God and share the joy of those who are lost, rather than sink into complaining resentment.

There is something awesome and wonderful here too in these stories that reveal a God whose grace and love surpases even justice. These stories sustain our hope that  our God will wait and watch for us to get over ourselves and rejoice with him. The saddest thing about this last story we know so well is the refusal of the older brother to come into the party and share the joy. The refusal to rise above complaining resentment over God’s gracious love still threatens us, but yet there is hope and promise found in this eucharist we celebrate. Shared enough in the spirit of this Gospel, we are drawn, tempted, teased, and invited to joy for the truth is, we too have been found in spite of ourselves.

Wisdom 9, 13-18 + Psalm 90 + Philemon 9, 10,12-17 + Luke 14, 25-33

Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church, Norman, OK

It was Monday of this past week when I was driving down to Norman (Oklahoma) for dinner with some dear friends when a segment of “All Things Considered” came on the radio. For me it was an interesting piece about the struggle of the Amish people with some technology of these times, particularly with computers and the internet. The reporter was clearly fascinated by some inconsistencies among various Amish communities and obvious compromises some Amish were making with technology that allowed them to be competitive in business. In one of the interviews, a gentleman spoke of the Amish lifestyle in terms of a pilgrimage which required going lightly through this life.

I had  spent a considerable amount of time in the study of these chapter fourteen parables anticipating this week’s Gospel proclamation. Luke’s use of these parables for the faithful he is addressing tells us a lot about what they were facing in that second generation after Pentecost and Christ’s return to the Father. Their persecutions were real. The challenge and the cost of their discipleship with Christ and their loyalty to one another was a serious matter and often times a dangerous choice. People would come and go. Their commitment to Christ and the followers who bore his name was not to be taken lightly, and we know from the writings of the early Church Fathers that many would fall away, give up, and leave the community when the challenge was too great. These caused disputes in families, and probably ended in sad alienation.

As I listened to that Amish gentleman speak of his spirituality, he used the word, “pilgrimage” to describe the way he uses and relates to technology. If it furthers with his pilgrimage and his relationships with other pilgrims, it’s good. If it comes between him and his goal or interferes with his relationships, it’s bad. Suddenly, the light bulb above my head came on, and I got it! I remembered again where Jesus was in Luke’s Gospel and in  what context these parables were spoken. Jesus is on his pilgrimage. He is headed to Jerusalem. Out of his own experience he speaks to us in the context of our pilgrimage, and remembering and living like people on a pilgrimage through this life and this world begins to give these parables some meaning with wise counsel. Perhaps it is not so much about relationships with family or connections that give us security and privilege or about planning for the future as it is about simply remembering every day, all day, that we are just passing through here, and what we do and how we do it will make a difference on whether or not we get to our destination.

These parables are told to us by a pilgrim, someone on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the Father. These parables are told to fellow pilgrims going the same way. They are shared with the wisdom of experience and the insight of Divine Grace. They remind us of the truth that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; and that wandering around and around distracted by a thousand little things that often do not have anything to do with where we are going and who we really are always runs the risk of getting us lost.

For the master, Jesus, and for those who accompany him on the way to the Father, discipleship is not a part-time job, and the journey will not allow detours, stops and starts. There can be no doubt from the way disciples live and how they spend their time and use their gifts about where they are going, and what they judge will get them there. The image of these parables provides us all with a good measuring stick by which we can determine as the old Amish man decided, what helps and what does not; what keeps me focused on the journey, and what keeps me close to those companions I have along the way.

This measure can be applied to everything: to what we spend our time doing, to what we think we need, and how we nurture and sustain the relationships we have around us, where we are right now and later today, and what inspires us and what confirms our identity as disciples of Jesus. A life focused on buying power, prestige, what we wear and how we look, on who we know because they can get us what we want is not the life of a true pilgrim. They already have what they want, and they have nowhere to go. Parents, this is what you have to give your children. It is more important than an education that will put them on the fast track to wealth and the illusion of security. Give them the vision of the journey and show them how to be noble and holy people focused on the only thing that matters and will get them to the Father. Young people, this is who you are, and this is how you make decisions about what really matters, and who you should have as your friends. You will not make the journey successfully with anything or anyone who takes your gaze off the Kingdom of Heaven.

The message of the parables of the builder and the king is similar to that saying about the ploughman, who must give his full concentration to his task: “No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62).