Tuesday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

You are separated from Christ, 
you who are trying to be justified by law; 
you have fallen from grace. 
For through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness.

Saint Paul pronounced a terrible judgement on his religious opponents, "You are separated from Christ!" 
He was never a man to mince his words; he didn't try to make his teachings more palatable with political correctness. As Hebrews, he, his disciples and his opponents preferred strong, confrontational language. Like Jesus and the Pharisees a generation before, they relished rather than avoided religious arguments.
Twenty centuries later we recall many wars of religion and shudder at the implicit threat in the Apostle's words. The killing of Saint Stephen foreshadowed the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, when French Catholics rioted and slaughtered Protestant Huguenots. The tragedy set off a series of wars and normalized Christians killing Christians. There followed the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and two "World Wars." We'll need a thousand years of peace to set those tragedies behind us. Despite the atheism of the Axis and Allied nations of World War II, many people still think religion is the cause of all wars. I hear that even among Veterans of the Vietnam War, who were not fighting Buddhism or Muslims.
But there is something warlike about the spiritual life. There are innumerable allusions to warfare in the Bible; many are used to describe the spiritual life. Jews, Christians and Muslims, despite their irenic intentions, often steel themselves for spiritual combat. Monks of the middle ages were mostly retired soldiers, the scions of warrior clans. Discovering that their fighting only led to more fighting, they renounced "the world" and trained their energies on the enemy within.

Inspired by this citation from Galatians 5, we should train our weapons on the inner Pharisee rather than on a fellow Christian, Jew or Muslim. My inner hypocrite compromises freedom and accepts a false sense of righteousness. Do I rely on the mercy of Jesus which I have seen and experienced in sharing his cross? Or do I avoid crosses and seek a shortcut to my personal resurrection? 
Some of Saint Paul's Galatian disciples thought they had found a surefire way to redemption by way of circumcision. Sure, it hurt like the dickens for a few days but it assured a lifetime of spiritual and mental ease.
The Apostle insists “only faith working through love” counts for anything, that love which is guided by God’s Spirit and suspicious of my own impulses. With frequent confession and daily examen, I learn to recognize the suggestions of anger, resentment, fear, greed, lust and so forth. I learn to listen to the gentle, whispering sound which is the Holy Spirit, prudent and eager, generous and guarded, sober and delightfully playful. 

Memorial of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

Therefore, brothers and sisters,
we are children not of the slave woman
but of the freeborn woman.
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm
and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

Karl Marx complained of the Church that promised relief and joy in eternity but only drudgery in this present world. Nineteenth century religion, he said, was "an opiate of the masses." That may have been true of his time; our gloriously holy church is always a sinful church and we often miss the mark. But faith, hope and love promise freedom. If our graced life is not graceful and gracious; and our generosity, not gratuitous, it is certainly not the freedom for which Christ set us free.
In his day, Saint Paul saw the powerful, persuasive, seductive influence of Pharisaic Judaism as the great threat to Christian freedom. Many Jews had come to Jesus but had not abandoned the attitudes and sensibilities of their youth. Paul, the Pharisee, knew the danger better than anyone. Pharisaism offered an assured, proven way of life. It provided guidelines and rules, boundaries and restrictions from infancy to old age; the child of Abraham could live anywhere in the Roman Empire and know what was expected by fellow Jews and alien gentiles. There is a kind of freedom in that security, so long as you're willing to stay within the boundaries.
But the Christian revelation was moving way beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. Saint Paul announced to Jews and gentiles alike, that a man had risen from the dead; and those who belong to this man have as much freedom as one who has died and been raised up. The Christian missionaries demonstrated that astounding freedom. They laughed at the authorities who told them never to speak that name in public. They healed the sick, forgave sinners and gathered grateful converts into congregations to worship in the name of Jesus. Beaten, imprisoned, chained, they spoke as readily in jail as they did in public; and people kept coming to them.
The gospels, letters, and writings of the New Testament continually remind the Church of the freedom which swept through the world in our early history. The authors were acutely aware of the threats to freedom; they struggled individually and collectively to preserve its elusive spirit. This is why we open the scriptures daily, to breathe that spirit in a world vastly different from theirs, and yet remarkably similar. The rigid rules of the Pharisees are passed from generation to generation through our traditions, and yet their roots lie in not in our history but in our concupiscence. Sinners, we are always ready to define the indefinite and contain the effervescent. Worldly wisdom, masquerading as religious, gives us a false authority over others, especially the defenseless, naive and foolish, which we find irresistible.
Always we must be ready to ask the One who came to be served, "What would you have me do today?”

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

From ancient times philosophers have pondered what a good life might entail. Is it "healthy, wealthy and wise" like King Solomon? Does it mean being happy, living virtuously, and destined for an afterlife in heaven?
The ambitious stranger who approached Jesus in today's gospel seems to know something about the good life; he asks how he might inherit "eternal life."
The currently popular word for the good life is flourishing, as opposed to surviving. Flourishing is more than just getting by, or making it. Sometimes it seems like survival is the best we can do. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau was right when, from the ivory tower of his privileged youth, he observed that most people lead "lives of quiet desperation." Taken altogether, their family life, jobs, and duties as citizens and church members don't add up to fulfillment. They often dream of greater things.
Our entertainment industry exploits those dreams with mythical adventurers who not only overcome dangers few of us would even imagine; they flourish. Our hero survived the shark attack and saved many others from the terrible jaws of death. Our heroine survived the villain's machinations and brought down his evil enterprise as she saved the world.
Then they married each other and lived happily ever after. Occasionally these comic book characters usher in a new age of peace, security and prosperity for the nation, the world and the Universe!

Flourish, of course, is what flowers do; and flowers are not just beautiful; they mature into fruit. The person who flourishes is fruitful. It's more than just being content with one's life, or caring only for oneself. Something good and worthwhile comes of that life; It has lasting significance. 

The fellow in this gospel uses the word "inherit" to describe his expectation of "eternal life." He says, "...what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The word has the same etymology as heir, heredity, heirloom and heritage. All imply a privilege, right or entitlement of birth. You can't just walk in and claim an inheritance; you must have some prior right to it. Presumably, heirs have a vital relationship to the dead or dying, and that relationship gives them at least a hope of making good their claim. This fellow is already one of those privileged people, with every expectation to flourish in eternity, and not just survive.
However -- and this is a "big however!" -- The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that someone has to die before an inheritance can be claimed.
Now where there is a will, the death of the testator must be established. For a will takes effect only at death; it has no force while the testator is alive. (Hebrews 9:16-17)
And Saint Paul reminds us that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:17
And that's why this ambitious fellow disappears as readily as he appeared. He wants the good stuff, but not the bad. He will not "suffer with him."
Perhaps we should have suspected something amiss when he asked about inheriting eternal life. An inheritance is usually unearned and undeserved; It's a free pass to Easy Street. When a wealthy person dies, family, friends and neighbors gather like buzzards around carrion, each hoping to get something for nothing. If there is such a place as Eternal Life, it's not found on Easy Street.
As the man walked away, Jesus sadly remarked,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!... It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

This is the paradox of faith. We do enjoy an enormous privilege; we have been granted knowledge of Jesus Christ and his mercy. We had no right to this knowledge by birth, wealth, learning, social status, ethnicity or race; it was freely given. 
But this knowledge comes dearly, and only to those willing to pay the price. That is, to those who have given up house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children and lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel. They will receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

This is what flourishing means. 

Saturday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 466

Before faith came, we were held in custody under law, confined for the faith that was to be revealed. Consequently, the law was our disciplinarian for Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian. For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.

I often meet Veterans in the hospital as they prepare for major surgery. To Catholics I offer the Sacrament of the Sick and they usually welcome it, even those who have not seen the inside of Church since they went off to Vietnam. "It can't hurt;" I tell them, "and it might help."
Asked if they are ready for the trauma of surgery, many reply, "I haven't any choice."
Of course, they do. Legally they are perfectly free to refuse; morally, also, some may choose not to undergo the risks that accompany every invasion of the body.
But, as I said, they often take a non-committal, neutral position, "I haven't any choice."
Most of us come from that place. Our good parents made the important decisions for us. What to eat, what to wear, what to study: it was all decided. Where to live, what language to speak, which God to worship: wiser, more experienced heads decided for us. 
Recent studies have shown the child's brain is simply not prepared to make many important decisions. In fact, Americans routinely expect children to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, engage in sex, handle guns, and drive cars when they're barely able to consider the consequences of such life-altering behavior. If the children come from minority homes and get in trouble with the law, they will be "tried as adults" despite their obvious immaturity. Nor will they find competent lawyers to speak for them.
Saint Paul alludes to that inconvenient fact of life, the immaturity of children, when he teaches the Galatians about Christian freedom. Before you heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you needed protection from your own base instincts. You didn't have the Holy Spirit to guide you or the Christian community to instruct you. Jews had the Law of Moses; gentiles had only their diverse cultures with their uninspired notions of human nature. Until Jesus appeared we had no substantial idea of what it means to be a human being, neither a man nor a woman. 
Without the Christian revelation we supposed that men were better than women, masters better than slaves, Jews better than Greeks, natives better than aliens. The wisdom of their ancient cultures -- we might call them "sciences" -- dictated what they should expect of different people. We call that wisdom "common sense." 
And then, when we meet another culture, we either attempt to dominate them with our wisdom, or we learn to accommodate theirs; depending on which is more powerful. Reason may help to sort out these values but, more often, "might makes right." Money, weapons, brute force determine who is right. 
Pilate knew whereof he spoke when he dismissed Jesus' witness to the truth. To the Roman, power is truth and the unarmed wisdom of a Jewish messiah counts for nothing in "the real world." 
So Saint Paul offers his Galatians another wisdom, far surpassing anything the world might discover or understand. They have been subject all their lives to immature half-truths of their gentile or Jewish cultures; but now they must learn to live and move in the freedom of the Spirit. They are no longer under the disciplinarians of human wisdom or partial revelation. If they could see dimly in the dawn of their gentile or Jewish past, they can see clearly now by the Sun of God.
But Saint Paul hesitates to give his people full license because some are still acting by their immature brains. There are factions among them; some are scrupulous about meat offered to idols, some insist that gentile men should be circumcised. They cannot consume the solid food of the Gospel; they are not yet weaned off milk
Twenty centuries later the Gospel still invites us to live by the Spirit of Jesus, in the freedom of the Truth. The Spirit still reveals the foolishness of the wise; it still invites us to take up a cross when the clever take up arms. 
Facing surgery many Veterans remember what their life is about and decide accordingly. Some believe they have more to accomplish in this world, in Jesus' name; and they hurry into surgery. Others conclude that this terminal illness is truly a gift from God; and it's time to let it go. In either case they know they have a choice and are ready to obey not the doctor but the Lord. 

Friday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 465

Consequently, those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham who had faith.
For all who depend on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, Cursed be everyone who does not persevere in doing all the things written in the book of the law. And that no one is justified before God by the law is clear, for the one who is righteous by faith will live.

With the insights of Karl Marx the modern world has begun to recognize how powerful persons, ideologies and institutions can get into one's mind and shape how one sees, thinks and feels. "Context is consciousness." Even an institution like the Church, which may not have much financial or military power, comprised mostly of people with little influence beyond its walls, can persuade millions of people to live not by faith but by the law. 
As a child, I was assured with absolute confidence that eating meat on Friday and missing Mass on Sunday were mortal sins. Were I to commit these infractions of the law and die before going to confession, I would most certainly spend all eternity in the ferocious fires of hell. 
Not only did I believe that; so did my parents and three of my grandparents. (The fourth,  a Methodist, was apparently exempt from those particular laws.) 
Only after many years of education and counter-indoctrination did I realize how my well-meaning but misinformed instructors had enforced the man-made disciplines of the Church with the threat of endless doom. Leaders of the Catholic Church, threatened by competition in the religious marketplace of the United States, insisted upon consumer loyalty among Catholics with excessive and ultimately absurd threats. When Protestant churches appealed to spiritual consumers with the same promises of eternal bliss, Catholic pastors could only scale up their threats of unending misery to anyone who might attend a "non-Catholic" wedding or funeral. But even in this enlightened 21st century I know of a pastor who threatened hellfire on parishioners who did not buy a lot in the parish cemetery. (He lost some good members when he made that statement.) 
Many people finally shook off those threats like old clothes. In the springtime of freedom they could not even remember why they had worn such wintry, stifling jackets.  
However, it's one thing to learn to live without the threats; it's another to live without the promises the same laws bestowed upon us. Going to confession doesn't necessarily wipe the slate clean, I am as much a sinner leaving the confessional as I was entering it. I may feel good about going to Church but I am not relieved of the responsibility to announce the good news to every creature. 
Saint Paul saw that clearly. Living by faith means living in freedom from the law. But freedom is always accompanied by anxiety. Freedom means I am responsible not only for everything I do, I am also responsible for what I don't do, even those things I forgot to do. Nor can we, in Christ, find solace in old customs and habits. 
Rather, righteousness by faith is confidence in the benevolent, friendly gaze of Jesus. He has looked upon you and me from the manger where he was born. He delighted in our company as a boy, admiring our strength, cleverness and skills. He watched us coming from John the Baptist's riverside school to join him on the road and welcomed us. He healed our eyes that we might see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly his footprints in the road. He watched us from Calvary as we stood at a bewildered distance; and still he loved us. 
The Lord has seen us take our eyes off of him and even yet watched us closely, reaching out to us and pulling us with an an outstretched hand from turbulent waters. 
Always we are tempted to run back to the Pharisaic fortress of laws, habits, customs, threats and promises; to cash in our freedom for security. Continually he tells us to set out for the deep for a catch

Memorial of Pope Saint John XXIII

Thursday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 464

Does, then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard?

"Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" Chico Marx asked Margaret Dumont. In the verse above, Saint Paul uses a similar argument in his argument with the Galatians. Do you invest your hope for salvation in conformity to the law or what you have experienced by your faith in Jesus Christ? 
The Law of Moses was, and remains, an enormous gift. There is simply no human life without the law. Can you imagine trying to drive on the highway without everyone's agreeing to drive (in the United States) on the right side of the highway? That conformity is not simply obedience to a superior authority, it's common sense.
From their earliest memories in the Sinai Desert the Jews thanked God for their escape from oppression in Egypt and their gratitude for the Law. God delivered then from the man-made laws which favored the privileges of the powerful and taught them his laws which cared for everyone from the least to the greatest. The Law of Moses provided for widows, orphans and the aliens among us; it insisted that the poorest should be treated equally with the wealthiest. Judges should neither show favor nor accept a bribe. You might think your judgement is not skewed by a bribe, but don't take one anyway! 
The Law of Moses covered both the moral/ethical standards of the community and the requirements of religious observance. Not any ritual will satisfy the Lord, but only those which the Lord has taught us. The Law described the temple and the altar, the clothing of the priests, the vessels and the sacrificial offerings. Not much was left to chance. 
Given all that close detail and the inevitable changes through centuries of upheaval, authorized experts had to determine what would please the Lord -- and they became as oppressive as the former Egyptian slavers. Jesus rightly complained about the control of the Pharisees whose stifling hegemony in Jerusalem could not extend throughout Jewish world, from India to Europe and North Africa. 
The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church called for a complete reformulation of the faithful life. The Church would not belong to any ethnic group, nationality or race. It would receive disciples from the arctic to the tropics, wearing different clothing, eating different foods and speaking different languages. The only thoroughly unifying principle of this vast new Church would be faith in Jesus Christ, the conviction that He is Lord, God and Savior. 
But the old religious ways did not surrender easily. As Jews came to believe in Jesus many would not quit being Jews; they retained their scrupulous observance of all the old customs, and then insisted that their gentile brethren should do the same. The men should even be circumcised! 
Saint Paul saw no point to that, and recognized great danger in it. Circumcision would obviate the need for faith. Mere observance of the Law seemed to assure salvation even to men and women who maintained their old racist, nativist attitudes. It made membership too easy, for the circumcision of the heart is far more radical than the circumcision of the flesh. 
Coming to Jesus meant making one's own the Sacrifice of Isaac, surrendering even as God surrenders more than one can afford, one's very self. Just as God would not be satisfied with Abraham's suicide but demanded the killing of "your only son whom you love," so must the Christian surrender his needs, desires, preferences, opinions, convictions and beliefs. Belonging to Jesus one is neither black nor white, native or alien, gay or straight, law-abiding or criminal, male or female, Republican or Democrat. Clinging to any of these pseudo-identities is infidelity. Rather, like Jesus, you must embrace all of these identities as your own! 
For freedom Christ set us free, Saint Paul will state in Galatians 5. We are continually astonished by the range of our new freedom -- and its demands.

Wednesday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 463

Father, hallowed be your name,
your Kingdom come....

The Evangelists Matthew and Luke give us differing versions of "The Lord's Prayer" but both agree with the phrases, "Hallowed by thy name" and "Your kingdom come."
They remind Christian petitioners of what is really important. Despite the urgency of our needs, whose urgency is the Spirit's, our satisfaction will be complete when God's name is hallowed and God's kingdom comes. Although the Lord has "not come to be served but to serve," that gives me no right to prefer my plan of salvation over God's.
I once spoke to a congregation about "the fear of the Lord," reminding them that the phrase signifies devotion, piety, reverence, awe, and so forth. One fellow heard nothing but "the fear of the Lord" and, calling me aside afterward, told me I should never speak of that again. He insisted we should never fear God.
I could not know what psychological demons possessed his mind and crowded out my teaching, but he had missed the point entirely. Nor did he hear my second, private attempt to explain the phrase.
When I think of the fear of the Lord I remember the story of the lad who said, "I would never commit suicide; my dad would kill me if I did!"
The boy apparently feels the presence of his parent wherever he goes and whatever he does. He is not fascinated by notions of suicide, drinking, drugging or sexting because his father will not permit him to indulge in stupid, irresponsible exploits. He thinks of his father's authority even before he notices the contradictions of his statement about suicide.
I hope this young man will grow up to discover the Father of Jesus, and his gratitude for his biological father will be all the richer.
Psalm 36:Sin directs the heart of the wicked man; his eyes are closed to the fear of God. For he lives with the delusion: his guilt will not be known and hated. Empty and false are the words of his mouth; he has ceased to be wise and do good. On his bed he hatches plots; he sets out on a wicked way; he does not reject evil.

A pervasive culture of secularism honors only money. To them, women, men and children are commodities; water, air and soil are only for their use. I fear for them, and for those they despise. 
Secular attitudes creep into our religion when we dismiss the fear of the Lord as old-fashioned superstition. Despite the many authorities who tell us to have no fear of God, I think we should cultivate it. 
I should be afraid to violate a child because the Lord became a little child. I should be afraid to insult any woman because Mary is Blessed among Women. I am afraid to accept a favor without saying thank you. I shudder at the thought of throwing the Blessed Sacrament in the trash; Catholics have died defending that "piece of bread." 
The Veterans I meet in the hospital have a deep reverence for the American flag. I honor the flag for them, and for my dad, a US Marine. 
In God's kingdom, for which coming we pray daily, his eye is on the sparrow. I should be afraid to despise that common creature. 

The Fear of the Lord, the scriptures tell us repeatedly, is the beginning of the wisdom. Those who fear the Lord need fear no one else.