Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image of Father Abraham and

Lectionary: 138

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Though our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Alleluia, alleluia.

Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus surpasses every promise of glory to the faithful poor and every threat of doom to the careless wealthy that any preacher might devise.

Here is the traditional image of Hell as a burning underworld of torment; and it’s hard to argue that the sufferer has not deserved his punishment. Even his witless plea that Lazarus should approach this “place of torment” and suffer the unbearable heat demonstrates his mindless arrogance. When that plea fails he insinuates that no one warned him what might happen, and even that someone should have risen from the dead to warn him. But, as the reader knows so well, a man has been raised from the dead and his warnings too were ignored.

Nor is Christianity a lone voice in the wilderness; most religious traditions warn against reliance on riches.
  • The fool is his own enemy. Seeking wealth, he destroys himself. Seek rather the other shore. (Buddhist)
  • The Prophet pointed out with his hand towards his right, his left and his back (while illustrating it). He proceeded with his walk and said, “The rich are in fact the poor (little rewarded) on the Day of Resurrection except those who spend their wealth like this, and like this, and like this, to their right, left and back, but such people are few in number.”  (Islam)
  • If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to. (Jewish)
  • Even with vast sums of wealth, the mind is not satisfied. Gazing upon countless beauties, the man is not satisfied. He is so involved with his wife and sons - he believes that they belong to him. That wealth shall pass away, and those relatives shall be reduced to ashes. (Sikh)

The pursuit of wealth is a singularly bad investment of one’s time, energy and talent. It can lead only to segregation, ignorance, confusion and deepening distress. Isolated by security, insulated from want, separated from the fellowship of fellow pilgrims in this Valley of Darkness, without their friendly guidance and helpful criticism, the rich can expect only to stumble and fall. They invite catastrophe and pathetically beg for sympathy when it falls on them.

To live in the United States at any time since the Second World War is to suffer a particular danger. The only nation to come out of the war wealthier and more powerful, our policies have pursued greater security, more military power, and more extravagance even as we entertained the fiction that every nation and every human being should enjoy the same “freedoms.” From within this gilded cage it is hard to persuade our children that their so-called freedoms are, in fact, severe restrictions.
The Christian must follow the path of Jesus into poverty and communion. 
Though he was in the form of God Jesus did not consider Equality with God something to be grasped. 

Saturday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 454

But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

In today's gospel, Jesus has been telling his disciples, "The Son of Man will be handed over." and they cannot understand it.

Some intellectuals and many pseudo-intellectuals of the ancient world belonged to "mystery religions." Because they were secretive to start with, and later suppressed by the Christianized empire, we know little about their rituals and beliefs. Members were invited to join and there were probably certain social, political and economic incentives to join; much as today's Masons, BPOE, and Woodmen of the World offer benefits to prospective members. 

Entering through arcane rituals they were told certain secrets of a religious nature. These mysteries probably had as much to do with real life and everyday experience as some New Age notions do today, but knowing them gave one a sense of superiority. 

Saint Paul would use the word mystery to talk about the cross. There is something inexplicable here; it makes sense only to initiates. 

The gospels recall the dumbfounded confusion of the disciples when Jesus told them what would happen at the end of their journey. As they approached the Holy City, it should not have taken a weatherman to tell which way the wind was blowing, but the disciples apparently hoped against hope that the inevitable wouldn't really happen. 

To this day, believers and non-believers alike try to avoid the truth of the crucifixion. We would rather think that good will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. That sounds like a rational system and life sometimes works out like that. We all know of criminals who went to jail and generous persons who were honored with banquets. Didn't the Cowardly Lion receive a medal for his courage? 

Can there be any reasonable explanation for innocents who suffer and the guiltless who are punished? 
But Christians cling to the cross as our greatest treasure. We keep our eyes fixed on this mystery like a light shining in a dark place. If the thinking mind cannot interpret it the faith-filled heart embraces it. We are drawn to the cross as iron to a magnet. 

In the beginning the cross teaches us simple things. We learn "To have a friend you have to be a friend."; "It's not about me."; and "There's no I in team." We learn, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." and "Take the lowest place." 

Later, the cross will teach us more mysterious lessons: "If you think you can do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful!" and "Make friends in this world with dishonest money." 

Finally, the cross will lead some of the elect into the black hole of martyrdom, an apparently senseless sacrifice with no obvious reward. The Church celebrates these mysteries, saying, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." But to the rational mind it is nonsense. 

The Holy Spirit will never permit the Church to lose the cross. Another word for mystery is sacrament; with these rituals we teach each generation to "follow him", and "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus." The faithful are identified by their fascination with the cross. 

Memorial of Saint ("Padre Pio") Pius of Pietrelcina, Priest

Lectionary: 453

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every thing under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant....

In his first chapter of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth complains about the endless cycles of nature and the plight of the human creature who is both subject to these cycles and critically aware of them. 

With his wonderful poem about appointed times, he presents the cycles of the spirit. If we prefer to make a platonic distinction between matter and spirit, between blind nature and deliberate intelligence, Qoheleth points to the inevitable cycles that bring war and peace, prosperity and poverty, affection and contempt, joy and grief. The Hebrew poet cannot draw a sharp distinction between flesh and spirit; we are incarnate spirits subject to cycles of the flesh and of the spirit. 

Those who let their preferences control their attitudes and behaviors are fools; or, at least, they risk condemnation as fools. Everyone recalls British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's happy announcement, "Peace in our time!" following the Munich Agreement. Less than a year later, Hitler's armies invaded Poland and Europe was thrown into a second world war. He declared peace in a time of war; and his name will always be associated with that catastrophic delusion. 

I often hear people say, "I oppose war!" Well, yeah! Who would love the violence, waste and horror of war? 

But have you examined the roots of war? Have you asked how do masses of people allow themselves to be drawn by the cycles ineluctably and irresistibly into the eddy of conflict? Will your unresolved quarrel with your neighbor contribute to the momentum of next year's or next century's mortal conflict? Will your attitude about certain races, religions or sexual preferences, inherited by your children and grandchildren, create internment camps twenty or thirty years from now? Does your "hobby" of shopping contribute to the waste which generates poverty and violence? 

Did you, during a time of peace, stupidly wage war? 

Only the Holy Spirit knows the time. Human beings, caught as we are in the cycles of nature, enslaved by our fears and desires, cannot see above the fray of daily challenges. We do not know what is really happening around us. We must pray daily for that willing, compliant attitude that is compelled by the Holy Spirit who knows what to do and when to do it. 

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 452

One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.

Because I am somewhat melancholic, I've always enjoyed the Book of Ecclesiastes and its author, Qoheleth. He provides an antidote to the roseate cheerleaders who see life as gloriously happy and invariably beautiful. The Professor and I prefer the darker hues of life. We invariably notice the scuro in chiaroscuro. 

In this first chapter of Ecclesiasticus the author considers the endless cycles of the world around us: day and night; drought and flood, ebb and flow; summer, fall, winter, spring. Nature begins with the round Earth circling the spherical Sun, tilted at such an angle as to produce in its temperate zones the seasons and in its polar zones, long days and nights. All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full.

Because of the cyclic seasons, life appears and inevitably must reflect the cycles. Deciduous trees sprout leaves in the spring and drop them in the autumn. Flowers blossom to morph into seed-bearing fruit; bugs lay eggs to produce larva and more bugs; frogs beget tadpoles.  The lungs breathe in and out; the heart pumps systolic and diastolic; we ingest food and excrete waste. The cycles are as invariable as the rivers rushing to the sea, and yet never does the sea become full. 

Most of these living creatures -- the animals and plants and fungi -- pay close attention to the seasons but never notice them. They cannot ask, "Why?" Only the human creature can notice these things and ask, "What if...?" 

Oddly, the human creature can work in the day and the night. An omnivore, it can eat almost anything organic. It likes to reproduce at any time of year, without regard to the seasons. The human creature has far more choice than any other animal or plant, and bewildering sets of choices. 

Aware of time past, present and future and that the seasons are not always alike, the human realizes choice makes a difference. We cannot change the past but in every present moment we make the future. That power is a blessing and a curse; it is opportunity and a grave responsibility. 

Qoheleth felt the burden and the isolation of that freedom. The winds that ceaselessly blow in every direction don't mind what he decides; they neither support nor resist his choice. The sun shines on his wicked acts as well as his virtuous; it doesn't care what he does. But, neither caring nor opposing, they might nonetheless wash away his every effort. Even the Egyptian pyramids must be swallowed up by the surrounding desert. The universe simply ignores us. 

Only the Word of God endures forever. That is our faith. If anything in this old, endlessly changing world which seems to go nowhere persists into eternity, it will do so by clinging to the Word of God. That is why we call it new.

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.

In his confrontation with the Pharisees Jesus quoted the Prophet Hosea, who was never shy of confrontation; and we should consider the setting in which Saint Matthew has placed this ancient formula.

First we notice it’s in the house of Saint Matthew where Jesus and his disciples have repaired for dinner. In the gospels a meal always reminds us of heaven. If we’re able to sit down at table and eat without quarreling or contention we’re halfway there!

The celebration of a meal begins with the carnal fact that the human being needs to eat; it’s an animal activity. But the meal is also a human activity as we share food equally among us without discrimination or preference, and as we enjoy one another’s company. The momentum from animal feeding to human sharing directs us toward heavenly delight. In the comfort and ease of shared gustatory pleasure and enlightening conversation we sense the company of the saints.

Secondly, we notice the pleasant banquet is invaded by quarrelsome Pharisees. They see the religious company of Jesus and his disciples sitting down with certain unsavory characters and they don’t like the leveling effects of the meal. The sacred and profane should never mix; the latter will render the former unclean.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” sounds like a thunderclap in this stormy setting. This is not distant thunder; this one is right overhead, the kind where we see the flash and hear the boom instantaneously. It shakes the house and trembles the bones.

Pope Francis’ call for mercy has sounded like a thunderclap throughout the Church and into the secular world of economics, politics and war. He would put mercy ahead of the rules and regulations and SOPs that govern our behavior like so many overbearing Pharisees. The first question in any difficult situation is, “What would Mercy do?”

I should ask myself not, “What’s the least I can do?” but, “What should I do?”

The rule of law is a good thing; it’s far better than chaos. But law is a human creation; it expresses the preferences and desires of those who can make and enforce the law. It is not necessarily just, fair or reasonable. A democratic society flatters itself by thinking, “We have formulated these laws to suit the needs of all the people.” But the instrument is never perfect and that flattery cannot hear the cries of those who suffer its unfairness.

Jesus’ demand must always be a goad and gadfly, urging us to examine and reexamine our beliefs, attitudes and behavior. Good enough is not good enough.

Memorial of Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, and Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 450

Like a stream is the king’s heart in the hand of the LORD; wherever it pleases him, he directs it.

Today's gospel invites us again to ponder the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus describes her and his family as "those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

The first proverb in today's reading speaks of Mary's manner before the Lord. In a broad, flat land rivers meander haphazardly. Continually moving silt they build it up in one place and then wash around it to another place. They form "oxbows" of looping curves that periodically jump their banks. 

Mark Twain, remarking on the oxbows of the Mississippi River, joked that, if it kept shortening its course by jumping its banks, the trip from Saint Paul to New Orleans might soon be no more than fifty miles. A map of the Mississippi/Louisiana border, or a air flight over the region reveals innumerable bends and oxbow lakes. 

The Proverbialist imagined the good king's heart as pliant in God's hand, like the meandering river. The Hebrew author could not imagine anything happening that God did not intend. He had no truck with fate, luck or karma. If it happened, God intended it, even the wanderings of a river that ebbs and floods from time to time. 

We see that obedient, pliant spirit in Mary. We meet her first as she responds readily to the Angel Gabriel's message. "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me as you have said!" At Gabriel's suggestion she hurries up to Jerusalem to visit her relative Elizabeth and be with her to witness the birth of John the Baptist. Prompted by a generous spirit she immediately speaks to Jesus during the wedding feast of Cana, "They have no wine!" She must follow the spirit that leads her to Calvary on that terrible day of Jesus' death. Finally, she will pray with the disciples as they wait for the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. 

Always Mary's heart is directed by the Lord. 

Throughout the warmer months there is a colony of ducks here at Mount Saint Francis on our lake. I like to watch a pair of drake and hen fly together. Neither seems to be leading the way. With their wide-set eyes they watch one another; moving together without hesitation or argument they select a spot to land and alight gracefully. 

That's why we can pray to Mary. Whatever she wants is what the Lord wants; and she wants only what the Lord wants. They obey one another in that meek spirit typical of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If the initiative comes from the Father, you would not know it by the ready obedience of Jesus' first disciple; her obedience is immediate. We pray to receive a measure of her spirit in our daily activities. 

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 449

Plot no evil against your neighbor,
against one who lives at peace with you.
Quarrel not with a man without cause,
with one who has done you no harm.

Jerusalem was never a major world capital but it had political, economic and military connections and the world’s literature flowed through its schools. Scholars could sort through it all and choose the best. The divine authors of The Book of Proverbs gathered sayings from Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia, selected those that fit Jewish beliefs and used them to teach their students the traditions and wisdom of our faith.

Many passages in the Book of Proverbs address children:

  • Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching…
  • My son, should sinners entice you, do not go if they say, “Come along with us…
  • Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight…
  • My children, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth.

In many ways the biblical proverbs seem obvious, especially to those born, raised and educated in our faith. Do good. Avoid evil. Plot no evil against your neighbor. Quarrel not with a man without cause: what could be more obvious?

And yet the world teems with other sayings that find no place in Proverbs. I think of sayings like, “Revenge is a dish best served cold;” “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven;” and ”"An armed society is a polite society.” Some children are taught those attitudes and beliefs. As adults they know no other way of thinking.

Like everything else in the Bible, Proverbs is written amid controversy and the struggle is for the future; that is, for the minds and hearts of children. It's less concerned about national debt, foreign wars or infrastructure than about the quality of people who live in that future age.

The prophetic religion takes its stand in a firestorm of differing opinions about the good life. Is it prosperity, security, popularity, good health, or large family? Wisdom promises all these blessings but the wise know they don’t add up to the good life.

Without the fear of the Lord there is no good life. “Come children, hear me and I will teach you the fear of the Lord." Those who fear the Lord are truly free because they fear no one else. 

Those who belong to the Holy Spirit ponder our Proverbs; they choose their attitudes and make their decisions under God’s guidance.