Come to the Feast

"Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled" (Luke 14:24).

Luke presents stories Jesus told originally to heighten the sense of urgency to heed God's invitation to life, while adding details that reflect the historical reality of the expansion of the church beyond its Jewish origins into the gentile world.  The first guests fail to respond to the call to come to a great dinner, making trivial excuses, so the angry host has his servants fill the hall with the poor, crippled blind and lame, and even go out to the roads to corral strangers into the banquet hall. 

The energy of the story is one of deep lament and frustration that so great an invitation from God has been turned down by so many guests. Jesus arrives in the Holy City after his public ministry of miracles and powerful preaching, only to weep at the indifference and obtuseness of the religious leadership. Their failure will bring disaster on Jerusalem. Luke records the actual outcome of this rejection after the Jewish-Roman War that ended with the leveling of the city and the violent diaspora of its people.

Do we sense the parallel to this story in our own times? Do we feel the urgent message that God's offer in our lives is not something disconnected from our choices and actions?  History is the record of lost opportunities, blind ignorance and denial courting tragedy. We need only look at the daily headlines to see the trajectories to disaster we might still avert with common sense and courage. 

The Good News is unstoppable, and the Holy Spirit is guiding history inexorably to its destiny as a New Creation and the Beloved Community. The banquet hall will be filled and the feast will go on. The question is, will we be there? 

 

Quid Pro Quo

"Blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you" (Luke 14:14).

When Jesus addressed his hosts at dinner with the suggestion they invite to table those who could not reciprocate, he was upending the entire protocol of how to get ahead in a culture built on patronage and the exchange of favors. 

The logic of quid pro quo, "giving to get," was the basis for social advancement and class standing. You gave dinners to put others under obligation to invite you back. Favor for favor, people climbed the social ladder, built their reputations and gained the approval of those who could help them.

The idea of bringing to your table the poor, the lame, blind and crippled was absurd. But Jesus was not just offering a lesson in compassion for the needy. He was offering his guests a chance to free themselves from the trap of only acting for self-advantage. Jesus was warning them of the inner poison of reducing every relationship to calculation instead of the mutuality of real friendship and love. He was challenging them to expand their small, inbred, class-conscious worlds to the far richer adventure of genuine community. 

The deepest lesson of all was to grasp that by acting in this way, we come to know God, who loves us all unconditionally, without merit. Our very existence is pure gift, and the secret of a happy life is to be so grateful to God that we let every gift flow through us to others. The glass filled to overflowing is still full.  Imitating God's generosity to us by sharing with others does not diminish us, but enlarges us, insuring that every act of love increases our capacity for love. The host who shares freely, regardless of repayment, is rich beyond measure because he or she is free of the need to measure. 

This is the joy of the Gospel.  

Servant Leadership

"Whoever exalts himself himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:12).

In today's second reading, St. Paul exults in the success of his pastoral and preaching mission to the community he founded at Thessalonika. He describes his affection and care of the community as like the care of a nursing mother, a gentle, self-sacrificing attention that did not spare any effort or cost to him personally. Their response in faith to his gift of service created a beloved community. They not only heard the gospel preached, but also had it modeled in Paul's servant leadership.

We need this uplifting model as we face a very different message in the other two readings. The Prophet Malachi records God's severe warning to those who functioned as priests and leaders in Israel. Because of their high calling and great responsibility, their failure to be exemplars of the Law entrusted to them for the community would bring a curse on them. False instruction and misdirection of the people who relied on them was particularly blameworthy. They did not keep the law themselves, and they kept others from grasping its beauty and effectiveness as a path to love. 

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus unleashes a torrent of criticism on the scribes and Pharisees for putting on a great show of piety and self importance, seeking titles and honors for their roles as legal experts and moral exemplars. In their pride and arrogance, they piled laws on the backs of ordinary believers, but did nothing to show them how to fulfill them, thus leaving people in a state of despair at ever pleasing God.  

Jesus' perspective came from his closeness to people and his compassion for their daily struggles. Who were these leaders who not only did not lead but obscured the purpose of the Law, which was to reveal God's love and make it more accessible to everyone? He explodes with indignation at anyone purporting to represent God while in fact distorting and blocking access to God's mercy.  

Pope Francis has challenged all clergy and religious to be servants. HIs example and his frequent criticism of priests and bishops who are enamored of their own importance or who use their authority to burden the faithful has not been well received by some in the hierarchy.  Yet what he pope is proposing is not just an alternative style of leadership in the church, but the only way to imitate Christ, who insisted on humble service for his disciples as the essence of their ministry to reveal God's unconditional love. 

What Paul experienced in Thessalonika is what all priests and pastoral leaders know to be the joy of the Gospel. Why seek the role of pastor only to diminish the rewards of genuine community and the deep mutual affection that grows between people and priests who give themselves wholeheartedly to the needs of their church family? St. Paul and Pope Francis share the same message: This is what the Gospel looks like. This is what real community feels like. Ths is why the church exists. 

Always Time to Do Right

"Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath or not?" (Luke 14:3).

The phrase, "It is always time to do the right thing" was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr, who often confronted those who said civil rights were needed but the time was not right. 

How many issues do we face today that demand resolution now?  Compassion for the poor, racial equality. care of the environment, honesty in government.   Were St. Martin de Porress alive today, where would be he be on these issues? Probably on the front lines of every protest and in places of service wherever there was oppression and unfairness. 

Jesus was constantly opposed by those who claimed his ideals but found some legal or social reason to caution him from acting on them.  Healing was a good thing, but not on the sabbath because it might be defined as "work.," which was forbidden.  In today's gospel, Jesus put the question directly to the Pharisees, but they remained silent, eager to see him break the law. Jesus promptly healed the man who just happened to appear at the gathering, and then shamed his critics with another question --  whether they would rescue a child or an animal if it fell into a cistern on the sabbath. Again, they did not answer. 

Jesus liberated the law to function in a common sense way by rejecting the legalism of his critics. They had steeped themselves in every nuance of the law with endless parsing of every regulation into minute categories applied to every situation, but they had lost the deeper purpose of the law, which was to facilitate the command to love God and neighbor. Small rules governing tithing and ritual purity or liturgical observance were elevated to a public show of piety, but leaders obsessed with appearance had missed the essence of religion-- compassion, justice and love. 

We are never excused from being compassionate if the need is there. Justice never waits for  the right conditions or for people to get used to a change in unjust social policies or equal treatment under the law. Love is a way of life, not a special occasion. It is always the right time to do the right thing.  

Our Faithful Departed

"If we have grown in union with Christ through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection" (Rom 6:5). 

Paul addresses the faith community at Rome with his understanding of how baptism into Christ unites us with his death and his resurrection. This straightforward presentation of the "Paschal Mystery," that by his death on the cross Jesus fulfilled the Exodus, not from human slavery, but from the power of sin and death, is the central spirituality of the Christian life. If we share in his redemptive death, we will also share in his resurrection. By dying to ourselves in every act of sacrificial love, we grow in union with Christ. What happened to him after death then also happens for us. We are victorious over death and destined for eternal life in God. 

Our beliefs may seem just words or wishes in fhe face of death. We are overwhelmed with loss and sorrow. So we do what Christians have done since the beginning. We bear our loved ones to the church, cover them with a white cloth to remind ourselves of the promises of their baptism. We place their remains by the Paschal candle, the light of Christ no darkness can extinguish. We share the stories of faith the church has proclaimed for generations -- of God's power over death, the promise that love is stronger than death and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We lift our voices in prayer and song. We commit ourselves to the belief that we shall see all our beloved dead again, alive and in glory. 

The commemoration of the faithful departed is a celebration of the "cloud of witnesses" who surround us beyond time, cheering us on, telling us not to be afraid. For they have experienced what all of us will some day know -- that though there is dying, and suffering, and separation, there is no death, no absolute end to a human being when their bodies fail and expire. Love's network continues to hold them and protect them. The faith of the church reaches across the threshold of time to meet the blessed assurance of all those who have gone before us. Because God is the God of the living, they are alive, more alive than we can imagine, and they are eager to share eternity wth us.  

St. Paul has no proof that this is true, only the promise of the Holy Spirit who testifies within us that God's love is forever. This Spirit is the same Spirit Jesus breathed forth in the last moment of his life on the cross. That Spirit entered us, animating us to be the body of the risen Christ, now present in the world. Our last breath at the moment of our death is also our first breath of eternal life. This is the testimony of the saints and all the faithful departed.  This is, for us, even in the midst of sorrow and loss, the joy of the Gospel.  

All Saints

"We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

Sainthood is, in most minds, a final state granted to some after a long arduous journey up the mountain of perfection.
Canonization, the church's official declaration that an individual is with God, involves a rigorous examination and several stages before someone is proclaimed a saint. 

The annual celebration of "All Saints" reveals a truth we all know implicitly, that there are countless undeclared saints, people known for their goodness and service, models for the rest of us in every family, parish and local community. What is more, this feast reassures us that because holiness is a pure gift and that God loves each of us unconditionally, we begin our lives already on top of the mountain. We have everything we need to live in the presence of God, the essence of sainthood-- to be in relationship with God and with the beloved community that shares the divine life. 

So, in a sense, sainthood is ours to lose, by ignorance and neglect, by postponement or simple resistance to what would come naturally if we accepted the gift or wholeness and the indwelling of the Trinity that is ours from the moment of baptism. We drift away from sainthood not because we do evil, but because we do not become ourselves. God's inherent invitation to live out the uniqueness of our gifts guided by the Holy Spirit is gradually diminished by fear, loss of confidence and often the damage inflicted on by the distortions of culture and convention, which taunt us, "Who do you think you are?" or "Fit into the crowd, be safe, be normal." 

The natural innocence of childhood, the passion and idealism of youth, the desire to be just at work, to show compassion for those being left behind in a competitive society, the call to integrity in a world built on moral compromise, the resistance to patently false images of success, the lure of power and money-- these signs of holiness given to us at the start are muted and blocked as we journey through life. Only conversion and repentance can keep them alive.

The gift of holiness is renewed constantly by God's mercy. We don't don't have to be perfect to be saints. Fidelity is not a once and for all achievement, but a process of finding God over and over again, even in our sins. Great sinners become great saints, alongside the heroes and martyrs we admire among the canonized. Sanctity lets go of yesterday's failures to begin again today to seek God, to do our best with the graces at hand, the small acts of love that train the heart for greater generosity. 

As the old hymn that kept the Civil Rights Movement on track goes, "Keep your eyes on the prize." That prize is Jesus himself. He turns and invites us with the look of love to "come follow me." Just for today, if we say yes, we can become saints. Step by step, little by little, is how even the greatest of canonized saints journeyed to the fullness of God, who was with them, and us, from the start. 

Hidden Promise

"I consider the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us" (Rom 8:18).

There are miracles in nature so common we take them for granted. Flip a switch on the wall, and the lights come on. Plant a seed in the ground, and weeks later, new green life springs up. Add a small packet of yeast to a bowl of flour and other ingredients, and soon a ball of dough begins to expand and exude vitality. Even if we know the scientific explanation, these phenomena are still amazing.

Jesus compared the tiny mustard seed to the coming of the Kingdom of God. Something small produces a large plant that gives shade and offers its branches as home to birds. So it is with God's vitality when it mixes with human openness and creativity. The result is so much greater than the apparent input.

Jesus compared the mysterious, invisible action of yeast mixed into flour, oil and water by a woman at the hearth. Simple ingredients lovingly combined, kneaded, rolled and rounded by a woman's purposeful hands, bloom aromatically into loaves of bread, enough to feed a village. So it is with God's coming among us. Simple things, human effort join God's love, and abundant life appears.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes the universe as it responds to the mystery of God's grace. What we dream of and long for but cannot produce of ourselves is made possible by the gift of  transcendent, divine vitality. God takes our ordinary lives, including our sufferings, and reveals new life. Because we are united to Christ by baptism, we share in the transformation of our human nature he accomplished by his life, suffering, death and resurrection to glory.

The risen Christ is the new leaven, the seed of the new Creation. He is the source of our hope that something wonderful is happening to us because of him.  Because "we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."  The whole universe is destined for glory, and we are not only part of it, but God's own children.  

Each of us is a parable of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Our small story is rich in meaning and the mystery of God active in our daily lives. Everything we say and do has eternal implications, mysterious and far-reaching effects as it ripples into the web of relationships we all share.  Sow the seed that gives shade and shelter to others, gather and mix the ingredients that make the bread of life. We have this power because of Christ, and each time we use it, it is multiplied.  

Liberation

"Woman, you are set free of your infirmity" (Luke 13:12).

Today's gospel story could be just another account of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. But in Luke's gospel, there is another dimension to the miracle. Luke has been called the evangelist for women because of the special attention he shows for the concerns of women. 

The story is rich in allusions to scriptural texts familiar to the audience. The woman bent over is called a "daughter of Abraham." She could represent the Jewish people. She has been afflicted for 18 years, paralleling the 1,800 years since Abraham. Her precise infirmity is her inability to stand upright, an image of the the inability of the Law, with its many burdens imposed on the people by their priests (including the prohibition of work on the Sabbath), to make people upright.

Jesus represents liberation, freedom from the kind of legalism for its own sake that made no sense and overrode human necessity. Here in the synagogue was a woman who had suffered most of her adult life, and the leader is saying she should not be healed by Jesus because it is the Sabbath. Jesus calls him a hypocrite and points out that the law allows a farmer to lead his animals to water on the Sabbath. Why should this daughter of Abraham be denied care? 

By making a woman the focus of the miracle in a patriarchal culture, Jesus challenged the exclusively male gathering in the synagogue, where women would have been segregated behind screens and not allowed to participate in the discussions about the law. Why should the men be any more concerned about a sick woman than other "beasts of burden" in a society that made women and children invisible, vulnerable to abuse and servitude? Jesus is filled with indignation at these attitudes, and filled with compassion for the woman, whom he heals without hesitation. She is made upright by God's love for her.  

Our contemporary society has finally surfaced a crucial public discussion of the plight of women in a sexist culture that has entitled men, especially powerful men, to harass, humiliate and abuse women in the workplace as a quid pro quo for keeping their jobs or advancing their careers. The "rules of the game" go back to the foundations of gender inequality and disregard for women in all patriarchal cultures, including the Catholic church. What Jesus says and does in today's gospel is a direct challenge to us as it was to the religious establishment of his day. God is on the side of liberation and against all forms oppression and hypocrisy. Liberation is at hand. 

The Great Commandment

"Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?" (Matt 22:35).

Today's Gospel begins by saying that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. They were the religious conservatives who rejected any teaching that was not explicitly contained in the first five books of the Bible, the Penteteuch. This included any belief in an afterlife. They were also members of the wealthy aristocracy of Jerusalem and of the Temple establishment. They used their theological positions to justify living well in this world as a sign of God's favor and for their lack of concern for the poor.  Dives, the rich man in Jesus' parable about Lazarus, was a Sadducee. 

The Sadducees had tried to discredit Jesus' preaching about the life to come, a belief held by the Pharisees. They challenged Jesus to explain how a hypothetical woman  obligated to marry seven brothers in order to satisfy their need for progeny, since children were the only guarantee of immortality. If there is a heaven, they said, whose wife will the woman be, since all seven had been married to her? It was a conundrum meant to ridicule the idea of resurrection, and Jesus silenced them by arguing that the patriarchs and Moses must be alive after death because God is the God of the living, not the dead." Jesus dismisses them as not really grasping the truth of the Scriptures, a direct insult to their claim to be biblical experts.

The Pharisees then try to discredit Jesus by quizzing him on the Scriptures, assuming that he was just an ignorant hill country preacher, not a biblical scholar as they were.  One asks Jesus a key question intended to reveal how little formal training he had: "What is the greatest of the commandments of the Law?"

But Jesus was ready for them, and his answer went to the heart of the Law because it was the foundation of the entire Law and prophets. He shows these critics that this simple layman, the carpenter from little Nazareth in Galilee of the Gentiles, is radically grounded in the first and most important rule of their faith. Jesus recites the prayer said daily by every Jew, the Sh'ma: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, there is no other. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength." Jesus adds to this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 

The law of love was the basis for everything, the perfect summation of the Covenant, and to fulfill it was to fulfill the whole Law. Jesus' preaching was focused on God's love for us and our response to God in love. It followed seamlessly that if we say we love God, we must love our neighbor, including the poor, the weak, the outcast, the alien resident and every widow and orphan.  The Sadduccees and the Pharisees were both obligated to keep the great commandment above all, and failing that, they were discredited as leaders and teachers.

What does this mean for us?  It challenges those who complicate religion by multiplying rules and rituals as the measure of their worthiness. If they can keep the rules, they can judge others who fall short, and they can wrap themselves in a feeling of self-satisfaction.  But the truth is, keeping the rules is only the beginning of our obedience to God. For the commandment to love is so much more challenging. It is a wide open adventure to have to discern how to love others in unforeseen circumstances. Love is always risky, a steep learning curve that leads to surprises and encounters we cannot prepare for. We can never do it perfectly, and in fact may fail as we engage the complexity of relationships, where there are no certainties or complete solutions.  

Love is always a mystery. God's love for us is the mystery of our very existence, the call to conversion, the experience of mercy when we fail and the experience of knowing it is always a pure gift, not something we can earn or deserve.  Our love for one another is also a mystery, a lifelong process of self discovery and often heart-breaking moments of  suffering that are the only path to joy.  

We are invited today to ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment. Then we must be ready to follow him as he shows us the ways of love. 

Know Thyself

"Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:56).

The readings for today's Mass show us how Paul's imitation of Christ gave him deep insight into human nature. 

Jesus chides the crowds for being able to read the signs of the weather but not the signs of the times. We are blind because we only see what we want to see or need to see. Reality is always before us, and if we are honest with ourselves we will know that effect follows cause, consequences flow directly from our behaviors. The warning signs are always there.

Jesus applies this lack of wisdom to the failure to seek reconciliation with someone. The longer we delay in resolving a quarrel, the deeper the hurt goes, until we are like people going to court, then before the judge, then to prison. We will not go free until we have paid the last penny of the fine. Forgiveness early would have spared everyone a long, drawn out ordeal and unnecessary suffering. 

Paul reflects on the inner struggle to do the right thing. We want to do it, but the will to do it rouses a contrary impulse.  Knowing the law makes us want to break the law. A physical urge for pleasure is actually enhanced if it is forbidden. The more we think about some sinful act, the more we are tempted to do it.  

Catholics, it has been said, enjoy illicit sex more because it has been so proscribed and charged by the emphasis on its sinfulness. The notion that it is forbidden goes to work on the imagination, and just thinking about it heightens its erotic fascination. But then, because of this dynamic, Catholics may also suffer more guilt and shame after they give in to sin. 

Paul realized that the Law was intertwined with sin, creating a war between the will and the flesh. This stand-off between our better selves and our sinful urges keeps us in a state of humiliation for failing to meet ideals we want. Paul cries out, "Who can save me from this misery? Who will deliver me from this mortal body?" The answer for Paul was clear: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." 

Jesus sets us free, from both the power of the law to enhance sin, and the the urges of the flesh that keep us from knowing the even greater pleasures of grace, which brings order and peace to our spirits and bodies. We become our true selves, moving beyond the war of desires to the capacity to love, which satisfies our deepest needs and frees us to grow more mature as human beings and to experience the wholeness we were meant to enjoy before God. Once experienced, who would want to go back to the former, less mature stage of moral development? 

Paul rejoiced that Jesus knew he was a sinner and loved him anyway. His love made Paul lovable, even to himself, and filled him with compassion for all others who struggle to emerge from the defeat of sin and death to the victory of life in Christ. That joyful victory is ours along the way and in every encounter with our weakness and sinfulness, trusting that Jesus is saving us even as we struggle. 

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