Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 118

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."

The most hostile critics of the Church are usually unwilling to criticize Jesus. In fact they more apt to credit him with words he never said and policies he never expressed. Feminists might conclude he intended to ordain women but his disciples refused, or gays will insist he intended marriage for anyone regardless of gender or sexuality.

If Jesus had any enemies they might pick up this story and try to make something of it. Wasn't he rather rude to this Canaanite woman?

That apparently was not the intention of the Evangelists Mark and Matthew who tell us this story. Rather, they used this peculiar story to address the appearance of gentiles in a Jewish/Christian congregation.

There was little in the story of Jesus to indicate his Mercy might include the gentiles. He spoke to Jews and called Jews as disciples and apostles.  He consoled and healed the Jewish sick and challenged Jewish authorities.

Growing up in Galilee he would have known gentiles as neighbors. When children ran the streets they would have played together; something Jerusalemites could not imagine. In fact the denizens of the capital city might have snubbed him and his foreign accent because Galileans associated freely with gentiles. But clearly, his ministry was to "the lost sheep of the House of Israel."

But after his resurrection and ascension and as the disciples set out to make disciples of all nations, they realized first that gentiles were joining the Christian congregations and, secondly, certain adjustments would have to be made.

Like Americans who want all immigrants to speak and read English, the Jewish Christians at first were unwilling to make allowance for non-Jews. They supposed the men should be circumcised; women should prepare kosher food; and children should learn some Hebrew! Only gradually and with anguish and great controversy -- which is described in the Acts of the Apostles -- did the Church make accommodations for those who would become the overwhelming majority.

Learning of the early history of our church prepares us to address the controversies of our time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Today's gospel reflects the struggle of the early Church and the choice they made -- mercy. First, they had to recognize and could not deny the faith of the gentiles who came to Jesus. "Oh woman, great is your faith!" echoes the Master's response and those Jewish Christians who had to admire their new gentile friends.

The story suggests that even Jesus could adapt to unexpected circumstances. Clearly, he did not want to hear the woman's plea; he was not prepared for that. But when, according to Saint Mark, the woman marched through the door they tried to close against her, and replied to Jesus' insulting remark with a clever mot, he relented.

The story is about God's willingness and our readiness to recognize human misery. There is simply no difference between Jewish and gentile pain, just as there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual distress, nor between "white" and "black" sickness. Men's illnesses and women's illnesses may be different but both demand a response of compassion. Though we recognize the different needs of different people, segregation, shunning and ostracism will never be fair or just.

As Jesus realized he had been bested by the woman's courage, persistence and native intelligence, we must hear the cry of the poor just to avoid humiliation!

I think Jesus laughed at the woman's retort and at himself as he pronounced his verdict, "Let it be done as you wish." Recognizing when we are wrong, we can wipe the egg off our faces and do the right thing. It's really not that hard.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 418

For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed.

Our Judaeo-Christian tradition remains relevant to the modern world, despite their contempt for us, precisely because the human being despises slavery and our faith promises continuing deliverance from that state.

    But freedom is terrifying and the human being often prefers security. We are condemned to exist in the moment, that narrow band of time between the past and the future. We can never return to the past, no matter how conservative we might be. Nor can we guarantee the future, regardless of our liberal confidence. We must live in the present.
    In the scriptures -- which contain both the record of God's presence in the past and God's promises for the future -- we cannot help but notice the Lord's preference for the poor. The poor are those who know their future is not assured. The poorest of the poor don't know where they'll sleep tonight nor where their next meal will be found. But the are many others who don't know if they'll be able to pay their bills at the end of the month, or whether they will find health care when they need it. 
    The wealthy are those who think they know the answer to those questions. They plan for vacations with confidence, with the assurance they'll still have a home, job, educational opportunities, health care and financial reserves when they get back. 
    The poor live closer to the truth of our dependence on God. They must rely on divine providence with few other assurances. 
     The United States has been an experiment in "middle class" living, an attempt to maintain the majority above poverty and provide them with reasonable assurances about the future. People can enjoy "social security" in their "retirement years." Seniors need not earn a wage for a grateful nation will provide for them in their decline and dotage. Their "freedom" is assured. 
    Unless it's not. The future is, almost by definition, never assured. We have seen crises and inflation wipe out a nation's currency in a matter of months. Life savings disappear and financial infrastructures disintegrate. 
    Financial institutions are necessarily built on the fidelity of the citizens. If they cheat or game the system it collapses. Then, because they continue to act without faith, they grab for security; that is, for slavery. 
    Occasionally I meet a Veteran who first tells me he hasn't attended Church in fifty years. He doesn't believe in it. It's not my place to judge his decisions or behavior and so, if he is willing, I continue to engage his conversation. He goes on to tell me, "The kids today have no values!" Again, I bite my tongue. This fellow refused to celebrate faith, hope and love, so now he wonders why "the kids" know nothing of these values. 
    In today's first reading, recently-escaped slaves declare their undying allegiance to the Lord who has saved delivered them, 
"We will still serve the LORD."
The Bible testifies to this basic truth: those who do not publicly worship the Lord do not serve him. Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus describe in great detail the external worship of God. "Spiritual prayer" is a myth; without overt ceremonies there are no values. 
    Our freedom begins with the freedom to worship. As you know, that "right" is the first freedom specified in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....
Use it or lose it. Your freedom depends upon it. 

Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 417

Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Perhaps Jesus' statement about your hardness of heart is not so much a judgement as an observation. A judgement implies, "You should do better!" An observation means, "You have a moral disability; you are incapable of lifelong marriage and Moses compassionately permitted you to divorce and remarry." 

    Any stable arrangement that resembles what God intended from the beginning is better than an endless, humiliating cycle of hookups between strangers. 
    I certainly hear that story often enough in the VA. I remember one proud graduate of Saint X, a premier Catholic high school in Louisville; he had been married four times, and the one he was with now was not his spouse. The fellow seemed to have never heard, "from the beginning it was not so." Whatever he learned in the Catholic school had been overruled by the example of his family, friends and the prevailing American culture. 
    In today's gospel Jesus acknowledged some are "incapable" of marriage as he went on:
Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."
My nephew remarked lately that he had to attend a wedding as the couple had attended his. I reminded him that every wedding ceremony should include at least a renewed appreciation, if not a renewal of vows for all the attending married couples. There is no point in one couple making their vows before a congregation if, afterward, they're the only married couple in the room. That would be a mockery of the sacrament which has already suffered enough. 
    Jesus assured Saint Peter that the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church which stands upon the rock of his faith. Likewise, I am confident that the Sacrament of Marriage will prevail against the crushing waves of our time; it is built by the Holy Spirit on the faith of Peter and of all the saints, on your fidelity and mine. 

Thursday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Collect, for the forgiveness of sins

Lectionary: 416

His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'

Liberation Theology, a controversial movement among Catholic theologians of South America following the Second Vatican Council, showed how the powerful inadvertently overlook the advantages they enjoy in their relationships with less powerful persons.
       The classic example: When a poor man is shown two pictures of a casa (a house), but one picture shows a palace and the other, a hovel -- the poor man is immediately struck by the oddity of two radically different structures having the same name, casa. The wealthy man does not notice that oddity. It makes perfect sense to him.
       Another example, two people play Monopoly but one plays with two dice and the other is allowed only one die. The person with two dice invariably wins. That person believes she played fair and square and deserved to win; the other believes she had no chance to win despite her best efforts.
       When disparity of power appears in ordinary financial life, the more fortunate believe they should have all their blessings. That their parents were married, they grew up in cleaner homes, had better nutrition, studied and played in safer environments, had better learning materials and more qualified teachers -- seems only right. They "worked for" their advantages, owe nothing to the less fortunate, and should make every effort to protect their secure status. They do not hesitate to demand justice when they believe they have been wronged by the less fortunate.
       Jesus describes that situation in today's parable. We should understand that Roman slavery was not nearly as barbaric as American slavery. Roman slaves, even in Palestine, were afforded more freedom and responsibility, and could accumulate some wealth. Some bought themselves and their families out of slavery.
       So here's a slave who has accumulated massive debts for his owner due to his own mismanagement. We're not told if his incompetence was due to criminality, stupidity, foolish risks or bad luck. In any case he is in way over his head and also in deep denial. He cannot possibly regain his losses but nevertheless pleads with his master, "Just give me time and I will pay you back in full."
       The master strips him of authority but mercifully decides against selling the fellow, his wife and children on the slave market to recoup at least some of his losses.
       However, the fool goes out and senselessly thrashes a fellow slave who owes him only a fraction of what he had owed, and can certainly pay him back. Perhaps he is still suffering the humiliation of begging for, and being shown, mercy. He certainly cannot see that he once enjoyed great authority over a poorer man and now has been reduced to an inferior status. His punishment is severe and, by the standards of the Storyteller, just.
       This should be a sobering parable for those who think they have a right by birth, race or religion to happiness. Many people enjoy the illusion that they have worked for everything they have, and completely ignore the advantages they were handed at birth. Few can imagine the harm they perpetuate by their lifestyle choices, or the savage violence that protects their security. They don't want to know what many Veterans know about American military adventures in foreign countries, or what happens behind the thin blue line in our major cities.
       Fortunately our Church does provide some avenues of communication from one side of town to the other, across the proverbial railroad tracks. If our congregations are segregated by economic status we might at least hear the cry of the poor from those who speak for them. Some devout Christians volunteer in food kitchens, homeless shelters and general hospitals. Also, some of our family members have fallen on hard times and we still care for them.
       We should heed the warning of this parable and privately admit, "Everything I have is gift." And, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." 

Wednesday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 415

The LORD then said to him, "This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I would give to their descendants. I have let you feast your eyes upon it, but you shall not cross over."
So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said; and he was buried in the ravine opposite Beth-peor in the land of Moab....

The Letter to the Hebrews refers to this touching scene in the eleventh chapter,
All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth....
Human beings are creatures of time; we remember the past; we anticipate a future. Those who neglect that dimension of our nature forfeit their human nature. The past, of course, did not begin with my birth; there are a million historical incidents far more important to me than that particular item. Nor does my future end with my death. If I cannot control what happens after my death, I have some responsibility for it.

The Lord favored Moses with a vision of the future as he stood atop Mount Nebo. With courage, toil and much suffering he had brought God's people this far. Even as he saw the Promised Land with its flowing rivers and green meadows, he had now to turn leadership over to the young, untested Joshua. Moses must take his place in the past with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. For better or worse, his work was finished.

There are many scenes like this in the scriptures. Jacob gathered his sons and blessed each of them before he died. Eli ceded his status of judge to the boy Samuel. After David has amassed materials for the temple, he turned the pile over to his son Solomon with careful instructions about its building. Jesus' final discourse is recorded in John 12-18; Saint Paul's last address to the Ephesians appears in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 20. Saint Luke tells us :
They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again. 
John of Patmos finished his career with the Book of Revelation. All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar...

The challenge of every generation is to admit ours is not the last. As our world was built by our forebears, we build a world for our children. With that insight comes the realization we cannot afford to waste our resources; we must not destroy what should remain. We owe it to generations yet unborn to preserve both our memories of the past and our promises of the future.

There's a lot of denial out there, especially among those Christians who see no hope for the future. They devoutly wish the Lord would return today, now! They pray, "Let us not suffer the humiliation of decline, of weakness and old age, of less influence, of being cared for rather than caring for others." Politically they would nuke the world before they suffer the loss of economic, political and military superiority. Individually they declare, "We're spending our children's inheritance!"

The Spirit of Moses and Jesus and John of Patmos urges us to acknowledge that we are strangers and aliens on Earth, that our homeland is still a long way off. We cannot describe in any detail what that Kingdom looks like; but, as we're satisfied with our lives, we are sure it will be beautiful. In preparation for that day we still make sacrifice.

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

God's temple in heaven was opened,
and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

Today the Church celebrates Mary's "Assumption," when her earthly life ended and she was taken body and soul into heaven. The origins of this feast and of the doctrine are lost in history. It seems we've always believed this about Mary, although there is little mention of it in the records of our earliest theological discussions and debates. Nor can we say why most of the Church settled on August 15 as the date.

Perhaps this festival is like that other mysterious moment when you first noticed your mother. Where were you? What was she doing? Who knows? She was just always there!

We notice Mary in the New Testament writings. Sometimes she is named as Mary; sometimes she is only "the mother of Jesus." In Revelation 12 she is, "the ark of his covenant" and "a woman clothed with the sun." Perhaps she is also "God's temple in heaven." (In Saint Luke's gospel the angel had prophesied "the Holy Spirit will overshadow you" in the same manner the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Temple.) We find innumerable symbols of Mary in the New Testament and we add many more in our enthusiasm for "our Blessed Mother."

On this feast of the Assumption we celebrate the victory God has given to her, a victory she has won by her fidelity. 

Many people bitterly conclude that the human being is incapable of innocence. As Willie Stark, the Huey Long character of Robert Penn Warren's book All the King's Men, said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something" on any political opponent. 

We rarely make an important decision that doesn't have its shadowy, unfortunate consequences. Some people would refuse to pay taxes to avoid paying for abortions, or warfare, or prisons. But even if they could pull off the stunt they still participate in an economy that rewards the idle wealthy and punishes the working poor. There is always something.

But the Catholic Church celebrates Mary's sinless life from her Immaculate Conception to her well-deserved Assumption. Fulfilling God's plan for our salvation, she accepted the "grace of immaculation" and felt neither desire nor necessity to step beyond God's love. Blessed by God she was wise enough to recognize a bad choice and take the right one. Sensitive to the Spirit of God she could discern God's preference even when several choices seemed equally good. Seeing with God's vision, it looked beautiful to her. Even the choice of following Jesus to Jerusalem and standing by his cross had an aura of rightness about it that she found irresistible. 

In Mary's story we recognize the grace of God delivering her from sin and we honor her victory over sin -- especially as we appreciate how difficult it was. She still believed in God, hoped for his mercy and loved beyond all telling during Jesus' final hour of agony.

At one time, perhaps in the very distant past, every one of us believed our mothers were the most trustworthy and admirable persons in the universe. The feast of Mary's Assumption assures us our confident belief was not entirely wrong; our Heavenly Mother is indeed worthy of all honor.

Memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

Lectionary: 413

"And now, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, and follow his ways exactly, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD which I enjoin on you today for your own good?

Today the Church celebrates a twentieth century European martyr. Saint John Paul II changed the rules slightly when he declared Father Maximilian Kolbe a saint. Kolbe was not accused of loving the Lord Jesus, nor did his killers demand that he renounce his faith. Rather, Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in another man's place.

When some prisoners escaped Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, the commandant selected several men to die of thirst and starvation. This was his bizarre way of teaching the rest of the prisoners not to attempt escape. However, one man fell to his knees and pleaded with the commandant that he could not die; he had a wife and children who needed him.

The German officer, of course, couldn't be bothered with such a request until one fellow stepped forward and said, "I will take his place." Astonished and momentarily confused, the commandant demanded, "Who are you?"

The prisoner replied, "I am a priest." Those were the last recorded words of Saint Maximilian Kolbe; he died two weeks later on this day in 1941. When the guards found him still alive they injected his emaciated body with carbolic acid and he died immediately. Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole, only a few years younger than the saint, declared Maximilian Kolbe a "martyr for love."

We must remember this story because the world has not changed in the past seventy-six years. Philosophically many people still believe in Darwinian "survival of the fittest," that the self-appointed "able" should not have to provide for the weak among us.

Dominant cultures throughout the world still identify certain people as pariahs and cruelly torment them. In the United States they are "illegal aliens," homosexuals, African-Americans, and so forth. When these powerful persons meet resistance, they consider themselves "victims" and resort to terrorism. It has a long history in the United States.

Many believe they can blame a certain few for systemic problems and rid themselves of these problems by liquidating the people. Demagogues do not hesitate to use this ingrained bias to promote their own careers.

Saint Maximilian was arrested because he was a Catholic priest, a man capable of persuading Catholics to resist the powerful German army in Poland. His ordination was sufficient reason for his imprisonment.

I often hear stories of equally irrational behavior among law enforcement agents in the United States. Did you know they can pull anyone off the highway at any time and confiscate their property on the "suspicion" that the goods may be stolen or ill-gotten? In many cases the stressed law enforcement agencies depend upon the cash to maintain their service because tax payers don't want to pay the cost of law enforcement.

Some people like to declare,"Freedom is not free!" but what do they mean by that? Are they calling for higher state and federal taxes? Are they willing to forego certain personal liberties for the sake of everyone's greater freedom? 

Perhaps, they really mean that certain arbitrarily-chosen pariahs should accept less freedom -- poverty, imprisonment, illiteracy, poor health and the occasional lynching -- for the sake of the majority.

Martyrs like Saint Maximilian Kolbe remind us that when the majority goes along to get along they turn a blind eye to manifest evil. Such a nation must soon descend into madness as the self-righteous -- the so called law-abiding citizens -- fail to act justly and courageously.

In today's first reading we have heard the Lord declare again,
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
We should expect no heavenly homeland if we fail to provide a safe place to everyone who seeks it.