Reflection on Doubt

Reflection on the Gospel for Sunday April 24, John 20:19-31

In this Gospel we hear the story of “Doubting Thomas.”  This is not the only time in John’s Gospel that Thomas raises a question about what Jesus said.  He is a skeptic, but is able to overcome his doubt when he meets face to face with the risen Jesus.  On reflecting on his doubting I realize that there is merit in doubting some of the so called shibboleths that society maintains. 

Throughout history people have been certain about many things and conducted their lives based on those certainties.  Then someone would come along and begin to doubt those certainties—that is to question them.  In doing so they often face ridicule, persecution and often death.  Yet often their doubt gains traction among people who take the time to reflect on the doubt.  They come to the realization that the certainty is inaccurate and they are able to clarify the certainty.  Eventually society comes to the realization that the certainty was incorrect and they are able to clarify it.

Take for example the belief that the earth was at the center of the universe and everything revolved around it.  Then people like Galileo doubted the accuracy of this proposition based on observation.  The Catholic Church, and many others laughed at his doubt.  Galileo and those who agreed with him were persecuted.  Yet eventually we came to know that the earth indeed is not at the center of the universe but only a very small part of the universe.

We also see this as the cause of racism.  Many start with the certainty that non-white people are intellectually inferior.  They build their case on anecdotal evidence and more often fear of the other.  Yet, as people doubt the validity of this certainty they realize that people of different ethnic backgrounds are no different than white people.  This clarifies the relationship even as many continue to reject the evidence of equality.

Now we are faced with a new certainty that homosexuality and transgender people are aberrations in human development and should be rejected out of hand.  Those who doubt this assertion are met with ridicule and sometimes violence.  Yet as we research the subject more closely we learn that this is the way those people are and in other ways are no different than others.  When we accept that or clarify the certainty we bring new elements into society that enhance all of our well being.

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” 

René Descartes

Psalm 72 on Leadership

During most daily Masses this week the Responsorial Psalm is from Psalm 72.  This is a Psalm worth reading and meditating on as it has strong guidance on religious and political leadership.  First, I will provide the Psalm, then reflect on it and finally reword some of it to apply to us today.

1. Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

2. May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

3. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,

and the hills, in righteousness.

4. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the needy,

and crush the oppressor.

5. May he live while the sun endures,

and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

6. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,

like showers that water the earth.

7. In his days may righteousness flourish

and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

8. May he have dominion from sea to sea,

and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9. May his foes bow down before him,

and his enemies lick the dust.

10. May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles

render him tribute,

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

bring gifts.

11. May all kings fall down before him,

all nations give him service.

12. For he delivers the needy when they call,

the poor and those who have no helper.

13. He has pity on the weak and the needy,

and saves the lives of the needy.

14. From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

and precious is their blood in his sight.

15. Long may he live!

May gold of Sheba be given to him.

May prayer be made for him continually,

and blessings invoked for him all day long.

16. May there be abundance of grain in the land;

may it wave on the tops of the mountains;

may its fruit be like Lebanon;

and may people blossom in the cities

like the grass of the field.

17. May his name endure forever,

his fame continue as long as the sun.

May all nations be blessed in him;

may they pronounce him happy.

18. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,

who alone does wondrous things.

19. Blessed be his glorious name forever;

may his glory fill the whole earth.

Amen and Amen.

In analyzing this psalm, Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger  state in their book on the Psalms: “These verses state the quite ancient Near Eastern conviction much older than Israel’s royal theology, that the king has a responsibility to govern such that a viable political and economic infrastructure is maintained for all members of the community. Specifically, the king has a responsibility to support and sustain the life of the poor and the marginal when they have no resources by which to sustain themselves.  The psalm envisions a quite assertive, initiative-taking royal government on behalf of the poor and needy.”  Further in their analysis they note that to have a strong economy the king must first take care of the poor and the marginalized.

This psalm has clear relationship with Jesus statement in Matthew 25:31-46 about the final judgement. This guidance is as relevant today as it was when the psalm was written.  The greatness of a modern nation should be measured by how well it takes care of the poor and on those on the margins.

As the psalm begins as a prayer for good leadership let me put it in a more modern context I would like to edit the first four verses to say:

1. Give the president your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to Congress.

2. May they judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

3. May the mountains yield property for the people, 

and the hills, in righteousness.

4. May they defend the cause of the poor of the people, 

give deliverance to the needy, 

and crush the oppressors.

Bibliography:

Brueggemann, Walter and Bellinger, William H. Jr. (2014) Psalms.  New York, NY. Cambridge University Press.

The Season of Advent

The Season of Advent

Advent literally means “coming” and applies to our liturgical calendar as the season when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus and prepare ourselves for his second coming.  It is also an invitation to us to “come” to the manger and see the Lord Jesus.  At his birth angels went to shepherds and invited them to come to Bethlehem.  The stars in the heaven invited the Magi to come from their far off land to see the new king of the Jews.  During Advent we are invited to come closer to Jesus.  We do this through study, prayer, and practice. We are invited to take time to study both the bible and the teachings of the church.  We are invited to build a strong and regular prayer life, and we are invited to put the teachings of Jesus into practice in our daily lives.  As Jesus was a gift from God to us our response in prayer, study and practice is our gift to God.  Let us take time to look at our lives, have we answered that invitation to come to Jesus.  Let us build a plan on how we can respond to the gift of the coming of our Lord.  Finally, we are called to share this gift with family and friends.

A Teaching from Elijah for Our Time

On November 7, the church celebrated the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The first reading came from 1 Kings 17:10-16.  In that reading I will highlight two issues that are found in the reading.  The first is determining which god to worship and the second is exercising hospitality.

The reading begins with Elijah traveling to a town named Zarephath.  According to a google search on the internet this town was a Phoenician city now called Sarepta and is located on the Mediterranean coast between Sidon and Tyre.  Its location would be in pagan territory where the residence would worship the pagan god Baal who was called the “Lord of Rain and Dew.”  Elijah was running away from the Hebrew King Ahab, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and his pagan wife Jezebel.  Ahab had committed apostasy by worshipping the pagan gods of his wife.  Elijah prophesied that if he did not change God would send a drought on the land which indeed happened.  During this drought Elijah had to escape from the Northern Kingdom of Israel ruled by Ahab and Jezebel to avoid persecution and probably death.  Apparently he felt safe in pagan territory and not in Israel.  The drought did extend into Zarephath and the pagan god Baal couldn’t stop it.  It would be a test of which god is really in charge.

A second point is the hospitality the poor widow offered Elijah.  In my studies of the Balkan area I learned about the code of hospitality which existed in that area and which also existed in the Levant.  According to this code if anyone, even your enemy approached you and asked for help you were obliged to honor the request.  In this case the widow was struggling to feed herself and her son when this foreigner came asking to be fed.  She had to chose between her maternal responsibility to feed her son and to obey the code of hospitality.  She chose the latter and this benefited her as the God of Elijah kept her flour and oil jars full until the drought was over.

I see the messages for us are what god do we worship and do we have a code of hospitality.  Although Baal no longer serves any modern community we now have gods like consumerism, addictions, and more which many seem to serve more than the one God.  Daily we have to choose between worshiping the God of Elijah or the gods that serve what we want and not what we need.

I don’t know when or if the code of hospitality disappeared but it certainly doesn’t exist in the western world.  When people in need come to our borders we don’t welcome them we force them out, we put up barriers to keep them out and we don’t feed them or help them in their need.  Yet thousands who, legally or illegally, entered the United States have taken over jobs that natives don’t want, they have contributed economically to our country, they have rebuilt derelict parts of our big cities, and have taken farm jobs that no one else wants.  Some have turned to crime, but most have helped our country.  The question is, should we be more hospitable to those who come to our borders seeking help?

© 2021

What are the Sins we are Committing

In the Gospel for October 11, 2021 from Luke (Luke 11:29-32) Jesus, after a series of statements warning the people of the battle between evil and good spirits he makes this statement:  “This generation is an evil generation it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.”  We often jump to the conclusion that what he is referring to is that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish and that Jesus will spend three days in the tomb after his execution before his resurrection.  Yet, Jesus goes on to reference the sign Jonah gave to the Ninevites.  The message Jonah gave the Ninevites was that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed.  Believing Jonah’s message and their impending doom the Ninevites led by their king repented of their wrongdoing.  Their signs of repentance were so strong that God relented and did not destroy the city.

The Ninevites were probably not aware that they were sinning, that is they were doing things contrary to the will of God.  They needed Jonah to make them aware that their behavior was detrimental to living in a peaceful environment.  This is a message we all need to reflect on.

We first must be aware that we are committing sin before we can repent and take remedial action.  Too often we don’t see that things we are doing are sinful.   A smoker has to believe that smoking is bad for their health before they will start to stop smoking.  It is harder for those addicted to drugs, gambling, sex etc. to realize their addiction is causing them irreparable harm.  Once they accept that these things are bad for them and their families, that is they are sinful, then they can start a program to withdraw from their addiction. We need to become aware of the things that we are doing are sinful, many are things we do daily and don’t think of them as sinful.

Let me start with racism.  Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.  This covers a lot of people we see in our larger communities. Often we don’t feel we are prejudiced against these people because we are removed from them due to where we live, work, or visit.  Yet, if we ever look at one of these people and think “what are they doing here” or “they don’t belong here” or many other statements that belittle them in our mind we are committing the sin of racism.  This can be extended to how we view people of different religions, different gender identities, economic or educational status.

Under this criteria we all in one way or another show our prejudices. We don’t take the time to see these people as someone just like us but look a little different.  We don’t take the time to understand where they came from, why they are here, what struggles their forbearers experience and how that impacts how they view the majority society.

Besides racism there are other areas where we far too often take an uninformed view of a situation and then don’t do anything about.  Take for instance air pollution.  It is contributing to climate change but worse, it is becoming a serious health problem.  We are seeing more children and adults with lung problems due to the air we all breathe.  We all know that the weather is getting warmer, draughts are becoming more frequent, violent storms occur more often. When we deny or do nothing about climate change we are sinning against mother earth.  Repent!  When we don’t want to welcome refugees in our country we are sinning against humanity.  Repent!  This list could go on.  We all need to take a closer look at what we believe and see how we are sinning.

We need Jonah to come back and tell us our world will be destroyed and we must respond by repenting!

(c)

Piety

Reflection on the readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 608, James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

While going over the readings for this Sunday I started reflecting on piety and how it is interlaced in these readings so I thought I would look deeper into piety.  According to Keith R. Barron piety “…perfects the moral value of religion by engendering within the human person a filial affection for God and a loving regard for all people as fellow children of God.”  Harriet A. Luckman lists some of the attributes of piety as “…to denote a type of tenderness, fidelity, reverend, obedient, commitment and affection for one’s family, religion and state.”  Further she notes  “Piety was made evident by the acts one did to show reverence for God and gain purity of heart.  These actions included fasting and abstinence from food, drink, sexual relations and other bodily pleasures.  They also included almsgiving, the recitation of prayers, and attendance at the liturgy.”  Other acts of piety include visiting pilgrimage sites, special prayers like “Stations of the Cross” family rituals and more.  However, piety can be viewed negatively by those observing the pious.  Barron points out “The formalistic and legalistic observance of the law, however, sometimes encouraged the projection of a mere façade of piety.”

In our first reading this Sunday from the book of Deuteronomy Moses has given the Hebrews the teachings that was given to him by God.  In another translation of this passage these are listed as “statues and ordinances.” He notes these teaching are from wisdom and intelligence and that if the people observed them they will be truly a wise and intelligent people.

In the Gospel Jesus is confronted by some Pharisees and scribes who have observed that Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before eating therefore they do not follow the tradition of the elders.  It is interesting that this is not a law but a tradition, yet these religious leaders seek to scrupulously follow all the traditions as well as the teachings and ordinances handed down to Moses by God.  Jesus response is to say that it is not what goes into the body that is profane but what comes out of the body.  These Pharisees and scribes are meticulous about following the outward signs of the law but not the inward signs.  Of particular note is the inability of the poor or low level labors in the fields or fisherman to wash their hands before eating.  

These inward signs are what St. James calls us to follow in the second reading.  He reminds us that it is not enough to be hearers but must be doers of the word.  He reminds the readers that God calls all of us to care for the orphans and widows, a phrase that covers all those in need.

When we practice pious actions such as prayers, visiting pilgrimage sites and, most of all, attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist we gain strength to do the works God and St. James call us to do.  As it says in the Gospel of St. Matthew, we are called “…to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison.”  These are the highest of all pious actions.

Bibliography

Barron, Keith, O.C.D.S (1993) Piety. In The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (pp. 741-742) Collegeville, The Liturgical Press

Luckman, Harriet A. (2005) Piety. In The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (pp. 491-492) Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press


						

Choices

Reflection on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b, Ephesians 5:21-32, John 6:60-69

When I was stationed in Germany my wife and I became very active with our parish youth group which was called “Choices.”  This name for young people was very appropriate as youth are constantly having to make choices such as what courses to take in school, do I want to go to college or take up a trade, etc.  In our readings for this Sunday making good choices is at the center of our relationship with God and others.

In the first reading Joshua has led the chosen people into the promised land.  He realizes that none of them had lived in Egypt, all they knew was the desert experience.  During the desert journey they experienced God’s saving power as He provided food and water for their journey.  Nevertheless, they knew of the ancient gods Abraham had known in his home country of Ur.  Now they were sharing the land with other people who worshipped other gods.  It would be easy for them to follow either of the gods of their ancestors or the local gods.  Joshua was encouraging them to make a choice, which gods would they follow.  Joshua knew the God he and his family would follow, which gods would the rest of this group follow?  Which gods do we follow?

In the second reading the writer of this epistle is addressing the mystery of the marriage of a man and woman and the marriage of Christ and the church.  For the loving couple he maintains the custom of the time putting the husband in charge, yet the husband must make a choice on how he will relate to his wife.  Will he be a dictator or a loving companion.  The couple must make a choice.  Today we encourage couples to chose the latter but sadly many still abide by the ancient traditional relationship. 

Previous to today’s Gospel reading Jesus had told his disciples  that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  This was hard to take and many found it too difficult and dropped out of his group.  Jesus then explains that his flesh and blood are Spirit and life.  He then asks the Twelve if they would leave.  Peter, speaking for those who were left says that they will stay with him.  They don’t understand him but have faith in him and that he has the words of eternal life.  They made a choice that we often faith.  Do we fully understand what our faith teaches us about God and Jesus?  We must make our choice like Peter in the faith that God will provide us and sent His Son Jesus to show us the way even though we don’t fully understand the way.

We are so often confronted by these same options.  Is it too difficult to follow the teachings of Jesus?  Is it too difficult to follow the God of Spirit and life?  Each day we must make choices on who we will follow.  Like the Israelites moving into a new land with inhabitants who worship different gods, will we remain faithful to the God we read about in the Bible or will we follow the gods of money, addictions, adultery etc.  Often these other gods look so inviting.  Jesus offers us His body and blood to guide us in the decision making.  His body and blood that we receive in each eucharistic celebration gives us strength to make the right decisions.

(c) 2021

What the Broom Tree Teaches Us

Reflection on the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:30-5:2, John 6:41-51

In the first reading we learn that Elijah had all but given up his prophetic ministry.  He ran away into the desert and told God that he was a failure and wished to die.  He then laid down to die under a broom tree.  I find the broom tree to be interesting in the  Bible.  When Sarah told Abraham to send her slave girl, Hagar with the boy Ishmael which Abraham had fathered by Hagar, she is sent away into the desert and thinks she and the boy will die so she laid down under a broom tree.  The typical broom tree would provide significant shade in the desert. 

According to Diane Bergant the broom tree “… is common to the wadi, a watercourse that is dry except during rainfalls.  Then it can become a raging torrent.”  Rain only occasionally falls in the desert and quickly sinks into the depths of the barren soil.   Desert plants adapt with specialized vegetation to take advantage of every drop of water.  Some, like the broom tree, grow long tap roots to reach down to water stored in the ground.  

The broom tree can teach us to grow where we are planted, how to withstand the hostile environment we may be in, and to have long roots to tap into what gives it the ability to survive.

The seed that eventually grows into the broom tree does not chose where it will grow.  The wind blows it around until somehow it starts to grow and take root.  However, it seems to only grow in a desert environment.  It grows where it is planted.  When we are born we don’t choose who our parents will be, or where we will live.  Indeed, as we grow up we often stay in the neighborhood where we were born and raised.  Some people, for various reasons, will move to another location, maybe several locations, but most people will find a place and stay there.  Even if we move around we tend to remain in the faith tradition and politics of our parents.  Unlike the broom tree we can choose the environment we want to live in, but we will still be faced with many obstacles just as the broom tree. 

The broom tree has adapted to the environment it grows in.  That environment is hostile to all living things.  It is hot, dry, windy and not fit for just about anything.  Yet the broom tree, like a few other plants, have learned how to exist and even grow in the environment.  I suspect many broom tree seeds never make it into a tree, but those that do grow and provide a great deal of shade for the desert animals and the few humans that meander by.  After a good rain the tree will even produce a very attractive flower.  Often, those of us of faith, find ourselves in a very hostile environment.  People scorn us for the beliefs we hold and for the moral ethics we adhere to.  Like the broom tree we need to maintain faith in our beliefs in the midst of very hostile environments.  In this Sunday’s second reading St. Paul is encouraging the readers to remain imitators of Christ by doing away with all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling among many other things.  Our spiritual tap root needs to reach deeply into the faith that is contrary to these examples of bad behavior.  In this way our faith will grow stronger and we will resist all assaults on our faith.

To survive the broom tree has long roots that reach down to where it often finds water.  For us to survive in the hostile environment we live in, we too, must have deep roots into our faith.  The deeper our roots the easier it is to confront the hostile winds that we experience in our faith lives.

It is ironic that Elijah has come to the end of his tap root and is ready to give and sits under a tree that persevere through drought, wind, sand storms and more.  Elijah, and us, need to be encouraged to become like the broom tree and flourish in the social and political desert we live in.

Confronting Change

Reflection on the readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, Ephesians 4:17, 20-24, John 6:24-35

“Look, I am doing something new,..”  Isaiah 43:19

In our readings for this Sunday we are called to reflect on three cases of change and the reaction to change.  In the first reading the Israelites find themselves in a new location.  In the second reading St. Paul calls on those listening to the reading to put on their new selves, and in the Gospel Jesus is calling the people to look beyond the bread and see what it is pointing to.

In the first reading the Israelites had prayed to God to be freed from the oppression they were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians.  God heard their plea and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery.  The trip out of slavery was not without drama as the Egyptian army caught up the Israelites at the Reed Sea but the hand of God drowned the Egyptians and the Israelites were able to go free.  But after the crises were dealt with they then realized they were in a desert with little water nor much food.  What were they going to do?

In the second reading the writer of the letter to the Ephesians realizes the people he is writing to have become Christians but still live in the pagan world where morals were not what Jesus would have expected.  As they changed to become Christians they would have to deal with relations with people with very different beliefs and loyalties.

In the Gospel last week Jesus fed the people with bread, in today’s reading they are following him hoping for more.  The feeding was a sign pointing to something bigger.  Jesus offers them himself as the bread of life.  They are clearly having trouble understanding what this means.  Here the bread of life is from the wisdom tradition and points to living a moral life along the teachings that Jesus and the the Israelite prophets had taught.  They will have to change how they will live their lives.

At baptism, although most people are baptized as infants, the baptized are changed into followers of Jesus and the Christian way of living.  We all live in a world that often lives contrary to those teachings and we are constantly tempted to do what is easy, to follow the crowd and not Jesus.  As we reflect on this we should reflect on whether we are following the way of the Lord or the way of the crowd.

What Are We Holding Onto?

On July 22 we celebrated the Feast of Mary Magdalen.  The readings for this Mass are interesting and somewhat perplexing.  One choice for the first reading is from the “Song of Song.”  In this reading the woman is searching for her lover.  Many scholars have wondered why the Rabbis chose this reading to be in the Old Testament canon as it doesn’t even mention God.  To me this leaves the meaning of the reading up to the reader.  In my mind the woman is us and we are searching for our lover, that is the true love of the universe, God.  She finds her lover, have we?

The Gospel reading is from John and it has one line that I find worth pondering.  When Mary realizes it is Jesus and that he is alive, Jesus says to her “Do not hold on to me…”  I have looked up this line in the commentary by several biblical scholars and they note that they can not determine a precise meaning for this line.  Once again, I will argue, the meaning is left up to the reader.

In that case I will share my thoughts on this particular statement.  For his whole ministry the disciples, which includes Mary, have depended on Jesus for everything.  He led them, he taught them, he sent them forth to cast out demons and to spread the good news.  But he is going to ascend and won’t be nearby to tell them what to do.  Mary and all the disciples will be on their own.  In that process there is a potential draw back.  If they focus all their attention on Jesus they will miss his instructions to go into the world and spread the good news.  We see them doing this especially after Pentecost where they receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered to go forth and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison (cf. Matthew 25:35-36)

In our modern world we do have to make a choice.  We can hold onto Jesus by putting worship, liturgy, prayer as the focus of our ministry or we can do what Jesus called us to do.  Pope Francis highlighted this in his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” when he wrote:

“At the same time, the spiritual life comes to be identified with a few religious exercises which can offer a certain comfort but which do not encourage encounter with others, engagement with the world or a passion for evangelization.  As a result, one can observe in many agents of evangelization, even though they pray, a heightened individualism, a crisis of identity and a calling of fervor.” (78)

In the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” we read:

“The Eucharist is the’ source and summit of the Christian life.’  ‘The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.  For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.” (1324)

Through the Eucharist we do hold onto Jesus, yet by consuming Jesus we pray to be consumed by him, to be strengthened in our efforts in ministry.  The Eucharist gives us the strength to go into the world we live in and to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.  By going into the world we search for God and we find God in the poor, the outcasts, the disabled, these are the ones we are called to love.

(c) 2021