Wisdom requires an open mind

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Oct. 14 (Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30)

It would appear that gold, oil, stocks, natural resources and other precious commodities make the world go around. Indeed, people have been killing one another cheerfully for millennia in order to possess more.

Things that glitter can drive people to absolute madness. In the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, there is something that makes all of these things seem worthless in comparison and is more valuable than even health, beauty and power. This is wisdom, and it is not to be confused with knowledge or cleverness. There are those who have been educated far beyond their intellectual or emotional intelligence and others who use intelligence for immoral or evil ends. Wisdom, on the other hand, is something that most of us have fervently hoped for at times — the ability to know what is right, especially when there are many conflicting choices. The one endowed with the divine gift of wisdom remains focused on a path that combines justice, compassion, generosity of spirit and a God-centred mind and heart. We recognize these rare individuals as sages, saints, humanitarians and great statesmen and rulers. We probably know far more of them that are not in the history books, such as certain friends, relatives, teachers and others who have been influential in our lives. The wise person is often the one to whom we turn for advice or to ask the deeper questions of life.

Wisdom does not come easily — it requires humility, an open and seeking mind, thoughtful reflection and prayer. Life and its many experiences is the best teacher. Above all, wisdom will often urge us on a path of action that might be at odds with culture, traditions and the opinions of others. The most difficult part of gaining wisdom is not letting it be eroded or whittled away by the many pressures and negative voices that the world can exert.

A piercing and cutting two-edged sword is a strange metaphor to use for the Word of God. There is an obvious danger in violent and militant religious symbolism. But its uncompromising, levelling and unmasking qualities are certainly correct. “Word” means far more than what is written on a page. It is God’s communication with humanity and it can reach us by many paths. The recent pastoral letter Verbum Domini points out that God’s Word can be expressed in salvation history, events, inspired speech, messengers such as the prophets, art, music and, most of all, Jesus who was Himself God’s Word. A genuine expression of God’s Word does not confirm the status quo or allow hypocrisy and self-delusion. It can be painful and disconcerting but it also transforms and gives life and it is most effective when applied rigourously to our own life rather than used against others.

These qualities of the Word were evident in the story of the rich young man in the Gospel. Jesus the Word brushed aside the young man’s attempt at ingratiating flattery and pointed out that he already had the answer to his question concerning eternal life: he should practice the principles of his religion. The rich man had a nagging sense that there was something more. Jesus did not judge him — in fact, He looked on him with love while at the same time piercing through all of the man’s defenses and self-delusions. Jesus saw that the man derived his identity and security from his wealth as well as his ability to control his own destiny. Jesus invited the man — if he really wanted to move to a new spiritual level — to leave it all behind. By giving the wealth to the poor and following Jesus he would discover his true self and would really learn what it meant to rely on God and be led by the Spirit. It was too much for the rich man to handle all at once and he went away shocked and sad, causing Jesus to comment on how difficult it was for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

Maybe the man had a change of heart later on — after all, with God all things are possible. Renunciation and discipleship is foolishness in worldly eyes, but as Jesus reassured Peter those who do so receive far more than they have given. Freedom, happiness and letting go are different ways of saying the same thing.

Christ fills our hunger through the Scriptures

Questioning Faith

Once, a parish priest asked me and my brother if we would offer a Bible study in the nearby seniors’ home. We invited all residents to an afternoon series in their lounge. Two or three showed up regularly, but nobody else. What were we doing wrong? Why didn’t they like us?

Finally one of the attendees, who was Protestant, acknowledged to us: “They wanted to come because they like this sort of thing, but they couldn’t understand why anybody would send Catholics to do a Bible study.” This took the pressure off!

Though it cherishes a sacred book, Christianity is not a religion of the book. It’s a way, “the way,” to use one of its earliest names. It offers life through encounter with One who is the door to life. Why then does the Church have a special book (or rather, collection of books) that it considers sacred? Where did it come from, and what are we supposed to do with it?

The Church considers the Scriptures “inspired.” Perhaps this makes them seem distant, reserved for the learned few. We may want to get closer to them, without knowing the way (which, at times, is how we feel about God, too). On Oct. 18, we celebrate the feast of St. Luke, one of the four evangelists. Luke, tradition says, was a physician and knew the Mother of God. The first semester of my theological studies included a class assignment to read a Gospel from start to finish. Because the feast day was nearby, I chose Luke’s Gospel; the experience was moving and educational. I discovered somebody behind the Scripture texts. I’d always been taught God was behind them, but now I began to see and hear a human writer. Could it be that God and Luke were writing together?

What a combination — a collaboration between God and a human, in which I could join. It was like being part of a conversation and discovering that in the process, you were getting to know God. So I learned that if the Bible is inspired, that doesn’t put it far away from me, but brings it close. It’s for me, for all of us (including Catholics)!

But what does it mean to say the Bible is inspired?

The other day I saw a photograph of a nice-looking young man. A self-portrait, it showed him wearing a black, short-sleeved T-shirt and black shorts, sitting on a column like a Greek hero. His figure exuded strength and compassion. Noteworthy, but not dominant, was the lack of three limbs, though the bare scarred skin was unabashedly visible.

While on assignment in Afghanistan in 2011, photographer Giles Duley accidentally triggered an explosive device. He endured the amputation of both feet and one hand, and resumed his photography career. Differently. He explains there are things he can’t do any more, such as keep his balance while looking through a viewfinder, and some things he can do in ways he couldn’t before, such as “focus even more on the connection with people.”

Duley’s story was inspiring to me. I imagined how I might respond to similar losses, reflected on the strength of his spirit, the human capacity to transcend itself, how it often falls short but at times rises to glory. His story, his person, evoked a deep response in me.

There are degrees of inspiration. We wouldn’t say the photograph is inspired to the degree the Bible is. We hope the inspiration we get from many things will help us learn to encounter the Spirit in the Bible, where of all books He is most meetable.

The word “inspire” means to “breathe into.” For Christians, it’s a deeply laden word with profound meaning. It reminds us that God “breathed into (Adam’s) nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). It’s the truth of our humanness, that held within us like a treasure is the living Spirit of God. The Mother of God is the archetype of inspiration, so open to God’s Spirit that the Word can take flesh within her.

“Inspiration” is not a thing, but a relationship. God breathed into Adam, but Adam also started to breathe. Scripture’s authors were inspired by God, but we too, people who read, study and pray with the Scriptures, find God’s Spirit within us helping us to understand them — we, too, are inspired. That’s why the Scriptures are the books of the Church, though the Church is not a religion based on books. It’s based on a relationship between God and us.

We need this sort of inspiration in our day-to-day lives. Otherwise we get anxious, like a tiny child whose parent is out of sight. The Scriptures help bring us into the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity, in our present affliction and struggle. They’re a unique place of encounter with God. The dialogue between God and humanity becomes a person. It’s this person whom we encounter in the Scriptures, Christ who alone fills our hunger.

All are equal in the eye of the Lord

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Oct. 7 (Genesis 2:7, 15, 18-24; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16)

People have always asked “why,” “where” and “how” questions. Little children are great at asking these sorts of questions as any parent knows all too well. The ancient Hebrews asked the usual things: where do people come from, why are men and women different, and why do people unite in marriage and raise children? They borrowed freely from the creation and origin myths of the neighbours but always gave them a very different slant — one that emphasized creation as an act of love on the part of a unique transcendent God.

The description of the creation of the first humans does not fall in the realm of science and it should not be taken literally. It answers the “why” sort of question — it gives meaning to life and points to God as our origin. God is the author and giver of the life and breath that animates us. Naming things in the biblical world implies exercising power over them, but it also shows that humans play an important role in the story of the Earth. It also implies responsibility — exercising dominion does not mean exploitation, waste and wanton cruelty.

Bad exegesis makes for bad theology, and there has been more than a bit of dubious theology based on the creation of woman from Adam’s rib. Much of it was influenced by the ancient world’s view of woman as an incomplete or defective version of man and that view has played a part in the subjugation of women over the centuries. Looking at the passage from a very different angle we can arrive at a life-enhancing interpretation. Both the man and the woman are depicted as having a common origin and essence. Unity and harmony rather than subordination and dominance express our true nature. Ideologies and theologies that result in exclusion or domination usually do not stand up under careful, honest and informed analysis of traditions.

Hebrews is a rather difficult theological treatise that carries Paul’s name but was most likely not written by him. It is filled not only with beautiful imagery but challenging statements about Jesus and about us. Jesus voluntarily assumed the limitations of humanity on our behalf and was exalted because of His suffering and death. The author insists that God made Jesus perfect through these sufferings. This should be taken seriously and be understood as the development of the humanity of Jesus. Even more intriguing is the statement that both Jesus and those who follow Him spring from the same source and that Jesus was the “pioneer” — the trailblazer — preparing the way for many to follow. He did not come to be worshipped but to be joined by those He is not at all ashamed to call brothers and sisters. Our relationship with Jesus is one of friendship and solidarity.

The passage on divorce is one of those very hard sayings in the New Testament. Most people are in some manner acquainted with the pain of those who suffer from broken marriages. It was not intended to bind people to abusive partners or toxic relationships but to create conditions for a happy and fruitful life together. Perhaps it is fruitful to approach the reading from a different angle as with the reading from Genesis. Instead of asking what it prohibits we can ask what it affirms. The answer is simple: all people are equal in worth and dignity. No one may be used, viewed as property or treated in a calloused manner. This may sound obvious but to many long ago (and far too many today) it was new and unwelcome news.

Note that the initial question posed to Jesus revolved around the permissibility of a man divorcing his wife — not the other way around. Women were often treated as chattel and once dismissed from a marriage a woman’s place in society and ability to survive were precarious. Jesus was clear that marriage is a relationship between equals and highlighted its spiritual and unitive nature rather than contractual or utilitarian aspects. We can hope and strive to obtain this ideal. At the same time, human weakness and a host of other influences often stand in the way. In these instances, compassion and the insistence of Jesus, illustrated in His welcome of the children that no one be hindered from approaching Him, should be the guiding principles.

There are no shortcuts to the Lord

Love, patience, humility and service each day will pave the way

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 30 (Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48)

The craving for power and control is at the heart of much human misery. Domination and exclusion go hand in hand with this desire and this is even more the case in the realm of the spirit. Religion is often used to manage people and societies and to define who is “in” and who is “out.”

Ironically, God is most generous with spiritual gifts — no one can ever accuse God of stinginess. In the reading from Numbers, Moses shared some of God’s Spirit that he had received with 70 elders of Israel — clearly a division and sharing of power. It was evident that the Spirit came upon them for they began to prophesy. Two of the group who were late and had missed out — this happens with any group — began to prophesy in camp. The reaction of Moses’ assistants was immediate and as expected: stop them! We can’t have this — they didn’t follow the rules and they weren’t here! Moses was neither impressed with their protests nor swayed. In fact, he chided the overzealous assistants. Why should they be jealous on his behalf? He didn’t feel the least bit threatened — in fact, he mused aloud that it would be wonderful if everyone in Israel were a prophet and had God’s Spirit within them.

The Spirit of God was poured out later on the first generation of believers in Jesus — on everyone, all flesh — as a fulfillment of a prophetic promise. Experiencing the indwelling of the Spirit of God and being able to give voice to the inspirations that it stirs within us is our birthright. Tragically it is one of the first gifts of God that we toss away, ignore or allow others to take from us.

No one owns or controls the Spirit of God, and as Scripture teaches us, the Spirit has a mind of its own and blows wherever it wills, often taking reluctant and protesting believers along for the ride.

Economic injustice is nothing new, even if it seems to be in the news more often. The author of James has something to tell us — something that Christians have not always been willing to hear: economic injustice is a spiritual issue. James’ rant against the wealthy was not because of their wealth but for the manner in which it was acquired. Defrauding the workers of their wages was regarded as dangerously close to murder in gravity.

We have our own examples of such fraud: the loss of life savings due to shady trading practices, the raiding and squandering of employee pension funds, as well as the bonuses and golden parachutes for some of those responsible. The letter of James is not as Luther claimed an “epistle of straw” but an epistle that we should all take to heart.

The same spiritual possessiveness noted in the first reading was alive and well among the disciples of Jesus. They were upset and outraged that someone who was not of their group was casting out demons in His name. After all, they had exclusive rights! Just as in the case of Moses, Jesus was unconcerned. If someone was inspired by His example and teachings enough to do good things in His name more power to them! The gifts of God’s Spirit will be given to those who have prepared their hearts and minds to receive it despite the label they may carry.

It is interesting that this was followed by some rather jarring language about people cutting off their hands and feet and gouging out their eyes. Biblical literalists pass over these words in silence and look for more congenial verses. This hyperbolic shock language is standard fare in biblical writings. It is meant to make a dramatic, stark and urgent point — in this case, the need for radical self-surgery if we are not comfortable with the type of person we have become.

Things will not “just work out,” nor will any divine intervention change our personality, character and level of spiritual growth — it doesn’t just happen. Opportunities will certainly be provided, but it remains to us to put into practice the necessary spiritual principles for transformation. There are no shortcuts, just the practical lessons of love, patience, humility and service each day.

Christ is seen in the ‘nobody’

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 23 (Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)

 

Many have discovered to their dismay that leading a godly life is not always the path to popularity or success. Being godly does not mean that a person is perfect or a saint — it is simply expressing the presence of God’s divine principles in every aspect of daily life.

The passage from Wisdom is very interesting and on target psychologically. The sight of an exemplary individual can arouse a variety of reactions — hopefully, a desire to do likewise. Often, however, there is just the opposite reaction: a feeling of defensiveness, anger or shame at oneself, and an overwhelming desire to somehow remove the challenge to one’s image of self. Wisdom speaks of “the godless” — this doesn’t necessarily mean atheists, but those whose lives do not bear witness to God’s presence — even if they are believers.

This practical or virtual atheism is one of the biggest problems of our world. The godless in Wisdom’s example hope to bring down the righteous one through their insults and torture, showing that the righteousness was all talk. They can then continue comfortably and with a sense of relief in their usual way of life.
We can see examples of this in modern muckraking and character assassination of those who challenge the status quo by their manner of life, their habit of speaking and living the truth and their efforts to change the world for the better. Some have even paid with their lives. The real challenge is for those who walk in God’s ways.

The “godless” provoke the righteous ones in an attempt to make them forget God for the moment and respond in all too familiar human ways. This is the ultimate test: can people remain “godly” in the face of these challenges or will they react with anger, violence, unkindness, revenge or cowardice? The most effective weapon against persecution and adversity is patience, forgiveness, compassion and steadfast commitment to one’s path. These are the very things the world seeks to destroy.

The author of James knew this well. He recognized that mere religiosity means nothing if it is characterized by “envy and selfish ambition” as well as conflicts and disputes. Divine wisdom cannot be counterfeited — it is expressed in honesty, kindness, peacefulness, mercy and good actions, all of which are expressions of wisdom from above. If we are at war with ourselves we will be at war with those around us. Only by being at peace with ourselves and in harmony with God can we create peace in our midst.

Jesus was the perfect example of the righteous one who walks in God’s ways — and He was and still is a challenge to all human beings. In a sense, He revealed to us who we really are beneath the layers of world-created personality and what we are capable of becoming again. He challenged our ideas, our behaviour, our values and our understanding of God. Many responded with joyful eagerness, while others sought to bring Him down and destroy Him — and this continues in our own day.

Ironically, this fearful defensiveness and desire to make Jesus over into a “safe” and domesticated image is often at the hands of Christians. Jesus warned His followers of His violent end but they were absolutely clueless, as proven by their argument over who was the greatest. They hadn’t understood a word of what He had been teaching and the consequences of living it out. In a simple but graphic gesture Jesus demonstrated that He undermined and redefined human notions of honour and status — in effect, He recast human relationships. In a culture in which most social interactions were exercises in calculated gain or advancement, He demanded that people welcome children — those lacking honour, status or advantage — as if they were Jesus Himself. In other words, human relationships and interactions were to be based not on external appearances or the labels that people place on others but on the presence of God within every human person.

Whoever welcomes another — especially a “nobody” — welcomes both Jesus and God who sent Him. This new way of living has rarely been completely understood and appropriated by Christians and over the centuries has been routinely ignored or forgotten. Cultivating an awareness of the divine presence in others and acting accordingly not only transforms the individual but also the world around us.

To ‘be right with God,’ we must show it through our actions

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 16 (Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)

What sort of person allows the sort of abuse experienced by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah? People would have various interpretations: he is paralysed by fear; he is a coward; he is a masochist; he is crazy; he is a victim. When we look at the text carefully, however, we see an individual who set his face like flint (think of Jesus in Luke 9:59) rather than a passive victim. He allowed the violence against him because he knew that it was due to what he taught and stood for. It is always important to separate ego from the will of God, especially when we claim to speak on God’s behalf. He was absolutely sure of himself — not in the manner of a fanatic or megalomaniac, but one who had experienced the God of Israel and knew that God stood behind him. He knew that he would be vindicated by events that would unfold in the very near future — the release of the exiles in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem.

The prosperity gospel — the dubious gift of TV evangelists — has a long history. Some form of it was probably evident in the community to which the Letter of James was addressed. This distorted theology focuses on “what God can do for me” and does not expend time and energy meeting the needs of others. There is another version of this theology — one that is only concerned with personal salvation. As long as I am “right with Jesus” and therefore saved then the needs of others are of merely peripheral interest. Added to this is the Christian tendency to valorize suffering for its own sake — “the cross” becomes an excuse for tolerating the presence of gross inequality and injustice. James took aim at all of these tendencies with his insistence that following Jesus — being right with God — means faith plus action. Faith, as well as love, is always expressed in deeds. It is not a matter of winning God’s favour or earning one’s salvation. Simply put, faith is not genuine and complete unless it finds concrete expression.

How do we arrive at the truth about anything? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for millennia and there is no easy answer. It does seem, however, that the truth is not necessarily found in either the academy or the marketplace. Many people are content to echo uncritically whatever they hear from politicians, the media, authority figures, communal traditions or conventional wisdom. In so many of these cases this amounts to shared ignorance. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus conducted a little opinion poll. What are people saying about me? The obvious answers came thick and fast: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. There was no consensus except that Jesus was someone extraordinary. Peter had been uncharacteristically silent, but then he spoke up: “You are the Messiah (anointed one)!” He was not merely repeating what he had heard but had reflected on the deeds and words of Jesus and listened to the stirrings of the Spirit within him.

But acquiring a portion of the truth does not mean understanding it or that we have the bigger picture. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, but He quickly disabused the apostles of their misconceptions of the term. Sweeping aside traditional understandings of the Messiah, Jesus insisted that His role was to suffer, die and rise from the dead. The apostles were horrified and a shaken Peter tried to talk Him out of it, offering alternative scenarios and “reasonable” arguments. Jesus raised the bar even further: anyone who wanted to be His follower could and should expect the same. Not exactly an inviting “recruiting poster,” and yet so many over the ages have chosen to follow in His footsteps.

We are probably surprised at the way in which Jesus turned on Peter in fury, calling him “Satan” or adversary. Peter was tempting Jesus, not deliberately, but by his use of conventional human values, opinions and emotional reactions. Jesus probably felt the allure of those arguments and recognized them for what they were.

The will of God or God’s ways should not be confused or identified with human motivations or desires. Our claims to truth should always be tempered with humility and openness to deepening our understanding.

Our generosity makes us more God-like

In our city, we make the most of friendly summer weather to treat ourselves to much-needed holidays — escape from the routine, time with family or friends, exploring new places, enjoying a hobby.

This August, I observed a different vacation plan. A friend spent two weeks teaching teenagers at a “youth camp with a difference” to hammer, saw, assemble, paint, create and perfect. Together they built a handsome outbuilding which will stand for years to come as a manifestation of the power of community (for more, see The Register's coverage of the camp at www.catholicregister.org). The camp gave priority to families who might have had trouble affording such an opportunity for their kids. The out-building they built contributes to the site so that next year's kids will have an even better place to stay. 

The youth, rather than being given entertainment, were asked to learn, create and contribute. And, as they were able and willing, to pray. I watched them blossom under the opportunity.

It was a good experience. How much of its goodness arose from my friend's gift of time and self? He voluntarily spent two weeks of his vacation time to lead the camp, as well as giving his expertise, enthusiasm and love of building and creating. The kids received all this, without necessarily being aware of it. It's good to be paid for our work, as St. Paul reminds us; but something irreplaceable comes through simple generosity.

Something else happens when we close in on ourselves and refuse to be generous. I've felt the pull of stinginess, self-protection, closing down, looking inward, being careful, cautious, safe. These impulses aren't in themselves negative; they can be tools that help us recognize necessity, and do what we need to do. But they can also be the other side of an invitation to generosity.

Lately, I've repeatedly heard the expression, “he can afford to be generous.” This sentence fills me with wonder: what does generosity have to do with affordability? Each has its own value, but they are quite different. Affordability is about measuring, counting and weighing — all necessary skills. Generosity has to do with an inner space and an openness to someone else's need. We must have an awareness that the world doesn't begin and end with our own stomachs, a sense that we've received and have something to give, something desirable and helpful to give. Generosity and joy are cousins. As my friend kept telling me during the youth camp, he was enjoying himself. 

Generosity can be difficult to the point of painfulness. Think of what it's like to be in a spat with your spouse or other intimate. You know you're right; you have a just complaint; what you're saying and doing is perfectly fair and reasonable. And you know that in this moment of struggle, you can speak to your spouse a word of kindness, forgiveness, mercy, tenderness — or you can withhold it. What a difference it can make, to offer or withhold such a word at such a moment. How hard it can be, to be generous in this way rather than cling to justice. 

It's astonishing that we do perform acts of generosity, given human nature and life's hardships — all of us struggling to survive, in a world that often seems harsh and unforgiving. Frequently, even. Unseen, un-repaid, unsung. The poet William Wordsworth referred to “those best portions of a good man's life: his little, nameless, unremember'd acts of kindness and of love.”  Where do they come from? How did we get that way?

In our impulse to generosity — and even more, in our acts of generosity — we discover something about ourselves. We learn that we're more than we know, more than an instinct to survive, more than our stomachs and bodies, more even than reason and justice. There's something limitless about us.

“The measure of love,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, “is to love without measure.” We're capable of loving beyond measure, beyond reason. How could we do this if we hadn't first been given it? How can we discover our generosity without discovering our likeness to One whose generosity has no limits? Still, He limits Himself to our size so that we can discover our built-in connection to Him. And so we can exceed our limits, and find we’re bigger than we dream.

“I measure and count myself, my God,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “But you have the right to squander me.”

This is the triumph of the cross: the lived witness of the God who squanders Himself, who abandons infinity to be affixed to a piece of wood by His own creatures. And so gives us a glimpse of the infinite power of love and generosity.

It's a power we too can wield, as my friend did in his generous self-gift for other people's children. Once we start to perceive it, we might find it's far more common than we suspect. All round us and within us. Giving us life. Helping us become better, bigger, more human, more God-like.

Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Sept. 14.

Be not afraid

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 9 (Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)

Fear is probably the most destructive of all human emotions. When fear reigns, faith, hope and love are the first victims. Fear separates us from God, clouds our understanding and leads us into a riot of compensatory behaviours, most of them negative. The world in which we live today is in the grip of fear and we see the unhappy results all around us.

Time and time again in the Bible, heavenly messengers — angels, voices, prophets and Jesus Himself — exhorted human beings to put aside their fear. The messenger always reassured people of God’s continual presence and unfailing love. The passage from Isaiah was addressed to the people of Israel in the tumultuous and violent period of the sixth and seventh centuries BC. They were threatened and attacked by a succession of Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as surrounding nations like the Edomites who took advantage of the situation. Who can blame them for being afraid? It is very difficult to go on day after day with the threat of destruction continually present, and this destruction sometimes came to pass.

The rulers of Israel often dealt with the threat by resorting to international power politics and military alliances. The prophets exhorted Israel unceasingly to look upon God as their protector instead. If the nation was right with God all would be well. Being right with God meant more than what we would think of as religion — it included the application of God’s laws of justice, truth and honesty to society. The poor, weak and marginalized had to be protected and cared for. The nation had no cause to fear if this were the case — tragically, it often was not. The prophecy makes it clear that God is about life, healing, abundance and human flourishing — not punishment and destruction. Those things we bring on ourselves by poor choices and infidelity to the one who gave us life.

Before God there are no distinctions based on class, wealth, gender, ethnicity or religion. All are treated with the same compassion and care and Jesus made it clear that we are to do likewise. Because we are human this is often violated — people judge others based on appearance, influence and wealth. Christians have not been immune, for the wealthy and powerful have often wielded an excessive influence in the Church. James insists that this is not the Christian faith and we make a mockery of it when we behave in this manner. All of these signs of wealth and power can be stripped away in an instant — and often they are. In order for the Church to be an effective sign of contradiction in our world this example of equality and love without distinction must be recovered. We are who we are before God and nothing more.

The miracles performed by Jesus were always more than mere acts of compassion — they made a statement about God. There must have been many deaf and mute people in the land, so we might wonder why this man was singled out. Each miracle was a proclamation to all who witnessed the act that God’s reign had come very near. If that is the case, this miraculous healing was a bit out of the ordinary. Jesus took the man away from the others, in private, and the healing involved touching, saliva and an actual command to the afflicted part of the man. Consistent with Mark’s account, Jesus commanded the man to keep the whole matter under wraps (perhaps some reverse psychology!), which of course the man failed to do. Word quickly spread, and the astounded crowd was amazed at Jesus and the powers that He displayed, but His actions were also charged with meaning.

The prophetic tradition, especially Isaiah, portrayed the visitation of God as a time when the blind, deaf, mute and crippled would be restored by the compassionate mercy of God. The healing of this man, and so many others in the Gospel, were irrefutable signs that God had come very near indeed in the person of Jesus. God approaches an open and loving heart as well as an environment that reflects this, and when God visits wonderful things happen — new life, hope and joy. Preparing an opening for God is one of the most important things we can do to extend God’s Kingdom.

We are rewarded when our hearts are one with God

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 2 (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

When asking the reason for a particular rule or policy, people seldom take well to the answer, “Because I say so, that’s why!” The irritation is understandable, for this is nothing more than authoritarianism — the bane of families, societies, religions and nations.

In the covenant theology of Deuteronomy divine command is certainly evident, but with a huge difference. First of all, the author celebrates the fact that the statutes, laws and ordinances are just and meaningful — so much so, in fact, that it elicits wonder and admiration from the surrounding nations. There is a reason for the laws: they establish and maintain humane and just societies where human beings can flourish and be happy. The Israelites were also free to reject the laws laid down by God. Force was not involved, but the laws were an essential expression of the covenant. The people were warned not to tinker with the commandments by adding or subtracting from its provisions. The first tendency burdens people unnecessarily and claims divine sanction for what is merely human, while the second strives to create a smooth and easy highway for human desires. Needless to say, human religious traditions — all of them — have been guilty of both tendencies.

How are we to understand law and covenant today? Both the prophets and the New Testament insist that all of the laws and statutes are concrete expressions of the love commandment. These expressions evolve and change according to time, place and culture but the prime commandment, to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbour as ourselves is always applicable and can never be set aside. When this divine command is violated or ignored, we suffer the consequences. The most important aspect of the covenant, however, is the relationship that is established between God and human beings. As a sign of loyalty and love, Israel vowed to obey the divine commandments. This same faithful love was expressed by God in the commitment to always be there for Israel in powerful and extraordinary ways. God always kept God’s part of the covenant, while Israel was often unfaithful. We have not done appreciably better — if we had, the world in which we live would be a much nicer place. A rich and rewarding relationship is only possible when our hearts are one with God.

The author of James energetically agrees. Talk is cheap; real love is always manifested in deeds. The word of God — the divine teaching — is not a creed to memorize but principles to be planted deep in our hearts and souls. True and pure religion is putting the divine teachings into practice, and this consists of caring for the poor, weak and suffering, as well as keeping oneself free of the negative aspects of human culture.

There is abundant evidence of evil, ungodliness and impurity in our world. We are all painfully aware of it and we constantly ask questions about causes, responsibilities and possible courses of action. Moralists, reformers, religious zealots and curmudgeons are quick with the answers but often lacking in compassion, reflection and insight. Stressing control and conformity in behaviour often neglects inner transformation.

Just as the kingdom of God is within us, so is the realm of darkness. Jesus zeroed in on the human heart as the source of all of the world’s negativity. Understood biblically, the heart is the deepest centre of the understanding self — a blend of intellect, feeling and spirit. Just, loving and kind behaviour is a reflection of a pure and loving heart. But when the heart is not right with God, it becomes the place where human fears, desires, hatred and lust for power dwell. Affecting a squeaky-clean moral exterior is useless in this latter case — the negativity will spill out in countless ways. If we want a pure and peaceful world then transformation must begin here.

The source of the word hypocrite used in this passage was the elaborate masks used in the Greek theatre. A hypocrite is one who wears a mask, deceiving self and others. Hypocrisy is living in a world of illusion and projecting one’s darkness on others. The solution is self-knowledge and transformation, which begins with humble reception of God’s word into the heart.

We are all called to serve

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 26 (Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:32-5:2, 21-32; John 6:53, 60-69)

Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” would have made perfect sense in the context of Joshua’s meeting with the Israelites. They had weathered the 40 years in the desert and had just entered the Promised Land to begin their permanent sojourn. Joshua first called for a commitment on the part of the Israelites to serve the God who had brought them out of Egypt, sustained them in the desert and given them the land they were entering. He gave them a choice: serve one of the many pagan gods you will find here or the God who brought you here. Choose — and don’t say that you will serve the Lord unless you intend to do so.

The people declared enthusiastically that they would serve the Lord but their subsequent history bore sad witness to their infidelity and frequent lapses into idolatry. Joshua made no move to control them but just affirmed that he and his entire household would serve the Lord. He left them free to serve whomever they chose.

We all serve somebody, even if it is just our own ego. We make the choice every day when we are put in situations in which our principles and ideals are challenged. Many choose country, corporation, culture, different ideologies or charismatic leaders and demagogues. Some allow themselves to be led by anyone but even that is a choice. We are absolutely free but our lives will be measured in the balance by the choices we have made. We live in an age in which many have chosen to serve a variety of “gods” and many more no God at all. We should respect their choice and make the same resolution that Joshua did: I choose, along with others of like mind and heart, to serve the living God.

There is much to praise in the reading from Ephesians. The exhortation to love one another, to be tender-hearted and forgiving and to imitate God is every bit as important today, perhaps even more so. This is a way of life that never grows old and is valid in every time and place. It should be lived out in the family, at work, in the public sphere and in interpersonal relationships, and our failure to do so is responsible for much of the world’s troubles.

At the same time, the passage also reflects a bit of the cultural values of the age in which it was written. While it is important for husbands and wives to love and cherish each other, we would not hold up “subjection” as an appropriate expression of this love. Christ does not subject any person to another. We should only be subject to God.

As we have seen the last few Sundays, the teachings of Jesus concerning His body and blood were extremely difficult for many of His followers to accept. Jesus did not back down or waver, saying in effect that they hadn’t seen anything yet! He was actually going to return to His place of origin — God the Father. More shock language followed: the flesh is useless; only the spirit gives life. He was not denigrating the body or the created order but only insisting on the inability of humanity to reach or experience God without something added from the realm of the spirit.

The words spoken by Jesus are spirit and life — not the literal words but the message contained in them. These words spoke of the need for faith in Him and for reception of the gift of God’s life-giving spirit. Many of His followers chose to bail at this point — they were confused and angry. Jesus asked Peter and those closest to Him rather wearily if they were going to disappear too. Peter was a bit perplexed — he probably didn’t really understand everything that Jesus had said, but he was convinced that Jesus alone held the keys to a transcendent life with God. They knew that Jesus was the bearer of the light from God. Peter speaks for many in that he did not fully understand everything and had many questions.

It is in being faithful to the path and to the Lord that truth unfolds, hearts are transformed and minds enlightened.

Sighs too deep for words

Their parents discovered the two small girls going from house to house in their neighbourhood, up stairs to porches, down stairs to the next front door. On their knees.

The family had taken a trip to Martyrs’ Shrine at Midland, Ont.  Pilgrims there pray their way up the great staircase to the shrine, on their knees. So taken were the young sisters with this unusual experience that, back home, they instituted a prayer pilgrimage of their own.

Prayer seems to come easily to children, though the rest of us frequently report finding it difficult. As a friend said to me, “We’re trying to communicate with someone we can’t see, hear or touch.” Difficult!

James finds it so. His daughter Sara’s life-long health struggles have been hard on both, and James often feels desperate and alone. He also has a life-long habit of prayer, daily, regularly, incessantly beseeching God.

James has a habit of measuring himself. “I wonder,” he says. “Is it because I’m not praying enough that Sara isn’t getting better? Or am I praying the wrong way?” He looks for new ways to pray, asks priests and spiritual guides, and does spiritual reading. What’s he doing wrong? If he knew, he’d change it. In the meantime, he keeps praying.

Despite his worries that he doesn’t know how to pray, James has established and maintained a habit of prayer. Sometimes it gives him comfort, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes he can connect it with change, sometimes he can’t. He’s prayed in different ways, alone, with others, at church, but he’s never stopped.

There’s no substitute for a habit of prayer. My spiritual father began each day with three hours of prayer. Naturally a nighthawk, he eventually developed the practice of retiring early so he could rise early and keep that three-hour tryst. “Don’t you ever take a day off?” people would ask; he invariably replied, “Do you ever take a day off breathing?”

You might call James a student of prayer. You might also call him an expert at prayer. He doesn’t see it that way. But mystics, theologians, teachers down through the centuries have told us in various ways what John Paul II said succinctly: “Prayer is understood through prayer.” James is in a good position to understand prayer.

In the silence of prayer, we may discover a few surprising voices within us. We may find we approach God as if He were a tyrant and we His slaves: “He’s in charge and I’m in need, so I’d better beg.” Or as though God were a vending machine for our use: “if I say nine Hail Mary’s every day for nine days, he’ll produce what I ask for.” Or we might be treating Him rather like a parking meter: “I’ll put in a rosary a day to fulfill my obligation so I can go about my business.” In such ways, we may limit or misunderstand God. That doesn’t mean we aren’t really praying, or our prayer is bad or useless. It probably means we’re growing in our relationship with God — and need to keep up the habit of prayer!

How else can we learn that God is not a tyrant, a vending machine or a parking meter, that our prayer time is a doorway to eternity, a moment of intimate presence such as all human hearts long for?

How else can we discover that God really is God — and we aren’t? Even if we should pray perfectly, we don’t replace God, much as we might wish to when He doesn’t do our will.

We need to grow in prayer. Yet there’s no way to measure it. James doesn’t pray well or pray poorly. He prays. He prays because God is seeking him. 

The prayers we say, the words, gestures, hymns, are necessary and important, but they themselves aren’t prayer. When we don’t know how to pray, St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit intercedes, with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). There’s a deep, still place, underneath it, where our heart is always simply present to God — whether or not we’re aware of it. The habit of prayer can help us bring our whole selves to this intimate place where the heart dwells with God. That’s Paradise, Adam and Eve naked and unashamed with God. That’s heaven, you and me fully alive and fully revealed in God.

Here on Earth, it’s hard to understand when prayers like James’s for his daughter don’t bring about what he hopes. And it’s awe-inspiring to see the depth of faith and love, love of Sara and abiding love of the God he can’t understand, can’t control, can’t stay away from. My hospitalized mother said to me recently, as she struggled with pain: “You can’t have prayer without love.”

If prayer helps us “abide in His love” (John 15:10), then no wonder “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur).