Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex 22:20-26; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40 ]

“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, and mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.”

With these words Jesus summarizes the ultimate goal and the very meaning of our existence. The command is absolute; it is unconditional and inflexible. No wiggle room. These are the terms for our lives. No matter how obedient of laws, rules, and customs we may be, if we lack love our compliance is meaningless and useless. Given our human abilities and inabilities, our strivings and our failings no one on earth can claim to have observed this commandment in its entirety.

Why is that? Perhaps, in part, it is the criterion Jesus gave us to meet for this love: “…that you love one another as I have loved you.” To get a read on that measure we look at a crucifix. It is, as St. Bernard said, a call to love without measure.

Jesus said, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” Love is expressed in action, so “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for Me.” To love God we love the image and likeness of Him in others. Our first reading from Exodus shows us how to do that: “You shall not oppress an alien for you were once alien's yourselves in the land of Egypt.”

This command is to empathy. Empathy would seem to be the foundation for the Great Love Commandment. St. Bernard of Clairvaux calls empathy the link between love and humility. Humility is the art of being human; it is living in the truth. Bernard says that it is when one knows the truth about self and his limitations that he is able to see and appreciate the truth about another by means of empathy. That is the way, the only way, we can come to know the human condition.

Bernard acknowledges the absolute nature of the love command. It is absolute because there is only one thing that love cannot endure: to have limits set to it.

So love demands that we offer self as a complete self-gift. Paradoxically, it commands this yet it does not obligate us. Rather, we must choose freely, and by an interior movement- to live toward becoming this self-gift. How do people with a concrete history of striving and failing carry out this choice?

It is through the vowed life. Whether marital or monastic or the single persons intentional living of baptismal vows, we renounce the freedom to choose in favor of the freedom to love One Thing. One's life must have one decisive truth expressed in one choice. Hans Urs von Balthasar put it this way: “True Love wants to outlast time. For that reason it wants to rid itself of its most dangerous enemy: its own free choice. Hence every true love has the inner form of a vow; it binds itself to the beloved.”

The vowed life is a way of life, guided by the Love Commandments. In the vowed life, we don't promise to live the Love Commandment in its entirety. We just vow to die trying.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir 35:12-18; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14]

Martin Luther King, who is rightly celebrated for his efforts to secure civil rights for black people in America, seems to have attained a unique status among the many black men and women who fought and sacrificed for that noble cause, and it is
interesting to reflect on how he attainted to this very special distinction. I believe his unique status as a champion of civil rights derives from an insight he had at a certain point in his life, (an insight probably gained from Ghandi), that his God-given mission, ultimately, was not the liberation of black people from the yoke of bigotry and violence, but the liberation—of white people from the much more deadly condition of their own hatred and arrogance. Martin Luther King seems to have realized at a certain point that the real mission God had entrusted to him was to free the white oppressor; southern politicians and segregationists who, morally and spiritually, were in a much more wretched and bereft condition than the black people who were the victims of their prejudice.

This remarkable insight of Martin Luther King, gave to his ministry a quality that set him apart from Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, and a host of other civil rights activists. His role in the civil rights movement was distinctive—as distinctive as the example of Jesus Christ himself. Subsequent revelations about his private life make clear that Martin Luther King was not Christ, but there was something genuinely Christ like in King's commitment to liberating the very people who hated him and wished him harm—a commitment that eventually cost him his life.

That very distinctive “Christ like” way of relating to others is clearly on display in today's gospel where we meet one of the unloveliest and most unloveable figures in the New Testament. We are shown, in today's gospel passage, a Pharisee at prayer: “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like other men. I fast twice a week and give away a tenth of all I receive.” How easily this pompous man is dismissed. How ready we are give up on him as a lost cause; a man too full of pride and complacency to be helped by anyone. And yet, it would appear, it is to this man that the parable, and this morning's gospel as a whole are addressed. Think about that. To whom is Jesus' teaching addressed in this morning's gospel? It is surely not for the benefit of the tax collector, who has repented and humbled himself before God. He's going to be okay. He's not the one in danger of losing his soul. It is the Pharisee who is in real jeopardy; who is most desperately in need of a Savior; a divine advocate who can break through his deafness and blindness—this man is on the brink of eternal death, and this, I think, is why Jesus' teaching is offered directly to him.

This, I would suggest, is exactly what makes Christ himself — and what made Martin Luther King —Christ is the grace of God incarnate in a body; and in a voice. But the grace of God, is love and divine love of its nature, is drawn most powerfully to darkness and emptiness; to those places in creation that are graceless, and where love has never been or has been forgotten. Like water that naturally rushes downward to fill empty holes and deep ravines in the parched earth, God's grace rushes toward the steely hearts of those who are graceless and cold and who languish in the shadow of death. These are the proud, the complacent, the hate-filled—those unlovely and unloveable people in our midst whom we find hardest to forgive. It is to such a person that we see the Son of God in today's gospel rushing to embrace and invite to the heavenly banquet. It is people like this whom the publican sees himself standing within solidarity when he says: “God, have mercy on me a sinner . . .” This is the man Pope Francis acknowledges as his own brother when he says in a recent interview: “I am a sinner”. In that same interview, the pope goes on to say the saint who had influenced and edified him more than any other was St. Augustine and by way of explanation, he writes: “St. Augustine felt powerless in the face of the immensity of God. He felt his soul was always less than he wanted and needed it to be.” The pope concludes by saying: “Someone who is not touched by grace may be a person without blemish and without fear-but he will never be like the person who has touched grace.” Who is this person the pope speaks of who has no blemish or fear? There is no such thing as a person without blemish or fear, there are only people who imagine they have no blemish or fear.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Law of the Gospel is addressed to those open to accepting this new hope with faith – the poor, the humble . . .” But Jesus says: “Those who are exalted—will be humbled,” and so there would seem to be hope even for this Pharisee. It might be a helpful meditation for each of us to think of the unloveliest most unloveable person we know and consider that the voice of Jesus in today's gospel parable, the voice of unconditional love and mercy is being addressed most urgently to that very person. The proud, the complacent, and the hate-filled are also called. Even they are invited to the banquet of the lamb prefigured in the Eucharist we are celebrating this morning.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 31:7-9; Heb 5:1-6; Mk 10:46-52]

One of the hazards of public speaking is that someone may interrupt with a disturbing noise, or even a heckler may suddenly intervene with his own line or argument. These people are usually asked to refrain from what they are doing or else bouncers will appear to remove them from the scene. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples fill in as these bouncers. They keep unwanted disturbers of the peace away from Jesus. They maintain order. But in the gospel, there has been a parade of these problem people: the Gerasene demoniac, the Syro-Phoencian woman, the children, and Bartimaeus. Even Jesus is a disturber who had to be rebuked by Simon for suggesting that his destiny would lead to his passion and death.

In the face of unwanted disturbance, there is the usual response: “shut up and be quiet.” We have a right and duty to maintain peace, order, and tranquility. We have an arsenal of techniques to preserve an atmosphere of reason and calm. We may resort to exclusion and excommunication, but often denial or avoidance is sufficient. There are the evasions of entertainment and addictions, distractions or rationalizations that smother unrest.

Bartimaeus is a poster-boy for those who are pushed off out of sight because they are disturbers. He has been excluded from society and its movements: just sitting off by the roadside while life passes by. He has no role or function in that society and is dependent for his very sustenance on the pity of others. It is extremely demeaning to human dignity to have to beg. His only “future” is a continuation of his past.

But Bartimaeus is a picture, a reflection of our selves. One of the deepest afflictions we feel is that loss of an ability to influence our lives. We are stuck where we are, at the side of the road. Life is presented to us as a closed system with only a limited range of possibility opened to us. The only growth is conceived in terms of quantity. The laws of nature are exceptionless, everyone is bound to obey them. Charles Taylor, the philosopher, says that we have created a world of “exclusive humanism” which offers a hope of well-being in terms of shrewdly dealing with visible reality. We end up being enslaved by systems which demand our allegiance. We are forced to beg for our sustenance, our honor, our self-esteem from those in positions of power and influence. We carry heavy loads of indebtedness.

Looking more closely at Bartimaeus, I think we can find three important characteristics he displays. He is inquisitive, insistent, and inventive.

He is a searcher, an inquisitive man, a questioner. A questioner is one who lets himself be disturbed by acknowledging reality for which he has no answer. He asks who is passing by. He has made a connection of “Jesus of Nazareth” with “Son of David.” How did he make this identification and connection which the disciples around Jesus could not see? His calling out for mercy from the “Son of David” is the first time this title is used in Mark's gospel. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or resentment in the time of his isolation and solitude, he deepened his understanding and inner perception to discern the significance of who Jesus was.

He is insistent. He does not bend to the coercion of forces outside himself. He is rebuked and told to be silent by those who “know more than he does.” What he knows has been forged in his own suffering and experience and has become a personal wisdom and integrity. I could not help but think of a similar simple, peasant man who resisted arguments to betray his own convictions. Franz Jaegerstatter was an Austrian who refused to vote for Hitler's takeover of his country and who refused to join the German army. He was encouraged to “accept reality” and follow the example of church and local leaders. Because of his convictions, he was beheaded. This insistence is an evidence of courage, the conviction that there is some power within us that cannot be destroyed or defeated. It is a power that comes not from our own strength, but from God. It is a discernment that lets us look beyond careful prudence and the desire for well-being.

Finally, Bartimaeus is inventive. Not inventive in the sense that he makes something or makes something up. He is open to the disclosure of reality that Jesus brought into his life. He is ready and able to meet Jesus. He has a capacity for encounter with Jesus, for dialoguing with him, a capax Christi. Given the opportunity, he springs up from the ground and leaves his cloak behind. The cloak is all he had; it was his only protection and his receptacle for whatever alms he might be given. This is the basic condition for receiving new life: leaving, renouncing what prevents you from accepting grace. There is the old proverbial saying that you must empty the cup before it can be filled again. He brought all he was and all he had to this encounter. The miracle had already begun.

It seems to me that the movement we see in Bartimaeus is the movement or shape of prayer. Prayer rises from the questioning of our hearts, from the discord and disturbance we experience, often rising from within. It forms us in our integrity and conviction that we bear a deep power and spirit within ourselves that seems to come from beyond ourselves. It is a movement which reveals our deepest desires while trusting their fulfillment to the One we address. The darkest despair and infidelity is not to believe that Christ is with us, that He has risen from the dead, and that he still addresses to us the question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex 22:20-26; I Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40]

George Bush had the misfortune of having some of his verbal mistakes caught on tape, and of course they were strung together and played over and over. Once he was trying to share a common aphorism, but couldn’t quite remember how it ended. It was supposed to be: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We might get tricked once, but we should be smart enough not to let it happen again. This expresses a fairly common skepticism about anything being sold to us. We want to test that car, test that machine or computer and see if it works before we pay for it. We often test people with periods of probation or discernment to see if they will work out.

In our contemporary age, this attitude of testing permeates all our experiences. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud used to be known as the masters of suspicion. Now, we all get that title. But when this attitude of wanting scientific validation enters into personal relationships, circles of trust and commitment begin to shrink. Disappointment here is more costly than even loss in economic investments. We want to protect ourselves from being taken advantage of, from getting burned, from being left holding the bag. Our first line of defense is a good dose of skepticism; objective calculation; being non-committal; a good contract with an escape clause. Let’s see if this is going to work. It is the habitual attitude we bring to all our relationships, including our relationship to the Gospel and to Christ. We sit back with an attitude of testing, needing to be sure, wanting to be safe. We are not much different from the scholar of the law who thought he could establish himself by testing Jesus. In the parallel section of Luke’s gospel, he makes patent the underlying intention of the man “seeking to justify himself, he asked ‘Who is my neighbor?'”

It was a matter of concern for the experts to know which was the most important commandments. At that time, there were believed to be 613 commandments, 365 prohibitions, and 268 prescriptions. It took time, leisure and money to devote yourself to this kind of investigation. It doesn’t seem to be our question today. But underlying this question (as several other incidents in the Gospels reveal) is the deeper question of “What must I do to be saved?” This is a very personal question and one which can only be asked from the heart. We have an urgent need to know what our life is leading to; what is its meaning; what is important for us to be living for; what is worthwhile to do and what makes our life worthwhile; what will last and does anything survive loss and death. What must we do to be saved? Then it is important to know if God has a word for us. Allowing this question to emerge in our hearts is a beginning of self-disclosure. We are not so much testing, as being tested. When God tests us, it is to know what is really in our hearts. So that He knows and that we know.

The first thing to be observed about this commandment is that it is accessible. We all understand what it means. It is addressed to us in that unique place and position that is our life. Excessive study and sophistication can only distance us and blur its true meaning. You don’t have to be a specialist in the law, a scholar or a priest or religious to know what this commandment means. This is the universal call to God’s holiness. It is demanding, but not beyond our reach. Its demand flows from the risk and detachment it asks.

Secondly, it is a commandment because it is a summons calling us to our real worth and dignity. It is a mirror reflecting the image created in us that reflects the desire and love of our creator. We are called to be imitators of Christ who lived his life in compassion for his brothers and sisters. Again, it is a command that reveals and discloses what can be in our hearts and the way our soul desires to live in communion with God and others. It awakens the spirit in us and brings it to life.

Finally, it centers us in renewed access to our hearts as expressions of unity and spontaneity. We can bring our whole being to whatever we are doing and withdraw from a sense of dividedness internally and externally. To love God with all our mind and soul and heart and our neighbor as we love our self. To love with our heart and soul is to enter into a presence which overcomes divided loyalties and the conflicts of serving many idols in our life.

The commandment is addressed to our hearts, but access to our hearts is often blocked by an unwillingness to face the suffering and pain that we know are companions of love and compassion. We have been disappointed and deluded in our efforts to love. “Fool me once….” We don’t want to go there again. Each of us has something in our soul of the widow — grieving a lost or dead love, love which has fallen to the ground unrecognized or reciprocated. Who has escaped the sense of having needs not met by those who should have been there, parents or parental figures who have left us with sense of abandonment—virtual orphans? We have tried to escape the sense of isolation and alienation by compromise and camouflage, concealing what is different about ourselves in conformity to what is accepted as normal. Underneath our activism and search for productivity is often a painful realization of an inner poverty and doubt that there is anything deeper of worth or value. The pain and suffering is real, but meeting the compassion of God in our heart can begin to transform our lives into instruments of compassion and love towards others. Our instinct to protect ourselves can be reeducated by the new sense of sharing in the compassion of God. We receive the Word in much affliction, but also in the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. l:6). Compassion often means simply being with another in their pain and suffering. Jean Vanier has said that compassion is “being so stripped of myself that my heart could beat to the same rhythm of the other’s heart; that his suffering could become my suffering.”

Perhaps less dramatically, we can follow the example of Albino Luciani—Pope John Paul I. Even as pope, he would greet someone he met with the question “How can I serve you?”

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir. 35: 12-18; 2Tim. 4: 6-8, 16-18; Lk. 18: 9-14 ]

There is a good deal of pressure in our society, some of it subtle, some of it anything but subtle to have a positive self-image of ourselves; and to project that self-image in our various social situations. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the alternative is a negative self-image. However, a fault that both a positive self-image and a negative self-image can share is that neither of them may be true. Because of this both a positive self-image and a negative self-image can be barriers to humility. Any understanding of humility that comes from the teaching of the gospel is based on true self-knowledge.

Homilies and lectures have been given and books and articles written that have made us aware that vainglory and pride are obstacles to humility and true knowledge of ourselves. Unfortunately this approach has at times supported if not advocated a negative self-image. There is a statement of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that I think is important to keep in mind when we reflect on humility: “We should avoid that ignorance which gives us too low an opinion of ourselves.” In St. Bernard’s view if we have gifts and talents, we should acknowledge them; but we should acknowledge them as gifts from God not our own achievements and use them in God’s service.

This provides a helpful context for reflecting on this morning’s readings. The characteristics that were the boast of the Pharisee were admirable religious practices; and they still are. However, the Pharisee thought they made him better than others; that they set him apart so that he could look down on others with self-satisfaction. He did not see them as gifts he received in God’s mercy and that he was still a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Conversely the tax collector knew who he was and acknowledged it before God. Some in our society would criticize the tax collector for having a negative self-image, but Jesus said that it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went home justified before God. The Pharisee wanted to justify himself before God and failed. The tax collector allowed God to justify him and received justification.

What about St. Paul? Superficially what he writes seems to resemble the statements of the Pharisee. He has competed well, he has completed the course, he has kept the faith and now he awaits a crown of righteousness. But Paul does not set himself apart from his brothers and sisters. The crown of glory that he will receive at the appearance of the Lord all who have prepared for the Lord’s coming will receive with him. He was well aware that the Lord stood by him and gave him the strength to accomplish God’s will, and he gave the glory to God. As he wrote to the Corinthians: “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

And you and me? Where do we stand? If we have exceptional talents we should acknowledge them with gratitude as gifts from God to be used in his service, and realize that we cannot accomplish anything of value without his support and guidance. God’s grace does not make us better that anyone else; it incorporates us into the body of Christ. Anything we might accomplish we accomplish only because we have the support of all the other members of Christ’s body. If we think that we lack gifts and talents, we would do well to ask ourselves if we are simply transferring the criteria of the secular success ethic into a religious context. Our worth and glory comes from God’s love for us and his Spirit dwelling in our hearts. Our task is to humbly put Christ’s teachings into practice in our situations, with the abilities God has granted us and according to the guidance that the Holy Spirit gives us. Our exaltation will come from God who searches our hearts.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 31:7-9; Heb 5:1-6; Mk 10:46-52 ]

I always enjoy listening to people’s Call Stories; stories of how they were called by God to marriage, priesthood, or religious life. One of the most memorable I heard was that of Sr. Grace at Mississippi Abbey. She was visiting the abbey one time and staying in the Stone House. She was trying to decide between being a nun or going to medical school. One night the phone in the Stone House rang. She answered and found that it was a wrong number. The man asked where he had reached and she told him it was the abbey. He asked what an abbey was and, after she explained, he asked what she was doing there. She explained that she was trying to decide if she should enter the monastery. She told him what attracted her. Finally the stranger said “I think you should do it!” So she did! Now THAT’S a call story!

Today’s gospel could be considered a miracle story, but to a monk, because it is a miracle story, it is also about Barimeaus’ call to contemplative discipleship. He must have been a contemplative; he see’s the light, follows Christ, and is never heard from again! Such a call is always a call to the heart and few characters in Mark represent this better than the blind beggar, Bartimeaus.

Monastic Theology is a theology of admiration. The heart was made to admire. The word “miracle” is derived from the word “admiration.” Admiration is the reaction we have when something surprising and good is made known to our eyes, but its cause is hidden. Similarly, when God does something surprising and good and against the order of nature as we are able to understand it, we call that a “miracle.” The event fills us with wonder. We admire God.

Admiration begins with the eyes. The heart receives its input from the eyes. This was the wisdom of biblical times and it still holds today. The path from the eyes to the heart bypasses the intellect. The eyes focus attention and it is upon the object of attention that the heart sets itself. Here is where we see the contrast between Bartimeaus-as-disciple and the others who were accompanying Jesus: it is in what they set their hearts on. They had left behind lucrative businesses and heard Jesus’ teachings and witnessed his miracles. Their reaction was not admiration, but resentment. As we saw in last week’s gospel, they were more concerned about political advantage. They don’t see it; they are “in the dark.” They just don’t get it. In scripture, the condition of “not getting it,” of not “seeing it” is called “hard hearted.” The simple solution to hard-heartedness is to admit “I don’t get it.” That opens the heart to someone who does get it and to the possibility of admiration.

But that always brings up the pride problem. We love what is good, but we admire what is great, greater than self. Admiration is a kind of fear of that which surpasses our personal capabilities. When fear triggers pride and the understanding is bypassed, we may experience a sense of diminishment. We react with a rage that words cannot express. That is resentment. In resentment, we cut the “great” down to size; we disparage the admirable and whoever represents it. This is common-place in American culture and so choosing admiration over resentment is vital to our monastic separation from the world.

In contrast, Bartimeaus is living in the truth; he cannot deny his diminishment. In the fear recommended in the first step of humility he acknowledges what is greater than himself and openly admires it. That is wisdom. He cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” That is very important. It is here, I think, that the evangelist wants us to get the connection between Bartimeaus’ eyes and his heart.

In the NT, vision is proportionate to purity of heart. Our gaze either simplifies or divides the heart. Wide-eyed admiration enables purity of gaze, which indicates integrity. “Squinting” indicates resentment and division and they indicate a broken heart.

The other disciples forgot where they, as a people, had been and thought they knew where they were going. Blind Bartimeaus did not know where he was going but he did know where he had been. That was all he needed to know. He did not leave behind money-spinning enterprises. He just threw down his cloak, the only form of refuge he had, and he was free. When he cried out “Have pity on me!” he entered the first stage of discipleship: need. Being in need makes us capable of, eager for, and receptive to what is greater than self. Bartimeaus had enough of the darkness of “not getting it.” He yielded to Jesus. Jesus tells us that the “it” that we get is the light of faith. Now we are ready for the second stage of discipleship: gratitude.

God Himself gives value to the object of His loving gaze. Jesus saw him and Bartimeaus received this value. It was the new light of Bartimeaus’ life. Admiration is an act of justice toward what is greater than self. St. Bernard tells us that contemplation consists in admiration first of God’s majesty and subsequently of his judgments and benefits. First, we admire God’s truth and then its effects. Gratitude is the only just response. With Bartimeaus, our gratitude is in proportion to our conviction that we have been saved from a hopeless condition.

The third stage of discipleship is loyalty. Bartimeaus is not loyal because he had a beneficial encounter with Jesus. He is loyal because both he and Jesus have a common good: The Father. This loyalty shows in total self-donation. He “follows Jesus on the way.” As Jesus headed toward crucifixion in Jerusalem, he chose Bartimeaus because he knew what Jesus knew and would fully experience in Gethsemane. He knew what it was like to be devastated. A willingness to be devastated and remain loyal to the Father’s will is the crown of discipleship. Such loyalty is paid only by a heart whose admiring gaze is fixed solely on what matters most.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex 22:20-26; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40]

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, candidates for president of the United States, have been running pretty aggressive campaigns in recent months. John Lewis of Atlanta Georgia, a veteran of the civil rights movement in the deep south, recently stated publicly that John McCain’s negative presidential campaign reminded him of the presidential campaign of the famous segregationist George Wallace back in the seventies. That, in many people’s view, sounded like a rather odd comparison. John McCain himself told the press he was surprised and hurt by the comment; and John Lewis subsequently apologized. It was a curious incident. It’s as if, Mr. Lewis was looking at John McCain, but didn’t see him; he saw someone else. He and John McCain have been collaborators in the past and even friends, but some of McCain’s aggressive campaigning against Barack Obama, suddenly made him look, to John Lewis, like a stranger. Lewis looked at McCain and saw an alien—and that frightened him.

We shouldn’t be too surprised that John Lewis, a black man who has spent his life in the deep South, a man who for decades has borne the brunt of racist attitudes and behavior, should feel afraid seeing a fellow black man publicly attacked by Republican zealots. And I wonder—might a man, in such circumstances, begin to feel so afraid that, suddenly, a person he’s known for years, looks to him—like a stranger; an alien?

About the time of Lewis’ remark, at a rather rowdy campaign rally for John McCain, someone in the audience, referring to Barack Obama, shouted “He’s a terrorist!” John McCain stopped and pointedly challenged the man saying: “Listen, I have disagreements with Barack Obama, but I respect him as a decent person and a family man. He is not a terrorist.” McCain was widely commended for making this intervention; for confronting an obnoxious heckler getting out of control. Once again, the man in the audience seemed to be looking at Barack Obama, and seeing someone else, some dark, threatening, figure, an alien—and what he saw frightened him. McCain, by contrast, seemed to be less afraid and his greater confidence and trust were evident in the response he made to the man, which revealed a certain maturity and responsibility on his part. Now, there was a time when John McCain felt afraid: the years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which time he was tortured and called “The Prince” by his tormentors because they had found out he was the son of a famous Navy Admiral. In those dark days, John McCain lived as a stranger in a strange land an alien who was rejected, despised and tormented by those around him. He’s come a long way since then and is today a distinguished Senator; a powerful, respected high stakes player in Washington politics. Maybe, being respected and supported by so many friends and colleagues helped John McCain, at a moment when he was faced with an abusive heckler, helped him to remain tranquil, insightful and responsible.

Some of the roughest behavior on the Republican campaign trail, have been at rallies presided over by Sarah Palin, who, unfortunately, has tended to show less discretion in the face of inappropriate, even violent cat calls coming from the audience. She has, as far as I know, at no time confronted hecklers about their inappropriate behavior. In the face of such negativity and even hostility, Barack Obama has remained surprisingly cool and calm; something many observers have noted with admiration. Say what you like about him, the guy is virtually unflappable. There are few people today who have more cause to be afraid than Barack Obama, and yet he doesn’t appear to be afraid. That may have something to do with the fact that having arrived on the national political scene only four years ago, he has rapidly gathered to himself support from a very diverse cross section of Americans, blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor, weak and powerful. He appears to be a rather calm and self-possessed person, but maybe that’s easier for him given his status as a “rising star” in national politics;
given the widespread warm reception he’s enjoyed in recent years.

Sarah Palin has not fared so well. A recent arrival on the national scene herself, she has been greeted with ridicule by much of the media as though she were some sort of exotic specimen of Alaskan wildlife, with her curious accent and down home folksy mannerisms. Does she ever feel afraid? Does she ever feel like a stranger in her own land; misunderstood, unappreciated as being the strong and gifted person she obviously is? I wonder, might Sarah Palin feel so afraid at certain moments that she might see in front of her a shadowy threatening figure where none exists? Might her tendency at moments to characterize Barack Obama as somehow different than the rest of us “true blue” Americans, be a reflection of her own fear; her own feeling of being rejected and treated like an alien in her own country?

I wonder—have you yourself ever felt like an alien? Has there been a moment in your life when you felt misunderstood unappreciated for the decent and well-meaning person you are; like a stranger in a strange land—alone and vulnerable? You should be aware that this experience could lead you to become an “alien maker“; one who sees “aliens” where they don’t exist; one who looks at a brother or a sister and sees a stranger. Fear can do that to us.

A school teacher one day, stepping out of the classroom to attend to urgent business, was coming back down the hallway a short time later and heard coming from her classroom sounds of unbridled chaos. A young girl coming out the door looking bewildered and a little anxious, looked up at her teacher and said: “We’re being bad—and we don’t know how to stop!” Witnessing the negative politics these days; everyone angry at each other; seeing people evicted from their homes because of a financial crisis brought on by years of unchecked cheating and deception, a child looking around might well ask: “What’s going on?” In all honesty, might we respond to that child: “Honey, the grown-ups are being bad, and we don’t know how to stop.

Brothers and sisters, you and I, as believers and followers of Jesus Christ, know how to make this stop: Jesus has called us to put a stop to it. You have been called; you have been commanded—to receive and show kindness to “aliens“. You have been called; you have been commanded—to love your neighbor as yourself; to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength—why? Because you yourself were once an alien, and, by the grace of God are—no more.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex 22:20-26; I Thess 1:5c-10; Mt 22:33-40]

Two curious news items appeared this past week. One (dated October 20, 2005) is an ad placement in the Chinese subsidiary of eBay auctioning baby boys and girls. A boy costs $3,500 whereas a girl amounts to $1,600. Delivery is assured within one hundred days of birth. Upon complaint, the ad was immediately removed by eBay, but it gives you an idea of how debased and debasing some people could be.

Another item (on October 19, 2005) showed that in Ethiopia the unfortunate trafficking of children amounts to 20,000 yearly. Because of poverty, children can sell for as low as $1.20 each. They are then sent to become prostitutes, domestic laborers, weavers or professional beggars. The traffickers get a huge percentage of what the kids earn. The abuse of children is a presumed deal.

The Torah
When such situations occur, you ask what kind of God these traffickers or their accomplice worship, if they have any at all. Lacking in a good God to worship and to love, they fail to love others too. The God of Israel made sure that the love of others is fulfilled through the laws that protect the rights of others, especially the defenseless and the powerless. In our reading from Exodus, the Lord warns the abusers that if He hears cries of laments from the weaker ones, at once He says, “My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword,(Ex 22:23). He may be a God to be feared but only by those who do not respect others. He is more a loving and merciful God to all — particularly the widows, orphans, aliens and even beasts.

Rabbi Hillel who lived a century before Christ was once asked to teach the entire Torah or the Law of Moses resting on one foot. He replied, “What is hateful to yourself, don’t do to someone else. That’s the whole Torah.” For him, the Torah revolves around love of self to promote love of the other. When Jesus later appeared gaining fame as a rabbi, a scholar of the law tested him whether he had something better to say. He asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?(Mt 22:36). In reply, Jesus said, “Love God with your whole being…and love your neighbor as yourself,(Mt 22:37). The twofold commandment combines what Shema from Deuteronomy (Deut 6:5) and the precept from Leviticus (Lv 19:18) say. For Jesus, love of God and neighbor is the axis for the whole Law and the Prophets. The true love of God is tested in one’s concrete love for the neighbor. Then a sustained love of neighbor stems from the love of God.

A story is told about former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City who served during the period of the Great Depression and all of World War II. He was fondly called “the Little Flower” because he was only five feet four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who took extra roles of public service to be within his people’s reach. One cold night in January 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest section of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the sessions. Soon a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. The woman told the mayor that her son-in law abandoned her daughter who was sick and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper who lost his loaf of bread from her refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

Fiorello LaGuardia
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions, ten dollars or ten days in jail.” As he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.” “Mr. Bailiff,” he called out, “collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to the surprised old lady, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the shamed shopkeeper. The others, some seventy petty criminals, traffic violators and the New York City policemen gladly paid fifty cents each for the privilege of helping the lady as they gave their mayor a standing ovation.1

Nothing was spoken about God in that courtroom, but on that occasion, God was most present and loved through the surprising show of love for the old woman. If there was the love of that neighbor, it was because those present loved themselves and hoped that it would not happen to them too. “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself,” says the Lord to us. Yes, we say, we love God and our neighbor. Still we may find it difficult to truly love the other unless conditions are set. The second commandment gives us a clue to this difficulty. It says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We love others with conditions because we also love ourselves under restraint. We doubt whether we are really capable of loving others simply because we feel we are not worthy to receive love. How often do we squirm and doubt when others, even among our loved ones, say, “I love you!”! We doubt the expression of love thinking we are not that lovable and the person simply patronizes us. Yes, the other person’s motive may be suspect, but if it is God who tells us through His Son Jesus how much He loves us, who are we to resist it? It is only when we feel loved by God, which is the best love we can ever have and experience, that we can comfortably love ourselves. God loves us so much. That is why we need to love ourselves too.

One of the important revelations of Jesus in his ministry is how much he is loved by the Father and how he loves Him greatly in return, (Jn 5:19-20; 10:17). He was given a mission to offer Himself till death on the Cross. What a difficult mission it was! Since it was for our sake, Jesus did not hesitate to fulfill it because he felt loved. He loved himself as loved by God such that he was able to share that love to others, that is, to us, to you and me. The mandatum Loved by the Father, he loved himself to the point of loving us all. His love of self is not selfish but selfless. That is what Jesus taught his disciples, both in word and deed.

When Jesus was about to die, he washed his disciples’ feet and then said, “Love one another as I have loved you,(Jn 13:34; 15:12f). He said this at the Passover meal, his last Supper. Then in an unexpected gesture at the meal, he took bread and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in memory of me,(I Cor 11:24). In effect, he was telling them and us, “I love you so much as the Father loves me. I want to give my life for you.” So now love one another in the same manner. “Do this in memory of me.

Today being the Mission Sunday, we are tasked to reach out in love to others, both in near and faraway places where the Gospel of Jesus has not yet reached them. We can do so even by prayers, by active apostolate, by works of sacrifice or by contribution to the Church’s mission. However, a meaningful mission work is premised on how Jesus does his mission of love to us. This Eucharistic celebration is a great reminder and sustainer of our energies. Recall and live these words of love: “This is my Body which is given up for you…Do this in memory of me.

1. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000. pp. 92-93

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir 35:12-18; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14]

Fr. AlbericWhile studying in Rome this past Spring, my family joined me for a few days and we were delighted one Sunday, to discover, a church in the center of Rome, that offered mass in English. The service, turned out to be quite lovely and featured an interesting homily. The priest related to us the story of how his car had broken down one day on the streets of Rome and had to be towed to a garage. Arriving at the garage tired and cold, he was dying for something warm to drink and so inquired of one of the mechanics if there was a coffee machine around. The man, realizing suddenly that he was speaking with a priest confided to him a little anxiously: “Father, you should know I — I . . . don’t go to church.” To which the priest replied: “I couldn’t care less whether you go to church or not, I’m just looking for a cup of coffee!” The congregation chuckled and a little later, as we were lining up for communion, my sister Linda turned to me and said: “I like this priest.” I would venture to say that there are many Catholics today, who hearing a priest say from the pulpit: “I couldn’t care less whether you go to church or not” would respond to him with their warmest approbation! But, I don’t know—is that necessarily a good thing? Do we as Catholics really want to be confirmed in our tendency to regard regular celebration of the Eucharist, as somehow dispensable? I think most of us would agree it’s important to affirm the value of regular mass attendance, even if we don’t always live up to it. Speaking for myself, life without Eucharist seems a little like spending your birthday alone, without a cake, without a party, without friends to celebrate with you the gift of your life, which is, after all, Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist. Life without mass seems to me a curious proposition, and I’m thankful to God that I am able to celebrate Eucharist every day. My feelings about this are strong enough that, I have little hesitation sharing them with other people—or with God himself, for that matter.

The Pharisee and the PublicanThe Pharisee, in this morning’s gospel, is doing just that. He is an observant Jew who for many years has been faithful to the religious practices he learned from parents and rabbis. In his prayer, he says “Thank you” to God for his life; for the devotional practices he loves; and he frankly thanks God that he is not like some other people he sees around him who neglect their faith and as a consequence can fall into serious sin. Did he say something wrong? Evidently he did. Jesus says of the Pharisee: “This man’s sins were not forgiven.” The God who is love, listened to this prayer and was unmoved. That’s a pretty grave indictment. Clearly, something the Pharisee said was very, very displeasing to the Lord. Displeasing enough that the infinitely compassionate heart of God was chilled by his words. Wow! What did the Pharisee say wrong? How did this prayer get him into such deep trouble with our gentle and merciful Lord?

The Pharisee stood and prayed with himselfJesus doesn’t like the way the Pharisee prays. Why not? We might get a clue into why not, by listening to Jesus himself pray and comparing it with the prayer of the Pharisee. In Chapter 16 of the gospel of John there is recorded what is widely considered to be Jesus’ supremely perfect and all embracing prayer, offered to God, the night before he died. And what does Jesus say in that prayer? Fundamentally: “Thank you God, that you have made me like the rest of men: vulnerable, weak, subject to misunderstanding and rejection, prone to heartbreak, and humiliation, destined to die.

The Pharisee stood and prayed with himselfMaybe what got the Pharisee in trouble was not his pride in the practice of his religion, so much as his explicit denial that he is: “like the rest of men“; his refusal to enter into solidarity with the suffering, misery, and failings of the rest of the human race.

Have you ever found yourself saying to God: “I thank you God, that I do not suffer the things that I see other people around me suffering”? Did you possibly find yourself praying to God in recent days, “Thank you God, that I did not suffer what those poor people in Haiti suffered, who, already languishing for years in abject poverty, were suddenly in one hour swept by a hurricane by the thousands into a watery grave!” Or: “Thank you God, that I did not suffer what those poor sheepherds and farmers in Afghanistan suffered, who, barely subsisting after long years of back breaking labor spent cultivating a few acres of earth, saw their farms and whole villages destroyed in a minute, by rockets falling from the sky.” Rockets strike Afghanistan Have you ever said to God, “I thank you God that I have been spared the suffering of those people”? Most of us who are more fortunate in life, have prayed this way at one time or another, and in light of today’s gospel it might be interesting to ask ourselves: How exactly did I come to the belief that others’ suffering is NOT my suffering? How did I ever convince myself that terrible tragedies suffered by my fellow human beings need not be—my suffering? And if I am quite convinced that their suffering is not my suffering, where does this place me in relationship to God, who, in the person of Jesus, made Himself to be like other men; God, who, in the suffering people of Haiti and Afghanistan is Himself right now, suffering terror, hopelessness, contempt, humiliation, and death? And if God Himself is suffering right now in and with these poor people, might that explain why when we gave thanks to God that we do not suffer such things, it seemed He was not listening?