Monday, September 30, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

How's Your Life?

Last week's readings focused on money. This week, we're asked to examine how we live. The First Reading from Amos 6 shows us what not to do. Preaching to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C., Amos is disgusted by the luxurious indulgence of the people. God is even more annoyed than Amos, and speaking through His prophet, He addresses the issue.

Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!
Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;
yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. 

The people are complacent. They think nothing bad will ever happen to the them, and they ignore the poverty and misery at their doorsteps. Instead, they focus on “the good life,” enjoying their comfortable homes and possessions, eating fine foods, being entertained, drinking wine, and paying careful attention to their personal appearance. 

But this will change. Their luxury will turn to ashes. God warns them that they will be the first to go into exile, and indeed, when the Northern Kingdom was invaded by the Assyrians, the upper classes were the first to be carried off by their conquers. 

Psalm 146 paints an opposite picture, describing a life lived according to God's will and in imitation of God's mercy. A person striving after such a life will hold tightly to faith, secure justice for the oppressed, and feed the hungry. Just as God does, such a person will do his best to give sight to the blind, raise up those who are bowed down, protect strangers, and serve as an advocate for orphans and widows. What a difference from the First Reading! 

The Second Reading from the First Letter to Timothy drives home the point. The life God expects is filled with righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness, not fine food and drink, expensive possessions, and luxurious parties. St. Paul solemnly charges Timothy, and us, to embrace God's way, to compete well for the faith, and to lay hold of eternal life. This is the Christian life.

Jesus offers us a parable in the Gospel that perfectly illustrates the lessons from the other readings. There was once a rich man who lived like the people described by the prophet Amos. He ate well and dressed in fine clothes. On the other side of his gate was a very poor man named Lazarus. He was starving and covered in sores. Even the dogs tried to comfort him, but the rich man took no notice. 

Both Lazarus and the rich man died, but very different things happened to them after death. Lazarus went to enjoy the comforts of his father Abraham while the rich man suffered torments. Abraham explained to the rich man that Lazarus had suffered much during life while he had received every good thing. Now their roles were reversed. The patient Lazarus is happy and content while the uncaring rich man suffers. Herein lies the warning. How's your life?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 83

Psalm 83 can appear rather daunting at first glance. There are names all over the place that are difficult to pronounce and usually quite unrecognizable. It's easy to breeze through this psalm, skim the names, and move on, but if we do that, we're missing some very important messages. So let's dig in, navigate the history, and most of all, see what God is saying to us through this little portion of His Word. 

The psalm begins with a plea: “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold Your peace or be still, O God!” (verse 1). Apparently the psalmist, Asaph, is feeling rather abandoned by God. He isn't hearing Him. He isn't receiving His reassurance. He isn't seeing Him act. Right now, he seems to be wondering where God is. So he cries out to Him. Notice the urgency here. Do not keep silence. Do not hold Your peace. Do not be still. Do something, God! 

What has the psalmist all riled up? There are enemies about, and they are “in tumult” (verse 2). In other words, as indicated by the Hebrew word hâmâh, they are making a lot of noise, growling, roaring, and stirring up quite a commotion. These enemies hate God, and now they are boldly and pridefully rising up against God's people. These are crafty enemies, sly and subtle, and they are plotting and conspiring against those who claim to be under God's protection (verse 3). Their goal is to wipe out Israel completely so that it is no longer a nation. They don't even want the name of Israel to be remembered in the future (verse 4). That's the kind of widespread, total destruction they are planning. 

Further, Israel isn't just facing one enemy nation or tribe here. Several foes have joined together, making a covenant against God (in stark contrast with Israel's covenant with God). With their common goal, they have created a formidable, united enemy of Edom, the Ishmaelites, Moab, the Harites, Gebal, Ammon, Amalek, Philistia, the people of Tyre, and Assyria (verses 5-8). It seems that all of the traditional enemies of Israel are on hand to fight for Israel's destruction. They are a mighty force indeed. Doesn't it seem strange that all these people should band together to destroy one, little nation that shouldn't really have much influence at all in the larger scheme of things? There must be something awfully special about Israel.

The psalmist knows what that is: God. And it is God he turns to now as he watches Israel's enemies prepare to attack. He begins by reminding God of all the things that He has done for His people in the past. It isn't that God needs reminding. He knows Israel's history perfectly well. The psalmist, and by extension all of Israel and all of us, are the ones who need reminding. We're the ones who are likely to experience hard times and forget God's past help. We're the ones likely to despair and lose focus. So in his prayer, the psalmist reminds himself of what God has done. 

What exactly, then, has God done for Israel? He has defeated its enemies again and again. He destroyed the Midianites (see Numbers 31 and Judges 7). He defeated the army of King Jabin and Captain Sisera (see Judges 4). He turn His enemies into nothing more than manure worked into the earth, a graphic image certainly, but it does emphasize the thoroughness of God's victory. He triumphed over Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah, and Zalmunna, who were Midianite Kings. There names have pretty much faded from history, except for a few scattered references in Scripture. Even though they lusted after Israel's land, God shattered their power (verses 9-12).

The psalmist then asks God to do to Israel's enemies what He has done in the past. “O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind” (verse 13). Make them so insignificant that they simply blow away, scattered in the wind. “As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with Your tempest and terrify them with Your hurricane” (verses 14-15). Show them Your intense power, Lord. Chase after them. Set them trembling before Your might. Don't let them get away. Consume them in Your fire. 

Then the psalmist changes his tune just a bit. “Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek Your name, O Lord” (verse 16). Let them know their shame, their disgrace, their dishonor. Then they might turn to You, God. They might seek You out. The Hebrew for “seek” is bâqash. It is an intensive verb that implies a striving after, a desire, an eager search. If these enemies see enough of God's power and are made to feel their shame, the psalmist seems to think, they might leave behind their violence and seek God. They might turn to true worship and change their ways completely. 

The next verse, however, suggests that while the psalmist prays this, he does not really think it will happen, and perhaps he even wonders if he really wants it to happen. “Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace” (verse 17). He still wants his enemies to feel their shame, to be confounded and tremble with fear, to be totally humiliated. He wants them dead so that he never has to worry about them again. 

In the last verse, the psalmist waffles again. He almost seems to feel guilty for wishing his enemies such harm. His final prayer is this: “Let them know that You alone, Whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth” (verse 18). This prayer could have a couple different meanings. Perhaps the enemies in their final moments will realize that they have been defeated by the Most High God. This would only add to their sufferings. On the other hand, perhaps the psalmist is leaning back toward his prayer in verse 16 and hoping that his enemies will come to know God, the Most High, and in doing so, change their ways. If they truly know Him, if they see Him for Who He is and understand Him, they would accept Him and no longer be enemies of His people. 

The psalmist, then, seems rather torn about what he wants God to do to his enemies. Destroy them or change their hearts? Wipe them off the face of the earth or draw them to God? We as Christian know how we are to pray. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As hard as it may be, then, we are to choose the route of praying that God change our enemies' hearts and draw them close to Him.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Money, Money, Money

Today's readings invite us to examine both our attitudes toward money and how we use this necessary but tricky resource.

The First Reading, Amos 8:4-7, tells us what not to do with our money. 

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done! 

Basically, don't be greedy. Don't cheat. Don't treat others as commodities, ignoring their human dignity. Don't put money ahead of more important things, like people and God. These should be easy lessons, self-evident really, but how well do we follow them? 

Psalm 113 reminds us that God has a special place in His heart for the poor. The psalmist tells us, 

He raises up the lowly from the dust;
from the dunghill He lifts up the poor
to seat them with princes,
with the princes of His own people. 

Why, then, should we set our hearts on money? Why should we be concerned with amassing more and more wealth? Instead, we need to focus our full attention on God, whether we have material abundance or not. Then we will be the kind of poor that He lifts up to Himself. 

The Second Reading, 1 Timothy 2:1-8, doesn't mention money at all, yet it is conspicuous by its absence. St. Paul speaks of living a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. He desires his hearers to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. He longs for sincere, wholehearted prayer and peace between Christians. All of these come from God through Jesus Christ. None of them require money. 

In today's Gospel, Luke 6:1-13, Jesus tells us the parable of the dishonest steward. This man had apparently been rather free with his master's money, and the master heard about it. He required the steward to give him an account of his dealings. The steward knew he was in trouble and figured he had to do something awfully quickly. He had to set up another position for himself. So he approached his master's debtors and let them write new promissory notes, reducing their debt and thereby securing their favor and perhaps a new job. The master must have shaken his head and groaned when he found out what his steward had done, but he had to give the fellow credit. He certainly knew how to use money to win friends. 

Does Jesus condone the steward's actions? Of course not! But He uses them to make a point: I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Jesus doesn't have a very high regard for money. It certainly does lead to dishonesty and wrongdoing, as we saw in the First Reading. As commentator Albert Barnes notes, “The word 'unrighteous,' [dishonest] here, stands opposed to 'the true riches' in Luke 16:11, and means 'deceitful, false, not to be trusted.'...It does not signify, therefore, that they had acquired the property 'unjustly,' but that property was 'deceitful' and not to be trusted.”

We need to use this tricky resource for good. We need to use it to make friends, in other words, to help other people, to meet their needs, to care for them and make their way through the world easier. When we do that, we will receive our reward in Heaven.

Jesus continues with a practical reminder about honesty. We must be honest even in small matters so that we will be able to be honest in large matters. If we aren't, we will lose the trust of our neighbors.

Finally, Jesus offers us another peace of critical advice:

No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

We must choose. We can serve God. Or we can be slaves of money. We cannot be both. Which are you? Take a few minutes today to examine your attitude toward money and the ways in which you use it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 82

Psalm 82 is a peculiar little psalm. It begins with a somewhat shocking statement: “God has taken His place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods He holds judgment...” (verse 1). A divine council? God among gods? Huh? The Jews were definitely a monotheistic people. The Bible is filled with admonitions that there is only one God, and idol worship is strictly prohibited. So what could this verse possibly mean? A look into the Hebrew gives us a hint. The words translated here as “divine council” are from the Hebrew ‛êdâh (assembly, congregation, gathering, crowd, or even family) and 'êl (which can certainly mean “god” but also mighty one, powerful one, ruler, god-like man, or hero). The word for “gods” here is from the Hebrew ĕlôhı̂ym. This word is tricky because it is often used as a name for God Himself. But it does not have to be limited to such a use. It can refer to the pantheon of gods and goddesses or perhaps to angels. It can also indicate human rulers or judges, especially those who represent God. So what we have here, then, is God taking His place among the rulers of Israel, those powerful, strong judges who lead the people in God's Name, as His representatives. 

God is coming among these mighty ones for reason. He has a message for them, a judgment upon the judges. In verse 2, God asks them, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” He wants them to examine their consciences and see where they are failing. These mighty ones, His representatives, are producing evil judgments. They are showing favor to the wicked when they should be condemning them. 

God continues by telling His judges what they must do instead: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (verses 3-4). These are the people who really need help: the weak, the orphans, the lowly, the destitute, and the needy. God's judges must be careful to treat them with dignity and respect, to uphold their rights, to give them justice, to rescue them from their trials, and to take care of them when others try to exploit them. This is what God does; this is what His representatives must also do. 

Verse 5, however, emphasizes once again that these mighty ones do not do what God asks of them. They lack knowledge (Hebrew yâda‛ - also awareness, understanding, discernment), and they lack understanding (Hebrew bı̂yn – also perception, consideration, insight). They walk in darkness. Their minds are closed. They refuse to see and hear. But they have no excuse for such ignorance, for God has told them what He expects of them. He has made it very clear. They have made the choice not to listen, and because of that “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” Things are not what they should be according to God's plan for the world. Humans have used their free will to choose against God, and now the whole world is out of joint. 

God speaks again in verses 6-7, reminding His listeners of their lofty status but also warning them of their vulnerability: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” The Hebrew word for “gods” here is again ĕlôhı̂ym and is used to refer to human rulers or judges who are appointed by God as His representatives. God adds that these people are His children. They are His family. They hold a special place in His heart. This verse could certainly apply to all of us. As Christians, we have been baptized into God's family. We are His children. Created in His image and partaking in the gift of His saving grace, we share in God's divine life. We are called to be rulers over the earth and rulers over ourselves. We are called to judge right from wrong and act accordingly. We are called to give justice to the weak and to help those who are lowly and destitute and needy. We are called to fight wickedness. We have been designated as God's representatives on earth, ready and willing to bring His life and His justice to others. 

But we, like the original Israelite audience of this psalm, also receive God's warning. Humans are vulnerable. We fall. We die. Without God, we die a spiritual death that is more horrifying than physical death, for it separates us from Him for all eternity. This is the heart of God's warning. Unless we embrace our call as His children and representatives, unless we act on His orders and obey Him, we risk this spiritual death. 

The psalm ends with a prayer in verse 8: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to You!” The psalmist calls on God to rule over the whole earth (the Hebrew word for “judge,” shâphaṭ, can also mean govern). He recognizes that everything belongs to God, all the nations, all the people, Israelite and Gentile. God is the one Ruler over them all. He reigns over us; we need to submit our hearts, our minds, and our very selves to Him.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Observations on the Prodigal Son

We've all heard the parable of the prodigal son dozens of times at least. For some of us, it's a favorite story that we don't mind hearing over and over again. For others, it slips by like yesterday's news. In any case, it's easy to lose focus on the details of the story. Let's take a few minutes today to dig into this familiar tale and discover the elements that make it one of Jesus' most radical parables. 

1. The younger son's request to his father is the height of disrespect. Basically, he is saying, “You're dead to me. Give me my inheritance now.” Sin sends a similar message. When someone commits a mortal sin, he is essentially telling God to get out of his life. Even venial sins tell God that His ways aren't welcome in a particular area or situation. 

2. The father doesn't protest. It may have just about killed him, but he lets his son go. He knows there was no sense in trying to hold him if the son didn't want to be with him. God, too, lets us go. We have free will, and He doesn't force Himself on us. 

3. The young man travels to a distant land. He seems to want to be as far away from his father and his former life as possible. 

4. He soon realizes that freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be. He runs through his inheritance quickly, and when famine strikes his new land, he is left with nothing. No one helps him. He probably made quite a few “friends” when he had money, but they are nowhere in sight now that he is destitute. 

5. He hires himself out to care for local citizen's pigs. Pigs. They are unclean animals to the Jews. The young man is about as low as he can get right now, caring for these filthy creatures that his Jewish faith disdains. 

6. Notice that the young man longs to eat the pods he is supposed to feed to the pigs, but he doesn't. Could he still have some kind of moral sense? 

7. Pretty soon the son decides to return to his father. His motives aren't pure, however. He's hungry, and he knows that his father has plenty of food, even for his hired men. He does, at least, recognize that his actions have been sinful. 

8. The father must have been watching for his son, keeping a long, lonely vigil for his lost boy. He catches sight of his son while he is still a long way away and takes off running. This is an unusual response for a wealthy Jewish man. Running is simply not dignified. The father doesn't care. He just wants to hug and kiss his son. Could God respond that way when we make even the slightest turn toward Him?

9. The son barely gets his prepared speech out of his mouth, and the father pretty much ignores it. There will be no treating his son like a hired man. 

10. The father orders the servants to dress his newly-returned son in the finest of clothes, sandals, and jewelry, immediately raising the young man to his former status in the household. All is forgiven. It will be as though nothing has ever happened, as though he never went away. 

11. The father doesn't stop there. He orders a celebration with rich food, music, and dancing. He wants to show his son a wonderful time and to express how much he values his return. 

12. Pretty soon the older son turns up. He asks a servant what's going on up at the house. When he finds out that his brother is back and that his father has thrown a party for the renegade, he's furious. He won't even enter the house. He is not nearly so quick to forgive as his father is.

13. In fact, he argues with his father, clearly jealous, and he pouts. “Look, all these years I served you,” he tells his father, “and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” It's almost as if he's saying, “See, Dad, I'm the good son, and I don't get anything? That's just wrong!!! He already spent his part. Now he should pay the consequences.” Notice, too, that he doesn't claim his brother. He says “your son” not “my brother.” He doesn't even want to be related to him. 

14. The father tries to reason with his older son, assuring him that everything he owns also belongs to that faithful son. He recognizes his older son's constant presence, and he appreciates it. But he also tells the jealous young man that they must celebrate. His brother has been dead, but he is alive again. He was lost but now is found. 

15. Jesus doesn't tell us how the older son responds to his father's urging. Perhaps he wants us to respond in his place. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 81

Psalm 81 begins with an invitation to joyful, musical praise. “Sing aloud to God our strength;” the psalmist, Asaph, encourages, “shout for joy to the God of Jacob” (verse 1). The Hebrew word for “sing aloud” is rânan. This is a ringing cry, a loud, joyful sound. The Hebrew word for “shout,” rûa‛, also indicates high volume; it literally means to split the ear with sound. Whom are we praising with such emphatic noise? The psalmist offers two titles for God: “the God of our strength” and “the God of Jacob.” The former reminds us that any power, any boldness, any loudness that we might have comes from God. Without Him we would have nothing. He is even the source of our praise. If He didn't give us the ability to praise Him, we would not be able to do so. The latter title, “the God of Jacob,” is a type of shorthand that reminds us of Israel's history. God has involved Himself in His people's lives. He is active in Israel. He has saved them in the past; He is caring for them now; and He will lead them into a future better than they can ever imagine. 

The call to praise continues in verses 2 and 3: “Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.” The voices of the worshipers join with the sweet sounds of instruments, and the songs that result are lifted up to God. The trumpet blasts, calling Israel to their feast, to liturgical worship at the Jerusalem Temple. This “festal day” could perhaps refer to Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. In any case, this is a time appointed by God. 

The Israelites must worship Him as He ordains. Verse 4 makes that clear: “For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” The Hebrew word for “statute” refers to a decree, a prescribed task, something that is owed to God. But the word for “ordinance,” mishpâṭ, adds another dimension. This word means ordinance or law but also right and privilege. We have the duty but also the privilege of worshiping God. God commands us to worship, but He also gives us the right to worship. He wouldn't have to. He has no need of our praise. He orders it for our good, that we may recognize Who He is and who we are and grow closer to Him. 

Verse 5 further explains the necessity of liturgical worship. God has made it a testimony, a witness, to Him from the time He led the Israelites out of Egypt. Scholars like Dr. Scott Hahn have argued that God instituted Jewish sacrificial worship as a response to the Israelites' actions in Egypt. They had fallen into Egyptian idolatry, worshiping animals like bulls and goats and sheep. Therefore, in their own worship, they needed to sacrifice those animals in recognition that they were not gods. Only God is God. In doing so, they witnessed to Him, the one true God. They testified to His exclusive divinity and power, and they denied all other gods, sacrificing what they used to worship to the real God. 

In the midst of this praise, the psalmist receives a message from God Himself. “I hear a voice I had not known,” the psalmist notes. He had never heard God speaking in this way before. This is something special, something unique, something holy. And God has a very important message. 

God begins by reminding His people what He has done for them. “I relieved your shoulder of the burden;” He says, “your hands were freed from the basket” (verse 6). God delivered the Israelites from their burden of slavery. They were the lowest of the low in Egypt, an abused people. God heard their cries and rescued them (verse 7). He answered their prayers even though they couldn't see Him, for He was hidden by the dark clouds and rolling thunder on Mount Sinai. He remained transcendent, but He was also close to them, caring for them and protecting them. 

God also tested His people to see if they were faithful, and He reminds them of this: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (verse 7). During their journey through the desert, the Israelites had complained that they lacked water. They were ready to return to Egypt where at least they had enough to drink. God told Moses to strike a rock with his rod. Water poured out for the people to drink, and they could see that God truly did care for them. Of course, even this miracle didn't stop them from complaining again shortly afterward. (For the full story, see Exodus 17:5-7.) 

In verse 8, God pleads with His people: “Hear, O My people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to Me!” The Hebrew word for “hear” is shâma‛. It does not refer only to a physical hearing with the ears but rather to an intelligent hearing, in which the hearer pays attention and ultimately obeys the speaker. The word for “admonish” is ‛ûd, which in its Hiphal verb-form as it is here, it means to testify or bear witness, to warn or charge, to protest, to solemnly affirm something. There is an element of earnestness to this word. It hints at a message often repeated, and indeed God has admonished His people many times, but they very often fail to listen (again shâma‛) to Him. 

God then tells the people what He expects from them. They are to have “no strange god” among them. They are not to “bow down to a foreign god” (verse 9). God alone is their God. He is the One Who has done such marvelous things for them, bringing them out of Egypt. They have only to open wide their mouths, and He will fill them with all kinds of good things (verse 10). God is waiting to pour out blessings on His people, not just things to eat but all sorts of marvelous things, physical and spiritual. But they have to cooperate. They have to be open. They have to turn to Him and prepare themselves to receive what He gives. Then they will taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

In the next few verses, God laments His people's stubbornness. “But My people did not listen to My voice; Israel would not submit to Me” (verse 11). Israel closed itself to God. His people refused His blessings. They did not want Him or His way. They wanted themselves and their own way. So God gave them what they wanted. He let them have their “stubborn hearts” and the space to “follow their own counsels” (verse 12). But He longs for them. “O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!” (verse 13). This is a cry from the very heart of God. He loves His people. He desires their love in return, a love that is shown in attentive, obedient listening and action. He knows what is best for His people. He has shown them His ways, ways that will make them happy and fulfilled, ways that will lead them straight to Him. 

If the people would just turn back to God, amazing things would happen. He would “subdue their enemies” and turn His “hand against their foes” (verse 15). Those who hate God would feel the force of His wrath and would be sent off to their doom, cringing before God (verse 16). But for His people, God says, “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (verse 16). He would pour out His blessings into His people's open mouths, just as He promised. And what blessings they would be! The finest wheat and honey from the rock. To Israel, this refers to the best of foods, the best part of everything. Catholics recognize the Eucharist, which is indeed the finest wheat, Jesus Christ Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Catholics also recognize the Scriptures, which are the best of honey, the sweetest words of all, written by God Himself as a love letter to His children. The best of blessings indeed, and they are available for us. God wants us to have them. All we have to do is open our hearts and prepare ourselves to meet our Lord.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Knowing Our Limits

Today's First Reading, Wisdom 9:13-18, reminds us of our human limits. For instance, we cannot know God's plans on our own. We cannot understand His counsels (i.e., His judgments). They are beyond our natural capacity. Our reason can grasp only a small portion of the “big picture” that God has under His control. 

We don't even understand ourselves much of the time. As the author reminds us, “the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” We don't always know our own motivations. We cannot see all the nuances and intricacies of our situations. We can't delve into the depths of our own minds and hearts. 

Why is this? The author has an idea: “For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.” We are body and soul, and sometimes our earthly nature weighs down our spirit. We give in to the demands of our bodies. We succumb to earthly desires, to temporal needs, and we sink. We get distracted. We worry and fret. We give in to our lower selves.

We can't even understand the world around us. The physical things of this earth are difficult for us to comprehend. So how can we ever begin to search out the things of Heaven? 

For that, God must send us His gift of wisdom. His Holy Spirit must flow into us, expanding our minds and showing us the path God wants us to take.

Jesus reiterates this in two parables in today's Gospel (Luke 14:25-33). First He says, 

Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.'

The builder must understand his limits. He must calculate the materials and money he has on hand for his project and act according to his calculations. Otherwise, he will overshoot his resources and become the laughing stock of his neighbors. We, too, must carefully calculate the resources we have available. Otherwise, we will reach beyond our limits and reveal our foolishness. 

Just to bring home the point, Jesus offers us a second parable. 

Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.

The king, too, must recognize his limits. He must realize that he is unlikely to be victorious with his current level of manpower and make the prudent choice to sue for peace. We, too, should know our own strength, or lack thereof, and adjust our course of action accordingly. Otherwise, we could suffer a devastating defeat. 

What must we do, then, limited as we are? How can we even function in this world or hope to enter the next? We must rely on God's strength rather than on our own. He is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and all-present. He will give us what we need to function in this world and draw us to Himself for all eternity. We just need to recognize our limits and open our hearts to the One Who is limitless.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 77

Psalm 77 is both a lament and a recollection. The psalm has two main parts: 1. verses 1-10, in which the psalmist, Asaph, cries out to God in grief, wondering why God doesn't seem to be listening, and 2. verses 11-20, in which the psalmist remembers God's great deeds of the past. 

The psalmist begins with a cry of misery: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that He may hear me” (verse 1). Day and night he seeks the Lord, stretching out his hand constantly towards God (verse 2). He is troubled and in great distress. His soul “refuses to be comforted” (verse 2). When he thinks about God, he moans. When he meditates, his spirit faints (verse 3). He can't sleep or speak (verse 4). He has hit rock bottom. God seems far, far away.

Let's examine the psalmist's anguish in greater detail. These four verses are intense with strong, descriptive language. The Hebrew word for “cry” is tsâ‛aq, which has connotations of shrieking and clamoring in need and distress. The psalmist adds the Hebrew word for voice, qôl, twice to emphasize that this is vocal cry, something loud. His misery is breaking out into a ringing cry that doesn't even include words. It comes from his very depths. He just wants God to hear him. His days are troubled, afflicted. His nights are long. He seeks God constantly, reaching out to Him. He will not stop or grow weak or sluggish in his appeals. His knows that he cannot comfort himself. Only God can console him. 

Yet the psalmist does not feel God's consolation. He thinks of God and moans. The Hebrew for thinks here is zâkar, which suggest remembrance. The psalmist is remembering God and all He has done. But this doesn't comfort him. He moans. The Hebrew is hâmâh; it can mean to murmur (sometimes as in prayer) or groan, but it can also mean to roar or make a loud sound. It suggests great commotion and turbulence, disquiet and uproar. The psalmist is so disturbed that he is in a state of severe internal agitation. He meditates (the Hebrew word is śı̂yach, which suggests pondering but also complaining, sighing, or even praying), but his spirit faints within him. He is weak. He accuses God of preventing him from sleeping. He is so anxious and troubled and stirred up (Hebrew pâ‛am) that he cannot even speak. 

All this leaves us with the question, “Why?” What has upset the psalmist so much that he is falling apart? He tells us: 

I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. 
I commune with my heart in the night; I meditated and search my spirit: 
“Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? 
Has His steadfast love ceased forever? Are His promises at an end for all time? 
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His compassion?”...
It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed. (verses 6-10)

God seems to have changed. God seems to have cast His people off, rejected them, moved far away (Hebrew zânach). The psalmist can no longer feel His love. It seems to have disappeared, gone completely for all time, along with His promises, which seem to be broken. The psalmist is afraid that God has forgotten His grace, that He has ceased to care and closed off the fountain of compassion He once poured out upon Israel. God's power, His right hand, seems to have lifted from Israel and changed its course, leaving the people weak and poor. 

The psalmist can't get all of this out of his mind. He thinks about God's great deeds of the past and compares them to His present silence. He turns the problem over and over in his mind, pondering, searching, considering, trying as hard as he can to figure things out. But he cannot. He grieves (Hebrew châlâh), becoming weak and sick, worn out in his anguish. 

In verse 11, the psalmist changes his focus. He decides to concentrate on God's great deeds and remember the wonderful things God has done in the past. He will fill his mind with these things and recount them to himself (verse 12). In doing so, his mood lifts, and he bursts out in praise: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?” (verse 13). He continues his prayer, remembering God's power, the great works He has done in the sight of all nations and the wonders He has shown to Israel, the people He has redeemed (verses 14-15). The Hebrew word for redeemed, gâ'al, suggests that God has acted as a kinsman toward the Israelites, ransoming them from slavery. God and His people are family. 

Even the natural elements of the world trembled before God. The waters were afraid; the clouds poured out their rain; the thunder roared; and the lightening flashed. The earth shook before God's might (verses 16-18). God is in control, perfectly, completely. The whole world does His bidding. 

God made His way through the sea and led His people out behind Him (verses 19-20). The psalmist is referring, of course, to the parting of the Red Sea and the departure from Egypt. “Your way was through the sea, Your path, through the mighty waters; yet Your footprints were unseen,” the psalmist muses. “You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” 

The psalm ends with these words, and we are left to draw our own conclusions. Has the psalmist comforted himself by remembering God's works of the past? Or is he more upset that those works have not continued, at least in a way he can see? God is more powerful than the psalmist can ever imagine. He has control over the whole world. Is this consoling? Has the psalmist settled his mind through his praise-filled recollections? Have praise and worship conquered melancholy and distress? Has the psalmist come to terms with God's apparent silence? Has remembering God's power taught him to trust in God's timing? Has he learned to wait for God in peace? We don't know, and perhaps we aren't meant to, for we must all ask ourselves these same questions in our own lives when God seems silent and far away. And we must answer them honestly.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

How Humble Are You?

Today's readings, especially the First Reading from Sirach and the Gospel from Luke, focus on humility. Take a few minutes and reflect on the following questions, which have been drawn from the readings.

1. How do you conduct your affairs with humility? How might you incorporate a humble attitude into your daily activities? Think of two or three specific situations.

2. Why is a humble person loved more than a giver of gifts?

3. What is the difference between humbling yourself and being humiliated?

4. Do you ever seek things too sublime for you? Do you want to know all the answers to every problem or conundrum? Why or why not?

5. Do you have an attentive ear? How might you learn to pay more attention to the wisdom God sets before you? Where do you find that wisdom? How might it change your life?

6. In what ways do you give alms? How is almsgiving related to humility?

7. How do you rejoice and exult before God? How does praise and worship express humility? 

8. When has your pride led you into an embarrassing situation? How did you respond? What did you learn?

9. Have you ever taken the lowest place on purpose? If so, when, how, and why? If not, why not? 

10. What do the following words mean to you? “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

11. How do you extend invitations to the poorest among us? Who are these poorest people? How do they represent Christ?

12. How humble are you?