Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

A Prophet's Protest

To fully understand today's First Reading from the prophet Jeremiah, it helps to have a little background information. When God called Jeremiah to be His prophet, Jeremiah was still quite young. He protested to God that he was only a boy and did not know how to speak. But God insisted that He had consecrated Jeremiah as a prophet even before he was born, told him not to be afraid, and assured him that He would give His prophet words to speak and deliver him from his enemies. Jeremiah accepted his mission and set out to deliver an unwelcome message to the land of Judah.

Now, however, some time has passed, and Jeremiah is starting to feel like God hasn't quite kept His promise. After all, he has spoken God's message throughout Judah and has gotten nothing but trouble for it. His life has been threatened. He has been struck. He has spent the night in the stocks. Clearly, the people are, at best, uninterested in what he has to say and, more often, hostile to his prophecies. 

“You duped me, O Lord,” the prophet protests, “and I let myself be duped.” Jeremiah seems to be a bit miffed with God. He feels like God has deceived him with His promises of protection and enticed him into prophetic service without supporting Him. “You were too strong for me,” Jeremiah continues, “and You triumphed.” Jeremiah is considering himself rather ill used at the moment, especially when he recalls how people laugh at him and mock him all day everyday because he speaks God's words. If God were truly with him, he seems to suggest, such things would not be happening.

Jeremiah is even becoming fed up with the message he is assigned to proclaim. He cries out all the time and it's nothing but violence and outrage. The words are always negative, always bad news, and all they bring back to him are derision and reproach. People can't stand to hear him. 

The prophet has even made up his mind that he won't speak God's word anymore. He will just stop being a prophet. He will remove himself from the situation and get on with his life. But it doesn't work. God's word sets him on fire. He feels it burning deep within his heart and within his bones. He can't keep it in any longer. He can't endure it, and it pours out of him in spite of his best efforts to keep it in.

What are we to make of Jeremiah's protest? We are all called to speak the truth of God's word even in the more difficult situations, even when people laugh at us or reproach us or sneer at us, even when people threaten us or harm us or simply ignore us. We may sometimes feel like Jeremiah in these circumstances. We may wonder where God is and whether He has abandoned us. We may wonder whether it is worth speaking out if all we get in return is trouble. 

It is worth speaking out, and Jeremiah knew that, too. He kept right on prophesying even after his protest. He blew off whatever steam he needed to and then returned to his mission. He still faced many trials. In fact, he was imprisoned, thrown down a mud-filled cistern and left to starve, and led away against his will to Egypt. But no matter what happened, he continued to speak the word of God that so inflamed his heart, and deep down, he knew, as we all should, that God was right next to him the whole time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

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

Creating a Vicar

Today's First Reading might seem a little odd at first glance. There are a couple strange names in there; the context is a somewhat unclear; and it is rather difficult to understand exactly what is going on. Let's look closely at the reading, clear up some of the confusion, and discuss why this little text is so important to our understanding of today's Gospel.

In our reading, God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah. He is addressing Shebna, who was the master or steward of the royal household. As a steward, Shebna would have had control over the household, its servants, and its material resources, especially when the king was away from home. Shebna would have kept the keys of the household and had the final say in whatever decisions needed to be made to keep the household running smoothly and securely.

Shebna, however, was not a good steward. He was abusing his position, and God was getting pretty tired of it. In fact, He was kicking him out of office. Firmly. A few verses before our reading we hear, “The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into the wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master's house!” 

God has had quite enough of Shebna, and He already has chosen someone to replace him, namely, Eliakim. Eliakim is God's servant, which suggests that he was a good and holy man who put God first in his life and in his work. God will place the steward's robe and sash on Eliakim, who will take on the authority of the office. 

Notice how important that office is. Eliakim will become a father to the people of Jerusalem and to the whole house of Judah, to the whole kingdom. One would think that the king would be a father to the people, and indeed he is, but he shares that role with his steward, who represents him and cares for the people in the king's name. 

Eliakim will also receive the keys to the king's household. He will have access to everything and full control. What he opens, no one else had better shut, and what he shuts, no one else had better open. He is second only to the king in his authority. 

What's more, God will make Eliakim firm, steady, and strong. He will be like a “peg in a sure spot.” He will not move or fall. God will support him and uphold him in a place of honor in his family.

Keeping all of this in mind, reread today's Gospel, Matthew 16:13-20. Simon has just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. He may not know completely what that means at this point, but he realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the One sent by God to save His people. Jesus, in return, calls Simon blessed and tells him that he didn't come to this conclusion on his own; the Father in Heaven has revealed Jesus' identity to him. 

Jesus then goes on to change Simon's name. “You are Peter,” He says, “and upon this rock I will build my church.” Simon is Peter, the rock, and he will stand steady and strong. God will support him, and he will be a solid foundation for Jesus' Church.

Look at what else Jesus tells Simon: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This should sound familiar. Jesus is making Simon Peter His steward. Like Eliakim, Peter will hold the keys to the king's household. He will have access to everything and full control. What he looses, no one else had better bind, and what he binds no one else had better loose. 

Peter, as the steward, the vicar of Jesus, will represent Christ the King and care for the people in Jesus' name. He will be a father to Jesus' family on earth, the Church, leading them and guiding them. 

Jesus knows that He will soon go to the cross, rise from the dead, and ascend into Heaven. Even though He will always remain present to His Church in many ways, He leaves a visible steward behind, first Peter and then Peter's successors, for Peter himself will not live forever but the Church will always need guidance. 

Who are these men, these stewards whom Jesus appoints beginning with Peter? They are, of course, the popes, the vicars of Christ, who can trace their lineage all the way from Peter to Pope Francis I. They are Jesus' visible representatives on earth, who hold the keys to the kingdom, the Church. They are fathers to the King's people, guiding, protecting, and leading them. They are upheld by God and made firm in their teaching and their judgments. They hold a place of honor in their family and are second only to the King in authority over the Church on earth. 

This, indeed, is the will of God, Who appointed Eliakim over the House of David and Peter and his successors over the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Incorporating the Gentiles

Today's readings are all about the hope and salvation God offers to the Gentile nations, that is, the non-Jews. Originally, God made a covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with the nation of Israel, the Hebrews, or as they later became known, the Jews. The Jews were God's chosen people, the ones who lived in relationship with Him, recognizing Him, worshiping Him, receiving His commandments (although not always keeping them), and (ideally) rejecting all false “gods.” They were a people set apart from the Gentiles, who worshiped multiple “gods” and did not know the one true God. 

The Jews took pride in their position as God's people, but sometimes they failed to realize that God had bigger plans in mind. Israel, in fact, was God's firstborn son, a child whose role was to lead his younger brothers and sisters, the other nations of the world, to God. God certainly wanted to save Israel and bring the Jews into an intimate relationship with Himself, but He wasn't about to stop there. Through Israel, He would attract everyone else and bring salvation and intimacy to the entire world.

In today's readings, then, we hear about God's relationship with the Gentiles, to whom He reaches out through Israel, through Jewish prophets, prayers, and preachers and ultimately through the Messiah, Jesus Christ, Who also came from the Jews. 

The First Reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us that at some time in the future, the Gentiles will join themselves to God. They will become His servants and worship Him. They will enter into His covenant and become part of His family, joining their elder brothers, the Jews, in flocking to God's holy mountain to offer sacrifice. They will stream to His house of prayer to kneel before Him in joyful intimacy. 

The Psalm continues this theme, declaring that the nations will “be glad and exult” in God and that God's way will be known throughout the earth. The Gentiles will praise Him, and He will rule over all the nations. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles, telling them that the old prophecies have been fulfilled. God's plan is in full swing. The Messiah, Jesus Christ, has come through the Jews, and He has opened the doors of God's mercy and salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also presents an interesting twist to the Israelite/Gentile story. His own people, the Israelites, have mostly rejected the Messiah. The elder brothers have turned their backs on God's plan, and the younger brothers have stepped up to grasp what they refused. But all is not lost. Paul says that, even as he turns his attention to the Gentile ministry, he still has hope for the Israelites. Even though they are disobeying now, they will someday see the great mercy given to the Gentiles and long for the same thing for themselves. They will become jealous of their younger siblings and reach out to accept their own salvation. 

Finally, the Gospel offers us another glimpse of the relationship between Israel and the Gentile nations. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile country. He is perhaps seeking privacy and time alone with His disciples, but He doesn't get it (which is probably no surprise to Him). A Canaanite woman, a Gentile, approaches Him, crying out to Him to help her possessed daughter. Jesus actually seems pretty harsh toward her. He ignores her at first, but she keeps insisting until the disciples get so annoyed that they tell Jesus to send the woman away. He replies to them that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the elder siblings.

This seems like a refusal, but the woman still isn't ready to give up. She falls before Him and begs for help. Jesus still seems to resist (notice, however, that He has not sent the woman away), saying “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, the elder siblings of Israel have priority. The young siblings of the Gentiles (the little the Greek word for “dogs” here suggests) have to wait their turn. 

The woman still doesn't relent. She offers a clever response: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” This is just what Jesus has been waiting for. The woman offers the exactly right blend of humility, perseverance, and good sense. Her faith remains strong even through all Jesus' apparent rebuffs, and Jesus grants her request. The woman's daughter is healed at that very moment. 

What is Jesus doing here? It seems strange that He would be so reluctant to help a Gentile since it has been God's plan for centuries that the Gentiles would one day enter into a covenant with Him. Perhaps Jesus is showing us what it takes for the Gentiles to assume their proper place in God's family. It will not be easy, He seems to say. It will take faith. It will take perseverance. It will take humility. They will meet with resistance. Their elder siblings will not share their inheritance very willingly. But if the Gentiles persist, like the woman does, they will discover the wonderful mercy and love of God.

Today, most Christians are Gentiles. We are the younger siblings of Israel. We have been invited to intimacy with God. We can stream to His house of prayer and praise Him with exultation. We may reach out for God's mercy and experience His love. At the same time, we are called to embrace the faith and humility of the Canaanite woman, knowing that if we do so, we will always touch Jesus' heart and find Him waiting for us with miracles.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Recognizing God

Do you recognize God's voice when He speaks to you? 

Elijah did in today's First Reading. The prophet had fled from the wrath of Queen Jezebel. He was tired and discouraged and pretty much wanted to die, but he still obeyed when God told him to go stand on Mount Horeb and wait for Him to pass by. 

Elijah was a wise man, even in his depression. He stood still and watched as a strong wind came up and smashed rocks, but he knew that God wasn't in that wind. He remained in place as an earthquake rattled the mountain around him, but he knew that God wasn't in that earthquake. He bravely endured as a fire swept by, but he knew that God wasn't in that fire. 

Then Elijah heard a still, small voice. He pulled his mantle over his face and went to stand at the entrance of the cave. The prophet recognized God in that still, small voice. He had courageously watched and waited during the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. He had overcome his fear, knowing that God would not let him down, no matter how bad things seemed or how scared he was, and now he received his reward. He heard God, and he recognized His voice.

Notice what Elijah did when he heard and recognized God. He pulled his mantle over his face in a gesture of humility and reverence. He understood that the still, small voice he was hearing was the all-powerful Creator of the universe. He realized that, as a sinful, weak human being, he wasn't worthy to hear God, so he covered his face. God, of course, spoke to him anyway, for He reaches out to the weakest, most sinful people in order to draw them into a relationship with Him and raise them up. 

Pay attention also to Elijah's second action. He went and stood at the entrance of the cave from which he had been waiting, watching, and listening. This is a gesture of readiness. He is prepared to listen to God and obey His command, whatever that may be. Elijah presents himself as God's servant, ready to interact with God and to act on God's words. 

Now let's consider the disciples' response to Jesus in today's Gospel.

Jesus had sent the disciples off in their boat while He went up on the mountain to pray. In the wee hours of the morning, as a strong wind tossed the boat around and threatened to swamp it, Jesus came walking toward the disciples on the water. 

When the disciples saw Him, they were terrified. They didn't recognize Him at all. Instead of seeing Him as the calm in the midst of the storm, they panicked and cried out in fear that they were seeing a ghost. They were so focused on the chaos around them that they couldn't see Jesus for Who He was. 

Jesus was quick to announce Himself and reassure them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter, quite in character, called back, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” What was he expecting? Did he believe that he was seeing some apparition who wouldn't take him up on the challenge and would simply go away? Or had Jesus mostly convinced him of His identity, giving Peter the opportunity to present himself as ready for anything his Lord might request?

Perhaps to Peter's surprise, Jesus replied, “Come.” Peter bolstered up his courage and went. He had the gumption to step out in faith even in the midst of what seemed like an impossible situation. He had now recognized Jesus and responded, and he found himself walking on water.

Then he noticed the wind and the waves. His faith wavered. His courage failed. He began to sink. At least he had the presence of mind to call out to Jesus. “Lord, save me!” he shrieked, recognizing that in the midst of such terror and danger, Jesus was indeed the only One Who could save him. And Jesus did so. Immediately. He reached out and grabbed Peter and led him back to the boat to the rest of the disciples who were probably sitting there gaping like fish. 

If the disciples hadn't known before that there was something very special about Jesus, they certainly realized it now. In fact, they seem to have recognized something divine in Jesus, for they bowed down before Him, saying “Truly, You are the Son of God.”

Do you recognize God's voice when He speaks to you?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Good Question

“What will separate us from the love of Christ?” This is the question St. Paul asks in today's Second Reading from the Letter to the Romans. 

It's a good question, don't you think? 

St. Paul quickly proceeds to answer it, but he does so by saying what will not separate us from the love of Christ. Here's his list: anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword, death, life, angels, principalities, present things, future things, powers, height, depth, any creature. 

That pretty much covers everything. Jesus' love for us is broader and deeper than we can ever comprehend. He loves us in the midst of our trials and fears. He loves us when things aren't going well. He loves us when we are persecuted. He loves us when we lack physical necessities. He loves us when we are threatened. He loves us in life and death. He loves us so much that even angels and other creatures can't sway His love. He loves us now and in the future (and in the past, too). He loves us no matter where we are, physically or spiritually. 

We doubt this, though, so very often. We wonder how Jesus can love us when everything is going wrong in our lives. Where is He then? We must realize, during those times, that Jesus allows us to experience trials and difficulties not because He doesn't love us but because He does and because He has a plan for our lives and lessons to teach us that we may not understand right away. Jesus loves us in the bad times just as much as in the good.

If all these things do not separate us from the love of Christ, how, then, do we answer St. Paul's question? What will, in fact, separate us from the love of Christ? 

There is only one answer. We can, if we so choose, separate ourselves from the love of Christ. This doesn't mean that He ceases to love us. It does mean, however, that we can freely decide to turn our backs on Christ's love and cut ourselves off from Him. This is greatest tragedy a human being can ever experience, far more severe and perilous than any earthly trial, for it involves the risk of loosing Jesus for all eternity. Remember; Jesus does not send anyone to hell. People choose that option by committing moral sin, which cuts them off from God, empties their souls of sanctifying grace (the presence of God with them), and if not repented, leads to hell. Such a decision, to say no to the Lord, to spurn His love, breaks His heart. 

Jesus, may we never, ever separate ourselves from Your love. We know that You love us always and forever and that the only way we can lose that love is through our own choice. Even then, Lord, You do not stop loving us and wait eagerly for our repentance that You can once more wrap us in Your arms. Jesus, never let us forget Your great love. Amen.