Friday, September 27, 2013

Jewish Sources of Christian Charity

Our road beginning to look like Fall.
Jesus' parable about the rich man who ignores the poor man condemns complacent self-indulgence (Luke 16:19-31.)  Jesus insists that attention must be paid to the poor. 
In a thought-provoking article, "The Current of Creation," in the September 27 issue of Commonweal, Gary Anderson maintains at length that Christian charity is "an inheritance the church received from the synagogue."  In post-Biblical Jewish texts giving alms is equal to keeping all the commandments in the Torah.  Charity had become the favored means of worshipping God.  Acts of charity toward the poor became the equivalent of temple sacrifice.  Putting a coin in the hand of a beggar was like offering a fatted calf on the altar.
Beggars in late antiquity used to ask for money using the Hebrew words that meant "Acquire a merit in heaven through a gift to me."  Proverbs 19:17 says, "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full."  God, living in the poor, receives the alms we give to them.  We often ask ourselves, "What's the best way to save for the future?"  Post-Biblical Judaism would answer "Give alms to the poor."
Early Christianity was heavily influenced by this view.  Jesus himself tells us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven.  The Fathers of the Church in their preaching used stories similar to those that the rabbis used to show how much almsgiving would be rewarded in the afterlife.  We can't buy our way into heaven, but we can't give worship to God without giving alms to the poor.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Rich Man, Poor Man

Yesterday's sunrise started with faint color on a dark cloud, then these striking shafts, and finally a variety of colors spread all the way from east to west, the beauty multiplied by reflections in the lake.
The parable that Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31illustrates for us that the decision to ignore the poor has eternal implications. With just a few details we see how much of a gulf there is between these two men.  The rich man is wearing purple and fine linen.  He feasts extravagantly, not just on special occasions, but every day.  The poor man is covered with sores, licked by the dogs.
The gulf between them that the rich man carelessly ignores continues in the afterlife, with himself on the desperate side and the poor man secure in the "bosom of Abraham."  There is irony in the rich man still arrogant enough to request Lazarus to act as a servant, wetting his tongue and taking a message to his brothers.
A few verses earlier Luke tells us that the Pharisees were money lovers and mocked Jesus for talking about using money to help the poor.  We might not be bold enough to mock Jesus, but the parable presses us to look into our hearts and see to what extent we are money lovers.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Francis Believes in Vatican II

Another triumphant September sunset - golden this time.
After Pope Benedict retired and we were wondering who the next pope might be, I told many people that I was praying for someone who loved the world and believed in Vatican II.  In the interview that was published this week, Father Francis definitely comes across as the answer to that prayer.
The Jesuits aim "to seek and find God in all things."  Francis finds God in contemporary culture.  He talks about music and movies and art that he likes.  He says, "There is a temptation to find God in the past....But the "concrete" God, so to speak, is today."  Complaining about how wicked this world is doesn't help people to find God.
Francis finds God in every person today.  He says, "Even if the life a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else, God is in this person's life."  Finding God in the people and the culture of today is what I mean by loving the world.
Because he sees God in the present world, he sees the value in the Vatican Council's bringing the  Gospel and the Church up to date.  The dogma of the Church must develop because "human self-understanding changes with time, and so human consciousness deepens....There were ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now have lost their meaning and value."
Father Francis says, "Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in the light of contemporary culture," a renewal whose fruits are enormous and absolutely irreversible.
I am deeply grateful to God for sending us this man who loves the world and believes in Vatican II.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Francis: a Big Heart

Early September in a neighbor's garden.
The Interview with the Holy Father has been making the news.  It is long, but easy to read.  And very worthwhile.  (Google "A Big Heart Open to God/America magazine." In this what follows everything in quotes is from the interview.) 
There are very many parts of the interview that are worth highlighting, but I am especially cheered by his comments about the church.  Too often when we say church we mean the leaders of the church.  In several places in the interview our Holy Father Francis makes it clear that all of us are the Church.  "We should not even think, therefore, that 'thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church....The church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows."
"And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibility of believing through a supernatural sense of all the people walking together.  When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit....The church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people."
I have always known that the Church is all of its members, but I frequently say "church " when I really mean the leadership of the church.  I learned a long time ago about the infallibility of all the faithful, but I've never heard it put so clearly by a pope in recent years.  For years a woman who usually makes the announcements in her church before Mass has been greeting the congregation by saying "Good morning, Church!"  I started doing this several months ago.  I hope it reminds, not only those assembled, but myself, that we are all the church.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

God Wills Everyone Saved

This sky brought me up short as I drove into town today. (Clicking on picture enlarges it.)
Our Holy Father Francis is getting a lot of good attention from the media.  Much of what he says is treated as if it were foreign to Catholic tradition.  A recent surprise was last week in a letter to a professed atheist in a Roman newspaper where he said that God's mercy "does not have limits" and therefore it reaches non-believers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God but, rather, failure to obey one's conscience. (John Allen, National Catholic Reporter, September 11). 
In next Sunday's 2nd reading St. Paul writes to Timothy, "God our Savior wills everyone to be saved. (2:3)"  Especially since the middle of the 20th century Catholic theologians have been writing about universal salvation.  As is expected of a church leader, our Holy Father has been reading these theologians and is offering us a clear explanation of what they have been saying.
When I was in the seminary more than 50 years ago I remember reading a letter a theologian wrote to a college student about God's will to save everyone.  He simply asked the student to use his reason and think about all the human beings who had existed before Jesus and all the human beings in the world since Jesus, who never knew him.  Then the theologian asked the student if he thought it made sense for God to go to all the trouble in the Old and New Testaments, including sending his Son to die on the Cross, to save only the tiniest fraction of the whole human race.
Who would want a God, he asked, who was so stingy and so foolish?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Love of Money

Very colorful mushrooms in a neighbor's yard.  He tells me that they glow in the dark and that they are poisonous.
We hear people say, "The Bible says 'Money is the root of all evil.'"  If that were the case, only the rich would have to be on their guard.  But what St. Paul really says in his first letter to Timothy is "The love of money is the root of all evil. (6:10)"  That puts us all on guard.
It is almost natural that material stuff like money and possessions would attract us more than immaterial stuff like God.  There are surely a few human beings to whom the world of the spirit appeals more than the things of this world, but for most of us our lives and our minds are taken up with mundane affairs.  Almost all of us have to make an effort to keep money from becoming more important to us than God.  Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and wealth. (Lk. 16:13)"
What has helped me more than anything to keep money in its proper place is to give a lot of it away. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Earning our Way

Fog fishing.  This is what the lake looks like when the water temperature is 65 and the air is 42.
Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son is addressed to Pharisees and scribes who complained, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."  Like some modern day Pharisees, they think that they must earn God's love and look down on those who aren't being as strict as they are about the Law.
The stay-at-home brother in the second half of the parable is an image of them.  He complains to his father that he has slaved for him and never disobeyed his commands, and yet he has never been treated nearly as well as his father is treating the son who has returned.  He has been so intent on earning his father's love that he never noticed that his father already loved him.  The father begs him to celebrate his brother's return.  This son misses the celebration.
My homilies are always addressed to myself as well as to the people present, so I don't usually say much about this part of the parable.  I came to the realization half a lifetime ago that God's love cannot be earned, is always freely given.  All is grace.  So I wonder what Jesus is saying to me in this image of a man who thinks he can earn his own way.
After 70 years of hearing the phrase, I found out only this week that the "fatted calf" means the "grain fed" calf.  Instead of being left to feed on the grass, the calf destined for special feasts is stuffed with grain to put on extra weight and tenderness.  It sounds like veal.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flight 93 Memorial

Yesterday I went to the Flight 93 Memorial in southwestern Pennsylvania.  It was a pretty day for the hour and half drive.  And a thought provoking day.
I had been to this crash site several months after the September 11, 2001, attacks.  The new approach is very different.  You enter now from Route 30 and drive three and a half miles along a new winding road.  Plenty of parking.  An attractive plaza and initial gathering place.  Then a long walkway to what is called "The Wall of Flames," a large, long, interesting wall with the name of a person killed on each panel.  I took this picture with the wall on my left so I would be looking at the small hill where the plane came over before it burned along the ground and plunged into the earth about 200 feet behind where I'm standing.  I presumed it burned a wide path which would explain the name of the wall. 
The crater was 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide.  It is now covered by a very large stone.  Yesterday family members, the only ones allowed near the stone, has placed a lot of flowers on it.
An excellent movie "Flight 93" was made in 2006 about the terrible incident.  I kept thinking of it as I was wandering around the site.  I am most impressed with the courage that the passengers showed in taking control of the plane.  I prayed for them and their families and for an end to war and this kind of violence.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Unearned Love

Gentian violets are rare.   Just a few show up this time of year on a hillside that I pass on my morning walk.
Luke moves from the hard demands of chapter 14 to the unearned love of chapter 15's story of the Prodigal Son.  Years ago when I put together a very short simple summary of Catholic beliefs for a troubled teenager with no background in the faith and not much schooling, I called it "Unearned Love."  If I could tell him only one thing that Jesus wants him to know, that's it.  You don't have to earn God's love.
The father in the Prodigal Son story is a perfect image of God.  The son comes to his senses and heads home.  "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion; he ran to him and put his arms around him and kissed him."  No conditions.  Just a wide, loving embrace.
One reason that this story means so much to me is that, until my mid-thirties, I thought that I had to earn God's love.  Religion was effortful.  When the reality of unearned love broke into my awareness, I was blown away.  I've spent the last forty years trying to absorb what that means.
God is Love around me and in me, on the surface of my skin and in the deepest part of my self.  In Love I live and move and have my being.  Each day Love shows me how gracious Love is.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Radical Allegiance

Sunset Wednesday.
Luke's Gospel gives us a Jesus who is gentle and compassionate.  The very same Gospel gives us a Jesus who demands radical allegiance from his followers.
Chapter 14:25-33 Jesus tells us what it takes to be his disciple and asks us if we have what it takes.  We have to prefer Jesus to everyone and everything that we hold dear.  Luke has Jesus say that we have to hate our relatives.  This is an extreme exaggeration, not uncommon at the time.  It may help to remember that this is the Jesus who told us earlier in the same Gospel to love our enemies.  It also helps to see that Matthew reporting the same saying in his Gospel has Jesus say, "No one who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me.(10:37)"
The point is that Jesus demands to be the center of our lives.  No person, no thing, no attitude comes before him. 
Jesus doesn't urge his disciples to study the Jewish Law or to grow in the love of God but to follow him and to make sure everything comes second to him.  These are bold demands.  Jesus speaks and acts as if he stood in God's stead and as if God were coming to God's people in Jesus himself.  He can demand that we make himself our center because he is God.
When he asks us if we have what it takes to follow him, he is asking us if we can surrender ourselves, heart and soul, to God.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


As I walked by, the morning sun shot through the trees and called my attention to these blossoms on a neighbor's pumpkin(?) patch.
The 2nd reading for this Sunday is from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, a very brief, very personal, and very persuasive letter in which Paul asks a Christian to free a slave.  That's the most common interpretation of the letter.  The slave escaped from Philemon, found his way to St. Paul, and became a Christian.  Paul sends him back but asks Philemon to receive him no longer as a slave but as "a beloved brother."  It is clear in this brief letter that Paul went along with his culture's acceptance of slavery.
I knew that our moral theology had come late to condemning slavery, so I started to read about it.
In four other letters St. Paul tells slaves to be subject to their masters (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25; 1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:9-10).  In his First Letter St. Peter says, "Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh (2:18).
Church teaching through the centuries continued to support slavery, making a distinction between "unjust slavery" and "just slavery."  Even popes, bishops, and priests kept slaves.  The first archbishop of Baltimore had two black servants, one of whom was a slave.  In colonial times the Jesuits had slaves on their Maryland plantations.  It is not until the very end of the 19th century that church teaching caught up with the evolving culture and condemned slavery.
It is astonishing that a practice that we now know is very wrong could have been accepted and approved by Catholic moral teaching for nineteen centuries.  It is a blessing that it didn't take us long to catch up.  By the middle of the 20th century Catholics with their priests and religious were working for civil rights for people whose ancestors were slaves.