Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost


Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.   And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house."  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner."  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold."   And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."

- Luke 19:1-10

Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.  For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.  They will scourge Him and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.  Then it happened, as he was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging.  And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant.  So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.  And he cried out, saying, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"   So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him.  And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  He said, "Lord, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God.  And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.
 
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Interestingly, my study bible tells us that Jericho "was notorious as a place of iniquity and is commonly associated with sinful living."  In the story of the Good Samaritan, the dangerous road he was traveling was between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.  We've just been told how hard it is for a wealthy person to be saved (see With God all things are possible).  My study bible says today's reading demonstrates that grace can accomplish that which is impossible to man.

And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  My study bible suggests that there are a variety of spiritual interpretations that give us a universal significance in this encounter.  It says that Theophylact sees the crowd symbolizing sins:  "Crowded in by a multitude of passions and worldly affairs, he is not able to see Jesus."  It notes that St. Ambrose sees several parallels:  (1)  Zacchaeus being short is meant to be seen as being short on faith and virtue; (2)  Zacchaeus' need to climb a tree tells us that no one attached to earthly matters can see Jesus; and (3)  that Jesus planned to pass that way tells us that Christ will approach anyone who is willing to repent and believe.

And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house."  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner."  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold."   My study bible says that Zacchaeus uses the term give for his free and generous offering to the poor, and restore for what he owes those he had cheated, as this was not a gift but required by the Law (Exodus 22:1).  It says, "By doing both, Zacchaeus not only fulfills the Law, but shows his love of the gospel."

And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."  My study bible says, "The title son of Abraham indicates Zacchaeus had become like this patriarch of Israel:  he was counted righteous by his faith, he became generous toward the poor, and he was united to the people of God.  Early records tell us he went on to be a bishop of the Church."

Guilt is something we need to think about.  What is it when a person is guilty of something?  Here, we see the love of God at work in addressing a person who's been guilty of committing particular injustices.  Christ approaches, but Zacchaeus, far from being content with his life even though he's wealthy, wants to see Him, wants to know Him.  So he climbs the tree, makes an effort with help to get there via a sycamore.  But it's Jesus who already knows Zacchaeus, just like He knows each one of us.  It took Zacchaeus' efforts to get there and make that connection of faith, even though Christ was already approaching and already knew something about Zacchaeus.  It's Christ who tells this short, rich, chief tax collector that He's going to come to his house to stay.  Zacchaeus makes restitution in both a legal (as proscribed by Mosaic law), and a charitable way (by committing to giving half his goods to the poor -- quite a generous sum in recompense).   Jesus pronounces that salvation has come to this house; that's not just in the Person of Jesus, but also in the connection of faith with Zacchaeus, a repentance -- a turning around -- as well in his behavior.  And that is enough to declare that salvation is present.  There is no sense here of a need for Zacchaeus to beat his breast, or torture himself, or be tormented by his neighbors and the crowds for the rest of his life -- or even, if today's mass media had been present, to be vilified by strangers everywhere.  What's necessary is faith, and the commitment to make restitution, to change his life -- by changing his mind (the meaning of the Greek word translated as "repentance") -- and to go forward truly as a "son of Abraham" in the way my study bible explains.  It seems to me that our modern world hasn't changed much in its mercilessness.  A "worldly" sort of interpretation of guilt these days seems to take a free rein to vilify in every way possible the person we perceive as guilty of violating some sort of code, and justice doesn't have much to do with that sort of behavior.  Law is present to specify correction or remedy.  Popular media can teach us what it is to pick a target and absolutely pile on with insult and threat without much thought of even information; that makes it a merciless environment.  All of this teaches us the opposite of what it is to be really saved, to deal with guilt in the ways that Jesus does.  It is the opposite of a Christian way to address a problem.  The most important thing that we can note here is the commitment that Zacchaeus isn't just telling these things to Jesus for show.  He's not just being a hypocrite for a moment and he's done.  No, salvation has come to his house in the form of Christ who fully expects that Zacchaeus' future behavior wil bear out the change, the commitment, the love of God and neighbor that Jesus preaches.  And that's the real salvation and repentance, an every day, total change commitment.  It's not that we're supposed to be perfect -- that's more the world's judgment by image.  But to make that commitment and to move forward in change, that's Christ's way.  There's no "piling on."  No rage, no move to pillory here, or stone Zacchaeus.  The outrage is reserved for the crowds, and is projected on Jesus for His way of salvation and the company He's chosen to keep this day.  This is crucially important for us to see, because it happens all the time.  Love works to save that which was lost,  to see what is salvageable, and to open the door in response to a sincere desire.  Let us remember, if we are guilty, what is the difference between the world's way of shaming, and Christ's way of love.  Let us do the work of faith and action He calls for in making restitution when we can, for changing our minds and our lives, and trust in that love rather than the world's endless judgment.  He shows us the way, His Way, of charity and love. 


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!


Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.  For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.  They will scourge Him and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.

 Then it happened, as he was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging.  And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant.  So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.  And he cried out, saying, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"   So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him.  And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  He said, "Lord, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God.  And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

- Luke 18:31-43

Yesterday we read that as Jesus spoke, many also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to Him and said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."  Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.  You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth."  So when Jesus heard these things, he said to him, "You still lack one thing.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."  But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, "How hard is it for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And those who heard it said, "Who then can be saved?"  But He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."  Then Peter said, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life."  See With God all things are possible.
 
Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.  For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.  They will scourge Him and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.  My study bible suggests that this saying was hidden not by God, but because the disciples could not comprehend its meaning until the events of the Passion had taken place.

 Then it happened, as he was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging.  And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant.  So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.  And he cried out, saying, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"   So often in the Gospels we're given teachings and examples of persistence (see, for example, the story of the tenacious widow).  This blind man didn't even know what was coming, but he heard the commotion, and he understood about Jesus.  He calls Him Son of David, a clear Messianic title.  Shouting twice, have mercy on me! this man is persistent in prayer.  The opinions of the crowd and his own disability don't stop him.  My study bible says there is a spiritual interpretation to this -- it symbolizes those future generations who would not see Christ, but hear about Him.  Even when there are forces that would seek to silence us, our faith and our prayer become ever more important. 

So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him.  And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  He said, "Lord, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God.  And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.  How interesting that Jesus should call him forward and demand of him clarity and specifics, an articulation of how he wants Jesus' mercy (What do you want Me to do for you?).  To be illumined, to see or to have the eyes "enlightened" is linked with faith -- the faith that makes the blind man well.  Jesus has said this phrase several times in Luke's Gospel after a healing:  Your faith has made you well.

This blind man is an interesting case.  He's an example, in fact, about how faith and persistence -- particularly in prayer -- can reshape, in some sense, a whole community.  He has to fight against community to get attention.  Everybody tries to shut him up, to make him be quiet.  It doesn't matter how much pressure is on him to stop, he is persistent.  And it's clearly an analogy to persistence in prayer, because of the phrase have mercy on me! which we've read recently in the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee.  We should also recall that the notion that this man was blind because he sinned would have been a popular idea among these crowds.  So his insistent shouting and pleading with Jesus would have seemed all the more disruptive somehow, and impudent.  But the suspicions and popular notions of the people don't stop him; their prejudices don't stop him.  His place as an afflicted, perhaps seemingly-undeserving sort of outsider (a beggar) is also a part of the image the crowds have of him.  There's a reason he's outside of the city and not in it, not really a part of it.  All these things must be taken in as the type of things that ordinarily work to suppress us from expressing who we are, to intimidate, make us feel "less than."  In that case, persistence requires a tough sort of inner work, and more importantly, a faith in God's love for us.  This persistent prayer becomes a need for all of us, just as Jesus has said so many times.  We can't follow the crowd's opinions about us, all the voices that may be "in our heads" or all around us in popular culture.  We have to remember our faith.   The world is often merciless; it is God who is love so vast we can't comprehend it all.  And by not following what the crowds say, this man changes the whole mechanism of the crowd.  God's work in him, to heal his blindness, has the effect of taking away the blindness of the crowd.  This little bit of a mustard seed of faith, this leaven hidden in all the crowd, becomes a transformative mechanism, a catalyst by which all of them praise God.  Just one example in the midst of many can have this effect, and it is just as Jesus defined the ways of the Kingdom.  We can't underestimate the importance of our persistence in faith and what it can lead to -- especially when we seem to have to fight the whole world to hang onto our faith, to keep praying to the One who truly loves and who is the truly merciful.



Monday, November 24, 2014

With God all things are possible


Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to Him and said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."

 Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.  You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth."  So when Jesus heard these things, he said to him, "You still lack one thing.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."  But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, "How hard is it for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And those who heard it said, "Who then can be saved?"  But He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."

Then Peter said, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life."

- Luke 18:15-30

On Saturday, we read that Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."


Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to Him and said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."  Here, my study bible says that "infants are the standard of faith by which adults receive the kingdom of God, and not the other way around.  'A little child is not arrogant, he does not despise anyone, he is innocent and guileless.  He does not inflate himself in the presence of important people, nor withdraw from those in sorrows.  Instead, he lives in complete simplicity' (Theophylact of Bulgaria)."   A child also has the capacity to take great joy in small things, to appreciate whatever is new before him or her, and to sense and give love.  A child also understands his or her dependence upon that love.

  Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.  You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth."  This man approaches Jesus not as Christ, but as a "good Teacher."  Jesus' first comment is to direct him immediately to the source of all good, God.  In the same way of thinking, Jesus cites the commandments which are known to the man.  The ruler's reverence for his faith is clear; he has kept these commands from his youth. 

So when Jesus heard these things, he said to him, "You still lack one thing.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."   To really love and want this kingdom, Christ asks us to be "all in," so to speak -- to love all the way.  Here, this man's great possession in life is his wealth.  He may sacrifice the kingdom for this wealth, and so Jesus puts him to the test.  What does he love most?  My study bible says that the specifics of how one follows Christ will be different for each person.  "Because wealth had such a grip on this rich man, his only hope was to sell and give away all his possessions."  According to St. John Chrysostom, giving away possessions is the least of Christ's instructions here -- "following Him in all things is a far greater and more difficult calling."

  But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, "How hard is it for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And those who heard it said, "Who then can be saved?"  But He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."    That which would prevent someone from entering the kingdom is a terrible obstacle.  It shows us how wealth or possessions can stop us from seeing the greater gift, the "one thing necessary."  My study bible suggests to us that many interpretations have been suggested for the "impossible image of a camel going through the eye of a needle."  For example, that the word isn't camel here, but rope (from an Aramaic word that sounds alike), or that the eye of a needle refers to "a city gate through which a camel might barely squeeze if it were unloaded of all baggage, symbolizing wealth.  Even the Talmud uses the expression, 'for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle.'  Whatever the phrase refers to, it displays the impossibility of salvation for those who are attached to riches.  This is clearly evidenced by the disciples' response, 'Who then can be saved?'"  In my opinion, what it shows was common then as it is now in our age of great wealth -- that anyone can be snared by our dependence on material things, and the difficulty of giving them up for the kingdom.  But Jesus' answer in that light becomes all-important:  The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.  We always have help!

Then Peter said, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life."    His apostles are those who have "left all" and followed Him.  Jesus promises great things not only in the present time, but eternal life in the age to come.  But we cannot understand this unless we first understand the depth of sacrifice and commitment that is made for the kingdom.   We note that this sacrifice includes family.   St. Chrysostom has commented that this refers to keeping faith while under persecution even if it means losing family; it also means to accept that unbelieving family members may cut off ties because of the believer's faith.   My study bible says that this suggestion of the return of homes and family "many times more" is not made in an earthly sense, but a spiritual sense:  the fathers and mothers of the Church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and houses of worship and fellowship."

By the demonstration of this young man with many possessions, we encounter perhaps the most difficult obstacles to our faith that we will come up against:  the things to which we find our greatest attachments.  We have to see, also, that family is even included in these possible sacrifices.  Now anybody who suggests that the Christian faith is a simple and smug way to support a particular lifestyle of entitlement really hasn't read these passages carefully at all!  Here is the great call of service -- and love, a love which doesn't stop at any obstacle thrown in its way, even those things to which we are most highly attached.  If God is love, then what calls us beyond all the rest of the things we love is a greater love, the Source of all love, something that will teach us what is better, and perhaps how to heal by practicing that greater love so that we come into more proper relatedness not only to the things that we might possess and so become stewards in this world, but also to other people and our families as well.  Perhaps it will show us more truly what the word family means, just as in the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches us more truly what neighbor means.  In a modern age, we seem to have to face all kinds of questions about just what "family values" are, or what neighborly conduct really is.  But Jesus' answers are all there before us already and they should guide us into the answers we need to face.  Is abuse a family value?  Bullying?  Ostracizing?  Where does God's love come in to teach us what it means to truly be a family?  Was it not Christ who said, "My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it"?   It is the Kingdom that comes first in order to teach us how to be related, not only to other people but even to the possessions we think we have.  Really, it's Jesus who has also taught us that we are only stewards of what we have; ultimately we won't take any of it with us, except that which is ours in this Kingdom, our souls.  In all of these senses, the Kingdom comes first.  It sets everything else right; it sets all relationships, no matter what we are talking about, aright.  God's love is right-relatedness, righteousness.  Some things may need to be separated from us, but perhaps only for a time -- and this is also part of the promise in today's reading.  Some things or people we need to be separate from in order to live as God calls us to -- but with God's help, everything is possible.  We just don't know how, or why, or where, or even in what way, restoration comes with our faith, and our endurance in that faith.  Let us put the kingdom first, even when the going gets tough.  His love has to show us the way, because we don't know that by ourselves; with God all things become possible.  We just don't know entirely what the sacrifice -- that plank in our own eye, say, or the riches that stand in the way of receiving the pearl of great price -- is leading us toward in its fullness. 







Saturday, November 22, 2014

God, be merciful to me a sinner!


 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

- Luke 18:9-14

Yesterday, we read that Jesus spoke a parable to His disciples, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying:  "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man.  Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.'  And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'"  Then the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said.  And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?  I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.  Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?"

 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector."  This depiction of our spiritual standing and relationship to God uses two very different faces.  A Pharisee, says my study bible, "is a highly respected and careful observer of the details of the Law, whereas the tax collector is despised as a sinner who collaborates with the occupying Roman forces, betraying and cheating his own people."   In order to get the proper picture, we really have to see things from the contemporary point of view of Jesus' audience; there could not be a greater difference in the estimation of virtue and vice in each of these people in the story.

"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'"  My study bible says, "The practices of this Pharisee are worthy examples to follow.  His good deeds (fasting and giving tithes) are the primary weapons against the passions of lust and greed (adultery and extortion).  However, without a humble and repentant heart, these outward practices are worthless and lead only to pride and judgment of others.  Note that he prays with himself, for God is absent where there is boasting."

"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'"  This may be the most effective image in terms of prayer that has been given to us.  My study bible says that "the tax collector shows by his posture an awareness of the state of his soul, standing far from the altar of sacrifice with eyes cast downward."  His prayer, God, be merciful to me a sinner, is the foundation of the Jesus Prayer (a practice in which one endeavors to pray without ceasing), and the perennial refrain heard everywhere in Christendom, "Lord have mercy."

"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."  My study bible says that justified means forgiven and set right with God, for inward humility is blessed while pride in outward deeds is condemned.

There are many things to say about today's "landmark" passage.  It's the archetypal understanding not only of our prayer but how we stand in relationship to God.  It teaches us what it is to be justified in Christ's perspective.  But there is more to it.  Here's a great teaching on humility.  We really have to understand how the deeds of the Pharisee are worthy and good.  He's sort of like the most "politically correct" of the politically correct, but there's much more to it.  He's doing things that are recognized as deeds which are pleasing to God, good practices which are in fact designed to lead to and support our humility and our understanding of humility.  This is essential for us to understand.  Tithing and fasting are ways in which we practice spiritual discipline, doing without, that above all have a powerful and good impact on who we are inwardly, so that we are more "ready" to hear God's word for us.  And yet, this Pharisee, this pillar of good works and humble deeds, has missed the point -- he's praying "with himself."  He's congratulating himself in some sense.  He's not really talking to God and asking God what God wants of him.  Granted, he's practicing things that are always recommended by the Church and by Jewish religious law and teachings to start with.  But, despite the practices, he's still missed the point.  And we have to start there:  what is the point of humility?  Humility is, essentially, the practice of giving ourselves to God.  It's about putting ourselves before the Lord and asking, "What do You want me to do?"  It's not about recounting our good deeds or basically praying to or with ourselves.  It's about the face-to-face relationship with God that comes in prayer -- our great opportunity in prayer.  It's about dialogue and not monologue.  We within ourselves are not a closed off circle.  In prayer, we are to join a great "circle that has no circumference and whose center is everywhere" -- God.   This saying about God is so ancient nobody really knows for certain who first said it.  Its truth stands as it serves well the Person who is Truth, Christ, Logos.  That's the dialogue into which we enter properly in prayer, the true Face before which we stand in no other way possible than with humility.  And the person who understood that best in today's story was the tax collector.  That horrible, evil person who betrays his own people in the form of extortion and service to the enemy, the oppressor, the non-faithful -- he's the one who got it right in today's story.  That's because he spoke face-to-face, and the Pharisee only spoke, basically, to himself.  And there's a more important point to humility rather than its justification in and of itself as virtue.   Humility is the one and only way we can know that we are seeking to serve Truth.  It's the only way we really lay ourselves before Christ and ask, "What else do you want me to do?"  or "What am I missing?" or "Where do I go from here, Lord?"   Humility is the attitude that tells God that you are aware you don't know everything, and that there is more to learn.  Humility is the willingness to see what you're blind to, to have the plank in your own eye removed, even when it's painful and difficult.  Humility has the "moral intelligence," if one wills, to understand that whoever we are, there's more that we're unaware of, and more that God wants for us to learn, to aspire to in life.  It's the face-to-face that really counts -- a dialogue, a relationship of love.  It's the attitude of willingness to accept truth beyond what we know and where we are.  It's the only true way to go to God.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus left us with the admonition that it is constant and persistent prayer that sees us through the difficult times through which we await His Return.  Today, He teaches us what it really means to pray.  Can we understand Him?  Do we want the truth He offers us?


Friday, November 21, 2014

Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?


 Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying:  "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man.  Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.'  And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'"

Then the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said.  And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?  I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.  Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" 

- Luke 18:1-8

 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!'  For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."  Then He said to the disciples, "The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.  And they will say to you, 'Look here!' or 'Look there!'  Do not go after them or follow them.  For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day.  But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.  And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man:  They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot:  They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.  Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.  In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away.  And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back.  Remember Lot's wife.  Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.  I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed:  the one will be taken and the other will be left.  Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.  Two men will be in the field:  the one will be taken and the other left."  And they answered and said to Him, "Where, Lord?"  So He said to them, "Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."

 Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying:  "There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man.  Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.'  And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'"  Then the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said.  And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?  I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.  Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?"  My study bible says of today's passage that it is "persistent (v. 7) and faithful (v. 8) prayer" that is the that is the remedy Jesus gives for the tribulation that was described in yesterday's reading (Luke 17:22-37), above.  It also refers us to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, in which St. Paul admonishes us to "pray without ceasing."   Jesus poignantly asks after this teaching, "Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?"  My study bible says that the Lord often uses this form of question when He speaks of characteristics that are rarely found.

After teaching about His Second Coming, and also about the times to come after His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, Jesus gives us a parable to live with in the times that may present tribulation to those who would be His disciples, who love Him:  we are to pray.  Prayer, in this particular story of the Tenacious Widow, is the answer to our survival, endurance, patience, and abiding in the times we are in now -- a time in which we look to His Return.  He doesn't promise us "a rose garden," but rather difficulties.  Just as in the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, given us in Matthew's Gospel, we grow side by side with those who would "choke us" or make life more difficult.  We may be subject to the cares of the world and the work of the evil one, in whatever form we find it.  Life, as one of His students, isn't going to be simple or easy.  But there is one powerful weapon we have, and He names it in this story.  We have prayer.  Prayer isn't a one time wish request.  In this image, it's not just a set of things on a wish list.  It's a prayer for justice made by the widow, for a fair hearing, even from an unjust judge.  And it's a prayer made "without ceasing," with tenacity, accompanied by the inner strength of endurance, of conviction, and most especially, of faith in Christ or in God, in something much bigger than whatever it is -- even something rooted in injustice -- that the world may present us with.  Prayer is the means of survival and endurance, the answer to our need for strength, the way in which we put our faith to work, and the way in which our faith becomes shored up in us.  Nevertheless, He asks, "Will He really find faith on the earth?"  What an incredible question this is for Him to ask.  He asks as if knowing, for example, that we of 2,000 years later still await Him, we as a Body experience tribulations in this world, our brothers and sisters suffer, and there seems to be so much evil and death and injustice of every kind.  It is among us that He wishes to find that faith on the earth, and that He wonders if, at His return, He will really find faith awaiting Him and present.  So let us consider truly how important the imperative of prayer is; it is with us as something we must engage in all the time -- no matter what it is that is going on in our lives, no matter what it is that we pray for, no matter what the challenge.  I recently experienced a very difficult episode of my own, another case of injustice, a problem that lasted thirty years.  It was only prayer that gave me strength (and guidance) for seeing it through.  I confess that only through prayer I found the strength and endurance to finish and resolve, and do things God's way -- to solve a problem in which I had to be the one to step up and do what it took to finish it.  Relying on God becomes a way of life in this world as we await the great Judge who sets all records straight.  Relying on prayer gives us not in a simplistic formula what we ask for, but rather the means, the answers, the strength and courage through faith that God puts our way when we face challenges.  It is the greatest solution, and it is also the greatest necessity for our survival as faithful.  Will we be tenacious enough to see it through, to practice and to continue in practice even when we can't see the light at the end of our particular tunnel?  Will we understand God's way to pursue justice, and have the faith to carry it out?  Will we be like the tenacious widow?  Will He really find faith on the earth, after He has given, and loved, so much?  How would you answer this sad, almost wistful, question?




Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together


 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!'  For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."

Then He said to the disciples, "The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.  And they will say to you, 'Look here!' or 'Look there!'  Do not go after them or follow them.  For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day.  But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.  And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man:  They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot:  They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.  Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.

"In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away.  And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back.  Remember Lot's wife.  Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.  I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed:  the one will be taken and the other will be left.  Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.  Two men will be in the field:  the one will be taken and the other left."  And they answered and said to Him, "Where, Lord?"  So He said to them, "Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."

- Luke 17:20-37

Yesterday, we read that it happened as He went to Jerusalem that Jesus passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.  Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.  And they lifted up their voices and said, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  So when He saw them, He said to them, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."  And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.  And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks.  And he was a Samaritan.  So Jesus answered and said, "Were there not ten cleansed?  But where are the nine?  Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?"  And He said to him, "Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well."

Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!'  For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."    My study bible says that the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that is present both within the believer and also within the community of the Church.  Within you here, it suggests, can be translated also as "among you" or "in your midst."

 Then He said to the disciples, "The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.  And they will say to you, 'Look here!' or 'Look there!'  Do not go after them or follow them.  For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day.  But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.  And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man:  They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot:  They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.  Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed."    Jesus gives us a kind of narrative or grand scenario about what is to come.  He warns the disciples first that in their lifetimes, they will highly long to see Him again.  But the warning is clearly expressed as one against "secrets" or secret locations.  He says very starkly that when He returns it will be apparent as the lightning that flashes out of one part of the sky and shines to the other.  It will be something known, not hidden.  But before that time, He will suffer and be rejected by the people, their contemporaries.  My study bible says that the warning not to be preoccupied with worldly matters applies both to believers and to parishes.

"In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away.  And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back.  Remember Lot's wife.  Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.  I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed:  the one will be taken and the other will be left.  Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.  Two men will be in the field:  the one will be taken and the other left."    My study bible says that "Christ's second coming will entail a sudden revelation of judgment.  One will be taken to heaven and the other left for eternal condemnation.  The separation of the saints from the wicked will occur 'on the day when the Son of Man is revealed' (v. 30) and not, as some speculate today, at an event that occurs before His return."

And they answered and said to Him, "Where, Lord?"  So He said to them, "Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."  The body, says a note, refers to Christ, while the eagles refer to the angels and the saints.

There are many different interpretations given as to what Jesus means by the "eagles" here.  But clearly in my study bible's view on this passage, the center of everything is Christ.  He is the body.  And then we must also give pause to think about what the Body of Christ also means to us.  This turns us back to the beginning words in today's reading, "the kingdom of God is within you."  It's interesting how the things He points out to the Pharisees today "match up" with the events of the Second Coming.  The kingdom doesn't come with ordinary perception of our senses:  nobody is going to say, "Look over here!" or "Look over there!"  The teaching that the kingdom is within you (and you is plural here, as He speaks to many people) is vague, just as it seems in interpretation, and, I suppose, deliberately so.  It's read both "in you" as addressing each individual present, and also "within you" as in addressing a crowd.  Whatever the meaning, there is no doubt that what Jesus teaches here is all about the voluntary nature of choosing and remembering this Kingdom.  He will leave and we will be left, our daily lives now as then occupying our time and our thoughts.  Just as the kingdom itself won't come by some sort of physical warning or indication in the same way we perceive worldly events, so also His return will not be apparent to us until the moment it happens.   Then it will be seemingly known to all, from the description Jesus leaves us with -- the lightning that shines from one part of the sky and illumines the "other part."  So the implication here is, we will be, more or less, on our own, so to speak, just as worldly conditions before His human presence seemed to them.  And that's the key.  We'll all be absorbed with our daily lives, the things we need to do, the every day life of making a living, trying to keep a household together, the stuff of our daily needs as we see them.  But nevertheless, this will happen -- even as possibly we least expect it.  Elsewhere (Acts 1:7) Jesus tells the disciples that it is not for them to know the dates and times God sets for such events.  In other words, the warning is clear to all of us:  it's up to us to remember "what time it is."  This is a choice we make, a voluntary effort that requires vigilance and awareness, a mindfulness of just who we are and what our real circumstances are.  It's up to us to continually "remember God."  And this is a spiritual matter; it's about a kind of counterpart present to our worldly lives and perceptions, this is a kingdom within us and among us.  You need a particular kind of understanding and awareness to know it, and this takes desire on our part.  It is something we choose, and value, and pray to be a part of.  That takes awareness and it takes effort and discipline.  So, what do you know, what do you feel, what do you see?  Are you prepared for a life without His physical presence, but conscious of His kingdom?  Let us think about what it means to be aware of that kind of presence.  My study bible suggests that "the eagles" that gather are the angels and the saints.  Let us remember what an image of an eagle gives us, something majestic but also self-mastered, disciplined -- a true image of a leader.  Let us remember that we are all called to aspire to this kind of leadership, the self-mastery of one who remembers God and the kingdom, who is capable of practicing such awareness even when He is away from us, not present in the flesh.  This is who He calls us to become, what He gives us as an image to be "like."




Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Your faith has made you well


 Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.  Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.  And they lifted up their voices and said, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  So when He saw them, He said to them, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."  And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.  And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks.  And he was a Samaritan.  So Jesus answered and said, "Were there not ten cleansed?  But where are the nine?  Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?"  And He said to him, "Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well."

- Luke 17:11-19

Yesterday, we read that Jesus said to the disciples, "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.  Take heed to yourselves.  If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him."  And the apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."  So the Lord said, "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.  And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'?  But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'?  Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him?  I think not.  So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants.  We have done what was our duty to do.'"

 Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.  Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.  Leprosy separated people from their communities; it was a cause for complete banishment from society.  It was a disease of terrible suffering, and in some sense, symbolized sin.

And they lifted up their voices and said, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  So when He saw them, He said to them, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."  And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.  This sort of cry from afar reminds us of the way we may call to Christ through prayer, although -- particularly when we feel stuck in some sinful behavior or a kind of evil situation -- we may be "far away" from Him.  To be admitted back into the society (including participation in worship) required a certificate from a priest.   We have read of a similar healing earlier in Luke's Gospel, of a single leper (see this reading).   When Moses prayed for Miriam when she was afflicted with leprosy, her healing was partial and came after seven days; these healings would by such standards be considered astounding.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks.  And he was a Samaritan.  So Jesus answered and said, "Were there not ten cleansed?  But where are the nine?  Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?"  And He said to him, "Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well."  My study bible says that the question, "Where are the nine?" is very significant.  It says, "Christ came to heal all of fallen humanity, yet only a small portion receive Him in faith and thanksgiving to give glory to God.  Thus, 'many are called, but few chosen' (Matthew 20:16)."   The lesson here is that worship is the first priority.

The practice of gratitude is today widely touted as a way to counteract all kinds of depression and other seemingly modern ailments.  Outside of faith practice, this exercise of gratitude -- counting our blessings -- comes outside the understanding of gratitude to a particular person, including Deity, God.  Popular recommended practices of writing lists of the things one is grateful for come as a sort of pop culture psychological practice, a way of being mindful of things we have in life that are "good" -- but without necessarily attributing them or our gratitude to any "one" else.  It becomes a vague feeling of understanding that our lives are not all depressing and bad, we're not only "without."   As the common expression goes, it's a way of seeing the glass half-full as opposed to half-empty.  That's a sort of mindfulness that is helpful, but only partially on the way toward a relationship without any awareness of  the object of our gratitude at all.  We have a practice that we know is helpful, but there's no why or wherefore except as a sort of self-contained exercise.  It doesn't build community, and it doesn't build love, but it may help to counteract gloom and nihilistic thinking.  Gratitude, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to be fulfilled or even meaningful without an object of that gratitude.  We may express gratitude for what we have, but the word doesn't even really make sense unless we know also to whom our gratitude is directed!  Think about it, whom do you thank?  Does it make a connection or relationship?  Is it an expression of friendship or love or community?  What is the point of "gratitude" without someone to be grateful to?  So much of our modern understanding of charity as a good practice, of gratitude for what we do have in our lives as also a good practice, even of community building as a social good, come to us originally from faith.  But without faith, without an object of that gratitude, without an understanding of something that unites us in love and not just in social relativity, without a fullness or depth of the components of all these practices, the meaning and impact diminish.  We remain isolated, autonomous in the sense that we are without a power of love that goes beyond our understanding and invites us to growth in that understanding.  Without the joy of knowing love as a gift that is available to anyone and everyone, how do we receive the fullness -- the true fullness within ourselves and in our communities -- of these practices?  I can feel wonderful by helping someone else.  Couple that with the deep knowledge of relatedness that I have in God's love that connects me with doing something good or beneficial for another there is not the same deep joy, and there is not the same deep gratitude for being in a place where I am in a position to do some good for someone else.  There is a depth of peace that is given "not as the world gives."    And there is truly the joy that is complete.  Without a depth of relationship to the One who loves beyond our understanding, and teaches us to learn love more deeply, we are not really fully involved with gratitude or mercy or the love that is the object of all such practices.  We are not fully included in community that has a depth of sense and meaning to it.  Our efforts are missing a communion in love that is not dependent on results, but rather on the object of unification with that Source of all things, with a Person who loves beyond our comprehension but Whose love we nevertheless can know even when we are objectively "alone."  That is the mustard seed Jesus speaks of, for example, in yesterday's reading.  We are made to be united to Someone, to something so far beyond ourselves that it includes all of Creation in community.  Until then, our joy may not be complete, nor our peace what it can be in this love relationship.  Let us remember the ten lepers standing so far off, and calling for mercy, locked outside community by their affliction.   Only one realized the fullness of community, of relatedness, in his gratitude.  He was a Samaritan, a real outsider -- but love (real love) knows no limits.  What do we understand by this example?   Which of the ten do you suppose has more joy, more fullness, more peace, and true guidance in their lives to come?  Which one do you suppose is most mindful of his own reality?