Things are Not Set in Stone

sodomThere is a tension that exists in our faith.

On the one hand, we are told that God has a plan. Often when tragedy strikes and we wonder at how this or that thing has befallen us, others are quick to point out “God works in mysterious ways” and the platitude that “we can’t know the full plan of God”.

This all leads to the conclusion that on the one hand it’s all ordained. Life is nothing more than our living out what has already been decided. Taken to its logical conclusion, we don’t have to feel responsible for anything we do, for “it’s all part of God’s plan”.

Yet we are told that we have free will.

And the two seem in utter conflict. Either we decide our own fate on a daily basis or we don’t. God announces his intent, and Abraham begins to dicker with God.  By the end of his discourse, Abraham has whittled down those to save Sodom to ten. In the end there are only four.  God has changed his mind.

These are amazing things in and of themselves. This God of ours doesn’t know everything! He can be reasoned with! He can be led to change his mind!

What kind of God is this?

It’s hard to know. We are not asked to dwell on those questions of course. We are rather to dwell on how wonderful it is that we have a God that we can talk to and we can “make our case to”. We have a God who responds to calls for justice, and if our cause is just, and if we make it fairly and honestly, we will be heard! Our God is not arbitrary nor capricious.

In the Gospel reading, we are told exactly how to go about that. Jesus gives us the Our Father prayer, the one perfect introduction to discourse with God. Not only that, we are told that far from being wrong, persistence is favored by God. As we read of Abraham’s continuing to push at God over Sodom, we winced, silently saying, “oh goodness Abraham, stop now. Don’t make God mad! It’s enough that you got him to twenty! Don’t push your luck!”

Yet Jesus tells us that God doesn’t get angry at our persistence, quite the contrary. He is impressed perhaps by our willingness to not give up. Will he repay our persistence with with a scorpion? No Jesus insists. The squeaky wheel gets the grease it calls out for.

By our persistence we show to God our commitment. And by our commitment, we show our sincerity. We aren’t just giving our weekly laundry list of desires. We mean it! Needless to say, this is not always enough. If our desires are still frivolous we may find an unhearing ear in God. Wish for a million dollars because you want to be rich, and I’m thinking you won’t get a very positive reception. Saint Monica, it is said, prayed for years for the conversion of her son Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine, by his own admissions, was not a poster child of piety. Yet, he became one of the churches most revered doctors. He speaks to many exactly because of his personal story of what God can do to change one’s life. He is proof of the efficacy of prayer.

It has always been the case that humans have struggled with “fate” versus human control. We have established elaborate priesthoods, investing these people with special abilities to talk to God on our behalf. Jesus brings this down to each of us, and says, no, you too, by your humble asking will be heard and answered. If you are sincere and persistent, God will hear you. He will answer you. If you think that you are not Abraham and will be ignored, you are simply wrong. God doesn’t define worthiness in that way. Humans do.

The door is only closed because we have failed to realize that God waits with even greater patience than we can ever exhibit in our waiting. He will wait infinitely for us to knock. Will you wait another moment?

Amen.

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What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.

Amen

**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

Our Test of Faith

I really hate biblical texts that start off with telling me that God put so and so “to the test.” Such is the case with today’s first reading, Gen 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18.

“God put Abraham to the test.”

Untold numbers of fundamentalists have taken this text and used it to explain why the earth is not really as old as it “appears” to be, and evidence of “early hominids?”, just another test by God to see if we are faithful to the Book.

So, you see, I dislike these kinds of stories, although I know it is not the story but the erroneous interpretation that is the culprit. When we accept stories word for word as written as utterly literally true, we miss the point. We miss in fact what the author intended, which is the lesson to be learned from the story. For that was the point of stories in ancient times, they were convenient vehicles to convey truth, convenient in that they were easier to remember than the tenets. Frankly, no story is easier to remember than the one filled with danger, mystery, and shocking turns.

The story of Abraham and the offering of Isaac delivers dramatically.

At first blush it is easy to dismiss the story as grandiose and hyperbole simply because God being omniscient, or so we all believe and contend, has not need to test anyone. God knows us, as we also say, down to having counted every hair on our head.

But it is just as simplistic to dismiss the story as one of “proof of perfect faith.” Abraham is seen thusly as the man willing to murder his most beloved and only son of his wife Sarai. Was this such a demonstration of faith? Maybe.

A wonderful reflection by Father Kavanaugh, based upon a lecture he heard given by Professor Eleonore Stump, suggests something rather different. Professor Stump suggests that Abraham did not offer to execute his son under some vague “God works in mysterious ways” kind of conclusion. But rather that God had made very specific promises to Abraham, among them being that nations would “issue” from Sarai.

Remembering that all the promises of children in old age had come true, Abraham believes that this God of his can indeed be trusted. God had promised that Ishmael would produce nations as well, and Abraham had sent him off into the wilderness with his mother Hagar. He trusted then. He trusts now.

As Kavanaugh says, God asks of Abraham no more than He asks of himself. He offers his son, who goes upon the cross. And yet that son’s death, was not forever, it was burst forth in glorious resurrection. Abraham of course could not have known this, but he trusts.

And the point of the story is not the grand trust of Abraham, but that we may be comforted in our own trials. God is faithful. God has given the great sacrifice, his only Son for our lives. We can trust in this God, we can weather the storms of life knowing that the promise is and was and will be forever.

Amen.

Ye Are gods!

John writes:

“We are stoning you, not for doing a good work, but for blasphemy; though you are only a man, ou claim to be God.”

Jesus answered:

Is it not written in your law: I said you are gods? [see Ps 58]. . .[but] if I am doing it [the work of my Father] , then you will known for certain that the Father is in me and I am in the Father [Jn 10:33-34, 37-38]

Any claim that humans are divine is sure to set off an argument among certain groups. Some disclaim that at all, reading this passage as simply Jesus claiming to be who he was, the only begotten Son.  But much more is alluded to.

First, Jesus’ quotes from Psalm 58, where the psalmist asks of the Jewish judges of the people, “divine as you are. . . .” and of course the serpent in Genesis says to the woman as regards the tree, “God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” [Gen 3:5]

In ancient folklore from which much of Genesis and Exodus were taken, even among the Jews, there was no question that there were many gods. Over the centuries  Yahweh became the chief God, presiding as chief God at the heavenly council. Eventually he supplanted all gods, and finally the Jewish faith took on its now chief characteristic–true monotheism.

To be in the image of God suggests that we are in some ways at least like God–I have always concluded that this meant that our thinking was like God, allowing us to contemplate Him and of course communicate with Him.

But Jesus, I think makes it quite clear in this discourse that we are divine creatures, holding within us the spark of God as our central being.  The translation (New Jerusalem Bible) lower cases the word god when referring to humans and uppercases it when referring to the Creator.

I have no expertise as to whether or not this is discernible in some way in the original manuscripts or not. As it is, it suggests  that saying we are divine in no way bridges the chasm that still exists between God and ourselves. We may have attributes of God, both apparent and still hidden (many believe  we have psychic senses as yet mostly untapped for instance), yet we are in no way equal to God.

This makes perfect sense to me, for Jesus makes this most clear when he tells the Jews, that they need not believe he is the Son of God by what he says, but surely if  he “does the Father’s work” it must be proof that “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”

And can that not also be true of us? Certainly. For we are forever praying that we too may do the Father’s will. We say it in the Lord’s prayer, and we are mindful of Jesus in the Garden when he said, “and yet let your will prevail.” Thus Jesus has said that when the works we do are clearly the work of the Father, that the proof is clear.

So I take from Jesus that we too are divine, able to do the Father’s will, and in so doing, proving that the divine is in us, and is our truest “self”.

Amen.

A Dusting Begins the Season

There are many things I’m not prepared to say are literally true in the Bible, but one certainly is:

“Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return. ” (Gen 3:19)

I’m pretty sure that the writer didn’t mean it quite the way I do, for he was surely not aware of the “big bang” theory of cosmology.

I think the writer refers to the Gen 2:7 which relates: “Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils and man became a living being.”

He could not have known that an even more wondrous explanation was actually true. God brought, by his Word, a universe of particles into being, governed by a set of laws. From this “generation I stars” would form. After millions of years, they would use up their fuel, collapse upon themselves and under extreme pressure and heat, they would literally blow themselves to bits, spewing gaseous clouds of heavier elements into expanding realms.

In places, these gases would become gathered and gravity would cause their collapse, until a new star was born which would radiate and as it rotated, pull other smaller clouds around it. Bits and pieces would coalesce into planets, some made of gases themselves, but a few made of iron.

One of them became known as the blue dot, gathering over time an atmosphere, cooling, allowing the rain to collect in pools and oceans. Bombarded by other bodies, it became rich in elements, and in a way we as yet do not fully understand, elements of carbon combined with others, and began replicating.

Billions of years went by, and the replications grew in complexity and adaptation. And one day, a human looked upward and wondered, “where did I come from?”

From this beginning of beginnings, began the quest to know ourselves and our creator. We, star dust of distant long exploded stars, enter this holy and quiet time, asking ourselves who we are, where we have failed, how we can do better, and how we can grow ever closer to the one who began our journey.

May you begin this day to have a blessed and fruitful Lenten season.

Amen.

It Really is Your Choice

I’m not a good poker player.

Technically I’m a great poker player. I can compute odds with ease in my head, and I never lost a penny playing poker in the long  run. But I suck, because I am emotionally unfit for the game.

Translation: I get very mad when other people play stupidly.

I’ve asked God to help me stop this behavior. Lots of people ask God for help. And they tend to use the phrase, “I cannot do it without your help Lord, but only your help will give me the strength.” Or words to that effect.

Well, suddenly when I was saying those words, it came to me: (God spoke to me as I see it), “NO! You have all you need to stop your anger. I AM you. I am here to love you no matter what. I witness your failures. But YOU choose how to behave.”

Well, you can say what you will about my “encounter” of course. But it seems to me that in reading the Mass for today, I maybe got the message correctly.

Ecclesiasticus 15:16-21
2Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

Ben Sira states:

“If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.” (emphasis mine)

Paul states:

(The hidden wisdom of God) “. . .are the things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.”

And Jesus says in Matthew:

“For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

What is being said here?

Ecclesiasticus seems most straightforward. Remember the words of Genesis:

God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them. (Gen 1: 27)

Now, I have never taken this to mean that we are like God in a physical sense. Rather, being sentient, I believe it means that our minds work as God’s does. B follows A, and 2+ 2 = 4. While we have limits to the capacity of our minds, we see the universe as God sees it. Thus we can communicate.

Thus to me, having the power, means I have all the requisite mind to discern good and evil. I don’t need any collection of writings (however much they aid me from not having to duplicate work) for within myself, I know right from wrong.

Further along in the reading from Ecclesiasticus Ben Sira continues:

He has set fire and water before you;  put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.

Indeed, choose the fire if you wish, but don’t blame God if you get burned.

Paul of course, is explaining that the Spirit of God naturally guides us to the depths of God meaning I believe that we can easily discern what God wants from us: to do good. We need no special education or teaching from wise men and women. This is never to say that such things are not useful, in making our tasks easier, but they are not necessary to our being good people. Being good is natural to sentient beings created in the image (mind) of their Creator.

What to make of all the wise sayings of Jesus in Matthew? Well, some churches, mine included, seem to think that these are special “rules of the road.” Thus Catholics are “supposedly” forbidden divorce, since Jesus, taken literally does seem to say that. Some take the “taking of oaths” quite literally.

But I don’t think this laundry list of dos and don’ts is what Jesus had in mind.

Recall the quoted part: if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes. . .

What were they noted for?

Specifically they were noted for studying the laws of Torah so minutely that they had created a million little laws, nitpicking the teachings to death. This and that were clean, unclean, not to be done on this day or that.

Jesus here is saying is that if you do that, you are missing the real virtue of the law, the real depth of meaning. Jesus illustrates with some of those deeper meanings, not as “new” laws, but meaning that you will discern right and wrong, truth and falsity if you look within at the point of the commandments. What is God asking of us?

Jesus completes the Law by bringing the message of love and compassion and caring for each other. Remember he taught that our first commandment was to love God, and then to love our neighbors. All the law is summed up in these two things. As one rabbi said, all else in the Torah is commentary.

To those who feel that there is no moral compass without a inerrant book to guide you, I can only say, then you have missed the point of the book. For plenty of the writers alluded to the fact that it is “written in our hearts.”

Blessings. AMEN.

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