Reflections on Sunday’s Readings: November 4, 2018
‘You are near to the kin-dom of God’
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Deuteronomy 6: 2-6
Hebrews 7: 23-28
Mark 12: 28b-34
Mark offers us a beautiful story today in the Gospel about the encounter of the scribe with Jesus. We hear so much about the encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders where they are trying to “trick” him or “test” him that it is truly refreshing to hear of this honest inquiry from this scribe. He sounds like he sees Jesus as both a prophetic figure and a person of wisdom with regards to God and the Scriptures. This scribe, who has studied the Law, seems to genuinely be seeking insight into the 613 laws that have been gathered over time to guide the People of Israel.
Within these Jewish laws some are seen as “heavier” than others, that is, requiring more attention and fulfillment. In the midst of these “heavier” laws and “less heavy” laws, this scribe is looking for a “guiding principle” or the “key” to all of these laws. What is most important? What holds all of these laws together?
Jesus responds in a truly Jewish way. He responds with a “scribal” answer. He weaves together several key insights from Scripture in his answer.
Jesus begins by recalling the “Schema,” the prayer that the Jewish community prays in the morning and in the evening. “Listen, O Israel,” there is only one God; and it is this God who has drawn near to us. So listen well to what this one God has to say to you.
Secondly, Jesus quotes the words “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.” Respond to and love this one God with all that you are, the same way God loves you.
And thirdly, let this love overflow from you to others, to your neighbors; and we know Jesus kept expanding the meaning of “neighbor” to include strangers and even those we call enemies.
The Scribe’s Response
The scribe confirms what Jesus has said, and he goes on to blend the two commandments into one while adding a line from one of the psalms that says this kind of love for God and neighbor is better than burnt offerings or sacrifices brought to the temple.
And Jesus sees the scribe’s understanding, and says, ‘yes, brother, you are not far from the kingdom of God, in fact, you are very near to the kingdom (the “kin-dom,” which I think can help us understand Jesus’s meaning here) of God.’
Love of God likened to the Sun
It might be helpful here to think of God’s love as likened to the sun. The sun holds us in place as a galaxy, centers us, warms us, and nurtures life around us to grow, feed us, and sustain us. The sun is here constantly for us, and yet its presence is subtle. We might take it for granted on some days; but after several rainy days, we are like “it’s sunny!” Where would we be without the sun?
The same is true of the love of God. In English the word “love” has an affective quality. It means to hold someone or something dear. We love others. We may be “in love” with them in a romantic way. Or we may “love” our new car or our new home.
In Hebrew the emphasis for the meaning of the word for “love” is on loyalty and fidelity. So Jesus, who comes to us from the heart of God, is speaking about God’s unwavering loyalty to us. Jesus is challenging us, calling to us, to offer this same kind of unwavering loyalty and love to God and to our neighbors in response to God’s loyal and faithful love for us. This is who our God is … faithful and loyal … take this, listen and hear this, receive God’s love for you and all of creation, and pass this on. To do this is to bring about the “kingdom” or “kin-dom” of God. As Jesus said to the scribe and also to us ‘you are very near to the kin-dom of God’ here.
Jesus centers his preaching on the “reign of God” or the “kingdom/kin-dom of God.” He is centering his words and his life around God’s steadfast love for us and for all. Jesus knows this kind of love from living in the Trinity, and he knows it also during his lifetime here on earth. This is the meaning of “covenant,” of God’s covenant with us! God will never forsake us nor abandon us! God has our back! Our God is trustworthy and is in our corner; and God is waiting to forgive us and to empower us to live with faithfulness and generosity.
The three loves that Jesus mentions: love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor are all woven together. They nurture and empower each other, and we need them all to be active in our lives. My sense is that some of us work on one or the other loves at different times in our lives, or we find one kind of loving easier or more difficult because of our personalities.
I often feel the hardest love for me is to love myself and to stay faithful to myself. I find it easier usually to see God’s glory in those around me, in all of you, more than in myself. I also find it fairly easy to experience God’s love in my times of prayer. But because I know my own struggles and because of some of my life experiences, I find it hard to accept myself, to be faithful and true to myself, to be good to myself. Yet Jesus wants to help us all to experience and express all three loves.
One last thought, every time we come to the Eucharist we are experiencing the renewal of God’s covenant with us, God’s steadfast and unwavering love for us. Let’s “listen and hear” once again today God’s invitation and embrace of us with everlasting and steadfast love!
Fr. Henry B. Beck, OFM / St. Francis Retreat House, Easton, PA.
Reflections on Sunday’s Readings: October 28, 2018
“We Are the People of God”
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Jeremiah 31: 7-9
Hebrews 5: 1-6
Mark 10: 46-52
I grew up in a “religious” family. By this I mean not just that we were a family where faith was shared, and we went to Church together; but I mean that there were a good number of “religious” in my family.
On my Dad’s side there were five sisters, and four of them became religious sisters. On my Mom’s side we had a great-uncle, Fr. Phil, and a great-aunt, Sr. Marie. I remember fondly when Sr. Marie came home for a visit in her newly modified habit. My Mom and her sisters all wanted to try out Sr. Marie’s new habit so they went upstairs and changed, and then they came downstairs so we could all see. We took photos, and they all looked a lot alike so it was hard to tell one from the other in the photos.
I also remember well all the many visits we made as a family to see the sisters on my Dad’s side. We would gather with them on their visiting Sundays as a large family, and I remember doing this from when I was small to when I was an adult and a priest. These were always fun times.
I remember one visit where my Aunt Milly, my Godmother and the sister who didn’t go into the convent, had a twinkle in her eye. You knew something was up when her face had this twinkle and smile. Aunt Milly loved her sisters, but she did not want to be a nun. She married Fred, my Godfather, and she nursed him in later life and he died somewhat young. After a few years Aunt Milly married again, and once again she nursed her second husband at the end of his life and he passed. So now after a few years, she thought she would have some fun with her sisters. She leaned close to Lucella, my favorite actually. Lucella was very dear but pretty “strait-laced.”
Milly said to Lucella, “I think I am going to get married again.” And Lucella responded promptly “Oh, Milly, I thought you would have that out of your system by now!” Well, we all roared and almost fell out of our seats.
Familiar and Human
I thought of these family experiences this week as we gathered on Thursday evening here at the retreat house for a “Listening and Healing Session” with regards to the clergy sex abuse crisis in our Church. We spoke that evening of the “losses” we each were feeling as we heard once again of the abuse crisis in our Church.
My sense was that we were feeling the “loss” of our being familiar with one another as people and religious and being human with one another. Our religious and clergy did carry the “archetype” of holiness and spirituality for us. They “pointed to” and “called us” toward a deeper meaning in life and toward a spiritual life, and yet we knew their foibles also. We knew each other as real people, and we knew we belonged to each other.
Listening and Healing Session
This was some of the loss I was hearing as 25 of us gathered to speak and pray about the losses we each were feeling now in the Church. There was real honesty in the group. Persons expressed anger, hurt, and called out for a more “mutual” Church, a more relational Church especially between those ordained and those not ordained and between women and men. There was a strong desire expressed for a “connected” Church, a “linked-together” Church, a more equal Church.
Strong sentiment was expressed that those who are ordained have a vote and a voice, and those not ordained do not have this nor often an empowered way to communicate with the hierarchy. Pain was expressed, and some voiced uncertainty about whether they could stay with the Church. There was a real desire for true renewal for us as a Church but an uncertainty of how to help this happen.
The conversation brought to mind an early session in the seminary where a professor invited us to see “hierarchy” as “holy ordering,” and he invited us to take the “pyramid” image of hierarchy and lay it flat on the ground. Then he suggested that we imagine “concentric circles” where there is an animator and one who holds the center for others in servant-ministry.
This renewed image of the “holy ordering” of the Church helps us get back to the early Church’s style of leadership and to go beyond the pyramid model that has gathered its vision from the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages especially.
We see in this renewed model that there is a “gut intuition” in us as Christians that we are equal as brothers and sisters. We also can see that this “centering” and animating of a “circle-community” happens throughout the Church. It happens in those who coordinate our Eucharistic Ministers or our Lectors. It happens in those who teach Religious Education or guide the outreach in our Catholic communities, and it is what is meant for those of us in ordained ministry. This speaks to the model of Jesus and of the early Christian community’s model of servant-leadership among its men and women leaders. We need women and men to be equal in the Church today to better serve the Church community and to witness to the world.
Critical Moment for the Human Family
Many writers today are saying that we are facing a “critical moment” in our evolution as the human family. We can see from the news all around us that we are facing a moment to choose our fuller destiny or not.
Will we accept others with a deeper tan or color than ourselves or those who come from another country than we ourselves? Will we choose violence or nonviolence? Will we choose respect and acceptance or derision of one another? Will we move toward the destruction of the earth or its preservation and enhancement? Will we accept one another with regards to gender or sexual orientation in the wide and abundant graciousness of God in the Church?
We are entering a time for a “major shift” in our lives as a human family, and we in the Church can be a witness and model for what the world needs and is desiring most deeply. But this calls for “conversion” and openness in us as a Church.
Today’s Call for Sight and Mercy
As we heard in the Word today, Bartimaeus calls out for mercy and for sight. Let us call out and pray together for this kind of sight and grace to become the Church we hope for and long for. The religious in our lives carried the “archetype” of holiness and spirituality for us, and they continue to call us to this. But we are possibly seeing today, especially because of the suffering and pain of the “little ones,” the desire to be a renewed Church. We are beginning to see that we too, each of us, carry the archetype of holiness and spirituality. We are, as the saying offers, the change-makers that we have been looking for.
Let us pray for one another for openness to change and to grow. We need to do this together.
Fr. Henry B. Beck, OFM / St. Francis Retreat House, Easton, PA.
Reflections on Sunday’s Readings: September 9, 2018
“Listening and Speaking”
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 35: 4-7a
James 2: 1-5
Mark 7: 31-37
When I was in our Franciscan high school seminary, we ended the day with “Night Prayer” together in the chapel. We prayed “Night Prayer” each evening except Saturday night. We could watch TV on Saturday evenings. After we prayed together, some went up to the dormitories; but you could also stay in the chapel for a while longer.
One night I was the last one in the chapel, and I felt in a special moment like I was “being held” by God. I felt embraced, secure, loved in a powerful way. I have experienced some similar moments in prayer during my life: in other prayer moments, especially after my open-heart surgery, in confession, being anointed, and at times talking with my spiritual director.
I hope many of you … if not all of you … have had experiences like this: of God’s closeness to you, of God’s breaking into your lives. We are never the same after this kind of experience. Once we have had a “taste” of God being with us, of God’s loving-kindness, we search for moments like this throughout our lives. We are God’s “little ones” searching and hungering for more of God’s graciousness.
Letter of James
This is why James in his letter this morning tells us not to dismiss the poor in our midst, but to see our own truth in them. Those who are poor and in need depend upon the “kindness of strangers.” Those among us who don’t have all that they need to sustain their lives reach out to us and others humbly. Often when we engage these persons more personally, and we ask them “How are you doing?” They often reply: “I’m blessed.” It is amazing! They depend upon and experience the goodness of others and of God.
One writer says that he has noticed that some who are poor will hold up a sign that says: “Anything helps.” So with us when we are praying to God, we might well be seen as holding up a sign to God that reads “Anything helps!”
Deeper Interdependence with God
This is not that God wants us to be “dependent” upon God’s own Self. In fact, it is the contrary. God wants us to grow ever freer to be ourselves. God wants “mutuality” with us and for his life and grace to flow through us. This takes time. God wants us to freely receive all that is in God’s own heart and so “little by little” we draw closer, and God reveals his own Self to us.
Our Sunday’s Readings Today
This truth is very much affirmed in the readings today from Isaiah and from Mark’s Gospel.
In Isaiah we hear God’s words to God’s beloved people, to us today, that we are God’s own. God is committed to us, to our renewal and fullness of life! God comes to us with vindication, to confirm the good and truthfulness in us that we often don’t recognize or claim as our own; and God comes with recompense to bless us for the generosity of our lives. God does not come with punishment. God wants us to “thrive” and not merely survive in life. God comes to us with healing and tenderness, especially when we are deaf or tongue-tied.
The Gospel Story
Today’s Gospel story also confirms this message to us from God. I love the Gospel of Mark. If you remember it is the first Gospel written, and Mark’s Jesus is very real and human.
The man who is deaf and has a speech impediment does have friends who care about him, and they bring this man to Jesus for healing … just as we bring one another to God for healing also.
Jesus wants to engage this man in a very personal way, and so Jesus takes him away from the crowd. Jesus feels the man’s struggles with communication and his struggles to be a part of his community. Jesus gives the man his full attention. He realizes that one deep way of communicating with him is through “touch,” and so Jesus touches his ears and gathers his own saliva … seen in Jesus’s times as passing along his very spirit and life to the person … and he touches the man’s tongue. Then in a gesture of solidarity with the man, Jesus takes on the posture of prayer with him. Jesus sighs before God. Then, similar to the words of God in Genesis as God brought forth creation with his own words, Jesus says powerfully “Be opened!” “Ephphatha!” This is the very Aramaic word that Jesus spoke back then to the man, and Mark wants us to hear this word and experience Jesus’s power and energy today. And the man is healed!
One other layer to the story that gives us a glimpse of Jesus’s humanity is that Jesus is trying out this healing power that flows through him, and so he says to the man ‘let’s go over here, away from the crowd.’ Much like any of us stepping out in faith, Jesus too is stepping out with vulnerability.
Connection to Our Lives
It is good for us in light of the Scriptures today to ask ‘Where am I deaf?’ and ‘Where am I tongue-tied and cannot speak my truth?’ There may be some insights to gain here regarding my own personal circle of family, friends, work, or community.
But I would also like to invite us to reflect on this as a Church, especially in this present moment.
Are we able to “hear” the trauma and pain of the victims of sexual abuse and their families? Are we able to “hear” the dysfunction in these priests who have abused and the pain in their families also? Are we able to “hear” what needs to be addressed and reformed in us as an institutional Church? Are we willing to give one another the space we need to “speak” our truths honestly and in this way to find our way forward together? Are we willing to “speak” more truthfully about our hopes and dreams for the Church than we have in the past so that we might become an “attractive Church” once again rather than one that repels others.
We need God with us for this. Only God can bring about the healing and transformation that we need. May we pray for this openness to God’s grace for ourselves and for each of us.
One last thought … toward the end of the Gospel story that we heard today, we hear what Mark calls the “Messianic secret.” We hear Jesus ordering the people to not speak about this miracle to others. The people are astonished at the man’s healing, and they are so excited that they want to tell everyone about this miracle.
Jesus knows though that they are only understanding him and his mission on the surface level. They don’t see or understand that at the heart of his mission is the cross: the laying down of his life out of love to free us from all that holds us captive. The people don’t understand yet that his ministry calls for sacrificial love: the willingness to lay down our lives for one another. And so Jesus is basically saying: ‘Wait, go deeper with me. Get to know my heart before you spread the word about me.’
It will take time to grow into the depths of Jesus’s compassion, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and healing power. So we are called to draw ever nearer to Jesus, to God our Creator, and to the Spirit. As we draw nearer to our God then we can grow in God’s own grace, freedom, solidarity, and compassion that overflow in God’s heart. This we need to be about together, especially in this moment as Church.
Fr. Henry B. Beck, OFM / St. Francis Retreat House, Easton, PA.