Sunday, October 28, 2018

Asking and Getting

October 28, 2018 –– 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 10:46–52
Asking and Getting

Today’s Gospel tells the story of a man asking Jesus for something. Asking Jesus for something today takes us to the subject of prayer, and I think a lot of people approach prayer with the theological sophistication of Huckleberry Finn:

Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool.  She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way. 

Haven't there been times when we’ve all felt that way? You asked God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it didn't happen. So prayer becomes a big mystery. Like Huck Finn, we “[can’t] make it out no way.”

The blind man in today’s Gospel asks Jesus for what he wants. Bartimaeus kept asking. Others discouraged him. He kept asking. This man knew he was blind, and he believed Jesus could do something about it. He surely thought, “This is my one chance to turn everything around,” and so he kept calling out all the more.

James tells us in his letter: You do not have, because you do not ask (4:2b). Sometimes we do ask, but God does not give us what we ask.... for our own good. James goes on to say: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (4:3). Yet in another place Jesus says: Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened (Matt 7:7,8).

We need to know that prayer is not merely “asking God for something.” Prayer is not a formula to learn and master. Prayer and true desire are intimately connected. How often do we really ask Jesus for our heart’s desire? When we ask for something half-heartedly, we are not asking out of desire. When we ask, but do not continue to ask, are we not showing that we are not desperate? And if we are passionate, is it for the right things?

All of us are passionate about something. It can be anything from a sports obsession to material possessions to politics to.... knowing God. When we are passionate about something, others close to us know it. What are we passionate about? How often do we ask Jesus for our heart’s desire?

What are we to do? First, let’s understand that the focus of prayer is God himself. Jesus told his followers to seek first the kingdom of God, and other things will be given as well. Bartimaeus was healed of his blindness, but another phrase follows: he received his sight and followed [Jesus]. If we turn again and again and again to the Lord––if we follow Jesus, our passions will more and more begin to match his desires for us. Then our prayers will be answered in amazing ways. Jesus also said: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7).

May the Lord give us hearts that are passionate for him, so that we desire the things he so graciously wants to give us. And then let’s ask, because our Heavenly Father loves to hear from his children.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Do We Want?

October 14, 2018 –– 28th Sunday in  Ordinary Time
Wisdom 7:7–11 / Psalm 90 / Hebrews 4:12–13 / Mark 10:17–30
What Do We Want?

As a child I knew just enough of Arabian Nights to be aware of the story about Aladdin and a genie who would grant wishes. In my youthful naiveté I spent more than a few minutes fantasizing about that. In a more mature state of mind I think more now about the the way that our desires have a lot to say about who we really are.

The biblical story of Solomon brings the fantasy into real life. After inheriting the throne of his father David, 

the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
Solomon answered, “….give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong….”
The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings (1 Kings 3:5, 9–13).

The first reading from the book of Wisdom gives the witness of this story from Solomon himself. It should raise with us not only the fantasy of a genie offering us wishes, but the reality that God invites each one of us to ask great things!

What are we asking of God? What is the desire of my heart?

We get another perspective on this question when we come to the Gospel reading. A young man comes to Jesus and seems to want eternal life. Jesus knows this man needs first to face the reality of what he really wants––where his heart is, so Jesus gives a huge challenge: give everything else away. In response, the young man turned away from Jesus, for he had many possessions.

We have this blunt truth: not only did the young man have many possessions, his possessions had him. So a key issue in today’s readings is this basic question: What is the desire of my heart?

We all need help with this. We cannot know our hearts by ourselves. We rationalize too easily for our own advantage. So the Hebrews reading tells us that God gives us his Word, which is able to discern reflections and thought of the heart. That is one reason the Scriptures are read and proclaimed when Christians gather. We need to be taken beyond our own limited perspectives. Only in going beyond ourselves will we inherit eternal life.

Jesus says a hard thing (and his disciples were “blown away”): How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter what our relative wealth is. We can be inordinately attached to anything from the very impressive to the paltry. Jesus warns that things (the so-called riches of this world), and even our families (if given priority above God himself) can get in the way of God’s Life working in us.

If we can be honest, I think stories like this young man who turned away frighten us. Like the disciples, we hear what sounds impossible. Instead of being able to hear Jesus lovingly call to us what is most important, we instinctively recoil from significant things it seems we must give up. A classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste…. but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to remove something he liked.

We can have a fear of inviting God to cleanse us of everything distracting so that we seek and love him above all else. So here’s what we do. Ask for the grace to pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we make even a start to desire what God is offering, we will find that he knows how to give what he really wants us to have. Jesus says: All things are possible with God.

What is the desire of my heart? “Lord, help me to want what you want me to want.”

In another Gospel we find Jesus saying, Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all the other things will be added.

God knows what we need. Most of all we need him. What is the desire of my heart? “Lord, help me to want you more than anything else! That is more than a wish. It is a request the Lord will give to all who ask.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Marriage and Meaning

October 7, 2018 –– 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:18–24 / Psalm 128 / Hebrews 2:9–11 / Mark 10:2–16
Marriage and Meaning

Human sexuality is in crisis. It is under attack. This should not surprise us when we consider the place it holds in God’s design. We believe that God has given us “Manufacturer’s Instructions” for how to live in this world he created. There are several things about marriage from the Scriptures for today which need particular attention because they are so at odds what is being fed into popular opinion.

The first is the very nature of humanity. Just a few years ago one of today’s battlegrounds would have seemed impossible and labeled insane: the debate about gender. This is not the setting for delving into the particular arguments about that. What we need today is to hear Jesus affirm the truth upon which our physical identity is based: From the beginning God made them male and female. This must be the starting point for all Christians with any discussion about gender.

Then there is the nature of marriage. Holy Scripture gives us God’s affirmation for human existence: It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a suitable partner for him. Jesus gives his sanction to this and repeats the early revelation: For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

It is out of this union that humans show many of the ways we are in the image of God. There is the unity of two complementary people. This is meant to mirror the unity of the Trinity and the true nature of Christ and the Church. There is also the gift of extending creation, so that out of the union of husband and wife there are children. This is the domestic church that can so pervasively give a tangible witness of God’s character and glory throughout the earth.

For this to happen in its fulness and have proper stability, marriage must be permanent. The initial question for the Gospel reading was the Pharisees asking Jesus if divorce was okay. Jesus said no, and that the reason the law of Moses made allowance was hardness of heart. The words of Jesus are part of our marriage liturgy: What God has joined together, no human being must separate. We should always remember that Jesus is calling us and, through his grace, taking us to the place of “heart” that God designed in the beginning. We were created to show who God is.

I want to emphasize a phrase: through his grace….  I know that the issue of our sexuality has been a cause of major struggle and guilt for many, many people––especially in the Church. I remind us all of something John declares in his Gospel: God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (3:17). What God tells us about something so basic as our sexuality is always for our good. Knowing that we fall short and need his mercy and grace, we have forgiveness through God’s Son. We should always remember: God forgives us so he can heal us and make us holy. Salvation is a whole package!

So marriage, as God intended it, is at the very core of what it means to be human. Yet there is the exception of celibacy, either by circumstance or choice (and celibacy always means chastity; there is no place for twisting “celibacy” to mean merely “unmarried” yet sexually active). We need to think through the implication of the unmarried. Although humanity cannot show the fulness of God without marriage nor continue our existence without reproduction, an individual person does not have to be sexually active to have a full and satisfying life.  The single life lived rightly is also a vocation that shows the glory of  God. This, too, is in major conflict with contemporary opinion which seeks to give preeminence to the god of eros. We are witnessing in our social order the anger and upheaval that happens when sensuality is turned into an idol and given free expression. It is vicious.

The world around us is speaking out and acting out in ways that go against what God intended for human sexuality. The more a society rebels, the more that frustration and––ultimately––violence will affect the people. We have these straightforward words from Scripture that have been affirmed by the Church for 2000 years. Let’s not lose sight of what God has said as we live in tumultuous days. God tells us what we need to know for our own good: From the beginning God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. There is meaning in marriage.

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