Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Hard Teaching From Jesus

February 24, 2019 –– 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Samuel 26:2, 7–9,12–13, 222–23 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 15:45–49 / Luke 6:27–38
A Hard Teaching From Jesus

Does Jesus actually mean what he says? Jesus said some hard things. In saying love your enemies and bless those who curse you and offer the other cheek we certainly have words coming from Jesus that go against the grain. Did Jesus intend this to be taken literally or was he speaking in hyperbole to get effect?

There are those who understand these words literally as a basis for total pacifism. I traveled this road earlier in my spiritual journey, but I do not think Jesus is negating the use of force for social order in the world at large. The Church does not teach unqualified pacifism. There is an argument that Jesus was using figurative language here, but if Jesus was using figurative language we still need to know what he meant. He surely meant something! One problem with taking Jesus figuratively is that Jesus is not taken seriously at all.

Jesus is addressing his disciples here, and he is at least speaking to the way his followers should respond in their personal relationships. How do we handle it when others do bad things to us? Jesus' answer can be summed up in one word: love. We use this word “love” in a multitude of ways. No, we do not love our enemies with the same kind of love as our nearest and dearest family and friends, but we can choose to seek any person's good.

In this context, the admonition to love our enemy stands in direct contrast to the desire for personal retaliation. We inherently want to “get back” at those who harm or even threaten us. This was Abishai’s counsel to David––to “get” Saul while he could: let me nail him to the ground… God has always been concerned with retaliation among his people. In the Old Testament God gave laws limiting retaliation. When he told Israel An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, it was a divine limitation on the vengeance that says “if you break one of my teeth, I’ll smash all of yours!”

As if to emphasize that he expects people committed to his kingdom to respond differently than others, Jesus contrasts the behavior of “sinners" (this word is used in the context of those not concerned with what God wants). Jesus says that any person can love the people who love back. Most will lend if they expect to be repaid. But to love people who hurt you, and to give to people who not only are not able to repay but who may not seem to deserve it anyway, and to forgive without getting nasty about it, is to show that we really believe what Jesus says. When we choose to respond in love and forgiveness, and to give even when it hurts us, we are saying that nothing in this life is more important than showing Jesus’ kind of love.

Maybe your neighbor has a cat that seems always to be messing up your flower bed. How you respond to the neighbor is the issue Jesus is addressing. Did someone mistreat you maybe five weeks or five months or even five years ago and you can’t let it go?

The big issue here is whether anything in this life is more important to us than seeking to obey and be like Jesus. The desire to retaliate or the tendency to withdraw and sulk is part of everyone of us. Jesus isn't denying that; he wants to correct it and heal our souls.

There is a story from the gas shortage back in the early 70’s that deserves classic status. It happened in California where the population is dense and the lines were long. As one man sat waiting and waiting, a woman pulled in and cut in a small space in front of him. He was angry and got out of his car and walked up to the window of the woman's car. She locked her doors and just smiled at him. So he went back to his car and took off the gas cap which had a lock on it. He put it on her car, locked the gas cap, and drove off.

We instinctively think: the woman got what she deserved. But what if God gave us what we deserve? Maybe we think it's easy for God to forgive. We can feel so strongly whatever injustice has been done to us. But if we think it is easy for God to forgive we need to get alone and think about Jesus on the cross.

I know this is hard. It’s easy to think, "But that's not normal!" and I admit, "That's right!" But that is what the Christian life is all about––anyone can be "normal" according the world's definition. It doesn't take the love of Jesus to hit back or hold a grudge; it takes grace not to. And that's what Christianity is––being people who understand the need for God's grace, and being open to grace for ourselves so that we become channels of grace to others.

As Christians, our standard is God himself. Our calling is to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. Paul tells the Romans: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). Jesus says this in the Gospel reading: ...the Most High / is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. We cannot lower the standard that Jesus sets and be faithful; what we can do is ask for the grace to live this way and repent of our failures every week if that’s what it takes. This is how to be faithful.

If you are holding a grudge today, if you are withholding forgiveness, I ask you to decide right now to pray to let it go. If you have withdrawn from a person because of something he said or did, let it go. If he didn't mean to hurt you, why let it stand in the way? If someone did mean to hurt you, then forgive him and leave it with God. Don’t let someone else's sin ruin your life as well!

As we learn to absorb the personal blows that come our way, we learn more and more what it means to know and follow Jesus. When we give ourselves to Jesus, it affects everything we are and do. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Call For Change

February 3, 2019 –– 4th Sunday in  Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4–5, 17–19 /  Psalm 71 / 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13 / Luke 4:21–30
A Call For Change

Change is hard. We are mostly creatures of habit. We get accustomed to traditional expectations, familiar friends, and particular routines in our own lives.

Perhaps change is the very hardest when it is something that threatens the essence of the way we see ourselves It’s really hard when we realize that the highest values we hold have lost their place in the world at large. That's one way to see this incident of Jesus in his hometown.

We know things about Jesus that his hometown did not know. We have the whole story in the Gospels. We have almost 2000 years of Christian Tradition. We know to expect the life and words of Jesus to be different and challenging because he was and is the Son of God.

So as we come to this story about Jesus in Nazareth, we have inside knowledge. The hometown people of Nazareth did not know what we now know. These are people who would have had well-defined expectations. As first-century Jews, they expected the Messiah to come some day and turn their fortunes around. Coming out of that was  a bit of prejudice. God's promises were for them (and them alone)..

Do you see the collision? There is Jesus with his mission from the Father as it came with the fresh life of the Holy Spirit. Here are people with their own expectations of what God is going to do, how he's going to do it, and who he will do it for.

Jesus read from Isaiah. It was a Scripture that triggered the hopes the people would have had. Jesus said he was the one to fulfill this prophecy. At first it seems they might believe him. They had never heard Scripture read like that before. And no wonder––can you imagine what it must have been to hear the Living Word read the written Word?  But the doubt trickles in. "Isn't this Joseph's son?” they asked. Again, they didn’t know what we know. Jesus was not “Joseph’s son” in the way they assumed.

It's here we see something else about Jesus. He doesn't coddle unbelief. He is like an Old Testament prophet. Jeremiah described some of this in the first reading. We might think that Jesus would have responded with understanding. He could have said, "I know it must be hard for you to believe this, but,…" Instead Jesus responds in a way that he does again and again: he says something else to push the offense.

He told them two Old Testament stories that they knew very well. In the two stories, the one common theme is that God's grace came to the outsider instead of an Israelite. It was a Gentile woman and a Gentile man that received the prophet's blessing. Jesus was telling them that their attitudes were causing a repeat performance; he was bringing good news to those who could truly receive it––people like Gentile sinners. If they were not open to that, they were acting like those who persecuted the prophets of old.

We need to recognize that it is easy for us to be like the townspeople in Nazareth––expecting God to fulfill all our hopes while at the same time trying to keep our own boundaries and prejudices. This cuts us off from people God loves––people God wants to love through us.

We come to church each week, I hope, because we want to identify with God's good news. Jesus' words to the people of Nazareth tell us it is not good news if we can't get beyond our own expectations.

Jesus brings all people to a point of decision. He pushed the issue with his hometown people. He will push issues in our lives. And the big issue is simply this: are we going to be like Jesus, or like the people of Nazareth? How tightly do we hold to our own boundaries and insist on our own way?

This kind of change does not come easily, but change is what Jesus is after for all of us. He does not intend to leave any of us the way we are. We all need to be in that process of change that turns sinners into saints. Our calling is to be like Jesus and not like the people at Nazareth.

God is always asking us to change our minds about things that pad our self-interest. God is asking us to change our minds about who is worthy of our attention and our love. It may mean changing our expectations of what it means to be the Church. It will surely mean going against the prejudices that are accepted by the popular culture around us.

Our culture has many wrong ideas, but there is one that needs to be front and center before us right now. As the attempted justification of late-term abortions swirls around, we need to know and proclaim (and vote): it is never okay.

We are called to invite the Spirit that lived in Jesus to extend God's kingdom through what we believe and say and do. That is the way sinners are changed into saints.

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