Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Spiritual Authority

Wednesday: November 13, 2019–– 32nd Week of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 6:1–11 / Luke 17:11–19
Spiritual Authority

St Paul tells the Romans that the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (11:29). He is talking about God’s promises to Israel and giving assurance that the Jewish people will not be left out of the salvation accomplished by Christ.

Yet the principle goes beyond the particular application in the Romans letter. The original gift and call that God gave his human creation was to govern the earth as his vice-regents. Humans have an inherent spiritual authority that has a cause and effect in this world. It can be used for great good; it can be used for great harm and evil.

The harm and evil that has been done is quite visible across the span of history. One of the worst conduits is what we think of as political power. That is the basis of the warning in today’s reading from Wisdom: Because authority was given you by the Lord…. Because though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly….Terrible and swift shall he come against you….

Lord Acton has been credited with saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Pride and a selfish lust for power has turned God’s gift of vice-regency into horrible repercussions in our world.

But God’s people are not totally helpless. One way to understand prayer is our God-given ability to use spiritual authority to combat the forces of evil which operate through dark principalities and powers.

This is also a good way to understand why humility and thankfulness can be powerful actions for good––in our own souls and in the world around us. The Gospel shows us the kind of people God is so prone to work in and through––the lowly and desperate, like the lepers. Yet there is a needed response: thankfulness––an attitude that acknowledges God as God.

When live unto God we are allowing the spiritual power of our vice-regency to flow through us for good. And so we come to him each day, humbly taking our place both as his exalted creatures and as his dependent children. And we pray…. we pray for good and we pray against evil. And we ask for the grace to give thanks always for his good gifts.

The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Let’s use them wisely.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Life and Death

November 10, 2019 –– 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5 / Luke 20:27–38
Life and Death

This is the time of year when the Church turns our attention through the readings to the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The wisdom of Christian Tradition knows we will not easily think about those things on our own. Our society is obsessed with the here and now. Physical comfort, convenience, and entertainment would be contenders for a “secular trinity.” The Scriptures and the lives of the saints tell us that faithfulness to God is more important that all those things––that faithfulness to God is even worth dying for.  But…. if we are going to hold life in this world loosely, we must have a good reason for our faith. If this life is all there is, the “secular trinity” seems most reasonable. How do we understand the tension of life and death?

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. They were the aristocrats of Jewish society and collaborated with Rome, the power of the day. Their focus was the here-and-now. An unbalanced focus on life in this world is not an unusual response for the wealthy of any time or place. The Sadducees did not wish to lose their wealth, their comfort, and their “place.” But comfort and convenience can suffocate spiritual life. Who feels a need for God if it seems everything is going great? To the comfortable, heaven can seem like a fairy tale with no relevant meaning. Temporal life becomes more important than God; death is to be avoided at all costs and the interim filled with whatever helps us forget we are going to die.

Contrast the Sadducees with the seven brothers and their mother in the Maccabees story. Life certainly was not comfortable and convenient for them. Alexander the Great’s empire had extended into Judea and there was a tyrannical demand that everyone be totally unified in their allegiance to the state. There was no place for a religious commitment that conflicted with the unification of the social order. How shall we respond when there is pressure to be absorbed into a conformed pattern of living that denies God and his truth? This old Jewish story tells us: Even after being tortured one of the brothers said, It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him….

One gross distortion of contemporary Christian Faith is to see it as a spiritual insurance policy providing coverage from hard and painful things in life. Prayer becomes access to a divine vending machine––say the right words and you get supernatural goodies. The Thessalonian letter written by St Paul almost 2000 years ago is an ongoing reminder to all Christians that the world can be a hard place––especially for those who give total allegiance to Jesus. Here the Apostle Paul is asking the Thessalonian Christians to pray that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith. He knows that all Christians are in a spiritual war and we need God's perspective and presence.

When people give Jesus total allegiance and Christians have a passion to extend the Gospel to the whole earth, there will be obstacles. Christian faith and practice are being suppressed more and more in our own nation. Much of the world is closed to Christian witness today because spiritual warfare is real. There is opposition to Christian Faith to the point of persecution and death. It’s been that way throughout history, yet it’s not only an in-the-past issue. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than all previous centuries combined! It is estimated that in the two millennia of Christian history, 70 million faithful have died for the Faith, and 45.5 million––65%–– were in the last century. We are in a spiritual war. Satan does not want the love and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ to prevail.

How can we stay faithful? How can we not succumb to the numbing effects of seduction like the Sadducees? How can we choose faithfulness to Jesus above ridicule or financial loss, or even   physical persecution? Well, we have examples of faith like the seven brothers and their mother. We have the martyrs of the Church. Most of all, we have Jesus affirming a life that goes beyond this world: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is a God of the living. As Paul tells the Thessalonians: the Lord is faithful. And so we pray each day for the grace to live in true faithfulness––to give total allegiance to Jesus.

We cannot give witness to something we don't live, and we're not expected to live something God hasn't provided. Knowing Jesus Christ is to know God's love. And knowing that love, we are to show the love of Jesus.... to our wife or husband.... to our children.... to our neighbors.... to the people at work. We are to witness to the love of Christ everywhere we go. When we do that, we are being witnesses of the Gospel (the root of “witness” is martyr). When we witness to the love of God, we show that there is something more important than our own comfort and convenience, or even our very lives. It is because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and coming again to bring total healing to this broken world.

Luke’s setting for this part of his Gospel is Jesus on the way to the cross (see Lu 9:51). This is  so we can know the power of God over death itself. Maccabees tells the story of people who paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to God. Each one of us as Christians is called to “martyrdom” –– laying down our lives in selfless love as a witness to Jesus. It may be a “red martyrdom”–– laying down our physical lives for Jesus’ sake, but more often it’s what the Church calls “white martyrdom”–– dying daily to our selfish desires so that the life and love of Christ in us can grow.

We often hear, “Life is short…. better enjoy it.” How about, “Eternity is long, better prepare for it!”  That is how to keep a true perspective on life and death

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Jesus Wants Everyone

November 3, 2019 –– 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22–12:2 / Psalm 145 / 2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2 / Luke 19:1–10
Jesus Wants Everyone

When Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he read from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). And preach good news to the poor he did. Later Jesus sent an answer to John, who was in prison and wondering if Jesus was the One, saying, Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deafa hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor (7:22,23).

So it can be surprising that Jesus sought Zacchaeus. Luke tells us he was wealthy (v2). Not only was he wealthy, his wealth came through his collaboration with Rome; he was a tax collector. Here was a man who held in public opinion the place a drug dealer might have today. Here was a man opposite of the blind beggar in the previous story of Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus had power. He had advantages. He could buy almost anything he wanted. He was surrounded by comfort.

Just as Jesus had pronounced blessing on the poor, he had denounced the rich:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry (6:24).

Jesus told horror stories about the rich (12:13ff and 16:19ff). He told the rich ruler to give everything away to the poor, and then commented on the man's reluctance by saying, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! (18:23). Why did Jesus give attention to Zacchaeus?

Maybe it was because he was a tax collector. Anyone who was that despised by everyone else was especially needful of Jesus' compassion. In fact, Levi (or Matthew), one of the twelve disciples, had been a tax collector (5:27). Quite early in his Gospel Luke says that Jesus had a reputation of being a friend of tax collectors (7:34). And because of that, tax collectors made it a point to gather around Jesus (15:1).

The truth is, Jesus gave himself to anyone who would receive him. Jesus gave all kinds of people an opportunity. He ate with tax collectors, yes, but he also ate with Pharisees (7:36 and 14:1). The issue was not one of relative wealth, occupation or handicap. The issue was then what it is today, one of love and grace on Jesus' part, and one of acceptance or rejection on the part of others.

Zacchaeus took a first step toward Jesus by going out and climbing the tree. Whether wealthy or sinner of any kind, when someone takes the first step toward Jesus, he will offer his love and mercy. Zacchaeus recognized the need to respond to love and mercy, and he did. He gave away half his possessions to the poor and promised to make restitution for the many times he had cheated people. Jesus reaches out to all kinds of people, and the people who choose to follow Jesus show his grace in their lives in some demonstrable ways.

Notice that Zacchaeus gave only half his possessions away. Jesus' word to the rich ruler was to give everything away (18:22). Here is where we find differences. The issue of what to do with wealth did not even exist for the poor who turned to Jesus (like the blind in the previous story). Zacchaeus gave away half and it was enough. Paul wrote to Timothy to tell the rich not to trust in their wealth but to share (1 Tim 6:17-19), but in spite of that warning he does not categorically denounce the rich.

Maybe this is enough for us to begin to see something important about people who follow Jesus.  First of all, Jesus wants all kinds of people as his followers. He wants the poor. He wants the handicapped. He wants the people that much of society thinks is worthless. Jesus wants sinners  ––big sinners. He wants the kind of people who have collaborated with structural evil. He wants people who have used power to hurt others. He wants people whose manners and way of life are disgusting to normal people. Of course he wants them to change, but he wants them. The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.

Jesus wants people who are rich. He does not want rich people because of their money; he wants them in spite of it. He may tell some to give it “all” away; he will certainly have those with money who obey him give some of it away. And all of us, like Zacchaeus, need to give back to anyone we have wronged.

So whether one is a common worker or a corporate executive, a rich person or a poor person, a person with almost every advantage or a person with any kind of handicap, Jesus wants you. Whatever or whoever you are, Jesus wants you. But know this: when Jesus “has us” it will change us, as it changed Zacchaeus.

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