Homilies - July 2010
- July 18, 2010
- by Fr. Boniface
Hospitality and Laughter
It is a pity that our first reading stops short of Sarah’s reaction to the Stranger’s prophecy that she will bear Abraham a son within the year. The book of Genesis reports that:
“Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent just behind him.…So Sarah laughed to herself…But the Lord said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Shall I really bear a child, old as I am?” Is there anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?…Because she was afraid, Sarah dissembled, saying. “I didn’t laugh.” But he said, “Yes you did.” (Genesis 18: 10-15).
Laughter. Good laughter, virtuous laughter springs up from interior joy. It can also well up when we recognize incongruities as in the case of Sarah. She probably thought that that young fool was probably trying to flatter her: “He’s trying to pretend that I’m much younger when he can plainly see that the march of time has worn tracks over my face like desert highways crisscrossing each other.” Probably hiding behind a curtain in the doorway, she dissembled when the Stranger confronted her. But that laughter was to be but the prelude to the laughter of joy and delight when within the year she would greet her baby, the long promised heir. It was quite a shock, although a delightful and joyous one. Laughter and joy. The whole reading from Genesis is suffused with joy and unexpressed laughter, joy the quiet laughter of the heart.
It was a hot summer day and Abraham wanted to take a rest. He was interrupted by passing strangers who changed his whole life. It was God moving among his people traveling in disguise. Interestingly enough there were three of them, but Abraham insisted on speaking to them as a One, becoming a symbol of the Trinity in later times. The Eastern icon of this event bears two names: The Hospitality of Abraham, and The Old Testament Trinity. Abraham in true Eastern fashion where hospitality could mean a matter of life or death, invited them to a “little” refreshment. That “little” is sheer understatement as he produced a steer and fresh bread for his guest’s pleasure. It seemed to have been a men’s affair, for Sarah is in the tent, in the kitchen. The promise and the laughter ensue. Abraham received his guests with great reverence: He ran (contrary to the dignity of an Eastern elder)… to greet them and bowed to the ground. After they accepted, he became a servant to them, washing their feet and served them their meal. He and Sarah were rewarded by the Stranger’s announcement of the long awaited heir. That is why the story of Abraham and his divine Visitor is suffused with laughter and joy. God in his compassion once again moved among his people and salvation history moved to a greater reality with the birth of Isaac. It is to this story that the Letter to the Hebrews refers when it says: “Love your fellow Christians always. Do not neglect to show hospitality, for by this means some have entertained angels (that is God) without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).
Some two thousand years later, God Incarnate moving among his people, was shown hospitality by two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha set about making this a memorable event for Jesus and the twelve accompanying him. She was very busy preparing the menu, cleaning the rooms, cooking the meal, and setting the table. Mary was sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, and Martha harried and filled with the anxieties and cares of her idea of hospitality, having no Sarah to prepare the Steer and bake the bread was not laughing. She exploded and asked Jesus to intervene. Her request was a logical one, one with which most of us would agree. However, in the topsy turvey world of the gospel she received the famous answer: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42).
Contrary to popular opinion Jesus was not putting Mary down, nor did he exalt the contemplative life at the expense of the active ministry. Jesus appreciated Martha’s hospitality which reflected Abraham’s own care of his guests. Without Martha there would have been no meal. Jesus was concerned, however, about her anxiety and worries about a hundred things. Martha was doing the things she should do, but she had lost her center, the Christ in us as St. Paul puts it, or in this case the Christ with her. Both hospitality and discipleship demand a reverence as well as a listening to the Christ in us and in the events of our lives. Because the Martha of our story let all the exterior worries intrude on the still center of her heart, she was no longer filled with joy; she could no longer laugh. She could no longer listen. Mary, figure of the true disciple, sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to the Word. It is only when the Christian is attentive to the Word that he/she can minister to the world effectively by word and example. Because Mary was gathered in at the center of her being, listening to the Word, that the joy of God and joy, the quiet laughter of her heart, took possession of her.
There is a Martha and Mary in each one of us. Both are valid forms of hospitality. Abraham both served his unknown guests and bowed down in deep reverence giving them his undivided attention. This single mindedness does not abandon us when we are busy with the work at hand if rooted in Christ. The sisters are united in our hearts as one when we have given priority to our relationship with Jesus, sitting at his feet listening to his word and growing in our relationship through prayer. Then that peace, joy and laughter which are his alone to give will accompany us in all our activities and we can fully enjoy the company of our divine guest as we were destined to.
Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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- July 11, 2010
- by Fr. James
If we think back to some of our earliest memories, I think we’ll conclude that there is a tendency in most children to think that their own situation is just about the best imaginable. That is surely not true for those who grew up in settings of violence or rejection, but for most of us I expect we were very pleased with the way things were and the identity that this gave us. We likely thought, and perhaps even said at times, “I’m so glad that I am an American,” or “How fortunate that I am a member of the Catholic Church,” or “My mother is the best one I could ever imagine.” There’s something positive about this, for it gives a child a sense of security and belonging, but the downside is that it also sets up boundaries that can lead to suspicion and even dislike of those who belong to other nationalities, denominations, religions, or races. At its extreme, it can even lead to dehumanizing the Other and so give a justification for genocide, as when the Nazis spoke of the Jews as “vermin” or when the Hutus in Rwanda called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches.” Coming to genuine spiritual maturity surely involves getting beyond negative, harmful boundaries, and this is something that we regularly find Jesus teaching in the Gospels, both by word and example. Indeed, one of the main reasons why he was rejected by the powerful people of his own society was his willingness to associate with those who were outside the pale, those whom the evangelists often call “tax collectors and sinners.”
Perhaps none of his many parables teaches this more forcefully than the one we just heard, that of the Good Samaritan. It’s worth noting that relations between Jews and Samaritans were not hostile at all times. Some rabbinic regulations permitted a Samaritan to be included in the number needed to say a common grace at table, and a few of the rabbis spoke of the Samaritans as being more faithful than Jews in the commands that they accepted. In general, however, what we all learned in Scripture classes about hatred between the two groups was correct. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that in the second century before the common era the Jewish Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus, in his hatred of the Samaritans, besieged their land, effaced their chief town by digging beneath it so extensively that it toppled into the river, and put its inhabitants into slavery. For their part, and at the very time when Jesus was a child in Nazareth, some Samaritans desecrated the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem by scattering bones in it one night during Passover. In short, there was no love lost between these two peoples.
It is against this background that one can understand the full force of Jesus’ parable. As happens elsewhere in the Gospels, he doesn’t directly answer a question about a certain fact (in this case, “Who is my neighbor?”) but talks instead about behavior, about how to act toward people whom we would be inclined to avoid. The lawyer, in asking his questions, was interested in boundaries, ones defined perhaps by “being in the Abrahamic covenant” or “being recognized by the religious leaders as righteous.” What he got instead was what one astute commentator has called “a concrete and forceful image that destroyed any thought of boundaries for mercy and love. Jesus is telling us that none of his followers dare circumscribe their concern by placing some people outside the scope of their obligation. Note that in the parable there isn’t even mention of the nationality of the man who had fallen in with robbers. We might assume it was a Jew, but for the Good Samaritan race didn’t matter. He simply came to the aid of a person in need, no questions asked.
This powerful teaching of Jesus is every bit as valid today as it was when first spoken. To give just one example, pertinent to things that go on in our own city, many commentators have noted the extreme rancor that currently exists in Congress between members of the two political parties, a degree of animosity that led one prominent senator to decide not to seek reelection even though he would almost certainly have won. Or if that example seems too removed from our own concerns, perhaps we should think of situations in our own lives where we set up our own boundaries. Ought we not ask if there aren’t times when, like the priest and Levite in the parable, we pass by “on the opposite side”? To the extent we do that, we ourselves risk being placed on the wrong side—with the goats and not the sheep—at the final judgment. The parable does not—indeed, could not—tell us exactly how to love another person in each and every circumstance, but it very much challenges our tendency to maintain childish boundaries and self-interest.
Now this doesn’t mean that we are called to treat everyone absolutely equally. That has indeed been the position taken by some ultra-idealistic spiritual writers, one of whom once wrote: “If you prefer one person to another, then that is not right. If you love your father and your mother … more than you do someone else, then that too is not right.” Much more sanely, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “just as the affection of love, which is the inclination of grace, is not less orderly than the natural appetite which is the inclination of our nature, the affection of our love must be more intense for those to whom we ought to behave with greater kindness.” But if it is right and natural to show more affection for those in our immediate family than, say, for an earthquake victim thousands of miles away whom we will never meet in person and can perhaps assist only by a monetary donation and by prayer, that person, too, remains very much in the orbit of those we are to treat as our neighbor.
I said near the beginning of this homily that one of the reasons why Jesus was regarded with suspicion and hostility by the religious leaders of his society was his willingness to associate with those called “Publicans and sinners.” In a special way, this association was often one of table fellowship. We, too, at this and every Eucharist are participating in a table fellowship. May what we do here—and even more may what we receive here in Communion, the sacramental body and blood of our Lord—lead us to follow ever more closely the footsteps of the Good Samaritan, helping persons in need in whatever ways we can.
Fr. James Wiseman
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 Meister Eckhart, German Sermon on the text of 2 Tim 4:2,5, in Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings, trans. Oliver Davies (London and New York: Penguin, 1994), 123.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q. 26, a. 6.
- July 4, 2010
- by Fr. Joseph
- Isaiah 66:10-14
- Galatians 6:14-18
- Luke 10:1-12,17-20
Many years ago, when my parents were alive and lived in Chicago, I used to visit them in the summer. Once while I was there and they were both at work three Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door and engaged me in conversation. They thought they were literally carrying out the sort of injunctions found in today’s gospel, to preach the good news; in fact, what they were doing was trying to persuade me of the errors the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in–that Jesus is not truly God, that the Holy Spirit is not a person, that Christmas trees are idolatrous, etc.
This points up the difficulty of interpreting a Scripture passage such as today’s gospel. At least we can say that it prescribes an extension of Jesus’ own preaching and mission through others, to whom He gives special authority and power.
The important question now is that of the relevance of this gospel for us: gospel passages such as this “missionary charge” were certainly important to the early Church, not simply as historical documents, but as instruction for conduct, especially in days when the Church was still highly missionary. But what of us? Do we read it at Mass simply as an instruction in what Jesus did during His life on earth, or are the words of this “missionary charge” intended also for us? Jesus’ words call for a hardy faith in the hearer, whether we take the simple injunction “cure the sick,” or the statement “I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions and all the forces of the enemy.” Do we find such faith verified in ourselves? Perhaps it is some consolation that certain scholars think that Luke does not see the missionary charge as a picture even of Luke’s own time, but of the time of Jesus, a period in the past–an ideal past.
Yet I don’t think we can be satisfied with that sort of answer: the disciples are sent to heal and to proclaim the Kingdom; thus this sending is an extension of Jesus’ own mission, and we shouldn’t want to exempt ourselves from that. But the questions remains: how, concretely, do we go about carrying out the mission of Jesus? Do we stand on street corners and proclaim (as members of the Catholic Truth Society used to do in Hyde Park in England)? Do we go from door to door ringing bells as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do? (A TV program I saw a while back presented a man who, when confronted at his door by two strangers, told them “No thanks, I have all the soap I need, and yes, I know that Jesus loves me”–perhaps a way of saying that that approach is not always too fruitful.)
Does the mission charge mean that all of us should join missionary orders or at least sign up to go as lay volunteers? What would be the consequence if the whole population of our Christian countries were to migrate to Africa or some other places we think to be in need of evangelization? We must recognize that the gospel’s mission charge relates to a first evangelization; except for a few very remote tribes, that is something which has already been done throughout the world. To the extent that the charge is relevant now, it’s a matter of making the gospel meaningful to our culture, a culture which has already heard the Christian message for centuries.
Many years ago Abbot Alban used a little story to illustrate a point, and it may be relevant also here. It seems that when Christ returned to heaven after His resurrection, the angels asked Him, “Where have you been?” He answered, “On earth.” “What have you been doing there? (Something great, no doubt!)” “Oh, I made a few friends.” “What plans have you made for carrying on your work?” “My friends will carry on my work.” “You have no other plans for carrying on your work?” “No, no other plans.” We might be tempted to ask whether such confidence has been justified. Certainly, if we look at the work of the first Apostles, it was; if we look at later generations, we may be tempted to wonder.
But here the other readings for today come to our aid. Why was today’s first reading chosen? I think it was chosen for the sake of the last line: “The Lord’s power shall be known to his servants.” But the power manifested in the seventy two — ultimately not their power but the Lord’s — has to have its counterpart in our day, too. This would not be by treading on snakes and scorpions but by the moral miracle of love in difficult circumstances. St. Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities do not suppose that the members were exiting en masse to evangelize the uttermost bounds of the earth. Rather, his letters are filled with advice and exhortations for living the true Christian life at home; this has been the Church’s great need throughout her history. People speak of the “great age of faith” when all of Europe was Catholic, but I question whether there ever was a “great age of faith.” The mass of people may have claimed to be Christians, but much of the history features wars of conquest and aggression, corrupt royal courts, duels fought over an insult to one’s “honor”–these do not go with a great age of faith. And we can hardly speak of America as a Christian country, as some do; a culture that is typified by consumerism, a Playboy mentality, and unimaginable disparity between rich and poor doesn’t deserve to be called Christian.
The great need in our day is not to evangelize distant countries but to make Christianity effective here, in our own culture. For this we need to begin with ourselves, and perhaps the most important phrase in today’s liturgy is from St. Paul in the second reading: “All that matters is that one is created anew.” A realist might ask, “what does that mean? how do I go about it?” Basically it is not something we do but something God does for us; otherwise Paul couldn’t speak of it as creation. And it is not quite accurate to present Jesus as leaving His friends to carry on the work and having no other plans. He sent the Holy Spirit! Remember those words from the first reading: “The Lord’s power shall be known to his servants.” The Lord’s power is known in us through the Spirit enabling us to live truly as Christians.
And here become relevant all those exhortations that Jesus, Paul, and the other early teachers have left for us: Love one another with genuine affection, anticipate each other in showing respect, look to the needs of others as to your own, bless and do not curse, never repay injury with injury, do not avenge yourselves, live honorably as in daylight, not in quarreling and jealousy, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, etc. At the Last Supper Jesus washed the feet of His disciples and said, “I have given you an example to follow, so that I have done to you, you should also do.” If we really follow such injunctions, Jesus’ plan for carrying on His work will be in safe hands, even if it’s only our hands.
Fr. Joseph Jensen
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