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II Kings 5:14-17; II Timothy 2:8-12; Luke 17:11-19

Today's II Kings reading is one of Scripture's most significant passages. It not only shows us how Jewish faith changed through the centuries, it also challenges us to live up to the unchanging ideals of that faith. Three points.

First, this particular sacred author - along with all other biblical authors - insists Yahweh's actionAs are never limited to just one group of individuals, even if they're God's Chosen People. Naaman is a Gentile, a Syrian army officer, a frequent enemy of the Jews. He only comes to Elisha seeking a cure of his leprosy because his Jewish slave girl told him about the healing powers of this 9th century BCE prophet and encouraged him to make the politically delicate trip. Nine hundred years later, Jesus would get into trouble with some in his Nazareth synagogue audience when he reminded them that Yahweh ignored many Jewish lepers to take care of this non-Jew.

Second, though it flies in the face of our Catholic tradition of clergy receiving stipends and stole fees, the II Kings author is adamant about Elisha's refusal to accept any sort of gift from Naaman. "As Yahweh lives whom I serve," the prophet insists, "I will not take it." The reason is simple and irrefutable: if we're rewarded for channeling God's actions, it would appear they're our actions and not God's. I don't remember that law ever being changed in Scripture.

Third, there's a theology in the Naaman story that we've gone beyond: the belief that Yahweh's a territorial God. He/she is obligated only to take care of people who reside in Canaan. Take one step across the border and you're in the domain of another god or goddess. That's why Naaman asks to take "two mule-loads of earth" back with him to Damascus. We presume he's going to spread that dirt over his property, creating an extra-territorial piece of Canaan, obligating Yahweh to take care of anyone who lives (and worships) on that soil. He says as much: "I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to Yahweh." The sixth century BCE Babylonian Exile would put an end to that restrictive theology. Jews forced to live hundreds of miles from the Promised Land eventually began to experience Yahweh's presence and power in a country that technically "belonged" to other gods. No longer was Yahweh limited to just one piece of geography.

Luke's Jesus mirrors some of the Naaman/Elisha story. Though the leprous Samaritan isn't a Gentile, he's regarded as being outside "acceptable Judaism." His heresy excludes him under pain of death from even going into the sacred confines of the Jerusalem temple. Obviously the God whom Jesus channels and has become can work beyond the restrictions with which people limit him/her. Not only that, but the heretic alone returns to thank Jesus for the cure. The other nine orthodox recipients of God's favor seem to have forgotten their manners.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons the unknown author of II Timothy zeroes in on our obligation to die with Jesus. He's convinced that only those who have died with him will live with him. It doesn't make any difference who we are or where we are, the one essential, never changing aspect of our faith is a willingness to die with Jesus by giving ourselves to others. No future theology will ever contradict that. No matter who we are or where we are, we're expected to always pull that off. What an insight!

Yet, I suspect you, like me, rarely thank the historical Jesus for sharing that insight with us. We just take it for granted and walk away from the person who died for us.


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Exodus 17:8-13; II Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8

We have to be careful how we interpret today's Exodus reading. One of my Catholic grade school teachers once encouraged us to pray with upraised hands, like Moses, if we wanted to make certain God would hear our prayers and grant our requests.

I'm afraid that teacher never heard of ancient "fertility cults." The biblical prophets certainly did; they constantly warned their people against employing such religious practices. One of my Scripture profs once defined fertility cults as simple answers to complicated questions, comparing them to modern TV commercials. Having trouble getting a date? Just change your toothpaste! Is your life boring? You're probably driving the wrong car!

The goal of fertility cults is simple: if you use special words or employ special actions the proper amount to times, you can tie God's hands behind God's back. He's forced to give you whatever you ask, even if he doesn't want to. God has no choice. It's akin to holding a piece of kryptonite in front of Superman.

That's why biblical Jews were forbidden to do anything that even smacked of fertility cults: to plow a field with a donkey and ox yoked together, wear garments made from two different kinds of material, or even boil a kid goat to death in its mother's milk. The prophets were convinced that no one should engage in any rituals which attempted to control Yahweh's actions in their lives. The Chosen People were expected to relate to their God, not control God.

Though Scripture scholars can't agree on the meaning of Moses' raised hands in our first reading, they're certain his gestures have nothing to do with controlling Yahweh's actions during the battle.

Luke's Jesus enters the fertility cult fray by insisting that those who have a proper relationship with God shouldn't have to worry about using gimmicks to have their prayers answered. God isn't a judge who will cave in under pressure. On the contrary, God is always interested in "securing the rights of his/her chosen ones." The question doesn't revolve around God's response to our prayers. It's about the frame of mind with which we say those prayers. "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Serious students of Scripture couldn't agree more with the emphasis put on the importance of Scripture in today's II Timothy pericope. The unknown author is certain "all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." Of course, the author is referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures. (The Christian Scriptures wouldn't be regarded as "inspired" for another 150 years!) And she/he is certainly not thinking about using those writings just as a source of "proof texts." The sacred writer obviously wants us to imitate the faith of those who composed them. Their faith is the word we should be "proclaiming, whether convenient or inconvenient."

I've discovered after almost 50 years of teaching Scripture that such a proclamation is often "inconvenient" in a church which has traditionally emphasized its own fertility cults. As a child, I used to worry about my non-Catholic cousins' eternal salvation. They knew nothing about receiving communion on nine straight First Fridays, making novenas to the Blessed Virgin, or the requirements for gaining plenary indulgences.

My mother once received a prayer card from a well-meaning friend. The novena to St. Joseph which it touted came with a warning: "You had better want what you're praying for to St. Joseph. You're going to receive it whether you want it or not."

We Catholics obviously are notorious for cornering the kryptonite market.


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Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Last week's readings zeroed in on the relationship expected of all people of faith with God. A life based on faith demands we relate with God, not try to control him/her. Today's gospel passage outlines the first step in building and maintaining such a relationship: honesty.

No two people could be further apart on a 1st century CE Palestinian religious scale than a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former was akin to a "super-Jew," spending his life studying, teaching and keeping the 613 Laws of Moses. Everything he did revolved around those Sinai regulations. Scanning his temple competition, he could logically say, "I'm not like the rest of humanity " greedy, dishonest, adulterous " or even like this tax collector."

The latter, on the other hand, really didn't give much thought to those Mosaic precepts. As a collector of taxes, he centered his life on a different value system. He would have daily done things forbidden to main stream Jews. The money he so faithfully amassed went not to his fellow Jews, but to his country's enemies: the Romans. A traitor to his people, he helped keep their oppressors in power. And he usually acquired those taxes by "immoral" means: extortion, blackmail and strong arm tactics. He not only was hated by everyone, but because of his profession, he constantly was at odds with the very regulations the Pharisee esteemed. Though tax collectors weren't forbidden under pain of death, like Samaritans, to enter the temple precincts, his presence in that sacred space would have surprised other worshipers. "What's someone like that doing in a place like this? There goes the neighborhood!"

Yet Jesus praises this religious scoundrel at the same time he brushes aside the religious perfectionist. Out of the two, the tax collector alone leaves "justified:" doing what Yahweh wants him to do, simply being honest about himself. His only prayer is, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." Unlike the Pharisee he doesn't compare himself with anyone else. He just zeros in on his own moral condition.

If all valid relationships revolve around giving ourselves to others, they can only work when we begin the process by being honest about who it is who's actually doing the giving. Yet we "fake it" so often during our encounters with others, that we also fall into that same trap when we're really trying to build relationships with significant others. Luke's Jesus reminds us that faking it with God in a no-no. God simply expects us to tell him/her who we really are. That's a given.

Sirach, in our first reading, encourages us not to worry: God treats everyone with total impartiality. Yahweh is a God of justice: a God of relationships. He/she gives everyone an even break. If our relationship isn't working, it can only be because we're holding back from giving our true selves to God, often because of something embarrassing in that true self.

The unknown author of II Timothy has no problem conveying his insights into Paul's personality, even when they suggest some of the Apostle's weaknesses. Though he's writing about a larger than life figure, he doesn't hesitate to get down to the nitty gritty. Paul certainly wasn't the kind of individual who appealed to everyone. "At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me." Some of us would also pause before stepping forward to defend such a radical person of faith. Paul wasn't perfect.

Perhaps that's why he, like us, constantly falls back on his relationship with the risen Jesus: the one person who presumes we're not perfect, and is grateful whenever we admit it.


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Wisdom 11:22-12:2; II Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10

On one hand, our sacred authors presume their readers are committed to seeing things other people overlook. But on the other hand, if they actually did see those things, there'd be no need for our authors to write. It's precisely because people of God don't always live up to their commitments that we have our Scriptures. In some sense, our biblical authors are in the "reminding" business, making certain we don't forget the essentials of our faith.

Today's Wisdom author has no problem assuming this role. Though he or she seems to be one of the first sacred authors to believe in an afterlife the writer also deals with the problem of evil in the world right here and now, especially when that evil is personified in certain individuals. The author's first principle is that Yahweh created the world in which we live, a world in which evil is always mixed with good. That's why Yahweh constantly shows mercy to the creation Yahweh brought into existence. But even more important, Yahweh's "imperishable spirit is in all things!" No matter if there's evil in us, Yahweh's undying spirit is also in us, a spirit which will continue to exist even beyond our earthly existence. Long before we meet God face to face, people of faith are committed to noticing God right here and now in all God's creation. If we acknowledge that presence, we always have an opportunity to "abandon" the evil which at times permeates us.

The disciple of Paul responsible for writing II Thessalonians zeros in on that same commitment. Yet he goes beyond just recognizing God's spirit in creation. He also recognizes the risen Jesus in those around him. His goal is to make certain "that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him."

Yet, we live in a world in which we experience a lot of distractions, impeding us from surfacing the risen Jesus in our daily lives. This particular writer especially has to deal with the community's preoccupation with Jesus' Parousia. Many are so anxious for his Second Coming that they fail to notice how, in his risen presence, he's already come into the lives of each of them.

But of course, the greatest obstacle always revolves around the actual people in whom God and the risen Jesus is present. Luke deals with this problem in today's gospel pericope. As we saw two weeks ago, tax collectors were probably the most despised and evil people in the historical Jesus' lifetime. Though it's not too hard to commit ourselves to experiencing God's presence in all people in the abstract, it's another thing to actually pick out one specific individual and surface God in him or her, especially if that person is a thief and a traitor to the country you love. Zacchaeus perfectly fits that category.

It's important to note that Jericho is the last stop before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the last stop on a journey that began more than 10 chapters ago. All along the Jerusalem road, Luke's been emphasizing Jesus' teachings and personality for those who are on the same road to dying and rising with him. After all those miles, can we find God in someone like Zacchaeus? Perhaps in narrating this encounter Luke is telling us the best way to surface God in others is to help them surface God in themselves, especially by showing our honest concern for them, no matter what other people think or say.

If we think the "lost" are going to be saved by God without our participation, then we're refusing to notice God's presence in ourselves.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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II Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; II Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-35

(originally published 2016)

We're so accustomed to thinking and speaking about an afterlife that we can't imagine people of biblical faith not believing in a hereafter. Yet the vast majority of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures knew only this life. That's why their theologies revolve around Yahweh rewarding us for our good and punishing us for our evil right here and now, long before our physical deaths.

Only about 100 years before the birth of the historical Jesus did some Pharisees begin to reason " especially in chapter 1 of Wisdom " that if we build a relationship with Yahweh in this life, Yahweh will continue that relationship into an afterlife. We especially hear that novel theology expressed in one of the Hebrew Scriptures' last books: Second Maccabees.

In today's reading from that book, the first of the seven martyred brothers, buying into that Pharisaical theology, can taunt his executioners with his conviction that ". . . you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever." The fourth brother heroically states, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life." Obviously at this point of theological development there's still no concept of a hell (or a purgatory.) People only have a choice between resurrection and death. Those who have a proper relationship with Yahweh will live with Yahweh; those who don't will end up being dead for all eternity.

Obviously the authors of the Christian Scriptures bought into the faith of their mentor, Jesus, and also professed faith in an afterlife, else the unknown author of our II Thessalonians reading could never talk about an "everlasting encouragement."

Yet as we hear in today's gospel pericope, the historical Jesus had to deal with a large segment of his fellow Jews " the Sadducees - who thought the Pharisees' teaching on being with Yahweh after this life was simply ridiculous. To prove their point they bring up the classic example of a woman successively married to seven brothers. They demand to know, "At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?"

As part of his argument, Jesus goes back to the Exodus 3 burning bush passage. He reasons if Abraham and Isaac and Jacob weren't still alive after their deaths, Yahweh would have told Moses, "I was their God," not "I am their God." (Though we might disagree today with Jesus' exegesis of that particular passage, in his day and age, it followed all the rules of proper biblical interpretation.)

But his most important argument revolves around a mistake the Sadducees were making. They presumed the eternal life in which Jesus believed and taught was simply an eternal continuation of this life. Nothing could be further from the truth. This Galilean carpenter was convinced that our resurrected life will be a totally different existence from the life we live right here and now. Just as angels live a different life from ours, so a resurrected person will no longer have to live within the limits this life imposes. Our deepest relationships with one another, for instance, won't be restricted to the human boundaries of marriage. Once we cross into eternal life, we'll "neither marry nor be given in marriage."

Though we often like to talk " in a consoling way - about our deceased loved ones continuing to do the things in heaven they enjoyed doing on earth, Jesus insists we'll eventually have to deal with the fact that our existence in heaven will be the biggest surprise we'll ever experience.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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Malachi 3:19-20a; II Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19

(originally published 2016)

Rarely does the future unfold exactly as we plan. There are always unexpected twists and turns, forcing us to deal with situations we never anticipated. This certainly has been the experience of people of faith, especially those committed to becoming other Christs.

As we know from our Christian Scriptures, one of the most unexpected things in Christian history was Jesus' delayed Parousia. His earliest followers presumed they'd only have to endure this particular state of affairs for a short time before he returned in the Second Coming and definitively changed how they lived. Though some held onto this belief for a couple of generations, by the time Luke writes in the mid-80s most were beginning to deal with the reality that they'd live their normal life-span and Jesus still wouldn't have returned. That's why the third evangelist constantly zeros in on how to live that life-span.

Luke is convinced we should stop giving into the temptation of constantly looking for signs. Jesus will return when he returns, no matter what's happening around us. International and cosmic events have no relation to his Parousia. But sadly, because of his delay, Christians will now have to deal with something for which they hadn't planned: persecutions. Luke's Jesus warns, ". . . They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name."

Not only that, but their faith will eventually create terrific tensions in their families. "You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name . . . ." But never give up hope. Jesus assures us, "Not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

Yet these unexpected persecutions aren't all bad. Among other things, they'll provide Jesus' followers with a valuable opportunity: an occasion to "give testimony" to their faith. In most places in the 1st century CE Roman Empire people on trial have a legal right to publicly defend themselves. In the case of Christians, their trials will provide them with occasions to explain their lifestyle to whole new groups of people; something they should plan on doing - with little or no preparation.

Of course, Jesus' delayed return also created other problems, as the unknown author of II Thessalonians eventually discovered. His or her mentor, Paul, was convinced many of Jesus' followers could live an ideal, communal life, sharing all their possessions with one another. Yet as time went on, some of those ideal communities had to deal with freeloaders: people who received, but never gave. After first setting up the Apostle as an example of generosity, the author is forced to warn these selfish individuals, ". . . If anyone (is) unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." This rather late Christian writing demonstrates the community simply dealt with unexpected problems as they arose. As time went on they more and more understood the implications of carrying on Jesus' ministry.

Perhaps the prophet Malachi shares the best insight into an unplanned future. Though members of his community were glad to hear that Yahweh would eventually consume the "proud and all evildoers" with fire, he assures them that same inferno would be for them "a sun of justice with healing rays." For people of biblical faith, there's always "another hand:" another way of experiencing things. Were the canon of Scripture still open, I'm convinced the saying, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!" would have made it into our bibles a long time ago.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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II Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

(originally published 2016)

As far as I can tell, all of us long for peace and tranquility, though few of us are willing to pay the price it costs to actually obtain it.

I frequently repeat spiritual author Jack Shea's insight that the historical Jesus' ministry revolved around answering just three questions " What do you want out of life? Where do you get it? How much does it cost?

It's clear from today's first reading that the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel believe David " king of the 2 tribes comprising the southern kingdom of Judah - can bring about such peace and tranquility. The author of II Samuel succinctly states the situation: "When all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron, King David made an agreement with them there before Yahweh, and they anointed him king of Israel." This history changing treaty was ratified in 1,000 BCE " the easiest date in biblical history to remember " and lasted until David's grandson Rehoboam's reign in the 930s when the one nation again reverted to being two.

But at least for those 70 years Jews believed they could eliminate war and fighting by having one leader stronger than any other leader, especially leaders of the countries surrounding them. Their king's army could either conquer those other armies, or put enough fear in them that they'd never dare start a war. A once popular 70s poster perfectly summarized their belief. "Lo, though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, because I'm the meanest s.o.b. in the valley." Peace came through power.

The Pauline disciple who wrote Colossians was convinced Jesus of Nazareth could also bring peace and tranquility, not just to Israel and Judah but to the whole world. Yet how this Galilean carpenter planned on doing it differed radically from David's methodology. It turned everything upside down. This itinerant peasant preacher believed peace could only definitively be achieved by reconciliation, not warfare. The Colossians author was convinced that Jesus personally accomplished this "by the blood of his cross." Against all logic, Jesus' peace came not from strength but from weakness " the weakness one demonstrates by loving, not conquering others.

Luke couldn't state this early Christian belief any better. Using Jesus' actual crucifixion as the background, he shows how his kingship was diametrically opposed to any other kind of leadership. Following common wisdom, one of the criminals crucified with him joins the crowd in wanting to know why the Christ " the savior of Israel " isn't saving the three of them by demonstrating he's more powerful than the soldiers who've just nailed them to their crosses.

Yet Luke's Jesus, always more concerned with the needs of others than his own, ignores their demands and instead responds to the plaintive request of the second criminal, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." He simply tells him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." In other words, "Stop worrying! My suffering and death will bring you peace."

The historical Jesus " following Jack Shea's insight " assured his followers they could achieve peace and tranquility simply by imitating him. Not very complicated. But it was the cost of that imitation which created difficulties. To eventually reach a tranquil state, we, like him, would first have to suffer and die by giving ourselves to those around us " especially our enemies.

No wonder after just a few centuries some theologians got us off the suffering and dying hook by coming up with the concept of a "just war." Just one problem: not only didn't the gospel Jesus ever mention that loophole, but after 1600 years of employing it, it has yet to bring anyone lasting peace and tranquility.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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November 27, 2022: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

(originally published 2016)

Biblical followers of God live in the middle of the tension between what's actually happening in their lives right now and what they expect to happen in the future.

Over the centuries some religious leaders have been accused of focusing their people's eyes so intently on the future that they conveniently ignored the painful here and now of their daily lives, a here and now they should " and could " have changed. They didn't lift a finger, for instance, to help eradicate slavery. They simply taught that there'd be no slaves in heaven.

The prophet First Isaiah could never be blamed for employing that maneuver to avoid responsibility for the world's problems. Though in today's first reading he speaks about an ideal future, he was active during a period in biblical history in which no one believed in an after-life as we do today. Isaiah's ideal future was restricted to the confines of this life.

That's why the prophet is so concrete when he speaks about that longed-for future. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares," he proclaims, "and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another." There's no eternal bliss waiting for anyone in heaven. We can only hope for peace and tranquility right here and now.

Yet there's a condition for acquiring this peace and tranquility. We must be open to hearing God instructing us in his paths and walk in his ways. The problem is that some people hear God's word and carry it out, while others go through life without even noticing the path God expects them to travel. Our sacred authors presume this awareness " or lack of it - effects both our here and now and our future. But the question remains: why do some hear while others don't?

It's clear from today's gospel pericope that the early Christian community frequently reflected on that same question. Though Matthew projects this query into the future Parousia " Jesus' Second Coming " many Scripture scholars believe this passage originally revolved around the situation many Christians encountered in their daily lives. How come two people from the same background " even the same family " have different reactions to Jesus' message? Two men will be the field, two women grinding at the same mill; one will be taken by Jesus, the other won't. The only way to explain it is that one was awake to what was happening around him or her; the other wasn't.

Just as someone pre-warned that a robber was going to hit their house tonight "would . . . stay awake and not let his house be broken into," so we've been pre-warned that the Son of Man is coming, not only in his Parousia, but also in our day by day lives. Psychologists often mention that unless we're actually looking for someone or something, we won't recognize them when they actually arrive. Staying awake is key to carrying on the risen Jesus' ministry.

That appears to be one of the reasons Paul zeros in on the same theme in today's Romans passage. "It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep," he writes, "for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." Scripture scholars point out that biblical salvation isn't just something which will start after our physical deaths; it also begins right now, whenever we die to ourselves, "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh."

As other Christs we're expected to challenge the same unjust situations the historical Jesus challenged. Those who believe everything in this world is just going along hunky dory have obviously forgotten to set their alarm clocks.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

(originally published 2016)

By far, the most important section of today's Isaiah reading is the line, ". . . The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh as water covers the sea." But the key to appreciating its importance revolves around being aware of the ancient Hebrew meaning of the words "knowledge" or "know."

Our biblical authors normally employ know or knowledge when they're talking about a person actually experiencing someone or something. It implies a far deeper relationship than just having a casual familiarity with persons or things, like I know the times tables, or I know him when I see him. When the word is biblically used in the context of men and women knowing one another " as in "Adam knew his wife Eve," or in Luke's annunciation pericope, "How can this be since I do not know man?" " it usually implies sexual intimacy.

So when the prophet speaks about the earth being filled with the knowledge of Yahweh, he's basically sharing his conviction that all of us one day will experience Yahweh's presence in everything and everyone we encounter. God will be as much a part of us as water is a part of the sea. For those who have that God-experience everything will change; even natural enemies will become friends.

Yet at this point in salvation history (8th century BCE), Isaiah is still locked into the Jewish monarchy. He believes it's through one of the country's kings that Yahweh's presence eventually will become an everyday experience. That's why he spends so much time enumerating the gifts such a unique sprout from the stump of Jesse will possess. (By the way, it's from this passage that we got six of the seven gifts of the Spirit we had to memorize in our Confirmation classes, not from any of Paul's lists of the Spirit's gifts!)

By the time Jesus of Nazareth was about to begin his public ministry, most Jews had given up on one particular king creating an ideal God-present age. A few centuries before this itinerant preacher shuttered his Capernaum carpenter shop, they started to believe Yahweh was going to step outside the reigning monarchy and send a special "Messiah" who would usher in this longed-for day and age. That's why Matthew's John the Baptizer is forced to set people straight, emphatically informing them he's not that special person; he's just preparing the way for him.

But even if we believe Jesus is the Messiah, we can never forget his basic "stump speech." He's not going to bring about God's presence, he's simply announcing that God is already present. Remember the first words of his public ministry: "The kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe in the good news!" In other words, "Why are you still waiting for something that's already here? You simply have to change your value system and you'll notice God working effectively in your everyday lives!"

Our earliest Christian writer, Paul, presumes his readers in Rome have already gone through such a value changing repentance. The eyes through which they filter everything happening around them constantly surface God's presence and actions. That's why, as Isaiah prophesied, they can experience the unity between people who traditionally were opposed to one another; especially the oneness between Gentiles and Jews. Jesus' ministry of helping people recognize God working in all people has made it possible to experience God in all people, even in natural enemies.

Often, especially during Advent, it seems we're still passively expecting God to enter our lives, instead of being committed to living the way Jesus of Nazareth thought necessary to recognize that God's already here. Perhaps a change in our value system is simply too much to expect.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
(originally published 2016)

Years ago one of my high school religion classes gave me a unique Christmas gift: a banner depicting Santa Claus with a question under his picture, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?" It's the same question the disciples of John the Baptizer ask Jesus in today's gospel pericope.

Jesus' response springs from our Isaiah passage. When Yahweh comes to save the people, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing." Matthew's Jesus adds something about lepers being cleansed and the dead raised, but the idea is the same. Though he's the one John's been looking forward to, he's not the Messiah people had been expecting. He's a different Messiah, someone who announces a good news that takes the spotlight off himself and shines it on the people.

Most 1st century CE Israelites presumed when this special anointed individual finally arrived their only problem would be finding a good seat from which to watch the show. He'd take care of everything. That appears to be one of the reasons Matthew adds Jesus' remark that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than even the prophet John.

In this context the "kingdom of heaven" is Jesus' way of referring to God acting effectively in this world. In other words, those who notice God working in the here and now of their everyday lives are the most important people on the face of the earth. They actually help the blind see and the lame run. They do what's necessary to change our planet's status quo.

Of course, the main characteristic such people must possess is patience. Though we're confident God's going to help us change "things," our hands are still feeble, our knees weak, and our hearts frightened. Perhaps James is right in saying farmers make good Christians. They, of all people, must constantly wait for things to happen. Rarely does any of their work bring instant results. Only someone who has faith in the future will plant seeds.

It's significant that in our gospel passage Jesus speaks about the Baptizer as a prophet. Against popular wisdom, a biblical prophet usually doesn't go around predicting the future. As Bruce Vawter always insisted, a prophet is the conscience of the people, a person who tells us what God wants us to do in our everyday lives.

But how do we tell real prophets from fake prophets? Religious leaders constantly try to convince their people that they alone speak for God. Among the rules for distinguishing realies from fakes, we know a real prophet can never profit from prophesying. Who would pay someone for telling them what they don't want to hear? Real prophets never wear fine clothes or live in royal palaces. On the contrary, like John, they're rarely welcome among the good folk. Often we have to leave our safe religious institutions and go out into "the wilderness" to even encounter them.

I once asked Carrol Stuhlmueller who he thought the prophets were in our day and age. He named the usual suspects: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, even Ralph Nader. But then he smiled and said, "I have my own personal list, Roger, that I'm not going to share even with you. If that list ever got out, I'd never again be permitted in the pulpit of any Catholic church in the world."

Since Jesus' historical disciples regarded him as a prophet long before they thought of him as God, it makes me wonder just who we should be expecting this Christmas.


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Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
(originally published 2016)

Today's first reading is probably the most misunderstood passage in the entire Bible. Beginning historically with Matthew's quote of the verse in our gospel pericope, we've presumed Isaiah has Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he proclaims these words to Judah's 8th century BCE King Ahaz: "The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel." Nothing could be clearer.

Yet there's no way to get around the late Raymond Brown's contention that there are no predictions of Jesus, as we know Jesus, anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. As far as I can tell, all historico-critical Scripture scholars agree with Brown. First they argue that Ahaz needed his sign yesterday, not 700 years in the future. Second, the Hebrew word " almah " which we Christians have gratuitously translated as "virgin" simply refers to a woman who has not yet had a child. (Like the word "heifer" designates a cow which has not yet had a calf.) Certainly virgins fit that category; but so do pregnant women who have yet to deliver their first child. These experts conclude the almah in this context is Mrs. Ahaz, and Emmanuel their future son Hezekiah, who would rule so well it would be like having Yahweh among us. Isaiah is simply assuring Ahaz his wife's pregnancy is Yahweh's sign the king's family won't be annihilated if he refuses to join an alliance against Assyria.

Though with just a minimal smattering of Jewish history it's not difficult to understand the original meaning of today's first reading. It's also not difficult to understand why our Christian ancestors in the faith so often insisted not only Jesus' message, but Jesus himself was prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures. Along with Matthew, even our earliest Christian author, Paul, presumes this to be a fact. He tells the church in Rome today that he's been ". . . set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures . . . ." For many Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures basically fill the role of Johnny Carson's sidekick Ed McMahon, announcing, "Now here's Jesus!" One way Jesus' first followers defended their acceptance of him as Messiah was to claim that if their fellow Jews read their Bible correctly, they'd also see it predicted Jesus and his message.

Even if today we know more about ancient history and the original intention of our sacred authors than Christians did 2,000 years ago, we still must appreciate the spirituality of those who preceded us in the faith. Unlike some of our own faith, theirs was biblically rooted. I presume Paul, following the standard exegesis of his day and age, believed many of the prophets foretold the coming of Jesus as Messiah. But on the other hand, when he spoke about the "gospel of God" being proclaimed through the prophets, he hit the prophetic nail on the head.

Without ever mentioning Jesus of Nazareth, biblical prophets foreshadowed his message and ministry, insisting that in Yahweh's eyes people are more important than institutions, rules and regulations. When those Jews whose faith dovetailed with the faith of the ancient Hebrew prophets encountered this itinerant Galilean carpenter, they saw and heard things most people missed. Like Joseph in today's gospel, they experienced God working in ways they could never have anticipated. They also received an "annunciation," convincing them this particular teacher was completely different from all other teachers.

Though largely ignored by preachers, scholars insist that biblical annunciations are literary devices employed by our sacred authors to make certain their readers understand the meaning of the events they narrate. Among other things, that means if we have a prophetic mentality, we'll personally experience many more than just the three gospel annunciations.


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DECEMBER 25TH, 2022: CHRISTMAS Eucharist at Midnight

Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
(originally published 2016)

Have you ever noticed the contradictions in the two gospel narratives of Jesus' birth? Perhaps one of the most significant disagreements revolves around where Joseph and Mary lived before their son's birth.

In today's Lucan pericope, they originally reside in Nazareth and temporarily end up in Bethlehem because of a return-to-hometown-census decreed by Caesar Augustus " an improbable census which no historian has yet been able to track down. After a short stay in David's city, the three return to Nazareth where Jesus spends his childhood.

In Matthew, on the other hand, Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem. Their roundabout path to Nazareth is triggered by King Herod's slaughter of children in an attempt to kill the Messiah " an atrocious action which even National Geographic claimed several years ago most probably didn't happen. The Holy Family first flees to Egypt, then, instead of returning to Bethlehem, eventually decide to settle in Nazareth.

We've traditionally gotten around these contradictions by combining the two narratives into a third account which we use for our school Christmas plays and display in the crib sets under our Christmas trees. Since we're so unfamiliar with Scripture almost no one notices this crime against divine inspiration. (I trust over the centuries that God has mercifully been shielding Matthew and Luke in heaven from this atrocity.)

Having heard these gospel birth stories all our lives, most of us believe we're listening to historical, accurate accounts of this important event, yet we're actually coming into contact with each evangelist's unique theology, not unbiased history. If we only had one gospel, we might be excused if we think we're listening to history. Thankfully we have two narrating the circumstances of Jesus' birth. The contradictions are one proof we're dealing with theology, not history. It's one thing to see something happen; quite another to understand the meaning of what happened. Theology's main goal is to convey meaning. That's why we almost always find contradictions in biblical theology. There's always more than one set of implications for any given event.

Like most Christians of his day and age, Luke was theologically convinced Isaiah was speaking about Jesus as Messiah when in today's first reading he proclaimed the Messiah's Prince of Peace "dominion" over all people. No wonder Luke calls upon angels to announce "peace to those on whom (God's) favor rests." If you've experienced such peace in your following of Jesus, then you theologically insert something about that peace in your birth narrative.

The unknown author of the letter to Titus does something similar in our second reading. Because he theologically interprets Jesus' death and resurrection as a cleansing of ourselves from "lawlessness," he encourages his readers to "reject godless ways and worldly desires," until the day when the risen Jesus returns in glory. It's important to note that as meaningful as this theology is for many Christians, it significantly differs from Luke's theology of the same event.

Perhaps one way to avoid the "schmaltz" accompanying our modern celebrations of Christmas would be to create our own theology of Jesus' birth. Imitating Matthew and Luke, we shouldn't start our theologizing with Bethlehem and Nazareth, angels and shepherds, but with our own personal, unique experience of the risen Jesus in our daily lives. With what would we compare that experience? Is there anything we've read or seen that would help others know what happens when we daily imitate Jesus? Or even better, would help ourselves more deeply understand that experience?

Jesus' birth not only had meaning for people 2,000 years ago, it should also have meaning for us today. If on this special day we don't explore that significance in our own lives, we're simply freeloading on other peoples' experiences.



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Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

We actually know very little about the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Except for Luke, the evangelists didn't write much about her, and the earliest Christian author, Paul, only refers to her in passing, as he does in today's Galatians passage: ". . . God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . ." Though many of us Catholics don't like to admit it, the first gospel writer, Mark, tells us in chapter 3 that Mary was one of Jesus' family members who one day "came to seize him" because they thought he was "out of his mind." If we only had Mark's gospel, I don't think we'd have many churches named "St. Mary's."

In some sense, it isn't important to know what the evangelists tell us about her historically as it is to surface how they use her " how they have her react to her son and his message. No one uses her better than Luke. Throughout his gospel, she's Jesus' perfect disciple. And Luke has a simple definition of that special person: he or she is someone who first listens to God's word and then carries it out.

Most of us are familiar with John Williams' well-known score for the movie Jaws, especially the two-note ostinato which warns of the shark's appearance. When we hear it, we know something bad's about to happen. In a parallel, but totally different way, whenever Mary appears in Luke's gospel, he plays her theme song, almost always mentioning something about hearing God's word and/or carrying it out. The classic place is in 11:27-28. "While he was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, 'Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.' He replied, 'Rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.'" If Mary's a significant figure for Luke, it's not because she's Jesus' mother, but because she best carries out her son's command to listen and act.

The evangelist's emphasis on Mary as Jesus' perfect follower also seems to be behind his remark in our gospel pericope that, "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." Before acting, other Christs must do a lot of reflecting simply to know exactly what God wants them to do.

Yet we can never forget that the historic Mary heard and carried out God's word as a 1st century BCE Palestinian Jew, not the European, blue-eyed Gentile young woman we're familiar seeing in our modern pictures and statues of her. Paul reminds his Galatian community that Jesus was "born under the law." Luke likewise reminds his Gentile community about one of the practical implications of keeping that law: "When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel . . . ."

Mary didn't hear God's word in a church, during a celebration of the Eucharist, or while listening to one of the gospels. She heard that word in a synagogue, reciting her Sabbath meal prayers, or while listening to the Hebrew Scriptures. God's word in that Jewish context eventually led her son, herself, and people like Paul to go beyond the limits of that historical context and discover Yahweh present and working in all people, not just Jews.

Perhaps January 1st is the best day to hear the famous blessing of Aaron. Though originally a Jewish fertility blessing, its words have evolved into sentiments all people of God share. Jesus' mother must have frequently employed it. May we, like Mary, not only hear these thoughts about peace, but during this year actually commit ourselves to doing what's necessary to make that peace a reality.


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Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

The future rarely turns out the way we plan it. This is especially true with Jewish expectations of the Messiah. Years ago, the late Raymond Brown remarked in one of our diocesan clergy conferences that the Messiah 1st century CE Jews were expecting has yet to come. "Jesus of Nazareth was not that Messiah."

Many Christians think the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had just one task: to foretell the coming of Jesus as Messiah. They overlook the fact that scholars tell us biblical concepts of the Messiah varied according to the peoples' needs in the day and age in which the various authors wrote. Messianic predictions, for instance, in 9th century BC Israel were quite different from those in the 6th century. Over the centuries the Chosen People went from presuming one of their next kings would be the Messiah to believing Yahweh would eventually send just one non-royal, unique individual to fill that role.

Since Rome occupied Palestine during Jesus' historical ministry, most Jews were convinced God would send a military Messiah who would throw the foreigners out. In the first third of the 1st century, pious Israelites were expecting the epiphany " the public "coming out" " of that kind of savior. For most, the biblical Jesus' epiphany as the Christ (the Messiah) was a total surprise.

As we hear in today's Third-Isaiah reading, there always was hope in Judaism that Gentiles would eventually "gather and come" to Israel in ways that would enrich the country and its people. ". . . The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you." Many even believed that besides "bearing gold and frankincense," these non-Jews would also proclaim "the praises of Yahweh." In other words, they'd actually convert to Judaism.

No Jew would object to their anticipated Messiah bringing Gentiles "into the fold." The main problem they encountered with Jesus of Nazareth revolved around some of his followers bringing these Gentiles into their faith communities without first converting them to Judaism. The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Ephesians succinctly states this "heretical" belief. ". . . Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." This certainly wouldn't be the teaching of the Christ whom the vast majority of Jews were expecting.

That seems to be one of the reasons Matthew, writing for a Jewish-Christian community, includes the story of the magi. Throughout his gospel he brings up instances in which non-Jews are better at living the faith of Jesus than Jews. Nowhere is this more sharply demonstrated at the beginning of Jesus' life than having not just Gentiles, but Gentile astrologers travel hundreds of miles "to do homage to the newborn king of the Jews," while Herod, the Jew, refuses to go the few miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to even check on the accuracy of biblical prophecies about the Messiah's birth.

Yet perhaps the strongest drawback to wide acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is contained in one small addition Matthew makes to Third-Isaiah's Gentile gift list. Besides gold and frankincense, the magi also bring myrrh. The late Dr. Irvin Arkin once asked, "How would you feel if someone gave you a bottle of embalming fluid as a birthday gift?" At the time of Jesus, myrrh was normally used to anoint dead bodies before they were entombed or buried.

Even in this glorious epiphany event, Matthew reminds his readers that if they accept Jesus as Messiah, they're also accepting their responsibility to suffer and die with him. You don't have to be Jewish to have problems with the epiphany of that kind of Messiah.


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Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17

Though it certainly created problems for the gospel churches, the first three evangelists still insisted on narrating an account of Jesus' baptism.

The reason for the problem revolved around the fact that many followers of John the Baptizer never accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They insisted John, not Jesus, had fulfilled the role of the long-anticipated savior of Judaism. (This belief didn't end during the period of the gospels. Historians remind us that some fourth century Jewish communities still had members who continued to believe in John as the Christ.) Since a superior normally baptizes an inferior, these devotees of John insisted that Jesus' baptism proved their point. Their mentor was superior to the Galilean carpenter who had once been one of John's disciples.

Yet in spite of the confusion, Jesus' earliest followers couldn't overlook his baptism. Because of what John's baptism signified, they presumed it was a life-changing event for him. As a member of the Dead Sea scrolls community, John employed baptism as an outward sign of people's determination to carry out Yahweh's will in their lives. The Essenes and others, like Jesus, who submitted to this ritual washing were declaring their openness to whatever God was asking of them.

Looking at the unique aspects of today's gospel pericope, Matthew seems to have created the "give and take" between Jesus and John over who should be baptizing whom simply as a way to get around the superior/inferior issue. But he also changes Mark's original narrative in another significant way. Instead of the heavenly voice proclaiming, "You are my beloved son!" Matthew's voice states, "This is my beloved son!" What formally was regarded as an annunciation to Jesus about his divinity is now looked upon as an annunciation to his followers; a small but very important change.

Many Christologists - those who study the person of Jesus - believe the historical Jesus only became aware of who he actually was when he made the life-changing decision to give himself completely over to God's will in his life. No wonder that event couldn't be left out of most gospels.

Luke even refers to it in Peter's well-known Acts of the Apostles "kerygma." He reminds the Gentile Cornelius, "You know the word that (God) sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power." Things always change when God's the center of one's life.

In the same way, everything also changed for Deutero-Isaiah, as we hear in today's first reading. Though he's convinced he's Yahweh's prophet, he's just as convinced he's a prophet unlike most of his predecessors. He's not going to cry out or shout, not even going to make his voice heard in the street. He'll deliver an extremely low key message, never resorting to anything which will squelch or break his people.

Our sacred authors are convinced that whenever one commits oneself completely to God one always discovers unique dimensions of his or her personality. Though in the giving process we all become disciples of God or the risen Jesus, no two disciples are exactly alike. Each lives his or her commitment in ways completely different from all others. Each sees roads to travel down which others don't notice.

The sacramental way to show our adult commitment to God and Jesus is by receiving from the Eucharistic cup. As we hear in I Corinthians 11, it's the outward sign Jesus instituted for us to show we're going to carry on his ministry - one of the ways we discover who we really are and what God uniquely expects of us.


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Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; I Corinthians 1:1-3; Matthew 1:29-34

I presume Scripture scholars didn't choose our liturgical readings. If they did, there's no way the most important verse of today's first reading would have been left out.

This second song of Deutero-Isaiah's suffering servant revolves around his belief that he's totally failed as Yahweh's prophet. Immediately after God assures him, "You are my servant through whom I show my glory," Deutero-Isaiah shakes his head and (in the omitted verse) says, ". . . I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength." In other words, "How could I have shown your glory when I screwed up the only ministry you gave me?" There's no deeper mystery in all of Scripture. God's actually held in higher esteem when we fail, not when we succeed.

Not only that, but our failures lead God to expand our God-given work, not decrease it. "It is too little," Yahweh tells the prophet, "for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." Instead of just proclaiming God's word to Jews, now Deutero-Isaiah will proclaim it to every person on the face of this planet.

Though as Christians we believe the risen Jesus shares his/her ministry with every disciple, none of us can be certain about the limits of that ministry. In some sense, that ministry is always in flux, it never stays the same. Not only Deutero-Isaiah, but also Paul of Tarsus provides us with an example of a mobile ministry.

Originally biblical followers of Jesus were divided into three categories. A "disciple" was anyone committed to carrying out Jesus' message and lifestyle. An "apostle," a disciple called to go out on a special, specific ministry " like the "72" in the Synoptic gospels. The "twelve," a group of apostles who frequently accompany the historical Jesus on his itinerant preaching trips. Membership in the twelve could change, but always had to be twelve to symbolize Israel's twelve tribes: among other things, an outward sign Jesus was directing his reform to all Jews, not just to a couple of tribes. Sadly, Luke is the one who confuses the terminology by employing the now-familiar phrase the "twelve apostles."

Paul wrote I Corinthians more than 25 years before Luke wrote his gospel. So when in today's second reading he calls himself "an apostle of Christ Jesus" we presume he's simply saying the risen Jesus set him aside for a special ministry, not that he's one of the twelve. And because biblical "call narratives" were composed long after the original event, we also presume the details of that ministry weren't outlined the instant he felt called. That his ministry would eventually revolve around evangelizing non-Jews probably didn't occur to him until long after he sensed he had an apostolic call. As we see in Acts, he first tried to proclaim the faith to Jews in synagogues, failed and only then turned to Gentiles.

Parallel things can be said about John the Baptizer. It's one thing for Matthew, a Christian author writing almost 50 years after John's martyrdom, to label this wilderness prophet Jesus' precursor, it's a totally other thing to surface what the historical John thought of himself and his failed ministry. Today the vast majority of scholars agree the coming of Jesus as such played no part in his preaching.

All these biblical failures force each of us to examine our own lives and the callings we've received. Have we ignored other callings from the risen Jesus simply because we somehow screwed up past ones?


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2013 Essays

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2010 Essays
December 25, 2010
December 10, 2010
November 28, 2010
November 14, 2010

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