Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-11-07: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14 / Psalm 17 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 / Luke 20:27-38
The Bible can be very relevant – even when it doesn’t mean to be. Take today’s gospel, for instance. Or, as Henny Youngman might put it: “Take my wife…please.” For those currently concerned about perceived threats on the institution of marriage - from gay marriage initiatives to Mormon polygamy (one man, many wives) - today’s gospel adds polyandry to the mix (one woman, many husbands). Those who pose the conundrum to Jesus aren’t really in favor of a woman having many husbands. Those Sadducees, ironically, are the conservatives in the debate; they’re fighting against the infiltration of foreign ideas and heathen practices into the lives of the ordinary Jew. Far from promoting polyandry in the next life, the Sadducees are arguing against the notion of any afterlife at all: no heaven, no hell – when you’re dead, the conservative Sadducees are saying, you’re dead. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of what we call the Old Testament where there’s no mention of an afterlife. Matter of fact, the only explicit mention of an afterlife is found in the books of the Maccabees and Daniel, not part of the Jewish Bible – then or now.

Afterlife is something that you would assume to be a standard belief, across the board, from Egyptian pharaohs to Siberian shamans. Christianity, likewise, seems imbued with the notion of an afterlife, from the are-you-saved rantings of TV evangelists to old-fashioned Catholics lighting candles for souls recently deceased or long-ago departed. So, it’s more than a bit ambiguous why the notion of an afterlife wasn’t part of Israelite religion or mainline Judaism until a short bit before Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were into it, but the Sadducees thought it a pagan idea. That’s why the Sadducees pose the question to Jesus about the woman married seven times in this life: So, you can just about hear them say - with a bit of a proto-Yiddish inflection, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?

The Sadducees, ardently religious in their own rite, would ironically find modern day allies in the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, militant atheists who think religion, especially the bit about an afterlife, just part of a childish wish list. Yet, while there are a growing number of agnostics and atheists in this post-Christian era, there has never been such a persistent interest in the possibility of an afterlife. From Dinesh D’Souza’s just-published best seller Life After Death: The Evidence to Clint Eastwood’s recently released film Hereafter – fascination about what might happen to us after we die is not losing, but gaining adherents.

Jesus and the Pharisees were part of a movement that wanted to bring to Judaism a fascination with the afterlife, even though it may have been a foreign import (paradise, after all, is a Persian word). They were not afraid to entertain the possibility that God reveals his truth and his promises through other religions as well. While it may indeed be true, as some notable theologians have recently pointed out, that Catholics have abandoned talking about “the four last things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell) as tenets of the faith, we are as mesmerized as everyone else by those mysteries when they’re presented through the popular imagination. To my mind the best, most recent, case for the uniquely Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was made (albeit unintentionally) by M. Night Shyamalan in his 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Our adventure doesn’t end with death, the film seems to be saying: we still have things to do and places to go, our connections with each other may indeed be eternal.

November (from Halloween to El Día de los Muertos to All Souls’ Day) is the month when many are reminded of the dead and what might have happened to them. Those mysteries concerning consciousness and awareness after death continue to fascinate us and engage our imagination which, in the end, may be the realest thing of all. For instance, you might imagine that, at this very moment, in some other dimension of existence, those argue-some Sadducees are sitting ‘round the karaoke machine with John Lennon singing Imagine – as in “imagine there’s no heaven…” Still arguing against the notion of an afterlife unaware they’re in the midst of it. Sort of like many of us here and now, on this earth, in this life, remaining oblivious to the mysterious connections we share with those on the other side of that chasm we call death, unmindful of the many graces we have already received from that unseen yet merciful providence: having been blessed, as the poet put it – unawares.

10-10-31: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22-12:2 / Psalm 145 / 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2 / Luke 19:1-10
If I were to cast a movie of today’s gospel, I think I’d get Danny DeVito to play Zacchaeus – he’s short, nasty, and feisty enough to climb a tree. And he’s got the kind of face only a mother could love.

But it’s to Zacchaeus, of all people, that Jesus looks. There was no one in all of Jericho more despised than Zacchaeus, the tax collector who made his fortune off the suffering of others. And yet Jesus wants to stay in his house, he wants to eat and drink with him - the wretched scoundrel whom everyone talked about behind his back. You can just about hear them: “grumbling,” the gospel says. Traitor, thief, that miserable little squirt…

It’s just a coincidence (or is it) that this gospel falls on Halloween – but it couldn’t be more appropriate. Despite the warnings of British bishops of late, admonishing the faithful to avoid dressing up in Halloween costumes less the practice surreptitiously tempt a return to our pagan past, the observance of Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve, the Eve of All Saints – is an invitation to consider the astounding promise of the gospel: the genuine possibility of joy.

Halloween’s a paradox, it straddles two worlds. It’s fun, but scary. It’s make-believe, but all too real. It’s kids dressing up as vampires and monsters, playfully dallying with what they dread the most. Halloween happens at night when you can’t quite make out how ugly things might really be, whether life is a trick or a treat. But Halloween is a safe way to sneak a look at the dark side of life where monsters and vampires roam the earth frightening people to death. Dressing up, putting on a mask, so to speak, allows us to consider what life would be like as one of them. What we might discover in such an experiment is that behind the mask that instills fear and dread is the face of Zacchaeus, someone trapped in despair, isolated from human kindness, lonely and unloved. What’s so terrifying is the realization that the face behind the mask could be mine.

Halloween is about ghosts, disembodied spirits, souls who have lost their way, hovering in between the realms of life and death, unable to enjoy the one or rest in the other. Their misery turns bitter and they become ugly with rage, like werewolves. Their loneliness lashes out, jealous of the joyful, like bloodthirsty vampires. These lonely souls wonder if all of the sadness will ever end, if their broken hearts will ever heal. It’s into those souls that Jesus looks, as he looked into Zacchaeus, as he looks into us. Today’s gospel embodies Halloween, telling of the possibility of transformation. You don’t have to keep wearing that same costume, it says. You don’t have to play Zacchaeus forever. There’s a way out of the realm of sadness; misery can indeed be turned into joy.
Biblical scholars don’t consider this a miracle story, but perhaps they should. Although Zacchaeus neither became an observant Jew nor quit his government job, and although he didn’t sprout a few inches overnight - joy entered his miserable heart that day and transformed a paucity of spirit into magnanimous generosity.

10-10-24: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14,16-18 / Psalm 34 / 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 / Luke 18:9-14
God knows no favorites. So says Jesus. That’s Jesus - the son of Eleazar and grandson of Sirach - the author of our first reading today. That seems to be the point of today’s gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple as well – told, this time, by the more familiar Jesus. The tax collector or publican, as he’s sometimes called, goes home justified while the Pharisee does not. Doesn’t that show a little favoritism? Of course the parable is meant to grab our attention, jolt us out of our smug complacency regarding religion and its expectations. And, perhaps most significantly, to invite us to entertain the unpleasant truth that deep down all of us are essentially the same when it comes to temptation and sin: we might succumb to different vices - some vices being more acceptable than others - but, make no mistake, we all succumb.

If you wanted a more modern version of the parable, at least for its shock value, you just had to tune into the recent gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University last week. The most comic line - and remember that comedy is funny precisely because it exposes the truth in an ironic way - came from the Freedom Party candidate, a convicted madam who ran the high-end brothel which provided prostitutes for the former governor. She claimed that she would be the best choice for governor precisely because of her past experience. It was all very logical: having run an efficient and successful brothel she would know exactly how to get the state legislature to work efficiently and successfully, since both the legislature and the brothel were composed of the same kind of employee. Who could possibly disagree? Pharisee and publican, politician and prostitute – have more in common than merely their initial consonants.

God knows no favorites could have been the subtitle of last week’s PBS documentary, God in America, attempting to explore the role of religion in American history – a herculean task that barely skimmed the surface. The piece on Abraham Lincoln, though, was extraordinary. Lincoln’s inner motivations concerning the Civil War have been the subject of more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, and as many theories. The documentary suggested Lincoln underwent a conversion of sorts midway in the war, sparked perhaps by the unexpected death of his young son to typhoid. What began for him as a desire to preserve the Union turned into a struggle to make the dream of the founders - that all men are created equal - into a lived reality: the abolition of the practice of slavery and emancipation for all slaves held by Americans. The Civil War would be the most devastating war America ever engaged in, eventually claiming an astounding 625,000 lives. The program quoted a line from Lincoln’s second inaugural: “Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other,” Lincoln said. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”

Prayer, then, is not intended to show God who is better than whom, which side is right and which is wrong. Prayer is not meant to change God but to change the pray-er, helping him realize in humility that he’s just as weak as the next, yet possessing the same dignity as his neighbor - and his enemy - in the eyes of God.

10-10-17: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 17:8-13 / Psalm 121 / 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 / Luke 18:1-8
Taking a cue from Moses in today’s reading from Exodus we might conclude that prayer involves a lot of hard work: Moses must keep his hands raised in prayer for, if he lowered them, Israel would lose the battle. In the gospel parable Jesus suggests we imitate the widow who ceaselessly harangues the dishonest judge to get what she needs: pray in the same way, Jesus seems to be saying, and you’ll start to see results. It’s an airtight argument: not getting results? – you’re obviously not being persistent or perseverant enough. Keep at it and the answer will come.

But how do you know how long is long enough? And, besides, is God fair in all this – basing outcome on persistence? After all, some of us are just naturally less patient than others, suffering a kind of spiritual ADD. Back in 1915 when the Age of Doubt was gaining steam, W. Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage. The protagonist, Philip Carey, having been born with a club foot, decides as a young boy that, if he could pray hard enough, God would miraculously heal him of the physical deformity which caused him such heartache. One night he strips naked in the freezing cold, kneels besides his bed, begins to pray and eventually falls asleep. The next chapter begins: He woke and limped downstairs.

Did Philip not pray enough; had he not prayed hard enough? If not a full-fledged miracle, couldn’t he at least have expected a little less limping for his trouble? Well, it’s only a novel, after all – not real life. Besides, if he had been healed, the story would have turned out quite differently – and probably way less interesting. Life, though, is a lot like that: filled with more than a little suffering and a whole lot of unfairness. Prayer may be the only weapon available for many of us to try and even the playing field. Linking prayer with hard work helps turn what appears to be childish wish-making into something more substantial.

When C.S. Lewis’ wife was dying from cancer, a friend saw him praying in the chapel at Oxford. “Don’t be too despondent,” his friend said. “I’m sure God will hear your prayers.” Lewis replied: “I don’t know if he does or not. You see, I’m not praying to change God’s mind; I’m praying to change mine.” Although it seems a part of every religion, including Catholicism, to believe that we owe God our prayers and worship, it doesn’t make much sense to think he gains anything by them. But if indeed prayer somehow makes our minds and hearts more akin to his mysterious nature, more accepting of the challenges we face, more free than less -- then prayer may really be something formidable.

Philip Carey could have continued to wish that his club foot would heal, but it was his prayer (was it answered or not?) which brought him face to face with the reality of his life. Be careful what you pray for, the old adage goes, you might get it. The it often being the very thing we least expect, or want, or think we need. God plays, it seems, so we might pray: He tricks us into asking him to grant a wish; but, by prayer, helps us accept instead what we need to.