The mission of Jesus

Outside of the US which celebrates Labor Day, the Catholic lectionary begins the reading of Luke’s Gospel with the visit of Jesus to the temple in Nazareth.

Jesus is given the scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah and reads, in an edited form, Isaiah 61.

As he finishes, Jesus tells his neighbors, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is what Jesus is about. This is the saving message.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because the Spirit has anointed me
to preach Good News to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

What is Good News to the poor?

God has come.

When God has come, when God is at the center of our faith lived out in just lives, the world will change.

The captives will be freed. The prison bars will be broken and the doors to detention centers will be opened.

Those who are blind will see.

The oppressed will be liberated. They will be free from the dictators, the bosses, the powers that keep them down.

The year of the Lord’s favor – the Jubilee Year – will be proclaimed. Debts will be forgiven; the land that has been taken away from them will be returned; those who have been enslaved will be freed.

But almost 20 centuries after Jesus proclaimed this Good News, the world the poor experience is still bad news.

Jesus began this. He promised that this will be.

So now we have the challenge to be good news to the poor, to do the works of justice, to be signs of a world that reflects the Reign of God.

Conformed or transformed

Be not conformed to this age,
but be transformed
by the renewal of your understanding.
Romans 12: 2

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 16: 21-27, Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan,” the adversary, the one who plots against the Lord. Peter wants to block the way of the Cross.

For Peter is thinking – or better, reasoning – not as God does, but as humans do.

We look for advantage, for ways to get ahead, to be in control.

But Jesus transforms the world by giving us a new way of thinking – a way of giving oneself.

Today I recall two people who died on August 31 – one from the US, John Leary, who died in Boston in 1982; the other an Ecuadorian bishop, Leonidas Proaño, who died in 1988. I wrote about them in a blog entry last year, which can be read here.

I met John Leary several times at Haley House in Boston. What always struck me was his simplicity, his lack of arrogance. He was actively engaged in resistance to MIT’s nuclear weapons lab, to abortion, to military intervention – but I never saw the self-righteousness I have seen in some activists.

It was probably his life of prayer, his opening his room to the poor, his service to those in need that kept him grounded.

If no one told you, you would not know that he was a graduate of Harvard University. For him, that was not important.

He was a person who was not conformed to this age but had allowed himself to be transformed by Christ and the poor.

Will I let myself be transformed – or do I let myself be formed by the search for recognition, for security, for honors and wealth?

 

May God transform me.

Restless hearts

You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.
St. Augustine, Confessions

This morning I awoke with these words running through my mind. Only after a few minutes did I remember that today is the feast of St. Augustine, convert, father of the church, author of one of the most important works in Christian literature, The Confessions.

San Agustín

San Agustín

What do I long for? For what am I called? For what – for whom – am I made?

We are made for love, for Love. In today’s reading (1 Corinthians 1: 2), Paul tells us that we are “called to love.”

In the depths of our hearts we are called to Love – to the God who is Love who loves us and calls us to love.

It’s that simple – and that complicated.

Our being is oriented to love. There is within us a “holy longing” for Love, for God. But we often stop before we encounter God.

We look at something beautiful and long for it, long to possess it, to have it. But merely possessing it does not give us real joy, real fulfillment.

But when we see it as a sign of the love and beauty of God, the love and beauty with which God has endowed the world, we no longer need to hold onto it. We can share it. We don’t need to hold onto it.

Why?

Because we see that love is not stingy, love is not something that is characterized by scarcity. Love is giving, love is life. It can set us afire.

And so we can pray as Augustine did in another part of his Confessions (Book 10, chapter 29):

O Charity, my God, set me aflame!

—-

The image is from the church in San Agustín, Copán, Honduras.

Dirty hands

How we greet people is very important and often shows what we think of the person we are meeting.

One thing I’ve noticed here in Honduras is that in public  men usually shake hands with other men, but not often with women or children. There is also some deference to those with power, money, or influence.

So I’ve taken up the custom of shaking hands with everyone – men, women, and children. I want them to know that I value them, even if I can’t remember their names.

Sometimes this gets a little tricky. The young mechanic with greasy hands or the worker with dirty hands are often reluctant to shake hands, apologizing for their dirty hands.

I reply that the only dirty hands are the hands of the corrupt and proceed to try to shake hands. They sometimes offer me their arms instead of their hands.

I had forgotten where this response came from until this morning when I picked up Dom Helder Câmara: Essential Writings. There are two quotes that describe a similar experience.

I think about the man I saw working in the street, emptying dustbins. I had caught his eye. He didn’t dare offer me his hand. I virtually had to force him: “Work isn’t what soils our hands, friend. No hand was ever soiled by work. Self-centeredness is that soils them.”   (p. 121)

I know a priest who likes to shake hands with the trash collectors when they are loading the refuse onto the truck. They try to clean their hands on their clothes. The priest, rightly, says: “No work stains human hands. What makes hands dirty is stealing, or greed, or the blood of our neighbors!”   (p. 143)

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of this Brazilian bishop, friend of the poor, apostle of nonviolent liberation.

Dom Helder identified with the poor, recognizing their dignity. He also identified with the Lord Jesus who became flesh as a poor man.

He would get up at 2 am each morning to pray and he would open his own door when someone knocked.

His simplicity, his willingness to touch the hands of the poor, inspires me to be even more committed to prayer and to solidarity with the poor.

Hands joined in prayer should be hands that embrace the poor.

 

Which side are you on?

Simone Weil was an enigmatic woman. She felt called to be a Christian but never entered the Catholic Church. She loved Greek philosophy but found ancient Roman society repulsive. She was very critical of Judaism, even though she was born of non-practicing Jewish parents. She died in England, though she longed to be parachuted into France to help. She died probably because she refused to eat more than the rations that the French were living on under Nazi occupation.

But I still find her appealing. I first read The Need for Roots in the early 1970s and should read it again to see if it still speaks to me. Her notion of prayer as “attention” is very appealing.

But she was also a woman who sought to be on the side of the marginalized. As she wrote:

“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”

Which side am I on?

All brothers and sisters

Do not let yourselves be called Master,
because you have only one Master,
and all of you are brothers and sisters.
Matthew 23: 8

 One thing that struck me when I began living here in Honduras is how people are often addressed by their titles: Doctor Manuel, Profesor Marcos, Abogada (lawyer) María, Ingeniero (engineer) Martín. If you’ve got a university degree (or a teaching degree), flaunt it – and make sure people know it.

I know part of my discomfort is due to the informality and façade of equality which is prevalent in the United States. But there is something more.

Titles separate us from others, make us appear better and more important than others. Titles are sometimes terms of honor for people who have taken the effort to pursue higher studies. But, at least in Honduras, they can also be seen as indications of not just inequality in a society but classism – in which the “lower” classes are treated as less important and less worthy of respect.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his followers not to be called “masters” or “teachers.” We often read this as an admonition to avoid making ourselves like God – a call to humility.

But I think this is also a critique of all classism, all discrimination against the “lower” classes, a call to radical equality.

For Jesus does not just call us to avoid being called masters but he reminds us that we are brothers and sisters.

We are all equal and our dignity comes from being daughters and sons of God, not from a degree we obtain.

And so I am proud of the name given me by kinds in the Suchitoto, El Salvador, countryside in 1992 – Hermano Juancito, Brother Jack.

That name is a constant call to remember that I am a brother to all and I need to treat all as sisters and brothers, serving them, in them.

What if we all started remembering that we are sisters and brothers and try to break down the barriers of class, race, nation, religion?

A good politician

Many people, especially here in Honduras, say politics is dirty. Even though politics is seen by the church as a way to promote the common good, many still see politics as unredeemable.

This is understandable when when we see so many corrupt politicians who only seek their own good or who have narrow visions that demonize opponents and refuse to seek the good of the poor.

And so when we see a good politician we are in awe – and sometimes canonize them before their deaths.

But there are good politicians who have a heart set on the good of the community and who are willing to commit their lives to justice for the poor.

One of those, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was shot and killed on August 21, 1983, as he got off a plane in Manila.

He had been imprisoned in the 1970s by the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. After seven years in prison he was released for medical care in the US after a heart attack but was forbidden to return to his native land.

He however decided to return. When the plane landed, soldiers entered took Benigno out of the cabin and shot him.

Three years later a nonviolent movement, spearheaded by the church, including Cardinal Sin and the base communities, overthrew Marcos.

In his testimony to a US House of Representatives committee barely two months before his death, Aquino explained his nonviolence:

“One can fight hatred with greater hatred, but [former Filipino president Ramón] Magsaysay proved that it is more effective to fight hatred with greater Christian love. . . .

“I have decided to pursue my freedom struggle through the path of nonviolence, fully cognizant that this may be the longer and the more arduous road. If I have made the wrong decision, only I, and maybe my family, will suffer. . . .But by taking the road of revolution, how many lives, other than mine, will have to be sacrificed?…

“I refuse to believe that it is necessary for a nation to build its foundations on the bones of its young. . . . Filipinos are still killing each other in ever increasing numbers. This blood-letting must cease. This madness must cease.

“I think it can be stopped if all Filipinos can get together as true brothers and sisters and search for a healing solution in a genuine spirit of give and take. We must transcend our petty selves, forget our hurts and bitterness, cast aside thoughts of revenge, and let sanity, reason, and, above all, love of country prevail during our gravest hour.”

Would that we had more politicians with such a vision, with such faith in God, and such a willingness to give himself for the common good.