Monthly Archives: March 2011

With God?

Whoever is not with me…
Luke 11: 14-23

I am not sure that atheism is as great a problem as many think. I think the question is not so much “Do you believe in God?” as “What god do you believe in?” Perhaps, as Thomas Merton suggests, the greatest sin is idolatry, because it puts a false god in place of the true God and we do not ally ourselves with the God of Life.

The great sin, the source of all other sin, is idolatry and never has it been greater, more prevalent, than now. Yet it is almost completely unrecognized precisely because it is so overwhelming and so total. It takes in everything. There is nothing else left. Fetishism of power, machines, possession, medicines, sports, clothes, etc., all kept going by greed for money and power. The bomb is only one accidental aspect of the cult. Indeed, the bomb is not the worst. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what all the rest of our civilization points to. The self-immolation of man to his own greed and his own despair. And behind it all are the principalities and powers whom man serves in this idolatry.

Thomas Merton, April 17, 1965

The Commandments

Keep the commandments
Deuteronomy 4: 1, 5-9

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 5: 17-19, Jesus calls us to obey the commandments and teach others to do the same. But all too often we think about the commandments as impediments to my freedom, thinking in individualistic terms . But the commandments were given as part of a covenant between God and the People of Israel. They are meant to guide a people to real freedom in God.

Carlos Mesters, a biblical scholar who has worked for many years with the poor in Brazil, write a small book on the ten commandments which, unfortunately is not published in English (though I made a translation a few years ago), Hacemos Camino al Andar – We Make Our Way by Walking. In it he writes,

[The Ten Commandments are] a true tool capable of converting an oppressive mentality into a fraternal mentality, of transforming an oppressive way of living into a fraternal one, of revealing to the world the face of Yahweh, the Liberator God. All those who believe in the God who is revealed in the Bible are called together by this same God to put into practice the Ten Commandments and to be, in this way, the yeast of a new society, the beginning of a new human being in the image of Christ….

When one unlinks the Ten Commandments from the exodus from the “house of slavery in Egypt” and from the “cry of the people,” one places oneself in the position where it is impossible to understand the true sense of the law of God….

When one unlinks the political, social, and economic organization of the people from their faith in Yahweh, and when one unlinks faith in God from the organization of the people, one puts oneself in the position from which it is not possible to perceive or understand the true meaning of the Ten Commandments. One separates what God united; that is to say, one separates the first three commandments from the other seven. One runs the risk of reducing the Ten Commandments to a catalogue of individual norms and of explaining them in opposition to the good of the people and the objective which God had in mind, as did the Pharisees and doctors of the Law in Jesus’ time.

The Ten Commandments defend a system of life which is, at the same time, a guarantee of the human rights and a revelation of the face of Yahweh, the Liberating God. The Ten Commandments reveal the intention of the Creator, so well defended by Jesus, “I, on the other hand, have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10, 10). Jesus summed up the objective which God had in mind when he said that the law seeks to bring humans to the fullness of the love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22, 34-40). And this objective is not achieved merely through an individualistic piety; it also demands a just and fraternal organization of the people.


Forgive seventy times seven times
Matthew 18: 21-35

Forgiveness is at the center of the teachings of Jesus. On the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Though forgiveness is not easy, it does have a liberating power. The twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (whom I had as a teacher in the early 1970s) saw Jesus as “the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs.” Without forgiveness we are stuck with the irreversibility of our actions and their consequences. As she wrote in The Human Condition:

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever…

But what does this mean in the reality of our daily lives?

Servite priest, Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, was a hostage in Lebanon for 564 days in the mid-1980s. In his memoir, Bound to Forgive, he wrote of his captivity and reflected on forgiveness.

Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realize that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.

I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities.

Unhonored prophets

No prophet is honored in his own country
Luke 4: 24-30

Prophets have a way of disturbing people. Thank God. And so Jesus disturbs the people of Nazareth. Yet have we so domesticated Jesus that he does not disturb us?

A friend, Megan McKenna, in Prophets: Words of Fire, pp. 19-20, explains what a prophet is:

One way to define a prophet is a person who sees so clearly what is happening in the present moment that he or she can tell us what is going to happen if we don’t change immediately and radically….

The prophet is a truth-teller, using the power of God to shatter the silence that surrounds injustice. Usually the very appearance of a prophet signals the end of Yahweh’s patience with people and a judgment that must be brought to bear on those who have done wrong. The  prophet’s appearance is a signal of fire that the covenant of God has been betrayed and  that we, as the people of God, have been or are unfaithful. When the prophet appears, it is time for us to be held responsible for our actions and the state of our society and community.

Would that we had more prophets – and that we and the entire world would listen to them.

For what do I thirst?

The woman at the well
John 4: 5-42

For what do I thirst?

Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well and asks her for a drink of water. But finally he offers her the living water of His life.

We thirst; we desire many things. But what will really satisfy our thirst?

Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., again, puts it in a different perspective, in The Word Embodied:

Our endless thirst is what makes us work so hard at physical life: producing, earning, consuming. Thirst, too, excites our spiritual longings, our proving and testing, our fretful striving for virtue, even for perfection. But our thirst is so great we can get lost in it and ignore the very truth that could satisfy.

That great truth is God’s thirst for us, even in our sin. Remember, it is Jesus who asked the confused and searching woman for a drink. It is he who reached out to her.

When we see the full mystery of Lent and Easter, we realize that, as great as our dry thirst and wide yearning may be, it is God’s eternal thirst for us, for our faith, our trust, our love, that is the central mystery of being.


The prodigal son

The prodigal son
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer  us a  completely new beginning. Sometime it even seems  as  though I want to prove to God  that my darkness is too great to  overcome.  While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant. Do I want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way  of living becomes possible?… Do I want to break  away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God’s love that a new person can emerge. Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring , and renewing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

God made flesh

The Annunciation
Luke 1: 26-38

Today we celebrate the Incarnation, God made flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary.

God is not content to merely make the world and see that it is good, as we read in the first chapter of Genesis. God becomes flesh, like us.

In the tradition of the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus the Incarnation was always part of the plan of God, to bring Creation to its fullness in Christ. The Incarnation was not dependent on the sin of Adam and Eve. Other theological traditions see the Incarnation as a response to the original sin, to rescue the world from the evil of sin.

But both of these traditions make it clear that God became flesh – like us, in all but sin – and was made flesh in the womb of a poor young woman, Mary, the virgin of Nazareth.

The Angelus is a prayer that has been traditionally prayed three times a day – 6 am, noon, and 6 pm – to recall the incarnation and Mary’s response to the angel that made the incarnation possible. It is often prayed here in Honduras and well worth praying often, especially today,

The angel of the Lord declared to Mary;
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary. . .
Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
be it done to me according to your word.
Hail Mary. . .
The Word  was made flesh
and dwelt among us.
Hail Mary. ..
Pray for us, Holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray,
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever. Amen.

Lazarus and Archbishop Romero

The rich man and Lazarus
Luke 16: 19-31

When Pope John Paul II visited the US in 1979, he addressed these words to the people of the US at Yankee Stadium on October 2:

The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance and not just of your abundance in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.

Monseñor Oscar Romero, stated the importance of how we treat the poor, in his February 5, 1978 homily:

The guarantee of one’s prayer
is not in saying a lot of words.
The guarantee of one’s petition is very easy to know:
how do I treat the poor?
The degree to which you approach them,
and the love with which you approach them,
or the scorn with which you approach them –
that is how you approach your God.

What you do to them, you do to God.
The way you look at them is the way you look at God.

It is fitting that this year the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the lectionary reading for March 24, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, El Salvador, in 1980. Though he had many connections with the rich and powerful, he accompanied the poor and took up their cause as his own, often speaking of the violations of their rights in his Sunday homilies. “The voice of the voiceless,” he was killed by those who thought they could silence him, but his memory lives in Latin America and the world.

On April 1, 1979, he preached these words, which I’d like read at my funeral Mass.

Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives — that is, those who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside whatever demands our involvement – they will lose their lives.

What a terrible things to have lived well off, with no suffering, not getting into problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections — politically, economically, socially — lacking nothing.

To what good? They will lose their lives.

‘But those who for love of me uproot themselves and accompany the people and go with the poor in their suffering and  become incarnate and feel as their own the pain and the abuse – they will secure their lives, because my Father will reward them.’

To each one of us Christ is saying: ‘If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do like me. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats. The Lord goes with you.’

The drum major instinct

Greatness is service
Matthew 20: 17 – 28

James and John want seats of power and honor in the Reign of God. But Jesus, recognizing the value of the desire for greatness, redefines greatness. Martin Luther King, Jr., on February 4, 1968, preached an incredible sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which he said:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

… by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

At the end of the sermon, just two months before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  revealed what type of eulogy he wanted:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.  I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

The full text of the sermon and an audio file can be found here.

Holy imprudence

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Make justice your aim.

Though we often speak of justice, working  for justice – especially among the poor – has often been a dangerous mission. At times the work of justice seems imprudent, especially to those ensconced in power.

Prudence in the modern world has been often reduced to being careful and cautious. But its origin in Greek thought and its development in Catholic theology see prudence as “practical wisdom,” the habit of being able to make the right, moral, and just decision in whatever situation. Prudence is not timid, but full of courage. To many it will appear imprudent.

Fr. Luís Espinal, S.J.., was a Catalan Jesuit missionary in Bolivia. As a print and television journalist and film critic, he used the media to advocate for the poor. In the evening of March 21, 1980, he was abducted and tortured. He was killed the following morning, in La Paz, Bolivia. He knew and lived the holy imprudence of Jesus:

Everyone speaks to us of prudence, Lord, but of a prudence that is not yours, that we search for in vain in your Gospel. Jesus Christ, we give you thanks because You did not stay silent so as to avoid the cross, because You lashed out at the powerful, knowing that You were gambling with Your life…. You do not want a prudence that leads to omission and that makes imprisonment impossible for us. The terrible prudence of stilling the shouts of the hungry and the oppressed…. It is not prudent to ‘sell all that you have and give it to the poor.’ It is imprudent to give one’s life for one’s God and for one’s brothers and sisters.

There is a short reflection on Father Luís Espinal by a US priest who knew him here.