Tag Archives: John Kavanaugh SJ

Commandments of liberation

In the desert, God gives Moses ten commandments to help form the “unruly group of runaway slaves” into a nation, into God’s people.

How often do we look on these as restrictions on our freedom. How often do we chafe when we hear: “Thou shalt not…” How often do we miss the meaning of the ten commandments.

In the 1990s I taught a course on Religious Ethics at Iowa State University. I had recently read Carlos Mesters’ Hacemos Camino al Andar: Reflexiones sobre los Diez Mandamientos. Mesters does not present the commandments as restrictions but as the way to freedom:

The Ten Commandments are the message, the tool, which God handed over to a liberated people in order that they could continue the march toward complete freedom and could conquer the land that belonged to them. Freedom is not achieved in a day. It is a long process, a hard struggle.

That seems so strange to those of us raised on the idea of individual freedom, but I think Mesters is right. The commandments offer us a way to live together as a free people – free from slavery, from oppression, from violence.

But it’s even more than that.

Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh, in his commentary on today’s readings in The Word Encountered, sees the commandments as keys to our real truth:

Each of the commandments … is not some external and irrational fiat from an alien God. Rather, each is an expression of the truth God has made in us. If we worship idols or worship our work, if we covet person or property, if we dishonor those who have given us life, we not only reject the law of God, we destroy what we are. For the duty imposed on us by God … is the duty to be true to what we are—limited but loved creatures. (Emphasis mine.)

How freeing it can be if we would use the ten commandments in this way – not as tools to put down others or ourselves, but as ways to open us to the freedom and love God wants for us.

Interestingly, the title of Mesters’ book is a Spanish proverb that can be translated “We make our way by walking.”

When we walk in the light of the commandments, the way becomes clearer – and God helps clear away all that keeps us from being the people God wants us to be.

What a liberating way to read and live the commandments.


The phrase “unruly group of runaway slaves” is found in Alice Camille’s commentary on today’s readings in Give Us This Day.

Nothing for Caesar

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22: 21

Is there anything that is not God’s?

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, ” says Psalm 24: 1.

“I am the Lord and there is no other,” according to Isaiah 45: 5, 6 in today’s first reading.

Yes, I know the question was a trap for Jesus. But so many have been entrapped by his response and hold on to an idolization of the State, of Caesar.

We not only give Caesar his money but we give him our souls.

We think that one party, one candidate, one position will bring what we want and need. But, how often are political promises nothing more than pampering to our self-interests?

As the late Jesuit priest John Kavanaugh noted: “The empire and those who vie for its throne offer us, in differing forms, an ideology of self-interest.”

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Dominican priest and founder of liberation theology, is blunt in his commentary in Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year (pp. 244-245). The question is about money.

In the Pharisee’s question, there is a possible insinuation of not paying their tax and those of their keeping the money for themselves. Their would-be nationalism does not go further. Jesus is going to the root: it is necessary to eradicate all dependency on money. It is not only a question of breaking with the political domination of the emperor; it is necessary to break with the oppression that comes from the attachment to money and its possibilities of exploiting others. Jesus tells them to give the coin back to Caesar and to be liberated from money (mammon, see Mt 6:24). Only then will they be able to worship the true God and to give him what belongs to him.

José Antonio Pagola is even more blunt:

What is it that belongs to Caesar that is not God’s? Only his unjust money.

Give to God what is God’s – and there is nothing left for Caesar.

In this respect, Dorothy Day quoted Saint Hilary:

The less we ask of Caesar, the less we will have to render to Caesar.


The man without a wedding garment

Today’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 1-14) is the parable of the wedding banquet. Addressed to the religious leaders of his day, Jesus notes how those invited to the banquet find excuses to decline the offer and some even kill the messengers. The king then invites those at the crossroads – the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind, according to Luke 14:21. Matthew puts it bluntly: the servants gather in all the people they found, the bad and the good.

There is much in this parable that gives hope to those on the outside, to those who are not part of the religious establishment.

But there is at least one troubling element in the parable.

The king sees a man without a wedding garment. When questioned, the man says nothing. The king then throws him out of the party.

The late Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., has a marvelous commentary on this, inspired by C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. You can find it here on the St. Louis University liturgy site.

But, as I prayed over the readings this morning, I had a slightly different take on the man without the wedding garment.

Maybe he was there just for the food. It didn’t matter to him that this was a celebration of love, a celebration of the marriage of the king’s son. It was just a chance to fill his gut.

He was not very different from the invited guests who refused to come because they were involved in their farms and businesses. They too didn’t want to share in the joy of the king. They only thought about their own well-being.

The man without a wedding garment was thrown outside because he was really not a part of the celebration. He had not put on the festive garment.

And what is that garment?

The commentator in Diario Bíblico suggests that “We cannot forget that the indispensable garment for the Reign [of God] is charity. One cannot live the Christian life without love, without charity.”

The banquet invitation calls us out of ourselves to share the joy of the Reign of God – and to do what God does, as suggested in the first reading from Isaiah 25: 6-10a:

The Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines…. he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples… he will destroy death forever.
The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face; the humiliation of his people he will remove from the whole earth…

The Lord promises a grand banquet; we are called to put on the wedding garment of joy and love – sharing in the Lord’s joy and sharing that joy with others, especially the outcasts of the earth.


What is your idol?

Shun the cult of idols…
You cannot drink, at the same time,
from the cup of the Lord
and from the cup of demons.
1 Corinthians 10: 14, 21

 In the US when I discussed belief in God in classes or with groups of students, I would sometimes suggest that everyone, even atheists, believe in something. Thus the really important question is not “Do you believe in God?” Rather the critical question is “What God do you believe in? What God do you trust?”

Sometimes I believe that we Christians do not believe in the God of Jesus Christ, but we try to use God as a way to disguise our real beliefs. We say we believe in God, but we are atheists in practice.

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I say?”
Luke 6: 46

Do we really trust a God who commands us to love our neighbors? Or do we trust in “gods of metal,” our weapons?

Do we really trust God who tells us not to worry about we are to eat, or drink? Or do we trust in “gods of gold and silver,” our savings?

Do we really trust a God who calls us to feed the hungry? Or do we hoard our grains, seeking higher prices?

Do we really believe in a God who identifies with the stranger and the migrant? Or do we seek more secure borders by building walls?

Do we really believe in a God who became human as a poor man and gives Himself to us in the vulnerability of bread and wine, His Body and Blood?

Do we believe in a God who loves all people? Or do we restrict out love to people of our own nation, class, race, or religion?

Do we believe in a God whose servant Paul told us to associate with the poor? Or do we seek the attention of the powerful and wealthy?

Do we believe in a God who created the heavens and the earth and made humans in His image and likeness? Or do we worship a god who is identified with my nation?

Maybe we should call to mind the words of St. John Chrysostom, whose feast is celebrated today:

If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Concerning our true city, the builder and maker is God. Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are nonetheless only strangers and sojourners. We are enrolled in Heaven — our citizenship is there. Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great and admire those which are of little account.

If you want to further explore this, I recommend the writings of the late Jesuit, John Kavanaugh, especially Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance: 25th anniversary edition (Orbis Books, 2006).



Transfiguration of Jesus and the poor

In the Catholic lectionary the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the Transfiguration of Jesus, this year from Luke 9: 28-36.

Back in Honduras, after a pilgrimage to Italy, I realize how much my experience with the poor in the countryside influences my reading of scripture.

This morning I read the reflection on the readings in The Word Engaged, by the late Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. It is a great reflection and you can read it here. But I realized that it is meant especially for North American readers.

Here in Honduras, I see the readings today as signs of hope for the poor.

This was reinforced by my reading of sections of St. Leo the Great’s Sermon 51, as found in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

 The Transfiguration showed that the members of Christ’s Body could expect to share in the glory, revealed in their Head.

Jesus, St. Leo went on to explain:

…took upon Himself the full burden of our lowliness…

Yesterday I went out with Father German to two remote villages in the parish of Dulce Nombre de Copán where he celebrated Mass. The poverty of the people is clear, as is their faith.

In the second village he remarked that in a capitalistic society, where people are valued by what they produce and consume, the poor are nothing, without value. But, he said, you have a great worth and dignity, made in the image and likeness of God.

This reinforced my concern that the people we serve have to recover their dignity, which the Honduran society, economy, and culture often deny them.

They have to realize that they are beloved sons and daughters of God, followers of a lowly God who became flesh among the poor, of a God who transfigures us.

In Philippians 3:21, from today’s second reading, Paul tells the people

The Lord Jesus Christ will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of his glorified body.

The Lord truly raises up the lowly, as Mary sang in the Magnificat (Luke1:58) – something that our culture and economic systems fail to understand, worshiping the god that fills up our bellies (Philippians 3:19).

But this is the message that we need to hear this Lent, a time for conversion, for recognizing that our glory comes from a God who sees us as His beloved sons and daughters.

And it is a message that the poor, the marginalized, and the abandoned of the world especially need to hear and that we who are among the rich and comfortable need to take seriously, especially in our relation to the lowly of this world.

The wisdom of the saints

Monday, November 5, Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh died. A professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, he wrote many books, including Following Christ in a Consumer Society, a book I highly recommend. It is a work of liberation theology for the United States.

Father Kavanaugh wrote columns for America magazine for many years. In the 1990s he did three years of reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings. These were subsequently published by Orbis books, and which can be found on the St. Louis University liturgy site, under the section “Get to Know the Readings.” He also contributed the reflections for a book of photos of Mev Puleo, Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ.

I have read his lectionary reflections for many years since I have found them full of wisdom – not just the practical wisdom of the philosopher but the wisdom of a person seeking to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

This quote from his reflection for All Saints Day sums up that wisdom very well:

The wisdom shared by all the saints, after all, was not about he particular talents or deficits one brought to the world. It was about the wholeheartedness of love, a willingness to give it all away. They also seemed to know that wholeheartedness was not a matter of “once and for all,” or something that would happen overnight. It was, rather, a matter of opening up their entire lives to the transforming grace of God. (The Word Encountered, p. 120)

May he rest in peace.

But I think there is probably no better prayer for him than the “In paradisum” of the Requiem liturgy:

In paradisum deducant te angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant martyres
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.
Chorus angelorum suscipiant
et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere,
aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs welcome you
and lead you into the holy city Jerusalem.
May the choir of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who was once poor,
may you have eternal rest.

November 5, the day of his death, is also the day when the Jesuits remember all the saints and blesseds of the Company of Jesus.