OUR GOOD NEWS: God is "unfair" to our advantage.
Todays first reading reveals a remarkably selfless and loving God. His opening remarks establish God as the model for all who exercise authority. "A cry of outrage" had been raised against the sinful behavior of two notorious cities. It constituted a direct appeal to the world ruler in His role as preserver of the moral order. This was a petition God could not ignore, for long-term gross injustice is incompatible with His divine power and holiness.
God does not, however, shoot from the hip. With deliberate objectivity He withheld judgmental reaction until checking out the whole situation personally. "I must go down and see" how valid the complaint really is. There is no hint of punishment or condemnation until the impartial inquiry has been completed. "I mean to find out."
The statement that "the Lord remained standing before Abraham" ranks with the most shocking and near-blasphemous in our entire Bible. In Hebrew, "standing before" someone describes the posture of an inferior presenting a petition to a superior. Normally, ancient copyists wrote out exactly what was before them, doubtless at times with some shaking of heads. But this was the limit.
Old manuscripts attest a rare "scribal correction" here, whereby Abraham was made to stand before the Lord. But scandal or not, the text means what is says. God had a favor to ask of Abraham, although propriety prevented His asking it outright. God already knew what He would doubtless find in Sodom and Gomorrah, and wanted Abraham to talk Him out of inflicting richly deserved punishment upon these two notoriously corrupt cities.
We are astounded at Abrahams remarkable familiarity with God. He sidled up to conduct urgent but discreet business. Even more amazing is that God lets him get away with it more accurately, God wanted to be talked out of punishing if at all possible. Abraham verbalized Gods own concern for the few good persons that can leaven an entire city. This semi-nomadic sheep raiser had been able to survive only because of his shrewd, quick mind and tongue. Now he bravely and selflessly negotiated on behalf of a city infamous for moral corruption. This master wheeler-dealer tried to push God to the limit: How much wickedness can the Lord bear? But it is Abraham and not God who drew the line, not daring to go beyond "10 innocent people." So much for the alleged "Old Testament God of wrath and judgmentality"!
If 10 just persons could not be found to preserve degraded Sodom, one sufficed to save the whole sinful world (St. Paul, second reading). Jesus paid in full our accumulated IOU. He took the "certificate of indebtedness which was made out against us" because of our sins and "nailed it to His Cross" stamped "canceled," "paid in full!" Elsewhere, in Romans 6:1-11, Paul spoke of our resurrection in Christ as the future event we all await. Here Paul insisted that we have already died and risen into newness of resurrected life.
OUR GOOD NEWS: Getting ready for Lent involves purifying our understanding of God!
Today's Gospel is a welcome preparation for the Lenten season, which we begin in a few days. We may be accustomed to understanding Lent exclusively as a time for rigorous penance and mortification, but our situation should approximate that of Jesus' first disciples who, according to today's Gospel, celebrated the presence of the Lord at meals rather than fasting. Jesus justified this rather shocking behavior by explaining that the Messiah is now come among them as God's final-age gift. There is nothing more to pray and prepare for through acts of penitence. "How can the guests at a wedding fast as long as the groom is still among them? So long as the groom stays with them, they cannot fast."
But if we Christians celebrate, there's also a time for preparation. "The day will come, however, when the groom will be taken away from them; on that day they will fast." We are not yet privileged with the physical presence of the Lord, as the first disciples were. Nonetheless, we continue to enjoy the presence of the Lord in our midst. By withdrawing somewhat from celebration, we better prepare ourselves for Easter glory.
We traditional Catholics need to be reminded that the days of fervent petition for future salvation are over. We have already been saved - forgiven our sins and reconciled with God - exclusively by what Jesus has done for us, and not as the result of our own penance and mortification. So great was our alienation from God that we were powerless to restore ourselves to God's favor. This is why we are Christians. Jesus did for us what we couldn't possibly do for ourselves.
The first reading predicts as vague future event what the Lord in fact has already done for us through Jesus. The future "I will ..." can now be rendered "I was." We have already been purified ("led into the desert") and "espoused in fidelity" (through baptism). Three times Hosea promised our intimate relationship to God, which he dared compare to a marriage.
Today's psalm is particularly relevant as we begin the Lenten season. Behind all the powerful images of condemnation lies our steadfast vision of God as "merciful and gracious ... slow to anger and abounding in kindness." We must never understand God's justice in a contemporary meaning of giving us what we deserve. This is the good news we must never forget, as today's psalm forcefully reminds us. Truly, the story of God is almost too good to be true.
A story is told about a man having visions of God, who sought corroboration from his bishop. How could he determine the authenticity of these appearances? The bishop wisely told him to ask that the bishop's own secret sins be revealed. The man returned with the message that God had forgotten them!
OUR GOOD NEWS: God lovingly chooses Jesus - and us.
All four Gospels record John the Baptist's witness to Jesus, but none more profoundly than John's Gospel (today's selection). Significantly, John ignored the Baptist's baptism of Jesus, stressing instead John's testimony. John was neither Messiah nor Elijah nor the anonymous Prophet popularly expected at End-Times. In contrasting Jesus with the Baptist, this passage recalled and applied four rich Old Testament titles: Jesus as (1) Lamb of God, (2) Pre-existent One, (3) Spirit-bearer and (4) Chosen One.
Describing Jesus as "Lamb of God" revealed who Jesus was and what he would accomplish. He is the Christ, enjoying unique intimacy with and total obedience to the Father. This submissive "Lamb" of God is also the Lamb offered by God. Glorification of the Lamb of God and son of Man would involve suffering as well as exaltation, made possible by Jesus' dual origin as human and divine. Lamb imagery also alludes to the Son's saving activity by suggesting the Old Testament pattern of sacrifice in which lambs figured prominently, especially as a vicarious offering for sin. Temporal allusions further clarify Jesus' role in our salvation. Glorified (past tense) through humiliation (cross) and exaltation (Resurrection), Jesus now "bears away (continuous present) the sin (ongoing condition) of the world." Thus, this title of Lamb as applied to Jesus anticipated his work as Revealer of God and Redeemer of humankind.
John's second designation of Jesus as Pre-existent One represented a reversal of roles, for normally whoever comes first ranks ahead. Only at the baptism of Jesus did John recognized Jesus' true identity and understand the subordinate role of his own baptism. Thus the outline of John's Gospel: By his own ministry ("baptizing with water") and testimony, John mediated this revelation to Israel, whence it would spread to Samaritans (Jn 4:4-42), Greeks (Gentiles) (Jn 12:20) and the world itself (Jn 21: 1-14).
All four Evangelists similarly understood the third title, the gift of the Spirit at Jesus' baptism. It was an act of consecration by which Jesus was installed as royal messiah and suffering Messianic Servant of God in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies. The Fourth Gospel adds that the Spirit "came to rest on" Jesus as the Spirit-bearer as well as sin-bearer. He not only carries but confers the Spirit on his followers. The comparison "like a dove" invites our reflection on two well-known Old Testament texts. The Spirit brooding over primeval waters at creation (Gn 1:2) suggests a new creation in Christ. The dove of Noah's ark (Gn 8:8-12) here applied to the waters in which Jesus was baptized, prefiguring crisis followed by healing - salvation through judgment.
John climaxed his witness to Jesus' true identity with the fourth title, "God's Chosen One." John's Gospel thus summarizes the heart of Christian faith, revealing the twofold dimension of Jesus as true human being like all of us, yet true God.
Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 4:7-10;
A parish mothers discussion club had turned to the topic of relationships with their children.
Among the members was a mother of eight. Someone asked her: "How do you divide your love among so many children?" Without a moments hesitation she responded, "You dont divide. You multiply!"
Todays liturgy expresses the deepest theological mystery, which can easily be passed over because it is expressed so simply in so few words. The expression, "God is love," can be reflected on all the days of ones life and its full meaning never even approached.
Most of us believe in God, but just what is this love which is the very essence of God? According to Peter Kreeft in his book, "The God Who Loves You" (published by Ignatius Press), the Greeks had four different words for love.
"Eros" is the lowest form of love. It means desire. "The clearest case of eros is sexual desire. But an artists love of beauty is also eros. The artists love is a need, a desire. It comes from the appetites. It is not a choice. We undergo it rather than freely create it. Its like a wave that washes over it."
A second Greek word for love is "storge," which means affection. "Affection is a spontaneous feeling of fondness for someone or something. It can be an emotional attachment for someone or something that develops over time. It might be triggered by seeing an old friend or finding a prized keepsake."
A third Greek word for love is "philia," meaning friendship. This is free choice rather than animal or feelings. Philadelphia comes from philia. It means the city of brotherly love.
There was another Greek word for love "agape" meaning love in general. Kreeft writes that when the radically new reality that was Christ the God-man and his love came into the world, Christians needed a new word for this new kind of love. So agape means much more than eros, or storge or even philia.
Agape means the shatteringly new and unmistakable kind of love seen in Christ and Christians. Agape means a free chioice that need not be reciprocated. Jesus loved his enemies, even his crucifiers, and prayed to his Father to forgive them. Agape goes out to everybody in particular, to our actual, concrete "neighbor," one person at a time.
Agape is more than a desire or feeling. Feelings come to us. Agape comes from us. Feelings are passive and receptive. agape is active and creative. Feelings are instinctive while agape is chosen. We are not responsible for our feelings because we cannot help how we feel. But we are responsible for our agape or lack of it because our choice to love comes not from wind, weather, digestion, good vibrations, heredity or environment, but from our own heart, the center of our being.
Feelings cannot be commanded. But God commands us to love. Jesus had many different feelings for many different people: Peter, John, Mary Magdalen, his mother, Judas, Pilate and the Pharisees. But Jesus loved them all.
In the second reading, St. John says that God is love. And in todays Gospel, Jesus says that "No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends. ... This I command you: Love one another."
In the first reading, St. Peter, after baptizing Cornelius, the first non-Jew, says that Gods love is for everyone. God shows no partiality. The man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him."
We do not have to wait until someone wants to kill us because of our faith and love of Jesus to show our love for others. The Holy Spirit is the power of love that exists between God the Father and Jesus, his Son. That power is ours for the asking. God is love. We are made in his image. So we must have his kind of love, a love that multiplies, not divides.
Father Smith is a priest of the La Crosse, Wis., Diocese.
OUR GOOD NEWs: We must heed the awe-some danger and responsibility of affluence.
"Thus says the Lord the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion!" Gods Word through Amos, earliest of the prophets whose sayings are preserved, was spoken 2,750 years ago, but its relevance for us middle-class Americans could not be more immediate and disturbing. Divine condemnation is pronounced upon mindless, selfish consumerism. Amos original audience would have protested in self-justification (and we along with them?). They were only enjoying what they had earned or inherited. Whats wrong with having a good time when you can afford it?
In todays first reading Amos depicted the life of selfish, irresponsible affluence with unusual concreteness. In ancient times party goers reclined upon "couches," here described as plush ornamented with precious ivory inlays. Guests lay "sprawled" in a stupor from overeating and drunkenness. Only the finest gourmet meats (lamb and veal) were served. They consumed wine by the gallon instead of the cup, and wasted large sums on beauty aids and body care ("best oils").
Feasting called for music, but their drunken "howling to the music of the harp" and boisterous "improvising" were more bedlam than entertainment.
The biblical tradition doesnt oppose enjoying the good things of life, and Jesus was condemned by the straight-laced pious for being "a glutton and a drunkard" (Lk 7:34). But through his prophet God here denounced unjustified extravagance, an immersion in pleasure-seeking that distracts the prosperous from thinking about the injustice involved, since their revelry had been paid for through exploitation and oppression of the poorer classes. Amos concluded with terrible divine judgment against well-off citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria). Those pacesetters who insisted on the "first" ("best") body creams would be "the first to go into exile" and slavery. The orgies of the "sprawlers" would be "sprawled" ("done away with").
"Suppressed is the spree of the sprawlers!"
Amos appalling prophecy came true within a generation, when Assyria captured and destroyed the northern kingdom. Eventually his words were carried south and applied to the surviving kingdom of Judah. "Woe to the complacent in Zion (Jerusalem)!" Judahs upper classes should have heeded the lesson, but instead of being "made ill by the collapse of Joseph (Israel)," they repeated the northern kingdoms folly, bringing destruction and exile upon themselves through the Babylonian army.
Jesus (Gospel) challenges us with his disturbing story of an anonymous rich mans gruesome fate. His sin was commission selfish conspicuous consumption but mainly omission, what he didnt do. He wasnt moved hardly noticed the suffering and want of Lazarus at his door. Jesus calls us to awareness of, and practical concern for, the worlds needy.
OUR GOOD NEWS: The Church, community of diversity-in-unity, nurturing mother and life-line connecting us to Christ.
"Little children, let us love in deed and in truth and not merely talk about it." This opening sentence to our second reading is generally misunderstood as an attack on hypocrisy - phony religionists who prattle about neighbor love while hurting or neglecting one another. Rather, the author criticizes pious Christians comfortable with their (our) pet hatreds and indifferent uncaring, as though such attitudes were accepting behavior for those saved by Christ. "Show the truth of love in deeds!"
Nor does Jesus advocate scrupulosity or encourage unhealthy guilt feelings. Everyone fails in living the sinless life to which we are called. "Peace" comes not from turning inward upon our imperfect selves but from focusing on God who knows us through and through and yet freely forgives us. Welcome Good News! God guarantees salvation to those who remain faithful within the Church, the community of love, even against accusations of one's heart. In fact, our lives are filled with concrete acts of caring - toward children and parents, relatives and neighbors, those we work with and for - so many who touch our lives, if only momentarily. And yet we worry whether we really love God as much as we ought!
"His commandment is this: We are to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and are to love one another as He commanded us." A noted scholar suggested that this verse best summarizes the essence of Christianity, and another sees it as attacking extreme positions currently threatening the Church. Belief in Jesus is really faith in God His Father, who took the initiative by sending His Son. What we do comes after what God has already done, our neighbor-love continuing and extending God's love on a horizontal level. This verse thus refutes three extremes of ideological "right" and "left": (1) dogmatic conservatism, which makes creedal orthodoxy the only criterion, (2) fideism in which all that matters is "accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior," and (3) liberalism, which reduces Christianity to living peacefully with others.
Concluding sentences address two further ancient and modern distortions of Christianity. First, to "keep (God's) commandments" demands far more than narrowly legalistic focus on rules and regulations. We are called to a transformed style of life flowing from mutual, intimate union of God and individual believers. We "abide" - are and remain "in Him"; He abides with - stays and works in, is constantly present and joined to - us.
Secondly, personal assurance of salvation doesn't depend on intense religious experience (being "born again") or dramatic charismatic expressions among believers (speaking in tongues, healing, handling of poisonous snakes). We are saved because we are members of Christ the community gifted with God's "Spirit," the Spirit's presence corroborated by genuine loving concern for each other. We neither need nor expect religious "feelings" since God works quietly and unspectacularly for our salvation.