OUR GOOD NEWS: A remarkable woman who, in caring for the prophet Elisha, anti-cipated Jesus' praise of hospitality.
Hospitality is the theme in today's readings, and the unnamed woman in our first selection models this virtue. Forthright and aggressive but also respectful (politely standing at the door of Elisha's room), she took the initiative and dominates the narrative. In a thoroughly male-centered society, she showed herself truly as "a woman of influence," conspicuous for her thoughtfulness in providing food and lodging for Elisha, whom she invited to dinner "with her" (curiously, no mention of her husband!). She then supervised in detail the construction and furnishing of a rooftop room for Elisha's use when passing through the area.
Elisha responded to her generously, promising this childless woman an infant within the year. The first reading illustrates the reward for a good deed, and demonstrates the dignity of a woman whose initiative earned her what she most dearly desired. For his part, Elisha is called "a holy man of God" not because of achievements of piety but because he was entrusted with the power-laden word of God, bringing life to the apparently dead child and especially by his faithful proclamation of God's word to his generation.
"Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter, more than me is not worthy of me." Today's Gospel begins with a blunt saying challenging us to reorder our values. Excessive and selfish love of parents or children can stunt or even destroy a marriage, and successful child raising involves a progressive letting go of the child beginning at birth. "Taking up the cross" is a common saying among us, but the concept is painful, implying public disgrace. The accused would be dragged through the streets bound and naked, greeted with universal scorn and blows. We're asked at times to be seeming failures for Christ's sake, oblivious to public esteem, prepared to lose our reputation.
One of the features of most telephone systems today is caller ID. Not only do we not have to miss calls, we can actually determine who is phoning us.
But sometimes even this can be disconcerting, especially when we call the wrong number or wish to preserve our anonymity.
In a sense, Moses is seeking Gods caller ID in our first reading. Moses seems an unlikely subject for Gods attention. Even though he is an Israelite, his knowledge of the God of his ancestors is lacking.
But when Moses sees the burning bush he is intrigued. The fire suggests a divine presence; the Hebrew word for bush (sneh) might allude to Sinai. Still the Lord calls Moses and identifies himself as the "God of your fathers."
God reveals to Moses his intention to rescue his people from Egypt to lead them "to a land flowing with milk and honey." What is most significant is that Moses now asks God to reveal his name. Some have suggested that this could mean that if one knew the divine name that person could have power over the god.
But a different explanation is that if God is going to attempt something new saving his people old titles can no longer apply. A new name would not only establish Gods identity but also ratify Moses call to lead.
Gods response, "I am who am," is both puzzling and instructive. In one sense it is no name at all but at the same time reveals all that God is, that is, he is always present and active. Thus God will always be with his people.
Jesus makes a similar point in todays Gospel. Commenting upon some of the headlines of his day one of political brutality and the other human tragedy Jesus insists that neither was the result of human sinfulness. Rather his emphasis is on the suddenness of these events and that the victims may have been unprepared due to a lack of repentance.
His message of the need to repent is a familiar message for not only Lent but also throughout our lives. Thus Jesus goes on to tell a story about an unproductive fig tree. The owner is ready to have it cut down, but the gardener argues for another year. He himself will cultivate and fertilize the tree with the eventual hope that it will bear fruit.
Jesus is actually suggesting that God is giving us time to repent. And while God is always in control, ultimately our salvation is rooted in how well we allow Jesus to cultivate us with his tender loving care.
Paul speaks to this in his allusions to the exodus.
Because Jesus is the goal of salvation history, he was always present within it. As such, Baptism is compared to the passing through the sea and the Eucharist is like food and water miraculously given to the Chosen People. He goes on to stress that the very rock that provided refreshment was Christ.
But the caution Paul raises is that even though the people ate and drank of Gods bounty, many still perished in their stubbornness and sin.
If anything, our Lenten journey is a time of testing and growth in the wilderness of our lives. But merely identifying Gods call and recognizing his name is never enough. While we can claim to rest in the security of Gods love and mercy as shown in Christs death and rising, it can never mean we remain complacent.
The real test is that we bear fruit, the fruit that means that God the great "I am" is acting in and through us in new and remarkable ways.
Father Heier is pastor of All Saints Parish in University City and director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
An exasperated salesman who abandoned his car in a no-parking zone left this note; "Ive circled this block 20 times. I have an appointment and must keep it or I lose my job. Forgive us our trespasses."
When he returned, he found a parking ticket and a note from the policeman: "Ive circled this block for 20 years. If I dont give you a ticket, I lose my job. Lead us not into temptation."
Father Charles E. Miller, CM, in his book "Sunday Preaching," gives us some good suggestions on how God forgives us and how we are to forgive one another. Imagine that you are at the moment of your judgment and you see figures of your spouse, your kids, your boss, your best friend, your parents there and you wish one of them could be your judge.
Thinking of your spouse, you remember some of the arguments and fights you had which she may not have forgotten. Your kids may think you were too hard on them. Your best friend knows too much about you. Your parents also know too much about you.
Suddenly you see St. Francis de Sales, who was known for his kindness and compassion, then St. Vincent de Paul, who at the time was one of the most charitable people on earth. Other saints flash before you, but then above them all you see the Blessed Virgin Mary. And you think: will choose to be judged by the kind, tender, loving woman who is my spiritual mother. But before you can say anything, Mary places your hand in that of Jesus, her Son who leads you before the throne of God the Father and simply says to you: "Here is your judge; choose no other."
Father Miller says that we naturally hope that the people we have been close to during life would be merciful to us in judgment and that surely Mary would be compassionate. But Mary and all the saints only share in the mercy and compassion which God does not merely infinitely possess but actually is. God is mercy and compassion, or as St. John in his first Letter says: "God is love." (1 John 4:8).
In the Gospel, Jesus insists that there can be no soundness in the body of Christ if its members do not forgive one another again and again. Peter thought he was being very generous when in asking his question on how often to forgive, he asked seven times? The common teaching of the Jewish rabbis was that three times forgiving others was sufficient. But since in Jewish thinking, seven was a perfect number, Peter used that. He must have been stunned when Jesus said, "Not seven times, but 77 times," which means without limit. Since there is no limit to Gods forgiveness of us, there can and should be no limit to our forgiveness of one another. Failure or refusal to forgive easily develops into vengeance, one of the most destructive threats to the peace Jesus and His Church want to give us.
One of the opening prayers of the Mass today says: "May we know Your forgiveness in our lives." To know means to experience in this case. The response psalm takes up this thought: "The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion."
This is Gods way of caring for us. The more we experience Gods merciful compassionate forgiveness in our own lives, the more we will want to love Him in return and share His compassion and forgiveness with others. Christian morality does not mean only obeying a lot of rules and laws, but more so it means our personal response to Gods everlasting love for us and His constant forgiveness of our sins.
When God forgives He forgets. Theres a story about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who told her bishop she had a vision of Christ. The bishop, attempting to see if it was a true vision, told the good sister, "The next time He appears to you, Sister, ask Him what the bishops great sin was before he became a bishop." He knew that only God and his confessor would know that. The next time Sister saw the bishop he asked her, "Did you see Jesus again?" "Yes," replied Sister. "Did you ask Him about my sin?" "Yes, I did," replied Sister. "And what did He say?" With a twinkle in her eye, Sister said, "He said, I dont remember."
How often have you said, "I forgive, but I just cant forget?" There will not be peace in the world until all people learn to forgive one another from their hearts. Perhaps the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. We so badly want to be perfect, without flaw. But when we see and experience our own weaknesses and failings, thats a hard pill to swallow especially if we compare ourselves to others.
The most important way we teach others is through our actions, which are more important than words. Lets try to hear Jesus speaking the words of todays psalm to us: "I am kind and merciful, slow to anger, rich in compassion to you. Please let Me be the same through you to others. As I have forgiven you, you are to forgive one another."
Father Smith is a priest of the La Crosse, Wis., Diocese.
The value of the narrative in our first reading lies in what it reveals about God: what He is like, what He does and does not expect of us. The young Moses had fled for his life from Egypt and married into a family of semi-nomadic shepherds. "Horeb" Mount Sinai appears for the first time in the Bible. Moses will later return and there mediate a covenant between liberated Israelites and their deliverer God.
Here, the "angel of the Lord" is not a created angelic being, but God himself dealing directly with creatures. This distinction preserves divine transcendence while allowing for genuine divine-human encounter. (Note the shift from "angel" to "The Lord saw ... God called out.") The burning bush that was not consumed served to encourage Moses curiosity rather than overawe him. God expects our personal involvement and free commitment! Nonetheless, proper reverence is demanded sandals must be removed in acknowledgment of divine holiness. Nor is God to be directly looked at. Moses chose to "hide his face" out of instinct for self-preservation. God is the all-holy, the "wholly other."
Revelation here combines old and new. The Lord is the same God of ancient tradition ("the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob"). And yet He is about to do something unheard of, what no god had ever done. He will rescue an entire people from foreign slavery and personally lead them into their own "good and spacious land." Equally astonishing is the motivation for this divine in-breaking into human history. God had not been stirred to action by fervent prayers or sacrificial offerings. The sole reason was that He cared, He has sympathy and empathy for their grievous affliction. "I have witnessed ... I have heard: I know well what they are suffering."
God is thus revealed as a profoundly moral being who chose to right wrong and side with the powerless and oppressed. This self-revelation is summed up in His personal name, here communicated for the first time (according to one tradition) in order to validate Moses mission to the Israelites. "Yahweh" (paraphrased in most modern translations as "Lord") probably means "He who is." The meaning of this expression is not God as pure and uncreated being. Such philosophical thinking was alien to the Hebrew world, while at home among ancient Greeks. Rather, it sums up the nature of God as "He who is present to help." This is reflected in our liturgical greeting, "The Lord be with you," a wish that is also a statement of marvelous fact.
Here then we have a profound secret revealed. The real God is "He who is present," always with us, caring and helping, accepting and forgiving, delivering us from hopelessness into joy. We respond with proper reverence, but also with a certain familiarity, addressing the awesome Divinity by His personal name.
Todays psalm begins by a summons to praise and thank ("bless") the Lord. Our boast is not in a God of raw power and unyielding will but the One who is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness."
OUR GOOD NEWS: God's overwhelming expressions of caring love for us demand our suitable response through faithful service.
In ancient times, "friend of the bridegroom" had definite responsibilities during courtship, before serving as best man on the wedding day. He mediated quarrels between the lovers, pleaded his friend's case with the girlfriend, and appealed to the public on his behalf (first reading). The "song" he sings about love is a parable/allegory inviting listeners' verdict in a fictitious legal case. He first stirs up interest in a farmer (lover) "courting" a vineyard (beloved). The man showers care on his property, sparing no labor or expense. Everything anticipates a wonderful harvest. Suddenly, sad chords in a minor key: Every grape was sour!
Isaiah spoke out for the wronged lover, inviting public expressions of indignation at betrayal by the young woman. Bystanders could only approve his judgment of punishment. Let the useless vineyard fall back into its original wild state! Then, the unexpected punch line: Godis the lover, his Chosen People the beloved! Isaiah's audience convicted themselves! The final sentence specifies their unfaithful disobedience as social injustice. Isaiah's play on words can only be approximated in translation: "He looked for the lightof justice - but found the nightof bloodshed; for compassion - but found oppression!"
Like Isaiah, Jesus told a fable about a vineyard and invited audience judgment. Here, ungrateful, murderous tenants replaced uncooperative vines. He then turned the crowd's stern verdict calling for rejection and destruction through telling quotations of Psalm 118. Next came a pronouncement of doom more terrible in its finality than any Old Testament prophet's. The audience, "chief priests and elders of the people," constituted a formal assembly of official Judaism. These heard Jesus's rejection of the Synagogue in favor of the Church. Historical Israel was being replaced by the new Israel of Jesus' founding.
Details of the story heighten its tragic message. Steps taken by the owner - planting, hedging, building winepress and guard tower - attest careful concern to do everything possible. Unlike the first reading, the vineyard represented God's Kingdom, with tenants standing for his Chosen People. These preferred to get on their own what God offered as a gift, conditioned upon faithful service. Blinded by totally unjustified hatred and greed, these foolishly bring certain doom upon themselves through brutal efforts to break away from the absent master.
Application of Psalm 118:22-23 introduces a second image: the Church, the interim expression of final-age Kingdom, as a stone building. That Jesus is "head of the corner" affirms his essential role in the salvation of God's people. He is either the cornerstone, placed at the corner of the foundation where two rows of stones come together, or the key- (cap-) stone completing the arch and supporting the entire structure - in either case, absolutely indispensable.
The parable teaches that we Christians can't bask in privilege, waiting around to enter heaven; we're called to deeds of love, including personal and corporate witness that invites others into God's kingdom.
Who were the magi we hear about in todays Gospel? We do not know.
They fulfill Isaiahs prophecy in our first reading of kings coming to Jerusalem bearing precious gifts.Yet the magi are shrouded in the mystery mentioned in our second reading.
The mystery begins to lift when we consider the gifts brought by these mysterious pilgrims: gold for a king, incense for a priest and myrrh for his burial.
Jesus was a king. Yet Jesus was different from all other kings known to history. He never lorded it over people. Jesus amassed no wealth.He had no palace, not even a fixed abode (Luke 9:58).
Jesus was a shepherd-king who came, He said, "not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45), even to the extent of laying down his life for His sheep (John 10:11).
Yet, Jesus was also a priest. A priest is a man for others, someone set apart to offer God prayer, praise and sacrifice on behalf of others. From antiquity, the smoke of incense, curling heavenward, has symbolized this priestly activity.
From a purely utilitarian point of view burning incense is a sheer waste.So is prayer, if we judge it by measurable, visible results.A skeptic, seeing a priest praying the breviary, asked: "How do you know anyone is listening?"Without faith, that question is unanswerable. You cannot prove that anyone is listening. With faith, however, no proof is necessary.
Jesus exercised His priesthood in those nights of solitary prayer which we read about in the Gospels. He was no less a priest, however, when He healed the sick, consoled the sorrowing and comforted people weighed down by suffering and sin.
The supreme example of Jesus priesthood came, however, on the cross. There Jesus offered His heavenly Father not merely the prayer of His lips and His heart but His very life.
To anyone without faith the cross is utter defeat and a scandalous waste.For those with faith, however, the cross is the place of ultimate victory. The most eloquent symbol of this victory is the empty tomb of Easter morning, which shows that the power of death and evil has been broken.Because of the sacrifice offered on Calvary by Jesus, our shepherd-king and priest, evil cannot control or master us, unless we consent.
The magis gifts foretold all this: gold for a king, incense for a priest, myrrh for his burial. Jesus shares these three functions with us. Paul says that Jesus is "the firstborn of many brothers" (Romans 8:29). In baptism we became members of His family, His sisters, His brothers. We share with Jesus, our elder brother, the functions of king, priest and sacrifice.
Like Christ, our shepherd-king, we too are called to serve others.That was Jesus explicit command to His disciples when, at the Last Supper, they argued about "who should be regarded as the greatest" (Luke 22:24-26).
We younger sisters and brothers of Jesus share also in His priestly role. Like him, we are called to be people of prayer. Prayer is the souls life breath. I was only a schoolboy when I discovered that when I neglected prayer, my grades suffered and my life began to fall apart.Ive never forgotten that.
Finally, we are called to share in Jesus death.God asks us to die daily to the selfishness and self-centeredness that lurk within each of us. And one day God will ask us to give back to Him the precious gift of life itself so that He can raise us to enjoy with Jesus a new and eternal life with God: a life without suffering, without sorrow, without frustration and disappointment, without loneliness and without sin.
The magi offered Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh, the best and most costly gifts they had.What can we offer Him? Over a century ago the English poet Christina Georgina Rosetti answered that question in verse:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him give my heart.
Father Hughes is in residence at Christ the King Parish in University City.