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Friday, September 27, 2019

Send Lazarus! - 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
Abraham replied,
'My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'
He said, 'Then I beg you, father,
send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers,
so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.'
He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"


Jesus’ parable about the rich man tormented in the netherworld is one of his most vivid and unsettling. I think a lot of Christians receive this parable with mixed feelings. We are in part satisfied by the reversal of fortune. We’re pleased to learn that Lazarus who, in life, was so wretched that “dogs even used to come and lick his sores” has found a peaceful rest. But modern Christians are often discomforted by the heaviness of the justice exacted upon the rich man. Is it not noble of him to beg a messenger be sent to his remaining brothers? Let’s look at some of the story’s details more closely and see if they can shed some light.

An initial thing to notice: Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables that actually has a name. It is always “a rich man” or “a dishonest steward” or “a woman having ten coins.” They never ever have names. But then there is Lazarus. It makes sense that Jesus would only give a name to the poorest character in all his parables. For Jesus, it is always the last who come first. It is those who are overlooked who get seen and named. They are the first to have a concrete identity. Indeed, Jesus specifies Lazarus by name in order to highlight his dignity, a dignity which is often taken from the poor. 

Juxtapose Jesus’ specific attention upon Lazarus with how the rich man treats him, and not just during his earthly life. We often overlook that, even amidst his torment, the rich man asks Abraham if Lazarus specifically can be sent to slake his thirst: “Have pity on me,” he says. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” The request is breathtaking. Why must it be Lazarus specifically? And again, when Abraham rejects this, the rich man wants Lazarus specifically to be sent to his brothers: “I beg you, [Abraham], send [Lazarus] to my father’s house … so that he may warn [my brothers], lest they too come to this place of torment.” He continues to view Lazarus as a slave, as one meant to serve him and his rich family. Where Jesus specifies Lazarus by name in order to highlight his dignity, the rich man specifies Lazarus by name in order to torment him, even while he himself is being tormented.

It’s possible to become locked in to certain ways of thinking and acting. This is so much the case that, even when the rich man ― agonizing in the netherworld ― seeks to aid his still-living brothers, he cannot help treating Lazarus like a servant. It is second nature to him; this is how he had lived his whole life. Even profound torment cannot occasion the real transformation of his life. Perhaps this is what Abraham meant by that “great chasm established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from … your side to ours.” Perhaps he was referring to the inability to escape one’s habits once they’re locked for eternity. 

A concluding point: Jesus naming Lazarus serves to disrupt the way we typically think of poor people. Even if we offer alms to a beggar, we rarely stop to interact. They are immediately lost in the vague sea of faces that constitutes “the poor.” By giving him a name, Lazarus becomes more intimate in our imagination. He becomes more human, more alive. He is someone with a story, with particular fears, dreams, and agonies. He is not an abstraction; he is concrete. He is not some vague poor man. He is Lazarus. The rich man’s sin was not that he neglected “the poor,” but that he neglected Lazarus, the man “lying at his door.” His sin was that, when he encountered the man named Lazarus, he did not place him first — he did not hear his name, so to speak — but used his name to order him, even from the torment of the netherworld, to do his bidding.

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Welcomed into Eternal Dwellings - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 16:1-13
Jesus said to his disciples,
"A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
'What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.'
The steward said to himself, 'What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.'
He called in his master's debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
'How much do you owe my master?'
He replied, 'One hundred measures of olive oil.'
He said to him, 'Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.'
Then to another the steward said, 'And you, how much do you owe?'
He replied, 'One hundred kors of wheat.'
The steward said to him, 'Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.'
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
"For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon."


Not exactly one of Jesus’ greatest hits is the so-called “Parable of the Dishonest Steward.” Everyone knows last week’s prodigal son; nobody remembers the cunning steward. The story lacks the dramatic flair of the prodigal; the language is often difficult. But it’s an important story, and there is something potent in Jesus’ words if we can give him our attention. Perhaps it's enough, for our purposes, simply to get a handle on what he's actually saying here. Let’s first walk through the parable itself. 

The steward, upon squandering his rich master’s property, learns that he’s to be fired. Knowing that he’ll soon have nothing, the steward devises a plan so that, “when he is removed from the stewardship, [people] may welcome him into their homes.” While he is still steward, he contacts his master’s debtors and drastically reduces the amounts owed. This one owes twenty percent less wheat! This one owes half as much olive oil! The steward risks doubling the wrath of his master ― but he’ll be fired anyway! There’s nothing to lose. At least he can expect the future generosity of these debtors on account of the discounts. But the rich master’s wrath is not doubled. When he learns of the steward’s shrewdness, he is impressed. The steward’s cleverness has saved his job. 

So far so clear. But then things get trickier. Finished with the parable, Jesus turns to the crowd: “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What’s he getting at here? Let’s notice, first, that Jesus has distinguished the “children of this world” from “the children of light.” These are common phrases used throughout the New Testament. They describe two different ways of living one’s life, two different logics according to which one can order their existence. The “children of light” are those who live according to the logic of Jesus ― the logic of turning the other cheek, of peacemaking, of placing oneself last. The “children of this world,” on the other hand, are those who live by the logic of worldliness ― the logic of things like self-indulgence, of misguided ambition, or the obsessive pursuit of money. They live by the ambitious logic of this human world, rather than the self-sacrificial logic of God’s world

So what is Jesus doing with this distinction right now? Remember he claimed that “the children of this world are more prudent.” In short, what Jesus’ parable demonstrates is that those who are preoccupied with the difficulties of even dishonest living ― the “children of this world” ― are often more clever than his own followers! If only the “children of light” were as clever as the dishonest steward! 

We need not be troubled by this. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus similarly counselled his followers to “be wise as serpents [but] innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). Jesus even concludes today’s reading with an example ― though the language is difficult ― of how the “children of light” might become clever: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with [i.e. by way of] dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Now what does this mean? Jesus is suggesting that, in the same way the dishonest steward cleverly made friends by way of the master’s accounts, so the “children of light” should make friends by way of their own money. 

But with whom should we make friends? Without question: the poor. The phrasing Jesus uses here ― namely that once one’s money fails one will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings” ― is a common way rabbis used to talk about giving alms. It was often said that, when you give alms ― when you give everything to the poor ― you will be received into the realms of eternity. The Church, moreover, very deliberately pairs Jesus’ parable this week with an Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos who begs us to stop “trampling upon the needy and destroying the poor” (Am 8:4). Jesus is making this assertion his own. This is how the Christian can behave prudently and cleverly. This is how the Christian can ensure he or she will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings,” just like the steward sought to ensure his welcome into the homes of the master’s debtors. By giving alms, the Christian is as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

"While he was still a long way off" - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”


Jesus’ “parable of the prodigal son” is one of his most famous. There are a few ways to read the story, but I’d like to offer one that is less common. We know the first part well: the son, after taking his father’s money, sets off for a “distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.” He finds himself out of money, out of food, and working in the filthiest conditions. The common reading is that, under these circumstances, the son recognizes his pitiful state, repents, and returns home into his father’s forgiving arms. But if we look closely at the text we’ll see something altogether different. 

Let’s look at the story in sequence. While living that “life of dissipation,” we see that he was not even able to eat. At this moment, he thinks to himself, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’” Do you see what he is doing? It has dawned on him that, if he can just get his father to let him live among his hired workers, he’ll have enough food to eat. This isn’t exactly profound remorse for the sins of his past. Look closely: it never actually says he repented. He simply wants to eat. And confessing to having “sinned against heaven and against you”? That is merely the ruse by which he intends to trick his father. 

This should totally reframe how we read what happens next: “while [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” The father’s unrepentant son has come home in order to trick him. He owes him nothing. Yet, overwhelmed with compassion, he leaps off the porch to embrace him. Notice now that, upon being embraced, the son is moved to true repentance. He does say “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son,” which was his rehearsed line. But he does not ask to be treated as a hired servant. He has abandoned the ruse. He now means his confession. But he has only been brought to true contrition upon this encounter with the extravagant compassion of his father.

It’s significant, I think, that we typically assume the son has repented before he returns to the father’s house. It is true to our basic conception of how forgiveness should work.  We might be ready to offer mercy when people seek our forgiveness. We even think ourselves heroic and Christ-like for offering our pardon in these situations. If my son was the unrepentant prodigal son, I would not have leapt off the porch. I would probably have waited for an explanation and a sincere apology. But the mercy Jesus describes is nothing short of excessive. Real mercy makes the first move. It forgives those who have not sought our forgiveness. It forgives even those who are “still a long way off” from seeking our forgiveness.

The behavior of the father might strike us as disordered, as “too much.” But this is the character of the God we worship. Let’s be clear: you have not yet adequately estimated God’s mercy. It is reckless, immoderate, and unreasonable. But it’s the encounter with this radical mercy that bursts open the human heart. Indeed, it was only when the son encountered the extravagance of the father’s compassion that he found a reason to live differently. It was only when he encountered the sheer excessiveness of the father’s mercy that he was able to repent. It is this mercy ― and only this mercy ― that can, to use father’s words, bring the dead back to life.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Hating Your Father and Mother - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 14:25-33
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion? 
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? 
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. 
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”


Jesus’ words this week are extraordinarily strong: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” It’s very difficult to water down Jesus’ language. The Greek word the passage uses for “hate” is misein. It means, quite simply, “to hate.” There’s no translating our way out of it. But this assertion, if we take it wholesale, conflicts with so much of what Christians value. One of the Ten Commandments insists we “honor our father and mother.” And Jesus, earlier in his ministry, commented that he has not come to abolish those commandments (Mt 5:18). So what gives? What is Jesus actually asserting in this week’s gospel? Should we really not love our families, but hate them?

I’d like to get at this in a somewhat roundabout way. I think what Jesus is doing here is similar to what a very strange man we now call “Saint Symeon the Holy Fool” did with his whole life in 6th century Syria. In his youth, Symeon had a profound desire for humility. He confided to a friend that he longed to be a saint, but in such a way that nobody could publicly recognize him as such. To that end, he entered a desert monastery in western Syria, hidden away from the eyes of the world. But after 29 years of this life, Symeon felt urgently that God was asking him to leave the monastery for life in the city. He was called, as he put it, “to mock the world.” And mock the world he did. 

The residents of Homs — the city in which Symeon lived out his days — were shocked by his extraordinary and offensive behavior. He arrived at the city gates dragging a dead dog by his belt. He was supposed to be a celibate monk, but spent most of his days hanging around the city brothel; several of the women even had reputations as his “girlfriends.” He often turned over the tables at the public market. At Mass, he would extinguish the candle lights and throw nuts at the congregants while they were resetting the sanctuary. Throughout Lent, he wore a chain of sausages around his neck like a priests’ stole. 

Symeon was, on the surface, an obnoxious madman; he was the town fool. Surely he got his wish: no one publicly recognized him as a saint. It’s hard to imagine even calling him a Christian. So why does the Church today honor him as “Saint” Symeon, just as much as it honors Saint Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi? It might be easy to suggest that Symeon suffered from profound mental illness. But those who intimately knew him bore witness to his clear mind. Symeon knew very well that his actions were absurd. But he acted from the firm conviction that what he was doing was needed. Remember why Symeon left the monastery ― God had asked him to “mock the world.” But what is the meaning of Symeon’s mockery?

There is always, of course, more to the story besides Symeon’s public reputation. He went to brothels, yes, but only to gift the women money so they could avoid working. He publicly mocked the Church’s Lenten fasts, but then abstained rigorously from meat in his private life. But what explains his outrageous behavior generally speaking? What is motivating Symeon’s mockery? What Symeon sought, above all, was to disrupt the conventional ways of ordinary religious existence. In his city, people went to church and lit candles. They kept the Lenten fasts. But these were simply popular conventions. Symeon’s life forced people to really ask themselves why all of this mattered. Why do I need to abstain from meat? He brought liturgies to a screeching halt, but only because he wanted to stop people from merely going through the motions. Why, after all, do we need all these candles? What are we really doing at Mass?

I bring up Saint Symeon because I think Jesus is up to something similar in today’s gospel. Notice that, when Jesus says we must hate our families, a “great crowd” had been traveling behind him. This is a key element of the story. Indeed, on account of his miracles and preaching, Jesus had become popular, a celebrity even. The message of Jesus was becoming so popular that even large crowds could embrace it with ease. It is at this moment the text says Jesus “turned and addressed” this large crowd that had been following him with his disturbing words: you cannot come with me unless you hate your family. 

Do you see what Jesus is doing? In the same way that Saint Symeon sought to disrupt the sleepy forms of Christianity with his bizarre behaviors, so Jesus is seeking to disrupt the understanding of those in that “great crowd” who thought it would be easy to follow him. Christianity is not easy; it is no “pop spirituality.” “Narrow is the way,” Jesus says, “and few there are who walk it” (Mt 7:13-14). In order to remind people of this, Jesus has chosen the method of Saint Symeon the Holy Fool. Jesus intends to shock and disturb the crowds. He is the original holy fool. 

Does Jesus really want us to hate our families? Of course not. But Jesus does ― and this is the shocking, disruptive, outrageous thing ― want us to put himself before everything and everyone else, including our families. That claim ― a central claim of Christianity ― disturbs the normal order of our lives. And so Jesus, like Symeon, communicates this by shocking the people around him. He is trying to disturb you. Sometimes being disturbed is the only way we’ll notice.

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