Following Jesus Is Not Easy

Following Jesus Is Not Easy

24th Sunday In O.T.; September 16, 2018

Is 50:5-9a   Ps 116   Jas 2:14-18   Mk 8:27-35

Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.

 

            Today’s Gospel presents us with a scene we know well: Jesus is on his way towards Caesarea Philippi and he asks the disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” (Mk 8:27). They respond with what the people are saying: some say that you are John the Baptist reborn, others Elijah or one of the great prophets. The people appreciated Jesus, considering him “God’s emissary,” but they still weren’t able to recognize him as he truly is. So, he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 28). This is the most important question, which Jesus directly addresses to those who have followed him; he wants to verify their faith. Peter, in the name of all, pipes up and says, “You are the Messiah” (v. 29).

What would Peter, a 1st century Jew mean by the title ‘messiah’ or ‘Christ,’ the anointed one? Well, for centuries, Jews have been waiting for a deliverer from the line of David, who would do what David did but at a grander scale. He would liberate Israel from its enemies, gather the tribes of Israel into one great nation again, and would make Israel a light to the world—all of that was the Messiah’s job description.

In prophet after prophet, in many of the Psalms, we hear the longing for a new David, a definitive David, the warrior-king who would unite and liberate his people and bring about the reign of God—that was the Messiah, the Christ.

However, in the very midst of the Old Testament, namely, 3rd Isaiah written at the end of the Babylonian Exile, there is a very strange description of Messiah. It’s fair to say, it’s a minority opinion. We can find it in the 50th through 53rd chapters of the prophet Isaiah. Listen as Isaiah channels, as it were, the words of the Messiah: “I gave them my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not spare from buffets and spitting” (Is 50:6). Hmm, this doesn’t sound like the Davidic Messiah; this doesn’t sound like a warrior-king conquering the enemies of Israel. “Giving his back to those who beat him,” instead of fighting them?! “Giving his cheeks to those who plucked his beard” and not punching them back in fierce retaliation?! Not even “shielding his face from buffets and spitting.” All of these hardly seems Davidic.

And, then we hear in Chapter 53, that “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity—it was for our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…he was pierced for our offenses, crushed by our sins…” (53:3a,4,5a). Again, this does not sound like the Davidic king: “despised, rejected, a man of suffering and sorrow.” None of this sounds like the standard expectation of the Messiah.

Brothers and sisters, reading this from the Christian perspective, we’re getting very close to what Urs von Balthasar called the Theo-logic: God’s way of thinking, God’s way of imagining, God’s way of picturing the world, which, to be frank, is not the same as ours. God is turning our world upside down. Is the Messiah a Davidic warrior? Yes, but listen to the text how he will fight, which will not be the usual way; instead, he will fight by becoming a lamb of sacrifice.

This view buried in the Book of the prophet Isaiah is a minority opinion—that’s true. It is strange, exceptional. And, we can hear the exceptionality of it in Peter’s response: “I think you re the Christ; you are the Messiah.”

            Jesus is struck by Peter’s faith, and recognizes that it doesn’t come from human beings, but is the fruit of grace, a special grace of God, the Father. Then he clarifies what being the Messiah means. Listen: “He began to teach them the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by the elders…and be killed” (Mk 8:3).

On hearing this, Peter, who had just professed his faith in Jesus as Messiah, is shocked and he takes Jesus to task for saying what he did. He corrects Jesus by virtually saying that you are the Messiah, which means you should be powerful, victorious; you should be a military hero like David and Solomon. Don’t be too hard on Peter because he is within the mainstream tradition. But, “to be killed”!? “To suffer”!? “To be rejected”!? All of that would be a sign that you are not the Israelite Messiah.

And, how does Jesus react? He in turn rebukes Peter with very harsh words—perhaps the most startling and disturbing words in the entire New Testament. Speaking to Peter, who would become the first pope of the Catholic Church, he says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (v. 33b). You, Peter, are thinking according to human logic, but, in fact, we must listen as Isaiah had anticipated a long time ago. We must think Theo-logically, according to God’s logic.

O.K., what is God’s logic? What’s the difference? The human way of thinking is as old as King David or as contemporary as today’s headlines, says this: violence should be met with violence; injustice through more injustice; evil confronted by revenge—that’s the way of the world. That’s the way the Messiah was imagined according to our conventional consciousness. But, we know all too well, that such logic just perpetuates the cycle of violence, deepens existing hatreds, and solves no problems.

What the true Davidic Messiah shows is a new way of responding to Israel’s enemies. Jesus wants his followers to understand that he is a humble Messiah, a servant. He is the Servant obedient to the word and the will of the Father, to the point of completely sacrificing his own life for our good, our salvation. For this reason, turning towards the whole crowd there, he declares that one who wishes to become his disciple must accept being a servant, as he has made himself a servant, and cautions: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v. 34).

To undertake the discipleship of Jesus means to take up your cross—we all have one—to accompany him on his path. What does that look like? Nailed to his cross, Jesus can say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Jesus absorbs the violence of the enemies of Israel, of the whole world. He absorbs it in his love, compassion, and non-violence and thereby transforms it. He doesn’t perpetuate the cycle of violence but brings it to an end. He shows as Isaiah had anticipated how the Messiah would fight.

People of God, following Jesus is an uncomfortable path: it’s not one of success or fleeting glory and prestige, but one which takes us to true freedom in which we imitate Jesus: namely, we serve others by giving our lives away. In so doing we are freed from selfishness and sin. It is necessary to clearly reject the dominant consciousness of our society which places the “I” and one’s interests at the center of our existence. That is not what Jesus wants for us! Instead Jesus invites us to lose our life for him and for the Gospel, to receive it in its entirety, which will renew us, fulfill us, and lead us to an authentic life.

We are certain, since Jesus is the Word made Flesh, that he is God among us, that his path leads us to resurrection, to the full life and definitive life with and in God. Choosing to follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of all, we gratefully recognize that he bore the infirmities of the world, that he took them unto himself for our good. At the same time, we must remember that he transformed them non-violently through his mercy and compassion. Following Jesus, we must take up our Cross. We must walk in his footsteps, and, then, we, as Christians, as his followers, become the means by which the cycle of violence can be broken. There is power in the text: that’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. Amen

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Ephphatha!

23rd Sunday in O.T. (B); September 9, 2018

Is 35:4-7a   Ps 146   Jas 2:1-5   Mk 7:31-37

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

            In this week’s Gospel, taken from Mark, we have Jesus healing a deaf man who also has a speech impediment. As always, we have to look at the surface, literal description of what’s happening and the deeper spiritual meaning of the account. Jesus is, indeed, performing a physical miracle. He was a physical healer, a miracle worker, which was one of the reasons that people paid attention to him. So, this story undoubtedly reflects a real event in the ministry of Jesus.

At the same time, Jesus’ actions should also be read symbolically as to uncover a deeper spiritual meaning. What do we see when we try to decipher the spiritual significance of the story?

They bring to him a man who is deaf and dumb. Both are physical ailments, but we read them spiritually as well. ‘Deafness’ is a spiritual issue. All throughout the Bible we hear this great metaphor of God’s speech: e.g., God says, “Let there be light and there is light.” The Psalmist says that “We can hear the word of God” as we look around creation.” We can “hear” the word of God in the orderliness of the universe. Then God speaks in a very direct way to the prophets who are his spokespersons, to the Patriarchs, and to the great liberator, Moses. His word shapes us.

            The question is: do we allow the Word to shape us? For that to happen, we need to be hearers of the Word. We need to be listeners of God’s Word. What’s our problem spiritually? WE DON’T LISTEN! We are deaf!

So, who does this deaf man stand for? All of us up and down the centuries, all of us today who do not “hear” the word of God, who’ve grown deaf to it, oblivious to it, who’ve lost the capacity to discern it.

Think of it this way: hearing the word of God is like hearing a pitch at a certain frequency. If you’re not attuned to it, you’ll never take it in. The saint is one who is attuned to the frequency of God’s word.

Why don’t we hear it?  One reason is that there are so many voices, so many sounds competing for our attention. Just think of TV, commercials, and the Internet.   Think of the literal sounds that compete for our attention. We just get used to that wall of “white noise” that comes at us 24/7. In fact, we become dependent upon that noise, even addicted to it.

Under these circumstances, how do we hear God? In 1 Kings 19 we hear that the prophet Elijah encountered God not “in the strong or heavy winds,” not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a “tiny whispering sound” (vs. 11-12). How do we hear it if its drowned by so much competition?

Deafness to the word of God, infrequent participation at Mass, ignorance of Scripture result in the voice of God being drowned out by the culture. For all these reasons we are like this man, deaf.

What’s the result of deafness? At the physical level a speech impediment obtains. When you can’t hear sounds of articulate speech, how can you be expected to reproduce them? So, someone who’s deaf, can’t speak clearly.

Now, read the passage spiritually. If you don’t hear the word of God clearly, you don’t regularly attend to it, then you can’t speak it clearly, either. Spiritually, you’ll have a speech impediment. Maybe you can make some religious sounds, but they won’t be clear, articulate. It’s like the Bob Dylan song from his John Wesley Harding album, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” How can you sing in the Lord, if you don’t know his song? As St. Jerome said, “Not to know Scripture is not to know Christ.”

            How many Catholics can speak the word of God with clarity and confidence? Let that question sink in because I think it’s a challenge to all of us. How many of us become tongue-tied when people ask us about our faith? ? Are we tongue-tied as though we have a spiritual impediment.

So, what does Jesus do to the man with the impediment.   Listen: “He took him off by himself away from the crowd” (Mk 8:33a). How important is that move and read it spiritually. One reason we can’t hear is that we spend too much time in the crowd—the noisy, busy voices of so many, the received conventional wisdom of any society, such as prison culture.   All of it makes us deaf to God’s word and so we have to be moved away. We have to be introduced to a new environment, a new milieu where we’re able to hear the word of God clearly.   I knew an inmate in C-facility a few years ago, who would get up at 4:00 a.m. to pray in the Quiet—he needed a place of silence, contemplation, and communion with God. As the Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:11). Jesus is leading him and us away from the crowd and into the Church. Jesus leads us away from the crowd and into the life of the Church which has a new way of thinking, seeing, imaging, and hearing.

And, then we hear: “He put his fingers into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue” (Mk 7:33b).   “Then,” the Gospel tells us, “he looked up to heaven and groaned” (v. 34a) with his fingers in the man’s ears. What’s Jesus doing? He’s setting up a kind of spiritual, electrical current. Linking himself to the Father, he plugs himself into the deaf man thereby running power from the Father through the Son to the deaf man. This is the picture of the Church, isn’t it? The Father speaks to us through his Son, and, then Jesus says in his original Aramaic “Ephphatha,” that is, “be opened” (cf. v. 34b). “Be opened” to the word, who is Jesus.

You’ve spent your life closed, caved in on yourself, listening to your own voice or the voice of the crowd. Now the time has come in Christ to be opened to the word of God. How do we do that? We do so through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the proclamation of the Word, prayer.

When we hear Jesus say Ephphatha , we learn that the man’s speech impediment was immediately over come and so it goes.   We don’t speak clearly because we can’t hear. And, therefore, when we do hear clearly, we begin to speak clearly. What’s the key to becoming a disciple of Christ, which means to be an evangelist? It’s to listen. It’s to become plugged into Jesus Christ and through him to the Father. Through the Bible, through the proclamation of the Word through the Eucharist, you begin to hear God’s speech and then you can speak it clearly, articulately, and confidently.

            Stay with these readings, brothers.   Stay plugged into Jesus and then you will speak.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes a Good Christian?

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time; Sept. 2, 2018

Dt 4:1-2,6-8 Ps 15   Jas 1:17-18,21b-22,27   Mk 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.

 

            One of the great tensions in the spiritual life is between observing the Law and abiding by the Law of Love. Are we a religion of the Law with its rules, regulations, commandments, rubrics, Canon Law or are we a religion born of God’s love manifested in Christ?

The readings today are fascinating because they touch on the tension that runs throughout the Bible, right into our Christian tradition. The first reading is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which literally means “the second Law” because the Book of Exodus lays out the Ten Commandments and in Deuteronomy we have a reiteration and elaboration of the Law. So, in the title of the Book there is the primacy of the Law. We hear Moses speaking to the people:

 

“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching

you to observe, that you may live, and may enter and take

possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers

is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the

Lord, your God, which I enjoin on you, you shall not add to what

I command you nor subtract from it….Observe them carefully”

(emphasis added; Deut 4:1-2,6a).

 

This is very straightforward, strong stuff. Moses, the Lawgiver, is laying out the Law to the people saying to them the Law is your pride-and-joy; it’s God special gift to you and don’t mess with it: don’t add to it; don’t subtract from it.

The Gospel for this Sunday, on the other hand, contains a dispute between Jesus and several Pharisees and scribes over the value of observing “the tradition of the elders” (Mk 7:3), which are loosely connected to the Law of Moses, which Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, defines as the “precepts of men” (v. 7), which must never take precedence over the “commandment of God.” The ancient rules in question consisted not only in the precepts God revealed to Moses, but in a series of norms that were indicated by the Mosaic Law. The Pharisees and scribes observed these norms in an extremely scrupulous manner because, in doing so, they believed they were in right relationship with God. Therefore, they rebuked Jesus and his disciples for transgressing them, thereby putting themselves in opposition to God. But, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter, when he says, “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast to the tradition of men” (v. 8). Jesus is not only addressing his interlocutors, but our Teacher is speaking to us of truth and wisdom that frees us from hypocrisy.

We should pay heed to Jesus’ words.   Jesus is cautioning us against the belief that outward observance of the Law is enough to make us good Christians. It was dangerous for the Pharisees to think that way and so too with us if we consider ourselves acceptable to God or, even worse, morally superior to others if we observe the rules, customs of our Catholic religion even though we do not love our neighbor very well, we are hard of heart as we exclude others from our gathering, and are arrogant and proud. Literal compliance with the Law and its precepts is a fruitless exercise unless our hearts are being radically changed, which results in practical behavior.

What would that look like? It would mean opening oneself to meet God and his Word regularly and deeply in prayer. It would mean seeking peace through justice and not the permanent preparation for war. It would mean living out Matthew 25 (31-45) in which we take care of the poor, the weak, the downtrodden. We’ve got to admit that in our communities, parishes, and dioceses great scandal is done when those who say they are Catholic and frequently go to the Church but, who are insensitive to the needs of their family or who are abusive to the most vulnerable in our midst or who speak badly of others to the point of objectifying them because they are different. This is what Jesus condemns because this is a counter-witness to Christianity.

After this exhortation, Jesus shifts attention on the deeper aspect of the Law and states: “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him” (v. 15). In this way, Jesus is emphasizing the primacy of interiority, that is, the primacy of the “heart,” which dwells within God’s presence.   Brothers and sisters, it is not the external things that make us holy or unholy, but the heart which expresses our intentions, our choices and the will do all that we do for the love of God. External behavior is simply the result of what we have decided in the heart and not the contrary: with a change of external behavior, but not a change of heart that conforms to the Father’s will, we are not true Christians.

            The boundary between good and evil does not pass outside of us, but rather dwells within us.   We should ask ourselves: where is my heart? Is it being conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What is my treasure? Is it Jesus, is it his teaching?—ALL of this teaching, not just the ones I agree with. If so, then the heart is good. Or is my treasure something else? Do I seek happiness by pursuing the goods of the world such as wealth and security, status and accomplishment, self-absorbed pleasure, and dominative power? This is the heart that needs conversion and purification. Without a purified heart that only comes through surrender to the Father’s will, one cannot truly have clean hands and lips which speak sincere words of the Good News. If our hearts our hardened, then we will inevitably live a duplicitous, double life. We’ll say one thing and do another. Only a purified heart can genuinely speak words of mercy and forgiveness, which is exactly what Jesus, our Teacher does. Amen.