Doing What It Takes

20th Sunday in O.T. (A); August 20, 2017

Is 56:1,6-7   Ps 67   Rom 11:13-15,29-32   Mt 15:21-28

Deacon Jim McFadden; SJB

 

            Today’s Gospel maybe one of the most problematic in the entire New Testament as on the surface it seems to portray Jesus as a chauvinist. Jesus leaves God’s own holy land and enters pagan territory where he encounters a Syro-Phoenician (in Mark’s Gospel) or a Canaanite (in Matthew’s account) woman. She comes to Jesus and tells him of her daughter who is troubled by a demon. Jesus not only ignores her, but also puts her down in a very blunt way that we find offensive.

In his attitude toward the woman, we see the human Jesus as a product of his culture. He sees the woman as a member of Canaan, a nation that Israel hates the most. She is also a threat to Jesus’ respectability, because she is an unattended woman who publicly accosts Jesus and speaks to him directly by shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Mt 15:21).

She may be both assertive and noisy, but she’s insightful. She knows who Jesus is. She calls him “Lord, Son of David,” which are two comprehensive titles: Jesus is Lord, intimately connected to God (the Father) and therefore meant for all mankind. But, he is also the Son of David, who is the fulfillment of the Messianic hope that originated in the Jewish tradition. So, Jesus is both the universal and the particular savior—the woman understands that.

Since she knows who Jesus is, she knows what Jesus can give: She asks for mercy. That’s why she persists. She will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed. If her daughter is going to be healed by Jesus, she has got to advocate on her behalf; so, Jesus’ mercy will flow through her into her daughter. In other words she will be a conduit for God’s mercy.

But, in the short term “… he did not answer her at all” (Mt 15:23). So why doesn’t he talk with her?   She is only asking the Messiah to fulfill his calling and expel the demons who torment God’s children. But, Jesus refuses to acknowledge her presence, let alone honor her request.

Believing that the pushy Canaanite woman is the problem, the disciples come to his rescue and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). The woman, however, is not the problem. To be blunt, it lies in Jesus’ mind. He has construed his identity and mission within the boundaries of Israel, and the Canaanite woman is an outsider. He belongs to Israel, who like David will gather all the tribes into one Kingdom again. The woman is outside David’s house. Jesus is basically saying, “I am Jew, you’re not; so your problem is no concern of mine.” Undaunted, she lays prostrate and says again, “Lord, help me” (v. 25).

Notice in this plea that there is a subtle omission. When she addressed Jesus the first time, she called him, “Lord, Son of David,” which acknowledge both his particular origins as a Jew and his universal outreach as Lord. She knows that Jesus is stressing his Jewishness at the expense of the wider humanity. The result is that she is outside him and her pleas go unheard, which means her daughter will not be healed. So, this resourceful woman, who will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed, drops the ‘Son of David’ and simply says, “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).

Oh, my goodness!—this is where the dialogue becomes very

troublesome: Jesus just called a human being a ‘dog.’ Really?

By using the word “dogs”, Jesus shows that he has absorbed the biases of his Jewish culture to see non-Jews as inferior. To deny that Jesus was not influenced by cultural biases of his time is to make Jesus less than human. But as the story unfolds, Jesus will break out of the limitation of his Jewish identity and come to see his mission as the universal savior.

At this point the woman gives off one of the best one-liners in all of Scripture: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (v. 27). By coming back with that zinger, she again is emphasizing Jesus’ universal outreach by calling him ‘Lord,’ the one who is meant for everyone. She may not be a daughter of Israel, but she is eager for any food that Jesus has to offer.

Jesus is won over as he answered her, “ O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v.28a).   The title ‘woman’ that Jesus uses is not simply a description of her gender. And it is certainly a far cry from dog. The ‘O’ suggests a shock of recognition; today, we’d say ‘Wow!—you’ve given me a sudden revelation. The pestering one, whom the disciples wanted to get rid of, is the bearer of a deeper truth. This is her great faith. Through persistence and cleverness she reminded Jesus of his true identity. He is a Jew. But, more importantly, he is Lord of the universe.

As a consequence of this woman’s act of faith, Jesus does something remarkable for her. Jesus is not usually swayed by the wishes of others, whether it be Pharisees, disciples, or individual seekers. He is driven only by the will of the Father. Therefore, it is remarkable for Jesus say to this woman, “Let it be done to you as you wish” (Mt 15:28b). Could it be that when Jesus was listening to this woman, he was hearing the voice of his Father? His Father’s voice may come from the sky as we heard at Jesus’ baptism or a cloud at his Transfiguration, but it also speaks from the earth, through people who search for mercy in a demon-filled world. Whenever and wherever Jesus hears his Father’s voice, he is alert, ready, in touch, flowing. And that is what happened.

“And her daughter was healed instantly” (v. 28c).

Once the block is removed, mercy flows freely.

            Brothers and sister, this gospel is a cautionary tale to all of us. We too can absorb our culture’s attitudes without consciously realizing it. Time and time again, we need to remind ourselves and each other that that first and foremost we are God’s beloved. When we live out of that love, mercy flows from Jesus’ Sacred Heart into us; and from us into situations where it is deeply needed. Amen.

 

 

Come to the Quiet

19th Sunday in O.T. (A); Aug. 13, 2017

1 Kgs 19:9-13a;   Ps 85   Rom 9:1-5   Mt 14:22-33

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

            It’s difficult for most of us to be still. We’re surrounded by a wall of endless chatter, small talk, off-the-cuff remarks that have no beginning and no end. Then, there’s the talk of intrigue, plots, what-if scenarios that suck us into a mind-numbing vortex. It’s not only external distractions that we have to deal with: the white noise that dwells within our own mind—that incessant flow of one distracting thought after another makes us feel that we’re like a monkey bouncing off one side of the cage to another. The need for constant “communication” can be suffocating, which creates these barriers between ourselves and God and each other. Today’s readings invite us to enter into spaces of silence, where it is easier to hear the One who is constantly communicating his divine love to us.

In the first reading, Elijah is on the lam and afraid for his life. After he slaughtered 500 of the Queen Jezebel’s prophets, she was out for blood. During his flight he got so discouraged that he plopped himself down by a broom tree and asked God to let him die. Life was just too hard to go any further. Haven’t we all had that feeling at one time in our life?   But, God has other plans for Elijah, just as he has for you and I. First, an angel sent by God fortifies him with food and drink. Thus strengthen, he begins a 40 day trek to Mount Horeb, the same mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Elijah climbs the mountain. He goes to that place that connects him with the God of Moses; he goes to his roots where the covenant bonds between God and his Chosen People were forged. Elijah was seeking intimate contract with God. He needed to feel connected with the Lord if he was to continue his arduous journey. He wanted God to show himself. There then appeared a devouring fire just like the flames that engulfed the Burning Bush but did not consume it. God was not there. Nor, did Elijah encounter God in the fierce, roaring wind or an earthquake. God would not come to him via spectacular special effects. Instead, God came as “a tiny whispering sound” or, in another translation, as “a sound of sheer silence.”

 

            What’s going on here? In order to come into God’s presence, we have to be still. We have ask ourselves whether our thoughts, choices, actions are leading us to fulfill our deepest desire to be in communion with God and to do God’s purposes or are they driving us away into the wilderness of distraction. Elijah was still and in that encounter with God he was strengthened for the remainder of his prophetic mission.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus likewise retreat to a mountain by himself to pray, following the noisiness and clamor of feeding 5,000 people and learning of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. But, the crowds find him and he breaks out of his solitude to respond compassionately to their needs.

As the Gospel story unfolds, Jesus retreats again. Even at night the people’s need for him doesn’t ease. Moreover, his disciples are in distress on their boat, which is being buffeted by strong winds. This scene is so rich with meaning. The early Fathers of the Church saw the sea as being representative of life and the instability of the visible world. Imagine the sea of Folsom Prison. The storm points to every kind of trial and difficulty that oppress human beings. Striving to live a life of integrity behind these walls is a challenge as you are being tested every day. But, you are not alone because the boat represents the Church, built by Christ and steered by the Apostles and their successors. By virtue of your baptism, you are an integral member of the Church family.

The disciples are in distress, but Jesus does not go to them until the fourth and final watch of the night, roughly about three hours before dawn. We can surmise that Jesus was aware of the strong winds that were tossing them about. But, he remained in solitude, in that necessary inner stillness, where he experienced oneness with God. Strengthened by that intimacy with the Father, he then compassionately ministers to his disciples.

Coming to them at last, he challenges them not to be afraid and invites them to share his fearlessness. This gospel was written thirty or so years after Jesus was executed and although life can be very hard, the Church returns to our still Center, which is the heart of Jesus. As we dwell within Him, he can do through us that which seems impossible. As Peter, the first Pope of the Church, was floundering in the sea, Jesus stretched out his hand to him just as he does to you. Peter grasped his hand to come closer to Jesus and, as he did, he found his true Center, where Jesus’ contagious courage dispels all fear. He did it with Peter and he can do it for you if you let Him.

 

 

 

The One Thing

17th Sunday in O.T. (A); July 30, 2017

1 Kgs 3:5,7-12   Ps 119   Rom 8:28-30   Mt 13:44-52

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

The Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said , “The saint’s life is about one thing.” He didn’t mean that a saint’s life would be a monotonous existence—“been there, done that” type of lifestyle. Rather, he meant that a truly holy person whose life is fully integrated and whose heart is rightly ordered to the Good is simply grounded in what is really Real.

What is your “one thing”? What is your ultimate concern? That’s the question that was posed to King Solomon in our first reading. Solomon, the successor to his father King David, began his reign by offering God a solemn sacrifice. Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night and was told, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you” (1 Kgs 3:5). Here we see the greatness of Solomon appear. He did not ask for a long life, more wealth, elimination of his enemies. Instead, he said to the Lord, “Give your servant…an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (v. 9). Of all the things that Solomon could have asked for, he asked for “an understanding heart.” That’s what was so important to Solomon that nothing else would trump. What would you say if you heard that invitation?

The 1991 film City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal explores this question in a fascinating, cinematic way. The adventure begins in the heart of New York City, where a thoroughly urbanized, stressed out, and jaded executive is struggling to find meaning in his life. His two best friends have the perfect cure: a “fantasy vacation” where they can be cowboys on a real-life cattle drive.

The drive is lead by a delightful, no-nonsense, in-your-face cowboy by the name of ‘Curly,’ played by Jack Palance, who played the bad-guy in Shane. On the trail, Mitch asks Curly, who seems to have things together, “What is life about?”

            Curly’s reply was, “None of you city slickers get it. You know what the secret of life is?” He then raises his index finger. “What? Your finger,” the perplexed Mitch replies.

One thing. Just one thing. You stick with that and everything else means “rubbish” (not the exact word, but you get the point).

Raising his index-finger, the Crystal character asks, “What is the one thing?” to which Curly responds, “That’s for you to figure out.”

            Brothers, have you figured it out? Would you ask for “an understanding heart?” You may be asking,  what do those simple words mean? We know in the Bible that the ‘heart’ is not only a physical part of the body, but also the center of the person: it’s the foundation from which all the person’s intentions, priorities, and commitments flow from. And, what you really value is where your heart will be. It’s important that you get this right because the meaning of your life, the joy you experience, the realization of your destiny hinges where your heart is, on this “one thing.”

In today’s Gospel readings Matthew continues his reflection on the Kingdom of God, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings and preaching. These two small masterpieces are the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and of the pearl of great value. They tell us that the discovery of the Kingdom of God can happen suddenly like the farmer who, ploughing finds an unexpected treasure; or after a long search, like the pearl merchant who eventually finds the most precious pearl after so much searching.

What both parables have in common is that the treasure and the pearl are worth more than any other possession we may have. Given that, when the farmer and merchant discover them, they give up everything in order to obtain them. They don’t need to weigh the pros or cons, to think about it, to deliberate whether it’s worth it. No, they’ve discovered what ultimately important, what the ultimate Good is, and they let go of any world attachments. When you’ve discovered Life, why would you give yourself to something less?

And, what is Life? What is the perfect revelation of the Kingdom of God? It’s not a thing; it’s not an idea. It’s a person: Jesus. And, the gateway to Jesus is the Gospel, which allows you to connect and know the real Jesus. Through the Gospel Jesus will speak to your heart and he will change your life. And, when you open the door of your heart to Jesus, you will leave everything behind.

We do have a choice: we can either change our lifestyle or continue to live as we’ve done before. But, if you’ve encountered Jesus, you have become some else. You are reborn into his resurrected Life; you have found what gives your life ultimate meaning, what give light to your darkness, what gives richness to all aspects of your existence: even to the toil of prison life, even to suffering, and even to death. Nothing else can do the same.

Brothers, everything takes on meaning when you find your treasure in the Gospel. Jesus calls this treasure “the Kingdom of God,” that is the intersection of your choice and the Father’s will. When that happens, then God will reign in your life. God will be in your life. God will be the source of love, joy, and peace in your life and in all your brothers and sisters.

This is what God wants for you. He wants it to such a degree that Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, gave himself to death on the cross so that you may have eternal life; He died for you to free us from the power of darkness and move us into the Kingdom of Life, of beauty, of goodness, of joy. To read the Gospel, to allow the Word to transform you, is to find Jesus and to share in his Christian joy, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My dear brothers, I hope you have found the joy of the Kingdom of God which will shine through you to others. I hope you will “sell” everything in your life to have this treasure, this pearl of great price. And, as you do, you will patiently put Gospel values into practice, thereby contributing to justice and peace in this troubled prison.

Let us ask the Virgin Mary, the seat of Wisdom, to help us in this endeavor. Mary is the Mother of God and therefore she is the Mother of the Church. She is our Mother. So, through her example and through her intercession, she leads us into a deeper relationship with her Son. Mary always said “Yes” to God’s will.   May we do the same. Amen.