You may have noticed an upsurge in social media and elsewhere in what was once called vituperation, not to say calumny and slander. If politicians and commentators of various stripes followed the old adage “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” the silence would be deafening. On the other hand, to remain silent in the face of manifest corruption, especially in high places, is not only cowardly but foolish. There is wisdom in the other adage, often applied to St. Catherine of Siena, who accused the pope himself of coddling depravity, “She spoke truth to power.” It’s a prophetic task, but one with a steep price on its head.
As it happens, today’s readings are appropriate for this year of wildly unpredictable events and political uncertainty. But it’s not just politics – uncertainty is also the norm in show business, and tonight, of course, is once again Oscar Night – if we are to believe the media hype, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. Many Americans can’t get enough of it, and if the entertainment news outlets have some awful information about actors, directors, and producers to spread around, so much the better. Sports figures, too. Entire television programs seem to be aimed at finding out and reporting the worst about anyone. And if you get tired of news programs dissing the rich and famous and powerful there’s always the afternoon talk shows and live TV courtroom dramas.
St. Paul’s commentary strikes a very different chord. He was no stranger to calumny, bad mouthing, unfair criticism, and general rash judgment. It must have stung at times, but in the end, he could care less what people thought about him. “Stop passing judgment,” was his verdict. By ‘judgment,” he means negativity, condemnation. You might detect a little echo here of what we heard from the Letter of St. James three weeks back concerning sins of speech.
I was particularly impressed by the comment of Pope Francis a few years ago when a reporter asked him about gay people in that famous candid interview. No doubt they were expecting the usual tirade from loudly self-professed Christians such as we are hearing more and more in Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Russia. But what they got sounded more like St. Paul: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”
Who am I to judge? A thoughtful fellow I knew years ago defined a fundamentalist as someone who holds the bible up to your head and pulls the trigger. Of course, you could say that was also judgmental. It’s hard to get away from it. But it’s worth trying. Paul’s defense was his total trust in God. As we heard in that first lovely reading from Isaiah, God will never forget us. Everyone else might forsake us, but God never will.
For Jesus, it’s the same, not surprisingly. Why worry about things that ultimately do not matter? If a child suffers because she is bullied at school, it’s because she has already accepted that what other kids say counts. But it doesn’t. Not really. We have to learn that – over and over. If God is for us, who can be against us? [Rom 8:31]. Isaiah and Jesus teach the same thing: God knows what we need better than we do. Like Paul, we should put our trust there, not in Twitter or Buzzfeed. Or, as Jesus tirelessly reminded his disciples, money.
Ash Wednesday falls during the week ahead, which means, of course, that Lent is almost here. Time to take stock. It might be good to begin by trying to stop worrying about ourselves and judging others harshly. Let’s get a little more God into our lives this year.
The words of scripture today present us with a helpful corrective to much of the talk that has crowded the airwaves during the last several weeks – actually several months. If you are like me, you are now pretty tired of hate-filled speech, recriminations, name-calling, and reciprocal accusations. The country seems to have entered a era in which civility, much less truth-telling, has become outmoded. So if we are to believe that the words of scripture are meant for us today as always, we might well pay attention. Otherwise, why are we listening to them at all?
All three readings take up the challenge of dealing with our brothers and sisters respectfully and honestly. The first reading from the Book of Leviticus provides Jesus with the greatest of all his commandments. And the gospel takes us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the core of Jesus’ teaching about how we are to treat one another. No exceptions.
The Leviticus reading states boldly and shockingly the seemingly impossible demand, “Be holy, as I am holy.” How can anyone be holy the way God is? Jesus accurately cites this passage when he says “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Scared yet? If we pay attention to the way English tends to mess up the language of the Bible, it gets clearer and maybe a little less scary.
The Hebrews knew very well that God’s holiness was unique – qadosh, they called it. That’s the word we use at the Sanctus of the Mass, a usage that goes back to the Book of Isaiah, when the Seraphim cry out in the temple, “Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord God of Hosts!” Isaiah was terrified. For “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” [Ps. 113, 3-5]. No one could even look on the majesty of God and live through the experience. But like Moses before him and many people later, Isaiah is protected.
God’s holiness, God’s glory, is incommunicable, but it surrounds and sanctifies persons and places close to God. But human holiness is something else. The Hebrews called it hasad, meaning to show oneself kind or merciful, the way God is kind and merciful. It means being a truly godly person, someone in whom goodness and mercy shine forth like that of God. This is what Jesus is referring to when he commands us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word used in the gospels actually means “fully mature, complete, thorough.” Like God. Unstinting in kindness, goodness, and mercy.
And Jesus spells it out in what may seem almost impossible terms – offer no resistance to injury, turn your face when you are struck, give up your stuff when it is required, be generous, merciful and just. In a word, love. I recently saw the story of a young man who was held up on the street by a hoodlum who demanded money. He gave it up and then added to it. He next asked the robber why he was robbing people and the man said he was hungry. So the young man took him to a café, fed him, and refused to take back the money when it was returned to him. And it changed the robber’s life. This really happened. They actually became friends.
St. Paul explains why we find these kinds of commands and even their fulfillment baffling and silly and in doing so, also gives us a pretty good way of handling current events.
“God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” [1 Cor 3:17-20]
So try to pay it forward, as the kids say. Let’s be like God the way God wants us to. The way Jesus showed us.
As the new President slowly and painfully fills the slots in his cabinet and administrative staff (apparently numbered around 700), it has become unmistakably clear who’s now in charge. Between ex-Wall Street bankers, vulture funders and hedgers, not to say former “employees” of Goldman Sachs (so instrumental in engineering the Great Recession of 2008), the most avaricious plutocrats in recent times have all but taken over the US government at the highest level.
What the struggling, white, middle-class voters of the hinterland and rust-belt will make of this is anybody’s guess. It takes a while for folks to realize that in a shell game, the small fry never win. Just try to keep your eye on the cup with the bean underneath it… Yes, friends, you have been bamboozled. Big time.
P.S. It wasn’t the immigrants who “stole” those jobs. It was automation. And those jobs are not coming back, despite what the President said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s expression said it all. That followed the excruciating ordeal of being manhandled by one of Donald Trump’s infamous handshakes during his weekend visit to Washington to mend fences (as opposed to building walls). What Trump failed to realize is that public physical contact is not felt as a positive experience in ordinary Japanese culture, Sumo wrestling notwithstanding. Even married couples refrain from holding hands when walking side-by-side on city streets. Shaking hands is at best tolerated.
When I visited Japan some years ago, I was told the story of how one Japanese explained this exquisite sensitivity. “Do you not flinch when someone touches your eyelid?” he asked. When assured that was normal in the west, he went on, “Japanese all eyelid.”
At mass in the Jesuit church at Sophia University in Tokyo for the first time, I wondered how the Japanese Catholics would deal with the Kiss of Peace, which in the somewhat puritanical west has been reduced to a diffident handshake. When time came for the ritual greeting, the congregation turned to one another, pressed their hands together as if praying, lowered their gaze, and bowed deeply. I did likewise.
Profound human respect and great courtesy is a beautiful and essential aspect of Japanese culture. This was not lost on President Obama in his visit to Japan, when he bowed deeply before his honorable hosts, but of course received stern criticism for his culturally sensitive gesture by many of his countrymen back in the US.
It is also not common for Japanese men and women to indicate emotion by facial expression. The depth of distress experienced by the Prime Minister could be read in his look of embarrassment and, let it be said, relief when released from the American president’s grip. May his country do as well.
For Catholics throughout the world, liturgically this is the fifth Sunday of the Year. In “Ordinary Time,” we used to say. Except that these times seem anything but ordinary. Perhaps that is why the description has been changed. But the way the Church observes the passage of time still conveys a serenity and matter-of-factness that is hardly reflected even today in affairs of the world, if it ever was. Consider just the last week for a moment.
In short order, thanks to instant coverage and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we witnessed the late-night travel ban on Muslims that was, we were later assured, neither a ban nor about Muslims. Then, the Iranian missile test, and the flurry of tweets and counter-comments that followed. Protest marches in Washington, New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris… the terrorist attack at the Louvre … more shootings in Chicago… the judicial stay on the travel ban and the furious tweet response from the President… the Super Bowl… the Puppy Bowl.. a couple of assassinations that didn’t make the evening news. And much, more more.
And yet they call it Ordinary time. And perhaps it has become so.
Somehow, it all seems to meld together at times. But I’m told that because of the advent of multitasking cellphones, netbooks, and tablets that the latest generation of electronically connected kids are not only able to compute all this but tweet, snap, text, and play computer games at the same time. Developmental psychologists and physiologists seem to think that their brains are evolving in wholly new ways to accommodate all the information they receive simultaneously. They had better.
So if there is anything to be said about the times we are marking, they don’t seem very ordinary at all. If you stop to think about it, if it weren’t for all the media noise about the only thing that would really have engaged our attention lately would have been the weather. Recently I took some time out to look back into family photo albums for some pictures of my grandparents that my cousin wanted. As I scanned the old photos, I couldn’t help but notice that even in the depths of the depression and World War II, folks seemed much less harried somehow. They had lots more snow, too.
No, if anything, we can be said to live in what appear to be very extraordinary times. And so today’s readings from scripture, the voice of God we are told, come at an opportune moment to remind us of different priorities, other values, strange ideas that might give us pause in the weeks before the beginning of Lent during the remaining weeks of Ordinary time.
Once again, Isaiah and Matthew are paired, beginning with a passage we have not heard since last Lent. “Share your bread with the hungry,” Isaiah commands, “shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Very much like Jesus’ criterion of discipleship in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, as the Son of Man gazes over the sheep and the goats. “When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” he says. [Matt. 25:40] Isaiah, Matthew’s favorite prophet, goes a bit further – he says that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus will say a bit later on. In the midst of it, he has a word about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook and shouting candidates and commentators on network television, it sounds strangely apt:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech…
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.
The responsorial psalm emphasizes the point – the just person does not fear an evil report, but shines like a light in the darkness to the upright. Something Jesus will call us back to.
Today’s gospel is taken from the sermon on the mount, which we began attending to last Sunday. It is Matthew’s charter of Christian life based on the fundamental teachings of Jesus, whom he portrays giving us a new kind of Decalogue from the mountainside – like a new Moses. This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his benediction on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are reviled, persecuted and defamed. Their happiness is not the result of human effort or human wisdom – it is the gift of God.
Jesus then calls his disciples the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them. But what if salt goes flat? The flavorful sea salt of the Middle East could do that, in case you were wondering. And if his followers did lose their faith, their reliance on the simple truth of the gospel, what would happen to the world then?
Jesus next turns to the imagery found in Isaiah and that beautiful psalm – their light must not go out, it is there to illuminate the darkness of the world. Candles hadn’t been invented yet, so Jesus says our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly. It is not arrogance to believe that we can be models for others – every parent is that, every teacher, every leader whether in church or in civil society. And if the light dims, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder. We don’t have to become lighthouses – it’s enough to be a votive light. You may remember the motto of the Christophers in that regard – “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” And there’s entirely too much cursing going on, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So shine. Let your light scatter the darkness, Jesus says…. the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the poor and needy. Then God’s own love and truth will shine through the darkness. And, as Isaiah has it, “your own hurts will be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you,… you shall call and the Lord will answer,… and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”
If someone were to ask you on the street “Who was the prophet Zephaniah?” you might be hard pressed for an answer. There’s no need to blush, because no one else knows either. Next to nothing is known about him from the book of his name, and nothing at all outside of it. He appears to have lived around 600 years before the birth of Jesus, around the time a civil war in what we now call Iraq led to the defeat of the Assyrians by the Babylonians and the beginning of a lot of trouble for the people of Israel. It’s a small world.
Zephaniah was considered a prophet in the area around Jerusalem. His book is largely a collection of material found in Isaiah and other older books of the Hebrews. But his emphasis on humility, lowliness, justice for the oppressed, orphans and widows, on food for the hungry, freedom for captives, and health for the weary and ill, appeals to both Christians and Jews. It lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the opening verses of which we have just heard. These famous lines, Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teaching, are generally known as the Beatitudes because they begin with a blessing: “Blessed or happy are the poor in spirit.” It’s a teaching echoed in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth as well.
Beatitudes are declarations, even catalogues of blessings, and the bible is full of them. But in the end, all blessing simply means closeness to God. For Paul, happiness flows from identification with Christ. Jesus IS God’s ultimate blessing — God has made Him our wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption. The closer we come to Christ, the more blessed we become. But that means that blessedness is therefore inseparable from persecution, attacks on reputation, and the oppression of poverty, hunger, and grief — and you’ll notice that many of the Beatitudes focus on suffering and loss.
In both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes are linked by the word “poor.” Both point to the oppressed and dispirited classes of the world, those who lack worldly wealth and enjoy no esteem. Jesus locates their blessedness in their very lack of fortune and success. Jesus is telling us is that only to the extent that we see in such events the hidden gift of God’s favor, is it possible to become truly happy.
He warns us not to look to those who are wealthy, overfed, and carefree to understand happiness. We should look , rather, to the lives of those whom the world counts worthless or worse. For the seed of their bliss is hope, watered by faith in God’s promises and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and blossoming in love.
Here Jesus subverts the ordinary values and structures of the world and unveils for us in his own life the face of beatitude, the true and original blessing that becomes a channel of further blessing and salvation for all the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sixth beatitude, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
For some reason, it is one of most misrepresented of the beatitudes. It has nothing to do with sexual matters, for one thing, and for another, it is not about single-heartedness. It points back to Psalm 24:3-5 —
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in God’s holy place?
She who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up her soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
This is what we have also heard from the book of the prophet Zephaniah:
those who are left in Israel… shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zephaniah 3:13-14)
Scripture is telling us here that someone with a clean heart has removed from it the defiling presence of untruth, the tendency to lie, to deceive, and therefore to be blind to the presence of God. The person with a pure heart is one who loves the truth.
Like Jesus, Zephaniah also expresses a strong bias in favor of the poor and humble of the earth, as if they were not only more in need of cleanness of heart, but more likely to show it.
Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility;… For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. (Zeph. 2:3, 3:13)
Here, Paul’s message to the Christians of Corinth comes to mind: when God called out those who were most likely to hear the word of God and keep it, God chose those the world despises. God chose the foolish I order to confound the wise, the weak in order to shame the powerful, the low-born, those of no account, to humble those who consider themselves something. And God made Jesus, whom the world hated and destroyed, into our very justice, holiness, and salvation.
We could do a lot worse than listen to what Jesus tells us and practice it in every area of life. The smallest lie, the most harmless deceit is a seed of corruption which, nurtured on the desire for reputation, power, and prestige, can swell into full corruption. Jesus is not telling us to be foolish or silly, much less to speak the truth in such a way as to hurt others or even mislead them. He is telling us to keep our motives pure. The rest will take care of itself.