Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: September 2021

26th Sunday of the Year: All to Myself Alone…

[Yesterday evening and this morning, I was waylaid by the unnecessarily complex ordeal of getting my booster shot for the coronavirus – most of it paperwork and confusion at the pharmacy. My students are also nipping at my heels for results of their recent contributions. Having run close to zero time remaining, I am offering up a homily from this Sunday in 2015, which may evoke memories of a distant past (Pope Francis had just spoken, largely on global climate change and immigration, at the United Nations and to a joint session of Congress) but seems oddly current, as well. What is it the French say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’?]

With Pope Francis’ visit still with us, I found it interesting that in some dark corners of the US news world, he is being called a “false prophet” and even the “antichrist” because of his statements on the environment, immigration, and poverty. More disturbing, some of these remarks are coming from prominent Catholics such as the retired judge Andrew Napolitano, now a regular commentator on Fox News, whose political orientation seems to outweigh his sense of religious identity. The same might be said for the three Catholic Supreme Court justices who refused to attend the pope’s address to Congress.

While these fortunately rare instances are more sad than scary, they are not unrelated to today’s scriptural lessons. People can be dangerously fond of branding views they dislike as being sinful or worse, sometimes beyond the pale of common sense. But that’s hardly news.

Today’s readings from scripture coincidentally focus on jealousy. Jealousy is another way of describing

Num. 11:25-29
Ps. 19
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48

possessiveness. Jealousy is not the same as envy — which is resentment at another’s good fortune, or delight at their misfortune. Traditionally, envy is reckoned one of the seven deadly sins. But jealousy is worse. It has led to all sorts of disasters, whether on grand international scales or in the personal sphere.

Even God is sometimes spoken of as jealous, as in the famous passage from the Book of Exodus— “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” [Ex. 20: 5 and 34:14].

But God’s jealousy is a very different matter. It is human jealousy that poses the problem. As we see in the story of Moses and the two elders, Eldad and Medad, good might come out of jealousy, but it is more likely to lead to disaster, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, or the adulterous relationship between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife that led to the execution of John the Baptist.

In today’s Gospel we see it in the attitude of Jesus’ disciples, who seemed to bicker a lot about who was greater or who got to sit closest to Jesus, or in this case, who had exclusive rights to healing ministries. As usual, Jesus will have none of it. The rest of the reading is largely a list of things Mark added that Jesus opposed. The main point has to do with what might be called disciple rivalry. Eldad and Medad all over again.

But we also see jealousy every day: in gang wars on the streets of Chicago and in the offices of corporations and universities, in spats and fights among little children in the nursery, in the psychological warfare between spouses, in political factionalism, and ultimately in “ethnic cleansing.” Some call it “road rage.”

Jealousy is the desire to keep things only for oneself or someone’s group, not to share with others, and to resist any perceived threat to complete ownership or control, whether crude oil or a place in a line of traffic. Envy is a very small and pale monster compared to jealousy, which is “cruel as the grave,” as we read in the Song of Songs [8:6.]

Both in literature and in life, jealousy often leads to violence and death, and this is where respect for diversity and especially diverse forms of living enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share is life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that ultimately defines the root of jealousy.

Which brings us back to the Letter of James, who clearly saw that the self-destructive character of jealousy lies in our refusal to share. Pope Francis sees that as well. Money itself is not the problem, but the love of money is, a misplaced love that leads us to refuse to share our surplus with those in want. And not just wealth: it can be anything. The conflict between Arabs and Israelis over control of the Holy Land, the carnage in Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Even the NFL, international soccer, and the Olympic Games themselves are contaminated by jealousy. Professional and amateur sports may have become what William James once called “the moral equivalent of war.” That’s better than shooting each other, but vicious competition, cheating, and lethal rivalry are not what the Olympics or high-school football are supposed to be about.

This is where respect for life enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share if life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that defines the ultimate root of jealousy. Pope Francis sees that, too.

The only remedy for jealousy, and that’s what today’s readings are really about, is generosity, and particularly in the form of love, justice, and compassion — not just for human beings everywhere, but for all life. In fact, all creation. It is in sharing the gift of life that we truly imitate the generosity of God, who is so jealous for all of us. Only in God, in whom all things are one, can fierce jealousy and absolute generosity be the same. The rest of us have to choose between them. So let us pray for the strength and wisdom to choose mercy, peace, and a generous spirit.

25th Sunday of the Year: A Harvest of Justice

According to current calculations, there are fewer than one hundred shopping days left before Christmas – panic time! Acres of neon-bright decorations have filled the aisles and shelves at Costco and other big box stores for weeks. The message blares from all commercial channels: buy stuff before it’s too late! (Friendly advice: don’t buy anything made of plastic or microfibers — the planet is suffocating in that stuff. If something isn’t biodegradable or recyclable, don’t fall for it. Before it really is too late…)

In the meantime, summer is about to end and with the coming of autumn, the readings of the season begin to look toward finalities. It’s harvest time. Todays’

Wis 2:12,17-20
Ps 54
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

reading from the Letter of James provides one of the most memorable passages in that regard and sets the tone for much of what will be our food for reflection and action over the next two months:

“where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
And a harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who make peace” [James 3:16-18].

It’s opportune. The past week has been filled (again) with reports of violence, “tragic mistakes,” desperate refugees flocking to our borders, and shootings on our streets and in our homes. The pandemic continues to kill people by the thousands. Hurricanes and wildfires still ravage the earth around the world. Sectarian violence, oppression, and unequal justice still befall the defenseless. When, you wonder, will it all end?

I’m reminded of an old cartoon that portrayed a couple of space aliens looking down from their flying saucer on an Earth burning and covered with explosions. One says to the other, “They’re fighting over which religion is more peaceable.”

The readings from Mark’s gospel for the last couple of Sundays have focused on the Cross, and so does today’s. Passing over his account of the Transfiguration
and an exorcism, the reading takes up another prediction by Jesus of his coming passion and death, followed by the promise of his resurrection. But then Jesus chides the disciples for worrying about rank and precedence when they should be thinking about service. There’s a connection here.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written a century before Jesus’ time, sets the stage for his dire prediction, reminding us that the just will be persecuted and hounded if for no other reason than people are so often suspicious, cynical, and resentful. Anyone or anything that seems too good to be true must be false. It’s all fake news…

In his letter, James, who would shortly be put to death to satisfy the mob, similarly argues that envy and discord arise out of an unhappy heart. We are dissatisfied with what we have and look on others with distrust and suspicion. Like the disciples vying over position, even religious leaders appeal at times to selfishness and greed, promising and pursuing success, wealth, and power as a reward not for faith and prayer, but for obliging membership in the acceptable sect. And if we fail to get what we want, we tend to become bitter toward those who do, or those who refuse to play that game. If nothing else, we can make life as miserable for them as we are able – even to the point of murder.

But innocence, James says, is the fruit of wisdom, along with peacefulness, docility, and kindness. Here too, Jesus warns us against ambition, greed, and the lure of power. He places a guileless child before us and tells us that in welcoming someone without status, without money, without powerful contacts in Washington, London, or Rome, we welcome the one who was rejected by the leaders of the people and the state, who was tortured and killed for no other reason than he spoke the truth and showed us the way to live.

Somber but hope-filled words as the year moves painfully ahead. Words to take to heart.

24th Sunday of the Year: Cause for Reflection

Mid-September brings the autumnal equinox, the end of summer, and usually occurs around the time of Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For many Christians, the 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, traditionally the beginning of the Great Fast before Easter. Fittingly, today’s first reading is the also that for Palm Sunday, which will be seven months from now.

This weekend also marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, in which almost 3,000 people lost their lives, including the 19 attackers themselves. Hundreds more have died since, especially First Responders, from the effects of the attacks. Hundreds more still suffer debilitating illnesses caused by inhaling the smoke and dust from the destroyed buildings.

None of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening on the 11th will ever forget that day The world changed. And as the nation and much of the world

Is 50:5-9
Ps 116
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

recalls that awful day, we may well ask here – as people are all over the Christian world — what does the gospel say to us today? [The following includes some relevant citations from homilies I preached on this day 10 years and 5 years ago. Figures have been updated.]

After the attacks on 9/11, it was perhaps natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. Soon enough it became payback time. Arab Americans were shot on the streets of our cities for no reason other than being Arab. I recall an interview with a fire fighter who had been at Ground Zero and joined the army after war was declared on Iraq in October 2002. “I want to kick Arab butt,” was his explanation. Iraq had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. That didn’t matter. ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you’… (G. W. Bush. Or was it B. Obama? D. Trump? OK, it was Liam Neeson in Taken, but it sums up American policy after 9/11 pretty well.)

In the following twenty years of war, the United States suffered 2461 military and civilian fatalities in Afghanistan alone, including 1,928 killed in action. There were also 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities, for a total of 4,096 Americans killed during the war. In all, over 47,000 Afghan civilians died and another 50,000 were wounded. Between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan military and police and more than 51,000 Taliban fighters were killed. Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, and Barcelona.

Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, most of them innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror]

In this country, the cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. And yet we were cautioned well over a thousand years ago by Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance….” [Sirach 27:30-28:1].

This is not some odd snippet thrown into scripture. It is a recurrent theme. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our foreign policy?

Jesus said it very simply, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45]. Or even more simply, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].

One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France saying “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. Until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let slip the dogs of war.

Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. Among his final words before his own death according to Luke, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]. Will we ever?

“Never forget” has been a recurrent refrain over this commemorative weekend. But I do not recall a single mention of forgiveness. People in America and throughout the world turned to God in prayer on 9/11 and the days that followed. Let us also pray on this sad occasion for remembrance that we as a people may grow beyond the grief and anger that may have awakened within us as we ponder that awful day. Let us pray that we will remember that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, and that we will find the mercy and forgiveness we seek only by giving it to others.

Today’s Gospel reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany authentic discipleship. Jesus put it more strongly, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45].



23rd Sunday of the Year: The Call to Compassion

So much has happened in the past week, it is difficult to keep up with events even as they arrest our attention and concern. Most seem disastrous, if one goes by news reports alone. Some clearly are disastrous, from the devastating damage wrought by Hurricane Ida to the wreckage of its aftermath in the northeastern US to the record-breaking wildfires in the west. You hardly hear anything about Kabul these days, although COVID is always in the news…somewhere.

One thing does not change. The human suffering in all these events, which is inescapable no matter how much the majority of our countrymen may enjoy their Labor Day holiday. Or want to.

In the readings for this Sunday in what we still call “Ordinary Time,” there is a shift from the compassion and care we owe to the least

Is 35:4-7
James 2,1-5
Mk 7:31-37

fortunate among us, the widows, orphans, and refugees who were the focus of last week’s gospel, to those who suffer from more physical and economic and political calamities. Mark here looks to the blind, deaf, mute and those suffering from paralysis, to whom God’s love is extended

When I was a lot younger, the beginning of September wasn’t so bad, except for the start of school, and even that was a welcome change from the lazy last days of August. Things are different now. My father died on the 5th of September in 1986. And it was on the first Sunday of September in 1997 that I learned of the death of Princess Diana the night before. I was attending a conference in England at the time. Anguished, an entire nation came to a stop. Later that same week, we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died on September 5th. And then in 2001 came that terrible 11th day, which we are about to commemorate twenty short years later. For so many, the beginning of September brings a host of sorrowful memories to mind and there will now be many, many more. But it also reminds us that God is never far from us.

A memorable photo of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana taken several years earlier shows them walking hand-in-hand, the young princess being led, it seems, by the ancient nun through the halls and corridors of human illness and suffering. Both will be especially remembered for their efforts to alleviate poverty, sickness, and shame, just as the First Responders on 9/11 will always be recalled with honor because of their heroism and compassion. Despite the Christian faith these two women shared along with their commitment and compassion, they could hardly have been more different. But it is here especially that our lesson begins.

Like a city on a hillside, like a candle set on a stand, their good works were impossible to ignore. They illuminated our world. Of course, their ordinary human imperfections were also magnified by the public media in whose glaring light the two women spent so much of their lives. Both were hounded by the press, but both were also made world-renowned figures by the press. Such are the times we live in.

But in many ways, our times are not so much different from the world Jesus lived in. Then, too, people were sick, impoverished, suffered from what seemed to be incurable diseases, died in natural and military disasters, and languished under many kinds of oppression. In Mark’s gospel, how Jesus met these people and touched their lives pointed to his identity as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Savior.

In Jesus’ time, to be deaf, dumb, or blind was a personal and social catastrophe, far more than for us today. Not only did it deprive a person of a livelihood other than begging, and any role in the ordinary affairs of social life. Religiously, it meant that a man was not only disqualified from the priesthood, but even excluded from the inner court of the Temple, which was reserved for those without physical defect. Women were not allowed entry at all. It meant that a vast host of innocent believers could not hear the word of God, or speak it, and were thus distanced even further from the worshipping community. Such afflictions, like AIDS and other diseases and disfugrements today, were also thought by many to have been somehow deserved, a punishment for sin.

Like lepers, the blind, deaf, and mute found themselves at the mercy of others. Many still do, as Mother Teresa discovered, victims of a heartless economy and the numbing poverty it creates, as James reminds us in his letter. They were counted among the rejected, distant from God. Yet as Psalm 146 reminds us today, and Jesus showed us, God does not blight people with disease, injury, and want, but gives sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and hearing to the deaf, whether by some healing touch of a miracle worker or through the wonders of the medical arts and sciences and sheer human generosity.

Jesus also tells us that spiritual blindness, silence, and the refusal to hear are far more disastrous than physical disability. It is those who will not listen or see who are really deaf and blind to the wonders of life and unable to give praise. But sometimes it takes a shock to open our eyes and ears and mouths.

One way or the other it is the Lord who raises those crushed to the earth, the oppressed, the starving, refugees, orphans and widows victims of natural disasters and human greed. But God does it with human hands. Hands like those of Mother Teresa, Diana Spencer, and the First Responders in 2001 and this past week. Hands like yours and mine.

It is in human ways, sometimes extraordinary ones, but more often common acts of care and compassion that God works among us to end human suffering, to promote justice and peace, to increase love and care for all. This is the lesson we can take away from the commemorations of early September, one given us in the short life of the troubled young aristocrat who was deeply unsure of herself, and the little old woman who knew she was only a pencil in the hand of God, and the brave, fearful firemen and policemen and other First Responders who reentered the Twin Towers to save as many lives as they could only to lose their own. All their lives and deaths remind us how important it is to give voice to our love and compassion while there is still light and time and possibility. And surely this, too, is to hear the word of God, to see God all around us, and to announce the good news to those who desperately need it. May the example and achievements of all these great women and men draw us all ever closer into the healing circle of God’s love.

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” [Is 35:5-6].