In today’s first and third readings, Qoheleth and Jesus excoriate the vain quest for false values.
They tell us different ways how the endless pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and power is, in the end, both self-defeating and soul-killing. Even the quest for bare necessities and security can blind people to the true and lasting values life has to offer. It is especially heart-wrenching to view the grief and suffering of ordinary people whose modest homes and life savings are wiped out in the sudden fury of fire flood, and warfare. To hear them speaking about going on, resisting the forces of greed and violence is truly a sign of hope. There is a better way.
Similarly, although just as forcefully, the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians condemns the folly of vain and often self-destructive goals. But he also extols the true values of a life worth living. “Set your hearts on the higher things.”
In many respects the world today is becoming more difficult to navigate, not least because of the disasters people themselves create. The threat and actual consequences of global climate change and the peril of war have never been so pressing, not least in an era of economic downturn and new challenges to global health.
The choices we have to make in the near future will be difficult, but necessary on a scale never witnessed before. The fate of the world now lies in our hands as it never has before. Clarifying our values and resolutely pursuing life-affirming goals is now the only way forward.
Occasionally, I read in the papers an account of someone who has experienced tragedy in their life and announces that even if they still believe in God, they no longer pray. They simply no longer feel that there is any point to it. No one is listening and no one is coming to help. In contrast to the bitter resignation of those deeply wounded by terrible events, especially intended hurt spurred on by malice and hatred, I have been deeply impressed by the faith of the people of Ukraine, who even in the midst of pitiless bombardment, pray and when possible proclaim their faith in public worship.
I am reminded here of the gripping story related by Elie Wiesel in his play “The Trial of God” [trans. by Marion Wiesel, intro. by Robert McAfee Brown (New York: Schocken, 1995)] which describes the decision of a group of rabbis when imprisoned and no doubt awaiting death in the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz to put God on trial for the murder of the Jewish people. Wiesel testifies that he witnessed the event himself when a teenager in the prison camp.
After nights of argument, the rabbis decide that God is guilty of abandoning his people, committing a crime against humanity. After the dreadful silence following the verdict, the oldest member of the group, a Talmudic scholar, announces that it is time for evening prayer.
The story of Lot in the Book of Genesis is not merely about the destruction of the sin-ridden cities, but of persistence in prayer, the point of Jesus’ teaching and parables in today’s gospel reading. In Genesis, Lot haggles with God like Teyve in “Fiddler on the Roof,” failing in the end only because it was not possible to find even a handful of decent people in the cities.
Jesus urges not only persistence in prayer, but steadfast belief in the mercy and forgiveness of God. In the second reading, by contrast to the catastrophe that befalls the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, Paul extols not only the mercy and forbearance or God, but God’s total forgiveness achieved by the death of Jesus, the total and final sin offering. The word Paul uses here, ‘paraptoma’ in Greek, means something like “falling aside” or “deviation” — perhaps not as strong as “sin,” but less ambiguous than “trespass.” It is not the ordinary word for “sin,” but implies tasking a wrong step or just going off the path. Paul uses it to cover a multitude of sins, as the saying goes, including both serious errors and a gradual falling away from the right path. All that has been wiped out, erased by being nailed to the cross.
God does not wait for us to ask for forgiveness, which is preemptively extended, as Paul insists. We have only to accept it.
In the end, God wasn’t able to spare Sodom, not because God lacked mercy, but because the people refused to repent — unlike the people of Nineveh in the story of Jonah. The Canaanites brought destruction on themselves.
There’s something a little mercenary about always petitioning God for favors, as if, in Meister Eckhart’s words, God was a cow we turn to when we need milk or cheese or even steak. We’re not concerned with the cow, but with ourselves. It’s very easy to turn prayer into a form of self-centeredness and God into some kind of wish-granting machine. In the end, true prayer really asks that we first get ourselves right with God — not that God get things right with us.
So should we pray for other people and for help when we need it? Of course. But we should do it in the right way. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Arthur famously says to Sir Bedivere:
…Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
But we should also be aware that some forms of prayer are better than others — something we might remember from our catechism classes long ago. From a spiritual viewpoint, adoration, praising God out of gratitude or love, is a higher form of praying than wheedling.
Nevertheless, a few years ago research done on prayer indicated that praying is good for us in general and, perhaps more importantly, good for others. [The Journal of Psychology and Theology 19:71-83.] A more recent study showed that in a carefully regulated experiment, people who were ill improved significantly more than a control group when they were prayed for, even if they did not know people were praying for them. It also seems that people’s happiness in life is related to the way they pray.
What happens when people pray also suggests that it is less important how often a person prays than how well — happier people prayed less frequently, but more attentively. It also seems clear that they were more concerned about God and other people than with themselves.
How then are we to understand the words of Jesus? “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you?” Perhaps Soren Kierkegaard said it best: Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays. When we pray rightly, then, as Jesus taught us, our prayer is always answered, because it turns us to God and God’s saving will for the world. The miracle we are praying for is that we — all of us — will become more faithful and loving, more receptive to God’s gift, and above all, perhaps, to the merciful presence of God in our midst — even when things are not going the way we think they should.
Pray, then, for the people of Ukraine, for those suffering from hunger and natural disaster, and for peace in the world. Then do something about it.
Ireland is almost 800 miles closer to Kiev than New York is to Los Angeles – -about half that distance. Not exactly neighbors, but closer than one might think. Since 1991, Ireland has welcomed thousands of Ukrainian children, the victims of radiation poisoning in Chernobyl, to spend their Christmas holidays or a month of rest time in the summer. During the past terrible year, Ireland also received into the country over 41,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing a terrible and unjust war. That may not seem like a large number, but for a country of just over five million, it has taxed resources to the limit. And still they come. Ireland remains welcoming.
In an ancient series of Irish proverbs beginning with the word “eochair” (‘key’), we are told that the key to miracles is generosity:
O King of Stars!
whether my house be dark or be bright
it will not be closed against anybody;
may Christ not close his house against me.
God’s message to us today is about hospitality.
Traveling through the deserts of the great American southwest and Iraq, I have witnessed how important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands. In times past, to refuse hospitality to a wanderer was equivalent to murder. And so desert people treated each other, both friends and strangers, extraordinarily well when traveling.
This leads us to the story of Abraham in this section of Genesis, the prelude to the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear next week, those cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality to wanderers in the ancient desert. But in today’s other readings, Jesus and Paul have something to say to us about hospitality as well.
The Genesis story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinths of Mamre — a site near Hebron which became the burial place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It lies in the hill country of Judah, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center revered by Jews and Muslims — the people of the Book. Desert people. Famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — “Turpentine Trees” — Mamre was a place where water and shelter were found, an oasis and therefore a good place to camp. And that is what Abraham and Sarah were doing when God came calling in the form of three strangers.
How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers determines the future of the Hebrew people as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s promises. For Christians, too, it is no small thing to tend to extend hospitality and care to the needy. Looking back to this incident, the Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” [3:1-2]. There is more to it than that. The author goes on, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.”
In that mysterious final phrase as well as in both the gospel and the second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives as followers of Jesus. In the end, it’s also about justice, as the responsory to Psalm 15 we have just sung reminds us: “Those who do justice will live in the presence of God”.
First, St. Paul tells us about the great mystery, “the glory beyond price” that God has revealed in Jesus. He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” That presence of Christ, himself the visible presence of God among us in human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic, but one grounded in the story of Abraham and Sarah. In the gospel reading it finds its echo in what Jesus says to Martha in this little parable about true hospitality.
She has been dashing around preparing a feast for their Visitor and also complaining that her sister Mary is not helping. Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest, just as Abraham and Sarah did. What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — attending to the presence of the one in their midst.
This is not just a lesson about the relative importance of the active and contemplative lives, as the medieval writers liked to imagine, or how just a single dish rather than many is sufficient as some scholars seem to think. It is about recognizing Christ in our midst, especially in the form of the stranger seeking asylum, the poor, the hungry, those in prison. And here we have the real echo of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” [Matt. 25: 34-36, 40].
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, similarly, “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” [Luke 9: 49]. In short, pay less attention to what you are providing and more to those who need your help and you will gaze on the very face of God. Just like Abraham and Sarah. And Mary.
We find him especially in those the world tends to forget and overlook — the powerless, the homeless, the outcast. That’s the great mystery of God’s love and presence, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations past,” the foundation of all the promises and their fulfillment. So do not fail to be generous to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and not least the resident stranger in the land, for by such hospitality you will not only entertain angels unawares, you will inherit eternal life.
So far, this strange year continues with even more challenging and disturbing events that are far beyond unsettling. The ghastly shootings in Highland Park on the Fourth of July were followed by the brutal assassination of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minster of Japan, but also with other shootings that did not cause as much a ripple in the news media, so inured we have become to weekly shocks and disasters. Governments have toppled, war rages on horribly in Ukraine, and even the climate seems to worsen weekly.
We manage to distract ourselves by sports and amusements, but even our popular superhero films are filled with catastrophes and the longing for a savior. Life goes on, but in the meantime we may be changing, growing less friendly and helpful to strangers and even to our neighbors in need. And so today’s gospel speaks to our hearts at a crucial moment.
Today’s second reading, a glorious excerpt from the Letter to Colossians, proclaims that even for the very earliest Christians, Jesus was not only a historical figure, not just our leader and teacher for all times, but the very embodiment of the unseen and unknowable God who fills the universe with his presence and power. This remarkable passage is most likely from an earlier hymn used to introduce the letter. It is especially important for its exalted Christological affirmations, one of several hymns cited in the letters ascribed to St. Paul, but likely written by disciples in the years following his martyrdom. (The others appear in Philippians 2:6-11 and Ephesians 1:2-10.)
With this great affirmation as prelude, today’s gospel reading calls us to learn from Jesus, especially to attend to the needs of those around us — all of them, but especially those neglected and often despised as outsiders, aliens, or even enemies, a radical advance on ancient morality that must startled Jesus’ hearers considerably:
“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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
In today’s gospel, Jesus picks up on the scripture verse cited by the Doctor of the Law challenging him on this point. Found near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah, it includes part of Moses’ final discourse, from which our first reading is taken. It contains the beloved verses that the doctor of the Law cites in his exchange with Jesus:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:5-9).
To this is customarily added the injunction from Leviticus 9:18 — “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Deuteronomy frequently enjoins duties and obligations to our neighbor, that curious English word that originally meant “nigh” or “near boor,” our “bower-mate,” our fellow countryman. But in what is probably the most well-known of all Jesus’ parables, he is about to broaden the notion considerably and, to the ears of some (even today), alarmingly.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks, “wishing to justify himself,” to push the point. Jesus responds with what is the most well-known of all his parables, the tale of how the despised Samaritan rescued his Jewish enemy, a merchant beaten and robbed on his way to Jericho.
Who was his neighbor? Not the priest, not the Levite, but “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied. And Jesus said, simply, to him and to us, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
The United States was born in war, nearly split in half by war, and entered into a whole century of wars less than fifty years later. As the country prepares to celebrate its Declaration of Independence 246 years ago, our warlike past should not escape notice beyond remembering the sacrifice of life and treasure over our relatively brief history as nations go (and come). Conflict has preoccupied us far more than peace. Now would be a suitable moment to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of that elusive goal in a continually troubled and warlike world.
Jerusalem, the focus of attention in our first reading today, means something like “possession of peace.” The principal city of the Kingdom of Judah and of Israel from the tenth century BCE, its history stretches back to about 1400 BCE, during the Late Bronze Age. Over its long history, Jerusalem has been fought over, seized, occupied, destroyed, and rebuilt by successive rulers, from the ancient Canaanites to the British. It is the “Holy City” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Even so, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is not an exhortation to be taken lightly. But Isaiah’s promise of prosperity and peace awaits to be fulfilled.
If peace is an elusive goal, war is the worst disaster human civilization knows — although I worry about the eventual impact of global climate change. As the present war in Ukraine shows, the waste of life, treasure, and natural resources is appalling. And in the end, despite war, we are fortunate to have preserved the vestiges of freedom and prosperity after centuries of struggle. Not only democracy but civilization itself often seems frighteningly fragile. While nations are focused on conquest and defense, tyranny and oppression lie festering in the shadows along with the hunger, squalor, and lasting misery war brings in its wake.
As many towns and cities in the United States prepare to parade battalions of veterans and ever more sophisticated weapons of war down our festive main streets during the annual Independence Day celebrations, pause for a moment to pray for the peace not only of Jerusalem, but of the world.
In our first reading, Isaiah’s address to the exiles after they return to Jerusalem following their long imprisonment in Babylon begins with the promise of shalom. An almost untranslatable term, it is usually rendered by the single English word “peace,” but embraces good health, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, friendship, and well-being in general. Today it is still used as a personal name and a daily greeting in both Hebrew and Arabic. It envisions not only freedom from anxiety and distress, but also harmony among men and women and between them and their God. In today’s gospel Jesus instructs his disciples to bless their hosts with such shalom on entering their houses. Later, it is his first greeting to the grieving and frightened disciples when he suddenly appears in their midst (Luke 24:36, John 20:19-26).
In our second reading, Paul includes it as a blessing of his Galatian converts as they struggle to reconcile Jewish ritual observance with the freedom of the Gospel that Paul preaches: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! Peace and mercy on those who will follow this rule — and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:15-16).
The world still manages to beat the same drums of war that have forestalled peace for millennia, a simple fact of life that I reflected on just before Independence Day twenty-one years ago, two months before the terrible events of that early September:
It’s foolish to think that God loves one nation more than all others; the question we face is whether we love God — whether we have responded wholeheartedly to the graces and blessings God has bestowed on us as a nation. Are we a beacon of hope and freedom to the oppressed people of the earth? Or have we also fallen back into yoke of slavery to the sinful social structures of the world — expedience, self-service, exploitation, and even tyranny?
Tomorrow, in this year of heightened conflict and the ever-elusive quest for a just and humane world order, can we at least pray that by the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will yet break upon us, bringing light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).