Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Snowden’s Secret, or The Cat Is out of the Bag

While the news media in the United States were focused almost exclusively on the Shutdown, as it once had been on the Sequester (remember that?), the attention of the rest of the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe, was centered on the National Security Agency spying scandal that has finally caught up to the networks… and, it would appear, Washington, not least of all in the White House.

Nations routinely spy on each other — even “friendlies” do it.  Israel supporters are still agitating for the release of the U.S. Naval Intelligence spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was convicted in 1987 for passing classified nuclear secrets to Israeli agents while working as a civilian.  No such clemency has been suggested by the Washington bureaucracy for Edward Snowden, who is still holed up in Russia. Snowden after all revealed the secret of secrecy, letting the NSA secret surveillance cat out of the bag.  The US is spying on everyone.

Germany’s Angela Merkel was righteously offended, although David Cameron didn’t think it was all that bad to have his grocery lists and private Tweets analyzed by spooks in Langley, VA.  Madeleine Albright defended the practice, since we learn so much about our friends (and enemies) from cell-phone gossip and small talk. And that’s where our foreign policy comes from, supposedly.  It shows.

In any event, Pollard, who placed American civilian and military agents in “extreme jeopardy,” has lots of friends who want him released and “exiled” to Israel, whereas Snowden, the whistleblower, already sits in exile for telling the truth, now indeed “a man without a country.” Despite his life sentence, Pollard may be released in 2015.  Snowden may not be so lucky.  (The Pollard Report was finally made public in December, 2012.  For additional information, see http://www.globalresearch.ca/israeli-spy-was-central-cog-in-nuclear-weapons-proliferation-alliance/5320780.)

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free [see John 8:32].  But not all the time, it would seem.

Justice and Judgment are easy to talk about but hard to get.  See the latest homily in Preaching.

30th Sunday of the Year

Sir 35:12-14, 16-19
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14

Judges these days tend to be controversial – at least in the news media.  Some are too lenient with their sentencing, others have their rulings overturned, still others seem too harsh or just say stupid things.  Occasionally, a local judge gets convicted of fixing traffic tickets for friends, and Chicago is no stranger to judicial scandals of even greater importance.  Both our expectations that judges should be exemplary figures of discretion, moral rectitude, and wisdom and our experience of judges as fallible, often faulty human beings, as sinners, form the background of today’s readings.

If you are of a certain age, you will remember Flip Wilson’s announcement “Here come de judge!”  In a few weeks, the season of Advent will begin, during which we look forward to the coming of the Son of Man who will give just judgment to the nations of the world.  In the meantime, our lives are pretty well involved with lesser judges of all kinds, from traffic court to the Supreme Court. Those I have met seem to be exemplary.  But unjust judges are not a novelty.  Today’s readings call on us to reflect on the great tradition of the importance of just judgment among the Jews of old and problems that even Jesus would face when faced with unjust judgment.

The Hebrew word for Judge, both noun and verb, is shaphat, which means to pronounce sentence, which could include both punishment or vindication, as well as a host of other things — to rule, govern, legislate, or avenge, among others.  Judges were expected to be men of the highest moral and spiritual character, as they are even today.  Even the semblance of immorality was to be avoided.

Not surprisingly, there is hardly a figure of greater disrepute in Scripture than the unjust judge.  The diatribes against wicked priests and false rulers pale next to the scorn lavished on the unjust judge, which was no more an oxymoron in ancient Israel or Roman Judea as it is today.

The first reading from the Book of Sirach provides a concise portrait of the true judge, one like God who hears the voice of the widow, the orphan, and the illegal alien.  God is not impressed by social status or titles, but searches the heart.  And to all accounts, what God is looking for is humility, not moral flawlessness.  God knows we are sinners.  The problem seems to be whether we do.

The second reading focuses more directly on God as the only truly just judge, not only because God is Justice itself and despises injustice, but because only God is able to read the thoughts of our hearts.  Only God truly knows what lies within us and God is therefore the only judge we must truly fear.  Speaking for Paul, the author writes,

The first time I had to present my defense, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

Therefore, he says with confidence, “all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”

The story of the Publican and the Pharisee follows directly on Luke’s account of the parable of the unjust judge.  It is a cautionary tale, if you like, about judging others — or, rather, refusing to.  The tax collector compared himself to no one, but admitted his own imperfections from the depth of his awareness of his own heart.  He did not even see the Pharisee, who was all too aware of the disgusting public sinner cowering in the shadows.

This is not some incidental moral exhortation from Jesus, who famously warns in Matthew 7:1-5, “Judge not, that you not be judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

And Luke has already cited this famous dictum, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven [Luke 6: 37]”  And in John,  “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” [John 7: 24]

So Paul, too, tells us in Romans 2:1 “you have no excuse, …whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

The lesson for us in today’s readings, and throughout the Bible and our spiritual tradition, is simple enough then: do not be quick to condemn others, whose hearts you cannot read with the eyes of God.  Be slow to criticize, quick to forgive.  Do not hold grudges, and do not persecute the repentant sinner – or anyone else, for that matter.  The household of faith is not immune to the trap of comparative self-canonization!

The prophetic condemnation of injustice, or oppression, or falseness is still mandatory, however.  We are not given license to blind ourselves to evil or excuse ourselves from speaking out against it.  What we are forbidden is exalting ourselves over anyone, especially those we perceive to be sinful.  As long as men and women do evil, there will necessarily be judgment.  Let us pray that it will be just and equitable and that our willingness to pardon and forgive will not be less than that of the God we profess to imitate and whose rule we seek to follow.

Between faith and gratitude lies healing.  And we need it!  Click on Preaching for today’s homily.

28th Sunday of the Year 13 Oct. 2013

2 Kings 5:14-17
2 Tim 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19
It might be a little difficult to feel particularly thankful just now, at least if you are still nurturing a glimmer of faith in the current political system, but that doesn’t make gratitude any less relevant.  When Jesus tells the Samaritan leper that his faith has made him well, or, more accurately, “your faith has saved you,” he is pointing to the most important of all human responses to God.  But another theme is even more important — thankfulness.  The connection between faithfulness and thankfulness is central to the gospel, and especially to Jesus.  For to be thankful means to express our faith in words and, more importantly, actions.

In a little over a month, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving Day, a memorial that goes back to the American Civil War, when it was a day of fasting and prayer.  For many of us, expressing gratitude will be difficult, especially for those who lost friends and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the bullet-ridden streets of Chicago, and for so many others who share their loss and heartache.  For many more, it will be hard to be thankful for the many blessings we in this country have received when we are all the more conscious of the crushing poverty and suffering that exists in so much of the world — not least of all in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other war-torn regions of the planet.

But for most of the world, neither poverty nor war is the most dreaded of human ills, and it was especially so in the ancient world.  It was and is disease. The scourge of what was called leprosy features in the story of Naaman and Elisha and also in the gospel.  What we call Hansen’s disease today is only one kind of disease of the many that went by that name in the ancient world — all were terrifying and those who contracted them were shunned and usually driven out of the community entirely.  Its victims depended on the generosity of family and often strangers for their daily food and survival.  To be rich and a leper might be endurable, as in the case of Naaman, the commanding general of the Syrian army, but to be poor and a leper was a disaster.  To be poor, a leper, and a Samaritan in Galilee was far worse.  For some reason the gospels are silent about women lepers, but surely there were many, and that would have been the worst of all fates.

Naaman’s cure requires him to wash seven times in the Jordan, something he finds humiliating, but he does it and is cured.  In gratitude, he offers lavish gifts, but Elisha refuses them.  God has cured Naaman because he believed.  For that Elisha needs no reward.

God’s fidelity is the focal point of this story, as it is in the passage we heard from the Letter to Timothy.  God’s graciousness and kindness extends to all.  And God will never go back on the promises made in the ancient past, even when our faithfulness wavers and fails.  “No,” we hear, “if we deny God, God will deny us, but God will always remain faithful.”  To be anything less would deny God’s own unchanging nature.

And so we come to the poor Samaritan leper who like the nine other lepers, turns to Jesus and begs for pity, for mercy.  All Jesus asks of them is to do what the law required — to present themselves to the priests in Jerusalem, who alone could declare them cured.  They believe him and start off.  On the way, perhaps as they near Jerusalem, they are healed.  But only the Samaritan, overcome with gratitude, returns to give thanks to this Jew, his traditional enemy.  He would likely have been stoned and driven away from the Temple which may have something to do with his decision, but Jesus takes no notice of that.  He simply marvels at this gesture, shocked to find that only this despised outsider had the grace to return and thank him.  And when he says to him, “Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you,” there is much more in the statement than a comment on his healing.  Perhaps we only truly know gratitude when we find ourselves outcast — without resources, hated, friendless, and desperate.  To express it is to recognize the source of our salvation.

Earlier in his gospel, and only in Luke’s, Jesus actually refers to the story of Elisha and Naaman the Syrian.  That was in his inaugural sermon in his own home town, where he got less than a visit from the welcome wagon on his return after preaching successfully and healing people in the towns around the Sea of Galilee.  After all, they knew this fellow from his childhood.  How did he get so full of himself?

He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own home town.”  He goes on to point out, “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. [Luke 4:23-30.]

Jesus seems to be saying that we are more likely to find kindness at the hands of a stranger than from our own people.  And our gratitude will be proportionately greater.  In any case, not only is that true in the case of the Samaritan leper, but this despised stranger is the only one who returns to express his thanks.

God forbid that any of us have to go through such a purification to learn the meaning of true gratitude for all the favors God has bestowed on us.  The United States is manifestly the most prosperous and successful nation the world has ever seen.  The challenge we face is whether our response to such blessing will be gratitude that expresses itself in justice, peace, mercy, and generosity to the less fortunate, not least in our own country.

Let us pray that God will help us become truly caring as well as generous, that our efforts to help will not simply be self-serving, but expressions of heart-felt gratitude and thankfulness on one hand, and mercy on the other.  When early Christians called the Lord’s Supper “the eucharist,” they did so for a reason.  The Greek word they used, eucharisto, means “I thank you,” as it does today  in modern Greek.  It is our principal “thanksgiving,” the greatest act of thanks we can offer.

A Note to Mr. Boehner

Dear John,

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” to you) was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and upheld (mostly) by the most conservative Supreme Court in the past century or two.  It is the Law of the Land.  I understand that you do not like it.  Please get over it and stop destroying the economic health of the nation by your refusal to allow a clean vote on financing the government. That’s not your job. Passing legislation is.  Time to get to work.

Your friend,


Still the Party of No

According to the Oct. 3 New York Times, “the 26 Republican-dominated states not participating in an expansion of Medicaid are home to a disproportionate share of the nation’s poorest uninsured residents. Eight million will be stranded without insurance.”

Of course the Republicans are against the Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare”). They opposed the League of Nations, organized labor, minimum wage legislation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Equal Rights Amendment, the International Court of Criminal Justice, Affirmative Action, a host of environmental protection protocols (not to mention the EPA itself), the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled, expanding the GI Bill of Rights, same-sex marriage, and gun control legislation. Time to cut the Republicans some slack.  They’re just being consistent.