Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: March 2014

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today was once called Laetare Sunday, — “Rejoice Sunday.” It’s election time, too.  How well will we fare under scrutiny?

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

1 Sm 16:1b,6-7,10-13a
Ps 23
Eph 5:8-14
Jn 9:1-41 or 9:1,6-9,13-17,34-38

It’s an election year, in case you hadn’t yet noticed.  Most people in this country seem not to have, because they did not vote in the recent elections.  After all, they were only primaries and local elections and even in November, it will only be a mid-term affair.  So much for participatory democracy.

God, I hear, is not a democrat, and traditionalists like to point out that the Church is not a democracy.  Actually, in the beginning, right up to the Middle Ages, people elected their own bishops, including the pope in some instances, and frequently their priests and deacons.  And today in parishes everywhere Catholics are observing the Second Scrutiny of the catechumens who will be elected to be baptized at Easter.  Popes are still elected, of course, at least by the College of Cardinals.  And Israel was elected.  Everyone, we hope, will eventually be elected, for in Scripture, God’s people all the way back to ancient Israel, were called ‘The Elect.”

Basically, “elect” and “election” simply mean “chosen.” Selected. Picked out.

At some point or other in your life, you were probably elected to some office — class president, prom queen, valedictorian, person most likely to succeed in business without really trying, perhaps the head of a committee at work, or a position in the local PTA.  Or maybe you ran for election but were not chosen, and had to swallow the defeat with the good grace that is expected of losing candidates.

Not all elections turn out well. The first election I ever won, the first one I can remember anyway, was in the first grade, when the girls of the class elected the boys who would play various parts in the Christmas play.  My cousin Pat was chosen to play St. Joseph, and I — well, someone had to be Herod.  I prefer to think it was because it took great acting ability to portray such a villain.  My death scene was pretty terrific, actually.  My insides got eaten by worms and I suffered very dramatically.

Today’s readings, not so coincidentally, focus on election, on being chosen.  They also draw our attention to the cost of being chosen.

The first reading, from the first Book of Samuel, is about the election of David to be the anointed ruler of Israel.  Although the least promising of Jesse’s sons, he is nevertheless God’s choice.  As always, God’s ways are not like human ways.  Those God elects may not be those we would choose at all.  In fact, God seems to chose people that tend to get overlooked and, from what appears to be unpromising candidates, selects women like Joan of Arc and men such as Giuseppe Roncalli who end up remaking the world.

For Paul, such election is a journey from darkness into the light of justice and truth.  That is the second theme of the readings.  Not by accident, from the earliest times baptism was called illumination.  God elects those who are to be saved and leads them into the saving light of Christ’s presence and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  And not only once, but at every moment in our lives when that baptismal grace acts within us.

The Gospel chosen for this Sunday of the second scrutiny is taken from the climax of St. John’s Gospel.  It is one of the longest stories in that Gospel, and even when we read the major sections of it, the drama is electrifying.  A man born blind is made whole by the gift of sight, the ability to see light.  To see in the light.  Also from the earliest days of the church, this man was seen as a paradigm, a model of the Christian believer.  His testimony is one of the most touching stories of faith in Christian scripture.  Cured on the Sabbath, an affront to the religious authorities, his faith in Jesus ultimately costs him dearly.  To be thrown out of the synagogue was to be excommunicated, cut off from community, family, and friends.  And in all honesty, his first step towards sight seems very unpromising: Jesus actually puts dirt in his eyes.  But in the end, the man cannot deny that he sees and especially what he has seen.

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
“You have seen him.  He is speaking with you now.”
“I do believe, Lord.”

John is putting more into this story than the scrutiny of a man born blind.  The later history of the troubled relations between Jews and Christians is reflected in the commentary on the examination of the man’s parents: “anyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”  This did not happen for many years, but it did finally happen, and the two ways parted definitively.

To be chosen by God, to join the elect community, means at least running the risk of rejection, suffering exclusion and persecution even by those we love.  But there is always some cost involved.  As Jesus reminds us, “I came into this world to divide it, to make the sightless see and the seeing blind.”

If all goes well for us when we chose to follow Christ, and him crucified, we can be sure that something has very likely gone wrong.  And so we continue the old tradition of examining the candidates for baptism, making sure that they know what they are asking for, and are fully aware of what they may get as a result.

And as we scrutinize those who have asked to be elected into full membership in the church, we would all do well to ask ourselves how we have measured up to the grace of our calling.  And, as they say, good luck on your election.

Wed. Week 3 of Lent: 26 March 2014

Deut 4:1,5-9
Matt 5:17-19]

Today’s readings point us first to the promises made to the Hebrew people as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and headed toward what was someday to be their homeland.  The passage from the gospel of Matthew ends with another promise from Jesus — that whoever fulfills and teaches the Law and Prophets will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Much of the emphasis in today’s readings is on memory, or remembrance to be more accurate.  The Book of Deuteronomy was itself a retelling of the story recounted in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers that detailed the origin of the Hebrew people from their arrival at Sinai to their entrance to the Promised Land.  The title simply means the Second Law, the codification of legal prescriptions based largely on Exodus and developed after the Babylonian exile.  It was, in effect, the remembrance of the Covenant embodied in the mandates of the Mosaic Law.

Today’s gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, seems a little odd because it seems to cast Jesus in the role of a defender of absolute observance of the Mosaic Law, even to the slightest ordinance.  Yet we know from Matthew himself that Jesus was pretty loose in his observance of fine points, and later, of course, St. Paul engineered a complete transcendence of the obligations of the Law – now the former Covenant.

Further, while upholding the holiness of the Law, Jesus praised those – the publicans and other sinners — who were regarded with contempt by the Pharisees, themselves strict and uncompromising observers of every point of the Law.  Jesus also exempts himself from legal prescriptions based on oral traditions and exhorts his followers to do the same, but he reveres the Law itself and the prophetic writings as expressing the will of God.  Observance alone cannot ground entrance into the Kingdom he preaches, especially if it becomes the occasion of condemning others and a source of pride.  Like the ancient prophets, Jesus calls for a changed heart and mind, a total dedication to God who gave the Law as a gift and a guide, but now has approached us in the intimacy of personal presence.  Salvation, like the Law itself, is a gift. That does not condone breaking the Law, but fulfilling it—bringing it to completion. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually restates the ancient Law, clearly reclaiming the heart and soul of its message – love of God and love of neighbor.  Here is one greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple and even greater than Moses (Mt 12:6, 41, 42, Heb 3:3).

Lent is a good time to remember all this, which is why the story of the Exodus and especially the great Covenant feature so prominently.  Jesus calls us not to perfect observance of legal prescriptions, but to the deeper holiness of life which is the intent and glory of the both the Law and the Prophets.

Dog Days for Democracy

When I bring up the subject of plutocracy in my course on Plato’s Republic, most of my students seem to think I am talking about a dog.  I might as well be, because the steady advance of the United States toward plutocracy appears to be proceeding invisibly and, well, doggedly.  One way to look at it, as Plato did, is that when the outcome of national and regional elections are decided by a few extremely rich citizens, you have both an oligarchy and a plutocracy.  “Pluto” is not merely the name of the Walt Disney dog character, or of the planetoid that was so rudely demoted because it was so small, or of the old Greek god.  It means “wealth.”

I noticed this week that the media turned their eager attention to a fellow named Sheldon Adelson, a vastly wealthy Las Vegas casino-magnate who it appears is going to call the shots regarding the Republican Party nomination and perhaps decisively influence the outcome of the general election by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the war chests of his favored candidates.  The Koch Brothers, Richard Vigurie, and a number of other members of the .01 percent club will also be on board that train.  So far, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have not shown their hand and may not.  But the Democrats will not be lacking for support from the mega-rich.  Needless to point out, perhaps, the citizens of this fair republic never elected any of these plutocrats to any state or federal office.  It’s simpler to buy one than run for one.  Or many.

With the infamous “Citizens United” decision, the United States Supreme court pretty well opened the flood gates of big money from corporations, while Pacs and Super-pacs favoring both sides of The Aisle have been a feature of American politics for a generation now.  But the recent elevation of a tiny minority of multi-billionaires to the ranks of political king-makers is something of a novelty.  That they have made the ascent so effortlessly is disturbing, to say the least.  It could well sound the death knell of participatory, that is, truly popular, democracy.

In a mid-term election, voter turnout tends to be low, as this month’s primaries and local elections demonstrated all too well.  Opening the electoral process to seventeen-year-olds only seems to have meant that there is now an ever larger percentage of non-voting citizens out there.  When November rolls around at last, the fallout will be evident.

Politicians love to end speeches by reciting “God bless America.”  Perhaps they should amend that to “God help America!” After all, we still put “In God We Trust” on our pennies, dimes, and bank notes (all of them: has anyone noticed recently?).  But as that old curmudgeon Mark Twain observed about a century ago, it’s a lie.  “If this nation ever trusted in God, that time has gone by; for nearly half a century its entire trust has been in the Republican Party and the dollar — mainly the dollar.”

It seems that the price has gone up substantially, and I’m sure Mark Twain would understand.  Increasingly, to all appearances, the purpose of big money in US politics is to assure the .01 percenters that government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich shall not perish from the earth.  But maybe it should.

Saving Ukraine

Diplomacy, like politics, may be the art of compromise, but so far it has not sped the Obama-Kerry plow very much in the Ukrainian crisis. Apart from some hand-wringing in London, Madrid, and Paris, not much is being done to persuade the Russian army to back off.

Angela Merkel has proved ‘reluctant’ to impose economic sanctions on Russia, as Germany and Russia have “deep economic ties.”  As Harry S Truman might have said, “The buck stops her.”  So far the other European states, including those that border Ukraine, are also showing themselves to be equally timorous in the face of naked aggression near their vulnerable frontiers.

For those with a sense of history, the whole business is starting to look a lot like the Sudetenland déjà vu all over again… With the leading nations of the EU playing the Neville Chamberlain role, Mr. Putin may get away with his land grab after all.

Sen. John McCain seems to be hell-bent for war, but that’s hardly likely.  Sadly, neither are the economic sanctions that might move Putin to pull back.  At least the United States has offered $1 billion and the EU 14 billion euro to Ukraine to help ease its economic plight.  But that’s a long way from resolving the crisis.

So President Obama and John Kerry find themselves between the rock of Merkel and the hard place of McCain, trying to work out a negotiated solution.  I suppose the job is not made easier with our troops still in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Okinawa and other areas where hospitality has long since turned to animosity.  There’s also Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deal with.  It’s not easy being a superpower.  But people seem to expect us to do things, even if it is hardly any of our business.

Homily for the Third Wednesday of Lent

Was Jesus really a stickler for the Law?

8th Sunday of the Year in Ordinary Time

Is 49:14-15
1 Cor 4:1-5
Mt 6:24-34

In the Church’s calendar, this is the 8th Sunday of the year in ordinary time, as we like to call it.  We don’t get many of those because the first Sunday of Lent often eclipses it. The last time we had one was back in 2011.  So some of the scriptural readings may be a little less familiar to you, if you have been trying to keep up.

As it happens, the readings are appropriate enough for this year, and, yes, election day and the primaries are approaching like the next snow storm.  We can expect more mud in the air than snow, however, as that has become the kind of thing we hear and see so much of.  Too much of. But it’s not just politics – it’s also the norm in show business, and tonight, of course, is Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one – for those steeped in the tradition of the Academy awards.  We can’t get enough of it, and if we have some awful news 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 shows dissing the rich and famous and powerful there’s Maury and Jerry Springer.

St. Paul’s commentary is very different.  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 when a reporter asked him about gay people in that famous candid interview.  No doubt they were expecting the usual tirade from Christians such as we are hearing more and more in Uganda, Nigeria, So. 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 face and pulls the trigger.  Of course, you could also say that was 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 learned that what others say counts.  But it doesn’t. Not really.  But we have to learn that – over and over.  If God is for us, who can be against us? [Rom 8:31]. Isaiah and Jesus say the same thing: God knows what we need better than we do.  Like Paul, we should put our trust there.

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.