Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: September 2015

26th Sunday of the Year

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

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 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.

Jesus in Bad Company

Many of the publicly righteous (notably Franklin Graham, but Rush Limbaugh should not be overlooked as he dislikes that) have increasingly rent their garments in public, at east vocally, over the composition of the guest list for the White House dinner being laid out for the pope when he visits next week.  The pope, so far as I know, hasn’t said anything, although some of the Vatican minions have shred a few robes in the press.  An activist nun?  A gay (Anglican) bishop?

Somehow, I doubt that this pope would mind much, and might in fact enjoy the company.  After all, he does tend to follow precedent – as do all those righteous indignators in their indignation.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate the same incident, and Jesus later had some choice remarks to make about his choice of table companions:

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples– for there were many who followed him.  When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)

This was no one-off. Jesus had a reputation for keeping bad company:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. (Luke 15:1-5)

No, the pope will be just fine. In fact, he’ll probably enjoy the company immensely.  And no doubt be criticized for that, too.  Just like his Master.

When Losing is Gaining

24th Sunday of the Year: B, Sept. 13, 2015
Is 50:5-9
Ps 116
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

As I was reading over the first scripture lesson for today’s liturgy, it struck me that tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross – which always occurs 6 months before Palm Sunday.  Not by accident, I suspect, that reading is also the first reading of Palm Sunday.

The Gospel also 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 discipleship.

Nine years ago, when I preached on this Sunday, everyone was keenly aware of the mass shooting that had just occurred at Dawson College in Montreal, in which one student was killed and 19 others, most of them students, were seriously injured before the shooter was killed by the police. Five of the students were visitors on the Duquesne University basketball team. It wasn’t entirely clear what motivated the rampage.  But in his journal and blogs, the shooter claimed to have been inspired by a web game he was addicted to, “Super Columbine Massacre.”

That got me thinking about the number of such incidents that had occurred since then.  Between 1996 and 2005 there had been 40, the majority of them in the United States.  Over the last ten years, there have been fifty school and mass shootings, 42 of them here in the United States. [“A Time Line of Recent Worldwide School and Mass Shootings,” http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777958.html, 13 September 2015.]  That does not include the casual, drive-by shootings that occur almost nightly and even daily in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities, or incidents such as the shooting of Lt. Joseph Gliniewicz in Fox Lake last weekend or similar attacks on the police and military personnel or terrorist incidents such as that in France two weeks ago.

Between March, 2005, and this August, there were only 8 other such incidents in Baku, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, and Kenya.  It is particularly sobering to realize that there were six times as many school and mass shootings in the United States than the rest of the world combined.  You might think it could even have something to do with gun control.  But today as a decade ago, one thing stands out pretty clearly in the midst of all the analysis, fretting, soul-searching, and recrimination that these events provoke.  The perpetrators, as we call them, particularly the students themselves, tend to be loners, fascinated by violence, and especially resentful at perceived and real rejection by their peers. That hasn’t changed.

In our socially over-heated world, the fear of rejection and the hostility it nurtures have become epidemic.  Cyber-bullying with its sometimes terrible consequences is part of the price we pay for ever-tighter entanglement in social media, especially among the most vulnerable of all – children.  And among their elders, political vitriol seems to be growing more corrosive with each approaching election.

And so it may seem a little weird to hear Jesus speaking the way he does about rejection as the price we have to be prepared to pay for discipleship.  But Mark’s message about Jesus is clear enough: to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ, meant to be rejected and put to death by government and religious officials.  Many ordinary people would reject him as well.  From the beginning, Christians applied other words of the prophet Isaiah to him: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” [Isaiah 53:3]

Our faith tells us that God’s will to create goodness out of evil, to bring joy out of sorrow, to bring comfort and hope where there is suffering and despair, cannot be  deflected by suspicion or cynicism or outright opposition.  As Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “I have set my face like flint knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”  Not in the end.  The responsory psalm appointed for today reminds us, more gently, that “God keeps the little ones; I was brought low, and the Lord saved me.  God freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”

James repeats the same message: faith that does not become evident in good works is simply not real faith.  But it is not how the world gauges success that determines how well that faith is realized in practice.  It is in courageous persistence in the face of opposition and rejection that tests and eventually proves the merit of what Isaiah, James, Jesus, and contemporary witnesses are committed to — especially young people who, like the students I met recently who work for Greenpeace, or Habitat for Humanity, or many who simply organize benefits for those in need or for an end to gun violence in Chicago.  This week I was deeply impressed by TV interviews with several young and not-so-young people who, much like the first responders who sprang into action in New York that sunny day fourteen years ago, have volunteered to travel to the Middle East, Austria, Hungary, Greece, and Italy to help ease the awful suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands for a better life in the West.


There is an alternative to the cynicism, bitterness, and despair that blights the goodness in the world.   The clue is in Jesus’ words to Peter and all of us, just as it lies in the other readings and in the stories of helpers and workers.  It has to do with courage.  Not sheer stubbornness, much less vindictiveness, but the ability to keep going when opposition and rejection and even outright persecution threaten to destroy our confidence in God’s presence and ever-ready assistance when we try to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn, and create a world where peace and justice are not just words.

The cross we face may seem huge and heavy, but still we need to pick it up every day.  But if I am not mistaken, it gets lighter as we go, because we are not carrying it by ourselves.  In the end, we will find it carrying us … in the hands of countless followers of the rejected Christ.