We live in uncertain times, to say the least, especially when it comes to the current American political situation, riven as it is by bitter partisanship and vicious rhetoric. I am reminded, in fact, of Marc Anthony’s exclamation in Julius Caesar: “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts; And men have lost their reason!” [Act 5, Scene 3].
To be sure, our reasons not always wholly articulate. Sometimes they lie buried under tribal customs, personal doubts, and dim hopes for something we’re not quite sure what. But to watch the election campaign sinking into the quagmire of innuendo and character assassination that has marked the current campaign season is discouraging — so discouraging that it might well deter voters from participating at all, which would be a grave mistake in what still purports to be a democratic process, once a beacon to the world.
Turning to today’s readings provides some comfort and a helpful perspective. The Word of God begins with a passage from one of the most beautiful books in the biblical tradition, The Wisdom of Solomon. It is not an ancient text despite the attribution, but a work of late Jewish spirituality, probably written in Alexandria a century or less before the birth of Jesus. Here we encounter the overriding belief in the goodness of Creation, faith that God loves everything that exists, holding nothing in abhorrence, present everywhere, blessing all things, sparing all things, correcting those who offend, admonishing and reminding us, so that all peoples may abstain from wrong-doing and learn to trust.
The lesson is borne home more simply in the reading from Paul’s very early letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, who had become agitated by predictions of the final days. Get a grip, he says in effect: God is still in charge. And for heaven’s sake, beware of wild predictions and panicky prophecies circulating in what was, I suppose, the first century equivalent of the social media. “…we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” [2 Th 2:1-2].
Luke’s account of the conversion of the obscenely rich tax collector, Zacchaeus, brings the story even closer. Tax collectors made their fortune by taking often exorbitant fees for exacting tax money for the Roman occupiers from their countrymen and were roundly despised for it. It was not only dishonest and unpatriotic, but a thoroughly disreputable business. But Zacchaeus wants to see this fellow Jesus and climbs a sycamore tree for a better view. Up a tree, this little political hack is struck by the invitation that saves his soul and no doubt his reputation. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house…”
As Voting Day approaches, we could well remember that truth, justice, peace, love, and freedom are important not because they are useful or interesting, but because they are rooted in a common experience of longing and aspiration for a better world. They have a center and a focus in the very heart of God. They go together or not likely at all. Nor are goodness and beauty mere words, but realities grounded in Creation itself. Today’s Word assures us that the universe has meaning and value — all of it and each atom of it. And so it is not foolish to maintain that that right and wrong are not arbitrary assignments, but like space and time are woven into the fabric of existence itself, and that as my old mentor at Oxford, a world-class scientist, believed to his dying day, there is a force that makes for righteousness in the universe.
Life is not an accident, but a gift, a gift that has been given to be cherished but also has consequences. And so, as Zacchaeus reminds us, choices matter, there are sides to take, decision to be made, responsibilities waiting. The quest for a just and peaceful society stems from an inheritance worth insuring and enhancing for all God’s children. Every vote counts.
One of the pivot-points in the current painful presidential campaign concerns the appointment of Supreme Court judges, or “justices” as they are called in this country… perhaps hopefully rather than factually. Justices are supposed to be above and beyond political partisanship and bias, but this seems to be a tradition falling into decline. In fact, the choice of a president hinges for some voters on whom the “winner” is likely to appoint to the Supreme Court… and, especially, why. We have entered a political and legal minefield.
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.
Our readings today present some fascinating and puzzling contrasts… The letter to the Ephesians is clear: “may charity be the root and foundation of your life…”
But then in Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks of Fire on the earth…. [Lk 12:49‑53]
I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!
… Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
This is not some odd passage in Luke. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; Similar sayings can be found elsewhere, sayings about the fire that cleanses all our works, the fire that Jesus came to cast on earth.”
It is challenging to reconcile such apparently conflicting teachings, but there is only one Christ and I think we can conclude that the fire he speaks of is the fire of love. But love can tear people apart as well as bring them together. It all hangs on how we love as well as whom and what we love. But Jesus was not naïve. John John’s gospel, he also warns us that the world, human society and its institutions, when not grounded in authentic love will oppose and persecute his disciples just as it did him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in light of last night’s final presidential debate. The campaign of Donald Trump has, let me suggest, done the country this service – it has exposed the rifts that still divide our nation, tensions that we would like to think had been patched over long ago – rich versus poor, whites versus people of color, even men versus women. Clearly, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are as present to us now as ever before, and, to be honest, as they were in Jesus’ time as well.
Perhaps people don’t change all that much.. Or perhaps we are simply in constant need of reflection, self-examination, and social reform because of the recurrent character of darkness in the human heart and in the world. A perfect society remains beyond our grasp and always will this side of heaven. In the meantime, if Christ dwells in our hearts through faith; so that being rooted and grounded in love, we may comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love which surpasses all knowledge, we can be filled with all the fullness of God. And as Catherine of Siena wrote to Stephen Maconi, now go set the world on fire. [Letter 368]
2 Kings 5:14-17
2 Timothy 2:8-13
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 in the path of Hurricane Matthew or who have lost friends and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even 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, Yemen, Haiti and other war-torn and storm-ravaged regions of the planet.
But for most of the world, neither poverty nor even war is the most dreaded of human ills, and it was especially so in the ancient world. It was and is disease, the greatest killer on the planet. 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 for their daily food and survival on the generosity of family and often strangers. 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 or Judea 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. Luke notes at the beginning of the story that Jesus and his disciples were passing between Samaria and Galilee — a long ways from Jerusalem. But the lepers believe him and start off. On the way, they are healed. But only the Samaritan, overcome with gratitude, returns to give thanks to this Jew, his traditional enemy. In Jerusalem 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.
As this country begins national Domestic Violence Awareness month, we would all do well to reflect on the sources of violence in our homes, which are both the entry point and too often the exit wound of anger, intolerance, and eventually violence. Many factors contribute to the climate of violence – not least the increasing prevalence of firearms. Mass shootings, drive-by shootings, hold-ups, assaults, and especially suicides (the major cause of death by shooting in this country) are enabled and facilitated by easy access to guns. Oddly enough, until very recent times, violence was declining in this country as well as abroad. Homicides by gunfire were in decline and where gun control is most strict, still in decline. What has arguably changed most is the relaxation of gun control laws and with that the flood of firearms than has penetrated even into our universities, markets, and workplaces.
Almost daily, Americans are apprised by social news networks of police shootings, as well. Too frequently, unarmed individuals are mistakenly shot and often killed by jumpy police personnel themselves at serious risk of being shot. In the West of my youth, and that of my parents and grandparents, those who shot first and asked questions later were called “trigger happy.” It might have been understandable, but it was always regrettable and often reprehensible.
One of my favorite Irish stories involves a wild young lawyer, by the name of Richard Martin, widely known in Galway as “Trigger Martin” and sometimes as “Hair-trigger Dick” because of his quick temper and deadly aim with a dueling pistol. In mid-life, he had a change of heart and, when elected to parliament, not only renounced violence but sponsored legislation to end the death penalty for certain crimes. Like William Wilberforce, Martin became a leading proponent of animal welfare, successfully promoting the Prevention of Cruelty Act (“Martin’s Law”) in 1822. Eventually, the story goes, he was told by King George IV, that where he once been called “Hair-trigger Dick,” he would now be remembered as “Humanity Dick.”
By any means of comparison with other industrialized countries, the United States has clearly gone off the rails. It’s high time to get the train back on track. Our humanity requires it.
2 Tim 1:6-8,13-14
Among other things, this is the Month of the Holy Rosary. Traditionally in the Dominican Order, the first Sunday in October was observed as Rosary Sunday, although the Feast of the Holy Rosary is observed on October 7. Rosary Sunday seems to have fallen by the wayside somehow. The Feast itself goes back to 1571, when Pope St. Pius V (a Dominican) instituted it to commemorate the naval victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, which was attributed to the prayers of Christians and especially the rosary.
The battle, a dreadful one, changed the course of European history. It ended with the almost complete destruction of the Ottoman navy. Some 15,000 Turks were killed or captured, 15 Turkish galleys were sunk, 177 captured, and between 12,000 and 15,000 Christian galley slaves were rescued. The Christian allies lost 17 ships and about 7,500 fighting men were killed. Thousands more were wounded. All in one day.
The Battle of Lepanto did not end the threat to Europe, but it was the first major Ottoman defeat by the Christian allies, and it destroyed the myth of Ottoman naval invincibility. When the Pope received word of the victory days later, the old man burst into tears. In memory of this triumph he instituted the feast of the Rosary on the seventh of October, and added the supplication “Help of Christians” to the Litany of Loreto in honor the Virgin Mary. And that’s why, if not exactly what, Catholics still celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary – another violent episode in the long struggle for supremacy between the Christian West and the Muslim East, so often a history written in fire, blood, and death.
Violence was very much on our minds then, and it is still on our minds today — perhaps differently, but not without a connection. And that concerns our readings today.
To begin with, scripture itself alerts us to the shock of violence with the prophet Habbakuk lamenting before God back six centuries before the birth of Jesus, as the armies of the Chaldean kingdom of what we now know as southern Iraq were threatening to destroy Jerusalem :
I cry out to you “Violence!”
But you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
The ancient prophet was protesting against war, destruction, and especially the violence associated with conquest, something threat the people of Iraq and so much of the Middle East are all too familiar with today.
By contrast, the word of God calls for patience. “The vision still has its time,” Habbakuk is told, “it presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.” But what vision? Not of rashness and bloodshed, for sure. What the prophet longs for is what we long for: justice, and justice is truly the child of faith as much as it is the parent of peace — “the just person because of faith shall live,” Habbakuk learns, and St. Paul will later cite this passage in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. It also appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Letter to Timothy paints on a smaller canvas but also places faith in the foreground: “Take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say in faith and love in Christ Jesus.” And in the gospel, Jesus, too, speaks of faith — a faith so powerful it can uproot large trees and cast them into the sea. And so Jesus asks us, if even seed-like faith — tiny, dry, and unpromising — can do wonders, what can full-grown faith accomplish?
But what has faith got to do with violence today? In one sense, everything, as we experience the consequences of conflicts in the Middle East and perhaps more urgently here at home.
Social violence, war, insurgency, riots and the ruthless suppression of dissent do not erupt out of nowhere. As Jesus would say on another occasion, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” [Mark 7:20-23].
And so also violence. We don’t have to look far. It is often very close at hand – on our streets, in our schools, and in our homes. It is not just that the cycle of violence is begun at a very early age, but that the poisonous lesson learned there, and elsewhere in our world, is that the solution to conflict is violence. But the gospel tells us that violence is not the solution; it is the problem. But so are the ills that give rise to conflict – social injustice, bigotry, racial hatred, economic disparity, and political oppression.
What is too-often started in the home, can be ended in the home. When it comes to domestic violence, especially when the target is a man’s wife and the mother of their children, seeds of far greater violence are being sown, seeds that unlike the mustard seed of faith, will grow into terrible and destructive acts of oppression, crime, and war. This year, October, the month of the Rosary, is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. The week of October 16 to 22 has been designated as a National Week of Action. And we need to act. And we need to pray.
So let us pray for faith — faith not to uproot sycamore trees, but to do something far, far more difficult — to lift the great weight of violence and suffering from the backs of women, children, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and defenseless, immigrants, and persons suffering from racial or ethnic prejudice. Let us patiently work for the triumph of love in our homes, schools, and workplaces, and the justice that works for peace everywhere.
Participate in 2016’s National Week of Action from October 16 through 22, 2016.