Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: June 2020

13th Sunday of the Year: On Hospitality

Jesus’ remarks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are not only harrowing, but don’t sound much like something Jesus would say during his lifetime. They appear to reflect a later era of rejection and persecution. The selection ends on a much more positive note – that of welcome and hospitality. But we may misunderstand what’s at stake here. [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Matt 10:37-42]

The background of today’s theme is found in the ancient code of hospitality that prevailed in desert cultures not only of the Middle East but throughout the world. To share food and drink with someone in the desert was to establish an enduring bond of friendship. It still is, as I discovered several times in Iraq. A tragic echo of that profoundly humane culture exists in the account of the Last Supper, when Judas leaves the upper room to betray Jesus after he has eaten with him, even out of the same dish. Such intimate sharing indicated an even stronger bond of loyalty and its violation the deeper disloyalty.

Perhaps we can discover what hospitality is by considering its opposite: not merely coldness or even antagonism towards strangers in our midst, but the treachery, deceit, and violence directed against harmless and defenseless people whose only crime is being different and in need. The gospel of Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, an approach to others characterized by openness, trust, and friendliness.

Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces the theme of hospitality. It contains the beginning of the story of the Shunammite woman, whose hospitality to the prophet Elisha is rewarded by the gift of a son, who is born to a couple who have no hope of having a child, like the parents of Isaac, Samuel, Samson, and John the Baptist. The mother and the little boy are also the focus of a later story, in which the boy falls ill and dies. Responding to his now-widowed mother’s frantic and persistent pleas, Elisha goes to him and restores the little boy to life. Such was his gratitude for what people today sometimes call “random acts of kindness.” [For the whole account, see 2 Kings 4:25-37.]

In the selection from the Letter to the Christians at Rome, St. Paul gives us a clear, simple reason for practicing such random acts of kindness. They are expected of us. And, if we are really living the life Christ has offered us, we can’t help performing them. For, Paul tells us, we are raised to a new life in Christ, which is to say baptized into his death so that we might live a new life: his new life. And Christ’s life is one of mercy, forgiveness, and continuous welcome.

That English word “welcome,” which we hear in today’s gospel, comes from the Old English word ‘wil,’ which means “pleasure,” and ‘cuma,’ which means “to arrive.” It refers to someone whose arrival gives us pleasure. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.

Jesus goes much further than might be expected, when the Holy Land was overrun by soldiers of an occupying nation and whose people were in effect caught between collaboration and rebellion. His counsels are radical even to us today: walk the extra mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, in short, see the human being within the uniform and respond with love. Don’t strike back. And in today’s reading, “anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is [called] a disciple will not lose their reward.”

Jesus, like Elisha, knew the meaning of hospitality. He was welcomed into peoples’ homes. He frequently stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But he also knew rejection: he was thrown out of his own home town, and almost killed by a resentful mob. On several occasions, he seems to have been treated inhospitably by Samaritans and, with a few exceptions, as in the story of Zacchaeus, was snubbed by the rich and famous. He was betrayed by his table companion.

As for the demanding note of those earlier statements told of Jesus about being “worthy” of him, when we peel away the dust of centuries of translations, the word he is said to have used is ‘hikanos,’which means “fit, or able.” To be fit disciples, we must be able to follow where Jesus led. Even to the cross.

God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving others in their need and with joy in our hearts. Hospitality takes many forms, not least today in the era of COVID-19, when in many places in the world hospitals are overcrowded with patients and where the toll has been reduced it is largely because of the heroic and self-sacrificing devotion of carers. I frequently remind my students that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. Both come from the Latin word ‘hospes’, which means both “guest,” and “host,”‘ Whether they know it or not, those who care for the sick and dying are hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ. They shall not lose their reward.

12th Sunday of the Year: Honoring Our Fathers

As people around the world observe Sunday in various ways, many are also honoring their fathers. The first reading doesn’t seem very appropriate for Father’s Day, since it speaks of suspicion, denunciation, unjust criticism, plots, and eventual vindication. Or maybe it is, given recent events and the tone of much public discourse these days. Perhaps it’s time to consider other possibilities.

We too easily forget how precious good family life is, how important, and how fragile. But events along the US border with Mexico, in Syria, Yemen, Central America and elsewhere are still too painfully evident for us not to bear witness to families forever shattered, of parents shot before their children’s eyes, and children themselves victims of drive-by shootings, or starving, killed or injured in war-torn areas of the world. Or of refugee families returning to scenes of devastation. We prefer not to think about these things, especially on a day such as this, but fathers think about them, worry about them, pray about them. Yes, Black Families Matter.

We are long way from new neckties and shaving sets, at least from the first and second readings in today’s liturgy. At least at first. But there is a connection. When St. Paul says that sin and death came into human experience through Adam, but grace

Jer 20: 10-13
Rom 5: 12-15
Mt 10:26-33

and life overcame them through Jesus Christ, he is pointing out that in these two all-important respects, one single human being can change everything — for the worse or for the better.

And that’s where the Gospel takes us. Do not let people intimidate you, Jesus says. Especially do not hesitate to speak out fearlessly for his sake. So we look back at the reading from Jeremiah in the light of the gospel and discover the power and the price of fidelity and radical dissent.

The prophet has been put on the spot. The Babylonians are threatening Jerusalem, and King Zedekiah wants to cement some alliances with his neighbors to defend the city. And he wants Jeremiah to predict success. But God has revealed to Jeremiah that the city will fall and the king and nobles taken into captivity.

Hardly the kind of news Zedekiah wants to hear. It gets even worse. As a result, Jeremiah is beaten and thrown into prison by Pashhur, the son of the High Priest. But he doesn’t learn his lesson. Prophets are like that.

The next day, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, “The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, [which means Liberation in Hebrew] but Magor-mis-Sabib [Terror on every side]. For thus says the Lord: Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. They shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall slay them with the sword. Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon.”

Jeremiah is playing on words here, part of the irony and sometimes grim humor in the Bible that we easily miss because we forget that names often mean something: Jeremiah turns his attention toward the man who imprisoned him:

“And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity; you shall go to Babylon; and there you shall die, and be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied falsely.”

So the background of today’s first reading is that poor Jeremiah is dealing with fear and reluctance to tell the emissaries of King Zedekiah the hard truth they do not want to hear, what the king does not want to hear. It is not good news. And Jeremiah has already paid for it by being beaten and imprisoned. Now he fears for his life.

Matthew’s gospel speaks directly to such fear, one we all face when we find ourselves in the position of bearing unwanted news. In the ancient world, and even more recently, messengers who brought bad tidings were often killed on the spot. Or in more “civilized” countries, simply fired.

But in the Gospel, Jesus is telling us, Don’t be afraid to speak up. They may even kill you for it, but they can’t destroy your soul. Stifling the truth because we are afraid to speak out CAN destroy our souls. And other peoples’ as well.

Jesus is not merely saying that each one of us is important in the grand scheme of things. He is also saying that five million Hungarians can be wrong. So can a hundred million Americans. And on the other hand, one voice, clearly speaking the truth, even in dissent, can light the way for the world. So it was with Jesus. And with Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Colin Kaepernick, Dr. Rick Bright, and Geoffrey Berman.

The power of one. It happens in small ways as well as great ones. Not many of us will be forced to stand up to a head of state and say that he and all his staff and the whole country are surely on the way to perdition. And in fact, that can be too easy to do: just listen as the national conventions get closer. A single critic is not right simply because he is against the majority! But how many times have we been in a position to speak up against injustice and kept silent? How often in the face of injustice have we kept quiet out of fear of reprisal? As Jeremiah learned to his sorrow, whistle-blowers are not very popular people.

But to keep silent when justice and truth require us to speak is to betray our conscience and our God. And this is what Jeremiah and Jesus are getting at. Not to speak out against injustice is to condone injustice. It takes courage to be able to proclaim the truth quietly, much less from the rooftops. But that is what we are called to do.

It also takes wisdom and discretion to know when and how to do it. So let us pray for God’s gifts, the presence of the Holy Spirit of Discretion and Fortitude and a firm conviction in the power of one. We may find ourselves lonely for speaking God’s truth, but we will never be alone. And as a Father’s Day message, that that has to be as good as it gets. Even when there aren’t as many hairs on our heads to count as we would like, we can rest assured that God knows each one of them intimately. The sparrow still may fall, but it will never fall out of the hand of God.

Trinity Sunday 2020: A Dance of Perfect Love

A “perfect storm” refers to a rare confluence of factors that greatly aggravates the force of a storm at sea.  Our nation is in the midst of such a perfect storm – a pandemic of almost unprecedented virulence, an economic downturn with unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, riots and looting in the midst of peaceful demonstrations against unwarranted police violence toward people of color, and now, a tropical storm progressing toward landfall and a destructive path through the heartland. Yet today we observe the resumption of “ordinary time,” following the end of  the great Easter cycle. There is little “ordinary” about it.  And yet we are here..

Trinity Sunday is a difficult feast to preach on – even the name seems very abstract and theological, with not much to do with the struggle and

Ex 34:4b-6,8-9
2 Cor 13:11-13
Jn 3:16-18

hardship, the quest for love and understanding, the inevitable loss and sorrow of daily life – including the turmoil and suffering the world and our nation especially are  experiencing at the moment.  It’s not too surprising if people wonder what difference it makes how many persons there are in God.

But  belief in the Trinity has its place in the Christian story, as does the Feast itself that we are celebrating.  It’s not all that old, as feasts go — there were masses in honor of the Trinity in Italy in the late ninth century during a period of desperately needed reform in the Church.  But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church.

Devotion to the Holy Trinity goes back much further, of course.  In the third century, the Christians of Alexandria, in Egypt, prayed to the trinity of Persons in the One God.  But beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, it took a long time for the Church to work out what the term meant, both for belief and for worship.  The word “Trinity” is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, not even in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula [Matt 29:19].  No mention of three persons in one nature or anything of the kind.  In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says things such as: “The Father is Greater than I,” “The Father and I are One,” and “he who sees me sees the Father.”  In today’s readings only St. Paul’s reference to the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit contain even a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine.  And yet it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John.

The term itself wasn’t coined until the late second century and the beginning of the third century in the Greek writings of Theophilus of Antioch and the Latin works of Tertullian, who also began using the word Person in regard to God.  [Trias: Theophilus, Ad Autol. 2.15; Justin, Dial. 128, Apol. 60-63.  Tertullian: Trinitas, persona]  But it took the church over a hundred years even to begin working out a language that might sense of it all.

Looking back over the following thousand years, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of  the most Trinitarian of theologians, made two especially important points: first, the Trinity is a mystery, something hidden from the foundation of the world and made known only by divine revelation. That’s to say, we could never think ourselves to the Trinity, nor can we get to the bottom of it once we do accept it as divine revelation.  A real mystery is not like a detective novel.  The more that is revealed, even more is still hidden from us.  The inner life of God is more than we can ever comprehend.  As St. Augustine said, “Those who think they truly understand God do not know anything at all.  Only those who know they do not know, truly understand.” [Serm. (de Script. N.T.) LII, vi, 16.]

Perhaps even more important for Thomas and, I would suggest, us, is what the Trinity of Persons in God is not like: quite a lot of things — in fact everything.  It is not like anything at all. It is not like a family, despite the words we use and some hearty efforts in the very early days of the Church to portray the inner life of God as Father, Mother, and Child — there is no bigger or smaller, older or younger, orders and obedience, and no wet diapers.

The first artistic portrayal of the Trinity is found on a Roman sarcophagus of the 4th century — three bearded gentlemen creating Eve from the body of Adam.  But the Trinity is not a committee, either.  There are no votes to be taken, or minutes, no resolutions to be passed, no apologies from absent members, and especially no bungled projects or shredded documents, much less beards.

When those early theologians looked for a term to describe the inner dynamism of the shared nature of the three Persons, they used the Greek word perichoresis, which means “to dance around.”  Ultimately, the impression I get is of a great dance of love in which everything is perfect action and perfect poise.  No one stumbles, no one falls, no one steps on anyone’s toes.  Even so, the Holy Trinity is a model for us.  The Trinity is our model of community in perfect accord, of individuality and perfect acceptance of otherness without division, a model of total understanding and love.  And the Universe as a whole is nothing less than a great mirror of this perfection.

But the universe still does not give us the Trinity — in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity.  From the beginning it was and is a Christological doctrine — it shows us why we can say that God was present in Christ, that Jesus and the Father are one, but that the Father is greater than He, and that he who sees Jesus sees the Father. For Jesus is, we believe and profess, fully God but not wholly God — Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Son, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love.  Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

But to believe Jesus, to believe IN Jesus, requires some way of speaking about God before and beyond our speech about Jesus.  That is why, however foundational it proved to be, the Trinity is not the central doctrine of Christian revelation.  It expresses what had to be the case for Jesus to be what he said, to do what he did, to give himself for us and, in our Eucharist, still to give himself to us completely as the very life of our life.  But that comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.

And so it is that celebrating communion with each other — with all others — is the most fitting way to acknowledge our belief in God as three in one and one in three, whose everlasting supper party is our goal and destiny, a perfect communion of Persons.