CREEDS Retreat Conference I: Advent and the Incarnation of Christ

Readings:  Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 3:1-7

Godspell:  “Prepare Ye” and “Save the People”

One of the single greatest mysteries of our faith is the Incarnation of Christ.  When you stop to think about it, who are we that the Author of all Life should take on our own corrupt and broken form and become one of us?  It has been called the “marvelous exchange:” God became human so that humans could become more like God.  When I was in seminary, it was explained to us by a simple, yet divinely complex rule: Whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.  So God assumed our human nature, taking on all of our frailty and weakness, all of our sorrows and frustrations, all of the things that make being human difficult at times.  As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it, he became “one like us in all things but sin.”

This belief in the doctrine of the Incarnation is essential for our Catholic faith, even our Christian religion.  One cannot not believe in the Incarnation and call oneself Christian.  It’s part of our Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  This doctrine is so important, so holy to us, that at the mention of it in the creed, we are instructed to bow during those words, and on Christmas, we are called to genuflect at that time.  There is always a reason for any movement in the Liturgy, and the reason for our bowing or genuflecting is that the taking on of our flesh by our God is an occasion of extreme grace, unparalleled in any religion in the world.  If the Incarnation had not taken place, there never would have been a Cross and Resurrection.  First things are always first!

And so it seems that it’s appropriate as we being our reflections on Matthew’s Gospel to begin with the Incarnation.  It’s even more appropriate that we do that during this season of Advent, whose very name means “coming.”  During Advent, we begin this wonderful period of waiting with the cry of St. John the Baptist,

“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’”

And the movie and play Godspell famously does this with the wonderful refrain “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”  You notice in the movie that this song accompanied the liturgical action of the players being baptized by the Baptist.  Their dancing after pledging repentance of the sins of their past life signifies the joy that we all share being on the precipice of something new this Advent.  They received the forerunner of our sacramental Baptism by the one who was the forerunner of Christ.  This baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins like ours, but unlike ours, did not convey the Holy Spirit.  That would come later, after the death and Resurrection of Christ.  He had to return to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit.

But, as the song suggests, that baptism was essential to prepare the way for Christ.  The Benedictus, the Gospel canticle from the Church’s Morning Prayer, which is based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, speaks of that baptism and the significance of the Baptist’s ministry:  “You my child will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before him to prepare his way.  To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  Indeed, if our sins had never been forgiven, we would know nothing of salvation, indeed there really would be no salvation.  But that baptism of St. John literally prepared the way of the Lord by helping the people to know that God was doing something significant among them.  That was the reason for them dancing and splashing around in all that water: they too were on the precipice of something new, something incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully new.

Now in Matthew’s Gospel, we have an infancy narrative – a story of the birth of Christ.  “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about,” the Gospel begins.  Mary is found with child through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph doesn’t know what to believe.  But in Matthew, Joseph is the one who gets a visit from an angel, not Mary.  And he is the first one to hear a key phrase in Matthew’s Gospel: “do not be afraid” – “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”  Fear, for Matthew, is the cardinal sin, because it is fear that keeps us from responding in love to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Apparently Mary had no such fear, because the beginning of the Gospel “finds” her already with child through the Holy Spirit.  The child is born to the couple and at the instruction of the angel, he is named Jesus, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In the movie, there is no infancy.  Christ comes at the end of John’s baptism sequence, and instructs John to baptize him because, as Jesus tells him, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  As he is baptized, Jesus sings, “God save the people,” a prayer that is of course already being accomplished as he speaks.  The play seems to be a bit more pessimistic than the actual Gospel, because Jesus practically pleads for God’s mercy on his people, implying a relationship that was not nearly as close as the Gospels proclaim and our faith believes.  This is one of the little grains of salt we need to take from the movie; in fact it does seem to be an expression of the author’s take on the Jesus event.  So I’d just say don’t take Godspell as Gospel, if you know what I mean!

And so the advent and Incarnation narratives give us some pause in these Advent days.  We have the opportunity to think about our own birth, or rebirth, in faith.  We get to make the paths straight and the way smooth for the coming of our Lord yet again.  Maybe these days find us struggling to come to a new place in our faith, a higher stage, a bold move.  We might tremble a bit at where God seems to be leading us through our study of Scripture.  But Matthew begs us to hear those all-important words – “be not afraid” – be not afraid to go where God and Scripture lead you.  Be not afraid to take the next step.  Be not afraid to ascend to that higher place God longs for you to be in right now.

Wisdom Has Built Her House

Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6, 11, 10; Romans 11:33-36; Mark 6:1-6

A lecture presented to the CREEDS Scripture Study group, kicking off their study of Wisdom Literature and the Chronicler.

I. What is Wisdom Literature?

You’ll be treated this year in CREEDS to an introduction to Hebrew Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature is a general literary genre quite popular in the Ancient Near East. This type of literature is characterized by sayings that praise God and teach heroic virtue.

A. Wisdom in the Ancient Near East

Wisdom literature a controversial tradition that needs some explanation, but it is a tradition that I think you will find edifying, challenging and uplifting. Much of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is omitted from the Bibles used in the Protestant churches, and even in some Jewish Scriptures. The main reason for that, at least among Hebrew scholars, was that the books were not found in Hebrew but only in Greek, and so they dated these books in the Hellenistic period which was thought to be too recent to be divinely inspired Scripture. Since then, however, many of the books have been found, at least partially, in Hebrew.

Before we launch into a whole preview of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition, I wanted to take a look at the whole idea of wisdom literature in the generic sense, or at least at wisdom literature in the ancient near east culture. Because what we know is that wisdom literature didn’t begin or end in ancient Israel, but rather part of the whole wisdom movement of that time and place. Lawrence Boadt tells us that there are known collections of proverbs from Sumeria and Babylon that date before 2000 B.C. and look quite a bit like counterparts found in the book of Proverbs. One example is the Sumerian proverb that says “A chattering scribe-his guilt is great” which corresponds to Proverbs 18:13 which reads “He who answers before listening-that is folly and shame.”

Now the wisdom tradition in Babylon appears to have been well established long before Israel ever existed as a nation, so it seems reasonable to expect that Israel borrowed much of its wisdom tradition from Babylon. Another great source of wisdom literature is found in Egypt, although it is not clear whether Israel borrowed from Egypt, or if both Israel and Egypt were using an ancient source that they both knew. In any case, wisdom literature was well-established in the ancient near east, and Israel’s wisdom tradition was a part of it.

While the content of Israel’s wisdom tradition appears to draw on the same questions and topics as other traditions, we should note, as Boadt does, that the answers are not the same. Even if the concerns of wisdom were universal, Israel’s answers to those concerns were uniquely their own. The uniqueness came of course from Israel’s finding the roots of all wisdom in the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 9:10). For Israel the source and summit of wisdom was to be found in right relationship (h?esed) with YHWH.

B. Wisdom in Ancient Israel

In Israel, the sources for wisdom have come from two places. The first is family. The proverbs especially tend to dwell on the right relationships between various members of the family. The right relationship of parents and children mirrors the right relationship between the people Israel and YHWH. Proverbs additionally prescribe relationships that make possible education of the young and moral instruction. These pearls of wisdom were passed on from generation to generation. Proverbs 4:3 tells us, “When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender and my mother’s only child, he taught me and said, ‘Take my words to heart!'”

The second source of wisdom literature would be formal education. There was great value in a professional class of wise men and women for the royal court. These people could be counted on for wise advice that enabled the king to rule effectively. So while there was undoubtedly an informal wisdom education that took place within the family, a formal school for the study of wisdom was required. The Babylonian and Sumerian societies had such schools available, and these taught young boys to be scribes and prepared them for careers in the royal court. Scriptures indicate that Israel also had professional scribes, and a professional class of wise counselors that served as advisors to the king.

But the king himself was seen as the great source of wisdom. David was considered wise, and his wisdom contributed greatly to the Scriptures in the form of the many Psalms attributed to him. But perhaps the greatest wisdom figure in the ruling class was wise King Solomon, and we’ll hear more about him in a moment.

First, it’s important I think to take a look at the way the wisdom literature was transmitted. Wisdom literature in general used several distinctive forms, such as the proverb, the riddle and fables. But in Hebrew, it is mostly the proverb that is common. The proverb could distill the wisdom of the ages into a practical, memorable, pithy line or two that had a bit of sermon in it as well. The proverbs had to be memorable because it was by memory that most of them were handed down across the generations and perpetuated in the society.

Some of the proverbs, however, were in a more narrative form. Think of the book of Job, filled with the wisdom to be distilled from suffering. Here there is narration, dialogue and intrigue. Questions and answers are exchanged, and life’s lessons are learned. Proverbs had the ability to take the most difficult questions of life and make them seem somehow approachable by bringing them to the ordinariness of life.

II. Three Wisdom Figures

That is a bit of an introduction to the idea of wisdom literature and what it is, and how it came to be formed in the Hebrew community. You’ll read much more about that from Boadt and others and you study wisdom this year. So at this point, I would like to take a look at three wisdom figures which will bring us from ancient Israel to the present day. The first is wise King Solomon in all his glory. Secondly, I want to look at the wisdom of Jesus, which takes the wisdom of the Old Testament and grounds it in God’s plan for salvation. And lastly, I want to explore wisdom and the Christian Disciple which takes the abstract study of wisdom and brings it to our own faith response.

A. Wise King Solomon

Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. He becomes king by choice not by right, because that right should go to David’s first-born, Adonijah. But David had promised Bathsheba that Solomon would succeed him as king, and he does so, despite the interference of a bit of intrigue from Adonijah. At David’s decree, Zadok the priest anoints Solomon king of Israel and David is able to rest in peace.

After Solomon secured the kingdom and began his rule, his wisdom became apparent to all around him. After sacrificing to the Lord at Gibeon, the Lord offered Solomon whatever he wanted, all he had to do was make the request. And despite the many things he could have requested, he made just this one: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:9) Humility in the service of the LORD is what Proverbs means when it says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and Solomon had that figured out. And the LORD is pleased to grant Solomon’s request: “I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” (1 Kings 3:12)

Shortly after he is gifted with wisdom, he gets the chance to show it. You all know this story, I’m sure. Two harlots come to Solomon, arguing over the custody of a child. It seems they both lived in the same house, and both gave birth within a day of one another. But the first woman’s child died during the night, having been smothered by his mother lying on him. So she tries to pull the old switcheroo, taking the other woman’s live child and putting her dead child in its place. Nice. She protested to Solomon that she had done no such thing, and so it was a case of she-said, she-said. So, the king in his great wisdom, declares, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” (I Kings 3:25) The real mother, of course, gave in immediately. She would rather give the child up than have him cut in half. By this, Solomon knew for sure that she was the real mother and awarded custody of the child to her. You can read all about that at the end of chapter 3 of First Kings.

Solomon’s reputation for wisdom is what led many traditions to call him the author of several wisdom books of the Old Testament. A legend of the Talmud guessed that Solomon crafted the Song of Songs in his lusty youth, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes as a skeptical old man. His authorship of these books is debatable, but his reputation as a wise ruler and king is not.

Solomon’s wisdom was so great, that he was able to build and complete the Temple, dedicating it with great joy. But, Solomon was human, and chapter 11 of First Kings describes his many sins, especially the sin of intermarrying with foreign women who began to turn his heart to strange gods. One would think wisdom would have protected him from that, but it didn’t. The greatest wise king in all of Israel was also tragically flawed, just as his father David was before him, and just as pretty much every king who followed him would be.

B. The Wisdom of Jesus

We could beat up Solomon, the kings of Israel, and pretty much everyone because of their being flawed, but that’s really the wrong direction to go, and not the direction that God required. Instead, God noted that our fallenness was evidence of our need for a Savior.

And so, in his great wisdom, God our Father noted that there was a vast chasm of sin and death separating us from him. To close up that chasm, he sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us, he lived our life and died our death. But his death was not the last word for him or for us, because God raised him up. As God raised him up, he canceled the power of sin and death to keep us from God, and gave us the possibility of new life that lasts forever. That’s the Gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s our heritage.

Wisdom is often personified as the nebulous figure that was with God at the beginning of creation. The presence of Wisdom in that time explains the Genesis account of creation being spoken in the first person plural. “Through him, all things were made,” is the part of the Creed that speaks this truth. Thus, this Wisdom is often equated with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Word. Wisdom personified is often portrayed as a female image, and sometimes even thought to be the female side of God’s human face.

St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the true wisdom of God. Listen to this reading from his first letter to the Corinthians:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:22-31)

Because it really would seem wiser to send a savior who could overcome death without being subject to it, right? But how would that close that gap between God and us? God’s wisdom, which is so far superior to anything we can muster, says that a Savior who walks our walk and talks our talk and suffers pain and sorrow and death is so much more likely to appeal to fallen human creatures who are subject to all those same things. It might appear to the world to be a foolish way to save us, but to God it is wiser than wisdom itself.

C. Wisdom and the Christian Disciple

Which brings us to me and you. What difference does our study of wisdom make to us disciples? For an exploration of wisdom and the Christian Disciple, I am going to turn to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In his treatise, “On Loving God,” he says, “Man must seek in his own higher nature for the highest gifts; and these are dignity, wisdom and virtue. By dignity I mean free-will, whereby he not only excels all other earthly creatures, but has dominion over them. Wisdom is the power whereby he recognizes this dignity, and perceives also that it is no accomplishment of his own. And virtue impels man to seek eagerly for Him who is man’s Source, and to lay fast hold on Him when He has been found.”

St. Bernard makes two points here. First, wisdom directs us to look for the dignity that we have over every other created thing. As beautiful and complex and glorious as all of creation is, humanity has a dignity which holds humanity above and beyond all of it. Our ability to breathe puts us higher than the loftiest mountain. Our ability to sense the world around us puts us above the noblest sycamore tree. Our ability to reason and to love puts us beyond the noblest beast of the jungle. Moreover, we have been given dominion over all of them, to encourage their growth and flourishing, and to direct their living in the world.

Bernard’s second point is crucial. Here wisdom, directs us to realize with great humility that none of this dignity is of our own making. We have been given the dignity that we have as a free gift of the One whose dignity surpasses all of us. As high as we are above all of creation, God is higher than us to an infinite degree. Wisdom tells us that it’s not about us, that the beauty that is us is a gift of and is intended for the glory of our Creator God who breathed that dignity into us as he breathed life into us. We are created in the image and likeness of our God.

But St. Bernard teaches that wisdom looks like something. He says, “Clearly, you pour forth wisdom or understanding from your lips in three ways: if on your lips there is the admission of your own sinfulness, thanksgiving and the voice of praise, and words that encourage.” So we pour forth the wisdom that is ours by creation when we acknowledge that we are a sinful, broken people in need of a Savior. We sing wisdom when we cry out in thanksgiving for our many blessings and praise God for his goodness. And we exude wisdom when we encourage the downtrodden, the broken, the lost, the poor and needy, and help them to find the God who has gifted them with great dignity and worth.

If wisdom is right relationship with God, then we disciples must model that right relationship in the things we do, the words we say, the songs we sing, the prayers we offer and the sacrifices we make.

III. Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament

At this point, I want to take a look at the five books of Scripture commonly thought of as wisdom literature. This is going to be a quick rundown and is not intended as an exhaustive lecture on each of these books, because that’s coming at a later time. Think of this as a preview.

Ecclesiastes may be the most skeptical book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is the Greek name for the central character in the narrative, whose name in Hebrew is Qoheleth. The refrain of this book is the author’s cry of “vanity of vanities, all things are vanity-and a striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 et. al.) The author decries the futility of striving for greatness in this world, only to reach the point of our own finiteness and come to a literal dead end. In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

Proverbs is the book we most often think about in this kind of wisdom literature. The structure of the proverb gives clear direction to life’s basic questions. Many of the proverbs were probably borrowed from other ancient civilizations including the Sumerians and Babylonians, but there are some that are clearly later additions, giving evidence that they came from Hebrew culture itself. Labels within the book itself attribute chapters 1-22 to Solomon, 22:17-24:34 to “sayings of the wise,” chapters 25-29 to Solomon again, chapter 30 to Agur, Son of Jakeh and chapter 31 to King Lemuel. We don’t know who Agur and Lemuel are, but that section of sayings of the wise appears to be an adaptation of Egyptian proverbs. The content of the book ranges from pragmatic secular advice to reflections on the role of God in Israel.

Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, mixes proverbs with lengthy essays on common wisdom themes. These themes include “use of speech, self-control, evil friends, the value of work, death, (and) sickness.” Contrary to the way Proverbs is arranged, Sirach tends to group sayings and essays thematically. The entire book is like a hymn in praise of wisdom. The alternate name of the book, Ecclesiasticus, is translated as “the church book.” Because of this, and because it was not from the time of Ezra or before, most Jews were not comfortable including Sirach in their canon of Scripture. But because it speaks to the ethical aspects of everyday life, Sirach is a book which makes wisdom accessible to all of us.

Wisdom is written as a narrative in the voice of Solomon. It is known only in Greek and may have been the last book of the Old Testament to be written. The audience is Israel in exile in Egypt, and the major focus of the author is to reassure the Jewish community that keeping their faith, despite their many hardships, is worthwhile. Here, the reader can learn wisdom from the study of salvation history, and can hope for immortality as a reward for suffering.

Job is familiar to most of us. Job is a treatise on the meaning of suffering. The book can be divided into five major sections, with the first and last section comprising a religious folktale. In the first section, God tests Job who proves faithful. In the last section, God restores Job to his former greatness and way of life as a reward for his just actions. In between, there are three sections that seem to be a later addition. There is a dialogue between Job and three friends about the meaning of divine justice, the appearance of a fourth friend who challenges Job and the other three, demanding that they bow to God’s greatness and sovereignty, and section four, in which God appears and condemns Job’s demands for justice as arrogant, with Job submitting to God twice. The additions of sections two through four are a move beyond a simple folk tale into a complex treatise of suffering, justice and divine sovereignty. Eventually out of the book’s doubt and questioning, emerges a steadfast trust in God.

In your study of the wisdom literature, you’ll find some wonderful little gifts. Those include:

1. The importance of order for understanding creation and our role within it.
2. The importance of cause and effect, that actions have consequences and good deeds reap rewards.
3. That God is revealed in creation: beauty and order in the world around us can lead us to a greater understanding and appreciation of God in our lives.
4. That in suffering, we can find some meaning. Whether suffering is the result of evil done, as correction or discipline, or as a test of faith, all of it is part the plan of our loving and merciful God.
5. That life is positive. The world and creation are orderly, and there is hope all around us.
6. That we are responsible as stewards and co-creators of the world and all its wonders.
7. The divine plan is known by wisdom to be a gift that is beyond the human capacity to control or understand. We must be faithful to revelation and look to God for true wisdom.
8. Finally, wisdom knows its limits. If God’s thoughts are far beyond our understanding, then we must submit to that and let God be God.

These wonderful little gifts are like treasures waiting to be opened as you delve into the wisdom of God in the Scriptures. Along the way, you will undoubtedly find little lines that you can post on the refrigerator or jot down in a journal. And undoubtedly, as you meditate on them, they will bring you closer to the One who is wisdom itself.

IV. Meeting the Chronicler

Now before you get to your study of Wisdom literature, you’re going to spend some time delving into the books of First and Second Chronicles. So, you know, God help you! You could find the Chronicles a bit dry, so with that in mind I wanted to give you a pastoral tool. Should you find yourself nodding off in the midst of the Chronicles, here are my top ten things you could say if you’re caught sleeping in your CREEDS group:

10. “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”

9. “I think that coffee is decaf after all.”

8. “I wasn’t sleeping! I was meditating on Second Chronicles!”

7. “I was up all night thinking about the implications of Fr. Pat’s Sunday homily.

6. “Darn! Why did you interrupt me? I had almost figured out the meaning of life.”

5. “Boy, that cold medicine I took last night just won’t wear off!”

4. “Sorry. I just spent the last four hours reading the Sunday bulletin.”

3. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was trying to pick up my contact lens without my hands.”

2. “Praise God! I think I just figured out the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

And the number one thing you should say if you get caught sleeping at CREEDS…

1. “We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen!”

All kidding aside, you will find that the Chronicles closely mirror the books of Samuel and Kings. These were originally joined with Ezra and Nehemiah as one single historical work. The Greek name for the Chronicles is paraleipomena, or “things omitted,” ostensibly omitted from narratives found in the books of Samuel and Kings. The primary objective of the author, referred to as “the Chronicler,” was not simply to fix problems with those books, however. The Chronicler realized that the greatness of Israel as a political power, such as it was, was over, and the nation would now be a nation under God or nothing.

Given that new paradigm, it was important for the Chronicler to portray an accurate picture of the nation’s history so that it could learn from its past mistakes and survive. But that accurate history was to be told through a religious, rather than a political, lens. You’ll find the main themes in Chronicles to be a defense of the legitimate claims of the Davidic monarchy in the nation’s history, and a celebration of the greatness of Jerusalem and its temple worship as the center of the religious life of the Jewish community. The Chronicler then is less interested in the political importance of David and Jerusalem than he is in their religious importance. You will perhaps find that as a difference in comparing Samuel/Kings with Chronicles.

One example of this is that the Chronicler leaves out of his narrative of David’s life the painful and humiliating encounter with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to cover up the affair. While the book of First Kings found that an important detail to explain the transition of the monarchy from David to Solomon instead of Adonijah, the Chronicler would see that as a major character flaw for the king who was for him primarily a cultic figure.

The philosopher/theologian Walter Brueggemann said, “Historical persons are never ‘historical’ but always constructions and portraits, partly done for us and to us, and partly done by ourselves, as we are always busily constructing ourselves for the sake of appearance and for the sake of self-understanding.” History has a way of painting the truth into a whatever canvas a culture might need for survival at a given time and place. That may explain for us the difference between the Samuel/Kings history and that of the Chronicler.

So please find in your study of the Chronicles a David that is a great cultic figure who is capable of crafting and singing a book of Psalms, and a Jerusalem that is the place where God himself dwells. And may that study lead you to the song in your own heart, and the place within you where true worship happens.

V. Closing Prayer

As we close today, the best wisdom prayer that I could think of was that of Reinhold Niebuhr, commonly called the “Serenity Prayer.” You may or may not be familiar with the full version of the prayer, but it is really quite beautiful and a great way to sum up what we will be learning about wisdom in the weeks ahead. So let us pray.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

xl christ in the house of martha and mary

Most of the time when I preach, the homily isn’t really for me. There is always something in the Scriptures that speaks to me in some way, but the main message that I receive from God is not necessarily addressed to me. That’s how preaching works: the Word is for all of us, not something the preacher gets to keep for himself. But today’s Scriptures are a little different. They have had something to say to my own spiritual life, and the message has been coming through loud and clear. My guess is, though, that this message isn’t just for me.

I sometimes say about the Scriptures “this is one of my favorite readings.” Today’s Gospel is the opposite. I have always found this Gospel challenging, and it makes me squirm inwardly every time I hear it. Because I’d always like to be Mary, but most every day I’m called upon to be Martha, and that makes me sad sometimes. As I reflected on my first year of priesthood, I found that I had not taken my yearly retreat, and that the only vacation I took was a few days to help my Dad in the days before he died. Maybe you can relate to this. Perhaps you’d like to spend more time in prayer, or reading the Bible, and instead you have to take care of the children, or you end up working late, or you just plain fall asleep from exhaustion at the end of the day. The truth is, some days we are way more Martha than we are Mary and if you’re like me, you feel a little guilty about that.

Back in my first year of seminary, I was in charge of the Liturgies for our class. One day we had a class Liturgy and the Rector of the seminary was the celebrant. I was running around like a madman trying to make sure everything was perfect, and that the Rector would have everything he needed for Mass. When we finally got around to hearing the Gospel for the day, it was this one, and I realized I had fallen into the trap of missing what God was telling me while I was “anxious and worried about many things.” I remember sitting there, thinking, “rats.” So it’s no wonder this isn’t one of my favorite Gospels.

But I have often found when the message isn’t one I’d like to hear, it’s because God is speaking to me about something I need to change in my life. Clearly that’s what’s going on here today. I have also found that when God starts speaking in this way, the best thing I can do is to be still and listen, letting God be God, and trying to find a way to do what he’s asking of me. So maybe all of us who find ourselves a bit too much Martha today can reflect on that message a bit.

First off, let’s give Martha a bit of a break. Because there is a difference between the very legitimate and laudable act that Mary was doing – listening to the Word of Jesus – and just being plain old lazy. Many of us could be tempted down those roads too, and that’s not praiseworthy. You can’t claim to be “sitting at the feet of Jesus” when you’re just trying to avoid doing anything resembling work! And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. Just as Abraham leapt to his feet in our first reading to welcome the three visitors and provide them with a beautiful meal, so Martha had things to do to care for her own guest.

But where Martha went down the wrong path was that she let the details of the tasks of hospitality overshadow the hospitality itself. In doing all the things she was doing, she had actually neglected her guest. Perhaps there was a way that she could have provided refreshment to Jesus in a way that didn’t take her outside his company for so long. Maybe a simpler meal would have sufficed. When the details of hospitality overshadow the guest, then it’s not really hospitality at all.

What’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha and being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. This scripture readings speaks of the service of the disciple, in Greek the word is diakonia, from which we derive our word, deacon. This tells us that the life of the Christian disciple – which is all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ – is about service. What we see in today’s Gospel is that there are two aspects of that service. The first is represented by Martha’s work, and is the kind of service that takes care of what is necessary in order that God’s will would be done: it is a service that reaches out to those in need. The second kind of service is represented by Mary’s work. Her work is one of contemplation: she sits at the feet of Jesus to absorb his words and his presence.

Both kinds of service are necessary in the life of the Christian disciple. The trick is keeping them in balance. Because it is Mary’s contemplation that gives us the spiritual refreshment necessary to reach out to those in need. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts – I know it’s tugging at mine – to get it right.

So we need to make time for both our work and our prayer. We have to give priority to contemplation and Scripture reading and whatever kind of prayer speaks to us just as much as we give priority to the demands of our vocations, whatever those vocations may be. We have to let God speak to us in our quiet and in our activity, and to remember that doing God’s will sometimes means getting quiet and sitting still long enough for him to speak to our hearts. It may take a lifetime to get this right, but as we put effort into our service of God, we too will be choosing the better part, and it will not be taken from us.

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fulfilled in your hearing!

Today’s readings

I want to begin this morning by reminding you of what we just heard in the first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

Did you hear that? He read from the Scriptures from daybreak until midday! So if Mass goes a little long today, there better not be any complaining!

Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks of the Scriptures themselves. This is a time to re-assess what the Word means in our lives. There’s a little story that I often tell about the importance of knowing and living as people of the Word. It goes that a certain person was having some personal problems, and while she had never been particularly religious, she thought she ought to start praying. Not knowing how to do this, she reached for the dusty old Bible on the shelf. She figured that if she could get inspiration anywhere, it was in the Bible. She didn’t know where to start, so she opened the Bible at random, closed her eyes, pointed to a verse, opened her eyes and read: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” She didn’t think that was very good advice, so she decided to try again. This time, opening her eyes, she read: “go thou and do likewise!” She decided to try just one more time, and this time when she opened her eyes, she read, “Friend, whatever you do, do it quickly!”

So many people seem to want to save the Scriptures just for a rainy day, and are surprised when they find that they can’t find the answers to their problems in the first five minutes they have the book in their hands. We are all called to be people of the Word, but that can only happen if we take some time regularly to immerse ourselves in Scripture or even learn more about it. I had a teacher in the seminary who used to tell us to make sure we let the Scriptures “wash over our lives” every day of our life. He always said that if we were in bed and realized we had not opened the Bible that day, we should get out of bed, read a few verses, and then go to sleep. “When you close your eyes in death”, he used to tell us, “you will be able to open them in the kingdom of heaven and know exactly where you are because you will have regularly read all about it.” The Scriptures are our roadmap to a life with God, and yes they will show us the way, but not if we just look in the Bible randomly whenever we’re troubled. We have to be people who read the Scriptures every day.

I would say that even I don’t read as much of the Scriptures as I’d like. Our lives too easily get in the way, and it can’t be that way for us. Vatican II tells us that the Mass is the “source and summit” of our lives. And the Liturgy of the Word, the Scriptures are a huge part of that. Along with the Eucharist itself, the Word is that Source of which Vatican II speaks. It’s in the Eucharist and in the proclaimed Word that we get strength and guidance for our living and that all-important roadmap to a life with God.

There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word. First, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. We see that twice. First, in the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand. It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation. The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading. Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it. He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers. For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response. The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep. The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments. Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy. We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing. We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist. The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers. Indeed, the Word is always intended to be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments. We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily. Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures. Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now! We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation. Of the stories we hear, we have our favorites, and there are stories that move us within, emotionally and spiritually. We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short. We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy. Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us. Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.

I want to try a bit of an object lesson. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. That is true too for all of us who have been Confirmed. So I would ask all of you who have received the sacrament of Confirmation to please stand. Please hear these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison. But I know that some of you go to visit the imprisoned. And for those who don’t, I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison. Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age. Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives. These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting these captives free. You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind. But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort. Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way. You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight. You probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free. But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at Hesed House. You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read. By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.

Those of you standing in this Church have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor. By acting selflessly, can turn things around in your own corner of the world. By hearing and acting on the Word, you can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.

The Prophets: So What?

A lecture given to the St. Raphael Church CREEDS Bible Study
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-13 | Matthew 23:1-15, 29-39

The prophets were all very strange men, it seems. Probably the reaction to them was a little like what we might experience if someone came running up the front aisle of Church on Sunday hollering all kinds of crazy things. We would all probably be a little frightened at first, then confused, and finally a little embarrassed that someone would make such a scene in a public setting. I imagine that’s how the prophets were probably received early on, although they were probably more common in those days. I don’t mean to suggest that all prophets were nuts, although there might have been some of that. And the culture seems to have been more used to prophets in those days, more so than they are now. Sometimes, it seems that people were more annoyed by prophets than anything else. They were strange men, they went against the grain, but we believe they had an important message.

What I’d like to do in this talk is to paint a picture of who the prophet was. What was he like, and what purpose did he serve. Then I want to talk about Jesus as a prophet, and finally reflect for a time on why today we need to have prophets among us.

I. The Prophet

So let’s begin with the call of the prophet. We might like to think they were all immediately responsive when God called them, but the evidence proves this not to be true. There was nothing romantic about the prophet’s job. We can see that in the reading from Isaiah that we just heard. We tend to get all warm and fuzzy about Isaiah’s call right up to the point where he says “Here I am, send me!” But the second part of that reading indicated that his ministry was not destined for wild success. He was to say to them: “Listen carefully, but you shall not understand! Look intently, but you shall know nothing!” And this kind of thing would go on right up to the point where the community was destroyed: “Until the cities are desolate, without inhabitants, Houses, without a man, and the earth is a desolate waste.” On hearing that how many of us would leap to our feet and cry out “sign me up!?”

The same was true of the prophet Jeremiah. Many people, at their ordinations (yours truly included in that), pick the call of Jeremiah for the first reading. Here’s what it says:

The word of the LORD came to me thus:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me, Say not, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, To root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? It implies such a close relationship between God and Jeremiah that God would give him the words to speak and Jeremiah would accomplish great things. But here’s the part we all leave out of those Ordination readings:

The word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see, Jeremiah? “I see a branch of the watching-tree,” I replied.
Then the LORD said to me: Well have you seen, for I am watching to fulfill my word.
A second time the word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see? “I see a boiling cauldron,” I replied, “that appears from the north.” And from the north, said the LORD to me, evil will boil over upon all who dwell in the land.

From the very moment of the prophet’s call, he is told that his words will be essentially without effect. It’s no wonder there wasn’t exactly a great line of people waiting to be chosen as a prophet. In fact, most of the prophets were to some degree or another unwilling to take the call. Moses protests he is not a great speaker, Jeremiah complains about being too young. And let’s not forget Jonah, who was so offended by the call to preach to the Ninevites – the same Ninevites who could rot in hell as far as he was concerned – that he jumped the nearest boat to anywhere but Nineveh and ended up swallowed up by a great fish. It’s a little like being called to be a bishop today. The guys who jump at the offer are usually not the ones who should be doing it, and the ones who would be really good try to avoid it for everything they are worth. Being called to be a prophet was a frightening thing, and one can understand the reluctance of those called to answer the call.

Much could be said about the prophet’s situation, from a political and social standpoint. It’s a bit different for each prophet, depending on when they were actively preaching, but the theme is essentially the same. The kings of Israel and Judah were bad; actually they were rotten to the core. Some were better than others, but generally they are portrayed in scripture as evil, corrupt, and prone to lead the people to false worship and callous disregard for those in need. This started with King Solomon, noted for his humble prayer for wisdom and his building of the temple. But not long after that, we are told he came to love “many foreign women” who turned his heart from the Lord. After that, it all went downhill, with every king worse than his predecessor. A couple of generations into the mess, Abijah, the son of Jeroboam became ill. He sent his wife to consult with the prophet Ahijah, and this is what he was told:

Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I exalted you from among the people and made you ruler of my people Israel. I deprived the house of David of the kingdom and gave it to you. Yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with his whole heart, doing only what pleased me. You have done worse than all who preceded you: you have gone and made for yourself strange gods and molten images to provoke me; but me you have cast behind your back. Therefore, I am bringing evil upon the house of Jeroboam: I will cut off every male in Jeroboam’s line, whether slave or freeman in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam completely, as though dung were being burned. When one of Jeroboam’s line dies in the city, dogs will devour him; when one of them dies in the field, he will be devoured by the birds of the sky. For the LORD has spoken!’ So leave; go home! As you step inside the city, the child will die.” (1 Kings 14:7-12)

So, in short, there was no dearth of things for the prophet to preach about. But I want to step back and take a look at the situation of the prophet as part of salvation history. From the point of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, God has been separated from humanity by a vast chasm of sin and death, what one of my professors in seminary – whose diagram I am borrowing for this part of the presentation – used to call “the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death.” The people were unhappy, to be sure, because they were deprived of the ability to commune with God, and they had no hope. And if they were unhappy, God was even more unhappy, and he often tried to do something about it. That was the whole point of the prophets, and they tried desperately to preach to those who were immersed in the whole deep dark yogurt thing. Time and time again, free will would cause the people of God to turn away from him. But they couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned.

Indeed, the prophet was on the hook for proclaiming the truth. Whether or not the people responded, the prophet’s salvation was intimately linked with proclaiming the words of God. If he proclaimed anything else for any reason, like to save his life, he would indeed lose his life with God. Ezekiel is told:

Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. If I say to the wicked man, You shall surely die; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, on the other hand, you have warned the wicked man, yet he has not turned away from his evil nor from his wicked conduct, then he shall die for his sin, but you shall save your life. If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him. When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life. (Ezekiel 3:17-21)

The message of the prophet has two general themes. The first is that false worship is not salvific. When worship translates to nothing more than empty words and meaningless rituals, God is not pleased. No matter how ornate the Temple was or how beautiful the worship, if the worshippers went from there to murder and plunder, it was of no value. If they worshipped the Lord in one moment, and sacrificed to the false Baal-gods the next, worship was nothing more than a lie. And God was fed up with it enough to say through Jeremiah:

Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the LORD. You may go to Shiloh, which I made the dwelling place of my name in the beginning. See what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have committed all these misdeeds, says the LORD, because you did not listen, though I spoke to you untiringly; because you did not answer, though I called you, I will do to this house named after me, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, just as I did to Shiloh. I will cast you away from me, as I cast away all your brethren, all the offspring of Ephraim.

And to Jeremiah, God said,

You, now, do not intercede for this people; raise not in their behalf a pleading prayer! Do not urge me, for I will not listen to you. (Jeremiah 7:9-15)

The second major prophetic theme is God’s deep concern and care for the dispossessed in society, namely widows, orphans and resident aliens. Widows had no standing in the society of the time because they did not have a husband to defend and provide for them. Orphans were similarly dispossessed because they had no father. The resident alien was on the margins of society because he or she was not a citizen, and thus had no rights. For these who had no one to care for them, God cared very deeply, and the obligation of society toward these dispossessed goes all the way back to Deuteronomy. In the Laws written in Deuteronomy, we find among other things, a prohibition of taking a person’s cloak or property as collateral on a loan, because it left the poor with nothing. Violation of this law was not trivial, in the prophetic imagination it was a disaster. Listen to Amos on this point:

Thus says the LORD: For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke my word; Because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. Son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name. Upon garments taken in pledge they recline beside any altar; And the wine of those who have been fined they drink in the house of their god. Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorites before them, who were as tall as the cedars, and as strong as the oak trees. I destroyed their fruit above, and their roots beneath. It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, and who led you through the desert for forty years, to occupy the land of the Amorites: I who raised up prophets among your sons, and nazirites among your young men. Is this not so, O people of Israel? says the LORD.

But you gave the nazirites wine to drink, and commanded the prophets not to prophesy. Beware, I will crush you into the ground as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong man shall not retain his strength; The warrior shall not save his life, nor the bowman stand his ground; The swift of foot shall not escape, nor the horseman save his life. And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD. (Amos 2:6-16)

Three things mark the prophets’ preaching on these issues. The first is that everyone is responsible. Even though an individual might not take part in these injustices personally, yet their toleration for it and their own personal sin contribute to the wider societal destruction. This is an extremely important point, and it is a theology that continues in the Church today. Our sins are not just offenses against God, some other person and ourselves. No, each of our sins contributes to destroying the fabric of our world as God made it. The second mark is that the prophets always insist on the urgency of the matter. These are not issues to be discussed and discerned at leisure; they are black and white issues that must be eradicated immediately lest God destroy our land. The final thing that distinguishes the prophets’ preaching is that of high drama. No words are spared when it comes to painting the dire picture of the sins that have led to God’s displeasure, and what will come about as a result of them. The following is from the prophet Micah in which the Lord has presented the case to the people and now demands an answer from them: “O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, from the place of slavery I released you; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The Church has adapted this lament into what is called the Reproaches which are traditionally sung on Good Friday. They go something like this:

My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom: you led your Savior to the cross
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
For forty years I led you safely through the desert. I fed you with manna from heaven, and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
What more could I have done for you? I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Saviour with a lance.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!

It goes on like that for a while. Suffice it to say that if you don’t feel guilty after hearing the Reproaches, you’re just not capable of that emotion!

Before moving on to Jesus as prophet, I want to touch on one other aspect of the prophet’s life, the area of loneliness and misery. Heschel in his book says, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach. He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal (Heschel, 21).” Indeed, Jeremiah is very poignant on this point:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. Yes, I hear the whisperings of many: “Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!” All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. “Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.” (Jeremiah 20:9-10)

This takes us right back to the prophet’s call, doesn’t it? If he had been unwilling, he was still compelled to speak on behalf of the Lord. There was no turning back, or the very words would weary him by being held in and would eventually burst forth from his lips, achieving the end for which they were intended.

II. Jesus as Prophet

So now let us take a look at Jesus as prophet. Before we go there, we must acknowledge the important “transitional prophet,” St. John the Baptist. John is commonly acknowledged to be the end of the old prophecy and the beginning of the new. He preached repentance and administered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But he always taught that he was not the new focus, that there would be one who came after him mightier than he, whose sandal straps he was not fit to unfasten. He acknowledged at the end of his ministry that we must now look to Jesus:

Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew 13 about ceremonial washings. So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.” John answered and said, “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said (that) I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:25-30)

When Jesus did increase, then, what was his message? Well, we now have that in a nutshell as the third luminous mystery of the rosary: The proclamation of the kingdom of God with its call to repentance. Jesus’ prophetic concern was pretty much the same as that of the prophets. He was, like them, concerned about authentic worship: worship that was from the heart, worship that did not end after the worshippers went forth in peace to love and serve the Lord, worship that translated into action on behalf of the poor and needy. He was concerned about those dispossessed, preaching that whatever we did to the very least among us was done to our Lord himself. But even there, he ups the ante, doesn’t he? He doesn’t just testify on behalf of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien; no, he goes one better and says that however we treat them is the way we treat him. Ministry to those in need is deeply personal to God, and we can see that in the way that Jesus preached. All of his actions backed up his words. He would heal and feed and care for the needy, no matter what day it was – Sabbath or not – and no matter how other people perceived his actions. In the end, of course, he was willing to die for what he preached, and willing to die for those to whom he preached and ministered. Jesus is kind of the “ultimate prophet” whose whole life, words, actions and everything, was prophecy.

Worthy of some special note is the issue that was brought up in the Gospel reading I proclaimed at the beginning of this talk. Jesus, as we know, throughout his public ministry, had an ongoing issue with the Scribes and Pharisees. These people were scrupulous about keeping the over 600 laws that bound them, and keeping them to the “t.” More than that, they were scrupulous about being sure that everyone else kept these laws also. Jesus’ issue with them was that they obsessed about the Law, but ignored its spirit. Because of this, Jesus puts them in the same class as their ancestors. Let’s hear it again:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth, from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23: 29-35)

Because of their own indifference to authenticity in worship, because of their own neglect of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, they are held in just as low esteem as their ancestors, who furthered their crimes by murdering the prophets. Because the Scribes and Pharisees are no better than their ancestors, they are complicit in the murder of the prophets and liable for judgment on that crime.

The most important point on the issue of Jesus as Prophet is that his prophecy is the key to our salvation. Let’s return for a minute to the image of the “deep dark yogurt of sin and death” that I brought up earlier. Blocked, as we are, from access to God because of this chasm of sin and death, we had no hope. But, on December 25 of “Year Zero,” if you will, God sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us and walked our walk, talked our talk, and died our death. Then he rose to new life that lasts forever, completely canceling the effect of the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death, and giving us the ability to live forever with God. This is the Gospel message, friends, and the whole plan of our salvation. That Jesus was part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world from the very beginning is central to our faith. That Jesus’ prophecy was the final answer to what power would reign for all eternity – death or life – can never be disputed. Jesus is for us the ultimate prophet!

III. We Need a Prophet

This is an important point for us, brothers and sisters, because we need a prophet. Has the proliferation of inauthentic worship diminished over the years? Certainly not. How many people come once a week for barely an hour and then go and do their own thing in the parking lot, in the workplaces, schools and communities? How many people come only on Christmas and Easter and barely even immerse themselves in the Good News of Salvation? How many people cannot be bothered to miss a soccer game or softball practice or whatever activity it may be, to come to Mass and worship our God who gives us all of his time? There is no dearth of inauthentic worshippers, to say nothing of non-worshippers, is unquestionable. Who will speak to them?

What about concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien? In our time they may look more like the single mother, the abused child and the homeless person, but they are all here among us today. It’s just another flavor, or better still, another development of the same poverty, isolation and marginalization. Does God care less about them than the dispossessed of old? Of course not. But how often are they cheated, dealt with as a nuisance, or simply ignored? Who will speak for them?

If you take nothing else with you from your study of the prophets, take this: you need to be that prophet. Study well the prophets of old, but then remember that you are called to be the prophet of the new. Every one of us who would be a disciple of Jesus is called to live a prophetic life of faith, hope and love. Every one of us is called to live the prophecy of Jesus by, as another of my seminary professors used to teach us, loving what Jesus loved while he was nailed to the cross, and by despising what Jesus despised and he hung there in agony. We must make it our constant care to live the way we worship, and to be advocates for the marginalized. If we don’t, we will have learned nothing from the prophets of old who cry out to us from the great cloud of witnesses. And if we don’t, we will have laid down the cross and walked away from discipleship. We are God’s prophets now, and our preaching is in the living of the Gospel. May the words of that Gospel burst forth from our lips as vehemently as the prophets of old. May the living of that Gospel take the form of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Lord God,
your word of life gives us a new birth.
May we receive it with open hearts,
live it with joy,
and express it in love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

St. John Chrysostom

Today's Readings

John Chrysostom was a desert monk, living a harshly ascetical life, but a life that was fulfilling for him.  After twelve years of service as a priest in Syria, he was brought to Constantinople in an imperial ruse to make him bishop.  Even though the beginnings of his episcopal service were thus clouded in intrigue, his service as a bishop in one of the most important sees of the Eastern Church was incredible.  He quickly made efforts to clean up the Church, deposing bishops who had bribed their way into office, and refusing to become beholden to any political authorities.  His preaching was the hallmark of his service.  He was called "golden-mouthed" and his sermons were steeped in great knowledge of the Scriptures and spiritual insight.  Some of his sermons were over two hours!  (But, don't worry, I'll try to keep this one under an hour or so…)  He tended to be aloof, but energetic and outspoken, especially in the pulpit.  Soon he began to draw ire from the politically powerful, and was falsely accused of heresy.  The Empress Eudoxia finally had him exiled, and he died in exile in the year 407.

John Chrysostom was a great preacher of today's Gospel reading.  Against the politically powerful and those who bought their place in society, he preached "woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are filled now, woe to you who laugh."  Against religious leaders who were beholden to the politically powerful, he preached "woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way."  Far more significant, though, is that he lived the beatitudes, and lived as one who was truly blessed when "people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil."  He knew that the most important judge of his ministry did not sit on an earthly throne, but rather had Kingship in heaven.  And he knew that even death in exile was not too great a price to receive the heavenly reward.

Our task is to live those beatitudes well.  We are blessed when we are poor, because the riches of God are incomparable.  We are truly blessed when we hunger, because only God can really fill us.  We are blessed when we grieve, because God can comfort us and give us true peace.  We are blessed when people hate us, because God's love is beyond all price.  There is a price to pay for all this blessedness, of course.  We may, like John Chrysostom, suffer the ill thoughts of others.  We may not have everything we hunger for in this life.  But we must be confident that living the Beatitudes will lead us to the rejoicing and leaping for joy of which Jesus speaks today.

Lord, let our eyes be opened.

As they left Jericho, a great crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “[Lord,] Son of David, have pity on us!” The crowd warned them to be silent, but they called out all the more, “Lord, Son of David, have pity on us!” Jesus stopped and called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They answered him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight, and followed him.

Matthew 20:29-34, NAB

As I read this pericope tonight, the plea “Lord, let our eyes be opened” really caught my attention. I think this is because I’ve more often seen the phrase rendered as “Lord, we want to see!” And there is a difference, I think. To me, saying “Lord, let our eyes be opened” in some ways is a plea for a correction to a willful problem. In other words, if they were merely blind, Jesus giving them sight would be a correction to a problem that came through no fault of their own.

But saying “Lord, let our eyes be opened” implied to me this evening that their eyes were willfully closed. Jesus implies this in John’s Gospel in the healing of the man born blind. He tells the Pharisees, who asked him to clarify whether he was inferring that they were also blind: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

But the two blind men here have a bit of an advantage, I think, over those Pharisees. The Pharisees insisted that they could in fact see, where these two acknowledge that they cannot. Spiritually, they are in a better place because they know their blindness and further, they wish to have it corrected, although it seems they cannot do so on their own. Still, knowing that one needs help is far and away better than insisting there is no problem. So these two blind men do indeed have their eyes opened, while the Pharisees in John’s pericope remain culpably blind.

I could ruminate about the areas of blindness in my own life, and they are legion to be sure. But I don’t think that’s the message this time. Instead, I think the message has to be that it’s important to know when we are in spiritual danger and seek help in that time of need. We cannot deny that sort of blindness, as the Pharisees did, or we have no hope whatsoever of being healed.

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