March 8, 2015 - Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20.1-17
Psalm 19.8, 9, 10, 11 Resp. John 6:68c
1 Corinthians 1.22-25
John 2.13-25

Zeal is the willingness to kill in order to force people to keep God’s law. In the time of Jesus, zealots were an established group of people who held to this willingness. They looked back to Phineas, the great-nephew of Moses, who stabbed a spear through a man and the woman he was breaking God’s law with. They looked back to Matthais Maccabbees who, when he saw a Jew about to sacrifice to a pagan god on the altar, killed that man on the altar instead. In the modern day we call zealots “terrorists” like those mobs of Muslims that killed and burned because a comic was drawn about the violence of Muslims and their founder Mohammad or because some copies of the Koran were accidentally burned.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is the one with zeal. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Today, unlike any other Gospel reading, we see Jesus with a weapon in his hand. Consider what that looked like: Jesus turning over tables, whipping the sheep and the oxen and their owners, spilling coins all over. This was the Jesus that the zealots wanted. Here he is using violence to make sure that God’s commandments are obeyed.

That is of course the difficulty with commandments. It is difficult enough to obey them ourselves, but when we see someone else who not only fails to obey but actually does not intend to obey, there is a kind of crisis. Will we decide that we do not care? Then the commandments must not be so important after all, so why do we bother trying to obey them? Or we could use violence and threats of violence to oblige the others to keep the commandments, in which case we are a zealot.

Consider the issue of abortion. God says “Thou shalt not kill” but there is murder happening in our country with the permission of the government. A million babies every year are murdered, some of them just one block away from here. What options do we have? If we really believed that abortion is murder, would it not be correct to be violent? If I saw a small child being murdered, I would absolutely use violence to defend them. Yet I hear that murders are occurring every day, 2500 murders a day, and I do nothing. WWJD? Should we make a whip of cords and drive the evil out of our society? Perhaps we should be zealots, like Jesus.

There is another option though. We could turn the other cheek. We could choose to suffer the wrong that others do, never breaking our own commitment to the commandments. In fact, Jesus is showing us today about another way to be a zealot. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal for your house will destroy me. That is not the way that zeal is supposed to work. Zeal meant being willing to kill and use violence, but Jesus is saying that he is willing to be killed, to be consumed. “Destroy this temple”, he says, meaning the temple of his own body.

This is a different kind of zeal, one unknown to the terrorists and the zealots. Instead of inflicting suffering, it chooses to suffer. Jesus came to this earth because we were doing wrong things. He did not come with a sword to compel us to do what is right, though, as he demonstrates today, he could have. He came to die on the Cross.

If the commandments of God were merely arbitrary commands, there would be no way to enforce them except through violence. God is stronger than us, so he can force us to do as he chooses. But this is not how God acts. Indeed, the few times in the Old Testament that God uses violence to enforce his will (the destruction of Sodom, the death of Korah, etc.) only emphasize how rarely that is the case. Usually God does not send fire from heaven to punish the wicked. When Adam and Eve sinned, he made them leave his garden, but he gave them a field to live in. God does not treat us like his enemies; he treats us like his children. And if God will not send fire down to destroy every Planned Parenthood and every other den of evil in this world, he does not need us to do it for him.

No, the commandments of God are not arbitrary; they are for our own good, and disobedience of the commandments is its own punishment. I do not obey the command “Thou shalt not kill” because I am afraid of the legal consequences or because I am worried that God will smite me down. I obey that command because I do not want to be a murderer. I do not want to be a thief. I do not want to be an adulterer or idolater or filled with envy.

When I look at Jesus, I see that he was a great man, and I wish that I could be more like him, not in the miracles he could work or in the following he had but in the way that he could keep the commandments. He lived his life like someone who knew the purpose of living. I wish I could be like that. He did not come to this earth to force me to be like him. He does not have to. I want to be like him, though I am too weak to be very much like him.

Once upon a time the sun and the wind got into an argument about who was stronger. They decided to settle things with a test. “Let us see who can force that man over there to take off his coat”, said the wind. The sun agreed. So the wind blew with all its strength, but the harder the wind blew, the more the man held on to his coat. Then it was the sun’s turn. He shone down strong and soon it was very warm and the man removed his coat.

The Zealots had zeal but violence is not convincing. Jesus knew that if he suffered and died for my sins, I could not resist loving him. This is how the weakness of God is greater than the strength of the human. I do not need God to force me to keep his commandments, though I do need him to help me. If someone tried to violently force me to follow a religion, I would resist, but since someone loved me so much that he was willing to die to save me, I am very interested in learning more about that love.

March 7, 2015 - Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Micah 7:14-15, 18-20
Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” This line is kind of funny, but it is an accurate depiction of how we try to bargain with God. If the father is running any kind of responsible household, he will immediately turn down this job application. Not that it is even an application. The son presumes that he is doing something very humble by saying, “treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers”, but it is a very arrogant statement. He is commanding the father to hire him.

The son cannot be hired as a servant. He can only be accepted back as a son. We can never earn our way with God. If he wants servants, he has the angels. We can only be accepted as children of God. A sinner trying to come back to the Father can never make up for their sins, but they will always be a child of God.

The other son is also thinking like a bad servant rather than a son. He has never accepted the mission of the father as his own. The joys of the father should be the joys of the son. The sorrows of the father should be the sorrows of the son. God’s family is different than human families: we are never going to grow up and move out on our own. We need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Jesus became like us in all ways but sin, so we must become like him in all ways we can. We must become sharers in the divinity of him who shared in our humanity.

All our labors in this world will be useless if we have not first conformed our will to the Father’s will. If we are secretly working for ourselves, we will build up resentment at God. If we want to be saints (and we do want to be saints) then we must give up any idea of progress in this world, any expectation of young goats, and take on the mind of Christ. Accepting our role as sons and daughters of our Father means seeing as God sees and loving what God loves, without jealousy or ambition. We cannot be independent and we cannot be servants. We cannot be anything more or less than children of God.

March 6, 2015 - Friday of the Second Week in Lent

Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28
Psalm 105:16-21
Mathew 21:33-43, 45-46

Perhaps you have noticed that this week, we have seen a lot of death and almost-death. Abraham was going to kill Isaac. Yesterday, Lazarus and the rich man both died. Today, Joseph’s brothers were going to kill him, the favorite son of Jacob, and, in the Gospel parable, the landowner’s son is killed. This all culminates tomorrow in the parable of the Prodigal Son whom the father says was dead and is now alive again. This is all symbolic of Jesus, which his prophesy makes clear. Jesus is the beloved son who was sacrificed. Jesus was our brother whom we killed because we were jealous of how much our Father loved him.

We know that we will die. Some people live with that knowledge more present to them than others. When we are healthy, we rarely think of death. When we are young, death seems as impossible as growing old. Yet death will come. Death is the universal human experience. We speak different languages; we eat different foods; we live under different governments; but everyone in the history of the world has died or will die. Death is a brick wall that no one can go through. It ends every project, every hope, every plan. Is it impolite to speak about death? If we ignore it, will it go away?

No. We will acknowledge death. We will spend 40 days preparing to die, for we are in the season devoted to death. By fasting and almsgiving we are trying to let go of this world. By prayer we are grasping at the world to come. These days culminate in the Easter Triduum, which begins with the dying and death of Jesus Christ. Death is not the end. The Triduum ends in resurrection.

The master sent servant after servant to collect the harvest, but some they mistreated and others they killed, but the master did not give up on the land. He sent his son and they killed him too. What will the master do? He will raise his son from the dead and continue trying to get the fruit he desires. Nothing will stop the master from getting what he wants. He is relentless. He is unbeatable. The love of God is unstoppable.

March 5, 2015 - Thursday of the Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1:1-4, 6
Luke 16:19-31

It is not clear to us exactly where the people in the reading are. We are told that Lazarus “was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” However, Abraham died a long time ago and, as far as we know, went to Sheol, the place of the dead, like everyone else who died. The rich man is in Sheol, but he is experiencing great sufferings, which was not the usual description of that place. We know that he is not in hell, because we see him worrying about his five brothers, whereas hell is a place of complete selfishness.

Perhaps they are all (Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man) in Sheol, but Abraham and Lazarus are in the part where they are waiting for Jesus to come and take them to heaven after he dies, while the rich man is in the part for people who will go to hell. In that case, things are only going to get worse for the rich man. If we would go to hell for being rich, we here are all in trouble. All, except the very poorest people in our country, live a life more luxurious than the rich man. True, we do not have servants, but our food is more sumptuous and our clothes are more impressive.

However, Abraham too was a rich man, and he is not suffering. Perhaps we would say that the problem is that the rich man never helped Lazarus. Abraham, however, does not draw the rich man’s attention to this failure, nor to the disrespectful way that the rich man is still treating Lazarus. He calls him “my child” and asks him to remember the difference between the life of Lazarus and his life. The problem seems to be that the rich man never suffered.

Perhaps the rich man was in the section of Sheol for those who would go to heaven when Jesus came and got them, but who needed to suffer first, similar to what purgatory is now. Before any sinner can go to heaven, they need to suffer for their sins, even after being forgiven. Some people suffer in this life; some people suffer in the next. We should take our suffering in this life and avoid it later. Hours spent on our knees in prayer or days of fasting or serving others who we could avoid all sound better than the torments that the rich man was experiencing.

March 4, 2015 - Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 18:18-20
Psalm 31:5-6, 14-16
Matthew 20:17-28

Jesus always knew what was going on. He was not caught up in events beyond his control. Even before he went to Jerusalem, he not only prophesied his death and resurrection, but even described how it would all take place. When we hear the story of his passion in a few weeks, we must keep today’s Gospel in mind. Jesus did what he did on purpose. Nothing could have been done to him if he had not allowed it to happen. There is nothing he suffered that he did not choose to suffer. This does not take away the guilt of those who betrayed him and condemned him and scourged him and mocked him and crucified him; they also chose to do what they were doing. Jesus, however, must be seen throughout all this as one who came “to give his life”, not someone who had it taken from him.

What does it mean for Jesus “to give his life as a ransom for many”? A ransom is the price paid to a captor for the freedom of the captives. Who is our captor? Satan. Sin. Death. We sold ourselves into captivity for a fruit. We were meant to be free. We were supposed to be kings and queens of this earth. Instead, we have spent the majority of human history in captivity. Satan demanded the life of an innocent man for ransom, and Jesus paid it with his own life. Only he could pay it, because he was the only innocent man. His life could not be taken from him, but he could lay it down. What Satan did not know was that, having laid it down, he could take it up again.

The ransom has been paid, so Satan is forced to release us, if we will be free. Jesus unlocked the door of the dungeon that is sin, but we have to choose to walk out. This should not be difficult, the choice to leave sin behind, but we are enamored with the little comforts that we have found in this filthy prison cell. We must somehow work up the courage to leave! How foolish we look, choosing to stay in the dark, dirty prison, rather than go out into the light. We hear voices, whispering, enticing us to stay. We are frightened of what “going out” means. So we stay, in sin, ransomed prisoners who will not leave their prison.

March 3, 2015 - Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23
Matthew 23:1-12

“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” It seems at first glance that we are guilty of letting a human tradition stand in the way of the words of our Lord. It seems that way at second glance too. We cannot say that Jesus was wrong, and we cannot say that Matthew did not faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ really taught.

There are some little tricks that people use to explain this, but they are not satisfactory. True, we call our male parent, “Father”, but Jesus is talking about titles that religious people take on. True, we do not use the exact word that Jesus condemns, since he did not speak English (the word “father” had not even been invented yet), but this seems too legalistic. Jesus is saying that we should not call anyone by the same name that we use for our male parent, no matter what language. True, Jesus says “call no one on earth your father”, and we do not call anyone “Our Father” except God, but why do we come so close to breaking the command?

However, and this is a big however, the use of “Father” as a title for religious leaders goes back as far as the Church herself. The desert monks of the early Church were called “Abba”. St. Paul himself says that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We did not just discover the Gospel of Matthew yesterday. Even St. Jerome, 1600 years ago, struggled to interpret this verse in light of the tradition. It seems strange that this tradition grew up in a Church which always read the Gospels. The people who first started calling a priest or a monk “father” knew what Jesus had said.

One reason why tradition is so essential in the Church is that the members of the early Church understood better the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. They were closer to him culturally and historically. If they, reading this Gospel just as we do every year, did not think it was a contradiction to call religious leaders “Father” who are we to disagree? But if we do keep calling people on earth “Father”, we do so acknowledging our one Father in heaven. Let us “bow our knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

March 2, 2015 - Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Daniel 9:4-10
Psalm 79:8-9, 11, 13
Luke 6:36-38

In fairy tales, not the Disney versions but the originals, a common trope is that the king will ask the wicked person for advice on how to punish a wicked person. The wicked person misunderstands who the punishment is for and advises a particularly horrific punishment. Then the king tells the wicked person that they will be punished exactly as they said. There is some poetic justice in how the person is forced to suffer their own sentence. I often wondered why they never realize in time that they have been caught and suggest some very light punishment.

Jesus warns us that we are going to suffer this poetic justice. Hopefully, we hear his words in time to save ourselves. If our King asks me how a sinner should be treated, I am going to say that he should be forgiven if he is even a little bit sorry and then welcomed into heaven. These cannot be mere words: I need to start treating sinners that way since that is how I want to be treated. Jesus tells us that the measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. In other words, we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, because that is in fact how it will be done unto us.

When we do something wrong, we are usually quick to talk about mitigating circumstances. It is truly a saint who takes absolute responsibility for their own sins. Even if we accept responsibility for our sin, we who fall far short of righteousness quickly begin to explain why it was not really so bad after all, until we are confessing merely that we misheard or misunderstood or were misunderstood: “I am very sorry that you were offended by what I said.” How rare is the person who can say “I’m sorry” without adding soon after “Although, it was not really as bad as you make out.”

So it is that we are very good about making up excuses for ourselves. We should stop that. But, at the very least, we should start using this marvelous talent with other people. Not pretending that bad is good, but making every excuse for the person who has sinned against us. When someone cuts you off in traffic, presume that they are on their way to the hospital. When someone snaps at you, presume they have a very bad headache. When we measure out punishment, what seems like a tiny dose given to another will look enormous when it is directed back at ourselves.