Archive for Gospel of Mark

Into the Woods: The Gospel According to Mark

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

into the woodsI have loved the work of the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim for years. This is in large part thanks to my college roommate and best friend Andrew who, in addition to also studying theology, had two minors: accounting and theatre. The latter field of study was a passion of his and it was over the course of four years that I had a the view of a front-row seat to his dedication and commitment in studying the great works of the stage. It was he who really helped me to appreciate the genius of Sondheim (long before Johnny Depp played starred in the cinematic version of Sweeney Todd). He introduced me to lesser-known and under-appreciated Sondheim works, including my favorite: Assassins

Whenever I hear today’s Gospel I think of Sondheim and perhaps one of his greatest, or at least most-loved, musicals: Into the Woods. I haven’t yet seen the Disney adaptation for the movies (you know the one, starring Meryl Streep, among others), but I’ve seen several iterations of the show on stage. The first time was when my college roommate was cast in our university’s (surprisingly impressive) student production of the show. For those who are not familiar with the musical, it is performed in two acts and features several famous fairy-tale characters — Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood.

In Act I everything seems to be coming together. From the opening narration with each character expressing what it is that “I wish” in song, to the end, it seems that when the curtain falls everything has finally come together. In fact, the chorus closes the Act with the memorable line: “Into the woods, and out of the woods, and happy ever after!” to great fanfare.

Yet, from the first moments of Act II — which begins with the narrator’s introduction “once upon a time…later” — it is clear that everything is not as it had originally seemed. The whole perfect scene in each fairy tale begins to unravel. Disarray ensues, confusion follows, feelings and persons are hurt, no one is happy, let alone for ever after!

And it is this structure, this performative framework that reminds me of Mark’s Gospel.

Those familiar with the structure of the Gospel know that our reading today comes from right in the middle of the book (Mark 8:27-35). Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus has been introduced, has performed miracles and preached, has invited the first followers, and it seemed like nobody was really getting it. The disciples, predictably clueless, are like the fairy-tale characters: they think they understand what they want and what Jesus is about and what they’re doing. But they don’t.

That is, until this moment of luminous clarity that comes in Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is The Christ! Alas, the disciples have indeed gone into the woods and came out of the woods, and perhaps things will be happy ever after!

And…that is, until their understanding of what Christian discipleship is all about unravels.

That is, until Jesus teaches them what we hear prophesied in our First Reading from the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 50:5-9), that the messiah will have to suffer and die.

That is, until it begins to appear that maybe things aren’t as happy ever after as they first thought. Jesus explains to them that:

He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.

It has always struck me as harsh the way that Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan” in response to the apostle’s “rebuking” Jesus in talking so seemingly pessimistically. Who would blame Peter, right? Perhaps he was just trying to be optimistic and be reassuring in the face of Jesus’s ostensible “gloom and doom.”

But what was really going on is made clear when Jesus tells his followers: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” As John Martens reminds us, this distinction is really best understood as the need to move from setting our minds on “human things” toward setting our minds on “the things of God.”

The reference to “Satan” is a flashback to the temptations in the desert when Jesus was confronted with the choices we all have to face concerning comfort, wealth, security, power, and the like. The desire to hold onto comfort and safety, even to his own life, in the face of God’s call to serve the world made Peter appear a lot like one whose priorities were more in line the tempter in the desert than with the Son of God, whom Peter just proclaimed was the Christ.

As Jesus makes clear at the end of this passage:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”

Which, is reiterated in a way in our Second Reading from the Letter of James (2:14-18) in that Christian discipleship demands something of us beyond what our expectations or personal desires may be. 

So often we think we understand what Jesus is saying, what he’s asking of us, what it means to live the Gospel — but far too often we are just stuck in Act I of Mark’s Gospel. We still don’t realize that we don’t realize. We are like Peter and the other disciples, oblivious to our own delusion and misunderstanding.

May not project onto Jesus and the Gospel what we want or desire, but genuinely open ourselves to hear the call of the Spirit, whatever the cost.

Then, at least from the vantage point of God though we might not see it at first, we may truly live happy ever after, I wish.

Photo: File

Missing the Point of the Widow’s Mite

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Today’s Gospel from Mark is a bit more complicated than most people might initially think. The story about the “widow’s mite,” when Jesus and his disciples sit near the Temple and see an impoverished widow put in two coins that in and of themselves are not worth much, but presumably represent a significant portion of the woman’s resources, presents us with a comment from Jesus that has been largely interpreted in one particular way.  Jesus responds to this scene with the line: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” A classic reading of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this may not be what Jesus is really getting at in this passage.

We cannot read the story about the widow’s offering without taking into consideration the few verses that immediately precede this text.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about some systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. This is not simply to contrast the wealthy with the poor, those who have a “surplus of wealth” from which they offer their gifts at the Temple versus those who have only their subsistence from which to draw. No, Jesus is painting a much starker picture that is, in effect, more about the wealthy scribes than it is about the poor, destitute widow.

I would venture to say that if you think that this Gospel passage is about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous, you’re missing the point.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday in full (Mark 12:38-44) is a two-parter. In Act I (to borrow the theatrical division popular with NPR’s This American Life) we see a religious and political system that is run by a few wealthy and powerful individuals in the culture. These are the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, who “as a pretext” to fleecing the poor and the vulnerable “recite lengthy prayers” in show of their religious commitments and to paint the financial exchange as “of God.”

These scribes about which Jesus warns the disciples to be wary use their social location, power, and wealth only for themselves. Sure, Jesus points out, they “give to the church” (to use a modern phrase), but they do so only in the most superficial and painless way. Their real concern is themselves, maintaining their wealth, and shoring up their hegemony at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable of their time.

Jesus clearly condemns this.

Then we get Act II. Here Jesus and the disciples are hanging out across from the Temple treasury, not necessarily on purpose, but they happen to be there and happen to do a little “people watching.” They see what’s going on, who is offering what. And, as if by chance or coincidence, a poor widow (which was, in truth, the only type of widow, because they were often counted among the poorest, most vulnerable, and voiceless in first-century palestinian society — they have no security, no claim on property, no protection, and little resources) comes and puts in a sum that represents all that she has.

This is not an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to lament the disgusting injustice that creates the condition for this scene. The widow’s offering is an illustration of what Jesus was just talking about — the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking such that she apparently feels compelled to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone, say children, that might depend on her.

The real question that lies beneath this Sunday’s Gospel is: What is the reason that someone who has nothing feels compelled to give from that lack to the Temple (or church or charity or whatever)? Who seeks to benefit from this exchange? We know who certainly stands to lose.

A reading of Jesus’s comments that appears to hold the widow up on a pedestal is, I believe, a perpetuation of this injustice that inflicted the widow of Jesus’s time and continues to affect the poor and vulnerable in our day.

A few years back, while reflecting on this reading, I wrote about a New York Times Magazine article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy (“Today’s Parable of the Widow’s Mite“). What this well-researched article revealed was that the super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes. Most absurdly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today — those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy!

Jesus is not endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is (especially when we read the full text with vv. 38-40 included about the Scribes) and challenging us to see the structures that allow this to continue. What can we do to make society and the our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?

Hopefully this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead follow Jesus’s line of thinking and make a difference in our world.

Photo: by Amy Pectol

‘Fun’ and Today’s Gospel: What Do You Stand For?

Posted in Homilies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Have you heard of Fun.? I don’t mean what you do when you laugh and have a good time, but instead mean the popular band whose name is Fun. Many might be familiar with their radio his, “We Are Young,” which seems to be one of the anthems of early summer 2012. Their new album is titled Some Nights, and the title song from the album has me thinking this morning. The refrain to that song has a haunting, if catchy, line that ends each repetition: “what do I stand for? what do I stand for? Some night, I don’t know anymore…”

The reason it’s in my head this morning is because of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel in which a Scribe approaches Jesus and asks him what the  greatest Law is. In essence, he’s asking Jesus “what do you stand for?” And Jesus has a ready response. He’s a good Jew and so he knows what he stands for because every morning he would repeat this prayer/creed of Judaism. It is called the shema and it is what Jesus says in response to this man: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the Lord alone” or, as it is more often translated, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” It is a summary of the monotheistic faith, that which distinguishes the people of Israel from other tribes and that which summarizes so much more about what the Jewish people believe.

In naming the Lord (adonai), the shema implicitly recounts the history of God’s revealing God’s Self as the one who is and will be there for the chosen people. It recounts a personal God who is concerned about and cares for all people and creation. It recounts the promises of what’s to come.

Jesus answers the question of what he stands for with the shema and then takes it a step further. He summarizes what is often considered the second part of the Decalogue: the care for neighbor. How exactly does one love the Lord our God? By loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

This sounds like an easy thing to do, until of course we remember who our neighbor is. Jesus’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke’s Gospel names the neighbor as the unexpected one, the stranger and enemy of the people. It’s the least likely to be considered neighbor, it is the person we would otherwise choose to not love.

What we stand for is what Jesus stands for: loving God by loving all those people we encounter, the ones who are easy to love and the ones who are not so easy to love.

Like the band Fun, we might go to bed some nights not knowing what we stand for anymore, but let us wake up the next morning like Jesus, prepared to respond to such an inquiry with the Hebrew shema ready at our lips, knowing what we stand for and what it means in terms of our actions and lives. Then, just then, maybe we too will be like the Scribe in the Gospel and Jesus can say to us as well: “you are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Photo: Stock

Young Adults and the Church’s Need to Listen

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

So, I know this article in the current issue of America has been floating around online in the digital edition (which comes out a week before the print edition arrives), but I can be a little slow at times, often preferring to read the old fashioned paper format. This morning I read what I might characterize as one of the better articles on Catholic young adults that I have seen in a long time. I am usually very critical of essays about the Millennial generation and spirituality, because so much of it is misinformed, guesswork or caricature. But the essay, “You Are Worthy: Helping Young Adults Learn to See Themselves as God Sees Them,” by Jesuit Richard Malloy (of the University of Scranton), hits the nail on the head and, in what might strike some readers here as a rarity, I pretty much agree with the whole piece.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of the essay is the pastoral illustration that Malloy presents to highlight the disposition of today’s college students to faith and prayer. Here’s an excerpt:

Amy Hoegen, an experienced pastoral minister, was leading a prayer exercise with students at the University of Scranton. She encouraged the group to pray, imagining Jesus right in front of them. “Look Jesus in the eye,” she counseled.

After the prayer time, Amy invited the members of the group to share their experience. One described what happened but studiously ignored the “looking Jesus in the eye” part. Amy asked, “What was it like to look at Jesus face to face?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do it.”

“Why not?” gently asked Amy.

Pause. Shuffle of feet. A glance at the floor. “Oh, I’m not worthy.”

What gave all of us on the campus ministry team pause was the next detail. Amy went on: “And I’m looking around the group, and all the heads were nodding. They all felt that way.”

A few weeks later, Rob, a stellar freshman from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, a student who went on several retreats this year and is involved in many service projects, is hanging around the office late one night (these questions always seem to emerge late at night).

“Yo, Father Rick, how come before we get Communion we say that thing about not being worthy? That really sucks. Man, so many kids today don’t feel worthy of anything. Why reinforce it right when we’re receiving Communion?”

Is the problem that young adults feel unworthy of approaching God? Are the young afraid of getting too close to Jesus? If those are the issues, then pastoral approaches and responses need subtle to radical revision. We need to be asking why the students feel so unworthy and what we can do to let them know they are loved by God and worthy of God’s attention. We need to communicate that they can be in relationship with Jesus and the saints, no matter how good or bad they think themselves to be.

Is it any surprise that young people feel as though they are unworthy in the sight of God with all of the bickering and moral politicking in the Church and society today? Young people turn on the news, read their iPad news feeds and hear the generations ahead of them talk about how morally inferior kids are today and how a culture that has developed (positively in many ways, I would add) to embrace difference and diversity is really a guise for moral relativism and sin.

The Church will continue to fail young people as long as it treats them as broken, horrible sinners first and not inherently good people who were lovingly brought into existence by the Creator. The Church will continue to fail young people when its leaders focus on hate and division rather than love and acceptance. The Church will continue to fail young people when we, as the Body of Christ, continually fail to recall our Baptismal vocation to be in loving relationship with each other and all of creation.

Today’s readings from the Gospel of Mark and the Letter of James offers a powerful critique of the way the Church broadly engages (or does not engage) young adults. There is a blindness to what Jesus came to announce and continues to bring about in the world, we all need our eyes opened to the work of the Spirit in the world, but it doesn’t usually happen immediately. And the Letter of James, in no uncertain language, makes it clear that we must be “doers of the word,” which, as the end of this reading tells us, means caring for one another, especially the outcast, poor and marginalized! (James uses the example of “widows and orphans,” but we can easily read that today as “disaffected and marginalized young adults!”).

The Church most broadly, but especially its leaders, need to listen to hear these sorts of experiences of young adults. When they are made to feel unworthy to even imagine a relationship with Jesus, why would we be so surprised that 80% of them won’t come to Church?

Author Update — There has been some concern expressed in the comments below and elsewhere that this post might be understood as disrespecting the bishops. As the author I wish only to explain that this is not at all the intention and to express my sincere apologies if it was at all taken that way. I am seeking to highlight some of the excellent insights in the America article quoted above and point out the challenges that Fr. Malloy in that essay notes as well as raise some more questions. Today is indeed a challenging time for all Christians, but, as the article above points out, it might be especially challenging for young people. As always, I hope that this forum can be used to raise challenging questions in a respectful atmosphere and advance an ongoing conversation that enriches all sides of a particular issue.

Photo: Stock

A Season of Reflection, a Time for Planning

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Unlike Advent, Lent, Christmas or Easter, each of which has a discernible theme and associated scripture selections that get to the point or ‘hit the ground running’ with the beginning of each season, I’ve always felt that Ordinary Time sputters and stalls in the beginning as the Church transitions into the liturgical time.

This is most apparent to me in what seems like the ostensible smörgasbord of scripture passages that do not present as close a coherent theme as, say, Advent or Lent. Instead, we are offered snippets of epistles, selections of the Gospels and prophetic texts from the Hebrew Scriptures that — at first — appear disconnected.

But today, as I reflected on the Gospel, which seemed to fit this type of category perfectly, I began to realize that it is precisely in the seeming discontinuity that one finds a pattern and quasi-theme that helps situate the text as it also helps orient the reader/listener.

Today’s Gospel from the Good News according to Mark is as transitional a passage as one finds. It comes to us at a key moment in the Gospel narrative between the introduction of Jesus and his mission, exhibited best in his work as a healer and preacher announcing the Kingdom of God, and what is to come in his suffering, death and resurrection.

There are several themes that come across as perennial evangelical motifs that appear in Mark’s account time and again. The theme of Jesus’s occasional withdrawal, often in solitiude. The theme of the powerful deeds of Jesus in the healings and exorcisms he performs as a sign of his malkuth YHWH (God’s reign). The theme of his Sonship, which the demons acknowledge but Jesus silences, that is found in both the very beginning (1:1) and the end (14:62; 15:39) of Mark’s Gospel.

What at first seems to be immaterial and irrelevant becomes a short story laden with key Gospel themes about who God is and who we are to be. In the season of Ordinary Time, we too are called to withdrawal, often in solitude, to reconnect with God and reflect on where we’ve come. We too are called to work with God to help provide signs to our world of God’s reign and the in-breaking of the Kingdom by our words and deeds. We too are called to recognize in Jesus his Sonship and, through his Sonship, our very filial relationship to the Creator.

As we reflect, we also plan. This transitional passage doesn’t just cull from what came before, but points to the future and anticipates what is to come. So should we. Ordinary Time is not a time of irrelevance or banality, but a time for reflection and planning in the spirit of the Gospel life. Let’s live that life!

The Gospel of Mark (3:7-12)

Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples. A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.

He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him.

He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him. And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.” He warned them sternly not to make him known.


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