Archive for Jesus

God is Not a Genie

Posted in Lent, Scripture with tags , , , , on February 26, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

usa-pope-lent-2008Today’s Gospel reading offers us a lot to consider as we move onward in this season of Lent, a time of reflection and evaluation. Like Jesus in last Sunday’s reading, who was “driven out” (ekballein in Greek, the same word that is used when talking about ‘driving out demons’) into the desert, we are “driven out” into a place of discomfort and solitude through penance and prayer. It is a spiritual location that is not so much a physical place, like the deserts of Arizona or Egypt, but an internal location. St. Ambrose of Milan describes this place as the “inner room” about which Jesus speaks when instructing his disciples to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt 6:6). It is a place always with us, but do we enter it? And, in a season like Lent, when we enter it — either by desire or because we have been “driven there” by the Spirit — what do we do?

This morning’s Gospel, also taken from the Good News according to Matthew, is a passage frequently misunderstood (or, better put, frequently misused). It has been interpreted by some to suggest that God is like a genie, a magical and all-powerful being that can grant us the wishes for which we ask, that can give us whatever it is we desire. But this is not the point.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this opening part of the Gospel might lead to the “God-as-genie” interpretation. But it cannot be divorced for the following two parts:

Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.

“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”

The emphasis is not placed on our asking, as such, but shifts to what it is that God does for us and how God, here presented as an analog to a good parent, knows what’s best for us.

It is actually a reminder that, to quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes well you might find / You get what you need.”

What we need is provided for us by our loving God, yet it is we, you and I, that get in the way of that. We mistake what we need for what we inordinately desire, we mistake ourselves for the center of reality and seek to take care of ourselves first. The interpretive key to this whole Gospel passage comes in the so-called “Golden Rule” invocation at the end: treat others as you want to be treated, care for others as you would care for yourself, look out for one another as God looks out for you!

God doesn’t give stones when God’s daughters and sons, you and I, need bread. But we human beings — we who are tempted to often to be “wicked,” as Jesus puts it — we are the ones who interfere with the generosity of God. We are the ones who must align our wills and wants and desires with the vision of the Kingdom that God reveals to us in Christ.

During this time of Lenten reflection, may we be open to the Spirit’s “driving force,” which pushes us into a place of discomfort in order to see the truth of God’s generosity and our call to be agents of the Gospel in this world. May we enter that “inner room” of our hearts to hear this Word and, as we might have heard on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Photo: Stock

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Fr. James Martin’s Book on Jesus: A Great Read

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Jesus-a-Pilgrimage-203x300The book has already hit two bestseller marks on it’s a #1 in the categories of ‘Catholicism’ and ‘Jesus, Gospel, and Acts.’ And the book hasn’t yet been released. It is scheduled for March 11, but I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy to read just in time for the first week of Lent.

Fr. James Martin, SJ’s latest, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne 2014), lives up to the expectations set by his already existing library of well-written, deeply engaging, entertaining, and inspiring books. Having written on themes including his own vocation story, his experience ministering in Africa, his work with a theatre company (where he became close to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), the role of the saints in his life, the place of joy and humor in the spiritual life, among others, Martin returns to the source of Christianity to examine Jesus of Nazareth from a deeply personal perspective and with in typically approachable style.

There are three intersecting threads that are neatly woven together throughout the book. The first is Martin’s personal experience of visiting the Holy Land while on pilgrimage. The story of his own journey to the land of the Gospels is itself an entertaining one, marked as it is by his own resistance to such a trip and the fortuitous encouragement and friendship that eventually made it all possible. He is able to describe, not just the scenery of the Palestinian landscape, but add stories and details that help bring the modern experience of this ancient land alive.

The second thread is the careful scholarship that informs so much of this book. While Martin admits upfront that he is not a scholar nor a professional theologian, he has done his homework and the thirty pages of endnotes are but one sign to illustrate that. The number of notes is not so much the scholarly signal, but the sources and material that he relies upon, which is reflected in both the content and the notes. The book, as it happens, is dedicated to his former professor, fellow Jesuit brother, and recently deceased New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, who was no doubt proud of his brother and former student (Harrington also blurbed to book before embracing Sister Death). Martin relies not just on Harrington, but the work of other important scholars too including Raymond Brown, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Gerhard Lohfink, Elizabeth Johnson, John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Amy Jill-Levine, and so many others. While certainly not adding to the scholarly research, Martin does what few of the academic luminaries he engages can do: make some of the latest research accessible to a very broad audience.

The third thread is Martin’s approachable, personal, humorous, and insightful writing style. Those familiar with his other books will recognize immediately the familiar form his prose takes. While I have enjoyed reading many of Martin’s earlier books, especially his last Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (2012), I don’t think I’ve liked any of them quite as much as his My Life With the Saints (2006) until Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Like My Life With the Saints, this new book has the overlapping appeal of addressing a subject that is important and relevant to so many reader (i.e., Jesus), while also infusing the subject with the life of it’s author. This is, perhaps, the most appealing aspect of the book as a whole. It answers the question: What else could possibly be said about Jesus of Nazareth? Jim Martin’s experience of this one called the Christ is what can be said and hasn’t been said before.

This last point is something Martin addresses early on in Jesus: A Pilgrimage:

…after I explained that the book would focus only on specific Gospel passages, one friend asked sensibly, “What can you say that hasn’t been said?” “Well,” I said, “I’ll write about the Jesus whom I’ve met in my life. This is a Jesus who hasn’t been written about before.” It may be similar to hearing a friend tell you something unexpected about a mutual friend. “I never knew that about him,” you might say wonderingly. Seeing a friend through another pair of eyes can help you appreciate a person more. You may end up understanding your friend in an entirely new way. So I would like to invite you to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way. Or, if you don’t know much about Jesus, I would like to introduce him to you. Overall, I would like to introduce you to the Jesus I know, and love, the person at the center of my life.

And he does.

Following a generally Gospel-based chronology, Martin leads the reader on a pilgrimage through the assumed historical timeline of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, selecting (as he stated he would) certain key passages upon which to reflect most fully. Even a book just a bit over 500 pages cannot cover everything (the New Testament scholar John Meier has been working for more than two decades on his multi-volume series on the Historical Jesus titled A Marginal Jew, each volume of which weighs in at more than Martin’s singular project on the subject).

Each of the chapters bears the trifold mark highlighted above of pilgrimage, a foundation of sound scholarship, and approachable writing. As someone who is an “academic,” I admit that I approach reading books about theology and scripture aimed at popular audiences with caution and hesitation. It’s just too easy for the seemingly arcane and esoteric, but important, details about this or that doctrine or this or that historical event or this or that word in Greek to become confused in translation. This is something I myself have struggled with in writing books like my latest The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). It is not easy to find the right combination, yet Martin certainly has here.

One of the subjects that comes across as a central Christian tension — indeed a real tension about which most Christians might not always be aware — is that between the so-called “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” Martin explains early on in the book how he will address this tension throughout the book:

Moreover, Jesus is always fully human and fully divine. That is, Jesus is not human during one event and divine in another, no matter how it might seem in any particular episode of his life. He is divine when he is sawing a plank of wood, and he is human when he is raising Lazarus from the dead.

It is the Catholic “both/and” view that holds the tension up as both a reality and struggle, yet affirms the central doctrinal claim of the Incarnation. The materials that Martin brings into dialogue with the various Gospel passages explored throughout the book helps the readers to appreciate both dimensions of this Jesus called the Christ.

This review could go on and on with additional details and descriptions of passages throughout the book, but I suppose the ultimate message I have to offer is that this book is definitely worth reading and for a whole variety of audiences. For those who might not have an academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve to offer a richer context for Gospel passages frequently encountered in the Liturgy and in private study, but often misunderstood. Martin gives helpful, yet non-intimidating, exegetical references along the way. I could imagine this being a great book for parish faith-sharing groups (although the book does lack in-chapter reflection questions). For those who have more (or a lot) of academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve as a grounded yet lighthearted and personal refresher, living up to Martin’s goal to offer another view of a mutual friend.

While there are many underlined passages in my copy, I have to say that one of my favorite has little do with Jesus per se, but with a passing reference Martin makes to when Ignatius Loyola made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only to be kicked out by the Franciscans, who have been the guardians of the sites for centuries, because they didn’t think it safe for Ignatius to be there. It seems especially funny in an age when the Bishop of Rome is a Jesuit who took the name Francis.

Photo: HarperOne

Fulfilling the Law: Bottom Lines and ‘Pieces of Flair’

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

bottom-line-freight-costs-savingsThe reading from the Gospel according to Matthew this Sunday (Matt 5:17-20) is, in addition to being one of those lengthy pericopes that lead to the young and old alike grumbling about “when will this Gospel end so I can sit down,” a very important text that is also oftentimes misread and misunderstood. The key to understanding the multiple antitheses that are presented by Jesus is found at the very beginning of the Gospel today: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come to to abolish but to fulfill.”

The recently deceased Jesuit scripture scholar, Daniel Harrington, keenly draws out attention to the misreading of this passage that Jesus warns against. Too many see a dichotomy or a distancing of the Christian instruction from the Old Testament law here, yet such a reading flies in the face of Jesus’s own explanation. This is not about how wrong the Jewish people had it and how right the Christian community will get it, quite the opposite. This is about God’s self-disclosive love that follows on the heels of last week’s Salt of the Earth, Light of the World discourse. To be salt and light means to love in the way that Jesus has loved and to do that means to hold an aspirational view of peace, justice, love, and relationship.

What I mean by this is rather than looking at the (biblical) law as a “bottom line” in the spirit of American jurisprudence in which transgressions or violations of the law are marked by the lowest common denominator — you’re a good Christian, until you cross this particular line and then it’s a sin!  — Jesus is advocating for a different vision, one that reflects God’s desire and plan for full human living that is seen in a hopeful way. I liken this to an “open roof,” aiming upward, rather than limiting one’s sense of sin and right relationship with a ceiling or focusing downward on the “bottom line” of the behavior most minimally acceptable.

Each of these themes that Jesus discusses — murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce, oaths, reactions to evil, loving enemies — are themes that everybody encounters. How easy would it be, with a “bottom line” approach, to say to oneself: “I am a good person, I haven’t killed anybody, therefore I’m not ‘liable to judgement!'” Yet, Jesus is making the point that we are all sinners and fail to live up to what it is God intends for us.

Sure, it is very unlikely that you or I will murder anybody, but how often do we hold anger toward another, feed our lust for vengeance after we’ve been hurt or wronged, desire ill for another, and so forth? My guess is: pretty regularly!

If we take the roof of our limited expectations off the house of our own making, and stop looking down to make sure we’re standing above the floor of lowest expectations, we realize that God is inviting us to be more and better. There are plenty of ways that we can grow in our faith and in the practice of our relationships, but are we just content to maintain the minimum or are we willing to aspire to something more, something more like God’s will rather than ours, something more like the fulfillment that Jesus is talking about today?

I’m reminded of the scenes in the popular cult film Office Space when Jennifer Aniston’s character, a woman who works at a generic chain restaurant the likes of TGI Fridays, gets into some heated discussions with her supervisor about how many “pieces of flair” she should have on her waitress uniform (see clip below). Pieces of flair are buttons, pins, and various other “fun” items that are attached to the uniform and by which one’s ostensible enthusiasm for and commitment to providing quality service. The non sequitur and absurdity of “pieces of flair” notwithstanding, the attitude that Jennifer Aniston’s character has in this scene comically illustrates this “bottom line” approach, looking down at what one must do and be instead of what one should aspire to do and be.

Jesus is dealing with us, the Jennifer Aniston characters, who want to be told what the minimal requirements are to be “in the good” with God. Jesus challenges our presuppositions in this way, forcing us to come to terms with the fact that we are capable of so much more than the “bottom line.” We should all aspire to be more Christ-like in our living and loving. We should want as many pieces of flair as our particular circumstances allow, not because it’s required, but because we are enthusiastic about God’s will and proclaiming the Kingdom of God with our words and deeds (and flair)!

Photo: File

Authority, Authenticity, and Leadership

Posted in Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JP-VATICAN-1-superJumboThe combination of recent reports of Pope Francis’s decisions in addressing Vatican leadership crises at the curia and today’s Gospel taken from Mark 1:21-28 about Jesus’s ability to speak as one “with authority,” has me thinking about what it means to be a Christian today and to do so with authority.

Today’s Gospel begins:

Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers,
and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The scribes, those who were something like our modern-day Canon lawyers or perhaps even some ecclesiastical bureaucrats, spoke with an authority that came from interpretations of the law and the exercise of power in a traditional way. Jesus was often critical of those in positions of religious leadership because he saw certain inauthenticity in their words and deeds (think of the admonition about bowls clean on the outside but dirty within).

Jesus comes onto the scene and the people were “astonished at his teaching” not because he was some sort of brilliant legal expert or politically well-connected or had some impressive credentials. His teaching shocked hearers because it bore an authority rooted in an authentic embrace of God’s will demonstrated by both word and deed. His ministry of healing, of forgiveness, of love, of reconciliation, of mission — this is what conveyed an authority novel to those used to the old forms of religious leadership.

Nearly two-millennia later, Pope Francis appears on the scene. The Bishop of Rome has captured the attention of the whole world, teaching and acting “as one having authority” and not as those who have typically been in similar positions of leadership.

Pope Francis is, to be clear, not Jesus. He is a priest and a bishop, like so many others. However, what distinguishes him is the way in which he can convey a sense of authenticity in his words and deeds that demonstrates a leadership and authority more akin to Jesus’s than to that of the typical curial bureaucrat or ladder-climbing cleric. And he’s not only teaching with words, but acting with this astonishing authority.

Today the New York Times reported:

To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.

The response has been striking, eliciting for me an image of what the pharisees and scribes must have felt when Jesus was exposing the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of so many of them. The Times article continues with a comment about the way in which some of Pope Francis’s decisions to restructure the curia and refocus the attitude and mission of its staffers has been received.

Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.

“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”

It will be interesting to see how this will reckoning will proceed. It didn’t, as history and our faith tradition knows so well, end well for Jesus of Nazareth. It is my hope and prayer that those whose selfish ambition and political aspirations are increasingly spurned don’t follow suit. Pope Francis continues to astonish me with the authority of his words and deeds in the most positive and hopeful ways. May we continue to hear the Spirit who calls us to return to our faith, to the Gospel, to the authority of Jesus that heals rather than breaks, that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that reveals the merciful and compassionate face of God rather than the selfish ambition of individuals.

Photo: NYT

Creation, Love, and the Mercy of God

Posted in Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on November 3, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

earth-spaceThe season of Ordinary Time is winding down as we head into the new Liturgical Year in just a few weeks. Our readings over these last few Sundays have been shifting from the explicit instructions about Christian discipleship, what Jesus expects of the those who follow him, to more eschatological or “end time” themes. This Sunday we see that a little more clearly than we have so far, and it will become more stark as we head to the solemnity of Christ the King at the end of the month.

At first it might be difficult to uncover the connection or eschatological themes of these readings. The Book of Wisdom (Wis 11:22-12:2), from which we have our First Reading, centers on God’s act of creation and the Creator’s relationship to all that exists. This selection opens with an acknowledgment that the whole universe — put even more so each of us — is really no-thing when compared to God’s vastness and incomprehensibility. We are like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, deserving no attention or owed no honor. Yet, God loves us anyway. More to the point, our very existence is in fact a sign and promise of that Divine love.

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?

If we doubt God’s love and mercy, just look at all that remains in existence when it could be otherwise, or nothing-wise. Indeed, “how could a thing remain” unless God willed it?

Although our lack of faithfulness to God, demonstrated in the millennia-old narratives of Sacred Scripture and experienced in our daily lives, should suggest that we be treated like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, God (thankfully) does not think or act as we do. While we are quick to dismiss others and ourselves, God loves “all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made.”

So what is so “end-timey” or eschatological about this? Isn’t this about creation about the beginning?

Yes. But one thing that Christians often overlook is the truth that creation and salvation are one in the same. We can distinguish between the act of God’s creation and the goal or telos of that creation (which is salvation understood as all returning back to the Creator), they are inseparable: you cannot think about creation without God’s loving intention for it to be glorified and brought to completion, nor can you think about salvation without conceiving of God’s original desire for all that exists.

God is not an unjust judge. God is not even a just judge according to human standards (think of last week’s parable). God is a lover and a forgiver, one whose intention is always to draw near to the creation that is loved into existence and to bestow mercy and forgiveness upon it. This is echoed in the closing verses of today’s First Reading, reminding us again of what’s to come: love and mercy for the creation that God is head-over-heels in love with.

But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

The Gospel today bears an unexpected connection to these themes. The calling of Zacchaeus from the tree is usually viewed through the lens of sin and forgiveness, a demonstration of the mercy of God. This, of course, is true. But there’s also something curious going on here in Jesus’s response to the “grumbling” crowd:

And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”

This man, who is both a professed sinner and an outsider, is also “a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus is referring here to what the Jewish establishment in his time would have regarded as an exclusive right and a closed community — you’re either in or your out, Jew or Greek, circumcised or not!

Yet, Jesus is reminding us what is hinted at slightly in the First Reading from Wisdom. All of creation, each and every aspect of what exists, is loved into existence and maintained in existence by God. God loathes none of it and no one.

Salvation is not about being “saved” in some simplistic, in or out, Jew or Greek kind of way. Salvation is about “saving what was lost” in terms of the scattered community of creation. Salvation is about the completion of God’s desire for all creation in the beginning, our cosmic return to God. We members of the human family are all descendants of Abraham, brothers and sisters to each other. But we are also brothers and sisters to the rest of the created order and our goal of salvation remains the goal of all God’s creation (as we also see in Romans 8): the Return to God.

Photo: Stock

Jesus Was Not Such A ‘Nice Guy’

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus-painting_1280_x_1024Jesus was not such a “nice guy.”

This might be difficult to accept at first glance, because the image of Jesus we have today has been so sanitized and packaged as to make wearing a precious-metal cross around one’s neck or identifying oneself as a Christian in public is not a particularly uncommon (nor unpopular) thing to do today, especially in places like the United States. But who is this Jesus that is so immediately attractive, so easy to follow, so much like our own imagining? And, then, who is this Jesus that we hear about in today’s Gospel, who claims to have come to bring division rather than the establishment of peace (Luke 12: 49-53)?

There are at least two reasons we might understand that Jesus was not entirely a “nice guy.” The first is that the Romans, despite anachronistic misunderstandings of their behavior and outlook, did not typically go around crucifying “nice guys.” Yes, while Jesus was without a doubt an innocent man who happened to be crucified, we should not forget that there was a reason that he drew attention to himself and it wasn’t for saying kind things about the way the status quo was maintained. More on that in a second.

The second reason that we can reasonably assume Jesus was not such a “nice guy” is that he tells us as much in today’s Gospel selection from Luke (and we hear it echoed in the synoptic Gospel of Matthew with an even-more disturbing emphasis on not-nice-guyness in terms of Jesus’s claim to bring “the sword”).

It can be difficult to get beyond the seemingly violent message that Jesus appears to convey in his exhortation to his disciples. We might hear in Jesus’s admittance that he didn’t come to “establish peace on the earth” something of an advocation for violence. But that’s not really what is going on.

Likewise, it might seem that Jesus does not respect “family values” (isn’t that an interesting read) in suggesting that those who follow him and live life according the Good News he announces will find themselves among divided families and communities. But that’s not really what is going on.

What is going on is a straightforward, albeit counterintuitive, admission of the risk, challenge, and reality of authentic Christian living that centers on following the Word of God and becoming a prophetic in one’s time and place!

In other words, we are called, like Jesus was, to not be “nice guys” (and “gals,” for those who aren’t Millennials and use “guys” in an inclusive manner).

Jesus did indeed come to bring peace, but it was — as we hear elsewhere in Sacred Scripture — a “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27). The peace that Jesus is talking about here, the “peace” that he did not come to establish, is the kind of peace that we might talk about when we express a desire to maintain the status quo or wish “not to ‘rock the boat.'” It is a kind of “keeping the peace” that eschews “tough love,” or a “challenging voice,” or the “hard truth.” It is a kind of “establishing a peace” that exists according to the wisdom of the world and not the foolishness of God, and rests in the reason of human injustice and not within the Reign of God.

Jesus was crucified, in part, because he did not come to preach a word that kept things the way they were, but instead was sent to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s Reign, which is about the establishment of justice and not the earthly status quo of injustice and violence. In other words, Jesus was not sent to be a “nice guy,” because nice guys don’t rock the boat nor do they upset people by challenging the way things are. And, oh, how Jesus upset certain people who had so much to lose because they had gained all — power, wealth, status, etc. — at the expense of others!

As those who bear the name of Christ and claim to be his disciples, we are called to not be “nice guys” like him. We are not to keep the peace of things as they are, but to open our eyes to the plight of the poor and forgotten, the underserved and abused, the marginalized and those suffering at the hands of others’ greed. And this might mean that we face divided families and communities, unsettling those who are not able or willing to hear the Gospel.

This is not an entirely new concept. It dates back to the Hebrew Prophets, such as Jeremiah, who we hear about in our First Reading. Jeremiah, a reluctant prophet who at first resisted God’s call to preach the truth of God’s justice and peace, is threatened with death by the king. His proclaiming the truth of the world as it really is in contradistinction to the way God intended the world to be is a threat to those in power, who benefit from the oppression of others and the maintaining of the status quo.

Like Jeremiah, we too might be reluctant to take on this mission, but like him and Jesus we have been called by God to do just that, to surrender our desire to be “nice guys” who “keep the peace” of the way things are. Instead, we are meant — by virtue of our baptismal vocation — to preach the Kingdom of God in word and deed, risking greatly.

But how can we do this?

It is certainly not easy, which is why in our Second Reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” we have to provide models and guides for us. This is a way of talking about the Communion of Saints, those who have gone before us and remain connected to us in spirit. They support us as we continue to persevere and “run the race” of Christian living, a marathon to be sure, a journey that is tiring but one that is the most authentic way of being ourselves.

The question we are left with this weekend is to discern what it means to be a Christian. Do we take the risk of being the prophet who speaks the hard truth and does the right thing, or do we prefer to not “rock the boat” and establish an earthly peace that maintains the status quo of violence and injustice?

Photo: Stock

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