Archive for Jesus

Stop Looking for Miracles

Posted in Easter, Scripture with tags , , , on April 11, 2016 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

sea-beach-sunset-clouds-eveningnature-1024x1280Today’s Gospel from the sixth chapter of John (6:22-29) picks up not long after Jesus had fed the multitudes. Some of the crowds have returned to the site of this miracle meal seeking Jesus and looking for what wonderful thing he might do next. When they finally find Jesus, he admonishes them for their misplaced motivations in searching for him. They want more miracles like the meal. They want to be comfortable and entertained.

Jesus answered them and said,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me
not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”

It can be tempting to seek miracles and the kind of comfort the people in the Gospel desired; to imagine a God whose purpose is to verify the existence of the Divine by acquiescing to our individual or collective demands. In an age that celebrates a limited sense of scientific rationalism, we demand signs — “evidence” — to confirm our beliefs. And when we slip into that sort of mentality, we can miss the ways in which the Spirit reveals God’s Self to us in the ordinariness of the everyday (and not necessarily in accord with our imagined definition of what a miracle looks like).

When the people demand signs in today’s Gospel, Jesus responds with a call to look at how God’s will is enacted in the world. We might paraphrase Jesus’s message in a popular idiom by saying: “You want proof? You want real signs of God? Examine your words and deeds to see how God is made present in the world through you and those around you.”

If we want assurance of the presence of God in our world, the seemingly extraordinary acts of divine intervention in nature should not be the focus of our attention. Real miracles, real signs, the affirmation of God’s Grace active in our world — these unfold in the little and big ways that people live the Gospel and do God’s will in lieu of their own self-interest.

Photo: Stock

On Not Being a Stumbling Block to Others

Posted in Homilies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

7109262Scandal. That’s what the translation should actually say in today’s Gospel (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Why the lectionary renders the Greek Skandalon as “sin” in this translation is unclear, but what is clear is that in the original Greek, Jesus is making it plain to his followers that those who — by their actions or words — become an obstacle or “stumbling block” to others are the real problem that needs correction.

It may seem like a minor concern, this business about translation, but the NAB translation in our lectionary proceeds to use “sin” in the bodily examples Jesus names: hand, foot, eye. But, again, Jesus doesn’t actually seem to be so concerned about the individual act of sin as we might imagine it today, nor is he very likely to have been concerned about one’s actual physical body. The verb used here in the Greek is Skandalizein, which really means “to cause one to stumble.” And scholars, such as John Donahue and the late Daniel Harrington have explained that these bodily references are metaphorical, referring as St. Paul does so often in his letters to the corporate body — in this case: The Body of Christ.

With this in mind, we can look at today’s Gospel in a whole other light. It’s not about individual acts of indiscretion or sinfulness (not that those aren’t important), as much as it’s about how we relate to one another and to strangers as members of the Body of Christ.

In today’s First Reading (Numbers 11:25-29) we have an interesting story about the bestowal of the Spirit upon those selected to continue Moses’s prophetic ministry to the people of Israel. As it happens, two men who were not at the event where the Lord was said to bestow the Spirit upon these ministers nevertheless began prophesying. Those who were counted among the ministers became very upset and insisted that Moses stop them, for these guys were not “allowed” to be speaking on behalf of God and prophesying.

Moses replied: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

The self-righteous seem convinced that they should be arbiters of who is in and who is out of God’s favor. These two prophets might not have been part of the official ceremony of commissioning, but their deeds and words reflected true reception of God’s Spirit. So often religious people are concerned about who is in and who is out of God’s favor, who should be admitted to ministry, who should be welcome at the Table of the Lord — yet, it is clear in Moses’s response that this is not what is important to God. God wants all people to be prophetic followers of the law and God’s will.

A similar scene plays out in today’s Gospel.

Like Moses, Jesus is nonplussed with the idea that people other than his self-identified followers are out and about doing good works and preaching the Good News in his name. The disciples, self-appointed first-century “brand managers” of Jesus, find it annoying and intolerable that those who are not part of their “in crowd” can still be able to perform good works in the name of Christ.

One of the easily overlooked clues that their behavior isn’t really concerned with Jesus as much as it is with their own status as the arbiters of who is in and who is out comes when John reports the news to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Catch that? He says this other miracle worker should be prevented from acting not because he doesn’t follow Jesus, but “because he does not follow us,” that is the disciples!

This guy, like the two of the First Reading, is not part of the “in crowd,” does not have the official recognition of those who like to judge the worthy and unworthy, does not play the game according to the disciples’ rules.

And yet, here he is nevertheless performing good works and proclaiming the Good News. Because, in truth, he is certainly “for Christ” (“There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us”).

Jesus uses the same “us” language in response to John to hammer-home the point of communion (Koinonia), the recognition that it is the Spirit of God that unites “us” and not the arbitrary decisions of the self-selected governors of discipleship. As James has been pointing out in the Second Readings these last weeks, discipleship isn’t determined by what one simply says in terms of their faith, but how it is lived; it is seen in the resulting good fruits.

Returning to the key notion of “scandal” in today’s readings, those who complain to Moses and Jesus might have been upset by the potential “scandal” of someone outside of their “in crowd” doing what they felt they had the right to authorize or forbid. But God makes clear through Moses and in Christ that the real scandal is when the disciples and other “good, religious people” exclude those who seek by their deeds and words to do the will of God.

Within the Body of Christ, these are the “members,” the “limbs” that need to be removed — perhaps only for a time — in order that they do not become a stumbling block for the faith of these “little ones” as Jesus puts it.

In our own time, these readings evoke the many people who fall into the category of the “nones” or “disaffected Catholics” or “former Christians,” who may no longer affiliate with a religious institution, but nevertheless seek to do good work and promote the common good in society. Just because a person is not an official member of this or that church does not mean that he or she isn’t doing God’s Will.

This weekend’s readings really call today’s self-proclaimed followers of Christ to examine their consciences. For the “hand,” “foot,” or “eye” that may need to be removed may be them if their attitude, words, and actions cause others to stumble in their faith and prevent the in-breaking of the inclusive Reign of God.

Photo: File

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

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
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