Monthly Archives: September 2012

Have Salt in Yourselves

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50.

Jesus had a funny habit.  He often encountered those who would try to draw a boundary between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Whenever he ran into these boundaries, Jesus would step on the other side.  He did it with lepers. He did it with tax collectors. He did it with prostitutes and those who were sick and lame and even the Gentiles.  He even crossed the boundaries drawn around the Sabbath. He did it so often that we begin to wonder if there’s a message in there.  And in today’s Gospel, He does it again.

In the first section of this passage, the disciples express their concern that someone outside their circle has also engaged in the healing ministry. It’s at least worth noting that this passage in Mark follows the scene in which the disciples were squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Mark 9:32-34. That story ended with Jesus taking a small child (another outsider in that society) into his arms and explaining that those who welcome such a child actually welcome Jesus and his Father. In today’s reading, Jesus continues teaching his disciples about letting go of their sense of self-importance and widening the circle of holiness far beyond themselves.

We hear the echoes of John’s criticism (he was “not following us”) too often as we hear Christians speak of other believers, other denominations, and other faiths. Jesus wants to “welcome” the children; John is concerned with those who are “not following us.” Jesus affirms even the simplest act of kindness, a cup of water, done in His name.

Jesus sharply contrasts those who offer kindness, who encourage, with those who get in the way of someone’s journey to the Father. Those who scandalize these little ones or cause them to stumble, Jesus teaches that Gehenna awaits them. (Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a ravine south of Jerusalem where child sacrifices to Moloch had taken place.  Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.)  After King Josiah destroyed the altar to Moloch, it became a continuously burning trash, used as a metaphor for the torment of the wicked.

Jesus teaches that we must rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble, even if it’s our hand, our foot, or our eye. I don’t think Jesus is advocating self-mutilation.  He’s telling His disciples to separate themselves from anything that interferes with their path to the Father. He advocates a clear focus on the things that bring us closer to the kingdom of God, even if we must shed ourselves of ourselves.

The closing paragraph may seem strange to our modern ears.  At the time, however, both salt and fire were used medicinally.  They were used to treat wounds; thus, Jesus is saying that everyone will find their healing, their wholeness. To “share salt” with someone, to share a meal, carried with it the implication of fellowship.  The expression “have salt in yourself” meant “be at peace with yourself.”  Salt was also used as a preservative and carried with it the implication of permanence. Jesus thus encourages His disciples (and us) to find our healing and reconciliation by making peace with ourselves, and with our brothers and sisters.

I pray we find that peace, not by excluding others from the circle of holiness, but my looking for God and His kingdom in all times and all places.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Simple Prayer

“O Holy Christ,
bless me with Your presence
when my days are weary
and my friends few.”

From Celtic Daily Prayer.

I have been traveling, and so this will be a brief post.  It’s my hope to offer this prayer for  the intentions of “the sick, the friendless, and the needy.”

Sown in Peace for Those Who Make Peace

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a.

Within today’s Lectionary, the New Testament offers us this wonderful passage from the Epistle of St. James.  We think, but are not certain, that this letter was written sometime around 48-50 A.D. In many ways, James is one of the most “Jewish” books of the New Testament, and echoes with themes and language of the Wisdom literature. Clearly, at this time, Christians were being persecuted by the Gentiles (including the Romans), the Jewish authorities, and sometimes by others within the Christian community.

As to the conflicts within the Church, James observed that many who boastfully claimed to have the authority of truth were motivated by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Real wisdom and understanding, writes James, manifest themselves through gentleness and peace.

Many of us today find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy within our churches.  James doesn’t suggest we resolve that the way the world does, through power and banging a few heads together until people learn how to behave. Rather than the wisdom that comes from the Father, James calls that way of resolving conflict earthly, unspiritual,  and devilish.

James offers a vision of God that suggests a gentle Lord, the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace. Reading James, we might think of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. He outlines the attributes of divine wisdom: first purity, “then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17. That’s the kind of wisdom which might pray “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34.

What would our churches look like if we recognized the willingness to yield as real wisdom?  How would our churches operate differently if we saw gentleness as a quality of Christian leadership?

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace .… And they must not only have peace but also make it.” James suggests that, as Christians, we must not only live in peace; we must create peace. When we decide to live without a trace of hypocrisy, we can no longer preach Christ while engaging in conflict. He calls us to set aside some of our personal righteousness, choosing divine righteousness instead.

If we surrender to God and resist the devil, James tells us, the devil will flee from us.  Our ancient enemy always calls us toward the idea of our own merit, our own righteousness.  In the Book of Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would not die.  Rather, “‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”  Gen. 3:5. In the temptation in the desert, Satan offered Jesus the glory and authority of all the earth’s kingdoms.  Luke 4:6.

James suggests quite a different path:  surrendering to God.  Walking with God in all humility may lead us to a quite different destination than that to which the world points. If we follow it, the world may yet see a sign of hope in the Church, a sign of hope in those who call themselves the friends of God.  And if we draw ourselves closer to the Living God, James tells us that God will draw Himself closer to us.

My Dominican brother Thomas Aquinas instructed us that we were created for just such a purpose: we were made for intimacy with God.  We cannot achieve that kind of intimacy while we are bickering with each other. And we might just discover that a pure love of God leads to an unmixed love of His children.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Evidence of Our Inhumanity

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard the indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.
You say, “But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.” So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.
If it were not for necessity compelling him, why should be behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?
The made-up take of a beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.
That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part. But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.
He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.
John Chrysostom, On the First Letter to the Corinthians, 21, 5.

I found this passage in today’s reading from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: a Patristic Breviary.  The passage is taken from St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople who lived from around 347 through 407 A.D. He was a marvelous preacher and public speaker, who was given the nickname chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed.” He regularly spoke out against the abuse of authority by both political and church leaders. Because of this, he was arrested, exiled and banished several times.

In today’s reading, St. Chrysostom criticizes our lack of charity, our lack of concern and love for the poor among us.  He characterizes this as “madness.” He teaches that our treatment of the poor, our indifference toward them, reflects an indifference toward God. While our wardrobes are full, we ignore these images of God who are naked and shivering in the cold.

Regarding the suggestion that the poor might be exaggerating their plight, Chrysostom turns that argument back on us.  He suggests that the poor would not do so but for our cold-heartedness.  (We still hear a related version of this suggestion today: that the poor do not merit our help because they are lazy or comfortable and have chosen their life.) St. Chrysostom responds that it’s unlikely that people voluntarily chose to surrender their dignity.  More likely, he says, any exaggeration is simply meant to overcome our natural indifference.

On occasion, I’m at the my church kind of late.  Now and then, someone will come in asking for money.  I have to admit that I sometimes confront a voice in my head that says, “You’re being played for a sucker here.”  But I think St. Chrysostom would remind me that even if that’s true, that’s none of my affair.  That’s between them and God.  The choice before me, rather, is whether I want to overcome that skepticism with charity.  I hope I’m willing to run the risk that, when I die, someone might write in my obituary that I sometimes loved foolishly. I hope you are willing to take that risk too.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Spiritual Danger of Loose Talk

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James 3:1-12.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, Jesus warned us that we are defiled, not by the things we put in our bodies, but by the things that come from within.  Mark 7: 20-23. In the Epistle reading from last week, James cautioned us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. James 1: 19. Today, St. James amplifies on the grave dangers of our speech, especially for preachers and teachers.  We can almost hear the echo of Isaiah, who spoken of himself as lost, “a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips….”  Isaiah 6:5.

St. James uses three powerful metaphors to describe the power our speech possesses.  He compares it to a bridle which can take control of a powerful horse, a rudder which can set the course for a large ship, and a tiny spark that can consume an entire forest.  He calls our tongues “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

James particularly abhors our duplicity. He notes the scandal of using our tongues to praise God and yet curse the children made in His image. In the following chapter, James describes this dangerous deceit as being “two souled” (dipsychos).  James 4:8. Elsewhere, he calls this being “double-minded”. James 1:8. We find examples of this in Christians (perhaps ourselves) who use speech to malign, to gossip, to attack, to humiliate and to condemn. In recent events in the Middle East, we have all seen the consequences of hateful speech, and counted the costs associated with it.

Rather than such duplicity, James calls us into “the word of truth.”  James 1:18. Such words (words of healing, encouragement, forgiveness and reconciliation) call us back from the brink, and back to a sacramental style of living. The Epistle to the Ephesians called this speaking “the truth in love.” Eph. 4:15.

We need to be aware of the toxic power of speech to separate us from God’s children and from the Source of all holiness.  It’s worth noting that, in the Book of Genesis, God spoke the world into creation.  We might wonder what sort of world we are speaking into existence.  Those who follow Christ must immerse themselves in the vocabulary of grace and the grammar blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Our Common Prayer

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the human soul.  We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community of prayer.
It is not safe to pray alone.  Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of community; that public worship is preferable to private worship.  Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other.  To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both….
[The] truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety….Our relationship to [God] is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a devotee of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  One of the most profound thinkers on prayer and spirituality in the last century, perhaps in any century, Heschel always leaves me with a sense of wonder. I took this reading from his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God. He observed that prayer constituted “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

In this reading, Rabbi Heschel suggests that our spiritual lives depend on our common prayer, and our prayers remain somehow incomplete when we restrict ourselves to private prayer. That good rabbi argues that private prayer and prayer actually depend upon each other.  He calls this a spiritual symbiosis; private prayer and prayer in community need each other for either to be able to thrive.

This offers an answer for both those whose prayer life consists merely of attending church on Sunday morning, and for many (if not most) of those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” (In my experience, many of the latter are those who’ve been wounded or hurt by the Church at some point, and have simply decided that their spirituality is safer in private.)

In the final section, Heschel clearly offers a gloss to Martin Buber’s classic work, I and Thou. Rabbi Heschel suggests that the really important relationship is We and Thou. Most of us belong to many communities of faith. We’re members of churches or parishes, prayer groups, study groups, families, religious orders or just people who gather together for prayer, study and accountability.  Each of these support, enhance, complete and inform our private prayer and our spiritual lives.

In one sense, our collective prayer and our private prayer are like the two levers on a pair of pliers.  Neither of them have a great deal of utility alone; together, they combine to achieve their purpose.

We not only enrich each other; we come to depend upon each other.  And somewhere in that process, we discover that these relationships are icons for the relationship which really sustains us: our relationship with the Living God.

Be blessed today, and be a blessing,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Be Opened

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Mark 7:24-37.

In today’s lectionary readings from Mark’s Gospel, we find a number of challenges.  In the first passage, on our initial reading, Jesus seems a bit stingy, argumentative, and a little off His game. A few years ago, reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that it seemed like Jesus had to be coaxed into being charitable. At first, we may wonder if this is the same Jesus we know. I want to suggest that this passage presents exactly the Jesus we know.

We should begin with the observation that this first passage contains a number of unusual characteristics.  First, it’s located in Tyre, which is not an ordinary place for Jesus to be roaming around. That’s Gentile country, and no place for a good Jewish boy to be.  Secondly, he’s approached by a Syrophoenecian woman.  At that time, it would be unusual for any woman to approach a Jewish rabbi, let alone a Gentile woman. (Further, the identification  of this woman as “pheonician” implies an association with the Canaanites. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel describes this woman as a Canaanite.)  Unlike many of the Gospel stories, in this story Jesus’ disciples (his regular companions) are absent. Finally, her daughter has a demon, and so we know we’re encountering a spiritual battle here.

I think part of the answer lies in the original Greek text.  When the woman comes and asks Jesus to cast the demon from her “little daughter” (thygatrion in Greek), He replies that the children should be fed first before the “little dogs” (kynariois). In one sense, I think we can read this story, picturing Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as He draws from this woman an affirmation of the faith which He knew was present in her. In another sense, I think St. Mark uses this story to contrast Jesus with the Jewish authorities of the day, who would certainly have rejected this woman and her concerns.

Mark uses this as a narrative device.  It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell the woman “no”; rather, he says, “not yet.”  I don’t think Mark uses this story to portray Jesus as ambivalent or wishy-washy on the subject of ministering to the Gentiles. Rather, I think he’s telling this story to portray the difference between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day.

Jesus expels the demon from this woman’s child “because of this reasoning” (dia touton ton logon). We therefore ask, what was it that she said?  She told Jesus that even the crumbs He had to offer would suffice to heal her daughter. We hear an echo of this in the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and I’m not so sure we shouldn’t still be praying this: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” From this Gentile woman we hear a remarkable affirmation of trust, of need, and of faith.

Mark’s second story similarly challenges the traditional notion of holiness of that time.  Jesus travels toward the region of the ten cities (the Decapolis).  Again, He remains deep in the territory of the Gentiles. The crowd brings a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus.  Jesus’ offers a deeply intimate act of healing this man.  He thrusts his hands into the man’s ears, spits and then touches the man’s  tongue. These things would have clearly violated the purity codes of that time, which viewed saliva as unclean.

As Jesus looks to heaven, he groans.  (Groans offers a far better translation of the Greek word estenaxen than “sighs.”)  In other words, this healing involves Jesus’ identification with the suffering and distress of this man.  Mark tells the story of an earthy (incarnational) healing, rather than a purely metaphysical event.  Mark reports Jesus speaking in the Aramaic language:  Ephphatha (which means “be opened.”)

The passage rings with the echo of Isaiah’s promise:  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….” Isaiah 35:5-6. In one sense, it’s the deaf man’s ears that are opened.  In other sense, it’s the Gentile woman who is opened to the ministry of Jesus.  Viewed in another light, it’s about Jesus being open to the pain of the world. In yet another sense, it’s the entire world (and not just the people of Israel) to whom Jesus opens a new way of holiness.  I pray that we will be open to his healing ministry as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis