Tag Archives: Charity

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

Interpreting the Law

How must we interpret this law of God?  How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”  Listen to Paul:  “The whole law,” he declares, “is summed up in love”; and again: “Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” the law of Christ–does anything other than love more fittingly describe it?  Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother or sister in trouble.

But we are told that this law is manifold.  Why?  Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues.  It begins with two commands, but soon embraces many more.  Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects.  “Love is patient,” he says, “and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.” Moral Reflections on Job by Gregory the Great.

I ran across this passage earlier this week in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. St. Gregory makes a number of powerful observations that help us understand Holy Scripture.  Principally, he enjoins us to read the Torah (the Law) through the lens of love.  Jesus taught that all of the law and all of the prophets hung on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Matt. 22:40.

In Jesus’ day (just as in ours), some argued that the scriptures should be read as an exclusionary document.  Thus, many (lepers, those with physical infirmities, women, and outsiders) were excluded from the Temple.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What have you done to help them inside?” Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus brought many back within the circle of faith.  The Pharisees used the scriptures as a club to beat people away from the gates of the church.  Jesus, interpreting the scriptures through the template of love, showed us how to welcome God’s children back home.

We see this same tension played out in the book of Job.  Job endures calamity upon catastrophe without blaming God for what’s happened to him.  His three “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) arrive to convince him that God always punishes evil and rewards good, so somehow, Job must’ve sinned. Job’s friends do have a superficial understanding of the scriptures; they just don’t understand much about love, or God for that matter.  (A very good friend of mine observes that Job’s friends did everything right: until they open their mouths.)

Those who follow Christ know that all scripture, the Old Testament and the New, must be read with eyes of love. If we love God and His children, we cannot leave those in need behind.  And once we recognize that love provides the Rosetta Stone by which we interpret all the teachings of Scripture, we find ourselves compelled to love more broadly and more deeply.  We find ourselves breathing in a climate of grace, and we begin to  learn the language of blessing.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Doing the Word

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:17-27.

I have always loved today’s Lectionary reading from James, for a number of reasons. He reminds us that following Jesus requires living into our beliefs, rather than merely accepting certain concepts or propositions. I love good, challenging theology, but that’s not James’ purpose. This is deep, richly practical Christianity.

James begins with the remarkable statement that all our works of love come down from the Father of lights. All of our charity, all of our generosity, all of our love: James tell us these come from heaven. This means, of course, that God constantly works to better this world.

James then cautions the believers to be quick to listen, although slow to speak and slow to anger. As I listen to squabbles within my own denomination, or heaven forbid read the flaming posts that carry on religious debates on the blogosphere, I understand why the Church thought James’ epistle needed to be in the Bible.

James advises us all to stop and think a few moments before we respond with a quick anger and find ourselves regretting patiently. Mother Teresa once made a powerful observation about the genuine function of Christian speech.  She said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

He warns us against fooling ourselves: all our piety, if we can’t bridle our tongues and live into the life of Christ, is nothing more than self-deception. At that time, the most vulnerable members of society were widows and orphans. They lived on the margins of first century Palestine.  James cautions the Church: real religion consists of taking care of God’s children when they can’t take care of themselves and avoiding the stain if sin.  James calls that the “pure religion,”and everything else is just holy smoke.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Living In Love

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The New Testament reading from the Lectionary is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Most scholars date this letter between 80 and 100 A.D., as the Church is maturing and struggling to practice a Christian life in community. The writer (perhaps Paul or perhaps one of his disciples) is deeply concerned with the notion of relationships, and the idea that our relationships with each other mirror our relationships with God.

The lesson begins with the notion of truth, of “putting away falsehoods.” Deception inhibits any chance for real love, and dealing with each other honestly provides the foundation for our relationship with God.  The call to the Christian life is more than a call to avoid lying or manipulation; God calls us to live our lives transparently.

Ephesians offers a unique theology behind this call to the truth–not simply that deception makes God angry or will keep us out of heaven.  Rather, Christ calls us into the truth because our lives are intertwined, because we are each other’s limbs. Deception infects the entire body, of which we are a part.  By setting aside falsehood and deception, therefore, we avoid self-mutilation, the destruction of the body of which we are a constituent part.

Ephesians then warns us against anger, and against allowing it to fester. The text cautions us against letting the sun go down on our anger because allowing resentment to build up makes “room for the devil.”  In my family, we used to joke about Irish Alzheimer’s:  that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.  Ephesians cautions us to work out our difficulties with our brothers and sisters quickly, before the infection of rage and resentment begins to spread.

The writer of Ephesians cautions us about our speech, warning us to avoid quarreling and slander.  The language of encouragement should provide the fundamental grammar of Christians. Rather than gossip, criticism or idle speech, we should immerse ourselves in the vocabulary of comfort and inspiration. We must all become wildly proficient in the language of blessing.

Ephesians then directs us:  “be kind to another.” There’s nothing new in this message; Jesus gave the same direction regularly. For the Christian, compassion and forgiveness are the fundamental currency of our economy. Grace must become our lingua franca: the basis of all our relationships. The text calls us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with each other.  We are called into a kind of profligate, extravagant love in Christ.  As the Dalai Lama has said:  “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

The Letter to the Ephesians teaches us about the profound correlation between this new relationship the early Church had discovered with Christ and the everyday, concrete relationships in the world.  It teaches that we can never divorce the our spiritual lives from our workaday associations in our families and communities.  Authentic Christian spirituality is never simply ethereal or private: we live it out every single day, with every person we meet and with every word we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

No Hands But Ours

“God aids the valiant…both to you and to me He will give the help needed.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

Not all that long ago, I went through a very dispiriting week.  Three of my friends had been struggling with cancer.  The husband of my oldest friend in the world was being treated for bladder cancer at M.D. Anderson.  Another very close friend had just been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.  That same week, my cousin was treated for the fourth reoccurrence of thyroid cancer.

Each of them had endured that ghastly, medieval horror we so unhelpfully call a “treatment”: chemotherapy.  Two had adopted children and taken them into their homes.  One of them is a single parent.  One of them had no insurance, so I had a little skin in the health care debate and I was terrified about what this might mean for my friend and the family.

I’m not sure why, but way too often the people I love and terminal illness have intersected.  All of that provides the backdrop for the week I was telling you about.  That Thursday morning I got a call that a friend of mine, a law school classmate with whom I played lots of golf and lots of 42 (a poor man’s bridge played with dominos), had been killed while riding his bicycle with his 17-year-old son.  The son had gotten winded and stopped to rest, while Larry rode ahead.  A few moments later, his son rode up on the scene of the accident where his father lay dying.  My friend Larry was struck by a car driven by a 22-year-old girl, and we’re not sure why she veered out of her lane of traffic.  Then on that Friday morning, I got another early morning phone call.  Another law school classmate of mine lost his 27-year-old son in a bizarre accident.

I reached a couple of thoughts about the gut wrenching kaleidoscope of these events.  The first of these is that I may be a bit of a Jonah, and would understand perfectly if folks were to scootch away or avert their eyes when they see me walking toward them.  Second, I think being a friend, being a Christian, is a contact sport.

As Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”  Nothing in this world is harder, or more essential to the Christian life, than being present while someone you love suffers and bearing witness to their pain with them.  I think that’s part of the power of the image of Mary at the Cross, watching and aching as her son gave up his life.  Seeing these events unfold around me, I’m reminded of something the Tin Man said in the Wizard of Oz: “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”

Third, when I heard about my friend Larry’s accident, I actually found the strength, through God’s grace alone and no achievement of mine, to immediately say a prayer for the young woman who had struck him.  I have no idea how this accident will change her life or the life of her family, but I know she needs God’s presence through this.  And somehow, I felt better myself after praying for her.

A couple of years ago, I was asked if I was involved in pastoral care at the church, and I answered that no, I was not.  While my answer was honest, I’m not sure that it was accurate.  I think all of us are called upon, regardless of what we consider to be our ministry, to be the hands and face of Christ from time to time.  Maybe these events were just some sort of coincidence.  Or maybe, as Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

I think that what might pass in the secular world for caring and compassion is, for us Christians, a statement of our faith.  It is our way of cursing the darkness with which this world confronts us, and speaking to the love of Christ and the promise of Easter.  As the chaplain of Austin College recently observed, “Easter is not about denial, it’s about defiance.” Our caring for one another speaks to the power of love to overshadow pain.

Depending on the circumstance, as I have confronted these events, I may not have even mentioned Jesus or faith or prayer.  I tend to follow St. Francis’ advice in these circumstances, that we should preach the gospel in all times and in all places, but only use the words when necessary.  I hope that I won’t hear Jesus telling me someday that I did it wrong, that he won’t recognize me because I didn’t recognize him in this context.  I know that it is only through my faith that I can stand to watch people I love suffer, and that I can go on living without making sense of these events.  I’ve begun to believe that, for those of us who follow Jesus, the work of bearing witness to the love of God through moments of pain may be the real cost of taking up the cross.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Cup of Poison

The first monks who tried to live under Benedict’s direction hated his regimen, so much so they plotted to kill their abbot. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict’s biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.

Benedict, Gregory wrote, “perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death,” called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, “Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”

                                                                                                                Christianity Today

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in about 480, as the Roman Empire began to crumble.  The son of a Roman nobleman, he left his home and his studies around the age of 20.  He established about a dozen monastic houses, but is most widely known for founding Monte Cassino, an abbey which to this day remains the mother house of the Benedictine Order.  Benedict died around 547, according to legend while standing in prayer to God.

Benedict is sometimes considered the founder of western monasticism.  The effects of the monastic movement, including the Benedictines, has been enormous. Largely as a result of their patience and painstaking labors, the Holy Scriptures were preserved through the Dark Ages.  They contributed greatly to science, literacy, and culture at a time when all of these were threatened.

As I reflect upon the story above, it seems to me to have a deeper meaning than first appears.  There’s nothing unusual about those of us in the religious life experiencing profound frustration, and even anger, with our brothers and sisters.  (I’m glad to report, however,  that I’m unaware of any conspiracy to poison my Prior or any of the leaders of my Order.)  According to legend, as Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the poisoned cup, it shattered.  It seems to me that the Cross has a remarkable way of breaking through anger and resentment, and that may be the point of this story.

Benedict’s response to that poison cup offers us another insight.  He forgave the brother’s responsible.  He teaches us something terribly important:  having been saved by the Cross, we cannot withhold from others the same forgiveness Christ displayed on the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Loving Everyone

Do all you can to love everyone.  If you are not yet able to, at the very least don’t hate anyone.  Yet you won’t even manage this if you have not reached detachment from the things of this world.
You must love everyone with all your soul, hoping, however, only in God and honouring him with all your heart.
Christ’s friends are not loved by all, they sincerely love all.  The friends of this world are not loved by all, but neither do they love all.
 Christ’s friends persevere in their love right to the end.  The friends of this world persevere only so long as they do not find themselves in disagreement over worldly matters….
 This is the Love about which it is written:  “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” [I Cor. 13:2]
Whoever has love has God, because God is love.  [1 John 4:16].

                                       –Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity

I found this wonderful bit of wisdom in the reading for today in Thomas Spidlik’s book, Drinking From the Hidden Fountain.  I have previously written about Maximus the Confessor (see here), and won’t repeat that discussion in this post. I have, however, always found Maximus to be a source of great wisdom.

Perhaps no part of the Christian life challenges us more than Jesus’ injunction that we are to love all of God’s children.  This means loving the clerk in the grocery store who really perturbs me, the fellow in the gym who seems so full of himself, and the horrible gossip at Church.  It means loving the people who’ve wounded me, even those who remain unrepentant.

The Christian life demands that we love without regard to the question of who deserves our affection, without regard to their kindness, without regard to their history, and without regard to their merit.  That’s no small part of what underlies the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and it certainly  provides the foundation for Jesus’ teaching:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matt. 5:43-46.

Those of us who follow Jesus walk down a difficult path, especially the road of loving our enemies.  Too often, I hear people make the Faith sound easier than it is.  Following Christ is hard; it is as hard as the nails on the Cross.  St. Maximus urges us take the discipline of the Christian life seriously.  I need to hear his voice more often.

I wish you a safe and happy holiday, and may the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis