Tag Archives: Gospel

While You Have the Light

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them.   John 12:30-36.

As a child, I always dreaded that moment in the evening when my mother turned off the light.  I was firmly convinced of monsters and the idea that they had particular sway during the night-time hours.  (Up until the age of around eight, my chosen career path was “vampire killer.”)  Years later, I decided that while there are certainly monsters in the world, we make our own evil.  Now, I’ve come full circle and have accepted that there really is something out there called evil, and that evil is a spiritual reality.

In this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to walk in the light “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”  Once overtaken by darkness, we struggle to see where we’re going.  We take the wrong path; we get lost.  Jesus tells us that “the light is with you for a little longer.”  Deep into this journey through Holy Week, we get the feeling that we are walking at dusk, as the light is fading.

This passage resonates with the opening of John’s Gospel, which described the life of Jesus as the light of all people.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John 1:9.  If we believe in this light, we become children of God, or “children of light.”  John seems to suggest that living into our Christian life will work a fundamental change in our spiritual DNA.  As we travel through these scriptural pilgrimages during Holy Week, we should remember that Jesus calls us to become children of the light, reflecting the light of Christ into all the dark places of the world.

Jesus does not suggest that His followers will not experience the darkness.  Good Friday teaches us that’s just not the case.  Christianity does not operate as some sort of good luck charm or talisman against the darkness.  Jesus’ assures us of something quite different.  He tells us that the darkness will not “overcome” those who walk with Him.  Once again, that’s got to be good news.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Six Days Before the Passover

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.  John 12:1-11.

Perhaps Mary of Bethany shows us the only authentic response to Holy Week: she responds with an extravagant love.  At a dinner for the Lord, she acted out of  lavish charity and kindness toward Jesus.  She anointed him for his death, filling the house with this remarkable and extravagant fragrance.  (Scholars report that this perfume would have cost the yearly wages of a laborer.)  I think St. John meant to remind us that following Jesus might sometimes require that we forego counting the cost of loving God.

Mary’s extravagance carries with it the sort of sensuality that would have made the other guests, and almost any good Jew, more than a little uncomfortable.  She anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her hair.  No respectable Jewish woman would have behaved this way. Social custom would have limited this sort of affectionate behavior to a woman’s husband or perhaps her family, and even then, only in private.  Mary’s conduct  reflects a profoundly intimate relationship.

In anointing Jesus, Mary prefigures the preparation of His body for burial.  But although  Jesus awaited His death with his friends, the presence of Mary’s brother (Lazarus) reveals that death holds no finality here. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial while he is still living.  Lazarus, who was dead, has joined them for dinner.  We encounter here the intersection of death and life, woven together in a story of reckless mercy, in the context of having a meal together.  St. John teaches us that death will have its say, but not the last word.

John juxtaposes Mary’s remarkable fidelity with Judas’ treason.  Similarly, he contrasts the beauty of the perfume’s scent and this deeply affectionate moment with the ugly brutality of the impending crucifixion in which hatred seems to win the day.  St. John tells us these events took place six days before the Passover.  The timetable echoes with the days of creation, and through his Passion Jesus makes “all things new again”.  Jesus renews all creation through the his death on the Cross, a death by which love conquers fear, hatred and death itself.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Hosanna!

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.  John 12:12-16.

Once Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees ordered anyone who knew of Jesus’ location to reveal it so that they could arrest him.  John 11:57.  So when Jesus entered into Jerusalem amid all this acclamation, He was already in trouble.  In response to this, He acted provocatively, subversively, and prophetically.  The crowd carried palm branches, perhaps echoing the crowd’s exultation at Simon driving the pagans out of Jerusalem as described in 1 Maccabees 13:49-52.  Historically, the people of God carried palms to celebrate a military victory.

The crowd greeted Jesus with one of the psalms of ascent, saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Psalm 118:26. They proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, during the festival of the Passover (a celebration of the liberation of God’s chosen people).

As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have suggested, Pilate may have entered the city  at about the same time, traveling with a legion of combat-hardened Roman soldiers.  Jesus arrived from the east; Pilate approached Jerusalem from the west.  Entering on an ass rather than in a military procession, Jesus may even have intentionally mocked the fanfare of Pilate’s entry into the city.  One didn’t need to be a scholar or a theologian to see trouble coming.

Typical of John’s sense of irony, the crowds announce Jesus as the King of Israel.  While they are right, they don’t understand what they’re saying.  For all the wrong reasons, they proclaim the beginning of a new kingdom.  Ultimately, they will decide that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, or at least that he’s the wrong kind of Messiah.  Jesus signals the nature of his kingdom by riding in on an ass, a humble mount, in sharp contrast with the Roman war horses and chariots.

We have this remarkable image, then, of two parades.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem amid shouts of adulation and triumph.  (You can almost hear the whispers in the crowd:  “Now we’ll show those Romans who’s boss.”)  The crowd shouts “Hosanna”, which probably best translates as “we pray, save us!”  Nothing about this procession would have amused the Romans as the city of Jerusalem swelled to about four times its usual population.

By Friday, Jesus will march in another parade, carrying shame on his back, stumbling toward Golgotha.  While the crowd praises Jesus as their Messiah, only a few days later his cross will bear sign mockingly describing Him as The King of the Jews.  Hindsight and God’s grace alone will permit the disciples to make sense of these two processions.  At the time, their meaning was lost in the din of the crowd’s shouts and jeers.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

We Wish to See Jesus

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  John 12: 20-33.

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we feel the imminent approach of the Passion, as though the gravitational forces surrounding the Cross were drawing Christ to them.  Just as these Greeks (who may have been Gentiles or may have been Hellenized Jews) come seeking after Jesus, Christ announces that His ministry is coming to its fruition.  It’s a terribly strange notion of fruition, however, because Jesus teaches his disciples that while he will be “glorified”, His glorification will entail His death.  Jesus compares Himself to a grain of wheat, a self-description consistent with his earlier announcement:  “I am the bread of life.”  John 6:35.

While the world struggles to see Jesus in his glory, Jesus teaches that death isn’t the end of the story.  Placing this story in context, Jesus hinted at this teaching earlier.  We should recall that just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  We already have a sense, therefore, that Jesus’ ministry will entail a redefinition of “dying”.  This new understanding will entail the notion that surrendering our autonomy (serving Jesus rather than ourselves) and involves following Jesus even following Him through death’s door.

Jesus does not face these facts lightly, admitting that this prospect troubles His soul.  I suspect it shook Him to his core, just as it should trouble us.  Despite these terrible struggles, Jesus knows that the reason for the Incarnation lies within this hour, within these events. God then announces His intention to use these horrific events for the glory of His name and kingdom.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, however, the people misunderstand and think it’s just the thunder, or maybe an angel.

Once again, John plays upon the double-meaning of the notion of Jesus being “lifted up”. This time, the phrase  carries with it the double meaning of Jesus lifted up on the cross, and his ascension into heaven.  Again, this passage recalls Moses lifting up the bronze serpents in the wilderness, healing those who look upon it.  Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself.

Now, we begin to get a sense of the remarkable gravitational pull of Jesus and the cross, drawing all of mankind into their vortex.  In that gravitational maelstrom, we will encounter the unbearable weight of the cross, which even Christ could not carry alone.  Within that vortex, we find love, hatred, beauty and pain, humanity, and God.

In the 26th verse of this passage, Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will be my servant also.”  This passage echoes with the name God offers Moses as the name of the divine.  Ex. 3:14  (“I Am Who I Am”).  Following Jesus requires presence, but offers the gift of the presence of the Father.

If, like those first century Greeks, we “wish to see Jesus”, this is no time to cover our eyes.  It’s happening now; “the hour has come”.  Jesus views these events as God’s judgment on the world, which will bring about the expulsion of our Ancient Enemy.  (In the Greek, the word for that judgment is krisis, from which we derive our word “crisis”.)  Jesus came for this time, and those who follow Him must go through this Passion with Christ.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

How Can These Things Be?

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  John 3: 14-16.

The first passage, from the Book of Numbers, deeply challenges our understanding of Yahweh, and confronts our  imaginations.  It takes place against the backdrop of  the consistent theme within the Exodus narrative:  forty years of wandering in the wilderness, marked by the people’s resistance, God’s punishment, the people’s repentance, and God’s restoration.   As the people near the end of their journey, a campaign of rebellion  arose against both Moses and God.  The text reports that God addressed this issue through an infestation of seraphs (poisonous snakes).

One might reasonably conclude that there were already poisonous snakes among the Hebrew people, spreading this contagion of destructive grumbling.  While we may struggle with the notion that God sent the snakes down upon the Hebrews, I want to suggest that those vipers were merely visible tokens of the toxic rebellion that already enveloped them.  The serpents which would lead to their deaths were already there.  God merely revealed a physical sign of the spiritual reality they already confronted.  It’s as though the Lord were telling them, “This is what your way looks like.”

In this fitting Lenten passage, when the people acknowledge their complicity for their situation, God intervenes to save them.  God instructs Moses, who creates a bronze serpent placed upon a pole.  When those bitten by snakes look upon this image, this icon, God heals them.  Out of this destructive pattern of sin and death, God will raise up a way of healing.  This leads us to the Gospel reading for today.

In the Gospel passage, we encounter the terribly interesting figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who secretly followed Jesus.  Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ imagination, teaching about the need for a man to be “born again”.  Jesus then reveals his messianic role, drawing on the iconic image of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness.  This statement carries with it the double-meaning of the Christ being raised up as the Messiah and of Jesus raised up on the cross.  As with the earlier passage from Numbers, Jesus describes a spiritual reality that the world cannot yet comprehend.

The cross will become the source of healing this broken world.  Just as with the bronze serpent, that which we perceived as an image of fear and death becomes the source of our new life.  Again, it’s as though God said to the world, “All right.  This horror on Golgotha is the result of the way you want to do business.  But I can still create life where you see nothing but death and shame.”

 Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing  in the Son “lifted up” provides the way to eternal life.  It’s important to note that the Greek phrase John uses isn’t actually “believes in him” but rather “believes into him”.  In other words, Jesus isn’t describing an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but rather a radical submission and new way of life.  Jesus offers eternal life, therefore, to those who join in His way of life.  Thus, St. Paul could accurately say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal. 2:20.

John’s Gospel offers us a deeply rooted theology of the cross.  In fact, for St. John, the cross operates as the fulcrum point upon which all of human history turns.  This passage seems to answer, perhaps a little obliquely, Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”  John 3:9.

Jesus points to a spiritual reality we cannot yet see, that we cannot yet understand.  Our new life, our eternal life, in Christ originates in one mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible notion:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes into him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Salvation arises through God’s love, revealed on the cross.  In the depth of this Lenten season, that’s good news.

Shabbat shalom,

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Moses and the Bronze Serpent © Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Cleaning (God’s) House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  John 2: 13-22.

Few paths offer a quicker road to trouble than criticizing someone’s religion or their politics.  Almost certainly, Jesus knew that about us, and travelling down that road got Him killed.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Jesus criticized both the religion and the politics of the Judean authorities of that time.

The Temple stood as a monument to something sacred and holy:  it represented the intersection of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of the Living God, and a visible symbol of both national identity and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.  Most people would perceive an attack on the Temple  as an attack on the faith (and the nation) itself.  These events took place as the city of Jerusalem swelled with the Passover crowds.

All four Gospels record this event, one of the few occasions on which Jesus became deeply angry.  In the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves.”  John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as opposed to the synoptic Gospels which place it much later.

Jesus apparently became enraged upon observing the barriers thrown up by the priestly authorities, barriers which stood between God and His people.  For example, because Roman coins were forbidden in the Temple, they had to be exchanged (at a substantial discount) for the currency of the Temple.

The Temple authorities also collaborated with the Roman occupation, and Jesus overturned that table as well.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus  insults the Temple culture, calling it a “marketplace.”  Trading on access to the Holy was then, and still remains, a special kind of blasphemy.  Jesus became enraged when He saw the Sacred being traded like a commodity.  I think we underestimate the Gospel if we see this as a historical criticism of “the Jews” back then.

Our churches still seek to collaborate with political power.  We still fall under the thrall of a purity system that separates the righteous from the sinners, the holy from the impure and the whole from those who are broken.  We might well examine the ways in which we still place obstacles in the paths of those who come looking for God.  We might wonder whether our churches, like the Temple in Jesus’ time, have become comfortable monuments to the status quo.  We might ask whether our houses of worship have become mutual admiration societies rather than instruments of change.  Perhaps we should share the Savior’s sense of outrage when we encounter it.

The Judean authorities asked Jesus to provide them with a sign (seimeion), in other words, to show them the authority by which Jesus issues this prophetic condemnation.  Asked for an explanation, Jesus replies with an enigma.  Jesus responds that upon the destruction of “this temple”, he will raise it up in three days.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, Jesus is misunderstood.  (We find the classic example of this in Jesus’ trial as Pilate questions Him.  John 18, 19.)  Jesus speaks of the sanctuary of His body; the Judeans think He’s talking about the architecture.

Ultimately, Jesus will displace the Temple as the intersection of heaven and earth.  As He told the Samaritan woman only two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  John 4:21. Further, Jesus’ death would signal the final sacrifice, rendering the Temple culture obsolete. Jesus thus appropriates the functions of the Temple for Himself.  The life of Christ would come to operate as the new meeting place for those seeking El Shaddai (God Almighty).

Like the Temple culture of Jesus’ time, many of us would still prefer a God we could do business with (see here).  Jesus offers us something radically different:  He offers Himself.  He becomes the locus point (the alpha and the omega) where human history intersects with the Father. He has been raised as the new edifice where we can encounter the holy.

As we come to this new Temple, Jesus doesn’t expect us to bring a dove or to engage in some special ritual.  He asks us to take the whip into our own hands, and chase away everything that separates us from God. He asks us to come and offer ourselves, our whole lives, without reservation. He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Luke 18:  9-14.

Sometime today, a priest will mark my forehead with ashes and remind me that I came from the dust, and that I’ll return there.  Those ashes mark the beginning of the Holy Season of Lent.  I hope to use this time to reflect on the complex nature of sin, the Lenten practices which might heal us, and the holy custom of reconciliation  with God.

If we view Lent as simply an occaision on which we give up something we enjoy (sweets, red wine, or our double mocha macchiato), I think we have barely scratched the surface.  Lent serves as a time for putting down our arms and making peace with the God who calls us back to Him.  During this season, we drink the bitter medicine that will hopefully heal our wounds and lead us closer to the Lord of Heaven.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find two men praying in the temple: a Pharisee and a tax collector (who you’ll sometimes see called a publican).  In first century Palestine, good Jews despised the tax collectors or at least saw them as deeply flawed and unclean.  In the first place, tax collectors collaborated with the pagan Roman empire occupying their holy homeland.  Further, most of them could not survive on their income as collectors, and had to cheat people in order to make their living.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were devout, prayerful men who tried to live according to the law of Moses.  The Pharisee in this parable has even gone beyond the Mosaic law, fasting twice a week rather than once. His prayer, however, reveals that he has become mired in the spiritual quicksand of self-admiration.  He believes he can rely on his own righteous behavior to justify himself before God.

Jesus contrasts this sense of spiritual self-sufficiency with the humility of the tax collector, who knows that he is a sinner and asks for God’s mercy.  He can rely on nothing other than God’s grace.  In one of Jesus’ classic inversions, the tax collector is sanctified.  The Pharisee has fastidiously done all the right things (fasting and tithing), but has somehow missed the point.  Like many of us, the Pharisee believes he has actually done God a favor by being so moral.  The tax collector approaches God with a contrite heart, knowing that he’s let God down once again.

This parable offers us the first step in that process:  rigorous self-examination and coming to terms with our failures.  We need to resist our instinctive compulsion to see and present ourselves as righteous (or perhaps guilty of only minor infractions) while we view others as the real sinners, or perhaps see others as the real source of our sin.  As we take a hard look at our lives, some of what we see may make us wince; some of it may make us want to turn away.  That’s the very stuff we need to work on, because those are the weak spots where our separation from the Holy begins.

Often, when we look at what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do, we may consider our situation rather hopeless.  Our sins constantly separate us from God, and despite our good efforts, we cannot avoid them.  Like the Pharisee, we’re lost in self-deception, self-aggrandisement and our myopic respect for our virtues.  I don’t think the Pharisee was a particularly evil man; rather, his pride blinded him to his own situation.  His self-absorption prevented any real self-understanding.

We pray a fairly desperate prayer in my church: “We have no power within ourselves to help ourselves.”  Our only refuge looks like the most dangerous place for us, standing naked before God who sees all, and who somehow finds a way in impossible situations.  This all begins with a good, hard look at our lives, the things we’ve done, and the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from God.  Jesus thought so, anyway.

I wish you a good and holy Lent,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.   The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes  it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”  John 10:11-18.

This reading from John’s Gospel offers a rich passage, and those who know it well may have lost some appreciation for its texture.  First, when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, He presents us with one of the seven “I Am” statements.  These include “I am”: the bread of life;  the light of the world; the gate or door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; and the vine.  Each of these statements resonates with God’s self description found in Exodus 3:14 (“I Am Who Am”).  In other words, John offers us a clear claim of the divinity of Jesus through these statements.

Jesus’ description of himself as a good shepherd also resonates with God’s announcement in the Old Testament:  “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.”  Ezek.  34: 11-12.    From his deathbed, Jacob declared that God had been the shepherd “all of my life to this day.”  Gen 48:24.  Jesus’ description of himself further calls to mind the 23rd Psalm.  Thus, Jesus locates himself firmly within the Davidic line:  a shepherd king.

We also need to grasp just how startling Jesus’ understanding of himself as a “good shepherd” would have been to a first century audience.  At that time, shepherds would have been considered am ha’aretz (people of the land or people of the dirt).  Shepherds were considered dirty, coarse, boorish, and uncivilized.  Rabbinic Judaism looked down on shepherds, who did not regularly keep the commandments.  Because of their work, they may not have even kept the Sabbath.

The shepherds of first century Palestine were also a rough lot, solitary men of tremendous courage.  They had to protect the flock from lions, bears, wolves and other predators.  Rather than the gentle, pastoral image we may have inherited from the Romantic poets, shepherds were fierce fighters who were prepared for dangerous combat when necessary to protect their sheep.  For example, David learned about battle by protecting his father’s sheep from predators.  1 Sam. 17:33-37.

So, there’s something in Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” that subverts our understanding and upends our expectations.  Jesus also contrasts himself with “the hired hands” who run away in the face of a wolf.  He thus begins to teach about his commitment to us, a commitment that disregards his own safety, that disregards his own life.  This commitment, this covenant, finds its root in love, and in the Father’s love for Jesus and in Jesus’ love for the Father.  Jesus teaches not only about the nature of His love for the disciples, but also about his love for every one of us.   In essence, Jesus tells us:  “I will not abandon you.”

Jesus then tells us that his sheep will listen to his voice.  I wonder how well we do that today.  Setting aside the question of listening, do we even recognize Jesus’ voice when he calls?  Christ then offers a remarkable insight that speaks to our fractured Church today.  He speaks of unity:  “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  When we encounter discord, schism, and fracture in the world, we can rest assured that at least one party (and perhaps all) are not listening to Jesus.

I believe this remarkable passage ultimately centers upon the overarching Christian commandment:  love God and love each other.  As Desmond Tutu once observed, “Nothing is too much trouble for love.”  Love binds the sheep to the shepherd, and binds the shepherd to his flock.  We understand the risks inherent in the practice of love, risks that will ultimately lead to Golgotha.  Despite these risks, in the final analysis, the Gospel teaches us that nothing else really matters.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  Mark 1:40-45.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the pain, shame and loneliness of being an outsider.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find a man who knew that isolation intimately.  At that time, leprosy and most skin diseases were treated as a kind of plague.  Because of his illness, the community shunned him, and the Mosaic law justified and condoned their fears.  He had no right to approach Jesus, and Jesus had no business having anything to do with him, let alone touching him.

This man lived the life of walking ghost, or perhaps more accurately, a walking corpse. As a leper, this “unclean” man could not enter the Temple; he could not even enter any community other a community of other lepers.  Jesus enters into this ostracism by touching him and sharing in his uncleanness.

This man’s statement (“If you choose, you can make me clean”) carries a number of messages within it.  First, we can hear the pain in the voice of a man who simply doesn’t have the power to help himself.  We also hear a remarkable affirmation of faith in Jesus’ healing power.  And perhaps we also hear just a hint of a challenge to Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this man.

Jesus then tells the man something that God’s been trying to convey throughout the Old Testament:  I choose to heal you.  The text thus illustrates an important idea of divine freedom, reaching out to restore God’s creation.  As He did with Sarah and Abraham, as He did in the Exodus, and as he did on the Cross, God instinctively exercises His freedom to redeem our broken lives.  I think Jesus is telling us:  “This is what the kingdom looks like.”

Mark describes Jesus as “moved with pity”.  The phrase suggests a very deep emotional response, the sort of reaction that you feel deep within your gut.  It has also sometimes been translated as “moved with anger”.  I suspect that Jesus felt a certain anger at all those things which separate men from God, and perhaps at the lack of depth or vision in the priestly interpretation of the holiness code.  Perhaps Jesus was angry  with the very notion, embedded into this man by a life as a lonely outcast, that God would choose anything other than to heal him.

Regardless of whether Jesus was moved with pity or anger, we shouldn’t miss the important point:  His immediate response to this emotion was to reach out, to redeem and to restore.

Jesus then gives this man a strict warning not to tell anyone, but to simply present himself at the temple.  This instruction falls into what theologians call the “Messianic secret.”  In this passage and many others, Jesus often instructs those He heals (and even the demons he casts out) to keep quiet about what they’ve seen.  We get the impression that until the Resurrection (which would clearly reveal the meaning of Christ’s life) Jesus tried to avoid an incomplete understanding of his ministry.

Despite Jesus’ warning, the man begins to proclaim the news about Jesus.  This leads to a curious and ironic reversal.  While the man was originally kept from society, Jesus now finds himself an outsider because of his fame and the press of the crowds.  Cleansed of his disease, the man can now rejoin his town and family.  Having restored this man to his health and freedom,  Jesus could no longer travel freely and had to remain “out in the country” .  Jesus therefore becomes an outsider himself, no longer able to go to the towns and villages.  Even Jesus finds himself marginalized, and thus those who follow him should not be surprised when it happens to us, too.

In one sense, this passage is about risk.  Jesus took a tremendous risk in healing this man, risking contamination.  Jesus also took a risk in asking for this man’s assurance of secrecy, risking his own isolation.  By subjecting Himself to human history and sin, Jesus risked our judgment and condemnation.  In fact, the Gospels point to the final risk of the Incarnation, the Cross.

I think today’s Gospel reading teaches us another important lesson.  Mark illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith:  ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.  We shouldn’t read this as a story about something that happened once, a long time ago; Jesus still choses to make us clean, to restore us and heal us.  Following Jesus is all about second chances.  It was for this man in today’s Gospel.  And it is for you and me, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis