Tag Archives: Moral Theology

The Keys We All Carry

When you hear the words: “Peter, do you love me?” [John 21:15] imagine you are in front of a mirror and looking at yourself.
Peter, surely, was a symbol of the Church.  Therefore the Lord in asking Peter is asking us too.  
To show that Peter was a symbol of the Church, remember the passage in the Gospel, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 16:18]
Has only one man received those keys?  Christ himself explains what they are for: “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matt. 18:18] If these words had been said only to Peter, now that he is dead who would ever be able to bind or loose?
I make bold to say that all of us have received the keys.  We bind and loose.  And you also bind and loose.
Whoever is bound is separated from your community; he is bound by you. When he is reconciled, however, he is loosed, thanks to you because you are praying for him. 

Augustine, Serm. Morin 16 (Miscellanea Agostiniana)

My travel schedule remains quite hectic, so once again this will be a short post.  I found this bit of wisdom in Thomas Spidlik’s wonderful little book, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain.

I think Augustine points out several things that matter a great deal for our spiritual lives.  As we read Scripture, we should read it as if Jesus were speaking to us personally.  Jesus wasn’t only explaining to the a first century audience about the kingdom of heaven: He was speaking to you and to me.

I think too often we think of the keys to the kingdom as something that Jesus left as an inheritance to Peter, or to the Twelve, and perhaps we might even go so far as to think our clergy have inherited it.  Augustine suggests, and I believe, that those keys are our inheritance, yours and mine. So, when I withhold forgiveness from my brother or sister, I hold that sin bound.  (I think one could seriously question exactly who is bound up when forgiveness is withheld, but perhaps we’ll talk about that another time.) On the other hand, each of us have the power to loose our brothers and sisters.

We can loose them by forgiving them; we can loose them from the burdens they carry; we can loose them by righting an old wrong or through our acts of charity and kindness.   Jesus left us these keys, left them to you and to me.  So, I wonder, what locks will we open today?

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

There Once Was a Man

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Job 1:1; 2:1-10.

In the Old Testament reading, the Lectionary leads us to the Book of Job, a vastly rich and yet deeply challenging selection.  Virginia Woolf once famously said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” I have felt the same way on occasion, but we should remember a number of things as we reflect on this marvelous book.

First, the Book of Job offers us a parable, not a history.  Even the introductory line (“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job”) sounds a bit like a child’s fairy tale. We also get a hint that this is a parable in the notion the next line, with the notion that Job was “perfectly upright.” Thus, we’re dealing with an archetype here.  Job represents the best of our humanity in a narrative told to teach us a lesson. The parable muses on the theme “Why do the righteous suffer?”

Many of us have wondered why the wicked or the godless prosper, while good people sometimes seem to carry insurmountable burdens.  The Book of Job reflects on the latter issue. Jesus also addressed this issue when He said, “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: 5:44-45.

We should also remember that this book was written sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries before Christ.  By that time, the chosen people had already endured slavery under the Egyptians, the Assyrian exile and the Babylonian exile.  They had seen the destruction of the Temple, which for them constituted the intersection of heaven and earth.  Having suffered through slavery, famine, conquest and separation, they might rightly have wondered: chosen for what, exactly?

So, we have this text before us in which God appears to enter into a wager with Satan.  It’s also important to remember in Hebrew the word Satan isn’t a name; it’s a title or a function.  It meant something like the accuser, the prosecutor, or the adversary. If we read this work as a parable, rather than a history, it might have something to teach us about the kind of accusations that get tossed about when we (either as individuals or as a people) find ourselves engaged in spiritual warfare.  And we might take a little comfort from the idea that God seems to have a remarkable faith in Job’s (and perhaps our) ability to weather life’s storms.

When The Adversary strikes Job down with a hideous disease, and Job’s wife questions his “foolish” commitment to God, Job’s response resounds in our hearts.  He says “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” That question will echo throughout the rest of the book of Job. Job answers what some have called the Prosperity Gospel, the notion that “good things happen to good people” (and implicitly therefore, bad things happen to bad people).  We still hear the ruminations of that today in modern Christianity, and Job calls it what it is: balderdash.

I hope to come back to Job again soon.  I think the pearl is well worth the dive.  Despite it’s childlike opening, the Book of Job offers us anything but a fairy tale.  The book of Job sets out the struggle of faith, a struggle against faithlessness in the confrontation of pain and anguish. We find Jesus engaged in that same struggle on Golgotha as he cries out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me)? I think, at some time, most of us will find ourselves in that struggle, and we rightly pray to be saved from that time of trial.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

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

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