Sunday, November 6, 2011
Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13
One of my longstanding memories of grade school years at St. Mary’s in Huntingburg is belonging to the Boy Scouts. St. Mary’s had its own Scout troop. The Scouts provided many vital activities for young boys. The Scouts tried to encourage boys to become helpful and productive members of society. You could learn various skills by acquiring merit badges. You learned to appreciate nature by camping out on weekends. Above all, you were taught to "be prepared" to deal with any kind of challenging situation that might arise. The traditional example was helping an elderly lady to cross a street. There were, of course, some aspects about the Boy Scouts that seemed contradictory. For example, we had a wonderful Scout cabin at St. Mary’s that served as our private meeting place. But the inside of the cabin was decorated with various items that had been stolen from different places the Scouts had camped through the years— road signs with place names were preferred. Nonetheless, the overall purpose of the Scouts was the motto, Be Prepared, to deal with anything.
From this perspective Jesus appears to be a distant precursor of the Scouts. One aspect of his teaching is to "Be Prepared," as shown in today’s gospel story about the foolish and wise virgins. There are, of course, quite different purposes between Jesus and the Scouts. The Scouts wanted to be prepared to be a helpful member of society. Jesus message of "Be Prepared," aims at expecting the sudden coming of the Kingdom of God. St. Benedict has his own version of "be prepared" in his admonition to "keep death daily before one’s eyes."
In each case "be prepared" addresses the common supposition we often have that each day is going to go pretty much as we expect it to. And many days they do. But sometimes things change—suddenly and drastically. Frequently it’s something you never saw coming. I think of that in the mornings when I’m watching the news on TV, seeing car accidents that are changing the lives of people forever—in ways they probably never thought of. I never thought my severe back problems would return after I gave up golf. But here they are and I am trying to cope with a new direction in life. On a larger scale most Catholics in the 1960s never saw the Second Vatican Council coming. We see now what the last fifty years in the Church have been like. In no case is it ever easy.
We might consider this an essential step in developing a solid spirituality—that from time to time we need to stop and consider all that we take for granted in life and faith and consider that anything might change radically. And that includes our relationship with God and with Jesus Christ. These are very special areas where we do like to get into a "comfort zone." We like to get a particular style of prayer that we feel comfortable with and then just stay there. Any kind of change can really upset us. And often our first reaction to change is to think that something is wrong with us or somehow God has changed attitudes towards us. We find ourselves swimming in the dark, not knowing which way to turn. But a spirituality of an instability moment might help us better in our initial response. By an instability moment I mean, when a shocking change occurs in our lives, we might recognize that big changes have come upon us and realize that we are going to have to do some serious rearranging in our lives. And God, in fact, deals with us that way. We have heard so often the biblical saying from the prophet Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, says the Lord." (55:10) There are times when we really, really have to take that to heart.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Readings: Mal 14-2:2; 1 Thess 2:7-13; Mt 23:1-12
When I was giving lots of talks to groups, both Catholic and ecumenical, one of the questions I was most frequently asked was: "Why are priests called ‘father’ when there is a clear prohibition against it in Jesus’ teaching?" The short answer is that it just became a custom at a later period of history when a local leader was often called a father. The longer answer is to explain why this passage is in the gospel in the first place. To explain that will take us far deeper into history.
We must understand the early history of both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism to get at that. Throughout the first century Jews were disturbed about the presence of the Romans in control of their country. The most radical group of Jews were the Zealots. They wanted to throw the Romans out altogether. By about mid-century they had gained sway over the majority of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. They wanted all the various Jewish groups to be on their side. But the Christians, who at that time were still considered a variety of Judaism, refused to revolt and fight against the Romans because the Christians were basically pacifists. As a result around the year 66 the Zealots expelled the Christians from Jerusalem, and they fled to the city of Pella. That began a feeling of deep animosity between the Christians and the Jews.
As things eventually turned out, the Zealots did rise up against the Romans, but they didn’t have a chance. The Roman army overwhelmed them. In the year 70AD the Romans captured the city of Jerusalem and executed all the leading Zealots. They destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and killed most of the priests. Out of the ruins of this tragedy one Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zachaii, asked the Roman generals if he could go to the small town of Yavneh, west of Jerusalem and found an academy there; he promised it would be entirely peaceful. The Romans gave him permission. And so began the reconstruction of Judaism under the leaders, who called themselves Rabbis or teachers. They worked hard to rebuild a Jewish identity and often called themselves children of their father, Abraham. This grew into what is traditionally called Rabbinical Judaism.
But the old hostility still lingered between the Jews and the Christians. They didn’t trust each other. That distrust gets written into Christian writings, mainly the later gospels of Matthew and John, and also into Jewish documents. The gospel writers put that distrust into their stories about Jesus. What they were trying to do is to make Jesus comment on a historical situation that actually occurred fifty years after the time Jesus lived. We need to know that about the gospels.
So when Jesus says, "do not be called rabbi," this is actually referring to the Christian view of the rabbis fifty years after Jesus lived. And when he says, "Call no one your father," it is actually a criticism of the rabbis who called Abraham their father. Here’s the key: this is meant to refer to that specific historical situation in the first century and not for all time.
Now the problem with all this process of critique is that it makes the New Testament very difficult for ordinary believers to understand and interpret. And there’s no two ways about it—this is one of the most serious pastoral issues of our day. And there’s no quick and easy way to fix it. But at least you can know why there is a ban on calling any human being your father in the words of Jesus.