Category Archives: Reflections on today’s reading

Non Sequiturs: Jesus in the Temple and Dismas

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.[1] Lk 2: 46-47

I never noticed before, but the give and take in this scene is peer to peer, not teachers to disciple. While the first part of the sentence would indicate that Jesus was only an inquisitive student, listening to them and asking them questions, in the second part, the tables are turned: the teachers are bowled over with his understanding and, not questions, but answers! Cool!

Perhaps this is the way Jesus deals with us, listening and asking questions, helping us to clarify and understand Him better,…and in our conversation with Him [aka prayer], we are in awe of His understanding of us and His answers to our questions.

 

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Lk 23:42

It has been pointed out that poor Dismas, whose name is from Greek: “dying,” is the only person in any of the Gospels to address Jesus by his first name, Jesus, without a qualifier, e.g. LORD or Son of David or Teacher. As the late exegete Fr. Raymond Brown put it, “The first person with the confidence to be so familiar is a convicted criminal who is also the last person on earth to speak to Jesus before he dies,” i.e. in Luke’s Gospel.

When you go through a horrific ordeal with another person, there’s little room and no time for formality. You are thrown together by providence and see the other in the worst possible conditions; you know each other without the conventional facades of society. Being crucified with another certainly qualifies as one of these situations. Since the banter had been scorn and ridicule to that point, it was a true gesture of acknowledgement of what Jesus was going through, of who He was, of what His kingdom consisted, when Dismas spoke to him. Dismas’ very words indicate that, in some way, he recognized that Jesus was indeed the Christ, but not in the then popular conquering hero sense, but in a new way, an after death way, a beyond suffering in this life way. Like Peter’s declaration: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God [Mt 16:16], Dismas’ recognition is a sign that he is blessed, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to him but Jesus’ heavenly Father. [Mt 16:17] He recognized that Jesus would live beyond the grave, a recognition in a vague, unclear, but total sense, that this Jesus would exist beyond death and would, indeed, take his place as a rightful king. And it is this King who answers him, not just a plain answer, but prefaced by the formula that indicates that this is a pronouncement of momentous truth, for it is said by God: Amen, I say[2] to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. [Lk 23:43]

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[2] Like the I am statements in John, the I say statements in the other Gospels, as well as the prefaced Amen, or “truth” in Hebrew [from Semitic root a-m-n “to be trustworthy, confirm, support”] indicate God not only being but proclaiming truth. Online Etymology Dictionary, “Amen,” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=amen

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Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. [1] [Mt 3:3]

Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. [1] [Mt 3:3]

  • A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! [Is 40:3].
  • It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” [Mt 3:3]
  • He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” [Jn 1:23]

Three versions of the same message…the original prophecy in Isaiah, the passage used as third party identification for the Baptist in Matthew, and the Baptist’s own use of a conflated version of the passage as his calling card…Having said all that, what does this enigmatic phrase mean…How do I prepare the way of the Lord, let alone make His paths straight???

What is this “way of the Lord?” Later on, Jesus will call himself the Way. Are they the same Way or only related, since both originate from the Lord? And since this is before Jesus appears on the scene, how am I to interpret “the way” in pre-Jesus terms.

Interestingly, the first occurrence of “way” in the Hebrew Scriptures is: When he expelled the man, he settled him east of the garden of Eden; and he stationed the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. [Gen 3:24] I don’t think that this was by accident. First, God does not do things by accident, and second, the Holy Spirit does not inspire the writers of Scripture to write anything by accident. This being said, I must conclude that “the way” has to do with how one reaches and eats the fruit of the tree of Life…which becomes even more true in the New Testament where Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, [Jn 14:6] and insists that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. [Jn 6:53] Thus, we come full circle: God has given us a “way” to the tree of life in His Son, Jesus, and we can eat Him and have life eternal.

The second occurrence clarifies another aspect of the “way”. The LORD is pondering: Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do about Sodom. [Gen 18:17] In reasoning that He should tell him, He states: Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him. [Gen 18:19] Here, the “way” is adherence to God’s plan for mankind, doing what is right and just.

To what is right and just means to follow Jesus, for the right and just way now is defined by Jesus; He is the way. To me, to you, to each and every person that ever lived, yesterday, today, tomorrow, Jesus says, “Follow me.” [Mt 9:9]…when we hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” we are prompted by the Spirit to answer “Here I am,” I said; “send me! [Is 6:8]…when we are called in a dream: Susan! James! Kim Jung! Aslam! Solomon, our Eli tells us to reply: Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.[1 Sam 3:9]

What does “doing what is right and just” mean today, here, now, in 2015. The rest of the references to “way” in the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament mostly are the myriad of references to direction or usual course of action. These are mirrors of my ways, to where I go and what I do…the mystery of God’s will is that it is fulfilled in the everyday, little things of life. I use to think that God’s will was something huge, dramatic, saving the world, feeding the starving millions, stopping the violence of the world…and it is. But my part in those efforts, in His plan for humanity, for salvation, in that preparing the way of the Lord, in that straightening His paths, is a very teeny, tiny part of the whole effort, the whole working of the one Body of Christ, the whole groaning of creation. My little effort today, in this minute, caring for this family, these dogs, praying for this person, buying this can of food for the pantry, smiling at this person, changing this diaper, writing this report, putting up this stud, dealing with this customer, attending this Mass, taking this shower, putting one foot in front of the other…this is my answer to His call, my repentance, my “making sorry,” my preparing the way for the advent of the fullness of His Kingdom, my straightening out His paths in my own life, my own family, my own town, my own corner of the world, making it His world,…This is my not just saying but doing sorry for the my sins.

This straightening includes giving food to the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill, visiting prisoners [Mt 25:35-36]. This path includes going and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit [Mt 28:19], every moment of every day, at work, at home, at the store, at the mall, in little ways, being nice to this cashier, smiling at that stranger, helping this old man cross the street, carry his groceries, get up the stairs…ways of making disciples of all, when necessary using words.

This is the preparation of the way, the straightening of the paths on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis…doing the will of God as it is knocking on the door of my life right now. This is the “daily” in the phrase: If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. [Lk 9:23] So pick up that knife and chop that salad, yank the cord and start up that motor; put on your boots and shovel that snow, open up that laptop and type out that report, take your smart phone and text that apology, turn your head and smile that smile, that reaching out and touching someone who needs a boost right here, right now…and watch those paths straighten out in front of you. Amen. Alleluia!!!

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” [Mt 15:26][1]

For me, this is one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels.  How can Jesus say this to this woman in pain?  Below is my feeble attempt to reconcile His love with His words.

In a sense, this reminds me of the two times Jesus calls his mother “Woman” and the times she comes to visit or rescue him and he rebuffs her. There is that same laser focus on The Hour, hearing the word and keeping it, caring for each other. You let the dead bury the dead, you keep plowing straight ahead and do not look behind. Here also, it is the focus on the Kingdom to be preached to the house of Israel.

Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. [Mt 8:10] The Centurion’s faith, though manifested in a slightly different way, parallels and prefigures this woman’s faith. Both are pagan Gentiles; both have heard of Jesus; both are driven by a great need to have their daughter or son/servant healed; both have absolute faith, absolute belief that Jesus can heal their loved one; both approach Jesus with this request; while in the Lk and Mt versions, he cites the parallels between the temporal chain of command and the spiritual, in John, he is initially rebuffed by Jesus who states: Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe, [Jn 4:48] just as the woman is rebuffed; both are persistent in their plea; both show great faith; both the daughter and son are cured.

This still begs the question: Did Jesus let slip a racial slur? And, if so, how could He, since He was without sin? Was it said in innocence, it just came out as part of the unconscious lingua franca, the patois, the jargon of the dialect. I was raised to not only be racially tolerant but to promote racial equality back in the stone age before the equal rights act, the million man march, “I have a dream,” and the riots and the civil rights movement. I was arrested for working with the NAACP in John Birch country in Aurora, Ill, trying to quell potential civil unrest in the “ghetto” following MLK’s assassination.

Yet, much later in life, when I was working for an Episcopalian Outreach Center under a wonderfully patient and holy African-American priest, I inadvertently used a phrase in our conversation to which I had never paid attention, never averted to before as being racially biased, but as soon as it came out of my mouth, I was horrified at what I had done. While I don’t remember what I did immediately thereafter, I should have apologized profusely; in any event, I also don’t recall whether He graciously forgave me or, since I do not recall him calling attention to my egregiously hurtful faux pas, accepted the verbal blow, chalked it up to cultural and social sinfulness and chose to overlook the incident rather than make an issue of it, an act of kindness and forgiveness for which I am eternally grateful. Indeed, we remain friends to this day. But it caught me up short that the residue of prejudice tainted me, whether I was aware of it, fostered it, meant it or not. It is part of the concupiscence, weakening of human awareness, the socially sin-filled pall that blankets society to which we are all subject and guilty and that we all inherit from Adam.

It can be objected that Jesus was not subject to such concupiscence, such weakening. I concur. But was he showing us that he who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin [Heb 4:15] realized that prejudice was a part of the human condition, that one could without malice inadvertently [though he did not do so] express prejudice without sin as long as the intent to hurt was not present and that, upon realization of one’s harmful error, one re-asserts the victim’s brotherhood and rectifies the situation. 

From the perspective of the woman, we learn (a) great humility in addition to great faith, accepting at face value the rebuff and turning it back into a positive argument for Jesus’ acquiescence, and (b) a gentle lesson in non-violent protest. It reminds me of a story about Mother Teresa who went into a shop in Calcutta and asked the shop-keeper for food for her starving children. He spit in her face. “Thank you for your gift to me. Now could you spare some food for my children.” Jesus, Himself, when He was in a similar situation during his trial before the Sanhedrin, replied to the guard in this manner: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? [Jn 18:23] In the end, we must remember that after suffering calumny, injustice, torture, scourging, ridicule and derision, mockery and betrayal, and being condemned by his own people, Jesus found the forgiving strength to pray: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” [Lk 23:34] 

Throughout his ministry, Jesus never does anything that isn’t in obedience to his Father’s will; He always knows exactly what He is doing and saying. When He says things to test people, He does it because he himself knew what he was going to do. [John 6:6] Thus, we cannot chalk this remark to the woman up to a momentary lapse of civility; Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was testing the faith of the woman in a way she would understand and to which she could respond, while He was, simultaneously, asserting the primacy of the House of Israel as the initial focus of his ministry. His ultimate acquiescence to her plea is not only a precedent to his followers to affirm their later ministry to the Gentiles but also a proof that faith was to be found in all people, even deeper faith than those of the Chosen.

Perhaps, then, it was these lessons that He wished to teach through this rather harsh encounter: (a) that if we are the recipient, the butt of a racial or other slur, we remember with Paul that love is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [1 Cor: 13: 5-7]; (b) that the best way to non-violently protest such disparaging remarks, even ridicule or slander, is to be assertive, not aggressive, it to humbly reply with the truth; (c) that not all racial slurs bear malice; and finally (d) that when we do recognize that we have hurt the other, we must immediately apologize, listen closely with the heart and alleviate the pain, thus reasserting the tarnished equality of the other and engaging with the other again as a brother or sister.

I am not you, Jesus. I am not in control of my concupiscence. I do not always do the Father’s will. Guide me, Holy Spirit, to watch my tongue, to be aware of my frailty, to be cognizant of my immersion in the Social Sin of society, to be constantly on guard of my prejudices, my temper, my ill-will. Turn my faults and failings to good, helping me learn from my sinfulness and, with Your help, Your grace, Your guidance, not fall, at least not so often. Thank You. Amen. Alleluia!!!

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.