Love God, Love the Neighbor: It is Just a Choice

The gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time has to be understood, still, in the context of the on-going dialectical confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus. Again, the Pharisees have lodged another loaded academic question: Which one is the greatest of the commandments?

Jesus may have thought, you come to me “by the book,” so he initially replies “by the book,” citing the beginning of the prayer any Jew would know and recite several times a day, the Shema Ysrael: “Listen, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” This prayer is found in one of the books of the Law, Deuteronomy 6:4-5. But then he adds another piece, also contained in the Law (Leviticus 19:18) by saying that equal to the love of God is the love of neighbor: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A practice of religion that only considers God but does not consider our fellow human beings would be an empty one: empty rituals, empty prayers, empty sacrifice. Faith lived this way would be an escapism from reality. At the same time, we admit that loving the neighbor is not an easy task.

We discussed the concept back in February (posts Love and Loving the Enemy.) The demand of the gospel to love is a multidimensional one: as the gospel text says, we cannot love the neighbor if we do not love ourselves first. Loving self is not easy. Then we are asked to love the close neighbor, the spouse, the son or daughter, family members, the close friend… Not easy either. In the case of the spouse, how do we love beyond the initial “falling in love” with a love that survives decades?

Then we are asked to love people we do not know. As we have reflected so many times before, parishes are places where we often tell people to love one another, but we cannot love the person we do not know. This was the main motivation that brought us to put together FaithGroups at Sacred Heart. Once we know someone, and people get to know others rather quickly reflecting and praying together, love can take place. But we also are asked to love the enemy, and not a theoretical one—but the enemies we all have in our lives, people that have been part of deep disagreements or conflicts.

What I believe is that, despite all the difficulties, love is a choice. I choose to love. Love is not only a feeling, but a choice I can make. I choose to love self, to love the other, to love the enemy. And only because I chose to love, love begins to happen.

Blog Pic, Love the neighbor

29th Sunday in OT: The Pharisees’ Trap

The gospel this past Sunday, the infamous episode of the question about whether taxes are to be paid to Caesar, has to be understood in the context of the now direct confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. This text often has been used as a scriptural foundation in support of concept of Church and State separation. However, that would simply be an anachronism, as such concept is very modern, something that would not have been an issue in the time of Jesus. The proper context is to realize that after a series of parables that Jesus has told the Pharisees to confront them, it is time for them to punch back.

The story is well known and it can be summarized in one sentence: Master, you who are so clever, do we have to pay taxes to the Roman oppressor or not? As the text indicates, the Pharisees really are not concerned about the answer to the question, they just want to trap Jesus in what in English we call a “Catch-22.” There is no apparent escape from the question. If Jesus answers, “No, do not pay the taxes,” the Pharisees will hand Jesus over to the Roman authorities, accused of teaching sedition. If he answers, “Yes, pay the taxes,” he would lose all the support of the growing number of followers who see him as the long-expected political Messiah that will liberate the land of Israel from the yoke of the Romans, the foreign oppressor.

While we tend to think that Jesus takes a clever “middle ground” solution (I even said it at one of the Masses this past Sunday), he really does not: while clever, Jesus does say clearly, “Yes, pay the taxes.”

The key to understand the text is to realize that Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.” They are the ones who preached against the Romans; they are the ones who preached that it was unlawful to relate to foreigners; they are the ones who preached against idolatry (the Romans considered the Caesar a God, and his face was tilted in the coin.) Despite all these, they are the ones who present the coin to Jesus because they are using it, while Jesus did not have one. By producing the coin, the Pharisees showed that when it came to money, all these things they were so adamantly opposed to, seem to have lost importance. Jesus knows well that the religious authorities do use the Roman coins in the Temple, and it is the currency they force the simple people to use to pay for the sacrifices and offerings established by the Law. This is why, in the incident of the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus has an issue with the “money changers.” The simple people’s produce and farm animals were exchanged into Roman currency at outrageous rates.

This is, in my opinion, the interpretation of this text that is coherent with historical and cultural knowledge about the time of Jesus. In addition to gaining knowledge, how can this help us in our lives today? In the homily I suggested three ways: be clever in our life and in your faith the way Jesus was clever in this situation. We tend to think that our intelligence does not play a part in how we live our faith. It does.

At the end of the gospel, after he has told the Pharisees to pay the taxes, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” but adds, “Return to God what belongs to God.” Jesus, again, is simply brilliant, because, as we know, everything belongs to God. The lesson for us is that we should not “turn off” the Faith switch when we live our “normal” lives.

There is a more subtle application. The text states that the Pharisees were “testing” Jesus. The use of the verb testing brings us to the Temptations, which are really “tests” on Jesus’ identity. The temptation for Jesus in this gospel was to betray his identity and become the political Messiah his followers—including the Apostles—wanted him to be. We also receive pressures often to become what we are not; we have to be faithful to the person we are. For a priest, that could mean the temptation to be a popular rock star, to tell my parishioners what they want to hear instead of what I think they need to hear, or to fall into the temptation to be in the priesthood just to climb the ladder. What that temptation of identity means for you is something that you will have to discern…

Blog Pic, Render To Caesar

Parables of the Kingdom (IV): Joy, Search, Responsibility.

For a fourth consecutive Sunday, we again read about Jesus confronting the authorities using a parable. The difference is that we leave behind the image of the vineyard, as Jesus compares the Kingdom to a wedding banquet. The invitation to the Kingdom, a Kingdom that needs to begin to be a reality in the here and the now, is open to everyone—but three things are needed: Joy, a sense of search, and responsibility.

Sometimes reality surpasses fiction. We had a wonderful wedding at Sacred Heart this Saturday. It was a good one: lots of happiness, a very engaged congregation, lots of smiles and laughs during the service. At the end of the celebration, this woman comes to talk to me. I could tell she was distraught, and hesitant to talk to me. She was a bit upset about the wedding being without Mass, is that valid, Father? She was also upset about hearing me saying that the husband is equal to the wife. To be clear, this is not me preaching, it is part of the Nuptial Blessing right out of the Ritual. I also added that I was a Canon Lawyer and that the Church teaches equality between the parties, and has done that especially since the Second Vatican Council. To that, she said that a lot of things have gone wrong since then. I mentioned earlier that there were a lot of smiles and laughter at this wedding. She complained about this also. Then she went on to complain about our lack of respect to the Tabernacle, and about my “allowing women to dress this way,” to which I answered that while I did not have any problem about how women dressed for the wedding—seriously, there were all dressed properly, in my opinion—I also had no control over how out-of-town people would dress for a wedding. At this point, realizing how adequate this conversation was for the Gospel this weekend, I asked her if she was planning to attend Mass here—as many of the guests had told me they would come to Mass on Sunday. Mind you, I am not inviting her. Well aware of the gospel for the weekend, I just want to make sure she is not coming so I can preach about this conversation. She said she did not think she could attend Mass with us, as she was sure that we would give communion in the hand “in this place.” We actually give communion in either of the forms accepted by the Church, in the hand being one of the two.

How does this dialogue connect with the parable? In her concern for rules, most of them rules she has made up herself, she forgot her real role during the ceremony, which was to share in the joy of the sacrament of marriage, and to pray for the bride and the groom. She could not experience the joy of the wedding banquet, the image that Jesus gives to explain the Kingdom.

This image of the wedding banquet reminds us that our way of living faith, from coming to Mass to everything else, should be done with a sense of joy—a joy that is a choice. We all have problems and difficulties, but we can opt to be joyful. The invitation to the banquet is open to those who are able to participate joyfully. Interestingly, the first document the Holy Father promulgated was titled, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

The second condition to attend the banquet of the Kingdom is a sense of search. Those invited first did not make it, but then the King of the parable sends his servants to look for anybody, bad and look alike, on the “main roads.” The ones who end up filling the hall are those who were “on the road,” still searching. This attitude would be in contrast with the woman at the wedding, who had reached a place of self-righteousness (the sin of the Pharisees) from where she thought she could judge everything and everybody. To participate in the banquet in the Kingdom, we need to be a people with more questions than answers; more doubts than certainties; people still seeking, searching, wondering, questioning. A people on the move—mentally and physically—pilgrims in a pilgrim Church. The contrary of this is the sin of complacency, which affects so many Christians today.

Lastly, responsibility. The last part of the parable tells the story within the story of the guest without the wedding garment. The problem of this particular guest was not the lack of garment, but that when the King asks him about it, “he was reduced to silence.” This silence, this lack of a response is what takes him out of the banquet. Thus, we are asked to be individuals who are able to respond, able to give reasons for what we do and say, and also individuals able to respond to the constant questions that life throws at us. Interestingly, the word “responsible” has the same root of “response.” A responsible person is someone able to give a response.

These days, the Vatican is celebrating a Synod on the Family, which will be completed next year in a second session. If anything, this is an effort led by the Holy Father, to respond to the new realities affecting our understanding of the family. It is a Church making an effort to respond with new answers to the questions of today, instead of resorting to concepts forged centuries ago—as we have done so many times in the past.

Back to the beginning, the parable was addressed to the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were simply unable to experience joy; they had forgotten to keep searching; they had become unable to respond.

Blog Pic, The Wedding Banquet

27th Sunday in OT: Parables of the Kingdom (III)

The next parable that Jesus uses to confront the authorities of his time—the chief priests and the elders—is the one that has traditionally been called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. The explanation of the characters in the parable is simple: God is the landowner, the tenants are the people of Israel—especially those in positions of authority throughout all generations—the slaves are the prophets God keeps sending to denounce the situation, and the heir is Jesus Christ, who at this point knows that he will pay for his confrontation with the powerful with his own life.

One way to reflect about this parable to make it relevant for us is to look at the connection that can be established with the last two parables we have read the last two weekends.

The parable connects with the story of the two sons in that Jesus concluded the parable by telling the authorities that prostitutes and tax collectors were ahead of them in accessing the Kingdom. As we reflected last week, those who experience societal marginalization seemed to connect with the liberating message of Jesus more easily. This is the reason why Jesus cites the psalm: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I believe the problem for us is that we do not experience that kind of rejection, personally or collectively.

As examples, during the homily we reflected about what it meant to be Catholic in this country a few decades ago. Society rejected Catholics, because to be a Catholic was synonymous with poor, immigrant, working class. There was a clear anti-Catholic bias. During the last third of the twentieth century, the Catholic phenomena is slowly assumed into mainstream society, as our economic situation improved. Then we started abandoning the center of the urban cities and moving to the affluent suburbs, a social exodus that still happens today. This is only an example, explained quickly, and certainly it is an oversimplification, but it does tell us that our identity as Catholics has changed. Can you imagine how strong was the faith of those who knew they were rejected just because there were Catholics?

Other examples are obvious: Can you imagine being a Christian in Syria today? Or to be a Christian when the church was under persecution before it became the official religion of the Empire? Or the best example of all: Can you imagine the faith of Jesus Christ, as he lived it knowing well that he would eventually pay with his life? To experience this kind of “holy rejection” we need to go to the peripheries of society, as Pope Francis told us so beautifully at the very beginning of his pontificate.

The parable also connects with the parable we read two weeks ago. The contrary of what we called the “credit card mentality” (living faith expecting heaven points for each time we go to Mass, or we pray a Rosary, or we do some nice deed…) is to capture the sense of the Kingdom as being something that has been entrusted. We are God’s investment. Instead of checking our balance of heaven points on our cards, I believe we will be asked what have we done with the gift of the vineyard. As we reflected two weeks ago, the only payment we will receive for our faith is precisely the opportunity to work for the building of the Kingdom.

I believe that if only we would change the mentality, from the “rewards program” one, to the understanding that we have been asked to care for the vineyard/Kingdom, our faith—individually and as community—would experience a tremendous growth, and would become a faith that matters.

Blog Pic, Parables of the Kingdom

Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven (25th and 26th Sunday in OT)

The blog has been inactive for a couple of weeks, but here we are again. We have missed two entries, but we thought we could invite you to listen to the last two homilies here (click on “Launch Media Player.”)

Central to Matthew’s gospel is his use of parables, most of them about the Kingdom. The last two weekends we have read two of those: the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and the Parable of the Two Sons. In order to understand these parables—as we have said before—we have to realize that Jesus is not speaking about the Kingdom as a reality we access when we die. The Kingdom is what the here and now would look like if we were to live following God’s will.

For the Parable of the Workers, we reflected about how we often live our faith with the mentality of the grumbling workers. To illustrate the point, during the homily we used a credit card. We live faith as if it was a “rewards program” of a credit card company or an airline. We go to Mass, we think we get 10 points; we do something nice for someone, 10 points. We curse, we lose 15 points… We then expect that when we die, they have a card reader at the gates of heaven. If we have accumulated 15,000 points, we get to heaven. Between 7,000 and 15,000: Purgatory. Less than 7,000… you know where we go… The workers in the vineyard wanted a reward, and so do we, but the only payment we receive is the great invitation to build the Kingdom here on earth. What other payment do we need?

In the gospel of the Parable of the Two Sons, we first need to realize that Jesus is speaking to the Chief priests and the Elders, representing both the religious and civil authorities of the time. Jesus tells them they are the ones who said “yes” with words but actually said “no” with their actions. They had failed in fulfilling their obligations towards society. Jesus was very patient with any sin, except the sin of self-righteousness, which is the sin of the Chief Priests and the Elders. They thought they were fine, close to God, and felt they had the authority to judge others and impose obligations they were not willing to fulfill themselves.

Jesus then tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes are ahead in accessing the Kingdom, not because he condones the fraudulent practices of the tax collectors or the immoral activities of the prostitutes. They are ahead because, unlike the powerful, the tax collectors and the prostitutes have repented (the text of the Lectionary reads that they “changed their minds,” which is a poor translation.) The self-righteous do not see the need for repentance.

Blog Pic, Parables of the Kingdom