The 100th Monkey
January 23, 2005
Today’s homily is about the kingdom of God and Japanese monkeys. The kingdom of God is of course the centerpiece of today’s gospel. It is also at the heart of our faith. Matthew tells us that as Jesus begins his ministry he begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is drawing close, and we believe through his death and resurrection that the kingdom has begun. But what do we mean when we talk about the kingdom of God?
The answer is found in a very familiar place, in a prayer that most of us say daily, the Lord’s Prayer. In it we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God is when the will of God is established on earth, when the world becomes the way God wants it to be. That day will be good news for all of us. When God’s will is established, when the kingdom is established, evil will be destroyed. When the kingdom comes, there will be no more poverty or war, no more hatred or injustice, no more corruption or violence. Instead, when God’s will becomes real on earth, there will only be abundance and peace, love and kindness, harmony and justice. This then is the kingdom that Jesus proclaims and we believe is coming. Moreover, we believe that we that we have a role in establishing God’s will on earth. So as Christians we believe that the kingdom is coming and we are called to build it.
So how are we doing? For all the good actions and works done by Christians and others throughout the world, are we closer to the kingdom today than we were in the time of Jesus? Are we closer to the kingdom today than we were last century or last year? When we ask this question, the results are mixed. We can point to many points of progress, many places where justice is growing and where peace is being established. Yet at the same time we can point to many signs that the kingdom is not yet here: war and violence, injustice, and corruption – they are still a part of our world. With so many factors in our world that are contrary to God’s will, how do we maintain our belief that the kingdom is coming? How do we continue to take seriously our role in building it?
Here is where the Japanese monkeys come in. There is a report floating around the internet about a group of scientists who were conducting an experiment between 1952 and 1958 with the species of Japanese monkey, called Macaca Fuscata. The place for this experiment was the island of Koshima in Japan. On this island there were thousands of monkeys. The scientists chose to introduce something unusual into the environment so that they could see how the monkeys would react. They cut up pieces of sweet potato and threw them onto the beach. The monkeys loved the sweet potatoes but they were frustrated by the fact that the sand from the beach adhered to the sweet potatoes. So they kept trying to figure out what to do about this.
An eighteen-month-old monkey who the scientists named Imo was the first to come to a solution. She figured out that if you took the sweet potato and brought it to a stream, you could wash off the sand. She was delighted at this discovery and shared it with her mother who began to share it with some of the other adults in their particular tribe. The scientists watched how the monkeys gradually showed one another how to add this improvement to their lives. However, the progress was slow. Even though there were thousands of monkeys on the island, over the period of six years only 99 learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Then one morning in October of 1958 the 100th monkey learned how to wash her sweet potato. For reasons that the scientists still cannot explain, all the monkeys on the island started washing their sweet potatoes by the evening of that same day. The scientists call this the Hundredth Monkey Phenomena. Their theory is that if something new is learned, there comes a critical point when one more person learns it and then there is a breakthrough. Suddenly the new knowledge spreads to the rest of the population.
Now this Japanese experiment might be nothing more than an urban legend, but it makes a point that is remarkably close to the teaching of the Jewish rabbis on God’s kingdom. When questioned why God was taking so long to establish the kingdom, the rabbis concluded that God was waiting for a certain response from humanity before sending the Messiah. Moreover, the rabbis believed that God had a particular number of good works in mind. Therefore the rabbis warned their followers never to underestimate the value of one good work, never pass by an opportunity for one mitzvah. One action of loving kindness might be the action to reach the number for which God was waiting—one mitzvah might allow the Messiah to come.
You and I continue to believe that it is God’s intention to establish the kingdom. We would be served well to learn from both the Hundredth Monkey Phenomena and the teaching of the early Jewish rabbis. Never undervalue the importance of a single good work, a single act of loving kindness. Every one of your actions offered in faith is valuable and important. Never say to yourself that even a small work can be discounted. Shoveling the driveway for your neighbor next door, spending a few moments with a co-worker who is undergoing family problems, being patient with your parents or with your spouse might seem like small actions. But each one builds the kingdom. Do not hold back from seizing the opportunity to do them. For even a small action might be the action that allows the Messiah to return. Even a simple action of loving kindness on your part might be the addition that tips the scales and establishes the kingdom of God.
January 27, 2008
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
The presidential election is more than six months away, and already it is the central news story. Newspapers, TVs, internet are all filled with the strategies, the polls, the positions, the bickering, and the spin of the campaigns. I’m already exhausted, and there’s a long way to go. It could be tempting for us to turn it off, to say “I’m going to worry about my family, my job, my church community, and let them fight it out.” As tempting as this approach might be, it is unacceptable if we are followers of Jesus. Because the gospel is not just about getting to heaven; it is about collaborating in the creation of a just world.
That gives us great responsibilities as Americans, because we are the most powerful country on earth. And the power of our country is fundamentally shaped by the decisions of people in the voting booths. Votes by ordinary people such and you and me will determine the future of our country and in a real way the future of our world. Because of this, participation in the political process is a moral obligation. Our vote is not, as it is in many countries, a gimmick or a front for some political dictator. Our vote counts. Therefore, for all the mess and ugliness of American politics, not to be involved, not to vote is moral negligence.
But of course we are called to vote in a particular way. We are called to bring into the political process our beliefs and our convictions which flow from the gospel. As we make political judgments, our vote should not simply be based on what is most practical, or what’s best for me, or am I better than I was four years ago. It should be based on what God is calling me to do, what will build God’s kingdom?
Now such an approach might seem utter foolishness. For we all know that our political system is not based on the kingdom of God. It is based on getting people elected. Millions of dollars are presently being spent to do the math, so that the candidates can build a platform to draw the necessary votes in the Electoral College. Candidates are willing to shift their positions and change their talk to arrive at the necessary numbers to win. “The Catholic vote” is for many only a line on some political analyst’s spreadsheet. But that does not absolve us from exercising our political involvement from the perspective of God’s kingdom.
Paul in today’s second reading captures our situation: We are to preach the gospel but “not with the wisdom of human eloquence.” Paul goes on to say that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. So if you haven’t figured it out already, today’s homily is an exercise in political foolishness. I strive to emphasize how we have a responsibility to vote in light of the gospel that we profess. Why am I doing it today? The United States bishops have just published their document, which they do every four years, on faithful citizenship. There is a summary of this document available in the kiosk. If you want the full document, that’s also available. I am here at the ambo because I want to quote a few passages directly from the document.
Let’s start with this one. The bishops write, “Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The church calls for a different kind of political engagement, one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.” Now let’s be clear. You will not find in this document from the bishops, nor will you find in the Christian gospels, the name of the person for whom you should vote. Each Catholic must cast their vote based upon their individual conscience. The bishops make this clear. But our consciences should be formed in light of the gospel, in light of what we believe. So to say, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that. You see, I’m a democrat” or “I’m a republican,” is missing the point. Whatever our political affiliation, we must still go through the process to ask which candidate, which platform most closely conforms to God’s kingdom. Of course no candidate or platform corresponds precisely. This is why we must enter a process to decide which alternative best responds to the gospel.
What are the principles that should guide us? The bishops mention a number of them, but let me just mention a few. It will illustrate how no one candidate or political party has a complete monopoly on these principles. Certainly a central principle that should guide our voting is the importance of human life and the necessity of preserving it. The bishops speak strongly here. I quote, “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong, and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” As you know, there are some candidates that espouse this position. Because of that, they should be listened to and respected. But even this one essential position does not exhaust our responsibilities to life. The bishops continue, “We cannot ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy, are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed.”
They go on to emphasize our responsibility to the poor and the vulnerable, stating, “A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.” Now this does not mean that the bishops adopt any particular form of government, such as socialism, or any particular economic policy. But it does mean that, as candidates present options for economic policy, the question that the Christian asks is “How will this affect the poorest among us? Will the most vulnerable be protected?”
The bishops adopt the principle of solidarity, stating “Solidarity includes the scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us, including immigrants seeking work, a safe home, education for their children, and a decent life for their families.” This principle does not mean that we are required to have open borders where everyone can enter at will. But it does remind us that in discussing immigration, the Christian adopts the attitude of welcoming the stranger, rather than keeping the alien out.
The bishops do not consider care for the environment optional. “We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live—to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development.”
In conclusion the bishops state, “In light of these principles and the blessings we share as a part of a free and democratic nation, we bishops vigorously repeat our call for a renewed kind of politics: a politics focused more on moral principle than on the latest polls, a politics focused more on the needs of the weak than on the benefits to the strong, a politics focused more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of narrow interests.” Obviously, to base our vote on these principles might seem to some foolishness, but it is the foolishness of Christ. Deciding for whom we will vote will not be easy, and not everyone in this church will come to the same conclusion. But Christ calls us to exercise our vote in light of the gospel. This is the year. It is not too early to begin.
January 23, 2011
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples: Peter and Andrew, and then James and John. The stories are brief and unadorned. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they leave their boats, their nets, their families, and follow him. Because of our familiarity with these stories, we might overlook a very important characteristic within them—the people who Jesus calls are not the best candidates to be his apostles. They were fishermen. Despite Jesus’ clever turn of the phrase that he will make them fishers of people, there is a big difference between catching fish and catching people. They require two different skill sets. To catch fish, you need to know how to manage boats and nets. To catch people, you have to know how to use words and persuasion. There is no doubt that Jesus would have been on much surer footing had he chosen people accustomed to public speaking. He could have chosen apostles who had some notoriety, whose name and star power could have attracted others into Jesus’ company. It certainly would have been a plus if those chosen had some education, if they had studied the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention being able to read or write. But Jesus did not choose people with these qualifications. He chose a handful of fishermen.
Now, this choice of Jesus’ disciples contributes to a major theme which runs throughout the whole Bible. God seldom chooses the people that we expect. God seems to prefer the younger and inexperienced to the elder and accomplished, the unlikely to the logical. God chooses Jacob over his elder brother Esau. God chooses Joseph and David over their elder brothers. When God needs a prophet, he chooses Amos who is a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees or Jeremiah who is a boy. This theme carries over into the New Testament. God chooses Mary though she is a lowly handmaiden and Paul though he is a persecutor of the Church. It is difficult to predict who God is going to call. This is the Bible’s way of telling us that God is in charge. It is not we who choose God, but God who chooses us. So this much is clear: God will choose who God will choose.
But, how do we move this theme out of the Bible and into our lives? What do these unlikely call narratives have to say when God calls us? Here we need to be careful, because we could draw some conclusions that are false. For example, we might say since God chooses those who are unlikely, qualifications do not matter. God could choose anybody to do anything. This is not true. God calls us in light of our talents and our abilities. If you want to perform for the Metropolitan Opera, you must be able to sing. If you want to play halfback for a pro football team, you must be able to run. I would imagine that there are many of you here today who would not want to change places with me and give this homily. And I can assure you that you do not want me to be your surgeon if you needed heart bypass surgery.
The unlikely call narratives do not negate the need for abilities, but they do negate our excuses that other people are more qualified. There may be many people who have better parenting skills than you do, who are more insightful, more patient, more creative. But if God calls you to be a parent, you must say yes and do your best. You might be able to recognize many people at school or at work who are more popular and have more influence over others than you do. But, if God calls you to stand up for someone who’s being demeaned or picked on or to speak out against something that is unjust or wrong, you cannot excuse yourself. You cannot say, “God, go choose somebody else.” You might not be the most people-friendly person, not the best listener. Your skills might be more about analyzing, quantifying, deciding. But, if there is someone in your family or someone among your friends who is in need, who is hurting, and Jesus says to you, “Go to that person and be present,” you must stand up from your nets, from your book, from your computer and do His will.
God will call who God will call. And when God calls us, it does us no good to point to others who have better qualifications. Of course, the God who calls us will be with us and will make up for our inadequacies. That is why, with Jesus’ help, even unlikely disciples such as us can be successful. But, first, we must stand up and follow him.
Christ’s Broken Body
January 26, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Today’s second reading is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This letter was probably written in the year 54, and it is one of the earliest writings of the New Testament. But reading today’s passage is discouraging, because it makes clear that from the beginning of our faith tradition, Christians were disagreeing with one another. There were divisions at Corinth. You can hear the slogans in the reading today that each of the factions adopted to prove that it was right: “I belong to Paul.” “I belong to Apollos.” “I belong to Cephas.” “I belong to Christ.” Paul knew that the Christian community was divided. He wrote this letter to Corinth deeply concerned. What is important for us to realize is why Paul was so concerned. Paul was not motivated by some simple idea that people should be nice to one another. Nor was he moved by the true human wisdom that things go better when people cooperate. Paul was upset about the divisions in Corinth for a profoundly religious reason. He states it at the end of today’s reading. Paul was disturbed by the divisions at Corinth, because if Christians were divided, “the cross of Christ would be emptied of its meaning.”
For Paul, Jesus’ work, Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ sacrifice would not make sense if we, as Christians, were divided one from another. And Paul believed this for an even deeper reason which he explained later in the letter. Paul believed that those who followed Christ were the Body of Christ in the world. Christ was present on earth through them. This body of Christ lived because it was united in one faith and animated by one spirit. This is why Christians cannot be divided. They are members of a living body. And if the members of the body are divided, that body will die.
Now, imagine Paul’s horror if he came back today and saw the way we Christians live. We are not simply divided into factions. We are divided into distinct religious denominations. We not only have our own slogans, we have our own liturgies and our own confessions. We are Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, and Pentecostals—each believing that we have the truth. We are a divided, each of us worshipping God in distinct church buildings scattered throughout the world. Is Christ divided? He is. And his body is wounded, struggling to survive. Now, all of us have lived our lives in a world in which Christians have been divided. So we are tempted to think that such a condition is normal and acceptable. It is not. We continue to think that we can give adequate praise and glory to God separated into our various churches. But, when Christians are divided, our praise is muted and compromised. We have just finished a week that we celebrate every year: the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We should pray for Christian unity. But it is important that we do not pray from a stance of superiority. We cannot pray with the attitude that union means that everyone agrees with us. Instead, we must pray for unity with profound humility and repentance, knowing that our Church is wounded, that Christ’s body is broken.
So as we celebrate this Eucharist today, let us pray that the Spirit of God will make us keenly aware of that brokenness. Let us pray that we might be healed of every attitude, judgment, and conviction that keeps us divided from one another. Let us pray that there will come a day when a united body of Christ can receive the body of Christ from the same table. This cannot be an idle prayer. This must be a deep and constant prayer. For as long as we remain divided from one another, the cross of Christ is emptied of its meaning.
Attentiveness to the Spirit
January 22, 2017
Matthew 4: 12-23
When Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John in today’s gospel, the text says
“They left their nets at once and followed him.” That is a dramatic response. Without hesitation or reflection, they leave everything behind and immediately join his company. Now often when people reflect on this passage, they try to imagine what was there about Jesus that was so charismatic and attractive that it would make people drop everything and go after him. And don’t get me wrong. I think Jesus was charismatic and attractive. But I do not believe these qualities completely explain the disciples’ immediate response. I think we should consider not only the strength of Jesus’ person but also what was going on in the lives of Peter and his companions before they met Jesus. I think we need to reflect not only on the power of Jesus’ call, but how God was working in the hearts of the disciples to prepare them to accept that call.
Perhaps when he got up on the morning on the day Jesus called him, Peter thought to himself, “Another day of fishing. I know its honest work, and it provides for my family. But why do I still have this emptiness within me? Why do I keep thinking there should be more? Why do I keep seeking something deeper? But what could that possibly be?” Perhaps James as he began to mend his nets thought to himself, “I truly love God, and I know that I serve God by being a good husband and father. But what a joy it would be if somehow I were able to speak directly to people about God’s goodness. But how could that happen? I’m only a fisherman. Who would listen to me?” Then Jesus comes walking along the beach and says, “Follow me.” They say, “Of course. This is it.” And immediately leave everything that they have and become his disciples.
God is always calling us to the next stage of our lives, to something new. So does it not make sense that God would be preparing us to respond to that call? You always presumed that you would follow the family tradition and become a doctor. That was the expectation, and you at least halfway accept it. You sign up for pre-med courses, and tell people that “Yes, this is what I want to be.” But there’s something about medicine that does not click for you, something incomplete, and you know it. Then one day you go with a friend to hear a lecture on philosophy, and you say to yourself, “Of course. This is it! I want to be a teacher.” In a heartbeat you change your major.
You might be in a long-term relationship. The person is kind and attractive. But you know that something does not fit, you look for something more. Then one day you enter into a conversation with a fellow student after biology class. You laugh and you talk for hours. And you know, “Yes, this is it,” and immediately decide to ask this person out on a date.
You may have been retired for a couple years. You play plenty of golf, and visit several countries, and adore your grandchildren. But in your heart you know it is not enough. You need something more. Then one day you visit a homeless shelter. As you watch people unpack their paper bags for the night you say to yourself, “Of course. This is it.” Without hesitation you know that helping here will now be a part of your life.
God is always preparing us for the next call. That is why attentiveness is an essential virtue of discipleship. We must be people who honestly claim what is in our hearts, what we seek, what we need, what we yearn for. These feelings are not random movements. They are the work of the Spirit prompting us and preparing us. And when we are willing to be attentive to the Spirit’s action, we will be ready, so that when Jesus walks by and says, “Come!” we will immediately leave what we have and follow him.