Seeing the Ultimate Sacrifice
March 23, 2003
The talking is finished. The diplomacy is ended. The war has begun. A war that many throughout the world and in our country, myself included, find difficult to justify. Yet I am sure that we can join most Americans today in praying for a quick end to this war and for the least amount of harm both to combatants and civilians.
Although It might seem strange to be celebrating the season of Lent in the midst of war, war provides at least one important point of reflection for us in this holy time. A few days ago I was watching an interview on television. The reporter was interviewing a group of college students on spring break in Fort Lauderdale and he asked them, “What do you think of the war?” One young woman said: “It is rather embarrassing. We’re out all day partying at the beach and drinking beer. Then we come in and turn on the television and see people our own age risking their lives. It makes you think.”
It does make you think. Because every time we see someone who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, it cannot help but pose the question: What is important in my life? What is it that I am doing that could measure up against that kind of sacrifice, that kind of risk?
Jesus takes such a risk in today’s gospel. His decision to drive out the money changers from the temple was not a safe one. It would have greatly concerned the Roman authorities who were always worried that such actions would stir up the people and incite a revolt. In fact, his decision to cleanse the temple was probably the single most important factor that led to his crucifixion. Yet, Jesus was willing to do it, because he believed in his call and his mission.
Whenever we see people willing to lay down their lives, we cannot help but ask ourselves, “What is important in my life? What really matters?” It should make us wonder whether the concern we show for the clothes we wear, the homes we live in, the cars we drive is really as central as we make it. It should make us question whether the energy that we spend worrying about what people think and measuring ourselves against others is truly warranted. It should lead us to consider whether the time that we give to our work and our hobbies can be justified in light of our responsibilities to the people in our lives.
Whenever we see people like us willing to lay down their lives on the battlefield of war, we cannot help but ask ourselves, what am I willing to sacrifice? What is really important for me? This Lenten Season asks us not simply to think about such questions but to act in light of them. This is the season in which to decide to do something good and noble for our world. This is the season in which we should decide to give ourselves to improve the lives of others. In this holy time we are invited to choose a way of making a difference, not with the arms of the battlefield, but with the gospel of love.
The Anger That Is Good
March 19, 2006
Aristotle has written, “It is easy to become angry. Anyone can do it. But to become angry at the right moment, to the right degree, for the right purpose, in the right manner, that is difficult. Only the wise person can accomplish it.” What is implied in Aristotle’s words is the realization that there are different kinds of anger. There is a destructive anger, which is unfocused, irrational and wasteful. But there is also a constructive anger that is precise, appropriate and useful. Aristotle believed that constructive anger is valuable. So did Jesus.
In today’s gospel we see Jesus using constructive anger to motivate himself in the dramatic action in the temple. Now we are not completely sure what Jesus was angry at. He was not angry at the temple itself, for as a good Jew the temple was the center of his religious life, and he prayed in the temple often. He could not be angry at the fact that people were selling animals, because animals were required by Jewish law for sacrifice. Perhaps he was angry at where the animals were being sold or how they were being sold. Perhaps they were sold in an unfair way that discriminated against the poor. Whatever the reason was, it is clear that Jesus perceived in the action of selling some injustice, and his response to that injustice was anger. Anger motivated Jesus to act against what he believed was wrong.
The example of Jesus reminds us that, as children of God, we are required to do more than pray quietly and promote a peaceful inner disposition. We are also required to act on behalf of what is right, to oppose every evil, oppression, and discrimination. We do these things because we believe that they are contrary to God’s kingdom. In this action against evil, there is a kind of anger that is very useful. Constructive anger is a virtue when it is exercised on behalf of the kingdom. Now this can surprise us, because some of us were taught that anger is a sin. But only destructive anger is sinful. Constructive anger is not a sin. It is a positive and valuable part of human life.
Look at your own life over the past year. If you cannot think of any time when you were angry, that is not necessarily a good thing. Never being angry does not make us holy; in fact, it might indicate that we are indifferent, indifferent to the injustice and evils that are a part of our world. If, on the other hand, you look over the past year and realize that you are always angry, that is not a good thing either. When we suddenly burst into rage at the slightest comment, when we explode without any reason, when we discover that we are living constantly with an internal tension, that is an indication that there are unresolved issues in our life that need to be faced. That is a sign that destructive anger controls us. And destructive anger needs to be eliminated.
But contrary to never being angry or always being angry, constructive anger is healthy. It helps us identify what is wrong, and it motivates us to work against it. If you recognize in your life a growing tendency toward self-indulgence and self-centeredness, constructive anger can motivate you to act, to turn things around. If you realize that you are experiencing abuse or manipulation in a relationship, constructive anger can force you to demand a change or to abandon the relationship altogether. If you recognize that the policies of your job, of your church, or of our society discriminate against the poor or oppress the weak, constructive anger can cause you to speak out, to organize, to work for doing what is right.
There is no doubt that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But he is also the Lord of Justice. Jesus did not sit meekly by when he saw evil being imposed on others. Jesus was not afraid of constructive anger. He used it to build the kingdom. So should we.
Enlarging Our Picture of Jesus
March 11, 2012
John 2: 13-21
None of us has met Jesus face to face. Therefore our idea of him, our notion of the kind of person that he is, is derived exclusively from stories in the gospels. In this process it is often the case that we give weight to some stories over others. We can, therefore, end up with a lopsided view of Jesus. If you ask the average person on the street, “Describe Jesus to me.” Most people would say that he was a gentle and loving Savior who gave himself tirelessly for the sake of others. This is why today’s gospel is so important. In today’s gospel we are told that Jesus had two qualities which we often do not associate with him. Today’s gospel reveals Jesus as a person who could be combative and self- protective.
The combative part comes out in the first part of the gospel because it relates to us Jesus’ action in the temple. He takes a whip of cords and drives out the money changers. We are confident that Jesus did this action because all four gospels record it. But what is amazing is that we are not certain why he did this action. The text says he did not want to make the temple a marketplace, but this does not seem a complete answer. At the time of Jesus the selling of animals was necessary so that people could perform the required sacrifices in the temple. So in this sense the temple had to be a marketplace. What, then, was Jesus upset about? Some people suggest that he was opposed to where the selling was taking place in the temple. Others suggest that he was upset because some of those who were selling were charging unfair amounts. The point is, we are not clear. But what is clear is that Jesus saw something that required action and he was not afraid to follow his conviction. Jesus was willing to confront a reality in his society when he thought something needed to change.
The second quality of Jesus that emerges from today’s gospel is that he was able to protect himself. This happens at the end of the gospel where the evangelist tells us that he was unwilling to entrust himself to the crowds because he knew human nature. Now, of course, Jesus came to serve the crowds, to minister to the poor and the needy. Yet this gospel tells us that he was not afraid to place limits on that service. He was willing to set boundaries on how much he would entrust himself to others because he knew human nature. He knew that people could take advantage of him and that if he simply gave himself completely to others they could consume all of his energy and exhaust all of his resources.
It is important for us to see that Jesus could both be confrontational and self-protective, because his actions gives us permission to act in similar ways. Sometimes we think that a follower of Jesus must always be meek and agreeable. But today’s gospel reminds us that when we see something that is wrong, we can have the spine to say, “I do not agree.” When there is a problem at school, in our workplace, in our family, or in any of our relationships, we can insist, “This is not acceptable.” When we, ourselves, or someone else is treated unjustly or without respect, when we see someone doing what is wrong or manipulating someone else, we are true followers of Jesus when we say, “This has to stop!”
We also have the permission to protect ourselves. Sometimes we imagine that being a true follower of Jesus means that we simply have to give and give, no matter what others may ask of us. Like Jesus we should be aware of human nature. We should realize that people can take advantage of us. In those circumstances, we have the right to say, “ I know that you want me to do this, but I can’t. No, I cannot give this to you now.” By placing a boundary on our service, we allow ourselves to have the energy to continue to serve in the future.
There is no doubt that Jesus was a kind and loving person. But it is also clear that he could be confrontational and self-protective. His example gives us the warrant to speak out against injustice and to protect ourselves from harm.
March 8, 2015
Mark Twain has famously said, “When I was 17 years old I thought that my father was a fool. But when I became 22, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in five years.” Twain’s point of course is not that his father changed. He did. In those five years between 17 and 22 he experienced new things that allowed him to appreciate who his father was. We do not begin life with all that we need. We begin with partial knowledge. But we push forward. It takes time and experience to deepen our knowledge of ourselves, of the people around us, and the world in which we live. Looking backwards, things become more clear.
This is the experience of the disciples in today’s gospel. Jesus is talking about the temple of his body, but the crowds around him and his disciples believe he is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. The evangelist tells us that it is only later, after Jesus resurrection, that his disciples remembered his words and understood them. For the disciples looking backwards made things clearer. Jesus’ words didn’t change. They did.
This is the pattern of our lives. We often imagine, when we make major decisions in our lives that we know what we are getting into. But this is seldom the case. When you committed yourself to your spouse on your wedding day, the vows that you exchanged were heartfelt and sincere. But you had only partial knowledge of what those vows meant. It takes time and experience for you to be able to say, “Now I know what it means to love another person for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health.” What your vows mean becomes clearer when you look back on them after 10, 30, or 60 years of married life. Your vows haven’t changed. You have. And this is true of most major decisions in our lives. We decide: “I’m going to do this as a career. I think I am ready to have children. I am going to commit myself to this person as a friend.” We make all those decisions with the best knowledge we have at the time. But what we are deciding only becomes clear after years of living it. It is only after our business goes through a crisis, after we sit by the bedside of a sick son or daughter, when we separate from a friend and together find our way back, that we discover what saying “yes” means.
Now this is a scary way to live, finding out only gradually what we have already committed ourselves to. But here is the good news. Although our life becomes clear to us only as we look backwards, our life is completely clear to God. Although we understand only gradually what our commitments involve, God understands us fully. And because God loves us, God works to see that our lives will not end up being impossible or destructive. So when it begins to dawn on you that your marriage, career, or friendship is more than you bargained for, different from what you thought, and more difficult than you had planned, it is important to remember that although this is news to you, it is not news to God. We understand our lives by looking backwards, but God is the one who is constantly leading us forward. That is why we should trust God. That is why we should believe that our lives are not random or wasted. That is why we should have faith that each day that we live, God is taking us a step closer to the life that has been planned for us from the start.
Standing in Truth
March 4, 2018
Father Fred planned his usual approach for his homily on Christmas morning. He would call up all the small children and have them sit on the floor around him. Then he would retell the story of Jesus’ birth. Father Fred was convinced that when the assembly saw the joy and the delight in the children’s faces as they heard about shepherds and angels, they would leave with a deeper sense of the truth and the holiness of Christmas. All was going well until about halfway through his homily. A seven-year old boy named Jake stood up and with clenched fists cried out, “I hate my Dad!” The assembly gasped. Father Fred froze. Jake’s older brother tried to pull him down to keep him quiet. But Jake broke away and continued, “My dad promised he would be with us on Christmas, but this morning when I woke up he was not there. He made my mother cry. I hate him! He is a big fat liar.”
Father Fred was speechless, but he also realized that the liturgy was slipping out of control. He had to do something. So he did. Based on an instinct honed by over thirty years of priestly ministry and personal knowledge of Jake’s family, he reached out and placed Jake in his lap, holding him tightly. Jake held on to the priest, crying uncontrollably. Then when Father Fred found his voice, he said to Jake in a loud whisper, “Jake, Jake, you are so upset only because you love your father so much.” At the word “love” Jake relaxed and became silent. Father Fred was able to finish the mass and dismiss the assembly. But, looking back on that Christmas morning he realized that he had attained his objective. The mass was not what he thought it would be. It was violent and disruptive. But because he was able to speak the truth—the truth that anger flows not from hate but from love—people went home with a deeper sense of the truth and the holiness of Jesus’ birth.
When we come before the Lord, we must come in truth. Our aim is not to be polite, but to be honest. Therefore, we must come as the people we are. Jesus demonstrates this in today’s gospel. When he enters the temple, he sees something that disturbs him and he becomes angry. But his anger does not flow from hatred of the temple or hatred of people in the temple. His anger flows from his love for his Father’s house.
Jesus calls us to follow his example, to stand before the Lord in truth, because God wants us as the people we are. Sometimes I run into parishioners who have recently experienced the death of a loved one. They tell me that they are not coming to church, because they afraid that they will cry. I tell them, “What better place is there to cry than in church? Your tears and your sorrow are precious to God. So come, cry before the Lord and ask for God’s healing.” We should also bring our anger to church— anger because of the irresolvable difficulties we have in our families, because of sexual abuse within the clergy, because of growing violence in our country as demonstrated by the recent shootings in our schools and in our public gatherings. What better place to bring our anger than to the Lord who already knows our pain and can help us.
We should bring our sorrow and our anger to the Lord because we must pray as the people we are, not the people we would like to be. So this is our parish church, bring your sorrow and bring your anger here. (I just ask you not to follow Jesus’ example and overturn the furniture.) But, come as the people you are. Stand before the Lord in truth, because it is only when we express our sorrow and anger to the Lord in prayer that we will be open to hear what he might say in response. Then perhaps we may discover the next step that God is asking us to take.
Before the Commandment
March 7, 2021
Our country is in the midst of a hot debate of how to back out of this pandemic which has ruled our lives for the past year. With the vaccines, the number of cases of COVID-19 is dropping, and Americans are divided on how soon the mandates of mask wearing and social gatherings should be relaxed. Some governors are moving quickly. Others are taking a more gradual approach. But the thing in common across these differences is that we want to get these mandates off our backs as soon as possible. We want to go to the places we want to go and see the people we want to see as we did before COVID-19. You and I resist rules and regulations. Americans, like most people, do not like others telling them what to do.
So here is why today’s first reading from the book of Exodus can be helpful to us. This reading gives us the most famous list of rules that we possess: the Ten Commandments. Even more importantly, this reading tells us that there is something prior to and more fundamental than the Ten Commandments. Before God lists the commandments, God says “I, the Lord, am your God who led you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” God is telling us that before the commandments were given, there was the powerful action of God’s grace. Before the rules were inscribed, there was the prior gift of God’s love.
This reading tells us that as we struggle under the demands of rules and regulations, it is important to remember the larger purpose that they are meant to serve. As we try to follow God’s commands, it is important to appreciate the prior gifts that God has given us.
God commands us to honor our father and our mother and indeed all the members of our family circle. Yet it is difficult to honor a spouse who is caught up in his or her own issues or to respect an aging parent whose mind is beginning to slip. But if we could remember the blessing, the gift, that the people in our family are to us, if we could remember the love that moved us to commit ourselves to our spouse in the first place, if we could recall the faithful care our mother provided to us as we worked our way through school, it would be easier to follow God’s commandment. Honoring the people in our families is more simple if we can remember how they are a blessing of God to us.
God commands that we should not covet our neighbor’s goods, but there are times when we a jealous of others because they have things that we do not have. Yet if we could remember the true blessings that we already possess—our home, our job, the comfort of our lifestyle—it would be easier for us to be satisfied. When we truly appreciate and are thankful for the gifts we already possess, it is easier for us to follow God’s command not to covet more.
It is a nuisance to put on a mask every time we leave our house or to limit our time to only certain people and places. But if we could remember the wonder of our own life and the life of others, it would be easier to live under those demands. If we could truly be in touch with the mystery of how I am alive and I have been able to live so many years, it will be easier for us to submit to the regulations that government imposes to protect life during this pandemic.
We live in a world of rules and regulations, and often we strain against them. That is why it is crucial to remember that behind those rules there is a greater purpose. Behind those mandates stands a God who has given us life, family, and all the good things we possess.