I was able to get away this past week for a couple days up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In the month of July they could change the name to the Green Mountains, being lush with green grass, and the full growth of nature and its trees. And in such a place it’s not too difficult to settle into this scene in the Gospel where, somewhere out in the countryside of Israel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. How to really pray. Not babbling or wasted words. But true prayer.
It seems that the disciples of John the Baptist are at this time way ahead of the disciples of Jesus when the issue at hand is “how to pray.” The disciples of Jesus have obviously witnessed the disciples of John praying, and they’re very much attracted to what they’ve seen. They want what John’s disciples want. They wish to copy and imitate John’s disciples in prayer, whatever it is they happen to be saying and doing. The prayer of John’s disciples must look to the disciples of Jesus to be respectful, sincere, and appropriate if they want what they have.
However, instead of teaching them how to pray the way John’s disciples are praying, Jesus teaches them how to pray in the manner his disciples will pray. How they will pray from this day forward. Jesus will in fact, in teaching them how to pray, raise his disciples above the disciples of John in ways of prayer at this time. What Jesus teaches them is the prayer in which every petition possible is found; the Lord’s Prayer.
I offer a couple thoughts on the most fundamental, meaningful Christian prayer there is. A prayer so true and so holy, because it first flowed from the mouth of our Savior.
First, the Our Father is a prayer for those who seek to have and maintain a serious and solemn prayer life. A prayer that shows daily devotion. And the type of prayer commitment that seeks closeness to God and His only-begotten Son, along with the will to make a Christian difference in the lives of other people, especially family and friends, those people we pray for in particular ways.
Jesus said about John the Baptist that there is no one born of woman greater than he. So whatever John was teaching his disciples by way of prayer, it was holy and just. It was good prayer. Very good prayer. So much so that others were taking notice who wanted what John’s disciples had spiritually. But as good as the prayers of John the Baptist were, they were not the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus speaks to his disciples the prayer come down from heaven. This prayer was born with Jesus in the stable of Bethlehem. It’s the prayer that fled to Egypt with Joseph, Mary, and the little child. It’s the prayer of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus teaches them God’s Prayer, a prayer that will, when prayed seriously and with solemnity, will bring about a deeper relationship with the Lord along with moving mountains in the lives of others.
Doing a NASCAR version of the Our Father, rumbling through it and racing through it like we’re in the left lane of the expressway, misses the purpose and power of the prayer. One serious and solemn Our Father can shake the foundations of heaven more than two hours of prayer cards, as beautiful as prayer cards are.
“Hallowed be your name;” God’s name is forever holy, including that of His Son, and when spoken is to be done so with all the reverence we can muster.
“Your kingdom come;” Jesus tells his disciples to not plant their shoes too deeply into the cement of this world. Because their lives will be asked of them. And that God’s eternity is far superior to man’s passing world.
“Give us this day our daily bread” is a request for what we need each day to get by. Not what we want. But what we need, from God’s perspective. Meaning, the basics. I don’t need to win $10 million in the lottery.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone in debt to us;” as we recognize the shortfalls and weaknesses in others, do so first in oneself. It makes forgiveness possible.
“Do not subject us to the final test.” In other words, keep the Evil One away, that we may have holy company, the company of the angels and saints, when we move on from this world.
And secondly, in praying the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is teaching them that there are no tricks involved when speaking this prayer. Remove all deal-making with God from our hearts. Remove all attempts at unholy persuasion and trying to outthink God. Because we’re not capable of doing so. If we ask God for a fish, we will not be handed a snake. If we ask for an egg, we will not be handed a scorpion. That’s how the Devil operates; through trickery. If God tells Abraham he will not destroy Sodom if only 5 just people are found there, then Sodom will not be destroyed.
Speak the truth of the words of this prayer, and the truth of what is in our hearts. There is no deceit or falsehood in God. He loves us too much.
The disciples are taught by Jesus a prayer that makes possible clear communication with heaven. It’s a serious prayer to be prayed with attention and solemnity. And it’s a prayer in which we find no sleight-of-hand, but one that is straightforward and honest. It is the prayer of Jesus.
Not all things are equal with God.
If Mary has chosen the better part as our Lord claims, then there must be a lesser part, at least at certain times. Martha caring for the surroundings of the inner home, keeping a clean place where people like Jesus can stop by for a visit without having to worry about tripping over the kids’ toys or an old shoe that should be in a closet, is a good thing. A clean house that is kept tidy through hard work is a good thing. And I believe most people would agree.
But not all things are equal with God. While Martha was very concerned about keeping the physical elements of the home tidy, providing a nice appearance for Jesus to look at, Mary was choosing the better part of listening to the words of the Lord, having a greater concern about her internal, spiritual life. By sitting down at the feet of Jesus, and coming to learn his ways and words, Mary allowed herself to be placed on a path that leads to the glory of eternity.
Not all things are equal with God. I wonder if we believe they are? But they are clearly not!
After one very hot summer week here in the cities and towns of New England, where the temperature soared higher than a hot air balloon on a windy day, we’re reminded once again that there comes a time to slow life down. To take time to ease up on the pedal of labor, loosen up on the throttle of the daily routine, and be sure to, if possible, take some time to chill out. At least in our own part of the world here in New England, it’s better than good to take some time to break the daily routine, find a place of respite, and breathe in the fresh air of God’s creation.
Now, you may ask, “What’s this got to do with our salvation? What does a few days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire have to do with getting to heaven? And our path that leads there?”
Well, we go to Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, for an understanding. By sitting at the feet of our Lord, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Mary is actually moved by the Spirit of the Lord to settle into a place where the guilt that Martha is trying to heap onto Jesus has no effect on her choice to slow things down. Martha is trying to work on Jesus to get Mary off her keester and start helping out with the cleaning part again. This is the old proverbial triangle. Draw someone else in in order to alter someone else’s behavior that you don’t agree with. But the Lord will have none of it. He sniffs out the triangle attempt for what it is, and answers Martha with words she simply does not want to hear. Choosing the better part of sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning firsthand the ways of God rather than brooms and dustmops require any and all feelings of guilt be turned away. This is one of the more prominent reasons why some people won’t slow things down; they feel guilty if they do.
Not all things are equal with God. Taking time in our lives to sit at the feet of our Savior, whether it’s at the ocean, the mountains, the campsite, or even at home, is necessary for being on a path that is called by Jesus himself “the better part.” The better part is consistent with presence before Christ, and not with working and being busy while God is sitting in the living room on a hot summer day.
One other short point about not all things being equal with God, and that with the Lord there is present the idea of priority, and that some beliefs and moves in our lives are actually better than others. In our culture today we seem to have arrived at an understanding – an errant one – that “this is how God has created me and he loves me just the way I am.” I hear this said a lot. Granted, it is true that God has created us, and has done so with equal dignity. And yes, he certainly loves us, but not always just the way we are. What this Gospel brings out in its own way is that there are some things about our lives that are in constant need of conversion. How joyful would Jesus have been if both Mary and Martha had sat at his feet, and stayed there? Saying God loves me “just the way I am” is to say that all things are equal before God, including the areas where we fall short, which include our lesser or even sinful choices at times. Or our sinful lifestyles. Saying that “God loves me just the way I am” comes way too close to saying that there is never need for conversion, or confession. I fool myself by thinking that God has created all my choices, including the ones that lead me away from sitting at the feet of his Son. God has created us and loves us with a Divine love, but not all that is within each of us is accepted into the loving embrace of God. Our faith’s definition of love is not equal to our culture’s definition of love. God accepts the first while calling us to conversion with the latter.
As Mary sits at the feet of our Lord, we learn much about ourselves at this time of year. Slow down a bit, take some time with the Lord in the cool shade of the day, and know that not all is equal with God. For this we are eternally grateful.
It seems like everyone wants their space. I remember riding the bus home from school – and yes, I can actually remember that far back! – and I would take a seat next to the window. And when someone sat down in the seat next to me, instead of being welcoming, I would think, “This person is invading my space!” This is what happens when you grow up in a family with 15 siblings. Having space was always at a premium. There wasn’t much of it!
But believe it or not, the lack of space can be the best of things in our faith. It can even lead us to heaven. Not to the point where we become claustrophobic and feel like everything around us is shrinking. Nobody enjoys that sensation. But rather, the lack of space where, say, to use a term in marriage, where the two become one. Where husband and wife are so close, that even when they are apart during the day, each one knows and understands that their other half remains their own right hand, their brain, their very heart. That’s close, even in times of being apart.
Our readings this weekend address our space, our closeness, our proximity concerning our relationship with our Savior. The readings present two basic, yet essential ways of how we relate to God, how God relates to us, and how we relate to one another, as we see in the Gospel. Where the lack of proximity and the lack of space between a Good Samaritan and someone who was in need is present. And how the priority of lack of space is at the heart of our Christian discipleship.
First, from the great Book of Deuteronomy, where the understanding of lack of space between God and His chosen people is expressed in the words of the late, great Moses; “If you would only heed the voice of God…This command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you…It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you only have to carry it out.” The command, of course, is the command of love; the Jewish prayer known as the Shema; love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body, and all that we are.
In order for the Israelites of old to understand where such love originates, where it is found, Moses tells them it is near you, already in your mouths and in your hearts. “Already” means we are born with divine love within us, not having to fruitlessly search the whole world over for something that is so close and natural.
What this tells us is that the greater space we create in our faith, like the Israelites would do over and over again, the more difficult it becomes to be true to the person God has created us to be. Our created being, who we are, starts with a profound closeness with our Creator. We don’t have to go up in the sky in a balloon or a jet looking for our Lord, or across the sea in an ocean-liner searching for the Divine, or down to Gettysburg to find my spirituality. It’s already here! Where you go, where we go, God goes with us. Do we believe and trust that God leaves no space between us, yet at the same doesn’t smother us? Some of the great saints in the Church struggled with this very concept of proximity. “Where is God?” What they did so well was they persevered to the end. And they came to know how close God truly is.
If the voice of God and His command of love is already near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, then what takes place in the Gospel parable is both a rejection of God’s command along with a radical acceptance of it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Like it’s even possible Jesus wouldn’t know the answer to that question!
The short answer to the test question thrown at Jesus is, “No space, close proximity.” That’s what we must do to inherit eternal life. In fact, no space to the point where the victim will be picked up by our hands, placed on a donkey to preserve energy in their injured state, and brought to a place where comfort and medical attention can be given along with paying for it no less! What a perfect, Christian example of close proximity, an example of allowing oneself to have their space invaded!
I’m sure many of us would say we’ve allowed close proximity in our lives to someone in need, where we’ve allowed our space to be invaded in like manner of the Good Samaritan, and at times have gotten burned in the end. Where we’ve been taken advantage of. I’ve lost count on how many times that’s happened to me. What we must guard against when such things happen is not opening our spiritual space to the point where we refuse to help others in need. “I’ve been burnt too many times so from now on I’m just going to walk by the injured person!” What we, as followers of Jesus Christ, must guard against is to go from being a Good Samaritan to being the priest or the Levite in Jesus’ parable. The priest and the Levite create so much space between them and God, between themselves and the injured party, that they’ve created an ocean of space in their lives when confronted with a potential good work. A work of love.
To have love already in our mouths and in our hearts is manifested through works of love. Otherwise, we become the priest or the Levite, we become victims to the lesser ways of our world, and we pass by on the importance of close proximity.
That’s a real challenge in our times. We want space between us and the injured, the unwanted, the homeless, and sometimes the sick, where some family members won’t even go to visit a parent who may be in a nursing home. But God says through His Son, “Close the gap, get close, and help that person back on their feet.” This is the radical message of God’s love, and such love is already within us.
“Your names are written in heaven.” Sometimes the names have a lot of letters, like the name “Saltalamacchia.” Or that lake down in Webster with its Indian name, which I can’t even begin to spell.
Having our names written in heaven before we arrive there is a lifelong task of ensuring that our names are in fact written in heaven, and not that other place. A task that incorporates continuous conversion along the way. Conversions for each of us on a deeply personal level. Where coming to Christ each day is a great challenge in the world of labor and the raising of a family.
Having our names written in heaven prior to our entrance and welcome by the angels and saints means a lot of good decisions are required on our part. (As I was writing these very words to this homily the other day, sitting on my couch in the TV room, the phone rang and it was a telemarketer looking for the person who handles the electric bill. I made the good decision of hanging up on him in less than three seconds. If this is the sort of thing that sends us to Purgatory, then that’s where my name is undoubtedly written, because I have no qualms at all when it comes to hanging up on them in a very short period of time). But besides hanging up on telemarketers, our names being written in heaven requires good decisions along this journey.
The 72 disciples that Jesus sends out, he sends forward with wisdom, grace, and the power to bring others to God. They have profound influence in serving Christ. (If I thought telemarketers could be converted, I would have stayed on the line. Some things are possible only for God). In one sense, Jesus sends out the 72 in such a way where surprise encounters will be part of their ministry. Both positive and negative encounters. This certainly speaks to our own lives. When we go forward each day, to whatever it is that we do, we really have no idea who we will meet along the way, and how such meetings will proceed. We all know we can have our day planned out just so, and somewhere along the way the plan is altered. Someone may need to talk; we get stuck in traffic; we lose our keys (St. Anthony help!). Or a thousand other unexpected distractions.
The disciples go out into the towns and villages not knowing whether each day will bring conversion or rejection. So there’s this element of unknowing what life is going to send our way each day. Such uncertainty is meant to draw us into a deeper dependency on our Lord.
Because of this, Jesus gives them instructions; carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, greet no one along the way. Meaning, go empty, depending on the kindness of others, and that there’s urgency to the message of Christ. The lighter one travels, the faster they can move. And then Jesus gives a final statement of what to expect; “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Boy, if that doesn’t speak to our world today!
What does a wolf do to a lamb? If we could look through the eyes of a wolf and see a lamb, we would see a delicious dinner. And we would also see a fellow animal that we want to destroy, ending their days of living and breathing. It all begs the question, “How many close calls did the disciples have? How many do we have? How often did they have to shake the dust off their feet? How often do we have to shake the dust of this world off our feet? How many times did they have to run for cover against the wolves? How often do we feel like running and hiding from the aggressive secular ways of our times?”
The point that Jesus makes in his statement of what to expect, and the single point for all of us this Sunday in our walk with Christ, is that we don’t become wolves. To remain a lamb among wolves is not to be a pushover in terms of our Christian faith. Remaining a lamb does not mean that we allow ourselves to be devoured by the ruthless and self-seeking ways of our culture. Ways that are ever before us and trying to snatch us away from authentic discipleship in Christ. To remain a lamb among wolves, and not becoming a wolf, means to be savvy, possess wisdom and not just intelligence, to know when to sit down and break bread allowing peace to settle in a household, and knowing when to shake the dust off our feet. This is a Christian lamb.
To be a lamb is to boast not in our personal feats and accomplishments in ways where we take all the credit when all goes well, but rather to boast in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. A wolf will throw the Cross down and tear it to pieces, considering the Cross a roadblock to worldly happiness and success. A lamb believes that our Lord’s Cross is the path that leads to greater joy in eternity. It may not be a pretty path at times, but it is the road to salvation. A wolf sees this world only. A lamb sees a resurrected body.
Having our names written in heaven sounds good and all, but it takes constant faith and good works on our part. The first understanding that Jesus gives to the disciples, and to us, is to not become a wolf. It doesn’t mean you can’t hang up on a telemarketer. Especially during dinner, or when writing a homily. Feel free to do so if it pleases you. Even a lamb can hang up a phone! Not being a wolf means that when we encounter rejection as a result of our faith, like the disciples surely did, we remain true to our Christian nature.
Doing so ensures that our names remain forever written on the good side of eternity.
As Jesus and his disciples were going from town to town preaching the Good News that God has visited his people, and that the Kingdom of God is now begun in the Person of Christ, there were certain and particular times throughout the preaching of the message when a decisive moment was upon them. When a most important message on what it means to be a follower of Christ was in front of them. And in this Gospel, we have one such radical teaching moment of Jesus that will, when we practice it in our lives, cause us to take one step up the ladder of Christian salvation, or, take a step down as a result of our refusing to put it into practice.
In their ignorance of Jesus at this point in his ministry, where their spiritual growth has been minimal at best, the disciples are tossed out of a Samaritan village, a village that hated the Jewish folks. Jesus was thrown out with them. Not only are they not welcome. They are basically told to move on and get lost. “We don’t like the sight of you! We don’t like what you represent! We can’t stand what you stand for, because you are Jews!” Samaritans had nothing to do with Jews.
James and John, two Jewish men who wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom alongside Jesus, make a proposal as a direct result of their being tossed out of a Samaritan village; they do their best impersonation of a Jewish Mafia; they wish Jesus to call down fire from heaven and consume all the Samaritans with flames. If ever in your life you’ve burnt yourself even a little, you have a sense of how painful the result of such a request would be. “Let them burn on earth as well as burn in eternity!”
This is the point where Jesus raises the spiritual ladder. This is the pivotal point in following Christ. Getting it right lifts a soul one step up the ladder of heaven. Getting it wrong is a step down, away from the peace of Christ.
What is the step up? It’s a rebuking, oddly enough. Jesus rebukes the two brothers for making a suggestion of fire and destruction. Jesus reveals at this point that he is not a God of vengeance. He is not a God of anger. He is not a God of wiping out. He is not a God of violence and death. We take that step up when we live out the truth of our faith that Jesus is the God of life; a God of mercy; a God of welcoming others to repentance; the God of peace; the God of moving past personal hurts.
We take a step down, like James and John wanted to, when we answer rejection with hatred. As Christians, the hatred we are to express in our lives is a hatred for sin. Sin separates us from God, and we are to hate anything that separates us from our Creator. Not the hatred of people. In the words of St. Paul this weekend; “The whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I offer a current example of this Gospel and the words of St. Paul. This past week the Supreme Court of the United States decided in a split vote that marriage is not one man and one woman. That marriage is much more than that, and that financial aspects of all forms of civil marriage must be recognized, by law, as such in all states.
As Christians, we’ve believed and lived from day one of the faith that the sacred bond of marriage, with its procreative element, is a holy union between one man and one woman. And from that sacred union, the potential for the history of the world to continue is present in that specific relationship.
What happened this past week was the Catholic Church, along with many other Christian and non-Christian religions, went to the Supreme Court of Samaria, and, once again, like with abortion 40 years ago, we were thrown out of town. What our faith teaches, which we know is for the good of the salvation of all human souls, was rejected by an ever-increasing secular Supreme Court, which includes a number of so-called Catholics.
Essentially, Jesus was tossed out of town.
Thus, the question arises from this Gospel, “What’s our reaction to be?” For those who agree with the decision, the reaction has to be one of joy and celebration. And for some Catholics, maybe even a slight reaction of “in your face” directed at the teaching authority of the Church. But the greater concern of this Gospel is not for those who agree with this past week’s ruling. It’s for those who disagree with what the civil court has decided on the issue of marriage, an issue they are hardly suited for.
So what’s the reaction to be? Do we ask God to send down fire from heaven to consume the opponent? Do we petition God to spread his vengeance on the Supreme Court of the United States? Do we hate people who got exactly what they wanted from a civil perspective, even if it is a decision that heaven itself would outright reject? Do we hate people? Which is what James and John did. You don’t ask for destructive fire to consume a village unless there’s great deal of hatred involved!
Is the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then Jesus will rebuke us. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Even if your neighbor’s eternal salvation is greatly compromised by the lifestyle they have chosen to live. You shall love the person and hate the sin, of which the Church has the authority to define. The authority of God’s Church to define what actions are sinful is greater than the authority of civil leaders who call the same action good. Loosing and binding belongs to the Church. And whatever is called sinful on earth is sinful in the eyes of heaven. Whatever is called love on earth is love in heaven.
Jesus and the gang of disciples moved on to the next village. They didn’t stop preaching the Good News that God has visited his people. They brought it to those whose hearts were open to the message of repentance and salvation. To those whose first want in life is to live forever with God. Hating people was a waste of time, energy, emotion, and totally out of character for our Lord and Savior. It is to be out of character for us also.