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Who do you say I am?

January 6, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good new today comes from Mark 8:27-30.

Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

I wonder what that meant to Peter when he replied, “You are the Messiah.” Just prior to this the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples were, “Do you still not understand?” I wonder what happened between that scene and this one. It seems that just as with the blind man whom Jesus healed in stages the disciples would arrive at an understanding of Jesus’ identity in stages. They obviously first came to know him as a teacher, as rabbi. Then they witnessed his hearings and miracles and certainly viewed him as God’s anointed one, a prophet perhaps. Now they are on a journey again. Along the way of their journey — physical and spiritual — he probed them to see if their understanding has increased? What was encapsulated in that title Messiah?

Jewish writers of the time “used it to describe Israel’s future leader in the period before the eschaton [meaning the end time] and during it; he would fulfill Israel’s hopes based on God’s promises,” according to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ which is used by many translations including the Douay-Rheims Version, the very first English translation of the Latin Vulgate. However, surely Peter did not mean Messiah or Christ in the way we use the title for Jesus. Jesus would predict his death and resurrection three times in the chapters to come; so as yet, the disciples had no understanding of the meaning we attach to Christ, the Son of God.

So, they certainly could not have grasped Jesus’ divinity as this point, but they had been led to believe that he was God’s anointed one — whatever that meant, a ruler in some sense, a savior of the Israelites from foreign overseers. As Barclay writes, “[T]he Messianic ideas which were in the minds of men when Jesus came…were violent, nationalistic, destructive, vengeful….Think of Jesus set against a background like that. No wonder he had to re-educate his disciples in the meaning of Messiahship.”

I know that my understanding of Jesus is unfolding. I don’t think I see clearly yet as the blind man did after Jesus laid hands on him again. I wonder how I think blindly about Jesus as Christ, as the Messiah. I, too, have thought of him as someone whose time is in the future; he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I’m slowly realizing that Jesus is here now, walking with me and talking with me. The last thing he wants me to do is judge the living or the dead. He wants me to accept people as they are, as embodiments of God’s spirit as he was. I have been saying to myself over and over recently, “Love and accept him as he is and not as I want him to be.” That’s a really tall order for me.

Who do I say Jesus is? He is the model of God’s loving acceptance, His anointed one, His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. That’s where I am in my deepening understanding of him.


Summoned and sent

October 7, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news this beautiful fall day is from Mark 6:6b-13.

He went around to the villages in the vicinity teaching. He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick — no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them. So they went off and preached repentance. They drove our many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

What a powerful experience this must have been for the apostles. Jesus was so smart. He gave them authority to preach and to cure people of their demons. That would have been a very heady experience, potentially a kind of ego trip. However, Jesus made sure that they would be completely dependent on others for everything in preparing them to be dependent on God for everything when he was taken away from them. Jesus chose humble men to be his apostles and he wanted them to remain humble, placing others before themselves and taking no credit for themselves but acknowledging that it was God’s spirit acting through them to create the kingdom. This was a test of the extent to which they were willing to trust Jesus and to have faith in God’s providence.

Were they willing to be totally dependent on others, these men who had always made their own way in life? How closely had they been watching and listening to Jesus? Were they adequately prepared to be his emissaries? Were they able to teach as he had been teaching? Did they have confidence in the authority that Jesus had granted them, faith that could exorcise entrenched demons? To their credit they showed that they were true disciples, that they were up to the tasks for which they were commissioned. They were ready to share in Jesus’ mission.

This passage makes me ask myself if I am a true disciple. Am I ready to share in Jesus’ mission? Am I ready to undertake it confident in the authority he has given me? Am I willing to rely upon others instead of my own ego and resources, to be completely dependent on God’s spirit to provide what I need? Am I willing to use the gifts, the charisms, that God has given me to create the kingdom? Am I open to His call, His commission? These are not idle questions; I have to seriously consider and answer each one.

Moloney in The Gospel of Mark reminds me, “Thus, the Twelve are missionaries of Jesus only insofar as they respond to the initiative of Jesus, remain with him, recognize that their authority to preach and cast out demons is from him. They remain at all times ‘followers’ of Jesus.” That’s the humility that Jesus insists upon from his true disciples. Moloney adds, “Without him, they can do nothing.” Jesus has to be first and foremost in my mind and in my heart as I set out upon the work he has commissioned me to perform. How do I know I’m doing that? It happens to me in prayer. I can feel the Holy Spirit fill my heart, calm my spirit, inspire me to action. It feels like a tingling and often brings tears to my eyes. It’s an indication for me that the Spirit is within me and surrounding me at the same time as if there is no boundary, no separation. I can imagine that’s the experience the apostles had as well on their mission.


You cannot bear to hear my word

February 24, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

It has been a long hiatus and I’m glad to be back. Routine is important in my life. Without it a day of not reading, reflecting upon, and writing about the gospel becomes a week, then a month, and before long a new routine of lesser important things has taken root. Thank you to those who have commented about the break in my routine; it has encouraged me to return.

I am taking the good news from John 8:42-45.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? Because you cannot bear to hear my word. You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me.”

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains that the Johannine community held a dualistic view arising from the Targumic tradition. The Targum was the rabbinic practice of explaining and interpreting the scriptures in the listener’s native language. The reference in this case is to the belief that evolved that Cain’s father was the devil because he had faced “the choice of mastering the evil inclination within” but chose to sin instead. It was an attempt to understand the reality of evil. In the Johannine community this became a way of thinking of people as from God or from the devil like Cain as evident in their deeds such as loving or not loving their fellow Christians or, in these verses, loving or not loving Jesus. In other writings of the time the opponents of the Johannine community were described as being “led astray by the Man of Lies.” To John the Jews had repudiated their status as children of God, as God’s chosen people. They had chosen instead to adopt the devil as their father, the father of lies and perpetrator of murder. In John’s mind they could not be children of God and at the same time refuse to accept that Jesus was the Son of God. Barclay writes that the key aspect of John’s gospel is that “the test of a man is his reaction to Jesus. To be confronted with Jesus is to be confronted with judgment; he is the touchstone of God by which all men are judged.” Those Jews who failed to accept that Jesus came from God were judged and condemned as far as John was concerned.

Barclay goes on to reflect on Jesus’ reply to his own question about why the Jews don’t understand what he’s saying. “They refuse to hear and they refuse to understand….In the last analysis, a man will only hear what he wishes to hear; and if for long enough he attunes his ears to his own desires and to the wrong voices, in the end he will be unable to tune in at all to the wavelength of God.” I think we all succumb to that at times — hearing only what we want to hear. It’s far less troublesome to listen only to my own voice. I typically question the wisdom of my own voice, even more so when I am uncertain about a decision or a path to take. That’s when I aim for a direct connection with Jesus. I look at his corpus or his image when I am praying, asking him for guidance, asking him to speak to me in response. I read the scriptures, listen to the homilies and prayers at Mass more intently, and read commentaries and other spiritual texts. All the while searching for his desire for me, for his truth.

I believe that I can discern his truth, which I became more convinced of as I read these words of Barclay. “The devil characteristically loves falsehood. Every lie is inspired by the devil and does the devil’s work. Falsehood always hates the truth, and tries to destroy it….Jesus indicted the Jews as children of the devil because their thoughts were bent on the destruction of the good and the maintaining of the false.” In my heart I can recognize a lie, though I may not always reject it if I am bent on my own will instead of God’s. I can rationalize and make excuses for my rejection of God’s truth and will, but I always know in my heart the choice I am making and too often that is to maintain a falsehood. I know when I am choosing His will. I experience a deep-felt peace that persists; I feel joyful in His love; my spirit is untroubled; I am able to stand in the truth no matter the pain of the consequences.

I can listen to Jesus say, “If God were your Father, you would love me,” and know that I do love him, know that God is my Father. I know that He has sent me into the world as well and wants me to do HIs will, to live in truth. He gave me Jesus to show how it can be done.


What have you to do with us, Son of God?

October 2, 2012

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I’m taking the good news from Matthew 8:28-34, a story told by both Mark and Luke.
When he came to the other side, to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him.  They were so savage that no one could travel by that road.  They cried out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?  Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?”  Some distance away a herd of many swine was feeding.  The demons pleaded with him, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.”  And he said to them, “Go then!”  They came out and entered the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea where they drowned.  The swineherds ran away, and when they came to the town they reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs.  Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.
I find it interesting that in the preceding passage wherein Jesus still the storm, his disciples asked themselves, “What sort of man is this?”  Afterwards on the other side of the Sea of Galilee two men possessed by demons call him the Son of God, the first time he is so addressed in Matthew’s gospel.  We find the same thing in Mark’s gospel in which the author wrote, “[W]henever unclean spirits saw him the would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.'”  In Luke’s gospel we read about the demoniac in Capernaum whom Jesus cured on the sabbath, “I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”  This is the first time I’ve realized that demons were the first to recognize the identity of Jesus, to declare his divinity.  Why?
None of my usual references shed address this question.  The Catholic Dictionary (1955) defines possession as:  “A state in which an evil spirit, by God’s permission, inhabits the body of a rational being.  The devil is able in this way to torture the body, to deceive the senses by hallucinations, and indirectly, because of the connection between soul and body, to torture the soul, to impair and pervert its faculties.  He cannot, however, inhabit the soul, for this is a power which belongs to God alone; much less can he master the free will and force the possessed person to sin.  But he may increase to a fearful extent the power of temptation, overpower the body, and even produce insanity, in which last case the possessed person may of course commit actions outwardly sinful, for which he is not responsible.”
The New American Bible notes that this “notion that evil spirits were allowed by God to afflict human beings until the time of the final judgment is found” in Enoch and Jubilees, neither of which are included in the biblical canon today.  Clearly, in the gospels Jesus and the people of his time believed in possession by evil spirits and it was not uncommon to encounter these poor people.  There are many reports in the scriptures and other historical documents that Jesus and others regularly cast out these demons.  Today we tend to discount or deny possession.
Psychiatrist and author Scott Peck regards possession and exorcism as spiritual warfare.  He writes in People of the Lie, “According to this myth and doctrine, in the beginning Satan was God’s second-in-command, chief among all His angels, the beautiful and beloved Lucifer.  The service it performed in God’s behalf was to enhance the spiritual growth of human beings through the use of testing and temptation — just as we test our own children in school so as to enhance their growth.  Satan, therefore, was primarily a teacher of mankind, which is why it was called Lucifer, “the light bearer.”  As time went by, however, Satan became so enamored with its adversarial functions that it began to employ them more for its own delight than on God’s behalf.  This is see in the Book of Job.  Coincidentally, God decided that something more was required than simple testing for the uplifting of mankind; what was required was both an example of His love and an example to live by.  So He sent His only son to live and die as one of us.  Satan was superseded by Christ both in function and in God’s heart.  It was so enamored of itself that Satan perceived this as an intolerable personal insult.  Puffed up with pride, it refused to submit to God’s judgment of the precedence of Christ.  It rebelled against God.  Satan itself created the situation in which heaven became literally not big enough for both of them.  So Satan was inevitably, by its own doing, immediately cast into hell, where, once the light bearer, it now dwells in darkness as the Father of Lies, nursing continual dreams of revenge against God.  And through the angels at its command, who joined it in its rebellion and fall, it now wages continual war against God’s design. Where once it exited to spiritually uplift mankind, it now exists primarily to spiritually destroy us. In the battle for our souls it attempts to oppose Christ at every turn.  Satan perceives Christ as its personal enemy.  As Christ in spirt lives, so is Satan the living Antichrist.”
This all helps me understand and accept that evil spirits exist.  They, too, are all knowing making their rebellion against God so effective.  That is how the two demoniac men knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was about the expel the demons from their bodies.
Peck goes on to state, “Satan has no power except in a human body.  Satan cannot do evil except through a human body….Satan’s threats are always empty.  They are all lies.  In fact, the only power that Satan has is through human belief in its lies….Satan can use any human sin or weakness — greed, pride, for instance.  It will use any available tactic:  seduction, cajolery, flattery, intellectual argument.  But is principal weapon is fear.”
In his description of exorcism Peck observed, “[T]he possession was ended when both [patients] chose to believe its lies no longer but to transcend their fear by trust in the resurrected Christ and to pray to the God of truth for deliverance.  During each exorcism Satan’s lies were confronted.  And each exorcism was concluded successfully by a conversion of sorts — a change of faith or value system.  I now know what Jesus meant when he so frequently said, ‘By your faith you have been healed.'”
I tend to resist the reality of Satan and evil.  But evil spirits are real and active in our world just as they were in Jesus’ time.  I have to recognize evil in the lies I tell myself and that others tell me.  I have to recognize evil spirits in the temptations I encounter.  I have to recognize evil when I want to submit to my own greed, pride, envy and the other expressions of selfishness that corrupt my soul.  They are lies told to me by the Father of Lies.  It is those times that I most need to pray to the God of truth for deliverance from evil just as I do when I recite the Lord’s Prayer.
That’s how I understand this gospel story for me today.  To be on guard, to be aware, to pray that Satan will not be able to use me to perpetrate evil but instead to act in love at all times.  Love in the only fully effective counter to evil because love comes from God — God is love.