26th Sunday of Ordinary Time – The Worldly Cycle of Comparisons

Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48 | 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

The Worldly Cycle of Comparisons

After being rebuked by Jesus for arguing who among them was the greatest, the disciples then  tried to rank others. Even if none of them were greater than the other, at least as followers of Jesus, they assumed they were greater than others outside of their group, and they wanted to keep their group exclusive.  When they saw someone “driving out demons in your [Jesus’s] name,” they “tried to prevent him because he does not follow us” (v. 38). But just as before, Jesus stopped them. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me” (v. 39). Jesus may be the Son of God, but He has no intention of pulling any kind of rank.

When good is done in this world, Jesus is at the root of it.

Like the disciples, we all try to pull rank at times by thinking we’re “more Christian” or “more faithful” or that we “try harder” than someone else. The truth is, none of us know what is going on inside of others. We can, and as humans often do, make assumptions, but we can’t know. Furthermore, does it matter? If someone is doing good, Jesus is there, whatever we may think of their faith or effort.

Jesus isn’t interested in comparisons. Comparisons give more weight to our perspective than God’s perspective, and when we start comparing, we focus on ourselves and lose sight of the real reason for doing something. Then we only do to be better than someone else. That doesn’t mean we don’t do good, and in that good, Jesus is there, but it does mean that the good we do doesn’t grow our faith.

The beauty of doing good for the right reasons is that it’s a two-way street.

That good benefits the world, while simultaneously it is beneficial for the doer. Done purely as a way to get ahead, doing good still benefits the world, but the doer loses out. Since the focus is on the individual and not on God, the good act doesn’t help them to grow in their relationship to God.

It’s difficult to shed the worldly cycle of comparisons. I’m particularly good at managing to shake free and wallowing in the freedom only to reclaim the agony and start the whole cycle all over again. But maybe that’s the human condition. Maybe we just get glimpses of what life is like outside of our human constraints, and maybe those glimpses have to be enough to propel us forward and keep us going, knowing that ultimately, life in the kingdom is not as humans envision, but so much better.

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time – An Upside-Down Version of Great

Mark 9:30-37 | 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

An Upside-Down Version of Great

Kids don’t always listen. They don’t always do as they’re told. They ask lots of questions and don’t accept much of anything as a given. They want their own way, and they are often sneaky in pursuit of it. They aren’t always kind and their humor is often at someone else’s expense. So why in the world would Jesus say “whoever receives one child such as this…receives me…” (v. 37)?

Reread the diatribe about kids above and substitute the words adulst in place of kids: Adults don’t always listen (even to God). Adults don’t always do as they’re told (even by God). Adults ask lots of questions (even of God). Adults want their own way and are often sneaky in pursuit of it. Adults aren’t always kind and their humor is often at someone else’s expense. Notice that the meaning stays the same.

I think Jesus used the example of a child to represent all of humanity in this gospel passage. When He pulled a child into His embrace, it was to demonstrate that we must accept all people—no matter their age, no matter how sneaky and full of questions— just as they are in order to receive Him.

At that moment, Jesus asked His disciples to do just that. They wanted Him to be a Messiah who would lead the Jews to a grand victory. But that wasn’t His mission. He was still the Messiah—just not the one they had envisioned. He needed them to accept Him as He was—a Messiah destined to suffer and die an ignominious death. Jesus accepts us warts and all, and His request is that we grant Him the same grace, that we accept all of Him, no matter how incongruous what He asks may seem.

Perhaps one of the most incongruous things He asks us to accept that to be first isn’t to win. We want our children to have the best advantages. We want our career paths to lead the highest they can. We want the “est”—prettiest, strongest, smartest, highest, quickest, and so on. But, Jesus cautions that the “est” doesn’t lead to true fulfillment. That’s why He insists we accept people as they are and not as we wish they were. He insists we accept them full of blemishes rather than the air-brushed version we, with the best of intentions, may wish for them.

Sometimes the most difficult air-brushed version to let go of is the one we have of ourselves. Jesus wants us to accept the person God made us to be rather than the worldly mold we try to cram ourselves into. The disciples discovered just this challenge. To admit to Jesus that they had been arguing about who was the “greatest” (v. 34) would allow Jesus the opportunity to “correct” them—show them why they weren’t the greatest. To have this distinction taken away would be a blow to their construct of themselves as people and of how they envisioned the Messiah’s followers.  But only when they could allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be open to God’s dreams and not their own, were they actually able to achieve all they wanted.

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – The God Who Cannot Be Manipulated

Mark 8:27-35 | 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

The God Who Cannot Be Manipulated

As I read this gospel passage, I reflected on the similarities poor Peter has with all of us. Initially, Peter got it just right—he knew Jesus was the Messiah! But just a few short verses later, Peter was in Jesus’s doghouse. Understanding Jesus’s identity hadn’t changed Peter on any sort of fundamental level. Peter had his vision, honed by years of expert Jewish authority, of what the Messiah was going to do. But the opinion of Peter and the “experts” was not Jesus’s reality. However, instead of bowing to Jesus, Peter pulled Jesus to the side and tried to manipulate the situation. He explained to Jesus that rather than be a suffering figure, the Messiah was to lead the Jews to a grand victory. And so Peter got a talking to.

Don’t we all act just like Peter? So much of our prayer, and perhaps the whole of our religious, life is a veiled attempt to manipulate God, often out of the best of intentions. But the purpose of prayer is not manipulative; it’s relational. True prayer is not a to-do list for God, but time to get to know Him and for Him to get to know us. The most precious gift of all is time, and time spent in prayer is love, and love is never manipulative. But, as humans, we, just like Peter, don’t think “as God does but as human beings do” (v. 33), and so we work hard to make things come out as we think they should from our limited perspective.

Like Peter, we all get some things about Jesus just right, while at the same time, totally miss out on other equally important dimensions of Him. The problem is, we get that first thing right and then think we totally understand Him. Using our truncated understanding and our own inflated sense of importance, we put a very human definition onto Jesus, who though human, is also fully divine. He can’t fit into the boundaries we put around Him, no matter how hard we try to make the box work. When He doesn’t fit, we blame Him and not our own narrow perspective.

As a human with a human agenda, I don’t know how to change this dynamic. I think Jesus understands and asks us only to be willing to reframe our thinking, to be open to God’s work in our lives even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. This sort of openness is guaranteed to bring about humility. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, God delivers a zinger. At that point, we can rage against the zinger, try to find our way around the zinger, or we can explore the zinger and see what God might be offering.

Initially, Peter raged against the zinger by “pulling Jesus aside and rebuking Him” (v. 32). Peter wanted to avoid a suffering Messiah at all costs. But, eventually, Peter recognized that his way was not God’s way and not only accepted the zinger, but he became a leader in the same church that delivered the zinger. Peter learned God cannot be manipulated, no matter how good our intentions. May our own prayer life be equally fruitful.

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – A Personal Invitation

Mark 7:31-37 | 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

A Personal Invitation

Even Jesus got distracted! His primary mission was to teach, but suffering people filled Jesus with compassion, and that’s when He performed miracles. People in 1 AD, like people in 2021 AD, preferred a quick-fix to the slow change brought through teaching. They kept bringing impossible cases to Him. He’d be filled with emotion for the suffering and perform one of His oft-talked about miracles. Which of course, only fueled the fire for more.

In this section of Mark, a deaf man with a serious speech impediment was brought to Jesus. This man had probably been deaf since birth, and since we can’t know what we have never experienced, he wouldn’t have known what it meant to hear. He probably recognized he was different from others but wouldn’t have understood how. That’s a universal experience—we’ve all felt that somehow we’re somehow different from others, though we don’t know exactly what differentiates us.

While Jesus healed in a variety of ways—in crowds, by touch, from a distance, by His words—this man’s inability to hear Jesus’s words would have made his experience of Jesus’s touch even more important. Deaf since birth, even upon being able to receive sound, the man wouldn’t have understood words. Jesus gave the man an additional gift—not only hearing but also understanding speech.

Jesus can give us these gifts as well: the ability to hear Him and the equally important gift of understanding Him. Then it’s up to us to take it to the next level and use what He’s taught us. This gospel miracle is a metaphor for Jesus’s primary mission—teaching. Being exposed to an idea means little if we don’t understand it. Understanding an idea means little if we don’t put it to use. Jesus wanted us to do all three—hear, understand, and apply.

When Jesus took the man to the side, touched his ears and his tongue and “groaned…Ephphatha (that is, ‘Be opened!’)” (v. 4), I wonder if He was returning to His core mission of teaching.  Jesus didn’t just ask that the man hear. He asked that the man “be opened.” To hear doesn’t necessarily imply change. We all often listen and hear only what we already believe, and that can’t change us. But, to be open implies the potential for movement and adaptation, for growth.

The miracle, the quick-fix solution, may or may not create lasting change. But Jesus’s miracles are always something much deeper, if we are open to His invitation. Jesus never performed a miracle to demonstrate His power. He performed them out of deep compassion and to extend an invitation into a deeper relationship with Him. Look for a miracle and then search for the invitation behind the event. Our pursuit of the relationship in the invitation, that’s where Jesus’s mission shines—that’s where He effects the most change as Rabbi and Teacher and Lord.

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – The Law as a Weapon of Exclusion

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 | 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

The Law as a Weapon of Exclusion

Our family thrives on tradition. This past December, my children listed all of the traditions our family has observed during the Advent and Christmas seasons over the years (and there are a lot of them!) and declared we were going to do every one. It was fun—they resurrected practices we hadn’t observed in a while, and we joyfully checked each one off the list. By the time January 6th rolled around, I was so satisfied, we had wallowed in Advent and Christmas, soaked it all in. Some years it feels I have to snatch bits of the holiday as it flies by, but not last year. Last year, the season felt whole, complete, and I was full.

I’ve thought a lot about that season because I would love to carry that sense of satiation with me permanently. I think the season was so edifying was the spirit behind our tradition roll call. Though we definitely worked from our master list, when I remember last Christmas, I don’t recall the re-enactment of individual customs. What I revel in are the emotions, the togetherness the customs created.

I think the heart behind the checklist is exactly what Jesus wanted His listeners to think about in today’s gospel reading.

All traditions break down to that same dichotomy: mere action or actions imbued with a deeper meaning. Mere action is a mere shell: we do something because we’ve always done it. We aren’t changed by our practice, and we don’t feel satiated. That’s what Jesus railed against. He didn’t want religious traditions to be hollow. Spiritual traditions should connect us to God. If they just check a box, they don’t serve their true purpose; they don’t fill us, and they can’t connect us to eternity.

In this section of Mark, Jesus railed not against the tradition itself but against the elder’s focus. God designed the law to focus us on Him, not on the mistakes of others. Jesus pointed out that the breaking of tradition was the primary focus here instead of the meaning. The elders were using the law to exclude. Jesus wants to include, include radically, include beyond our comfort zone. Sometimes that inclusion breaks the rule of tradition, but it doesn’t break the real meaning of it.

Misused, the law can be used to find fault in others. Misused to the extreme, the law becomes a weapon of exclusion, and weapons are used both to protect and to kill. Weaponized words protect the speaker’s pride, and simultaneously kill self-esteem, relationships, love.  Individuals have a responsibility to examine the reason they observe the law. Jesus observes it for love. Why do we observe it?

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – Looking for Jesus

John 6:60-69 | 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Looking for Jesus

By the end of chapter 6 of John, the number of Jesus’s followers has dwindled. At the beginning of the chapter, He miraculously fed 5,000 (which was probably closer to 15,000) who had come to hear Him teach. Then, as Jesus offered the Bread of Life Discourse—the true meat of His Being— the numbers fell off. Perhaps the message wasn’t the call to arms against Rome the listeners wanted to hear. Instead, Jesus taught a far more difficult concept, faith: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (v. 30).

Real faith means a change of heart, not obedience to a checklist, even if the list is the Law. Real faith is hard, and difficult to measure, and not everyone bought in: “many of his disciples…said, ‘This saying is hard, who can accept it?’” (v. 60). How do we know when our hearts have been well and truly changed? And, for those used to a very legalistic system, how can we know when others’ hearts have been changed? We can’t—Jesus also says, “Stop judging so that you may not be judged Luke7:1.

I think I’ve given something to God and then I snatch it back and worry it to death. Has my heart changed? I don’t know. I do know I’m trying, but heart-change will never be something I can check off a mastery list. As humans, we want the checklist provided from on high. Jesus’s followers in 30 AD were no different. They wanted a clear-cut way to follow Jesus. A call to arms would have done just that—you were either armed and against Rome or you weren’t. But what differentiated Jesus’s followers was the seal of the Holy Spirit. That’s not visible or obvious, or even ours to determine, and His followers, then and now, chafed against the uncertainty.

Jesus knew a checklist engenders blind obedience to the list, not to the Spirit behind it. That was the last thing Jesus wanted. His followers were to be fully human and think for themselves. “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (v. 67). Thinking all the time is hard work; nothing is automatic. It’s even more difficult not to know if you have it right. A checklist is easier: do this and you’ve got it. Haven’t got it yet? Try harder.

But Jesus always gives us choice. When the numbers had dwindled down to the twelve, Jesus turned to them and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” (v. 67). I’m sure they thought about it. I know I have. There are times I just want an obvious answer, something concrete. The twelve might have looked at the 15,000 and thought, “Yep, there’s my answer. This is the Guy.” Then as people left, I’m sure the twelve heard the questions and doubts, and they wondered the same. But, down to their core group, Peter found his faith: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). His words don’t mean Peter didn’t continue to question—Jesus encourages it—but in his questions, Peter didn’t look for the easy way. He looked for (and found) the real Jesus. I hope my questions do the same.

Assumption of the Blessed Mother – Ordinarily Hard at Work

Luke 1:39-56 | Assumption of the Blessed Mother, Year B

Ordinarily Hard at Work

Life often seems to be ordinary, but beneath the surface, God is hard at work. The change that’s coming is already there, but we just don’t know it. Like pregnancy. I didn’t know I was pregnant until several weeks into something that would change my life. Then there was a flurry of excitement, and then ordinary life resumed, at least until the nausea set in. I wonder if Mary felt the same?

The beginning of Mary’s pregnancy, the angel’s visit and Mary’s eternal yes, was ripe with surprise. But though she was pregnant, Mary wasn’t yet showing, perhaps wasn’t yet nauseous, and life was, at least on the surface, ordinary again. I wonder if she ever thought that maybe the angel’s visit had been a figment of her imagination?

So, perhaps Mary’s visit to Elizabeth might have had multiple purposes. In part, Mary might have gone for reassurance that that many earth-shattering things were going on, even if they weren’t obvious yet. If so, her reception with John’s leap in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth’s greeting, “How does it happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vs. 41-2), must have been just the ticket. She hadn’t hallucinated the angel’s visit. Mary really was pregnant and the baby really was the Son of God. Her life was firmly on a different path.

Even as a fetus in Elizabeth’s womb, John recognized Jesus, a fetus in Mary’s womb, as the Messiah. But later, when Jesus was a man doing all the things a Messiah might, John struggled to see this as Jesus’s identity. As a helpless infant, Jesus was fully known, but as an adult, He was a mystery. So John asked Jesus for help. John needed reassurance, perhaps just as Mary had when she visited his mother. I think this notion is comforting. We all, including those in Isaiah’s prophecies, need reassurance in our faith from time to time. God has no problem with us asking for it.

When do we need the most reassurance: in the season of ordinariness, wondering what’s coming? Or in the season of craziness, wondering if it will ever settle down?

Did Mary need the most assurance when Jesus was a little boy, doing typical little boy things? Was she wondering what His destiny was and was she doing what she could to help Him live up to it?  Or did she need to most assurance when He was preaching and performing miracles and wasn’t remotely the Messiah she and the Jews had envisioned? When He hung on the cross, did she wonder where she had gone wrong?

During all of it, Mary prayed. She had thrown her lot in with God, and even when she had questions, she stayed in relationship with Him, went to Him for reassurance, for help, for succor. God wants nothing more than for us to do the same. He is always hard at work, and He wants to share His work with us. We just have to ask.

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Active Love

John 6:41-54 | 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Active Love

Anyone with a close relationship with anyone knows the cliché that love is not a feeling, it’s a verb. Relationships must be fed or they die. God is no different. He desires a relationship with us more than anything. If our relationship with Him is not fed, it too will die. With continued care, though, we can access the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

Because God is Who He is, omnipotent and omnipresent, He could demand our presence. But forced to be there, we would take off at the first opportunity. Because that’s not real relationship, that’s not what God wants. So He gave us free will. We get to choose whether we are in relationship with Him. He is always there waiting. If He is our choice, then we trust Him, and at the first sign of trouble, we won’t flee.

Jesus hammered this concept in repeatedly when He taught. God doesn’t want blind faith—He doesn’t want slaves. Jesus came to bring us freedom, active relationship. He wants His people to willingly take responsibility to choose God.

In this section of the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus repeats the word eat multiple times. To eat is an active choice. We can choose to eat of the Bread of Life, but He’s not going to force it down our throats. Neither the Father nor the Son want to be a feeding tube, a passive mode of giving us something good. They want us to want to come because we choose the good stuff.

But it’s not always the palatable choice. What they offer isn’t all creamy chocolate mousse. Sometimes what’s on offer appears to be soggy and oversalted green beans. But God knows we need the nutrients those beans provide, and He knows we can’t get the vitamins from any other source. So there are times He asks us to choke them down. Because we are in a relationship with God, because we have chosen to be committed to Him, we trust the Giver and swallow the beans. But if we choose to “eat of my flesh and drink of my blood” (v. 54), now—even when the body and blood are beans and not mousse— then we “shall have eternal life” and be “raised on the last day” (v. 54).

Seemingly perfect relationships may be enviable, but they are hard-won and never instant. Along the way to that perfect moment, there were plenty of disagreements, fights, compromises, and probably threats to quit. Relationship with God is no different. To get to the “peace that surpasses all understanding,” we have to be willing to go through the same struggles and stick through them. God will never threaten to quit, though we might. But He understands if we need to rail against Him. That’s real relationship. It’s trust and love, and God wants nothing more from us. He loves us, and His love is active and always moving, and His arms are always open.

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – He is Waiting for Us

John 6:24-35 | 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

He is Waiting for Us

The Bread of Life Discourse in John begins with the people looking for Jesus. Some of them had just been fed in the miraculous Feeding of the 5,000, and now they want more of Jesus. They actively seek Him out. Coming to Jesus isn’t a one-time proposition. As humans, we come to Him, are fed, and then must return again and again. He is always there and available to us; but it is our responsibility to seek Him. God’s gift of free will means it is up to us to take that responsibility.

As humans, we want the miracle—a healing, a feeding, a dramatic miracle. We want the one-time event to happen again and again, at our command. We want magic: “Sir, give us this bread always” (v. 34). But Jesus isn’t magic. Jesus doesn’t want us to have just a one-time thing—He wants us to have eternal life. So He gives us Himself: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (v. 35). It’s not magic that brings eternal life but belief. Belief in Jesus. And belief isn’t a one-time thing; it has to be fed continuously.

Jesus tells the crowds, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (v. 26). The people might think the miracle bread is what drew them to Jesus, but they were searching Him out again because what satisfied them was the Bread of Life, not physical food. Once we truly find Jesus—not the magic when He does what we want Him to do, but the real Jesus, who feeds a need we didn’t know we had—we are compelled to return to him over and over. We have been filled by something we didn’t know we hungered for.

We often call something a miracle if we have prayed for a specific result and that result occurs. I’ve certainly prayed for a number of miracles. Sometimes my desired result happens and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the miracle we usually want Jesus to produce. If we had followed Jesus in the first century AD, we too would have wanted Him to defeat Rome. If it had gotten to the cross, we too would have wanted Him to jump down and show His power and authority. But those demonstrations of power wouldn’t have done anything to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

We can’t know when Jesus will give us the miracle we want because we can’t know the Big Picture. We simply don’t see all the moving parts. It can be very hard to explain to a non-believer why you believe even after something bad has happened. It’s easy to believe in God when things are good or when He has just answered a specific prayer the way we wanted it answered. But true belief is evident when those things haven’t happened, but we still trust that He is good and right and knows best. And that trust can only happen when we have gone to Him continuously and have seen His good playing out in our lives. Jesus wants us to get in the boat and go find Him. He is waiting for us.

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Go to the Source

John 6:1-15 | 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Go to the Source

When I worked in Faith Formation, we had a saying: If you feed them, they will come. But in this gospel passage, Jesus worked that saying backwards. The people were already there, and now He instructed the disciples, “Feed them.” If we’d approached Faith Formation events like that, there would have been a frantic team of us phoning the local pizza joints whenever we had a gathering.

The disciples didn’t have access to telephones nor were there any pizza places near the Sea of Galilee. Furthermore, as Philip pointed out, the money needed to feed 5,000 people (probably more like 15,000 when you include women and children) was a big issue. Philip and the others were focused on the logistics. Jesus was focused on the need. I really love that the need He wants to meet isn’t necessarily desperation. These people weren’t necessarily destitute. They gotten swept up in His teaching and lost track of the time. Now it was dinnertime and they didn’t have food. Getting to dinner and not having food is definitely something that has happened to me before. That Jesus cares about that predicament warms my heart.

Not only did Jesus want the disciples to conjure up food for all these people, but He also wanted the people to be served. Jesus instructed, “Have the people recline” (v. 10). The disciples not only served the people, but Jesus also had them clean up too: “Gather the fragments left over so nothing will be wasted” (v. 12). Now that’s real service! Having just returned from their first missionary trip where they had performed miracles in Jesus’s name, the disciples may have started to think they had some kind of elevated powers, but Jesus made sure to bring them back to earth.

I hate that feeling—just when I start to think maybe I’m doing something well and should get some credit, something happens that crashes me back to reality. Jesus always wants us to understand that without God, we can do nothing. Thus, when Jesus told the disciples to feed the people, and Peter responded that “two hundred days’ wages” (v. 7) wouldn’t be enough, I bet Jesus just raised His eyebrows. Andrew broke the awkward quiet with something like, well, there is a little, “but what good are these for so many?” (v. 9) By then Jesus was probably rolling his eyes and thinking, “Come on, guys, you just performed miracles. You know you didn’t do those on your own. Who was behind it? Go to the source!”

The source is Jesus, and when He picks up the bread, breaks it in a nod to the coming Last Supper, and distributes it, there is a plethora of food. There always is when we rely on Jesus rather than on ourselves. Sometimes Jesus’s idea of a plenty matches mine, but often it doesn’t. Often I feel cheated because what Jesus provides is not what I had in mind at all. But if I take time to think about it later, I always see how His provisions fit the bill perfectly. I just have to remind myself to trust the Source, to trust Jesus. And to go to Him, every time.

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