Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Importance of Making Things Right: 31st Sunday in O.T.


Happy November, everyone!  This month constitutes its own unofficial liturgical season, focused on the Last Things.  We begin the month with All Saints and round it out with the Feast of Christ the King.  This Sunday’s Readings introduce themes that will be developed throughout the month: repentance, the Kingdom of God, and final judgment.  In particular, the Gospel Reading urges us not merely to repent while we still have time, but also to make right the wrongs we have done to others, that is, to make reparation.  Some non-Catholic theologies deny the need for reparation, but it is a biblical concept that has within it the power of healing and reconciliation.

1. Our First Reading is Wisdom 11:22-12:2:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Does it Mean to Be Poor? The 30th Sunday in OT

Several years ago, an experiment was done in which three American families were taken to a remote part of the Midwest and left to survive with few belongings and 19th century technology (horse-drawn plows, etc.) for a year.  

As I recall, two families were able to persevere through the year without being rescued, and at the end of it, they returned to their twentith-century lives, with video games, TV, etc.

When interviewed a year after the end of the experiment, almost to a person the family members agreed that the year "in the past" had been very difficult, but they were happier during that year than they were now.  

Which raises the question: what is true poverty?  Were the participants poorer during the experiment, or in their present lives?

The Readings for this Sunday take up the question of true poverty, and the Gospel reading puts a "spin" on the previous three Scriptures.
1.  Our First Reading is Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prayer as Warfare: The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Usually we think of men of prayer and men of war as complete opposites.  A monk in a habit—such as St. Francis—is a man dedicated to peace, a total contrast to one clad in armor brandishing weapons.  Yet the Readings for this Sunday combine the imagery of war and prayer in interesting ways that provoke our thoughts about the nature and reality of supplicating God.

1.  Our First Reading is Exodus 17:8-13:

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Is Anyone Grateful? The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The themes of the Readings for this Sunday focus on the gratitude for God’s salvation.  Gratitude is an important psychological and spiritual disposition.  Dr. Daniel G. Amen, the popular brain researcher and public health spokesman, identifies gratitude as a key character quality of persons with physiologically healthy brains.  That’s right: gratitude affects your physical health, including the shape and functioning of your brain.  This Sunday’s Readings focus particularly on gratitude to God, and how it should be expressed.

1.  Our First Reading is 2 Kgs 5:14-17:

Monday, October 07, 2013

Free download: "The Bible and the Rosary: How to Hear the Word of God in Prayer"

Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. In honor of the occasion the St. Paul Center is offering a free download of a talk I gave earlier this year at a popular-level Catholic conference on the topic.

The talk is a bit biographical and laced with (my attempt at) humor. I hope you'll enjoy it.

The Bible and the Rosary (FOT 2013) by Michael Barber

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Lessons in Faith and Faithfulness (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

"By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God [Vatican II, Dei Verbum 5]. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith' [cf. Rom 1:5; 16:26]." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 39.
What exactly is faith? How is it lived out? These are the lessons taught to us in the Scripture passages read from the lectionary this Sunday. Let us look at them in some detail.

The First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4

Habakkuk was a prophet in the late seventh century B.C. In his day, the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah was imminent. The Book of Habakkuk explains that God's judgment is about to befall Jerusalem in the form of the conquering armies of the Babylonians, who would destroy the city and the temple and carry the Jews off into exile.

In chapter one he laments the injustice he sees all around him, calling out to the Lord:
"How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, "Violence!"
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord. (Hab 1:2-3)
Although it is not read in the lectionary, the next verse describes "the law" as "paralyzed". This seems most likely a reference to God's Law. In short, the prophet seems to indict his own people for failing to remain faithful to the Lord. Indeed, Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk announced a similar message (cf. Jer 7:3–6; 9:1–6; 12:1–4; 15:10; 20:7–8; 22:3, 13–17).

Habakkuk seems to indict the Lord: how could he abide this situation?

The Lord makes it clear that while the prophet may be tempted to think his prayers have gone unheard, this is simply not the case. God explains: "I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told" (Hab 1:5).

What is the Lord about to do? He is about to use a Gentile nation--Babylon--to bring his recompense. 
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live." (Hab 2:2-4)
God is not working on Habakkuk's desired timetable but this does not mean the Lord has ignored the injustices taking place. Justice will come. The vision of judgment "will not disappoint". It may seem as if it "delays" but "it will not be late".

The critical lesson one must learn is to trust in the Word of the Lord: "the just one, because of his faith, shall live" (Hab 2:2-4). The righteous one will have life so long as he has faith.

This passage is famously used by St. Paul to illustrate the importance of faith (cf. Rom 1:17).
 However, it is important to point out that faith here is more than mere "intellectual assent". The Greek word for "faith" here has a range of meaning; i.e., it can simply mean "believe". But for Paul saving "faith" is more than just intellectual knowledge.

James makes this point crystal clear; even the demons believe in God, i.e., they have "faith" inasmuch as they intellectually assent to his existence (cf. James 2:19).

Actually, in Greek the term translated "faith" may best be understood in terms of "faithfulness". In light of this Habakkuk's meaning is made more clear. Habakkuk condemns the unfaithfulness of his people. Yet, though God's people are unfaithful to the Law, God himself remains faithful. He is faithful to his Word.

God will make good on his promise to carry out judgment; and those who live by faith--i.e., faithfulness--will live.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95
--> The psalm used for the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95, is a psalm that is used regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office). It draws heavily from Israel’s wilderness experience, once again highlighting God's faithfulness in the face of Israel's unfaithfulness. Once again, the reader is urged to fidelity to the Lord.
R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works." 
Its opening reference to singing to the Lord God, described as the “Rock”, evokes Deuteronomy 32. In fact, Psalm 95 appears as part of a collection of psalms (Psalms 90-100) that all appear to draw upon or allude to this important passage in some way or another.

Specifically, the invitation to praise God and its declaration, “For the Lord is a great God” (Ps 95:3) evokes the opening of the Moses’ Song: “Ascribe greatness to our God” (Deuteronomy 32:3). The psalm also evokes the sea imagery of Exodus 15: “The sea is His, for He made it” (Psalm 95:5).

The reference to the "rock of our salvation" likely alludes, however, not only to Deuteronomy 32 but also to miraculous rock that gave Israel water. Interestingly, St. Paul explains in the New Testament that the "rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). 

Of course, in the story of the miraculous rock we also hear about Israel's grumbling against the Lord and lack of faith. Indeed, the rock itself ultimately was the scene of Moses' own failure to trust in the Lord.

Psalm 95 ends with the recollection of Israel’s disobedience in Exodus 17.

Set in the context of the exile, which Habakkuk announced, Psalm 95 calls upon Israel in the wilderness of the nations not to forget the works God has wrought in the past, while at the same time, giving rise to the hope of a future miraculous deliverance.

The Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14

In the Second Reading, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to faithfulness, noting that faith itself is not merely the result of human effort. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him" (no. 153). 
I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.

Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Here we can note two things. First, Paul recognizes the "faith" and "love" are found "in Christ Jesus". Faith is not merely a human virtue; it is a supernatural virtue that is only possible through union with Christ. These are to be guarded as a "rich trust" and can only be maintained "with the help of the Holy Spirit".

In short, to view faith as the result of human effort is to misunderstand it. Faith is ultimately "a grace". Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this point beautifully. Under the subheading, "Faith is a grace", we read:
When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come “from flesh and blood,” but from “my Father who is in heaven.” [Matt 16:17; cf. Gal. 1:15; Matt. 11:25]. Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. “Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’” [cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, no. 5]
Let our prayer be that of the man in Mark 9:24: "I believe; help my unbelief!”

Second, Timothy has been established by Paul in his ministry through the laying on of hands. Here we have one of the earliest texts identifying what would later be understood as the sacrament of Holy Orders. Timothy hasn't simply been appointed for ministry because of his natural gifts; he has been given a supernatural gift to empower him to fulfill his ministry. 

Timothy is called upon to persevere in the midst of adversity but he is not to do this without divine assistance: his faithfulness will be the result of the working of the power of the Spirit "that dwells within us".  

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

The Gospel begins with the apostles petition: "Increase our faith!"

Jesus goes on to explain, however, that even a little bit of faith goes a long way. Indeed, all he needs is for us to have "faith the size of a mustard seed". With that, great things can be accomplished:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
But notice that "faith" here is not simply "belief". In other contexts this saying is related to confidence in prayer (cf., e.g., Mark 11:23-24). In Luke 17 Jesus is not simply speaking of practicing a form of "name-it-and-claim-it" spirituality. (Nor is that really in view elsewhere but I digress). Here Jesus describes "faith" in terms of "faithfulness":
"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
To the apostles' request, "Increase our faith", Jesus responds with a teaching about doing "all you have been commanded".

Faith is ultimately not simply "believing in". Faith entails faithfulness. Faith is a gift, but it also entails a human response; it is a human act made possible by God's grace (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 154).

That I think is the point of the readings this Sunday. In fact, the subtext is that God is faithful even though we are not. Let us turn to him and ask him for his grace so that we may be faithful ourselves.