Friday, October 31, 2008

Encountering Lazarus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I would like to present a point that I made somewhat forcefully in last Sunday's homily. We heard the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31). A wonderful parable, indeed, but a frightening one as Christ describes the torments of Hades/Hell for those who refuse to practice charity in this life. The "rich man" dressed well and ate well, according to the parable (16:19). But yet he ignored Lazarus who lay outside his gate (on a daily basis?). Lazarus, of course, was not only poor, but he was "full of sores," and seemingly at a near-starvation level, because he would have been content with whatever "fell from the rich man's table" (16:20-21). Upon their respective deaths, there was a staggering "reversal of fortune." Lazarus "was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom" (16:22); but the nameless (not an insignificant detail) rich man was delivered to Hades, the shadowy realm of death where the presence of God cannot be enjoyed. Conscious and tormented by his condition, and reminded by the Lord that his indifference to Lazarus put him there: "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things" (16:25), the rich man languishes in agony and regret. And it is too late to repent so that he can come over to the bosom of Abraham, a clear image of paradise: "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us." (16: 26)

It is difficult to determine just how much in a parable can be applied in a doctrinal manner to the mystery of the judgment and the world to come; but nevertheless this parable should have our undivided attention when it comes to our charitable side when contemplating our impending judgment. (There is, of course, the Parable of the Last Judgment in MATT. 25:31-46, read right before the beginnng of Great Lent). We may read the parable as a warning or as an encouragement, but the lesson remains the same. A lack of charity among those who have the means to practice it, reveals an indifference that leaves one unprepared for the joy of God's presence in the age to come.

We hardly encounter a Lazarus type in our everyday lives. We are protected from such encounters. The appeal to our charitable side comes through less direct sources - the mail, audio communication, word-of-mouth, but also in our churches. We periodically have collections for the poor and needy, for victims of natural disasters and the like. This appeal is usually in the form of a basket that is placed by the Cross, so that after the Liturgy, we may come forward, kiss the Cross, and place our contribution in the basket. Here, then, is how I see this parable being actualized - made present - in our own lives, at least periodically. The basket, or basket-holder, represents Lazarus, and each one of us represents the rich man. When we go by the basket, we go right past Lazarus. Do we stop and attend to the needs of Lazarus, or do we pass him by as did the rich man? The description of being "rich" is quite relative, for we are all well-clothed and well-fed as was the rich man. We can always put "something' in the basket (beyond what would honestly be deemed a mere token gesture). The right question, therefore, is not: "Can I afford to put something in the basket?" It is: "Can I afford not to put something in the basket in the light of Christ's parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man?" Or, is it possible to kiss the Cross of our Savior, and then walk right by "Lazarus?" Such a thought should strike our conscience, open our hearts - and then our pockets or purses.

We can hardly respond to every appeal that comes our way. We have to make choices based on some discernment. I am raising the point of enjoying our Lord's hospitality toward us in the Eucharistic liturgy, because He made Himself poor so that we could be made rich in Christ Jesus (II COR. 8:9) - a saving event actualized whenever we celebrate the Liturgy. Lazarus can be in our midst also, in one form or another. It may take some sympathetic imagination to "see" him in a mere basket by the Cross, but hopefully the parable will convince us that the way of the rich man is not consistent with the gifts of God that we enjoy in such abundance.

Fr. Steven

Friday, October 24, 2008

In an Honest and Good Heart

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As recently as last Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Sower (LK. 8:5-15). This could also be called the Parable of the Seed(s); or even a touch awkwardly, the Parable of the Fourfold Field. The reception of this parable and how it has been analyzed by biblical scholars, makes this parable a complex story in and of itself. However, we will remain on "good ground" if we simply "hear" the parable as interpreted by Christ for His disciples, as it has been consistently understood within the Church. Before coming to that, though, perhaps it would be wise to review the meaning and purpose of the parables of Christ. The prominent biblical scholar C. H. Dodd, defined the parable as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought" (The Parables of the Kingdom). In other words a story that will make us think, as in ponder or meditate. That is why we need "ears to hear;" otherwise the parable will "go through one ear and out the other," thus wasting an opportunity that the Lord has granted us to understand how His Kingdom is being presented to us as a gift. My own wonderful New Testament professor, Veselin Kesich, had this to say about parables in his book The Gospel Image of Christ:

The Old Testament records a few parables (II SAM. 12:1-4; I KG. 20:35-42; IS. 5:1-7). Jesus, however, brought this art to perfection. Differing from previous storytellers in his subject matter, Jesus revealed his own character in these parables. His purpose was to lead the hearer to him and to compel a response to his challenge. Parables are never told to amuse people; they are not merely interesting or entertaining. They are of a revelatory character.

The Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable are, respectively, mashal and mathla. Whatever the meaning - allegory, riddle, symbol, story - the parable is meant to challenge our way of thinking and "to compel a response" to the gift of the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus. You cannot "walk away" from a parable of Christ's. Such indifference is a response of sorts, though not one pleasing to the Lord, one would imagine. And such a response makes one an "outsider" who will "see but not perceive, and ... indeed hear but not understand; lest ... you should turn again and be forgiven." Those on the "inside," as true disciples of Christ, have "been given the secret of the Kingdom of God" (MK. 4:11-12). It is a serious matter to come to church and listen to one of Christ's parables!

For those unable to be in church this past Sunday, and who have not yet turned to the appointed reading(?), the Parable of the Sower as recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke, is as follows:

A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold. As he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (LK. 8:5-8)

Since, in first century Palestine, the sowing preceded planting, the parable is a realistic story that would have highlighted the rich abundance of the seed that may have not seemed so promising because of the various soils it fell into - the trodden path, rocky ground, and the thorns. Thus, the Kingdom of God, though facing an unpromising beginning, will grow by God's grace regardless of any and all obstacles. However, the final admonition to careful listening tells us that we must probe deeper to understand the full implications of the parable. And Jesus will assist his disciples - and us today - by providing an explanation of the parable that reveals the parable's inner meaning:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.
And as for what fell among thorns, they are those who hear; but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience. (LK. 8:11-15)

During His ministry Christ realized, as did many preachers of the word following Him, that many who heard His word - Jew and Gentile alike - would reject that word for various reasons. This was clearly the experience of Christ and His disciples/apostles. So the parable is not simply about the fate of the seed, or about the quality of the soil that it falls into. The parable is thus "symbolic" and prophetic because of its ultimate reference to the human rejection (or acceptance) of the proclamation of the Kingdom and the Gospel. This is a realistic assessment based upon the three sources of temptation inherent in the process of hearing the Word of God and reacting to it. Basically, these three sources of temptation are: the devil, persecution, and mammon.

We pray "and deliver us from the evil one." The "evil one" lurks behind temptation and abandonment to it. This does not relieve us of our responsibility by "blaming it on the devil," but rather alerts us to the need for vigilance. As our spiritual tradition makes quite clear, the evil one often works through such "passions" as: gluttony, lust, avarice, jealously, envy, anger, dejection, vanity and pride. As such, direct confrontation is unnecessary; or perhaps reserved for the great saints who take up that battle with utter seriousness, determination, and profound reliance upon the saving grace of God. Our "inner demons," multiplied and strengthened by our weaknesses and lack of faith, thus pluck the seed of God's word from our hearts as birds will pluck up loose seed on shallow ground. Distracted, enervated or consumed by our passions, the evil one, as an ever-present threat, can leave us with a heart empty of the saving seeds of the divine Sower. And as Christ warned, the horrific result can be unbelief and a loss of salvation.

"Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II TIM. 3:12) When you think of the "world" as it is, obsessed with "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16), this has a certain inevitability to it. From the beginning, many followers of Christ have been persecuted, the great company of martyrs unto death itself. This is a severe test, and many have failed to make such a witness. It is hardly for us to judge, especially if we are incapable of holding up to even the slightest social pressure that will intimidate us into silence or inaction when our "witness" to being a Christian would make a significant impact. "I am a Christian" was the phrase always used by the martyrs to identify themselves, even though it would also serve them up a death sentence. Yet, would anyone feel that that would be an awkward form of self-identification today? Perhaps that can be re-phrased with the following question: "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" If not, it would reveal that we have "no root" and the seed from the Sower was wasted. The Lord left us these encouraging words as He envisioned the fate of His followers to come: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (MATT. 5:10).

Alas, who is not "choked by the cares of life?" In the versions of this parable found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark, Jesus adds "and the delight of riches" (MATT. 13:22), "and the desire for other things" (MK. 4:19). So the "cares of life" should not be limited to the legitimate struggle for our "daily bread" and the protection and care of our families. Jesus is referring to that pervasive spirit of acquisitiveness that can never be satisfied. There is a wonderful 19th c.(?) aphorism that needs to be memorized: "Enough is a feast." And yet a contemporary distortion would say something like: "There is never enough!" No matter what we have, we need more of it - and then some more. How humiliating: either collectively or personally, we are the donkey doomed to trotting in a circle going nowhere with an inaccessible carrot dangling before our noses! There is never a shortage of contestants willing to line up for life's perennial "rat race." Has there ever been a "winner?" This insatiable demand for "riches" and "other things" only serves to "choke" the life out of the seeds of the divine Sower so that "their fruit does not mature." The Lord expressed this struggle perfectly with the well-known words: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (MATT. 6:24).

And yet the parable is not only about the sadly inevitable reality that "many" will lose the seed-word of the Sower upon hearing it because of the evil one, persecution and mammon. Christ is telling us that despite that unholy triad of temptations, there will still be an abundant harvest that will yield a "hundredfold." In fact, that may be the most significant point about the parable. When we hear the Word of God, our concern is "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." This, in turn, will cultivate "fruit with patience." Every Liturgy presents us with the opportunity of "hearing" the living Word of God. If we have "ears to hear" the seed of the Sower will fall on "good soil."

Fr. Steven

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Satanic Beatitudes

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is something a bit different than what I usually offer, but filled with some obvious insights that we ignore at our peril ... The attached attribution to the following reads like this:

originally submitted in another list by
V. Rev. Archmandrite Maximos
Epitropia of the Holy Sepulcher
Jerusalem Patriarchate

If the devil were to write his beatitudes, they would probably go something like this:

1. Blessed are those who are too tired, too busy, too distracted to spend a few hours a week with their fellow
Christians in worship - they are my best workers.

2. Blessed are those Christians who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked - I can use them.

3. Blessed are the touchy who stop going to church - they are my missionaries.

4. Blessed are the troublemakers - they shall be called my children.

5. Blessed are the complainers - I'm all ears to them.

6. Blessed are those who are bored with the priest's mannerisms and mistakes - for they get nothing out of his

7. Blessed is the church member who expects to be invited to his own church - for he is part of the problem
instead of the solution.

8. Blessed are those who gossip - for they shall cause strife and divisions that please me.

9. Blessed are those who are easily offended - for they will soon get angry and quit.

10. Blessed are those who do not give their offering to carry on God's work - for they are my helpers.

11. Blessed is he who professes to love God but hates his brother and sister - for he shall be with me forever.

12. Blessed are you who, when you read this and think it is about other people and not yourself - I've got you too.


The above is basically about apathy and pettiness - two common human weaknesses that can still keep one very far away from God!

Fr. Steven

Monday, October 13, 2008

More thoughts on prayer...

Dear Parish Faithful,

Steve Wendland responded to my latest meditation - "Fragments for Friday" (10/10) - with a very thoughtful and very honest "meditation" of his own. He is willing to share it with all of you. I have the strong sense that he has articulated many of our own concerns, questions, and even doubts about prayer and how it is meant to draw us closer to God. Steve and Emma, of course, have been compelled to learn about prayer in a way that we probably have not. It is less abstract for them in the light of Elias' illness. Something like being tossed overboard far away from the shore and learning how to swim on the spot. Be that as it may, please read Steve's response carefully.

Perhaps we can schedule a discussion on prayer before or during Great Lent of next year and talk through some of these difficult issues about prayer.

Fr. Steven

~ ~ ~

Fr. Steven,

Thank you for your thoughts on prayer. This is definitely something that I struggle to understand. It seems that there is a difference between just praying on one side and then entering into a life of prayer on the other. In the former one can pray daily and earnestly, while struggling to see the difference between the power of prayer and mere chance, where the world seems absurd and pointless. In the latter it seems that one is brought up into the mystery of the Trinitarian God, beyond all categories and into a relationship of Love, where we find a foretaste of things to come. It seems that we often bounce back and forth between two different worlds, where in reality there is only one. Sometimes it becomes tiresome to be living only in the world that appears absurd and meaningless, because true prayer becomes almost impossible and at times similar to a catch 22. By this I mean that when we begin to struggle, these mysteries are not immediately revealed to us and we most continue in a sort of blind faith. And when we do nothing it often appears to yield the same fruit.

Basically what I am saying here is that I desire to move to another level of faith or understanding. I also wonder if others struggle with some of these thoughts? Again, thank you for your thoughts on pray. It seems to be our primary way to communion with God but yet is probably more misunderstood and misused than anything in our somewhat pseudo-Christian culture. Much harm has been done to the views of how God relates to mankind, what He wants for us and how He saves us.

Stephen Wendland

Friday, October 10, 2008

When Christ Prayed Earnestly...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Rise and pray, that you may not enter into temptation." (LK. 22:46)

We are currently reading from the Gospel According to St. Luke according to our lectionary. A recent passage prescribed from this Gospel begins with a rather laconic notation that nevertheless opens up to us something of the profound and mysterious "inner life" of Christ during His earthly ministry: "In these days he went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God." (LK. 6:12) The incarnate Son of God prayed extensively - "all night" - and assuredly intensively to His heavenly Father. In His humanity Christ was supported, sustained and strengthened through prayer. He is not a "static" being because He is divine. St. Luke emphasizes the fact that there is "growth" in Christ: "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." And somewhat later, "Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature; and in favor with God and man." (LK. 2:40, 52) Certainly, His prayer was an integral part of this process. The "hypostatic union" of the divine and human natures in the one Person of the eternal Son of God, will always present to us such paradoxes that are irreducible to purely logical analysis. That is the glory of the Incarnation. If we read this Gospel with care, and search for the many passages that describe Jesus at prayer, we will discover that Christ prayed before making important decisions. The passage above immediately precedes Christ's choice and appointment of His twelve disciples (LK. 6:13-16) Other examples are equally significant, as before the confession of St. Peter:

Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, Who do the people say that I am. (LK. 9:18)

Before offering instruction on prayer:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." (LK. 11:1)

Before His agony in the Garden:

And when he came to the place he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed ... And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples ... and he said to them, "Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (LK. 22:40-41;43-46)

When Christ prayed "earnestly," St. Luke informs us that "great drops of blood" fell from His face! Now that is powerful prayer. To emphasize again, before a crucial decision or before a crucial event in His life, Jesus would come before His heavenly Father and pray, sometimes kneeling down in prayer. As a consistent principle of the spiritual life, the Fathers teach us that whatever Christ did, we must do also. That begins with prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When we face crucial and critical decisions in life, we need to turn to "our Father" in prayer. Prayer can bring clarity at times of great confusion. The image of light piercing through darkness gives us some insight into that truth. In moments of overwhelming sadness, sorrow, or great loss - when death itself strikes within our reach - it is prayer that conveys to us the consolation that can only come from God. Yet, we would be horribly mistaken to limit our prayer to "bad times." Prayer is not a "last resort," or a desperate plea at the brink of nothingness. In "good times" - or rather at "all times" - we also come before God in thanksgiving and praise. This, too, is prayer. In prayer, we approach the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Our prayer brings us into the life of the Trinity and puts us in communion with the Trinity. Of course, we must plan, calculate, and make difficult choices, but the example of our Lord should first turn us to prayer. Since God is not a "cosmic butler" we must understand that our prayer will not always attain what we immediately desire and what we are certain are our real needs. But our prayer is our most intimate way of placing our trust in God, regardless of the outcome of events in our life: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (LK. 23:46)

Yvonne of the Prayer does not begin where action has failed. For prayer is activity. To be active in a crisis or at a time of great joy is, precisely, to pray. To pray is to actively affirm that we are not the prisoners of a closed universe; that the reality of God permeates all things and that "God is with us." St. Paul taught us to "pray without ceasing." (I THESS. 5:17) And St. John of Kronstadt taught that prayer is "spiritual breathing." At a recent retreat in our parish, MadreHogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage reminded us that, "the most important thing in life is prayer." Perhaps we lose sight of this unbroken tradition of the absolute centrality of prayer because we have lost a sense of our dependency on God. We tend to maximize the "virtue" of self-reliance. We have developed our own problem-solving techniques, and our own decision-making processes, that are outside of prayer. Prayer then becomes a kind of "religious additive" that is a pious afterthought rather than the very "atmosphere" within which we approach life and its endless joys and sorrows. Nevertheless, we can always follow the example of our Lord and pray as He directed us - either with two or three gathered together, or alone behind closed doors. I recall a Serbian proverb from many years ago: "Work as if you will live to be a hundred; pray as if you will die tomorrow." Everything is in the hands of God.

Fr. Steven