Welcome to Green Reflections, the blog dedicated to reflections on the readings from the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary, with particular sensitivity to the needs of the earth. Use this blog to deepen your own awareness of our Creator's desires for the planet and ways that we can appreciate God's goals for the earth,giving it the loving care that it deserves.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
The Sunday following Christmas always brings our focus to the Holy Family of Nazareth. Our readings today are filled with a variety of admonitions about respect, obedience, peace and tolerance – all virtues that are needed to live in a Christian household that strives to grow in the Spirit of Jesus.
Instead of focusing our attention on the list of recommended virtues, I’d like to focus our attention on something more subtle: the active role of Joseph and how he made his decision to settle the family in Nazareth. According to Matthew’s gospel, an angel visited Joseph in his dream and told him to, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Joseph did as the angel commanded but when he heard that Archelaus was the ruler in Judea, Joseph made a decision to move back to Nazareth in the northern mountain regions of Galilee.
One needs to know something about this Archelaus to understand why Joseph would have made the decision to travel four more days to Nazareth instead of moving to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors. Certainly first century Christians would have known what we have to look up in history books or from The Dictionary of the Bible as I did to understand the story better. According to this book, Archelaus was cruel like his father, Herod the Great, but he did not have his father’s competence. Therefore, his rule brought with it riots and disorders with the Jews and Rome did not give him the title of king, like his father, but only the title of ethnarch. Joseph would have known this, and it would seem that Joseph regarded Archelaus as a dangerous ruler whom he did not want to encounter.
I had to wonder how Joseph would have known about Archelaus since he lived in Egypt before the move to Nazareth. There were no daily papers in his time. If he were like other men of his trade, Joseph would have gone to the local pub at the end of the day’s work before going home to dinner. Pubs functioned as a place for men to share news and evaluate what was happening in their homeland. Its purpose was political, the place where the people could become informed about the news and, of course, decide how best to respond to it. I like thinking of Joseph as the kind of man who had his ear to the ground, aware of the world around him. He was a man who kept current with the news, not a simpleton who lived life without a context. Seeing Joseph as the leader of his family, a savvy man who made decisions with all the information that he could amass, gives us insight into why God chose him to foster Jesus.
Joseph is not only a good role model for all parents who raise children in an exceedingly complex world but Joseph is also a good standard for environmental activists. We need to stay attuned to the data available to us in order to make good decisions. I am fortunate to live in an area where there are two local papers. The town paper is good for keeping up with local events, but the Los Angeles Times is a newspaper that gives much greater detail to international events and to environmental news. What I see reported in the newspaper in the morning is often the news that is being responded to by environmental groups in the afternoon or the next day. Finding reliable sources of information is as valuable to us as it was to Joseph and the Holy Family. When we want to take action that will have a positive impact on the world around us, we need solid data and analysis. This is why I’ve grown to rely on environmental groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others for my information.
The gospel focuses us on the informed choices that Joseph made for his family. We need to do as much for our families and our world. If we have not already begun the habit of reading good sources on the Internet or in news publications, this Sunday is a call to action. Sign up for news alerts at one or more of the organizations listed below on this blog. If we already use good resources, then the invitation is to use intelligently the information we have available to us for action. Joseph did not sit on his hands when the angel announced the death of King Herod, he was ready for action. Let us be ready for action on behalf of the Earth by keeping our ear to the ground, like Joseph, and make responsible decisions.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Here we are just seven days before Christmas, while thoughts of shopping, decorating and parties to attend fill our days and nights. It can be hard to remain in Advent while the world around us is already celebrating Christmas and the air ways are filled with caroling. It is this final Sunday of Advent, however, when our liturgical focus shifts to St. Joseph, soon to be foster father of Jesus in the story of the Nativity.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. The evangelist meant that Joseph was faithful to the covenant with God and obedient to God’s will expressed in all the commandments and statutes of the Law. Scripture rarely uses this description of the “righteous man” unless it is to single out a particularly virtuous person. For us in the twenty-first century, the description of a righteous man may seem archaic, having nothing to do with us. Indeed, society was strikingly different in first century Palestine from our own western culture.
We know the story. Joseph finds his betrothed wife to be pregnant even though they have had no relations. Beyond the shock of coming face to face with the news that Mary, heretofore considered to be innocent as new fallen snow, was pregnant, Joseph is faced with a conundrum. In his first century culture, a betrothal was s serious legal commitment to marry and the betrothed was already considered his “wife,” even though she still lived at home with her parents. Furthermore, the relationship between Joseph’s family and Mary’s became familial with all the obligations toward one another of family members came with their betrothal. Joseph could not simply “break the engagement.” He would have to divorce her in order to nullify the relationships that the betrothal had created. Furthermore, in this highly patriarchal society, Joseph could not simply take her baby as his own. The infant belonged to another man. In his righteousness, Joseph would have to divorce Mary so that the father of her child could wed her and claim his child. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph was ready to go through with the divorce, honoring the rights of the child’s father, while at the same time divorcing quietly so that Mary’s reputation would not be irreparably harmed. It is not hard to imagine how heartbroken Joseph must have been while he followed the demands of his culture. Yet, he was ready to do the right thing.
Then a surprise element came into the story: an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream claiming that the child’s father was God and Joseph should wed Mary. The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus because He would save His people from sin. What a fantastic dream! I’d bet that all of us have had dreams that were fantastic, yet we did not act on them. After all, dreams are the stuff of fantasy, the mind working out life’s events. That was not the case for Joseph. He came from a culture that honored dreams as messages from God. He acted on the dream marrying Mary; and the rest is history.
What I find so striking about Joseph is his freedom to let go of a previously made decision and move in another direction. He was able to let go of religiously and culturally determined values, so that the surprising plan of God could be fulfilled. That was a really “big deal.” Many of us can get hung up on decisions that we’ve made, and refuse to consider alternatives once a decision has been made—even when new information comes to light that can significantly change our perceptions! When moving or changing careers, we tend to be very careful in making decisions. What would we do if the very definitions of right and wrong changed in the midst of our lives? What would we do if we learned that our carefully crafted images of God contradicted who God is? This is the monumental sort of shift that took place for Joseph. The so-called “obvious” sin of Mary was no sin at all! She had not betrayed him. No man had taken what rightfully belonged to Joseph. All of Joseph’s careful adherence to Judaic law was useless in this situation. He had to trust God and live by faith alone. I wonder how many of us could do that.
Today’s gospel passage challenges us to be prepared for God’s unexpected action in our lives. Jesus came as an infant in the most impossible way on the first Christmas, how might he surprise us now? How might God shock our sensibilities? We do not know, of course, but we can practice letting go of preconceived ideas. What if this week we were to surrender our privileged concept of being the zenith of life on our planet? What if we saw ourselves as one among many loved species? What if we surrendered our superior attitude and became servants of creation? Perhaps experiencing ourselves as servants and nobodies would assist us in finding what true greatness is. Maybe we might begin to understand why Jesus insisted that the greatest law of our lives is love. Before Christmas arrives, we can put into practice what Joseph learned: God is a god of surprises and we, puny human beings, will never figure out God or be able to hold in our tiny hands the infinite mind and heart of God. All you and I can do before seeing the Holy One face to face, is to practice love and extend our love to even the most minute creature in our lives.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
“What did you go into the desert to see?” Jesus asked the question of all those who were traveling to the Jordan River in order to see and hear the prophet, John the Baptist. He was a sight to behold dressed in camel skin; and he ate nothing but locusts and honey. So when Jesus offered possibilities, like soft robes, he knew that was not what the seekers went to the river to see.
When people began to follow Jesus, we might wonder what they expected, too. Many people were hoping for the messiah to appear, but the expectations around what a messiah would do varied widely. Some expected a messiah to restore Israel to political glory by overthrowing the Roman government. Clearly those expectations were not fulfilled in Jesus.
“What did you go into the desert to see?” His question is as vital to us as it was to his listeners two thousand years ago. When we begin Advent— when we open our Bibles— when we pray each day—what are we expecting? When I was a child, I thought that God might fulfill all my desires and I prayed for all kinds of things that God did not deliver. Clearly, my expectations were off base and I needed to adjust my expectations. As adults we can fall into a similar trap, expecting God to deliver nothing but gifts like Santa Claus.
When we listen to the Isaiah today, we hear the prophet tell Israel that God will bring them back rejoicing. The desert and dry land will blossom and all will rejoice. But notice what else the prophet says: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are frightened, ‘Be strong, do not fear!” In their waiting for God to act, the people were supposed to strengthen their fidelity to God, make firm their commitment to walk in their covenant with God. When they did this, then God was sure to come and free them.
For Christians who believe that God calls us to restore the earth and heal our land, this reading has special appeal. Isaiah tells us that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom”—a far cry from the condition of the environment at this moment. In this passage from Isaiah, there is a promise from God to make our Earth produce abundantly, but we must do our part. We are the ones who must be strong in our commitment to live sustainably; we must strengthen our efforts to move public policy to environmental strength. We cannot sit back to moan and groan that things aren’t going our way. No! We must renew our efforts and sustain our commitment, our covenant with God to honor creation. When Jesus asks, “What did you go into the desert to see?” we must not be like children expecting a “Santa Claus god” to undo our centuries of Earth destroying behavior like magic. We need to know that we are in partnership with God. This planet has been handed over to us for safekeeping and our faith tells us that it doesn’t belong to us. Earth belongs to God and we are to act as good stewards.
We would do well to reverse the question and ask God, “What do you expect to see when you look at Earth?” The answer from scripture is simple: “a well-tended garden.” If we are able to pour our hearts and souls into the work needed to restore and heal the Earth, then we can look forward to obtaining the joy and gladness as the sorrow and sighing flees from our planet as promised in Isaiah comes to pass.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
When I read the readings for this Sunday in Advent I couldn’t help thinking, “Well, John the Baptist really took his gloves off.” This gospel passage is not one for the faint of heart. In it we hear John insulting the leaders of the lay sanctity movement, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It probably doesn’t hit our ears in the same way as it did in the first century, but John was essentially calling these leaders bastard children of snakes! Oh, my. The Pharisees and Sadducees were people who prided themselves on keeping the Mosaic Law in all its minutia and living pious lives. Being called bastards of snakes would really have angered them.
Nevertheless, John points out to them, that their piety has to be more than show and more than a veneer. Love of God must be at the core of our being directing all of our relationships and activities. John is calling everyone to true repentance. That is to say, he wanted his listeners to look deep into their own hearts to see what really guides their decisions and actions. If it is less than genuine love of God and neighbor, then beware: the ax is already laid at the root.
John’s call to repentance is universally applicable, even for us twenty-one centuries later. Who among us can honestly say that we’ve done our very best at all times? Who among us can honestly report that we have loved everyone that God has put into our lives? Rather, isn’t the truth that we’ve picked and chosen whom we will love and for whom we will do good? Haven’t we grown complacent about many issues? Have we become like the Pharisees and Sadducees in sorting our recyclables, all the while wasting energy, increasing our carbon output or being engaged in excessive consumption? This Sunday of Advent is a good time to ponder the question of excessive consumption when we are busy about preparing gifts for everyone on our lists. We are tempted by all kinds of advertising to buy-buy-buy, substituting purchases for genuine love and friendship.
The final section of the gospel reading today adds special emphasis for the need to repent now, not later. John tells us that Jesus is coming and when he comes, he will have a winnowing fan in his hand, ready to gather the wheat and burn the chaff. John came for repentance, but Jesus will come in judgment. He will sort us like the farmer sorts the grains of wheat from the chaff that blows in the wind. Will we be solidly holy, like the wheat grains, so that he will gather us to himself or will we be all show with no substance to our love so that we are thrown into the fire?
This Sunday is not an easy one to act on. We have habits to overcome and defenses to protect ourselves from real change. The pay-off for real repentance is spelled out in the reading from Isaiah today. Justice will come on the Earth, peace will reign, and there will no longer be any threat of violence to fear. Jesus’ birth brought about the beginning of this Kingdom of God. His second coming will usher in the fullness of God’s reign. Will we be ready?
Let us all be grateful for the warning John the Baptist gave us. Let us examine ourselves to see how well we have loved our neighbors, human and other creatures. Then let’s set about setting all of our relationships right and so become ready for the judgment that most certainly will come.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Stay awake! As we enter into the season of Advent we are told both in the gospel reading and Paul’s letter to the Romans to stay awake. We might wonder, “What for?” Advent is a season that many people celebrate as the period of preparation for Christmas, but Christmas in only a part, a small part of Advent. At Christmas we remember the one-time event when God entered into human history as one of us. The Eternal and Ever Present One came as the Baby Jesus and it can be easy to get all caught up in setting up the Christmas crib and decorating the house or buying gifts for family and loved ones.
Even with all our happy memories of that first Christmas, we will miss the point of Advent if we forget the promise of Jesus to return again. Advent points to this Second Coming. Jesus tells us that the second coming will be like the days of Noah, unexpected and with evildoers swept away. At the same time he tells us to stay awake, keep watch for his return. It is this “staying awake” that I want to ponder as the first week of Advent begins.
To be alert takes some effort. Like the marathon runner who prepares for the great race by challenging herself to run a distance every day, trying to get faster and faster day by day, the preparation that we do for Jesus' return takes effort and constant improvement. It is not easy. We are not trying to be faster runners in Advent, but we are trying to become more and more like Jesus in every way, especially in our love and service of others. We might even think to ourselves, “I am a pretty good and loving person already.” St. Paul tells us that experiencing redemption in Jesus is not the end of the story. He tells us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by living honorably.”
Ah, it is so easy to get a bit too comfortable with our spiritual lives! Over time we may even become complacent. Advent is a season to examine ourselves and see just how faithful we are to loving Christ in others, serving Him in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the alien. We assess just how deeply we live our Christianity so that we may continue to grow closer to the Heart of God through Jesus.
For those of us who see and love the world around us as expressions of God’s beauty and grandeur, we need examine our practices of loving the Earth in order to see if we are consistent in our efforts to conserve energy, restore habitat or reduce our water usage. We may find that our appreciation of the Earth and all her creatures has waned over time as we revert back to the use of toxic pesticides or letting water flow down the drain while brushing our teeth. Or we might be very faithful to green practices at home, but we have given up our efforts to heal the earth through participation in letter writing or action steps done together in organized environmental groups like those listed below on this web page. Or we might even have failed to extend our love to all God’s creatures preferring to focus our love solely on human beings.
This Advent is a renewal time, a time to remember that Jesus will return and when he does he will look for those who are faithful disciples in order to repay their love with Divine love. This is the season for us to become alert and active in our love of both human beings and all other creatures. Let us all hold one another in prayer as we courageously take a self-inventory and embark on a season of increasing love.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
The feast of Christ the King may be a difficult one for U.S. Americans to understand, much less desire to celebrate. As a nation we fought a revolution in order to separate from an English king. We established a union based on elected officials whose tenure can be terminated when we are dissatisfied with our representatives. Yet the Church places before us the celebration of Jesus’ kingship. Our readings offer us images of how the reign of Jesus is markedly different from leadership that we may have experienced in our lifetime.
The first reading today directs our attention to the days of King David in Israel. When Israel was besieged by an enemy, David led the troops in a successful routing of the enemy. David was the King whose love for God was demonstrated over and over again and he sought justice for his people repeatedly. His kingship was referred to as “shepherding” Israel. He was a favorite King whose rule was used as the yardstick for excellence for all other kings who followed him.
Jesus was born into King David’s family as the long awaited king who was to follow David. Naturally, expectations about his kingship developed over hundreds of years before Jesus was born. When Jesus arrived on the scene, some hoped that he was the longed for messiah who would free them from the tyranny of Rome. Some expected him to lead an assault against Roman authority and reestablish Israel’s self-rule. Those who expected this kind of kingship were sorely disappointed.
Today’s gospel reading is a very different image of majesty. Jesus is hanging on the cross and refuses to use his power for self-aggrandizement or personal freedom. He was scoffed and derided as he hung dying on the cross and he did not respond in kind to his attackers. Rather, he used his precious energy to reveal the depth and height of God’s love for us. He chose nonviolent love as his defense against evil. In the reading from Luke, today, his words for a self-acknowledged murderer and thief were, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It seems that only the one whom knew he deserved to die had the humility and the insight to approach Jesus as the longed-for messiah. The final gift that Jesus could give is graciously given without any strings attached, without condition and given most generously. Jesus’ final act on earth was mercy and the promise of paradise.
This is a kind of king who we need never fear will abuse his authority. This is a king who, even with all his divine justice and power, used his authority to give life and pardon. This image of Christ the king is so unlike the rulers of Luke’s day. Pontius Pilate was a man known in history books as severe, blood thirsty and power hungry. King Herod Agrippa was the little king from Galilee who was best known for being an adulterer, but who was also known to be a collaborator with Rome in order to hang onto his limited role in government. The Emperor in Rome was known to be unjust and murderous. Against this background we find Jesus, the king who emptied himself of all rights and privilege in order to love and show God to the people of Israel.
Extraordinary! In a world full of people seeking power, position and wealth, this king came in poverty, obscurity and the power of love. As Christians we see in Jesus the model of servant leadership, full of love for those whom he came to serve. So, we know that we, too, are to serve the needs of others in humility, love and even obscurity if it will help others.
We might envy those who seem to have fame and power imagining that we would use our power better than the poor leaders that we have encountered in life. But, the old adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a fair warning to Christians to follow Jesus in the role of servant leadership. Our role is to love people and love our planet with the love that God has for them. When we are able to view the least creature with the love that God has for it then we know that our service to the helpless and the impoverished is infinitely more valuable than holding any power over them.
As we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King we have an opportunity to examine how well we use our own power. Everyone has power and has power in many dimensions of life. The greatest power that we have is the power to love. Once we master love, then all other powers fall into secondary places, ready to serve Love. May this final week of the liturgical year be time for us to examine how well we love and serve the least, so that we may more closely follow Jesus, the Way of Love.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
As I read this morning’s liturgical readings, I was reminded of a song that I used to hear on the radio. The lines went like this: “Do you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to? Do you know?” We might ask ourselves the same question after considering the readings for today’s liturgy.
The prophet Malachi spells out clearly what our future will be. If you are good, you will be healed from life’s pains in the last days. Further, he tells us, that we will leap like a calf released from its stall. But if you are evil, then your life will be reduced in fire, you’ll be burned like stubble so that there is neither branch nor root. The lives of the good are pictured as leaping into freedom, in full health and vigor while the evil are portrayed as something less than human.
In our gospel passage, Jesus is pictured predicting the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. He tells his followers not to be fooled by appearances. Jesus tells us that there will be many signs before the end but we should not worry about it nor think the end is near simply because there are earthquakes and wars. He even says that we may suffer for our faith. Even so, Jesus tells us, let the Spirit lead you and speak in you. And St. Paul tells the early Christians, that even living in the end days does not exempt them from working for a living. We are not to be idle. Rather, we should work quietly, trusting in Jesus and God’s plan for us, giving good example to all who witness our faith. Taken together, all of the readings point to our individual deaths and to the end of human history. In every case, whether from Malachi or Jesus or St. Paul, we are told that by faithful lives now we will gain everlasting life.
As we age, it is natural that we begin to consider our own deaths. We see in nature during this autumn season, that even the trees, flowers and grass follow the rhythm of birth, maturity and death. But death is not the end of life. No, the trees, flowers and grass will return with vigor in the spring. How good God is to give us such an obvious lesson in nature! The trees around us turn brilliant colors of red, orange and gold right before their “death” in winter. If we have the eyes to see the lesson then we can understand that lives lived in genuine faith, loving each other and loving our planet, taking care of the needs of others makes us richer, fuller people—people who become fully human. And, hopefully, as we age, we become more and more faithful in our witness to the love of God in our lives. We become shining examples of what love and faithfulness are.
When we understand that lives of faith lived out in deeds of love and generosity lead to the fullness of life, then we know “where you’re going to.” We do not give into worry or doubt that God intends us to “gain our souls,” which is to say, become fully human, fully loving, fully alive. Let us learn from nature what the prophets and evangelists want us to see: that life lived in love and service to the needs of others leads to the fullness of life beyond the grave. In eternity we will finally know what it means to be free and to be fully human without the limitations that we experience now. To arrive to the fullness of life, though, we are told clearly that we must spend our lives in faith and trust in God’s message, by lives of loving service. Let us all recommit ourselves today to living in love and service to all creatures and everyone so that we may leap into the fullness of life in eternity.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Here we are just two weeks away from the end of the liturgical calendar. It seems very right that we focus our attention on the final things of life, death and resurrection. After all, life on earth is very short compared with eternity! Even so, focusing on death is not at all easy. Most of us would prefer not to think about it unless absolutely necessary, like when we attend a funeral. Unlike birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, we do not usually anticipate and prepare gleefully for our own deaths, so it is good for us to be reminded and see what we need for a good transition into eternal life.
God is love and desires that we live forever in bliss and love. Today’s gospel reading from Luke reminds us that there is more than God’s desire to consider when we think about our own deaths. Hidden away in a debate about a theoretical woman who was married seven times, Jesus speaks in this passage saying, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection ….” So eternal life is not necessarily a sharing in the resurrection unless we are worthy! Now that gives us something to really think about! Who is worthy of eternal life? I doubt that there is any human way to earn the worth needed to enter heaven, but we don’t need to worry about it. Fortunately, God has already made us worthy of Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What we cannot not do for ourselves is pure gift from the heart of Love Itself. This is reason to rejoice and sing God’s praises. The worth that we have been given came to us at baptism, on the day that we confessed Jesus as Lord and received the gift of redemption. We have been made worthy but we can lose this gift, too. Just like having faith in Jesus means more than belief and includes a life lived in loyalty to Jesus and His teachings, so also the gift of redemption and worthiness must be prized and preserved through our faithfulness to Jesus.
I am sure that most, if not all of us, desire to be faithful to Jesus not just because we want to enter into the resurrection, but simply because we love Jesus. We do our best to live honest, loving, generous lives. We try to live sustainable lives because we know that the Earth and all its creatures are precious to our God who gives them existence. I wonder, though, how far we would be willing to go to live our faith in complete integrity?
In the reading from the Maccabees today, seven brothers were tried and found faithful to the God of Israel, so they were tortured and killed for their faith. Listen to their courage and fidelity. One brother tells the king, “You accursed wretch! You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to everlasting life, because we have died for His laws.” Another brother stretches out his arms and tongue to have them cut off in punishment for remaining faithful to God. He told the king, “I got these from Heaven, and because of God’s laws I disdain them, and from God I hope to get them back again.” Their faith and trust in God gave them the courage to give up their lives, even when they were to be tortured. They were certainly worthy of the resurrection.
We will probably never be asked to die for our faith in such a literal way. Nevertheless, we are given ample opportunities to stand up for our faith and proclaim it to the world. In California, USA, elections were recently held. One proposition on the ballot allowed voters to suspend hard fought for laws protecting the environment. Californians roundly defeated that proposition. Another proposition proposed an $18 vehicle license surcharge to help fund state parks and wildlife programs. This proposition would have prohibited politicians from raiding these funds for other purposes, thus protecting wild lands and wildlife. When it came to personal sacrifice for the environment, the citizens of California said, “Enough! No more,” and they defeated this environmental proposition. It was an opportunity to be faithful to our Creator and Californians said it was too much sacrifice.
We are given opportunities and we can create opportunities to be faithful to God’s plan expressed in the words of Genesis, “Tend the garden.” We want to be found worthy of life in the resurrection. Let us, then, choose faithfulness in every aspect of our faith so that we will be judged worthy.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Happy Halloween to all my readers! This Sunday we hear a gospel story so familiar to us that we automatically know a number of lessons that we might draw from Zacchaeus’ and Jesus’ encounter. We might consider how Zacchaeus’ conversion led to justice for the poor or we might ask ourselves how far out on a limb we are willing to go in order to follow Jesus. Even with these more obvious considerations, I want to consider something quite different that this story embodies.
The story of Zacchaeus tells us that he is a rich man. It is important to remember what that meant in Hebrew society. To be rich meant being someone who does not have to work for a living. A rich person is so well off that he can hire others to do his work for him. As the senior tax collector, Zacchaeus probably had an entire staff of tax collectors working for him. He would stay at home running his business; he would not personally collect taxes somewhere. At the same time, he would be mindful of the cultural expectations of his day regarding riches, namely, that anyone who has more than enough to live on is obliged to give to the poor his excess. Yet, when we hear the story of Zacchaeus, we might imagine that he must be some spectacular kind of sinner in order to have “all who saw” him grumble because he is a known sinner.
Another hidden jewel in the story is that the name Zacchaeus in Hebrew means “clean” or “innocent” or “pure.” Since the Bible only uses the name twice, it cannot be an accident that this senior tax collector is called Zacchaeus. The other place in the bible where we find the name is in the second book of Maccabees and Zacchaeus is a general who leads thousands of men in battle. He is completely capable of overpowering the enemy; he cannot be overcome. It is to Zacchaeus that Judah left his precious sons before Judah went to war, knowing that the his boys would be safe with Zacchaeus. In this case, Zacchaeus is trustworthy and a person who provides safe shelter. So, Luke’s story of Jesus and Zacchaeus may be telling us that this Zacchaeus is like the Old Testament Zacchaeus, someone who is trustworthy and safe.
Another aspect of the story that we need to know is that when we read the story in Luke’s original Greek, it reads, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’” If we take this present tense used by Zacchaeus, he is not promising to give away half of his belongings. No, he is telling Jesus that he already gives half of his possessions to the poor. In fact, according to the Greek text, when Zacchaeus says, “If” I have cheated someone, the Greek does not imply that he has cheated anyone. Instead, it simply says that if Zacchaeus discovers that any of his tax collectors has cheated someone, then he, Zacchaeus, will remit four fold the amount the tax payer has been cheated. So, the text is saying something closer to, “If I have cheated anyone, (not that I am aware of it) then I will repay four-fold.”
What we see before us is the story of a truly righteous man who lives his religious life sincerely, yet because of his profession, people regard him as a sinner. How easy it is to misjudge people! From mere externals we believe that we know the core of a person. This is true for us today as much as it was for the people who misjudged Zacchaeus. We need to be aware that like Halloween children who go around in costumes begging for candy, people’s external life can act just like a mask, hiding the true treasure inside.
It is worthwhile to consider people in our own lives, people we see in the forefront of the green movement. Not everyone has a “respectable” image. Sometimes, actions of Green Peace members have been pronounced “illegal” and disrespectful of the “rights” of others, for example, when they block trawlers from catching shark or whales. But when we listen to the whole story of fishers who would torture sharks by removing their fins and tossing them into the sea to drown or killing protected species of whales, we find that Green Peace actions have pointed out the immoral and illegal activities of others by their protests. I wonder how many of us would be willing to risk our reputations to save others from such activities.
Zacchaeus was aware of his bad reputation and provided evidence that he was not the sinner people believed him to be. When Jesus heard it, he proclaimed that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. Perhaps, one lesson this story teaches us is that Jesus defines our reality, not the gossips and pundits. We should stand ready to explain our environmental activities to those who believe that green protestors deprive them of their rights to over-consume nature’s bounty or destroy the quality of land while farming. Like Zacchaeus, we can know that many protestors are innocent of wrong doing and join in activities that preserve the integrity of our planet even in new or unorthodox ways. If you’d like to know more about ways to be involved in environmental activities, consult Green Peace and other environmental organizations on the Internet or the ones listed below.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This saying of Jesus is easy to ignore because it really rubs against western cultural values. In the United States, the meek, humble person is often invisible while those who are “important” have their stories told in newspapers, in magazines and on television. Likewise, those who want to succeed in business need to “sell” themselves in order to get a raise or receive prestigious assignments. Since pride and humility are so important to God, then the question for us is, “What are the pride and humility that Jesus spoke about?”
It is clear in the parable Jesus tells about the Pharisee who prided himself on being morally superior to others, that God considers this kind of conceit to be worthless. The tax collector, on the other hand, humbled himself before God and only asked for mercy. Jesus tells us that this man, the tax collector, has been justified by God—not the Pharisee. What is the tax collector’s secret to winning God’s favor? Clearly it is his humility.
There are many definitions of humility that include being meek and avoiding conceit about our accomplishments. The definition that I want to look at today comes from the Greek word, humus, meaning “from the earth” or “of the earth.” This etymology of humility clearly refers us back to Genesis where God formed humankind out of the dust of the earth. Some may think that this story of being dust means that we are worthless or at least not valuable. I don’t think that is the point.
When I think about the creation of the cosmos and the very beginning, called “the big bang,” I am in awe of the reality that everything in our universe comes from the same original dense matter that exploded. When I seriously consider that the very molecules in my body are composed of the same matter as molecules in all other living matter, then I know that on a certain level my value is on the same plane as every other creature. This sameness does not negate our special place in the world. We human beings do have a special relationship to God and we have been gifted with intelligence, creativity and the ability to empathize with others. And we are the part of the cosmos that is able to reflect on life and take responsibility for our actions.
Even so, if we really take seriously our part in the universe and our relationship to all creatures, then we begin to realize that we are kin to all creatures. Our pets are not only adorable, loved members in our families, they are also related to us at an organic level. If I consider that not only my dog and cat are related to me, but so also are the polar bears, the termites and the desert pika, then I know that wherever I go and whatever I do is done either in harmony with or contrary to this basic part of my identity. Either I look kindly and compassionately at all life as my kin or I deny this important part of being human.
When Jesus said that God justified the humble tax collector, he gave us a tremendous role model for our lives. Not only do we need to be humble about our circumstances and accomplishments, but we also need to recognize our relationship to all creatures to be truly humble. Perhaps it would be a good idea this week to spend time out with nature in order to reacquaint ourselves with our kin that live underground, on the land, in the trees and in the water. When I taught high school, I used to send my students outside to gaze on a flower or a tree in order to see how God is reflected in them. Perhaps this parable that Jesus told could be an invitation to us to gaze deeply into nature and realize that we are kin to all that lives. Then we may be able to better respond with love and concern for the needs of all the living. If we do that, then God may justify us along with the tax collector.
The Green Nun's Favorite Links
- Audubon Society
- Carbon Footprint Calculator
- Catholic Coalition on Climate Change
- E Magazine
- Earth Literacy Masters Program at SMW College
- Environment California
- Environmental Defense Fund
- Forest Ethics
- Friends of the Earth
- Global Climate Change Report
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Ocean Conservancy
- Pacific Environment
- Sierra Club
- The Nature Conservancy
- Union of Concerned Scientists
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