Breath of the Spirit
- Breath of the Spirit
RVC’s Weekly Spiritual Essay
AUGUST 6, 2006: TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
II Peter 1:16-19
Do you remember what happened when your parents first met the person who
eventually became your spouse? Probably they weren't too impressed.
Later, when you were alone with them, you tried to explain why he or she
was so special. You had experienced things about and with this
individual which most people, at first glance, had never noticed; things
which not only attracted you, but if you followed through on your
insights, could change your life.
The first disciples of the historical Jesus faced the same problem. Most
of the inhabitants of Capernaum saw only the town carpenter when Jesus
crossed their path. Probably they talked only about "carpenter stuff"
during their brief encounters. Yet the small handful who had heard him
talk about God's kingdom among them, who had seen how he related to the
unfortunates on society's perimeter, experienced something in Jesus that
others never noticed. They also knew that what they experienced could
change the way they lived their lives.
Like all of us, they would have put their experiences of Jesus into
categories with which they were familiar. Being Jews, they reflected on
their Scriptures, surfacing ideas which demonstrated how he was the one
who fulfilled many of the dreams they shared; dreams of God and the
Messiah working among the Chosen People, bringing the kind of life they
That's why Moses and Elijah are always included in transfiguration
narratives. In Scripture, the Bible is never called the Bible. It's
simply referred to as "the law and the prophets." In this situation,
Moses represents the law, Elijah the prophets. Their appearance
demonstrates that the only way to understand Jesus is within the context
of the Scriptures on which he based his reform.
His disciples also realized Jesus was going to usher in a new era, the
time all Jews anticipate every fall when they participate in the fest of
Booths. The celebration shows their belief that one day Yahweh will
again come among them, as Yahweh had done during their wandering in the
wilderness. When that happens, they will return to living in tents or
booths as their ancestors had for 40 years. That's why Peter talks about
setting up three tents. He's really saying, "What we expect in the
future is actually happening now!"
These initial disciples also found Daniel's well-known "Son of Man"
pericope helpful in understanding Jesus. As Alexander Di Lella states in
the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, the original apocalyptic writer of
this book probably intended the one "coming on the clouds of heaven" to
be a symbol of God's kingdom. "However, because in Daniel the thought of
'kingdom' often shifts imperceptibly into that of 'king,' the concept of
the 'son of man' eventually shifted from a figure of speech for the
theocratic kingdom into a term for the messianic king himself." That's
exactly how the authors of the Christian Scriptures interpreted the phrase.
On the other hand, we must be careful how we interpret II Peter's
comment, ". . . We did not follow cleverly devised myths . . . ." Though
the experience of perceiving Jesus' real personality wasn't a myth, all
Scripture scholars agree that Mark used mythic concepts in his
description of that insight.
One last point. The CBS Evening News practice of daily highlighting one
of our military killed in Iraq or Afghanistan bothers me a little. Had
these individuals not died, probably few people would have reflected on
their personalities deeply enough to surface the outstanding
characteristics profiled in those brief segments. In the same way, had
Jesus not died and rose, few of his contemporaries would have noticed
the qualities in him that our sacred authors have passed on to us.
What are the qualities we possess that we want to pass on to others?
What qualities do we want to change?
Breath of the Spirit
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OCTOBER 26, 2008: THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEARReadings:Exodus 22: 20-26I Thessalonians 1:5-10Matthew 22:34-40
Today’s Exodus reading brings up an interesting problem: half the laws it contains are no longer in effect, and almost all of us constantly break one of them. Though most of our 20 ecumenical councils condemned anyone who dared charge interest for lending money, our new Catholic Catechism doesn’t even have a section on usury. Over the last 300 years that sin dropped off our moral radar screens quicker than the falling interest rates on passbook saving accounts. Nor among our lists of sins do we ever mention our end of the day obligation to return the collateral we’ve taken on loans. That’s never been part of my examination of conscience.
Yet the first part of today’s Exodus regulations still remains in effect: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Why do we keep some biblical rules and totally disregard others? Can moral obligations change from one generation to another?
Forty years ago many Catholics were asking these very questions during the great 1968 birth control controversy. Is it possible to change the church’s prohibition against artificial contraception? In the midst of this very public debate many well-known, respected theologians brought up the usury controversy which had taken place centuries before, pointing out that both the biblical and church prohibition on charging interest was based on economic principles which eventually were proven to be false.
People originally regarded wealth like we regard a whole apple pie. There’s only so much of it to go around. Everyone’s entitled to an equal slice. If I lend someone money and charge interest, I’m getting part of his or her slice, making my slice bigger - totally against God’s biblical plan of justice and equality for all.
Eventually economists surfaced the mistake in their reasoning, discovering the whole “wealth pie” grows when people borrow money, even at interest. Both lender and borrower can end up with a larger piece. Counter to the what the law intended, poor people were actually being hurt by the usury regulation.
That’s why today’s gospel is essential in forming our Christian morality. Jesus and all biblical authors agree there must be a priority of laws. Some rules are more important than others. We presume, for instance, that ambulances can break speeding laws when they’re rushing seriously ill patients to hospitals. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, students of the 613 laws of Moses frequently debated which were the most important.
When Matthew’s Jesus is brought into that debate, he responds as any good Jew would respond. “You shall love Yahweh your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is demonstrated by our love of neighbor. That’s why aliens, orphans and widows are still to be protected. Our relationships with God and those around us have priority over everything else in our lives.
Paul can only be referring to such deep concern for others when he compliments the Thessalonians for becoming “a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia . . . . In every place your faith in God has gone forth.... “Paul and his co-workers are overjoyed and amazed that what they taught these early converts about love of God and neighbor is actually being put into practice.
Our history of faith demands we never let up teaching these moral priorities. People get hurt when we mix them up. I always remind my friends who long for the good old, pre-Vatican II days that there was a mid-60s national survey in which Catholics were asked, “Which is the more important law, love of neighbor or giving up meat on Friday?” A majority responded, “Giving up meat on Friday!”