Breath of the Spirit
- John Schott <johnhschott3@...>
12/01/2006 08:54 AM
Breath of the Spirit
RVC’s Weekly Spiritual Essay
DECEMBER 3, 2006: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
I Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
One of the things which makes the study of Scripture an exciting
endeavor is the discovery that what biblical people are anticipating
is often replaced by something better. This is what takes place in
today's three readings.
The liturgical celebration of Advent is problematic for Scripture
scholars. Unlike Lent, it's an artificial creation, put together to
help us prepare for an event early Christians rarely commemorated:
Jesus' birth. When, during the fourth century, the bishop of Rome
designated December 25th as Christmas, the church had to choose
Scripture to help the faithful prepare for the new feast. At that
time they knew nothing of the problem Fr. Raymond Brown related
during one of our mid-70s diocesan clergy conferences. "There are no
predictions of Jesus, as we know him," the Sulpician scholar stated,
"anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures."
That means we must be careful how we hear and preach our first
readings for the next month. Their authors didn't compose them to be
used in the context in which we've placed them. They were never
intended to help us recognize that Jesus of Nazareth is either the
Messiah or God.
In the case of today's Jeremiah pericope, for instance, the author
seems to have added these verses to the prophet's original oracles
sometime after the Babylonian Exile, perhaps more than 100 years
after the prophet's death. He's motivated by a desire to have David's
descendants restored to the Jewish throne - something which never
happened. "In those days," Yahweh proclaims, "I will raise up for
David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land."
For our purposes, it might be good to reflect on the new name given
to Jerusalem: "Yahweh our justice." In this context justice refers to
the relationship Yahweh has formed with the Israelites, and they with
Yahweh. Their God isn't someone they just pray to, worship or
placate. Yahweh wants "relational," not subservient followers.
This concept of relationships is one way we can make our last two
readings apply to our everyday lives. One of early Christianity's
three fundamental changes came from Jesus' delayed Parousia. He
didn't return as quickly as his followers anticipated. What began as
a short term religious experience in the 30s developed into a long
term endeavor by the early 80s.
Since I Thessalonians is the oldest Christian writing we possess, we
expect to hear Paul encourage his readers to "hang in there" a little
longer. "May God strengthen your hearts," he writes, "to be blameless
in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus
with all his holy ones."
By the time Luke writes his gospel 40 years later, many Christians
were convinced they'd live their natural lives, die, and Jesus still
would not have returned. The concept of a Parousia was becoming more
and more distant. Luke warns that one day "the powers of heaven will
be shaken and . . . they shall see the Son of Man coming . . . ," but
he then zeroes in on what they should be doing in the meantime.
Because of the delay, they're "not to become drowsy from carousing
and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life."
The key to understanding both Paul and Luke's flexibility in the
midst of a delayed Parousia is that, even before mentioning Jesus'
second coming, they taught their people justice. They instructed them
to develop a relationship with the risen Jesus - a relationship which
helped them shift from short term to long term faith when they had
No wonder Paul often uses marriage imagery when he speaks about Jesus
and the community. Two people take vows for a reason. They're
committing themselves to continue building their relationship even if
the future doesn't turn out exactly as they had planned. Sound
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!”