Last Sunday, we celebrated Christ the King – what do we associate with this title “King”? Most of us do not live in monarchies, kings and queens in constitutional monarchies do not have the power their predecessors had centuries ago. So for us today this feast maybe less about “kings”, but it is about authority.
A king, a queen in biblical times represented authority. We often argue about authority in the Church, it is a kind of monarchy – just look at the way a pope is elected and then governs without being controlled. There are a lot of texts in the Christian Scriptures which deal with authority; were they written by people who ignored or who disrespected the leadership in their various communities, who were authors against leadership, against authority?
No - it is interesting to see that the vast majority of these texts were triggered by something else: by the abusive ways in which leadership was often exercised. Almost always, the leaders of the communities - not the people - created the problems. And the authors of our scripture texts encountered these problems and they were forced to address them.
That's why today's feast of Christ the King is significant. And it is also touchy and a bit awkward. Since all Christian leadership should mirror the leadership of Jesus, once we label Jesus a king, we have to be extremely careful how we define the title “king”. It's the title “King of the Jews” above the cross of Jesus which prompts the attack of the Jewish rulers in today's gospel passage (Luke 23:35-43). There was a common idea of royalty: if Jesus is a king, he should be looking out primarily for himself; he should immediately come down from the cross. Yet, Luke's Jesus is more concerned with the fate of the person crucified next to him than he is with his own fate. Throughout Luke’s story of Jesus walking up to Jerusalem, Jesus is always focusing on the needs of others. Only in Luke’s gospel does Jesus heal the man's cut off ear in the garden.; does he speak sympathetically to the women mourning his death; does he look at Peter after his denial, and only here he forgives those who crucify him.
Let us come to a different king – David (II Samuel 5:1-3) had already been king of the southern half of Palestine – Judah. How he became this – well this is a very different story. So, he was king in the South when the elders of the northern tribes – of Israel - came to him in Hebron asking David to unite all twelve tribes into one nation under his leadership. David's ability to bring people together was one of his best personality traits, a trait all good leaders should possess: think of political, economic, and Church leaders – do they bring people together or do they stir, create and maintain conflicts?
Now let us have a look at the letter to the community in Colossae (Colossians 1:12-20). The disciple of Paul responsible for the letter to the Colossians finds that same characteristic in the risen Jesus. Quoting an early Christian hymn, he reminds his community: “God himself was pleased to live fully in his Son, God wanted all perfection to be found in him…. So that all beings in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God.” There's no doubt the writer is familiar with the insight of his mentor Paul into the Body of Christ: we can't be more one than to be part of the body of the person who unites us. Christian leaders are unique. The only leader they can compare themselves to is Jesus.
I remember when we celebrated this feast for the first time with Francis as pope. My hope was, that - just as in the gospel Jesus redefined the notion of “king” - so Francis might redefine the papacy day by day. Francis was elected in March 2013 – until today, my hopes that he redefines papacy are not yet gone – I pray that he is able to make a good step forward. It is true, though the title remains, the reality behind “king” and “pope” is constantly changing. Let us pray that we all be strong enough to sustain all those in our hierarchy who open the Church; let us pray for all those who try to take Jesus as a model for their way of exercising power.
Fr. Wolfgang Felber SJ
A consoling sentence from the First Reading for Sunday (Malachi 3, 19-20a): “You who fear my name, for you there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
Healing rays…. Justice... All of us hopefully wished such things for a long time, we would really welcome them. But what about the fear part: “You who fear my name”. We are supposed to take in God’s majesty in its awesome and fear-invoking greatness. The scripture is not talking about the fear we get in horror films: not that strange noise when you are alone in the house. Instead it is “fear of God”, a reasonable, settled concern, an awe before what is very much bigger than you, a reverential wonder toward the creator.
Only when we have this “awe” are we starting to relate to God, to begin maturing in our relation with the Most High. And only then do we start suspecting what it really means to say that “God is Love”. Healthy as this last sentence may be - “God is love” - understanding it requires a continuing spiritual revolution in our lives.
It is like the revolution brought about long ago by Copernicus (1473 – 1543) – the decades when America was “discovered”. The Poles say he was Polish, the Germans say that he was German. Copernicus showed that the sun does not revolve around the earth but rather that the earth circles the sun. Most of us, spiritually, are “pre-Copernican“: we think that God’s job is to circle around us, just as if we were the center of the universe; we think like tiny planets in this universe: the immense sun should answer our prayers, the immense sun should make us peaceful, should make our side win the ball game, help us find a parking place and so on…
Nothing is really wrong with any of these – but these thoughts are a bit too childlike. As adults in faith, we are in desperate need of a Copernican revolution. In fact, God does not exist to serve us, it is just the opposite: the center of the universe is God, not us; just like after Copernicus we know that the center of our solar system is the immense sun, not the tiny earth. God quietly maintains in existence everything that is: stars, galaxies, lands, oceans, cities, human hearts, butterfly wings. We owe reverence to such a Being. It takes a spiritual transformation to think this way. What would happen if you or I tried it?
First, we would be living in truth instead of in pretense, in fiction, in a fake reality. The truth of our lives is that we are at home only when we open to this real God - the source and goal of who we are as human beings - instead of opening our lives to the latest fashion or style. As believers, we often say “God is greatest.” If God is greatest, why would we make something else the center of our life?
Second, the “sun of justice with its healing rays” would shine upon us - as the prophet Malachi says. God’s love would appear to us as truth instead of just a way to find a parking place if we pray for it. We would begin to see God as the gentle source of life and the affectionate mother of the entire universe!
Advent is coming very soon. The Church will be preparing to see tender love shown forth in an infant. In this pre-Advent time, we are supposed to take in God’s majesty in its awesome and fear-invoking greatness, so that we might be humble enough to prepare for the baby. And that is why the First Reading from Malachi and the Gospel from Luke thunder on about the day of reckoning and judgement: when “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” (Luke 21) and so on. These are meant to bring forth awe and fear, to show us who is at the center of the universe … and who is waiting for us to climb down from our thrones.
Fr. Wolfgang Felber SJ
Isn’t today’s gospel (Luke 16 19-31) frightening? The description of the afterlife is quite comfortable for Lazarus, but it is horrible for the other one, the rich person. We may not be among the very rich, but nevertheless we may fear that we might endure the same fate as the rich person in the gospel. Fear… - fear never brings freedom. Fear does not really incite us to change our lives.
Did Jesus really want to inspire fear by talking about the otherworldly reward or the otherworldly punishment? Was talking about the afterlife his objective? I do not think so: Jesus has the human being in mind, not a theory about the afterlife.
The first who comes to our mind is Lazarus. He has a name. The name means “God helps”. His everyday life is ruled by illness and need and misery and hunger. He cannot even reach the “the scraps that fell from the rich man's table”.
The rich person has no name. He does not even act in a malicious manner – he just does not notice Lazarus and his needs. The rich man is focused on his comfortable life. He has no eye and no ear to what happens around him. He has no eye and no ear for the human beings in his neighborhood.
And this is the point where Jesus starts his story: Lazarus has a name: “God helps”, and God is concerned with Lazarus. With Lazarus who lies in front of the door, whose body is covered with sores, and who has less value than a dog. God is concerned with exactly this Lazarus, this “underdog”.
And this is the message of today’s gospel for me: Do see Lazarus! Do see him in spite of all our activities and business! Do see him in spite of all our prejudices, in spite of all our limitations! Our limitations show us that we cannot help every person who needs our help. But let us see them and not forget them in spite of our festivities and parties – festivities and parties are OK, they are not bad. Let us see the needs of others in spite of our love of life, our lust for life.
Let us become attentive – other persons need our attentiveness; maybe we ourselves need their attentiveness for ourselves, and we need to be attentive to our own needs. As Christians we have the possibility and invitation to be open for changes, we have the possibility to practice a helping community. A helping community believes that our attentiveness gives change a chance. Then we do experience God as the one who sees us with loving attentiveness just like he sees Lazarus.
Fr. Wolfgang Felber SJ
I presume that the first reading (Exodus 17 8-13) either shocked you or bored you. It may be boring because of the many Hebrew names, and it is certainly shocking because of the war and the violence and the fights it tells. A shocking, a displeasing story read on a Sunday in Church. On a Sunday!
Wouldn’t it be good to leave the difficulties and quarrels and conflicts out of the church? Wouldn’t it be good to be left in peace at least on a Sunday? Well, the opposite is the message of our first reading: Leave out conflicts from church would be like living in an ivory-tower. No, no realm of our life must be excluded from our service to God, everything needs to be brought before God, before his healing presence. Everything – and certainly our reality as it is needs to be brought before God. Our reality that is marked by crises and wars and violence.
Isn’t it amazing what the Jewish people wrote down in their holy book? They did not keep quiet about anything that happened to them. We heard today about the battle of Amalek – was this just out of an historical interest that it was written down? No, I think that the people of Israel experienced God’s presence in their misery, God helped them, God was with them. And they kept this experience alive for the future generations by writing it down in their holy book. Only if you recall the past you can help the future generations.
The German people has been trying to live up to this: never forget the Nazi terror, the Shoah so that the future generations are not caught by the same trap in the future. In 1985, Richard von Weizsäcker, then president of the Federal Republic said: „Das Geheimnis der Erlösung heißt Erinnerung“ – “the secret of redemption lies in remembrance“ - – by this he quoted Jewish writings.
Weizsäcker continued: “This oft quoted Jewish adage surely expresses the idea that faith in God is faith in the work of God in history. Remembrance is experience of the work of God in history. It is the source of faith in redemption. This experience creates hope, creates faith in redemption, in reunification of the divided, in reconciliation. Whoever forgets this experience loses his faith.” This is what Weizsäcker said 34 years ago. So, our story wants to help future generations.
But isn’t our story from the Book of Exodus a glorification of war? No, certainly not. The battle is not decided by the men who fight, but by the presence of Moses on a mountain. This presence of Moses obtains God’s help. Moses is a holy man – but nevertheless he needs help, he needs the solidarity of others to persevere in his effort. The victory comes from God, from Yahwe. This is what Israel should retain from this story. New attacks, new difficulties, new dangers are to be expected – but yet, behind this reality there is the promise God made, the promise that he would be near and true to his people. The promise that his people will thus survive.
So the story we heard is a story of encouragement: remembering the misery and distress of the past the people can put their hopes in God. And – what is more practical for us today – remembering the misery of the past shows how necessary solidarity is: be at the sides of the ones whose hands begin to sink, support the ones whose strength vanishes, whose courage decreases. Then our story becomes a story of perseverance by lifting up your heart and hand so as to never lose faith and courage - because of the experiences made with God.
Wolfgang Felber SJ
The Gospel text is rather puzzling (Luke 16:1-13). It is about the dishonest steward. He faces dismissal and marks down the debts owed to his master by various of his master’s debtors. He does this in order that once he is fired these men would be obligated to help him. When the master finds out about his actions, the master unexpectedly praises the steward for his dishonesty.
By telling this parable, we might be left with the idea that Jesus too is condoning and excusing the actions of this dishonest steward. But we know that this cannot be; Jesus would never approve of dishonesty or double-dealing. Actually, when we take a closer look at the text, we see that Jesus draws a conclusion from the story.
Jesus says: “The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd and smart. And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd and smarter in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.” (v.8) By this we understand that Jesus is contrasting the actions of the children of this world (the “pagans”), with those of the children of light who are obviously the Christians. Jesus does not want us to be like the pagans but he wants us to be just as shrewd and smart as they are; but in our case he wants us to be shrewd and smart in relation to those things which will ensure that we reach heaven, in relation to those things that make us friends of Jesus.
As we have so often noted, Jesus wants us to acquire these virtues of love of God and love of neighbor because it is our practice of the virtues that will enable us to gain entry into his Kingdom, that will enable us to be near to God one day. So, what we need to do is to put our whole energy into acquiring these virtues that bring us closer to God, closer to Jesus. Just as the pagans put their whole energy into realizing their values: sometimes material success, sometimes fame or status, or just a very comfortable life.
Luke follows up this parable with a few sayings of Jesus - the topic of this chapter is the relationship between the Christian and the material world. The first of these sayings is this: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.” (v.9) Here it is clear: Jesus is speaking about the poor. He is telling us to use our money not to find worldly advantage but rather spiritual advantage. We know that one of the essential beliefs of the Gospel is that the poor have a privileged place in his Kingdom; so, therefore, using our money to help them will have the effect of enabling us to enter the Kingdom more easily.
Every Christian should be sensitive to the needs of the poor. Of course, it is very difficult to know who the real poor are. What Jesus is telling us is that we need to make a decisive choice in life. We need to choose between the world and the spirit. Yes, have material things! seek success in work! live a comfortable life! But be cautious of these things: understand well that they are not an end in themselves. Realize that the things of the spirit need to be given priority. Make more room for prayer; attend to the needs of the poor; do your best to life an honorable life; put more energy into acquiring the virtues than you put into increasing your income. This is how to live the Christian life, a life as a friend of Jesus.
As Jesus says:”You cannot be the slave of two masters.” So, choose your master. Make your choice and stick to it.
(G&P N° 936, Luke 17,11-19)
I would like to talk about the experience Jesus makes with the ten lepers. Usually the text is presented so that the one leper who comes back to Jesus understands Jesus, thanks Jesus, is the only one really healed. The other nine are unthankful and do not understand anything. I don’t like this way of presenting the story.
Why? Because Jesus never puts people down. I would like to point to a different topic: ten lepers come to Jesus, the ten are healed, but only one remains with Jesus. Nine to one – this relation is still valid – generously calculated. I speak of the part of the population still remaining with the traditional Church and its message. Only ten percent may share the religious nearness to Jesus by continuing to go to Church (in Berlin the percentage is much smaller: 12% of the population are baptized protestant, 3% catholic – but the number attending services in churches is much smaller).
All the lepers have been touched, have been healed by Jesus. The ten are not so different from each other: they all have been healed, but only one remains with Jesus. It is the difference in reaction to the healing that makes them different. So many studies show that religiosity does no longer have this close link to the Church, to the community of believers. To be far from the Church does not mean to be far from religiosity. The ways to experience God’s nearness do not necessarily lead through the church doors. Those who come to church on Sunday, like you, live a special form of religiosity, marked by the communion of the Church, marked by the wish to experience God’s nearness in the space of a church building, of a Church community.
But there are many other forms where people are experiencing the nearness of God, the Church is seen as just one of these places. What does this mean for the Church?
One way of dealing with the phenomenon is to continue as usual: tradition, dogmas, doctrine, neither looking to the right nor to the left, not perceiving the world that surrounds the Church. Then the Church, then we as a community, may become a ghetto in which people with the same ideas and ideals gather, a ghetto on the edge of society. Uniformity instead of diversity reigns.
The second way would be to be totally open to everything we see in the modern world, to limit ourselves to the realm of giving good advices of how to succeed in life and in its crises. But here the Christian message would lose its specificity. The Church would not be more than a giver of good advices like so many other gurus. Perhaps: “Diversity without unity”?
Thus – on one hand you find church leaders worried about what Rome says, worried about correct liturgies, worried about the quality and the catholicity of the men and women coming to church – I mean catholicity in the sense of being conform to catholic rules and orders and requests and demands. A church occupied with herself, forgetting what happens around her. Uniformity without diversity?
On the other hand you would find committed Christians asking themselves: “How do we go down well, how can we be well received? How to have fuller churches and how to have attractive events? How to produce and trigger good articles about the church in the news?”
This is a real dilemma – a dilemma that keeps the church alive. The tension is a fruitful tension if the two sides approach each other, if ideas and visions are shared. In this process, there is not one side in the possession of the full truth, not one side has a monopoly for salvation. “Unity in diversity” would be the objective. The ten lepers make it clear: The story is not about the one single follower of Jesus and the nine renegades. No! They have all been touched and healed, but each one of them has his or her own way of dealing with it. It was the task of Jesus to handle this, Jesus had to live with this. It is our task today to handle this same phenomenon – we who are following Jesus, we who are the descendants of the ten lepers
Wolfgang Felber SJ
In today’s Gospel (Lk 15,1-10), we are presented with an overwhelming picture of God – that is why this gospel text fits so well with the baptism of Emilia we just witnessed.
It is a picture of God that we could never have guessed at ourselves and,
in spite of Jesus’ words,
it is a picture that many of us still find difficult to accept in its fullness.
In the Gospel we are given a twofold picture of how God looks on human beings and on people.
The two stories hammer home the same theme:
God will go to any length to bring the human back to a loving relationship with himself.
There is the story of the sheep, perhaps a rebellious maverick, which has wandered far from the flock.
The shepherd does not rest till he has found this sheep and brought it back.
There is no punishment but rather an invitation to the neighbors to join
in celebrating the reunion.
So should Emilia ever be lost, let us hope that there is this good shepherd who looks for her and who brings her back – one of her family, one of us...
Then, there is the woman, presumably poor, who loses a coin she can ill afford to be without.
Again, the emphasis is on the joy shared with the neighbors
on finding what had been lost.
The message of the two stories is abundantly clear:
God loves everyone and wishes them to turn to him.
If they do, there is a huge welcome for them.
There are two elements in our relationship with God which need to be distinguished.
The first element is the love of God for us.
That love is absolutely unconditional.
No matter what kind of person I may be, God’s outreaching love for me is absolutely unchanging.
God does not love me more if I am a saint or love me less because I am a sinner, because I am baptized or because I am not baptized.
God is all love: and so his whole self goes out in love, to all of us, and today certainly to Emilia.
Baptism does not open the doors of heaven.
The doors of heaven are open for each- and everyone with or without baptism.
But baptism makes this promise of God’s love for us visible
Today, God wants to give a place of honor to Emilia.
Emilia will have to decide one day for or against this way with God
- God has already taken his decision in favor of Emilia.
The second element is community: as I already said, the poor woman loses a coin she can ill afford to be without.
“She can ill afford to be without”… - every coin counts.
By our baptism, we are part of this communion of Christians whose vocation is to help God accomplish HIS project with the world
The project of God with our world: a more human, more united and a less unjust world, a world closer to him.
Emilia is going to be part of this community of Christians who, following Jesus, want the world to be nearer to the project of God.
So the active love of Emilia for a better world will be a sign of the Kingdom of God – and: every coin, every person counts – “we cannot afford to be without Emilia in our community”.
We cannot move or change much as long as we are alone.
But: together with Emilia, together with you all, together with God’s help we are able to change the world.
Let us all become persons who make this friendship with God, with Jesus attractive for Emilia – that she receives God’s love unconditionally and that she feels as part of this group of friends of Jesus that needs her, this groups of friends of Jesus that ill afford to be without her.
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