“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”

These are the words of Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who had died before Jesus arrived. Martha was complaining that had Jesus gotten there sooner her brother wouldn’t have died. Jesus then goes on to reassure her that Lazarus will rise, which she takes to mean in resurrection.  Jesus explains to her that He is the resurrection and the life.

“Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Then He asks her if she believes this. She says,

“Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”

On her feast day, Catholics celebrate Martha’s acceptance of Jesus as savior.

I started not to write about this part of scripture because it seemed very straightforward. At first it seems to be about Martha’s faith in Jesus. But then I saw a posting from Father James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest whom I follow on Facebook. He offers a unique twist on the story.

Titled, “God wants our honesty,” I think you will find refreshing added meaning to this reading.

God wants more than just prayers of petition or prayers of thanksgiving. He wants us to leave everything on the line, so to speak. Did you know there is such a thing as prayers of lamentation? When you get angry, because things aren’t fair or injustice is so profound, or because everything in your life is falling apart, He is OK with it if you express your anger in a prayer. Prayer is a way of engaging God in your life, and he wants you to be honest about your feelings. They are balanced by your prayers of praise and thanksgiving when things are going along just fine.

Reading scripture can be a source of such inspiration when we discover nuances we didn’t expect: Like Jesus engaging with Martha over the death of her brother, not correcting her or admonishing her for her complaint, but reassuring her and reminding her of her faith.

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“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant”

This reading from Matthew 20:20-28 begins with the mother of Zebedee asking Jesus to place her sons at His right hand and His left hand in His Kingdom. He replies that this isn’t something He can assign: “To sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” The disciples then become upset at the two sons. But Jesus takes this opportunity to instruct his disciples.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

On the surface, this reading is about us not wanting to be the first among others. And it is about Jesus serving all of us on the Cross.

There are other places in the Bible where Jesus instructs us to put ourselves last instead of first – “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16). But our society, our culture, puts a premium on being the best, the champion, the first in line, the valedictorian, “we’re number 1!”, “me first! me first!”, “be the first in your neighborhood to own…”, and on and on. We look down on the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the uneducated or less educated, the unskilled, the unmotivated, the depressed, the unloved, the weak, the sick, the slow, the sinner, and the “L”oser. That’s not what Jesus taught us, which is the message we should take away from this reading.

Just as Jesus “did not come to be served but to serve,” so should we. And what does it mean to serve instead of being served? To defer to the other person ahead of us than to ourselves. To respect others for whatever their circumstance. To not judge others but to love them. To do our best for others. To wait a little longer that another may be better served. To care for someone else who is sick or immobilized or unable to perform. To give aid to one who cannot do for him or herself. To give relief to one who usually does the serving. There are so many examples, but what it comes down to is thinking of the needs of others instead of thinking of ourselves.

Jesus has always made it clear that to be the greatest among us means to be the lowest among us, to be the servant. And He showed us how to live that kind of life throughout His ministry, even as the Son of God.

“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

This is from John 6:1-15, the story of Jesus feeding the thousands from five loaves and two fish.

Jesus and His disciples are in the countryside across from the Sea of Galilee preaching and performing signs on the sick, when He asks them how they are going to feed everyone. The disciples balk at the idea, knowing how few resources they have for such a huge crowd. But Jesus is testing them, for He already knows what He’s going to do.

“Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”

Jesus blessed the loaves and distributed them along with the fish to the five thousand assembled, and when they had eaten their fill, He instructed the disciples to gather the leftover fragments. There was enough to fill 12 baskets.

Interestingly, this miracle is foreshadowed in 2 Kings 4:42-44, when the prophet Elisha feeds 100 from 20 loaves of bread and fresh corn: “For thus says the LORD,‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’”

This is, of course, a story of Jesus performing a miracle. He feeds five thousand with but a few loaves of bread and two fish! It’s also a story of Jesus testing the faith of his disciples, proposing that they feed so many with so few resources. If they but trust Him, He will provide, as He does.

But isn’t this also a story about “us”? Jesus continually challenges us to look out for the poor, the disadvantaged, the disabled, and the marginalized of society. Many of us answer the call individually, but when our society as a whole is asked to respond, we are told we don’t have the resources — let the churches handle it; let individuals do it. We keep hearing how Jesus fundamentally changed the world, making it more humane and loving, yet when it comes to many of His core messages, this “changed” society ignores His calls to action. Let the other guy do it.

Our churches and “the other guy” are overburdened as it is.

“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asks. Perhaps through a miracle in Jesus’ name: in our hearts and in the hearts of everyone in our society. Then instead of feeding five thousand Jesus can feed five million and many more.

 

 

“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign”

I’ve pulled a small part of what Jesus said from Matthew 12:38-42. I urge you to read all of that passage, because far from trying to nit-pick just a part of Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees, I want you to see the full context of His message. The scribes and Pharisees were testing Jesus, asking Him to show them a sign that He is the Messiah, and He refused them.

Some of the scribes and Pharisees then spoke up, saying, “Teacher, we want to see you work some signs.” He answered, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign! No sign will be given it but that of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man spend three days and three nights in the bowls of the earth. At the judgment, the citizens of Nineveh will rise with the present generation and be the ones to condemn it. At the preaching of Jonah they reformed their lives; but you have a greater than Jonah here.”

What I get from the reading wasn’t just that Jesus was rebuking the scribes and Pharisees. He was telling all of us that signs aren’t available on demand. That God doesn’t perform like a circus side show or at the will of those with an agenda. You don’t manipulate God for your own ends.

Even today, people try to use God to further their own agendas.

There’s a natural disaster, and people ascribe it to God using it as a sign that people have sinned, because it’s something those people don’t like. Not according to Jesus’ own words.

There are troubling times, and people ascribe it as a sign of the End of Times. Not according to Jesus. In fact, Jesus clearly says we will not know the day or the hour of the end times (Matthew 24:36).

When Jesus uses “signs,” it is of His own volition, and He uses them to heal people, not punish them.

You might say that in this line from Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the people of His time, that generation of scribes and Pharisees. But I would say there are those like the scribes and Pharisees in our own times. And so, Jesus addresses them as well.

When we seek to use God’s Word to show love and respect for others, to console and heal instead of to condemn and wound, we live true to Jesus’ words. Far better than if we try to manipulate God to further an agenda, an exercise in which He clearly says He won’t participate.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”

According to Jesus, this is the second greatest commandment, from Matthew 22: 34-40.

The first greatest commandment according to Jesus, of course, is “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind.”

What follows is equally important: “On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well.”

So when I hear some people reciting all the commandments and all the rules and laws of the Old Testament, yet never hear them mention these two greatest commandments first, I wonder from which Bible they can be reading. They claim to know and love God, but how is it possible that they can claim to know this God? Who can claim to be a Christian who does not first and foremost observe these commandments?

Fear. Intolerance. Bigotry. Hatred. Outrage. Injustice. Disrespect. I’m sure you can come up with some additions of your own to this list.  These don’t come out of love.

If we just love God and one another as Jesus commands, every other human-related  problem will fall away. No other rule or law would be necessary. It’s really that simple.

“I am gentle and humble of heart”

We often read about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers at the Great Temple in Jerusalem or accosting the Pharisees who are trying to trick him. But how often do we hear of Jesus the gentle minister of love? In this line, it is so apparent.

It appears in Matthew 11: 28-30. “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

When someone quotes me a simple line or two of scripture, I like to remind them that it exists in a larger context. This wonderful line comes after a prayer to the Father (Matthew 11: 25-27):

“Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. Father, it is true. You have graciously willed it so. Everything has been given over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son — and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

So many use the Word of God to bring vengeance and fear on others, or as someone once referred to it, to “clobber” others with their self-righteousness. In this line of scripture, Jesus shows us that God isn’t about clobbering others. He is about love. He is about respecting one another. He is gentle and humble. And he invites us to be that way, too.

Yes, when others have disrespected the House of God or disrespected Himself or others, Jesus has rebuked them. At least once he overturned the tables of the money changers who not only defiled the temple but also cheated worshipers. But otherwise, Jesus showed great love and kindness to others, including outcasts and those whom society in Jesus’ time usually ignored or rebuked.

So why do so many who call themselves Christians seem to have a problem showing gentle and humble respect for other people? Is it that Jesus hasn’t revealed himself to them as he says in his prayer to the Father? Or are they simply not paying attention?

Being gentle and humble of heart is not being weak. It takes strength to be gentle and humble in today’s world. It is a greater weakness to give in to hatred and anger.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus’ disciples, who were hungry, were picking the heads of wheat grain from the fields eating as they walked, saying that it was unlawful to do so on the Sabbath. Jesus counters that the priests serving in the temples also violate the Sabbath and that when King David was hungry he ate “the bread of offering” that was meant only for priests. If his disciples were breaking the rules, so were the Pharisees and King David.

You might be tempted to think that Jesus was just calling out the Pharisees for being hypocrites. But there was another message in those five words: We shouldn’t let the hungry go unfed on a pretext.

The Pharisees were trying to mess with Jesus and he was countering them, no doubt . But his disciples were hungry and just as when Jesus fed the five thousand after the sermon on the mount with two fish and five loaves, his concern was over feeding the hungry, favoring mercy over their sacrifice. Jesus told his disciples as much when they complained that they didn’t have enough food to feed the five thousand.

How often today do we dismiss the hunger of the poor and disadvantaged based on our own presumptions or reliance on “rules”? We presume they don’t work or they don’t work hard enough; we assume they are lazy or unwilling to try; we are “sure” they are trying to scam the system or are breaking rules while we are always the totally virtuous. We apply what may be true of a very few to the very many. Presumptions. Pretexts. Over-managing rules.

Jesus says he prefers we feed the hungry, not make them sacrifice for our rules and presumptions. It’s about mercy.

Those who presume the hungry don’t deserve to be fed haven’t read their Bible – or at least haven’t read their whole Bible.