Saturday, October 29, 2016

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wis 11:22-12:2
Ps 145 1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13,14
2 Thes 1:11-2:2
Lk 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is fascinating.  On the literary level it is a story with rich details: the unruly crowd, the short man running ahead to climb a sycamore tree, the grumbling  when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, the dinner conversation and finally Jesus’ promise that  “Salvation has come to this house.”  It would be easy to film this scene for a movie. The atmosphere and dialogue are already given.  The story of Zacchaeus is fascinating because Zacchaeus is us.   He is us because he is a man of contradiction and confusion.  He is a man who doesn’t always do the right thing but who, when he is aware of his sinful nature, tries to atone for his sin. 

This story appears very late in Jesus’ public ministry.  His reputation had spread throughout the area.  In another two chapters we hear the narrative of the Last Supper.  There is a tension underlying the story as Jesus nears Jerusalem.  Zacchaeus  had obviously heard about this Jesus.  He knew his reputation. There is no other explanation for why would go to such lengths and risk looking ridiculous by climbing a tree, just to get a look at him. The questions we must ask about Zacchaeus—and the questions we must ask ourselves—is, What did Zacchaeus expect to see?  Who did Zacchaeus expect to see?   Who and what do we expect to see in Jesus?  A  miracle worker who healed the sick and the lame?  A political leader?  A hot headed radical who fought legal and religious establishments?  A run of the mill wisdom teacher and wonder worker like all the rest?  A nice guy but nothing special?  Once we ask those questions there is one more question we must ask ourselves,' Who is Jesus for each of us?'

There is an interesting bit of wordplay in this gospel.  We must pay attention to it. We read that: “Zacchaeus was seeking to see who Jesus was.”  Then we hear Jesus’ say, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”  Jesus is seeking the one who is seeking him.  Jesus wanted to meet the one who wanted to meet him.  And so it is for us.  Jesus is seeking us even before we seek Him.  And he continues to seek us even if we quit seeking Him.

There is a challenge with this narrative.  As is true of many of Biblical accounts, there is no real ending.  There is no conclusion such as,  "And they lived happily ever after."  What is the rest of Zacchaeus' story?  What is the rest of our story?  We don't know the end of his story.  We will not know the end of our story until it has ended.  Perhaps we should all go home and write on a sheet of paper:  "After Jesus and his followers left Zacchaeus' house and the servants had cleaned up and gone to bed, Zacchaeus poured himself a glass of wine and sat by the dying fire.  He thought . . .  . . . "   Then continue the story in your own words.  You can keep it short at 300 words or write a fifteen chapter novel.  The result will tell you a great deal about yourself. 

Zacchaeus' story is a conversion story.  It is the story of a man who, upon his first encounter with Jesus, vowed to reform his life.  He vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor.  He promised to reimburse those he had extorted four times the amount he had overcharged.  Once again we confront the challenge that we don't know what happened next.  Did Zacchaeus make these promises in the heat of the moment only to renege when he considered exactly what he had promised?  Did he question why he committed to this man?   Did he discard the gift of faith as so many do today when confronted by more lucrative, politically acceptable, or fun options?

Zacchaeus is us.  He is us who seek to find, to know, and to see Jesus.  And we are being sought by Jesus more avidly than we can imagine.  We need only come down from our tree to be welcome at the table of the altar.  We need only descend from the perch where we are trying to catch a quick look at the Son of Man to partake of the supper where we are assured, just as Zacchaeus was assured, “Today salvation has come to this house.”


Finally got some gorgeous non-rain weather.  By late afternoon I had to take the camera out.  

This guy was moving fast on the river on this seeming combination of a kayak and surfboard.  The first photo is him heading downriver.  I didn't think I would see him again but he turned around while I was still on the bridge and the second shot is him heading back through the center of town.

The lovers' locks on the Butchers' Bridge catching the rays of the setting sun.

Ljubljanski Grad overlooking the finish line for the Ljubljana Marathon.  The marathon is being run tomorrow beginning at 10:30.  I expect few people at the English Language Mass because travel is going to be impossible before and even worse after.  Mass it at 11.  

Looking through the ivy covering a rail in the bridge.  The river was higher earlier in the week after much rain.  It is looking fairly normal now.

Cafe overlooking the river.  One of the charming characteristics of the cafes along the river is that you don't see those ugly plastic Target chairs.  Some of the cafes have chairs that look more comfortable than others but no plastic.  Makes a difference. 

Two views of the done and spires of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas.  I like the lamp on the bridge.

I did not get these shots on the walk.  They were breakfast yesterday morning.  Br. Robert picked them.  He called them Birch Tree Mushrooms.  At least that is what they are called locally.  He cleaned them, sliced, them and sauteed them with onions and garlic, adding only two eggs at the end of cooking.  They were excellent with good bread.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 23, 2016

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 35:12-14, 16-18
Ps 34:2-3,17-18-19, 23
2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
Lk 18:9-14

Each of the readings and the psalm for today's Mass could be the basis for a fairly long homily.  There is an overabundance of riches for preaching, for teaching, and for meditation.  As was true of last Sunday's parable of the woman and the unjust judge, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the Temple, is found exclusively in Luke's Gospel.  Both parables are about prayer.  Last week we heard about the need to pray without ceasing.  Today we are told how to pray and how not to pray.  This advice is confirmed in the first reading from Sirach.

Sirach is a unique book.  Though written in Hebrew before Jesus' birth it was translated into Greek by the author's grandson. It was known only in Greek  until the early twentieth century.  Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is not part of the Hebrew Scripture.  Protestants do not recognize it as authentic or authoritative.  Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, however, do hold Sirach as canonical.  The non-acceptance of Sirach in the Protestant Church is a pity because Sirach, like the rest of the wisdom literature, is relevant to our lives in the present.  Though a bit long, it is worth reading in its entirety. And taking notes on the reading.  Like the Gospel, the reading from Sirach is a commentary on prayer. We cannot understand either Sirach or Luke without considering the nature and use of stereotypes. 

A stereotype is a general statement applied to a group whose members share a particular characteristic or set of characteristics.  Stereotypes may be used to judge and classify others negatively or to set some groups apart as special.  They can be used in jest or can be bitingly cruel.  The problem with a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, both positive and negative ones, is that they contain a kernel of truth.  One writer defined stereotypes as statistics in narrative form.  It is a very good definition.  All statistics have a degree of truth and a degree of untruth when applied to individuals.

For example a common stereotype is that Taiwanese men have straight black hair and are shorter than the average American man.  In statistical tables this is true.  But then, there is this photo from my ordination.  I am standing next to Ignatius Hung Wan-liu, a Taiwanese Jesuit priest who does, in fact, have straight black hair.  But he is 13 cm or a bit over three inches taller than my absolutely average American height, (or at least I was average height before I began old man related shortening, one of the joys of being on Medicare).  The stereotype is only partially true.  Thus, caution is necessary when hearing or making generalized statements about any group or individual.  Were all Pharisees arrogant egotists such as the one in the parable?  Were all tax-collectors, a marginalized group to be sure, humble?  There is only one answer:  No.  The stereotypes may suggest they are  but no stereotype holds when applied to every individual.  Thus the challenge of both readings. 
Poverty, marginalization, and oppression do not automatically confer universal virtues on an individual.  Wealth, intelligence, and power are not the marks of a sinner.  The poor can be, and are, sinners on the same plane as the wealthiest.  And the wealthy can be as virtuous as the tax-collector of the parable.  How would we understand this parable were the roles reversed?  How would we feel if the Pharisee acknowledged his sinfulness and the tax-collector boasted of his fundamental righteousness?  Or, to put it into contemporary terms, suppose it was the tax-collector who had grandiose self-esteem while the Pharisee was a man of humility? 

In his commentary on this Gospel passage Luke Timothy Johnson warns that: 'The parable . . . invites internalization by all readers because it speaks to something deep within every human heart.'  The love of God can easily become a kind of idolatrous self-love.  God's gifts can quickly be seized as possessions; what is given by another can be turned into one's own accomplishment.  Prayer can become bragging.  He concludes with the statement: "Piety is not an unambiguous posture.”   That is worth remembering.  The monastic literature contains frequent warnings about the sin of taking pride in one’s humility or boasting about one's prayer.  It is a common temptation.  Humility and exaggerated self-esteem are separated by the finest of lines.  

One is frequently advised in theology school to compare different translations of scripture when possible.  This is useful in considering Sirach.  The New American Bible translation we just heard reads: “though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”  The Revised Standard Version translates the same line differently: “He will not show partiality in the case of the poor, and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.”   God's mercy does not depend on one's bank account.  God's mercy does not depend on being oppressed.  God's mercy is available to all who seek it in prayer.

Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the Gospel of Prayer. In Luke, prayer is not simply an exercise of piety. It is faith in action. Prayer reveals who we are. Prayer reveals the nature our relationship with God.  Prayer reveals our relationship with others.  When we pray, we are to come before the Lord in sincerity and truth.  In the Lord's light we are called to acknowledge that we are sinners.  And then we ask for his mercy and the gift of righteousness.

We heard a consoling truth in the psalm:

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him."

It is worth meditating on that for the rest of the day.

I walked up to the castle again on Saturday.  Not quite as energetically as the first trip but Saturday had proven to be a long and busy day.  The day began with clouds but then the sun came out.  Fatigue or no fatigue, I wasn't going to waste the first sunlight of the week.   

The first shows the community in full sun.  When the sun is blasting through the skylights my room is brilliantly lit and warm.  Fortunately the skylights can be opened to allow ventilation. Love the room.  It is very small but fits my needs.  

The view north.  Snow arrived on the mountains the other day.  One of the older men in the house was to celebrate a Mass somewhere in the mountains.  However, more than a foot of snow resulted in cancellation.  I hope to get up to the castle on a day when clouds are not obscuring part of the hills so as to get a better photo of the snow.  I see the view of the mountains from the other skylight in my room. 

A telephoto (equivalent of 400 mm) shot of the mountains.

Tourists on the observation part of the castle.  I didn't go up as it required a ticket.  Cheap.  I am cheap.  I took this from the road while walking up to the castle.

The view of the castle from the other side.  The path is much farther below the castle than in the front approach.  

This last is not Ljubljana Grad.  I could not end this entry without noting Penn State's magnificent win over Ohio State yesterday.  The game began at 2 AM LJ time.  As I had the 11 AM Mass I didn't even try to watch it on ESPN (the subscription is only 20 Euros per month to watch either live or on demand).  I slept well last night, a notable event in itself, and woke at 7.  Grabbed the computer while still in bed and went to ESPN.  I blinked several times, wondered if these miserable drugstore readers (the new ones arrive in ten days) were screwing up my vision, and then went quietly insane.  I didn't watch the game until after Mass and lunch whereupon I pulled it up on the computer and opened a 16 oz. beer.  Absolutely glorious moment that brought back many memories of my years as a student and the many games I attended as season ticket holder of 27 years.  According to Fr. Jack Butler, SJ  I didn't go to a university.  I joined a cult.  I've never argued about the truth of that statement.   FOR THE GLORY . . . 


+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 16, 2016

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ex 17:8-13
Ps 121
2 Tm 3:14-4:2
Lk 18:1-8

In the summer of 1969 The Doors released an album titled “The Soft Parade."  Critics do not list it among their best albums.  But Paul, one of my 'extended' roommates, brought a copy to Penn State in September of that year.  We came close to wearing it out.  Thus, for better or for worse, it is part of the soundtrack of my life, one that I still visit from time to time via the digital copy on the computer. (It is available on You Tube, I checked before Mass).  The title track, which is the last track rather than the first, begins with Jim Morrison saying in a deep, amplified, echoing, and sarcastic voice, “When I was back there in seminary school there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer.”  He repeats, “petition the Lord with prayer” three times with more and more sarcasm dripping from each word.  He then screams in a hoarse voice, "YOU CANNOT . . PETITION THE LORD . . . WITH PRAYER.”  The sound fades into a beautiful melody.  By then the drugs had completely wrecked his brain and destroyed his soul.  Less than two years after the album release he would be dead of a heroin overdose.  Age twenty-six.  He was wrong.  He was very wrong.

You can petition the Lord with prayer. 
You should petition the Lord with prayer. 
You must petition the Lord with prayer. 

One rarely used English word comes to mind when considering the first reading and the gospel, both of which illustrate how to petition the Lord with prayer:  Importune.  To importune means to ask with urgency or persistence, to annoy, to beset with solicitations, to be troublesomely persistent.  Only the first of the definitions describes prayer: to ask with urgency and persistence.  One can never annoy or trouble God with prayer.  The entire psalter, from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150 is a long, continuous, and frequently importuning prayer.  The psalter is a model for how we are to pray.

The first reading is fascinating.  As long as Moses’ arms were raised in prayer the Israelites were winning the battle.  When they dropped with fatigue the situation changed.  But Moses had help.  Aaron and Hur supported his arms that were raised in prayer as long as was necessary.  So it is for us.  We cannot go it alone in prayer any more than Moses could.  That is why we are surrounded by a community of believers.  That is why we must ask for help with our prayer.  That is why we pray for others.  When others prays for us they are doing the same as Aaron and Hur, supporting our arms when we are too fatigued, too angry, too anxiety-ridden, or too overwrought to pray.  We do the same for others when we pray for and with them. 

The Gospel presents a different image.  The widow would not give up.  No matter what the unjust judge did she returned importuning until he gave her a fair judgment.  The judge’s motivations for giving that judgment, however, were less than pure.  He had no interest in or thirst for justice.  He gave the judgment because he feared that she might strike him.  His actions recall T.S. Eliot’s observation, “The final temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  God can never be unjust.  Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”  In the context of this Gospel passage we know the answer without it being written.    

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 121, is among the most beautiful and poignant in the entire psalter.  Over seventeen years ago, Jesuit Father Paul Harmon was speaking to New England Province scholastics, young Jesuits still in studies.  This psalm was the topic of one of his talks.  Fr. Harmon's explanation, one I’ve not seen elsewhere, put this psalm into a new and deeper context.  He noted that when the psalmist looked up to the mountains he did not find comfort.  Rather,  he saw that he was surrounded by the fires of sacrifice to the baals, the pagan gods.  And he asked  “Whence shall help come to me?”  He had been abandoned by his people who followed not the God of the covenant but the au courant gods, the gods it was socially expedient to worship, the gods of money, power, influence, and fame.  The gods of political power.  And then the psalmist remembered,

My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.” 

When the psalmist looked up into the mountains he did not have comforting visions of angels, pretty sunsets and cottony clouds.  He saw treachery. He saw betrayal by his own people, a people who had abandoned the God of their fathers, the God of the covenant.  He had to look interiorly, he had to pray, to realize that help did not come from the baals or from power.  He would not find his help in money, social status. or any of the other false gods of today.  His help would come only from the Lord, the Lord who created both heaven and earth.  It is an exquisite psalm. 

“I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”

Stay with that thought for the rest of the day.

Another busy week has ended.  A minor cold did not help matters at all.  On Wednesday I have an appointment with an optometrist to get checked for new glasses.  Apparently one cannot simply copy progressive lenses.  The good news is that while I am stuck with these reading glasses (I cannot describe how much I hate having to look over the top of them and how much I loathe being looked at over the top of a pair of glasses) when the new ones are ready I will have a back up pair.  Two for one sale.  I think I found the Slovenian equivalent of ForEyes. 

It was a week of mostly rainy damp weather, the perfect time to have a cold and not necessarily feel like going out anyway.  On Wednesday I went for coffee with a friend.  It was an interesting experience.  When we took a table at the outdoor cafe the waiter set an ashtray in front of us.  And ASHTRAY?!?  Haven't seen one of those in an eating establishment in years.  Even outdoors.  More surprising, however, was watching a number of young women at several different table, I assume students at the university, rolling their own cigarettes.  And they were tobacco cigarettes as evidenced by the smell.  Overall there seems to be more smoking here than in the U.S. despite large print black and white warnings on the front of cigarette packs as opposed to on the side as is true in the U.S.  While I still occasionally miss the physical action of smoking (I quite 38 years ago) I've no desire to actually light up or even take a drag.  I suspect the nausea would be overwhelming.  

The photos below are the result of some nocturnal wandering. 

The Butcher's Bridge at night.  I did not know that the walkway near the bridge was glass when I was here in January and February.  It was covered with wood.  Apparently what seemed like a good idea at the time resulted in very dangerous conditions in the winter when the glass became icy and slippery.  Alas, it isn't too easy to walk on when wet either.  And wet is a common condition in LJ.

An outdoor cafe along the river.  It was a fairly comfortable night.  However, even now, when the temperatures are dropping into the forties at night, Slovenians are sitting outdoors, bundled up, drinking beer or coffee. 

This street is limited to pedestrians.  The only way to differentiate the cafes is by the tables and chairs.  They are distinct for reach place

The cafe nearest our house.  I took a photo the day before Valentine's when there were several inches of snow on the tables and chairs. 

Ye Olde Tchotchke Shoppe.  I cannot describe how I much I loathe seeing the faux Olde Englyshe spellings in tourist traps.  My niece and I got close to hysterical laughter in Newburyport, Mass. many years ago when it seemed as if every store had that kid of sign.  We still call them:  Ye Oldee Shoppee.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD