Today we have two readings that are quite different, and yet are interesting in the way in which they tell similar things about God. We have probably heard both before. The prophet Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh, which at one time was the largest city in the world. Jonah does not want to go. In fact, he heads in the opposite direction. Martha and Mary are mentioned in more than one gospel. This story is probably familiar to us as well. Martha, the good hostess, is doing many things related to hospitality. Mary spends her time listening to the words of Jesus. Both Martha and Jonah become upset because Mary and Nineveh are not doing what they want them to do. Martha wants hospitality help and Jonah wants Nineveh to be destroyed. In the end, they both learn that they must allow God to be God.
Servais-Théodore Pinckaers, OP, a Dominican friar and moral theologian made an important distinction in the moral law. He contrasted the concept of license (we can do whatever we want) with purposeful choices that sometimes limit our license for a greater good. Parents who attend to their sick children in the middle of the night, even though the parents might prefer to remain sleeping, become an example of the second type of freedom — one that actually makes us more free. When we make the decision to follow Jesus throughout our lives, we may find ourselves being asked to limit our choices in some way, but we do so for the greater good of the eternal relationship with Jesus. In today’s first reading, the people hear the reading of the Law, which had the purpose of helping people to live a holy life. Yet, we can find even ourselves failing in sin. Our relationship with Jesus provides us with the means to be forgiven for sin, and because of God’s grace to strive ever more fully to embrace his way of life.
Life is pretty hard. Most people, probably all, have moments of difficulty. A loved one dies. A spouse becomes ill. A friend goes through a difficult time. A relative struggles to find a job. People in countries far away and down the street struggle with violence. Others are ravaged by poverty. There is no shortage of evil, difficulties and sin. And when these things happen, we can question how it is that God allows such suffering and difficulty. Yet God the Father sent his Son Jesus to die for our sins. To become one of us, to share in the experience of evil. And so when we find ourselves suffering because of sin, disease, evil, violence, poverty or suffering, we can rest assured we are not alone. Saint Therese of Lisieux, the saint we celebrate today, lost her mother at a very young age, and her oldest sister, who cared for her like a mother, died before Therese became an adult. Yet in the midst of this loss, she found the love of God, a love so powerful that even though she had never left Europe, she became the patron saint of the missions. She thanked God for helping her to love. We must know we are never alone, and in all our suffering we are always in the presence of God.
Notice. Notice Jesus. Notice Jesus in the poor. Notice Jesus in the person who really makes you angry at work. Notice Jesus in the person who is all alone. This is the message we see in the story of Lazarus today. How many times did the rich man walk by Lazarus? How many times did he see Lazarus in need by fail to take action? There would always be another time. There would always be tomorrow. I can always help Lazarus. This was true for the rich man until it was not. Take notice of Jesus today.
He kept trying to see him. Even King Herod, who was not really a very good person, at least in the actions we see him commit, was quite intrigued by Jesus. He did not really know what to make of Jesus, but he was intrigued enough to try to see him. It is the same Herod who felt the attraction of the words of John the Baptist. At some point, Herod could have made a life-changing decision. He could have come to believe in Jesus by submitting to God. But kings do not always submit. We might say the Herod was intrigued by the idea of a relationship with God, but could not bring himself to have such a relationship. Do we do the same? Or do we seek in our own lives not only to be attracted to Jesus, but to follow him?
Mary the mother of Jesus is never identified by name in the gospel of John. And while today’s gospel comes from the gospel of Luke, the message remains: we give the Mother of God such reverence first and foremost because of her tremendous faith. She trusted God. She believed in God. There were days like today in the gospel where she might have wondered about whether or not she was on the right track. But in all of this, her faith, her example, her life, all these things were ordered to God in a way that helped her to understand and know what was most important. May it be the same for each one of us.
This is a great gospel. Some version of this story is in all four gospels. It had to be quite a scene when Simon, who was expecting a dinner with a mover and shaker named Jesus found him big moment interrupted by this sinful woman. And what a scene she created! Without knowing her, or perhaps because he knew her in the biblical sense, Simon was mortified by her presence. But Simon learned a very important lesson about the spiritual life. Even though the woman was sinful, she loved more. And when she approached Jesus in love to seek forgiveness, he forgave her great sin. While love does not give us permission to sin, it does allow us to receive great forgiveness when we turn to Jesus in contrition.
What do you do when you receive unexpected and shocking news about the death of someone you care about? Or maybe learn about a serious illness that you have or someone else has? The temptation, perhaps especially on the part of a priest, is to give a simple solution, or an easy answer. The suffering, evil and death we experience does not lend itself to easy and simple answers, if the answers are in fact going to help us. Rather, we have a God who entered into our suffering and evil, and provides us a relationship with him and others.
I remember the first time I really heard today’s gospel. It was September 12, 2001. When I read the words of today’s gospel, the hair on my neck stood up. After the horrific events of September 11, I heard the words of Jesus in a way that cut me to the heart. ” “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” And just when I thought I had been rattled enough, Jesus continues. “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” And I realized on that day that it was too simple to think that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He did. In fact, he died for our sins. I know that I cannot live these words on my own. But I can try to be open to his grace. I can seek forgiveness. And I can seek a deeper relationship with him that even makes these hard words possible.
Go into any bookstore and find the “self-help” section and there are really an unbelievable number of books. It seems that many have an opinion that doing something easy will make life perfect. And if we are not careful, the Christian life can be reduced to the same “self-help” philosophy. If we go around doing good, we will be better. But Christian discipleship is more than this. It is entering into a powerful relationship with Jesus, and allowing that relationship to change us, perhaps even allowing it to take us where we do not want to go. Jesus is not a self-help guru, but the divine Son of God who heals our sin and brokenness and calls to something more than we can imagine.