Archive for August, 2008

Pontifical Household Preacher Comments on Sunday’s Readings

ROME, JULY 13, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of a commentary by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on the readings from this Sunday’s liturgy.

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The Good Samaritan
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

We have been commenting on some of the Sunday Gospels taking our inspiration from Benedict XVI’s book “Jesus of Nazareth.” A portion of the book treats the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable cannot be understood if we do not take account of the question to which Jesus intended to respond: “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers this question of a doctor of the law with a parable. In the music and literature of the world there are certain phrases that have become famous. Four notes in a certain sequence and every listener immediately exclaims: “Beethoven’s Fifth: destiny is knocking at the door!” Many of Jesus’ parables share this characteristic. “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho … ” and everyone immediately knows: the parable of the good Samaritan!

In the Judaism of the time there was discussion about who should be considered an Israelite’s neighbor. In general it came to be understood that the category of “neighbor” included all one’s fellow countrymen and Gentile coverts to Judaism. With his choice of persons (a Samaritan who comes to the aid of a Jew!) Jesus asserts that the category of neighbor is universal, not particular. Its horizon is humanity not the family, ethnic, or religious circle. Our enemy is also a neighbor! It is known that the Jews in fact “did not have good relations with the Samaritans” (cf. John 4:9).

The parable teaches that love of neighbor must not only be universal but also concrete and proactive. How does the Samaritan conduct himself in the parable? If the Samaritan had contented himself with saying to the unfortunate man lying there in his blood, “You unlucky soul! How did it happen? Buck up!” or something similar, and then went on his way, would not all that have been ironic and insulting? Instead he did something for the other: “He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back’.”

The true novelty in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not that Jesus demands a concrete, universal love. The novelty stands in something else, the Pope observes in his book. At the end of the parable Jesus asks the doctor of the law who was questioning him, “Which of these [the Levite, the priest, the Samaritan] seems to you to have been the neighbor of the one who was attacked by the brigands?”

Jesus brings about an unexpected reversal in the traditional concept of neighbor. The Samaritan is the neighbor and not the wounded man, as we would have expected. This means that we must not wait till our neighbor appears along our way, perhaps quite dramatically. It belongs to us to be ready to notice him, to find him. We are all called to be the neighbor! The problem of the doctor of the law is reversed. From an abstract and academic problem, it becomes a concrete and living problem. The question to ask is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whose neighbor can I be here and now?”

In his book the Pope proposes a contemporary application of the parable of the good Samaritan. He sees the entire continent of Africa symbolized in the unfortunate man who has been robbed, wounded, and left for dead on the side of the road, and he sees in us, members of the rich countries of the northern hemisphere, the two people who pass by if not precisely the brigands themselves.

I would like to suggest another possible application of the parable. I am convinced that if Jesus came to Israel today and a doctor of the law asked him again, “Who is my neighbor?” he would change the parable a bit and in the place of the Samaritan he would put a Palestinian! If a Palestinian were to ask him the same question, in the Samaritan’s place we would find a Jew!

But it is too easy to limit the discussion to Africa and the Middle East. If one of us were to pose Jesus the question “Who is my neighbor?” what would he answer? He would certainly remind us that our neighbor is not only our fellow countrymen but also those outside our community, not only Christians but Muslims also, not only Catholics but Protestants also. But he would immediately add that this is not the most important thing. The most important thing is not to know who my neighbor is but to see whose neighbor I can be here and now, for whom I can be the Good Samaritan.

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Pontifical Household Preacher Comments on Sunday’s Readings

ROME, JULY 6, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of a commentary by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on the readings from this Sunday’s liturgy.

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The Kingdom of God is at Hand!
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:16-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Again we will comment on Sunday’s Gospel with the help of Benedict XVI’s book on Jesus. First, however, I would like to make an observation of a general nature. The criticism that has been made of the Pope’s book by some is that it sticks to what the Gospels say without taking into account the findings of modern historical research which, according to them, would lead to very different conclusions.

What we have here is a widespread idea that is nourishing a whole literature like Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” and popularizing historical works based on the same presupposition.

I think that it is important to shed light on a fundamental equivocation in all of this. The idea of an historical investigation into Jesus that is unified, rectilinear, that moves unswervingly toward completely illuminating him, is a pure myth that some are trying to convince people of but which no serious historian today believes possible.

I quote one of the more well-known representatives of historical research on Jesus, the American Paula Fredriksen: “In recent scholarship, Jesus has been imagined and presented as a type of first-century shaman figure; as a Cynic-sort of wandering wise man; as a visionary radical and social reformer preaching egalitarian ethics to the destitute; as a Galilean regionalist alienated from the elitism of Judean religious conventions (like Temple and Torah); as a champion of national liberation and, on the contrary, as its opponent and critic — on and on.

“All these figures are presented with rigorous academic argument and methodology; all are defended with appeals to the ancient data. Debate continues at a roiling pitch, and consensus — even on issues so basic as what constitutes evidence and how to construe it — seems a distant hope.”

Often an appeal is made to new data and recent discoveries which would finally put historical research in an advantageous place with regard to the past. But the variety of the consequences that can be drawn from these new historical sources appears from the fact that they have given rise to two opposed and irreconcilable images of Christ that are still in play. On one hand, a Jesus who “is in all and for all Jewish”; on the other hand, a Jesus who is a child of the Helenized Galilee of his time, strongly influenced the philosophy of cynicism.

In light of this fact I ask: What was the Pope supposed to do, compose yet another historical reconstruction in which all the contrary objections debate and combat each other? What the Pope chose to do was to positively present the figure and teaching of Jesus as he is understood by the Church, taking his point of departure from the conviction that the Christ of the Gospels is, even from the historical point of view, the figure that is the most credible and certain.

After these clarifications, let us turn to this Sunday’s Gospel. It is the episode of the sending out of 72 disciples on mission. After having told them how they are supposed to go out (two by two, like lambs, without money), Jesus explains to them what they must say: “Tell them: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.'”

We know that the phrase “The kingdom of God is at hand” is at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and is the premise of each of his teachings. The kingdom of God is at hand, so love your enemies; the kingdom of God is at hand, so if your hand is a scandal to you, cut it off. It is better to enter the kingdom of God without a hand than to remain outside of it with both hands. Everything takes its meaning from the kingdom.

There has always been discussion about what, precisely, Jesus meant by the expression “kingdom of God.” For some it would be a purely interior kingdom consisting in a life conformed to the law of God; for others, on the contrary, it would be a social and political kingdom to be realized by man, even by struggle and revolution if necessary.

The Pope reviews these various interpretations of the past and points to what they have in common: The center of interest moves from God to man; it is no longer a kingdom of God but a kingdom of man, who is its principal architect. This is an idea of a kingdom that, at the limit, is also compatible with atheism.

In Jesus’ preaching the coming of the kingdom of God means that, sending his Son into the world, God has decided, so to speak, to personally take in hand the fortunes of the world, to compromise himself with it, to act in the world from the inside. It is easier to intuit what the kingdom of God means than to explain it because it is a reality that transcends every explanation.

The idea is still much diffused that Jesus expected the end of the world to be imminent and therefore the kingdom of God that he preached is not to be realized in this world but in the one we call the “hereafter.”

In effect, the Gospels contain some affirmations that lend themselves to this interpretation. But if we look at the whole of Jesus’ teaching this does not jibe. According to C.H. Dodd, Jesus’ teaching is not an ethics for those who are expecting a rapid end to the world, but for those who have experienced the end of this world and the coming into it of the kingdom of God.

It is for those who know that “the old things are past” and that the world has become a “new creation,” since God has descended as king. In other words, Jesus did not announce the end of “the” world but the end of “a” world, and in that the facts have not told against him.

But John the Baptist also preached this change, speaking of an imminent judgment of God. In what, then, consists the newness of Christ? The newness is entirely enclosed within an adverb of time: “now.” With Jesus the kingdom of God is no longer only something “imminent.” It is present. “The new and exclusive message of Jesus,” the Pope writes, “consists in the fact that he says: God acts now — this is the hour in which God, in a way that goes beyond all previous modalities, reveals himself in history as its Lord, as the living God.”

From here flows that sense of urgency that is present in all of Jesus’ parables, especially the so-called parables of the kingdom. The decisive moment of history has arrived, now is the moment to make the decision that saves; the feast is ready; to refuse to enter because you have just taken a wife or bought a pair of oxen or for some other reason, is to be excluded forever and see your place taken by others.

From this last reflection let us move to a practical and contemporary application of the message we have heard. What Jesus said to the people of his time is also valid for us today. That “now” and “today” will remain immutable until the end of the world (Hebrews 3:13).

That means that the person who today hears, perhaps by chance, Christ’s word: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; convert and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), finds himself faced with the same choice as those who heard it 2000 years ago in a Galilean village: Either believe and enter the kingdom or refuse to believe and remain outside.

Unfortunately, the first option — believing — seems to be the last concern of many who read the Gospel and write books about it. Rather than submitting themselves to Christ’s judgment, many judge him.

Today more than ever Jesus is on trial. It is a kind of “universal judgment” turned upside down. Scholars run this risk above all. The scholar must “dominate” the object of the science that he cultivates and remain neutral before it; but how is one supposed to “dominate” or remain neutral before an object when it is Jesus Christ? In this case one must let himself instead be dominated by, and not be the dominator of his object.

The kingdom of God was so important for Jesus that he taught us to pray every day for its coming. We turn to God saying, “Thy kingdom come,” but God also turns to us and says through Jesus: “The kingdom of God is at hand, do not wait, enter!”



Pontifical Household Preacher Comments on Sunday’s Readings

ROME, JUNE 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of a commentary by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on the readings from this Sunday’s liturgy.

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“Let the Dead Bury the Dead”
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b,19-21; Galatians 4:31-5:13-18; Luke 9:51-62

Benedict XVI’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” appeared in April. I thought that I would take account of the Pope’s reflections in my commentary on some of the next Sunday Gospels.

First of all, I’d like to remark on the content and purpose of the book. It treats of Jesus in the period from his baptism in the Jordan to the moment of his transfiguration, that is, from the beginning of his public ministry almost to its epilogue.

The Pope says that if God gives him sufficient strength and time to write it, a second volume will deal with the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection along with the infancy narratives. These were not treated in the first volume.

The book presupposes historical-critical exegesis and uses its findings, but desires to go beyond this method, aiming at a properly theological interpretation, that is, one that is global, not narrow, and that takes seriously the witness of the Gospels and Scriptures as books inspired by God.

The purpose of the book is to show that the figure of Jesus that is arrived at in this way is “much more logical and, from the historical point of view, also more understandable than the reconstructions that we have seen in the last decades. I hold,” the Pope adds, “that precisely this Jesus — that of the Gospels — is a historically sensible and convincing figure.”

It is quite significant that the Pope’s choice to attend to the Jesus of the Gospels finds a confirmation in the more recent and authoritative orientation of the same historical-critical approach, in, for example, the Scottish exegete James Dunn’s monumental work “Christianity in the Making.”

According to Dunn, “the synoptic Gospels bear testimony to a pattern and technique of oral transmission which has ensured a greater stability and continuity in the Jesus tradition that has thus far been generally appreciated.”

But let us come to the Gospel reading for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. It recounts three different meetings Jesus had on the same journey. We will focus on one of these meetings. “And to another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, let me go first and bury my father.’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'”

In his book, the Pope comments on the theme of family relations alluded to in the above Gospel passage in dialogue with the Jewish-American Rabbi Jacob Neusner. In his book “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” Rabbi Neusner imagines himself as present in the crowds when Jesus speaks.

Rabbi Neusner explains why, despite his great admiration for the “Rabbi of Nazareth,” he would not have been able to become his disciple. One of the reasons for this is Jesus’ position on family relations. Rabbi Neusner says that on many occasions Jesus seems to invite transgression of the fourth commandment, which says that we must honor our father and mother. Jesus asks someone, as we just heard, to forget about burying his own father and elsewhere he says that whoever loves father and mother more than him is not worthy of him.

Often the response to these objections is to cite other words of Jesus that strongly affirm the permanent validity of family bonds: the indissolubility of marriage, the duty to help one’s father and mother.

In his book, however, the Pope offers a more profound and illuminating answer to this objection, an objection that is not only Rabbi Neusner’s, but also that of many Christian readers of the Gospel. He takes his point of departure from something else Jesus says. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother, sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).

Jesus does not thereby abolish the natural family, but reveals a new family in which God is father, and men and women are all brothers and sisters thanks to a common faith in him, the Christ. Rabbi Neusner asks whether he has a right to do this. This spiritual family already existed: It was the people of Israel, united by observance of the Torah, that is, the Mosaic law.

A son was only permitted to leave his father’s house to study the Torah. But Jesus does not say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than the Torah is not worthy of the Torah.” He says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” He puts himself in the place of the Torah and this can only be done by someone who is greater than the Torah and greater than Moses, who promulgated it.

Benedict XVI thinks that the rabbi is right to conclude: “Only God can demand of me what Jesus asks.” The Pope notes that the discussion about Jesus and family relations — like that about Jesus and observance of the Sabbath — thus brings us to the true heart of the matter, which is to know who Jesus is. If a Christian does not believe that Jesus acts with the authority itself of God and is himself God, then Rabbi Neusner, who refuses to follow Jesus, has a more coherent position than that particular Christian does. One cannot accept Jesus’ teaching if one does not accept his person.

Let us take some practical instruction from this discussion. The “family of God,” which is the Church, not only is not against the natural family, but is its guarantee and promoter. We see it today. It is a shame that some divergences of opinion in our society on questions linked to marriage and the family impede many from recognizing the providential work of the Church on behalf of the family. She is often without support in this decisive battle for the future of humanity.