Tag Archives: Gospel


I once heard two Baptist ministers on TV say that anyone who does not profess Jesus to be his or her Lord and Savior is doomed to everlasting damnation. No exceptions. Innocent ignorance and good intentions notwithstanding, anyone who does not accept Jesus as the one and only Savior is condemned to everlasting torture.

Here we are once again with a Gospel reading that seems to say what we find impossible to accept, something we know to be unreasonable and untrue. You just heard the words attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writer, this time St. John, that whoever does not believe in Jesus as God’s only Son and the Savior of the world has already been condemned. What are we to make of such a statement? Well, I suggest that this is what we do with it:

1. We start with the fact that through the entire first century, the infant church did not have the bible that we have today; there was a word of mouth tradition, the faith being passed on from person to person and generation to generation under the leadership of the apostles and their successors. The church was like a classroom that had a teacher and an eager body of learners – but not yet a textbook. The formation of the Christian faith community came first; the textbook — the bible — was being developed and refined at the same time.

2. We admit that both the Old and the New Testaments contain many vengeful statements, as they are called, that sound hard, even cruel, and we realize that they have to be understood in the context of love. I think no one has expressed that better than the authors of the brilliant little book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. Listen to this quote from page 13: “…we use vengeful punishment language all the time in our homes and families. Such statements are exaggerations (hyperbole) that can be safely used only in a context where everyone understands that they are not to be taken literally…”

Later on the authors say that when Jesus intervened in the about-to-take-place stoning of a woman accused of adultery, he was telling the scribes and Pharisees that they were not to interpret literally those words of Moses which commanded the violent execution of such a sinner.

3. We must read or hear the bible always with common sense! We can be sure that Jesus and the Spirit of God expect that of us. If I tell you that I am blue today, I assume you know that the comment has nothing to do with my skin color, but only with my mood. If you tell me that there were a million people at the dinner last night, I know you mean many, not a thousand thousand. Similar adjustments and accommodations that we make all the time must also be made when we are reading or hearing the ancient scriptures.

With these guidelines in mind, we can be certain that Jesus is not saying what the two ministers interviewed on TV claimed he was saying: that those who don’t know or follow Jesus are on their way to eternal damnation. No, what he was saying is that the first and most basic duty of every human being is to try to find the truth in all things and then to live by it, to look for the light and to walk toward it and then in it. Truth and light will lead us to goodness and love. Jesus is truth and light, and all persons, regardless of their religion, who make goodness and love the essential standards of their lives, walk in the company of Jesus, whether they recognize him or not.

Saints are in every religion – and many are in none! Let us love and respect one another, as Jesus wants us to.



Reason tells us that some of what we read in Scripture simply cannot, in and of itself, be God’s word. Consider some glaring examples –

Exodus 35:2 unequivocally states that anyone who works on the Sabbath day should be put to death.

Leviticus 25:44 clearly endorses the purchasing of slaves, both male and female, from surrounding heathen nations.

Leviticus 11:10 forbids the eating of shellfish, like the shrimp I had this past week, on the grounds that it is an abomination.

In the Gospels we are cautioned that it is better to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes rather than to sin with these body parts.

We are told that a star came to rest over the place where Jesus was born. The last time I looked, stars were fantastically large masses of gravitationally bound gases burning at millions of degrees Fahrenheit.

I’m sure you get the point – or at least the question. How can we say of these obvious falsehoods, these foolish, even immoral, instructions, that they are the word of God?? But then what does it mean that the Scriptures are inspired?

I am comfortable with this answer to the question: the wisdom of God finds even our human stupidity, our prejudices, our ignorance and lack of understanding useful in communicating fundamental truth to us – which is why we rarely stay on the surface of what we are reading or hearing, but rather dig down, sometimes way down, to encounter the message these words, these ideas – many of them false in themselves – carry for our benefit.

That’s why we can say that whether or not Jesus performed the miraculous cures the Gospel said he did outside the home of Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t important: the real intent of the narrative was to highlight for us the unconditional compassion of Jesus – and to invite us to act similarly in the circumstances of our life. The story, whether factual or fictional or both, is simply the vehicle that brought that overriding point to our attention.

So – the first reading today prescribes a social custom that we find cruel and inhumane: lepers are to live and be treated as total outcasts. We’ve moved beyond that attitude: courageous, compassionate persons among us care for lepers, build institutions to house them, honor them as fully human beings, and work toward their recovery. And that was Jesus’ attitude, as we discovered in the Gospel today.

Now don’t miss the impact of Jesus’ action: both the leper, who asked to be healed, and Jesus, who touched and spoke to him, were breaking the law. But they both knew that the limits that had been set by human authority could not have been endorsed by a merciful God, and so they dared publicly to defy those boundaries and move instead toward the horizon, where the love of God shone brightly and beckoned!

That’s what this clever arrangement of Scripture pieces has to do with today: choosing horizons over boundaries!

Think how many areas of our lives offer such choices. Let me suggest just a few:

Shall we protect the institution (church or state) at all costs, or shall we follow our consciences in the pursuit of what is right and just, allowing the chips to fall where they may?

Shall we, in the present world situation, be restricted by a narrow definition of patriotism and proceed obediently toward war, or shall we exercise our precious American freedom and resist what we believe to be wrong?

Shall we maintain a society of exclusiveness, keeping out those we don’t want in, or shall we, like Jesus, welcome all?

And so on…

It’s true: we do not find God’s word in some of the protective laws of a primitive people such as those who oppressed the innocent victims of leprosy; no, but we do find it by way of contrast with the example of Jesus – and in the change from one mindset to another, from darkness to light, the very change we are invited and empowered to undergo, if we are willing.


For the many years that Deacon Joe and I have been presiding at the Sunday Radio Mass, I send him to the lectern, the reading stand, to proclaim the Gospel passage for the day by placing my hands on his shoulders and saying, “Joe, may the Spirit of God lead you as you announce to us the Good News of Jesus”.

Like most things that we do and say routinely, I haven’t questioned that ritual; I just know that it is truthful and that Joe accepts the blessing with sincerity and deep faith. I know that his prayer is that all his hearers, present here in the hospital chapel and wherever else throughout the world they may be, will open their minds and hearts as eagerly as they can to welcome and then to ponder what they have heard.

But lately I’ve been wondering if there are persons here or out there who actually want and expect that something will be said that will give them the light, the assurance, the peace that they crave and have not yet found. That’s what “good news” means! It’s the words that “command” our poverty — in whatever way we are poor — to leave us and then to lift us to new heights of joy!

That welcoming of the Good News is like the experience of a person condemned to death awaiting the court’s decision on an appeal — and living to hear that the death sentence has been overturned!

You know what that’s like from your own life: your missing child found alive and uninjured, the diagnosis that you are cancer-free, that warm letter sent by a person you’ve been estranged from for years, and so on.

As Christians we believe that not only Jesus’ encouraging words, but his very life — especially his death and resurrection — is the Good News that changes our lives for the better always. The ultimate cause of all our worries and fears and sadness and depression is our inescapable awareness that we are on our way to death — every one of us without exception. And the Good News is that on the other side of death is happy life such as no human being has ever experienced it in this earthly existence!

Again, that’s the Good News that Jesus brings and the Good News that he is!

No, we can’t prove it in any empirical or scientific way; that’s why we speak of it as a matter of faith. We choose to believe it especially on the testimony of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

The recent storms and hurricanes and earthquakes have given us here in the northeastern United States of America new reason to be grateful for our material blessings. We know ourselves, maybe more clearly than ever before, to be rich. But that’s why we can also be partly or totally deaf or indifferent to the Gospel as Good News. “Sitting pretty” as we are, who needs “Good News”?


Because the rich die also. Because the richest among us can be at the same time the poorest with regard to relationships and love and beauty that alone can bring joy to their hearts.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we have our hands on each other’s shoulders and we are saying, “May the Spirit lead you to hear with enthusiasm and to pass on the Good News of Jesus!”


As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.


The feeling that you are at odds with a beloved member of your family over religious or moral points of view is a special kind of sadness.  We all want to be of one mind & heart with those who are closest to us concerning the most important issues of life.  When we discover that we are not, it’s as if a chasm has opened up between us.  We find it disturbing that this other person does not see things the way we do.

It’s apparent that Jesus foresaw that possibility and accepted responsibility for it.  He said, Don’t think that I’m here to establish peace among you.  Quite to the contrary, I will be the cause of serious divisions, side-taking, bitter arguments, and long-lasting separations right within your families.

But why?  It’s much easier to understand when it is a case of two opposing camps, one of which accepts Jesus and the other rejects him.  But when, instead, it involves good and sincere people on both sides of the issue at hand who acknowledge Jesus as their savior, who listen eagerly to his gospel and try to live by it, it’s difficult to identify the cause of division and dissension.

But isn’t that what is happening today?  The conspicuous crucifix on the young, leather-clad motorcyclist, for example, may mean something entirely different from the gold cross around the neck of his grandmother.  Those two persons very likely represent two different approaches to Jesus, two different interpretations of his gospel.  And yet there is only one Jesus, one cross, one gospel.

To muddy the waters further, Jesus says, I have come to divide you, even mother against daughter.

What is he saying?  I think he is saying that loyalty to him and his gospel will sometimes require of us that we stand up firmly, whatever the personal cost may be, and respectfully confront persons who we think are not really following him either deliberately or mistakenly, but in either case are badly misunderstanding his teachings.

We simply have to be willing to antagonize others unintentionally in our common pursuit of truth.

And, of course, it all comes down to conscience once again, personal conscience.  We Catholics have not been taught or encouraged to follow our consciences in making important decisions affecting ourselves and others.  We were taught instead that the highest virtue is that of unwavering obedience to the authority of the church.  And so I remind you once again, and over & over, that the official church itself now teaches, at its highest levels, that each of us must work diligently at forming as good a conscience as we can and then must follow its direction even when that conflicts with the official teachings of the church.

Most people, I find, welcome that major change in our individual responsibility; a much smaller number of faithful Catholics do not accept it.  It seems to them to be a much too radical departure from the past.  I hope that you are peaceful about it and grateful for it and that you recognize it as the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our time.

We are constantly growing in age and wisdom and grace before God and others.


You know that our word “Gospel” means “good news” and comes from the Old English word “Godspel.”  Hearing the Gospel over & over as we do all our lives, we might wonder how much “news” there can be in it for us.  Who, by this time, doesn’t know, for example, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and its meaning?  And who hasn’t heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth?  In our TV-radio-newspaper sense of the term, there doesn’t seem to be much real news in the Gospel.  We’d be more inclined to revere the Gospel for its durability rather than for its immediacy or novelty.

But look at it from another point of view.  Think of the tremendous power of a single word.  Start with the negative: when was the last time your day – or night – was spoiled by a disparaging word from someone close to you?  Has a note or a letter ever left you limp, sick in body and in spirit?  I’m sure you’ve had such experiences.  I have, often.  And there will be more to come, I’m certain.  Words can be as deadly and as hurtful as bullets, especially when they are fired at us by someone we love.

On the other hand, words can also be powerful life-givers.  “I love you” can take a human being out of the doldrums of passing depression to heights of happiness and confidence.  “It’s alright – I’m here” destroys fear and instantly reassures.  There are words, spoken from the heart, that affirm and heal and praise and promise and permit, words that welcome and accept.  The loneliest persons on earth are not necessarily those who have no family and few friends, but those who never hear life-giving words – like the inmates I correspond with on death row in a loveless Georgia prison.

Many years ago, at a regional conference on education, I heard a presentation by the then-famous Dr. Sidney Simon.  In the course of his scholarly and very practical talk, he mentioned that his favorite time of day is mail time, the arrival of the letter-carrier, because he always looks forward to the good surprises it brings as well as the letters he is eagerly expecting.  I realized how true that is for me, too – that even on a day-off, no matter where I may be, if I am within reasonable driving distance from home, I frequently go back to my mailbox for the day’s infusion of life from family and friends.  I open my computer and iPhone several times a day for the same reason.

Regardless of what our personal status may be – position, wealth, seniority, talents, whatever – the circumstances of our life can overtake and victimize us and cause us pain and worry.  It’s then, above all times, that we desperately need a word that is more powerful than the forces that are crushing us.  We believe that we have that word in the person of Jesus, who promised to be with us, every step of our journey in the often dark and frightening valley through which we have to walk.  He said he’d be with us always.  He is the word that will not return unfulfilled to the one he called Father.

I think that is news every time we need such a word.  It has to be proclaimed constantly, as we do at every Mass, because we do not live in it naturally or habitually – we are too easily distracted, too easily thrown off course, when the pressure is on.

From Mary’s womb on Christmas Day, the Word – powerful, loving, gentle – became audible and visible and present.

Let’s move on to the place of his birth!