Rules That Matter

The arrival of a new baby quickly turns the lives of all concerned upside-down. Our newest grandchild offers proof positive in this regard. Fortunately, his parents and older brother have adapted quickly and all is well. Some changes aren’t as easy to negotiate. So often, our daily lives are complicated by a difficult diagnosis, an unexpected job loss or a loved ones tough times. I can’t imagine how those in the midst of the wildfires on the west coast and the storms and floods on the east coast have coped. At the same time, violence in neighborhoods across this country continues to upend lives just as brutally. All the while, many others struggle in the grip of difficult realities which have become their daily lot. Though there is much joy to be found throughout our earthly lives, persistent drudgery can be mercilessly discouraging. When I gaze at my new grandson, I can’t help tearing up because the human condition hasn’t evolved much over the centuries. As he sleeps peacefully in my arms, he gives me reason to do all I can to improve life in this world as best I can for him and for us all.

My conviction that things haven’t changed much since we humans took residence on this earth was underscored when my husband and I traveled to Israel. I imagined Jesus making his way through the crowds, sometimes alone, but most often in the company of his friends, curious onlookers and those seeking something beyond their sadness. In Capernaum, Magdala, Nazareth and Tabgha, I envisioned Jesus responding to the sick, the lonely and the downtrodden. Their suffering piqued Jesus’ compassion and his love. He did what he could to ease their pain. My little grandson and all of those whom I’ve been given to love do the same. Whether a family member, neighbor or stranger, I find it very difficult to walk away from his or her troubles. Yes, Jesus, I get it most of the time.

Jesus knew that none of us get it right all of the time. His most pressing concern was to love us and to teach us to love one another. Issues arose when those who should have done this best failed to prioritize love. Oddly, this should have been nothing new to the temple hierarchy who irritated Jesus most in this regard. In today’s reading from Deuteronomy (4:1-2, 6-8), we find Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the people. They’d exhibited hard-heartedness repeatedly while they wandered in the desert and they desperately needed guidance regarding their relationships with one another and with God. In response, God inspired Moses to present the people with ten simple laws. These straightforward principles would guide them in loving God and in loving and caring for one another. The Pharisees knew this story well, yet they grew those ten commands into hundreds of precepts which oppressed the people rather than uplifting them. The second reading from James (1:17-18, 21-22, 27) indicates that this was an ongoing problem. This excerpt was written in response to some in the early church who attempted to put faith alone above their love and concern for one another.

In today’s gospel (Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23), Jesus made his point. The Pharisees once again criticized Jesus for not following the letter of the law regarding temple rituals. They were quite indignant over Jesus’ and his followers’ apparent disregard for these mandates. The disciples ate with ritually unclean hands. When he touched the sick and ostracized who were off-limits in the temple, Jesus himself became ritually unclean as well. Jesus responded to these accusations by pointing out to the Pharisees that they had allowed their devotion to ritual to replace their devotion to God and to God’s people. The Pharisees valued clean hands far more than they valued the people. They valued meticulous obedience to their precepts far more than the people’s heartfelt prayer. Though God had provided the Ten Commandments to guide the people in forming a loving community, the Pharisees separated them into the worthy and the unworthy, the clean and the unclean. So it was that Jesus enlightened them on the matter. Jesus knew that none of us is perfect. He also knew that we make up for our shortcomings in any situation with love. At times, this requires setting aside a rule or two so we can touch a heart just as Jesus would.

As I turn my eyes to my sleeping grandson, I admit that it’s easy to set aside my own agenda for this lovable little child. If only that was the case with everyone I meet along the way! Today, God asks each of us to do just that for all of God’s children, lovable and otherwise. Jesus put it quite simply to the Pharisees and to us all. God asks only that we do our best to be the best we can. When we fail, God asks that we forgive ourselves, forgive one another and get on with the business at hand. God knows better than we that sometimes our role in the business at hand is simply to walk away. That business, by the way, has nothing to do with tracking our failings or those of others. The business at hand has everything to do with loving one another as Jesus did and as only we can.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Rules That Matter

The early arrival of our new grandson turned the lives of all concerned upside down. Fortunately, Daniel continues to thrive in his parents’ care. As I offer a prayer of thanksgiving, I acknowledge that life’s surprises should be nothing new to any of us. Every day, rules are made for good reason and rules are broken for good reason. In Daniel’s case, he arrived at God’s appointed time with no regard for the expectations of the rest of us. With that realization in mind, I look around at our untidy house, piles of laundry and the once-blank page which I am currently filling. I temporarily set these things aside because visiting Daniel and his parents at the hospital is a priority these days.

I admit that I felt smugly vindicated when I read the scriptures today. Mark’s gospel offers a favorite vignette of Jesus-the-Rule-Breaker. Jesus did not disregard The Law. His parents raised him to be a devout member of the temple who took God’s wishes to heart. Equally importantly, however, Jesus took God’s love to heart. It was this choice to care for God’s children above all else which caused Jesus to fall into the poor graces of the rule-makers of his day. All of this brings to mind a fictional portrayal of Jesus-the-Rebel whom I encountered years ago in The Joshua Books (which are a very good read!). These narratives chronicle the adventures of the contemporary Jesus of Nazareth who revisits our modern world. Father Joseph Girzone’s rendering of Joshua is very much in keeping with Jesus’ experience in Mark’s gospel (Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23). In JOSHUA IN THE HOLY LAND (Girzone, Joseph F., Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1992), Joshua finds himself in the midst of just such an encounter.

As Father Girzone tells it, it was early Saturday when Joshua walked through an Orthodox settlement. Joshua offended onlookers because he carried a backpack. This was considered “work” which was disallowed on the Sabbath. When Joshua hurried along, seemingly to attend to important business, his quick pace violated the Sabbath once again. Those whom Joshua passed expressed disdain over these violations. It mattered little to them that Joshua was on his way to assist someone who desperately needed him. Joshua pointed out that it was rigidity such as this which prevented his adversaries’ ancient counterparts from recognizing him. The men responded by attempting to do Joshua violence. Apparently, those men determined that violence was allowable on the Sabbath! It was only the unexpected intervention of a friend that saved Joshua from being beaten.

Passages from Deuteronomy and James join Father Girzone and Mark’s gospel in illustrating the intent and the spirit of the law handed down to us through the scriptures and tradition. In Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8, Moses presents the Ten Commandments to the people who had exhibited their hard-heartedness repeatedly. They desperately needed guidance regarding the value of their humanity and their relationships with God. In response, God inspired Moses to present the people with these precepts which would guide them in loving and relying upon God and in loving and cherishing one another. James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27 celebrates the grace that comes in everything God offers from above, especially in the ten simple rules which draw the best of our humanity from within us.

Father Girzone’s Joshua reintroduced the same simple rules to the modern world. Joshua urged the people to consider their use of The Law and their willingness to put love above all else. This Joshua echoes Jesus’ challenge. When the unexpected disrupts our plans and turns our world topsy-turvy, we must adjust the demands we place upon others and ourselves. God asks only that we do our best in the moment at hand. If this requires setting aside a rule or two, so be it. The only thing we are asked not to set aside is our love for one another.

When our little grandson made his way into this world a bit early, his parents, doctors, nurses and the rest of us adjusted as needed to respond. When he arrived in need of a few extra weeks in the hospital, all else gave way to accommodate Daniel’s care. I admit that it is easy to set aside my own agenda for this lovable little child. Today, God asks each of us to do the same for all of God’s children –lovable and otherwise– when they need us most.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

A Place for Us All

Brothers and sisters:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God…

From Ephesians 2:19-22

Life was tough for the contemporaries of Jesus. The Jewish people endured Roman rule which had little appreciation for the plight of the poor. The people also suffered under the temple hierarchy who valued The Law more than the people for whom The Law had been written. Jesus himself endured the Pharisees’ criticism because they could not see past their own infatuation with rules, regulations and control. It was Jesus’ failure to adhere to ritual cleanliness and his association with outcasts which infuriated these adversaries most. The good news is that Jesus ignored the criticism and made room for whoever desired his company. He associated with tax collectors and sinners of every sort. He touched lepers and the blind. He even saved a woman caught in adultery. He would have done the same for the man involved had he been threatened with stoning as well.

Though you and I are not always ostracized quite as dramatically as these, we suffer our own varieties of exclusion, loneliness and despair just the same. The good news for us is that God responds in like manner to you and me. When the rest of the world pushes us away, God embraces us. When no one lifts a finger to help, God lays hands upon us and heals us.

Gracious God, thank you for revealing your great mercy and love through Jesus. He offered us a taste of joy we will all share with you one day.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Friday, The Fourth Week of Lent

“So they tried to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him because his hour had not yet come.”
From John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30

When my husband and I married, we belonged to a parish church run by a priest I had known since I was a little girl. Father Bill was like a dad to me. When I was eight years old, my dad passed away and Father was the first person I told. Father was also a bit of a rebel. Though he respected the church’s rules and regulations, he also had great compassion for those in need. I remember his locking horns with the housekeepers of the parish rectory because he “cluttered up” the basement with clothing he had collected for the poor. Not long after, he locked horns with a local politician. Father had hired some striking city workers to do odd jobs around the church so they could put food on their tables. Because Father had such a good and generous heart, nothing ever came of the threats against him. In each instance, his adversaries backed off, perhaps out of fear that he was a little too close to God to mess with.

Our friend, Jesus, was in far more trouble than Father Bill ever was as the temple hierarchy planned his demise. One wonders if they had a sense that Jesus might be more than a troublemaking carpenter-turned-preacher after all. In the end, Jesus managed to keep them at a distance until he’d accomplished all that he had set out to do.

Dear Jesus, I wonder what you were thinking as time ran out for you. Those who plotted to take your life saw only threats in your message of mercy, forgiveness and love. In the end, they believed that they had rid themselves of you. As for me, I thank you for all that you endured as I look forward to celebrating your victory on Easter Sunday. In the mean time, I will walk these final days of Lent with you.