None other Gods


The Readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent (B2)

Non habebis deos alienos coram me.
Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. 

There are spoilers in this essay relating to the plot line of a very good book. But the book was published 100 years ago, so it should be ok. 

There are those who say that there is proof in the Old Testament for other gods. Even God himself acknowledges other gods. Of course there are other gods – only a fool would not realize that. If reality exists, there must be fakes as well. But the other elohim are not gods like YHVH, even if they are gods in our heart. The Exodus text in Hebrew uses the word “Elohim” for “gods” here. But in the book of Genesis, it is the Elohim, same word, translated usually as “God” that, in the very first verse of the Bible, is the creator of heaven and earth. It is this same word, used one verse earlier, when God describes himself. “I am YHVH your Elohim.” There are gods and there are antigods. There are positive things we put up to distract us from God and there are negative ones as well. We can worship an idol – a false god – or we can claim to disprove God and so not worship any gods… but anything that distracts us from truth is an idol. It takes the place of God: it is a false one.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson wrote a wonderful piece of fiction called None other Gods. It is perhaps my favourite work of religions fiction, actually. I don’t mean that it’s better than fictions by CS Lewis (which are allegories) or Tolkien (which have religious philosophy behind them). I mean it’s religious fiction. There is a story to tell and religion is part of it. It’s not allegorized, it’s solid. The main character – Frank – becomes Roman Catholic, is disowned by his family, deserted and betrayed by his friends, expelled from school… and dies praying a rosary after being beat up by the pimp of a prostitute he’s just liberated.

It takes place at a time in the early 20th Century when it was perfectly legal to be Roman Catholic in the UK. But it was not something nice people did. Benson did it as well and so did his hero, (now Blessed) John Henry Cardinal Newman. But Frank did it in the book and it instantly cost him everything he had. He was homeless by page 7. 

This is what God means by “Thou shalt have no strange gods.” We are surrounded by them. The god of Society, the god of Politics, the god of Don’t Judge Me, the god of Relativism, the god of Scientism, the god of Money, the god of Guns, the god of Nationalism, the god of Atheism, the god of Acceptability, the god of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll, the god of White Picket Fences and 2.4 kids.  We have so many gods that we can place before God.

Frank spends the most part of the book wandering from town to town as a Tramp, as it was called, although he also spends time in Prison for a crime committed by someone else, and he forgives everyone. And he does, as noted, free a woman from her pimp, returning her to her family,  only to get killed for it. Frank did all of this rather than go back on the promises he made to a Roman Catholic Priest one afternoon, having discovered that there was a Real, Absolute, and Irrefutable Truth. His name is Jesus and his Body is the Unam Sanctam, Catholicam, et Apostolicam Ecclesiam. 

And Frank would have no other gods from that point on.

Christ is a stumbling block to both Jews and Gentiles. The former because they ignored all the signs and the latter because how can a political criminal from a 3rd world country be the creator and ruler of all things? Admittedly, most of the modern world doesn’t care about the signs and they ask, essentially, the same question: how can a dead guy from 2000 years ago in a poverty-ridden corner of imperial repression mean anything to us today?

If you find the answer, you may be like Frank. Jesus will enter your heart with cords and drive out every one of those other gods as with a whip. There will be no corner where you can hide and continue your worship of Ba’al or Diana, of Trump or Bernie, of Abortion or Condoms, of Money or Drugs, of any other god. And – I speak from solid, repeated experience here – when you try to sneak them back in the glaring light of reality is so bright that you look at them and say, “What was I thinking?”

In the propers for the office of Vespers for pastors (read on the feast of certain bishops like Basil the Great or Francis de Sales) there is a line from  the intercessions that makes me gasp every time I hear it.

You yourself are the only visible possession of our holy pastors. The Latin, Qui pastórum sanctórum ipse posséssio exstitísti, seems to read more like “You are the only existing possession…” You, Christ, are the only possession of our pastors… why is that not true of all of us?

God’s Bearhugging Boy


The Readings for Saturday in the 2nd Week of Lent (B2)

Erant autem appropinquantes ei publicani, et peccatores ut audirent illum. Et murmurabant pharisaei, et scribae, dicentes : Quia hic peccatores recipit, et manducat cum illis. Et ait ad illos parabolam istam.
Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spoke to them this parable. 

There are actually three parables in response to this complaint about receiving sinners and eating with them.

The first is about the man with 100 sheep but one goes missing.

The second is about the woman with 10 coins, but one goes missing.
The third is this one, today’s reading, about the man with two sons – and one goes missing.

In all of these the story is about something that was lost, that was marked as terribly important, that was returned at risk. But the prodigal son is different: for the Father doesn’t go looking for the Prodigal, but rather waits patiently for him to come home. That is also a risk. But I think we need to look at all three episodes as a package: there’s a difference between a sheep, a coin, and a son. 

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

A sheep is a (somewhat domesticated) animal. They are a bit stupid – they can float away if the water gets too deep around them while they are eating. They tend to follow the being in front of them. They can get caught in briars like some sort of gigantic, four-legged, bleating, velcrosaurus. (One of these was caught earlier this week as a replacement for Isaac.) You do have to go looking for them. You never know what might have happened.

As for a coin, an inanimate object, we know this is here in the house somewhere. I’ve only just forgot where I put it. This will drive me crazy until I find it. I must have dropped it and… yes, here it is under the fridge. It could also be between the cushions on the sofa. I love sofa cushion searches after a party! In the Fraternity House at NYU this was practically a fund-raising function. 

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

Well, yeah. And Jesus replies, “If you lost a sheep, you’d go looking for it, right? If you lost a coin, wouldn’t you go looking for it as well? And you’d have a party either way (at least inside)… right? A wayward child is very different.”

Brothers and Sisters, we are neither sheep nor coins in three individual stories: we are the lost child in the final episode of one long tale. We are generally not stupid like sheep nor inanimate like coins. We are willful, wayward, well-loved, and welcomed home.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The Prodigal a long way off is not yet fully reconciled to the ways of his father. He hasn’t yet been through even his planned confession: certainly not recognized the fullness of the wrongs he’s committed. He’s a long way off – and the Father runs to meet him. Jesus welcomes us home. In fact, nearly the moment we turn to him, he’s at our side guiding and guarding. The saints would go further: before we turn to him he’s there as well. How can this be, given the doctrine of Free Will? Imagine you are on a river in a rowboat: you can easily row against the current and go anywhere you want. You can also ride the current. The analogy breaks if you press it too hard, but it works well enough. The Holy Spirit is always there (“everywhere present and filling all things” as the Byzantine rite has it). We’re unable to escape. But we’re always able to ignore.

In se autem reversus, returning to himself. The Greek says “having come to himself”. The things of this world that attract us (sex, drugs, rock and roll, or just a good job, a home, a white picket fence, a spouse, some kids, and a couple of dogs) are not us. Each us us, even the most faithful spouse and parent, the most efficient worker, and/or the hardest partier, are  all able to do these things but not to be them. This is not us: our actions are not who we are. Our actions help form us, yes, but they are not who we are. We wake up one day and say, how did I get here?  Then you have begun the real journey home.

Quis, Deus, similis tui, qui aufers iniquitatem, et transis peccatum reliquiarum haereditatis tuae? Non immittet ultra furorem suum, quoniam volens misericordiam est.
Who is a God like to thee, who takest away iniquity, and passest by the sin of the remnant of thy inheritance? he will send his fury in no more, because he delighteth in mercy. 

The publicans and sinners begin to “draw near” and Jesus runs out, grabs them with both hands in a huge carpenter’s arms bearhug and says, “Hey! I got some food here to share…”

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Jesus reply is essentially, “These are not sheep, these are not lost coins. These are people whom my Father made and with whom I am honored to eat. And over food, I may draw them ever closer the one loves them and calls them home…”

Go and do thou likewise.

No pain. No gain.


The Readings for Friday in the 2nd Week of Lent (B2)

Dixit ergo Judas fratribus suis : Quid nobis prodest si occiderimus fratrem nostrum, et celaverimus sanguinem ipsius? Melius est ut venundetur Ismaelitis, et manus nostrae non polluantur : frater enim et caro nostra est. Acquieverunt fratres sermonibus illius.

And Juda said to his brethren: What will it profit us to kill our brother, and conceal his blood? It is better that he be sold to the Ismaelites, and that our hands be not defiled: for he is our brother and our flesh. His brethren agreed to his words. 

Almost three thousand years after this text was written, “Ishmaelite” was another term for a follower of Mohammed, but at the time of this story, the Ishmaelites are just another clan of the same family. Remember that Ishmael was the other (older) son of Abraham. Isaac, his younger brother, was the father of Jacob and the grandfather of Joseph and his brothers. The Ishmaelites are merely the cousins from another part of the country. They seem to be doing well for themselves, as traders. Nu? We should give them something to trade.

To recap, Israel begins with Abraham running away from his city to a foreign land. His son is nearly slain in child sacrifice. His grandsons fight over their birthright, and his great grandsons engage in child trafficking. We’re off to a good start. 

Joseph is seen by the Church as a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ. His story is read in both the Eastern and Western rites of the Church in the “middle weeks” of Lent; in the west this is so in both lectionaries, for the “New Mass” and the traditional rite. Joseph, as foreshadow, is important because he is sold into slavery and, as we shall see, overcomes temptation and sin, yet is a wise prophet and, in the end, liberator of his people. And he gets one of the most famous lines in all of prophecy.

But for me, today, it’s important to note that we’re selling the boy to our cousins.  All parts of Abraham’s family were connected and, so, without playing on the family politics, it seems to me that more than just the brothers must be seen as acting here. With brothers like this, who needs bullies?

God uses crap like this. 

When we turn this over to God, he uses it. If you know the rest of the Joseph Story (closer to Easter) you know that Joseph eventually says, forgiving his brothers, you thought you were doing me an evil deed but God used it for good. That’s the best line ever.

Did Joseph feel that way early this morning, wandering out to the brothers in the fields and getting kidnapped? I really doubt it. In fact, I doubt he felt that way ever. But he must have been praying and trying to grow in righteousness until he realized that was what was up.

That’s what we’re called to do when stuff is breaking around us. We are called to pray and do righteous things. Wisdom will grow with patience until in the end the meaning is clear.

The same stone which the builders refused 
 is become the head-stone in the corner.
  This is the Lord’s doing 
 and it is marvellous in our eyes.

What is true of Jesus is true of all of us: the weakest link is God’s point of access. Whilst bad, yes, the stuff that’s happening around us is for our salvation – and the salvation of others as well. And it seems the place we are weakest is the place we can be made the strongest by God’s grace. All the pain makes a strong cornerstone: all the weight is supported there.

In the end we will see: it’s all been marvellous.

PS: Around the internet, looking for a nice pic of that “marvellous in our eyes” text, I’m so surprised at the number of folks who credit to Queen Elizabeth I without noting that she was quoting the Psalms. Around SF there are posters just now citing a Gospel text as if it were spoken by Abe Lincoln. I find that amusing as well.

My Own Private Lazarus


The Readings for Thursday in the 2nd Week of Lent (B2)

St David of Wales

Homo quidam erat dives…
There was a certain rich man…

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco. 
The problem is we have a huge, wealthy population that’s scared of homeless people.
They are scared that property values might fall.
They are scared that job candidates might get turned off.
They are scared that poor people might cause crimes.
They are scared that someone might say something uncomfortable-making to them on the street.
They are scared that some people smell.
They are scared that some people are not on meds.
They are scared that living in tents make us look bad as a city.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we don’t remember them.
We don’t remember that the second set of shoes we have belongs to the poor – not to the consignment store.
We don’t remember that the extra clothes we have belong to the naked – not to Goodwill.
We don’t remember that the extra food in our fridge belongs to the hungry – not to the dog or compost.
We don’t remember that the extra anything we have belongs to the poor – or else we are stealing it.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we tend to trust gov’t blindly without calling it to account for failure.
If we manage to elect persons of all colors, genders, and sexual orientations we feel good about ourselves – even though they are as unjust to the poor as anyone else. 
If we manage to elect only one party (we really only have one party in SF) we feel good about ourselves – even if they are just as beholden to big corporations, property developers, and the wealthy as the party we don’t have. 
If we manage to elect people who actually try to do something we pass ballot measures that undo their good works.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is we ask too many questions.
How did he get that way?
Did he do drugs?
Is she abusing the system?
If I give her money will she just buy drugs?
Is that even any of my business?

If I give money to that organization how much of it goes for wages?
Won’t the gov’t support them so  that if I give them money, it’s  just double.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we nullify any moral teaching that might make us feel obligated.
We are obligated to charity in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindusm, and several others. We prefer instead an odd combo of Prosperity Gospel and Newage, Neognostic Victim Blaming that allows us to imagine no deity will hold us responsible as long as we feel good about things.
This coupled with an entitled NIMBYism means that no one is obligated to care if they don’t feel like it and those that do care can be called to the carpet for making the rest of us feel guilty.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
It has nothing to do with homeless folks.
It has nothing to do with the govt.
It has everything to do with the rest of us.

And in the end, we will find ourselves beyond Abraham’s bosom on the wrong side of the great abyss. The Fathers are not kind here:

AMBROSE; From this we learn then, that we are not ourselves the masters, but rather the stewards of the property of others.
THEOPHYLACT. Next, that when we exercise not the management of our wealth according to our Lord’s pleasure, but abuse our trust to our own pleasures, we are guilty stewards. 
CYRIL. This discourse concerning the rich man and Lazarus was written after the manner of a comparison in a parable, to declare that they who abound in earthly riches, unless they will relieve the necessities of the poor, shall meet with a heavy condemnation.
AMBROSE. But the insolence and pride of the wealthy is manifested afterwards by the clearest tokens, for it follows, and no one gave to him. For so unmindful are they of the condition of mankind, that as if placed above nature they derive from the wretchedness of the poor an incitement to their own pleasure, they laugh at the destitute, they mock the needy, and rob those whom they ought to pity. 
AUGUSTINE. For the covetousness of the rich is insatiable, it neither fears God nor regards man, spares not a father, keeps not its fealty to a friend, oppresses the widow, attacks the property of a ward.
Pope GREGORY. Moreover the poor man saw the rich as he went forth surrounded by flatterers, while he himself lay in sickness and want, visited by no one. For that no one came to visit him, the dogs witness, who fearlessly licked his sores, for it follows, moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. By one thing Almighty God displayed two judgments. He permitted Lazarus to lie before the rich man’s gate, both that the wicked rich man might increase the vengeance of his condemnation, and the poor man by his trials enhance his reward; the one saw daily him on whom he should show mercy, the other that for which he might be approved.
 CHRYSOSTOM. He died then indeed in body, but his soul was dead before. For he did none of the works of the soul. All that warmth which issues from the love of our neighbor had fled, and he was more dead than his body. But not because he was rich was he tormented, but because he was not merciful.
Pope GREGORY. We may gather from this, with what torments he will be punished who robs another, if he is smitten with the condemnation to hell, who does not distribute what is his own. 

In San Francisco, each one of us has the nearly unique opportunity to be Dives to our own private Lazarus. I think, though, most of us would rather banquet in linen and purple robes. We’re doomed.