Bring glad tidings to the poor

Gospel of Luke 1:1-4; 14-21

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.- Lk 4:18-19

Those who would say that the Jesus Christ was not primarily concerned with the poor, the captive, the down-trodden, the marginalized, and the oppressed are ignorant to his very words. In today’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus begins with a proclamation of purpose. A proclamation that Jesus came for the salvation of humankind, all of humankind, and most especially for those who exist in desperate need.

In our modern-day 1st world culture we have allowed ourselves to become insulated from the desperation of the human condition. The images of human suffering filtered through the lens of political opinion and compartmentalized by the refined delicacies of wealth have given permission to the treatment of the human-being as a commodity. A commodity to be exploited for personal and corporate wealth, or power, or pleasure.

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. The belief that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person is essential to our faith and to our salvation. To diminish, and in some cases even, remove the significance, value, and beauty of the human being is a reprehensible sin against God.

Yet, we do.

In our society abortion, euthanasia, and contraception have pressured us to deny the intrinsic God ordained dignity of life. In response to these evils we often (and rightly so) gather together to protest, to pray, and to stand in line to cast our ballot against these atrocities. However, as we gather in protest or in prayer, or as we make our way to the ballot box, we must not ignore the needs present in our very church, neighborhoods, places of work, or in our communities. The poor, the captive, the down-trodden, the marginalized, and the oppressed surround us and are even present here among us. We, in our imitation of Christ, should never ignore the priority of those for whom he came. In our fervor for a movement, we must not lose our compassion for the individual.

We should never cease in our efforts to move our governmental and social institutions in alignment towards God’s universal call of justice and peace. And, we must not pass over those for whom Jesus Christ came to set free, to give sight, and to release from burden. Those who lie in the shadowy gutters of poverty, captivity, isolation, desperation, and loneliness are our preference. They are our first priority.

Those who by circumstance or consequence lack the ability to change their environment or their station are for us the very ones to whom our first efforts should be given. Those who desperately need the hands of Jesus to lift them from their deprivation should find our hands outstretched in compassion and care. St Vincent de Paul states, “It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor… They are your masters.”

The poor are still among us and not just those who lack material and physical need. There are those among us whose poverty is a poverty of friendship. A poverty of legitimate and meaningful relationships. They exist in our world. We pass by them every day. On our travels to and from home, at our places of work, and in our shops, markets, and most definitely, in our Church.

Have we forgotten the very words of Christ? Have we forgotten his call to pick up our cross and follow him? Have we dismissed his mission? His mission to bring glad tidings to the poor!

My brothers and sisters today’s Gospel is a call to action. A reminder that our Savior, our Lord, came to this earth not that we may be men and women of comfort. Not that we should turn our eyes and deafen our ears to the cries and pleas of the hurting, the hungry, and the lonely.

No, my brothers and sisters, our Savior and Lord has called us;
to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing”, and not just in your hearing, but also by your doing.

If there were a star pupil… it would have been Bartimaeus

For the past several weeks, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples have been on a journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus has taken opportunity of their time spent together, and of the people they encountered, to provide very specific instructions regarding discipleship. He started with, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” He followed that with, “whoever is not against us is for us” and thereby clearly communicating that discipleship is not an exclusive club, instead calling all to discipleship. In addition, he gave very specific instruction about the importance of accepting all peoples, especially the marginalized and poor, and stated, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.” In this same theme, He explicitly reminds His disciples that, “Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” And, finally, in last week’s Gospel, He lays out His plan for leadership, stating, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

When you consider that Jesus is providing these instructions while on the journey towards His suffering and death, we, his modern-day disciples, cannot ignore the significance and the importance of the message that Jesus was attempting to communicate to his followers. Knowing that persecution, suffering, and crucifixion were awaiting his arrival in Jerusalem, is it any wonder that Jesus took such a direct approach in his instruction and teachings?

It is for this reason, born of both urgency and need, that St. Mark introduces the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, sitting by the road leading from the city of Jericho to Jerusalem, crying out the name of his Messiah, Jesus Son of David. Bartimaeus, the embodiment of Jesus’s teachings on discipleship.

If there were a star pupil, the one student in class who always got the gold star, it would have been Bartimaeus. His faith was focused, complete, and entirely dependent upon his belief in Jesus Christ as his only hope. His faith did not waiver when others chastised, marginalized, and attempted to prevent him from coming to Jesus. Bartimaeus did not allow his limitations and weaknesses to dissuade him from seeking Jesus; rather, he saw in Jesus the cure, and believed that Jesus would make him whole. Bartimaeus placed his entirety, all that he had, and all of who he was, in Jesus.

Would we not say that Bartimaeus was the embodiment of discipleship? Would we not say that Bartimaeus had chosen to “deny himself and pick up is cross and follow (Jesus)”? Would we not say that Bartimaeus represented the very marginalized, the outcast of his society, among whom Jesus came to save? Would we not say that Bartimaeus received Jesus with the very faith of a child and when given opportunity he chose to follow and serve, rather than turn away and seek honor and recognition? Of course, we would! And, so doing, we must also then set him as our example.

I will admit, however, that following Bartimaeus’s example is not easy. There are moments along the way when I become discouraged, disorientated, and defeated. During these times my focus waivers and I give my attention to the negativity and division prevalent in our society and world. I find it difficult to avoid the disillusionment that comes from living in a world that is consumed with appearing right, rather than doing right, and I look for a place alongside the path to sit, to take a break, and forget.

Am I the only one here today who experiences such moments?

Am I the only one who feels as if there are moments when our society has come to accept violence, abuse, and manipulation as the norm and has somehow turned the corrupt into the venerable and the innocent into the oddity? When shootings at school, churches, synagogues, and other public spaces have ceased being a tragedy, and instead have become opportunities to push political agendas and bolster campaigns? It is now considered a fool’s errand to place our faith in our institutions, both secular and sacred, trusting that they will honor their self-prescribed rules and missions of service. I cannot be the only the one present here this day, who too feels moments of doubt, and fear, and dread.

Yet, though I do not deny the darkness of our current day, I am reminded that these days are not unique nor without precedent. A brief recall of human history, recent human history even, reminds the casual observer that there have been dark days before. Such as the days leading up to Our Lady visiting the 3 children of Fatima, Portugal. Or, the days during when Sister Faustina Kowalska was inspired by Jesus and from which the movement of the Devotion of the Divine Mercy found its beginnings.

Bartimaeus, the three children of Fatima, and Sister Faustina are all embodiments of discipleship. All of these individuals, in their own unique way and with their own unique limitations, answered Jesus Christ’s call to discipleship. Through their willingness and obedience, they all changed and affected their world, and our world, with goodness and hope.

Our challenge this day is to follow in their footsteps. To keep our faith in focus, to respond with joy and exaltation to his call, and to follow Jesus in his service. This is our challenge, and this is where we find our hope…not only for us, but for the whole world.

I truly believed, and most definitely behaved, as if I was somebody.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gospel of St. Mark 10:35-45

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I want you all here to know that I, Deacon Jason Batalden, was one of the 4 senior captains of my high school football team. Yes, indeed, approximately 30 years ago, in a small Wyoming town, in a small high school of less then 400 total students, I was one of the 4 seniors chosen that year to be the captain of a not very good high school football team. In fact, if you need proof I have a copy of my senior high school year book just in case there are any doubters among you.

I confess to you, at that moment and at that time in my life I truly believed I had accomplished something. In my tiny little insignificant corner of this planet, in the fall of 1987, I was convinced that I was someone of great importance. If you were to ask my high school friends, my parents, and yes, even my wife, because she was there and she witnessed it all, they all would confirm that I truly believed, and most definitely behaved, as if I was somebody.

I share with you this somewhat embarrassing personal revelation NOT to highlight some self-aggrandized moment in my personal history, rather I share this moment with you because I want you to know that I absolutely identify with James and John.

James and John were among the first who were chosen. They left behind their father and their family owned fishing business and, along with Peter, became the inner most circle of Jesus’s disciples. It might even be said that they were the “Captains” of the team.

James and John believed themselves to be important and who among us would blame them. They had been with Jesus from the beginning. They had witnessed the miracles of Jesus, they themselves had performed miracles, and as Jesus’s fame spread throughout the region so did theirs. They had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and to them, that meant that they were very physically close to divine power and authority. Is it any wonder that they took opportunity, out maneuvered their fellow disciples, made known their intentions, and vocalized their commitment to follow Jesus? Can we honestly say that we ourselves would not have acted similarly given the same circumstances and limited understanding and insight into God’s divine and miraculous plan?

Yet, for us sitting here today, it is hard not to judge them. It is easy for us to criticize them for their lack of understanding and find fault with their misguided ambitions. And if that is the case, if we do in fact judge them, then we must also be willing to apply those same standards and judgements to ourselves. For even to this day, we as modern-day Christians, still struggle with our own lack of understanding and misguided ambitions.

Notice, that Jesus does not outright deny their request. Rather, he reminds them that seats of honor are, in fact, privileged to God to dispense as he alone deems fit. However, Jesus did promise that they would all share in his destiny–to share in his destiny of suffering and the endurance of trial and tribulations for the sake of the Gospel. A prophetic promise that I am sure they, at that time, did not yet fully understand.

In an effort to find meaning in today’s Gospel, we must attempt to place ourselves in the same time and space of the disciples. We must try and place ourselves in their “shoes” and try to find ourselves in their weaknesses and fallibilities. For, if we do that, then we too can also hear Jesus’s instruction as he states in v.45, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

There are two important words in this verse which I believe will bring us insight and hope to God’s plan for our lives. The first is the word “servant”. The Greek word translated “servant”, and also “slave” in the previous verse, is “diakonos”. Diakonos is also where the English word “deacon” finds its origin.

The image of the word “diakonos” would have been very clear and easily discernable for the 1st Century Palestinian Jew. Slavery was common and prevalent in their society and culture. Slaves were easily identifiable and their position, or lack thereof, in society was well established. Jesus’s instruction to his disciples that in order to be the “greatest” they must become a servant, was absolutely revolutionary. In addition, his caveat “for many” was also unusual in that a 1st Century slave belonged only to 1 master, not too many.

Jesus’s clearly laid out plan for success in the New Kingdom was obviously not one the disciples would have anticipated. Instead of being lords and rulers he was calling those who followed him to be servants, and not just a servant to one, but a servant to all.

James and John were merely voicing what was already a commonly held belief by all the disciples. They were not unique in their ambition, otherwise the other disciples would not have become so indignant. Notice that Jesus did not chastise their ambition, rather he challenged their motivation and goals. Jesus is very clear in this passage of Scripture. He expects that those who follow him will be ambitious and will strive for success, however, he asks that those who follow him to allow their ambition to be sanctified and self-sacrificial.

The second point I want you to take from this text is the word “ransom”. The Greek word “lytron”, which translated “ransom” refers specifically to the “redemption price” paid for the release of captives. Though his word occurs only two times in the New Testament it is related to an Old Testament concept. In the Old Testament, kinship relations gave rise to the obligation of protection of family relationship. Therefore, family members took responsibility for paying the ransom price for other family members who were taken captive or sold into slavery.

Jesus was not just admonishing his disciples to be servants of all, but he was also directing them as to how they should serve. To serve someone was not enough. Rather, Jesus was instructing his disciples to be servants FOR someone, for their salvation.

As modern-day Christians there may be a temptation to look at today’s Gospel and dismiss its instruction and meaning. It might be possible to pass off Jesus’s call to sanctify our ambitions and commit ourselves to be servants for each other as a call only intended for the 12 Apostles and the early church saints. However, to do that would be both a denial of Jesus’s call to “pick up our cross and follow him” and a missed opportunity to achieve and become all that God has intended for us in this life.

We come to this altar today asking God to give us his strength and endurance as we accept his call to serve one another in the example of his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing that in our modern-day world the methods and modalities of service may not be what they were in 1st Century Palestine, yet our mission has not changed. To follow Jesus Christ is to imitate him and to imitate him is to be a servant. A servant to one another and to the whole world, not matter their religion, their color, their nationality, or lack of status.

I ask you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to commit yourself, as I commit myself, to live each day in as servants for his service.