Monday, February 16, 2009

Gospel Reflection: Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

This Sunday’s reading touches on the central themes of what it means to be human. The overall theme of the readings is ‘friendship.’ The first reading highlights God’s own desire to be our friend. This relationship is impeded by our sinfulness. The prophet Isaiah promises us that God has taken the initiative and “wiped out” our offenses and remembered our sins no more. Friendship also requires our response as St. James reminds us, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’; and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23). The responsorial is a penitential psalm which acknowledges our sinfulness and cries out for restoration to friendship with God. “Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.” In the second reading we are told that the integrity of our relationships should be founded on the truthfulness of Jesus Christ who shares his own character with us through the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments.

The Gospel reading shows these truths in action. Jesus was preaching at his home in Capernaum and a huge crowd had gathered so that there was “no longer room for them, not even around the door.” Four friends of a paralytic wish to bring him to Jesus but are held back by the crowds. The friends are determined and climb up to the roof. They “opened up the roof” above Jesus and “let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying” (Mark 2:4). Jesus’ response seems to focus on the heart rather than man’s infirmity. St. Mark tells us, “Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5). Notice that this man’s friends care enough about him to literally carry him to Jesus in order to have his sins forgiven. This also results in a dramatic physical healing.

How many of us would be afraid to bring up the subject of confession with a friend who we know is in need of this Sacrament. Would we be afraid to interfere? We may wrongly feel that a person’s faith life should be private and is none of our business. The book of Proverbs notes, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). As we read in the second reading our words of friendship should not be vacillating “not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’” in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:19). A friend who lacks integrity is not a friend at all. Of course we must always act with love. Lying to a friend is clearly not a loving act, nor would it be loving to leave him alone in a paralyzed state unable to come to Jesus in his time of need. Again the writer of Proverbs notes; “There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Notice how St. Mark reports that upon seeing the four friends, “Jesus saw their faith.” Does our faith bring our friends closer to Jesus?

Friendship is a natural part of being human. In relation to our faith, friendships can be either negative or positive. Christian tradition has displayed some ambivalence regarding human friendships. Many of the most profound teachers in the ascetical tradition warn about the inherent dangers of certain kinds of friendships. St. Theresa of Avila (The Way of Perfection 4), St John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul, I.4); St Francis de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 20-21) all warn about the spiritual dangers of friendships in which the supernatural element does not dominate. Our friendship can be a distraction, or false consolation which leads us away from God. In other cases the closeness of friendship can lead to infidelity and inappropriate physical intimacy.

While these warnings are real they do not represent the whole picture. In St Augustine’s Confessions the theme of friendship is present throughout the work. Much of the beginning of Confessions concerns the failure of his earlier friendships. Although he observes that friendship can be an occasion of sin when pursued for the wrong ends, he does not focus purely on the negative. St Augustine notes, ‘Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls’ (2.5.10). St Augustine is able to delight in the natural aspects of friendship we all enjoy (Confessions, 4.8.3). St. Augustine’s notion of friendship is purified through his conversion (Confessions, 8). Friendship with Christ leads to the proper ordering of all human relationships. Matthew Levering has pointed out that for St Augustine, “the ascent of the soul to friendship with the divine Trinity occurs through the friendship in and with Jesus Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit. This friendship takes effective shape in the community of believers, the church as the mystical Body of Christ united by her sacramental participation through the Holy Spirit in Christ’s saving work” (IJST,9.1,2007, p. 10).

As Jesus reminded his disciples;
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father (John 15:13-15).

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