The Common Good
July-August 2001

Common Like Bread

by Michaela Bruzzese | July-August 2001

We are prone to listen to, but not hear, Jesus' challenging words.

"To drink of thee is to live, to eat of thee is to be born," sang 17th-century composer Isabella Leonarda of God's living presence in bread and wine. Though the most simple and common of substances, the bread of Christ is our salvation and through it we are reborn daily into the mystery of discipleship; we become "a new creation," as Paul testifies (Galatians 6:15). Likewise, in the ordinariness of this time lie extraordinary possibilities. In this day-to-day-ness we live out the dramatic truths of our faith: the stubborn hope of the resurrection, the omnipotence of our God, saying yes over and over again to discipleship.

In these next nine weeks, we will accompany Jesus as he begins his final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem; through Luke's eyes we will watch the disciples learn in word and action the meaning of their mission. The great prophets will reveal a God who makes us accountable to the covenant, but who also lovingly parents us "like one who raises an infant to his cheeks" (Hosea 11:4). We will watch the continued transformation of the early Christian communities as they live more fully into their discipleship and mission to become a living church.

Through these witnesses we will learn more of our own commitment to live and preach the Word. We will learn that we bear witness to our faith—not only in great trials, but also in the daily bread of justice and the wine of compassion. We will practice being present to the gospel unfolding around us, as Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda testified:

I stood by truth:
to bring light to the land
I tried to be common like bread
so when the struggle came
she wouldn't find me missing.

Let us go forth to be common like bread, to live our faith with committed passion and stubborn hope each day and hour. May we be Christ's body, fully present in the struggle to feed a world hungry for love, compassion, and justice.

Michaela Bruzzese, formerly program associate with Call to Renewal, is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

July 1

Fruits of the Spirit

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Luke distinguishes Jesus from past Jewish prophets and commissions the disciples to minister on their own. As Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem, Luke highlights the disciples' progress; by this time, they have already been sent out alone once (Luke 9:1-11) and contemplated who among them is most powerful (Luke 9:46-48). In today's account, Jesus fully rejects another of James and John's ill-founded suggestions, this time an offer to use their spiritual gifts to punish those who reject them. Jesus' response is unequivocal. It is a vivid lesson for the disciples and for the wider community, for the situation closely resembles one faced by the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings. Jesus' refusal to destroy his enemies, as Elijah did, definitively separates him from the prophet—he is no Elijah resurrected, as some suggested at the time.

To compound the distinction, Jesus, unlike Elijah, does not permit his followers to say goodbye or even to bury their dead, for "no one who looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God." To follow Jesus is to do so wholeheartedly—there is no middle ground. How can we possibly proclaim the good news if we ourselves have not left everything to live it?

Finally, in Galatians, Paul reminds the community that they "were called for freedom," which is most fully expressed by the ability "to serve one another through love." He insists that this law is supreme, for it alone bears the life-giving fruits of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

James and John's suggestion to punish those who rejected them was a clear indication that they still lived by the flesh. We, too, can easily see where our loyalties lie by the fruits of our actions, especially those directed toward our enemies.

July 8

Freedom to Trust

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16

Our readings testify to the contagiousness of a lived faith, which not only witnesses to our dependence on God but also enables us to trust more fully in one another. In 2 Kings, an unnamed servant girl exemplifies radical faith, a faith so strong that she compels Naaman to seek healing from the great prophet Elisha. The servant girl's faith in God, and Naaman's ability to trust, is echoed in the joyful song of the psalmist: "O Lord, my God, I cried out and you healed me. You changed my mourning into dancing, you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness!" (Psalm 30:2, 11).

Luke also highlights these effects, especially in his writings on discipleship. In this account, unique to Luke's gospel, it is not just the 12 who are sent out, but 72, a number thought to parallel the Christian missions in Luke's time. As in the last sending (Luke 9:1-6), total dependence on God is as much the mission as proclaiming the gospel: "Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one on the way." The disciples are again sent in pairs, never alone, emphasizing that Christian discipleship is always and fundamentally realized within community.

Maintaining authentic community, however, is not easy. In his letter to the Galatians, a community of pagan converts, Paul addresses disputes over the observation of some Jewish laws. He insists that only the love we show one another, not our physical markings, testifies to the God we serve: "But I may never boast except in the cross...through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation" (Galatians 6:14-16). In Jesus we are all a new creation because of our willingness to depend on God alone and to trust and serve one another as community. With this new life we are free to live with a faith so radical that, like the unnamed servant girl, others are compelled to believe and to act.

July 15

Who is My Enemy?

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

This week's readings beautifully illustrate two of the most essential and challenging teachings of Christian discipleship: doing justice and loving our neighbors—even the unjust—as ourselves.

God calls each of us to struggle for justice, no matter what our profession, education, or experience, a lesson well told by the great prophets of Israel. Amos testifies that "The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" He does his job so well that he is eventually expelled from the kingdom for preaching repentance to a people whose idolatrous greed and exploitation of the poor provokes God's fury. The psalmist also calls Israel, especially the powerful, to account, crying out, "How long will you judge unjustly, and favor the cause of the wicked? Defend the lowly and the fatherless, render justice to the afflicted and the destitute" (Psalm 82:2). Though these commands comprise the most basic foundations of the covenant, they had lost their salt and life in the lives of the people.

Likewise, the parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus' attempt to give new life and meaning to "the greatest commandment," one that had also become domesticated with time. Jesus' extension of the obligation to love even one's enemies gives it new, radical perspective. Unfortunately for contemporary Christianity, however, this parable has suffered the same fate as teachings before it; we also are prone to listening to, but not hearing, Jesus' challenging words. For example, when the neighbor of whom Jesus speaks also includes the difficult supervisor at work or a family member who has hurt or rejected us, Jesus' parable may not even cross our minds. Like those who crossed the road, we also maintain distinct practices that prevent us from ministering to our enemies.

Our Christian faith, however, calls us to the difficult task of working for justice in every area of our lives, and doing so with the love of the Samaritan. We are commissioned to truly hear Jesus' teachings and, in Paul's words, "to live in a manner worthy of the Lord."

July 22

The Hope of the Gospel

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

This week's readings continue and expand the theme of justice, with a specific focus on wealth; as disciples, our source of hope and life must be God alone. Through Amos, a shepherd turned prophet, God calls those "who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land" to account for their greed. The consequences of such idolatry will not be fire and brimstone, but "a famine upon the land, not...of bread or thirst for water but for hearing the word of the Lord." For a people formed and nourished on God's Word, this was a bleak prospect indeed. And for Christians, for whom the Word is now flesh, the threat of famine is utterly unthinkable.

The psalmist is no less direct, ensuring that for the one "who made not God the source of his strength, but put his trust in his great wealth...God himself shall demolish you" (Psalm 52:7). These are not light words or idle threats; the psalmist promises that the idolatry of wealth has inherent consequences.

We are never, however, unequivocally condemned. Our tradition testifies that there is always hope. For Christians, Jesus' death and resurrection are the ultimate redemption, as Paul so beautifully describes: "And you who were once alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds he has now reconciled through his fleshly body through his death, to present you holy...provided that you persevere in the faith...not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard" (Colossians 1:21-23). The hope of the gospel alone sustains us and compels us to greater fidelity and action.

July 29

Ordinary Bread

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Inasmuch as last week's readings illustrated God's anger in the face of injustice, this week's speak of God's propensity to forgive, to extend mercy to the last possible moment. First, however, Hosea portrays a God who condemns Israel's idolatry. Using metaphors of harlotry, God lashes out in anger, symbolically rejecting Israel and her children, naming them "she is not pitied" (Lo-ruhamma) and "not my people" (Lo-ammi) (Hosea 1:8-9).

The psalmist, however, praises God's mercy, for "You have forgiven the guilt of your people; you have covered all their sins...you have revoked your burning anger" (Psalm 85:2-3). In the alternate reading (Genesis 21:32), too, is a beautiful and powerful picture of a God who loves and respects this people enough to argue with them and, ultimately, to listen to them. Here, Abraham successfully bargains for the people of Sodom; God finally agrees that for "the sake of those 10" righteous people, "I will not destroy it."

In Luke, the God to whom Jesus prays is described like a parent, imagery that was not new in Judaism, as we will see next week. Luke portrays the disciples asking Jesus for instruction, highlighting the teacher-disciple relationship that dominates his writings. The prayer that Jesus teaches is beautiful in its simplicity, emphasizing dependence on God, the parent-like relationship with God, and the need to extend mercy to others as we would like it extended to us. Since this is before Jesus' death and the celebration of the Eucharist, the disciples could not have understood the profound meaning of bread in the prayer. For contemporary Christians, however, Jesus' prayer reveals the humble, day-to-day presence of God. The Christ is at once redeemer of the world and the most common and humble substance in our lives.

As Neruda writes so beautifully, the commitment to justice is embodied in day-to-day struggles. It is hour by hour that we construct the kingdom, in small and large acts of mercy and solidarity. With this daily bread, we too become food for the world; with this body, we too can become a source of life to others.

August 5

Possessed by Love Alone

Hosea 11:1-11; Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1; Luke 12:13-21

The tension between Christianity's law of love and the world's law of materialism dominates the readings this week. In Hosea, loving-parent imagery once again characterizes God's feelings toward humanity. In this beautiful passage, God confesses, "How could I give you up, O Ephraim?...My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred." God seems almost overwhelmed with love for humanity. Despite humanity's betrayal, God chooses not to destroy, "For I am God, not human, the Holy One present among you; I will not let the flames consume you."

To love our God and to love one another as God has loved us is the greatest commandment and our only goal as Christians. In today's alternate reading (Psalm 49:6, 20), however, the psalmist has sharp words for those who do not trust in God but "trust in their wealth; the abundance of their riches is their boast." Because of their greed, they "resemble the beasts that perish." The wisdom of Ecclesiastes concurs, testifying that "I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and chases after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Finally, in Luke's gospel, Jesus too warns against the temptation to place our dependence upon material things, for "one's life does not consist of possessions."

Our scriptures assure us that the real treasure, the only one able to satisfy our profound hunger to love and be loved, is the unconditional and all-consuming love of God. It alone can quench our thirst; like a parent, God wraps us "with bands of love" and clothes us with new life. And unlike material wealth, this treasure does not trap us, but liberates us, giving us the strength and courage to be liberators in the world.

August 12

Extraordinary Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Ordinary time provides an in-depth look at the extraordinariness of faith. Beginning with Abraham, ours is a relationship with God that was born of faith. To God's invitation to believe, Abraham simply said yes, though ignorant as to why God chose him and without proof that God would fulfill the promise of descendents. Our alternate reading in Genesis (15:1-6) tells us that for this reason alone, God credited him "with an act of righteousness." At this moment a people was born; it is a moment held sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The definition of faith given in Hebrews 11 ("...the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen") is precisely the faith of Abraham.

The contrast of Abraham's faith with Isaiah's testimony is stark. God utterly rejects Israel's sacrifices as superficial attempts to fulfill the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. "Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil.... Make justice your aim.... Hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17), God demands. Justice and goodness alone suffice; to offer praise when "your hands are full of blood" is the exact opposite of faith. Verbal praise is an insult when it is contradicted by our actions; rather, our actions must magnify our living faith.

To fully embody faith, however, has never been easy, and such commitment often carries serious consequences. Edith Stein, who died at Auschwitz 59 years ago (August 9, 1942), sought to live as a disciple at every possible moment: "O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage, and strength to serve you. Enkindle your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me." Born an Orthodox Jew and later converting to Catholicism, she saw her death as both a tremendous act of faith in the resurrection and as solidarity with the Jewish people.

August 19

"Hark! The Outcry!"

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

These scriptures challenge us to rethink our images of God. As Christians, we are prone to understanding God as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as more cruel and less merciful, while the New Testament's God is portrayed as more merciful and loving. Yet there is much evidence that contradicts these stereotypes. The Old Testament's countless descriptions of God's parent-like affection for God's people, and this week's passionate portrayal of Jesus as the cause of division in Christian scriptures, are just two examples that challenge our traditional images and encourage us to form a more comprehensive understanding of God.

In Isaiah, God searches in vain for justice among the people: "He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!" (Isaiah 5:7). God does not abandon Israel but calls the people to repentance. Israel responds, as the psalmist sings, "...how long will you burn with anger, while your people pray?... O Lord of Hosts, restore us. If your face shines upon us, then we shall be safe" (Psalm 80:4, 3).

In Luke, Jesus predicts the effect his word and actions will have upon the community: "Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" (Luke 12:51). We do not often dwell on this passionate and seemingly divisive side of Jesus; it is usually overlooked or downplayed since it doesn't match the docile image often attributed to him. But Jesus is perfectly clear in these readings and others: The gospel is divisive, and many people have much to lose from its realization. Insisting upon kingdom ideals such as justice for the outcast was no more popular then than it is now. For this reason, the anger and passion evidenced by Jesus is vital to our own ability to identify, renounce, and work for justice in all that we do.

August 26

Crowned of Compassion

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

These weeks of ordinary time end with beautiful testimony of God's goodness and compassion, in both word and action. In the psalms, the author praises God, singing "Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless his holy name...he redeems your life from destruction, he crowns you with kindness and compassion" (Psalm 103:1).

That compassion is realized in today's gospel, where Luke illustrates yet another example of Jesus' interaction with women. The account is unique to Luke, though it parallels another healing on the Sabbath in 14:6, also described in Matthew and Mark. Though usually asked for healing by those who suffer, here Jesus initiates the interaction. Moved with compassion, he grants the crippled woman liberation by proclaiming to all in the synagogue, "Woman, you are set free of your infirmity" (Luke 13:12).

She is set free from as many social and religious restrictions as Jesus breaks. The infirmity from which this "daughter of Abraham" suffered left her back bent, symbolically representing the burdens heaped upon her by society and the faith community. Jesus' proclamation liberates her from oppression and restores her dignity. In doing so, however, Jesus has not only violated Mosaic law, but also breached religious and social protocol by addressing a woman and doing so in the synagogue. But Jesus is "the mediator of a new covenant" (Hebrews 12:24) and, ultimately, the justness of his actions leaves his critics humiliated but "the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him" (Luke 13:17).

It's no coincidence that the parable of the mustard seed follows this healing. The religious leaders' criticism of Jesus lays bare their lack of compassion and limited understanding of God. Jesus' act of mercy speaks of the grandness of God, unbound by human laws, requirements, or restrictions. As always, God reserves the right to work above and beyond our limited perceptions.

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