There was a movie a few years back starring Clint Eastwood and some Hmong immigrants that has parallels with our readings from Scripture this week. In the movie Gran Torino, Clint is a retired autoworker featuring all the standard stereotypes: he’s surly and disgusted with the kids of today, he is resentful of the decline of his neighborhood and the wave of Asian immigrants who have moved in, and he’s sicker than he wants to be but unwilling to accept the help offered by his family.

The world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, and there is not much that the Clint Eastwood character can do about it. That was pretty much the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord God said “I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.” (Gen 18:21) It is stories like this that sometimes lead us to think of “the God of the Old Testament” as a grouchy old man, much like the Clint Eastwood character in the movie.

As the Scriptures reveal, this is an inaccurate understanding of God. Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie reveals himself to be open to new relationships built on presence, integrity, and fidelity. He can see beneath the surface to the heart. On the one hand, he sees that his family is only interested in what he can do for them materially. On the other hand, he sees that among the Hmong immigrants there are some whose hearts are true and some who are rightly condemned for their actions. God, in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, wants to be with those who want a faithful friendship with him. Abraham asks God why He would “sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” He argues that even a few good people in a bad place is justification for mercy, and God agrees with him. The story from Genesis presents us with a familiar scene of one person wheedling and cajoling another to do what he thinks is right. Here we see that any sense we might have of Yahweh as remote is simply wrong. He is approachable, and he invites us to relationship without insisting on particular forms of speech or communication. We can wheedle with God, but only if we will stay with him and be his friend.

In the movie, Clint Eastwood’s character takes one young Hmong man under his wing and teaches him how to live rightly in the face of persecution, for the young man is under constant pressure from a local Hmong gang to abandon the path of right and join them on the path of wickedness. He does not want to follow that path, and Clint helps him find his own way. Like God active in our own lives, and like Jesus teaching his disciples during his earthly ministry, the moments of clear instruction in the movie are few but the stretches of apprenticeship are long. Just as Yahweh will spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a few good men and be open to a change of heart by the rest of the city, Jesus gives himself for the sake of the few and offers to all a chance to turn around and follow Him. As St. Paul tells the Colossians, Jesus in his sacrifice on the Cross “brought you to life along with him … obliterating the bond against us.”

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he gives them the short prayer we all learned as kids. This is as clear-cut as the Ten Commandments; there is no indication we should customize this prayer or adopt it for the current age. Around this rare point of straightfoward teaching, Jesus wraps many stories and examples so that his teachings can seep into our hearts. He tells the disciples one story of a persistent visitor who will get the good thing he wants because of his persistence. From that, Jesus lets us know that if we ask, we will receive. If we knock on his door, he will open it to us. If we seek him, we will find him. In this story, we see parallels with the story from Genesis. God asks us to talk and share with him like a friend, and we will discover we have the best friend possible. Indeed, we will have a friend better than we can comprehend.

Jesus offers himself on the Cross to repair the breach in our relationship with God and to offer new life to anyone who will take it. After his death, we began to grow in our understanding of who he is. Only after the Romans executed Jesus in the manner of a criminal did Roman centurion at Golgatha say, “truly this was the son of God.” It was in that sacrifice on Calvary that God’s love was fully revealed.

The Clint Eastwood character in the movie made a similar sacrifice of himself to bring justice to his part of the world. He arranged a situation in which the gang members could choose to kill him in such a public and furious way as to convict themselves, and they did make that choice. The character allowed himself to be killed as an innocent victim so that his friends might have a new life of safety and security.

The grouchy old man at the start of the story was the sacrificial victim at the climax. He was not two different people but always the same person. God is one. The “grouchy old man” of the Old Testament is Jesus who sacrificed himself on the Cross in the New Testament. And he wants to be our friend.

For the readings, please see this link: 17th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

Sandal Up

For the readings, please see this link: 14th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

The story from the Gospel of Mark is one of commission. Jesus tells the 72 apostles (the Greek word means “one who is sent”) to go out among the communities and preach the good news. They are not to dilute their spiritual powers with the material goods that so easily encumber our lives. Even an extra pair of shoes they should not stock.

Their mission trips are successful, and Jesus rejoices with them but tells them of their real success: they are heading for Heaven.

We have been sent into the world, perhaps not so dramatically but no less really. We have been sent to share the Good News, like the 72 apostles. One of the challenges in preaching the Gospel is that the rewards come after we die and while we live others make choices that are oriented towards “winning” in this life rather than the next. This is the guidance Jesus gives his children:

Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, “We wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet, and leave it with you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God is very near.” I tell you, on that day it will not go as hard with Sodom as with that town.

As sharers of the Good News, we are called to share it with those who accept it and those who reject it. Either way, they are to hear that the Kingdom of God is very near. As missionaries of Jesus, we are obliged to respect others’ free will. And there can be no judgmentalism. We can draw the clear distinction between the path they are choosing and the Way we are following, but our only comment of rebuke is to kick the dust of their town from our sandals.

We live in such a time and place as Jesus did. The world is not with us, the powers that be are not supportive of our way of faith. It seems to those who are older that the world once was with us, and we can slip into nostalgia. Jesus would have us not look back but look forward. We know that freedom necessarily includes freedom of religion, but we see the part of the world once known as Christendom putting the final touches on an official rejection of that heritage. The European Union rejected the Pope’s recommendation that it “express recognition of the legacy of Christianity inscribed in the history and cultural identity of Europe.” That happened in 2003, not last month. Europe is not alone in rejecting old customs. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the idea that marriage is defined as being only between a man and a woman, and that ruling was within the last month. Also in the U.S., the government is denying freedom of choice to religious organizations that provide health benefits if those organizations do not want to support abortion services and artificial birth control treatments. We are truly pilgrims.

How do we as Christians in the modern world shake the dust off our sandals and preach the good news to the next town? Many are tempted to withdraw into the wilderness or some kind of Christian ghetto and somehow wait out the storm. This was the path taken by John the Baptist and the Essenes, but Jesus took the path to Jerusalem instead. Many are tempted to find a Christian soldier who can take over the apparatus of government and restore Christendom. This is something like the path Judas Iscariot was seeking in following Jesus, and it has distant echoes in actions of Muslims following their jihad. Jesus refuses to force the Good News on anyone. Nor will he make false promises like the prosperity preachers on TV who imply that Jesus Christ is the way to a good life full of goods. No, you cannot even count on an extra pair of sandals.

But we can count on Jerusalem, the city of God, where we will enjoy the heavenly banquet and the Beatific Vision. The way we get there will be varied. Some will endure mild persecution, some will see serious persecution, and some will die for the faith. (Most of us are hoping for a fourth option of no persecution, but that is not the way of the Cross.) St. Paul tells the Galatians how to get from here to there:

The only thing I can boast about is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. It does not matter if a person is circumcised or not; what matters is for him to become an altogether new creature. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, who form the Israel of God.

We must be crucified to the world. We must walk in the world unspotted by the world. By the power of God’s grace, we can wear a white garment in the muddy streets of our age and remain untouched. John the Baptist put on a white garment and walked among the people preaching the need for salvation, and he sacrificed his life to the glory of God. Judas Iscariot put on the white garment as armor against the mud of the world, but that did not work. The white garment is not armor against the world but an invitation to a new life beyond the world. Jesus put on the white garment and gave it up when the soldiers cast lots for it as he gave up his life on the Cross for our redemption. He remained untouched, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

We do not have to be supermen to follow Jesus. We are extremely unlikely to be killed by crucifixion. But we must die – be crucified – to the priorities of this age so we can live the truths of eternity. We must put ourselves out there. We cannot hunker in the bunker. We must respect the rights of others to make their own choices, even if those choices are stupid and wicked. We must, unlike Judas Iscariot, trust God even when the secular officials are persecuting the faith. We must speak the truth to officialdom and suffer the consequences, as John the Baptist did. We must take up the Good News of the Cross and go out among the towns to offer it. Some will accept it and some will not.

So, sandal up! Let’s get going.