Sursum Corda
"an insightful Catholic Blog that eschews extremism in any direction."
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, February 20, 2004
WAR AND STATECRAFT: A stimulating exchange between Archbishop Rowan Williams and George Weigel in First Things on the doctrine of the "just war" and its application to modern circumstances. I tend to think Williams has the better of the argument, but then, I would wouldn't I? Worth reading, and a model for how debates on this issue should be conducted.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:13 PM
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POVERTY: BLAME THE MIDDLE CLASS? Greg Easterbrook takes a look at the newly issued poverty thresholds and calls them "shockingly low," and argues that they significantly understate the extent of poverty in the United States.

Easterbrook has an interesting argument about who is primarily responsible for the problem of poverty. While granting that greedy corporations and hypocritical politicians are culprits, Easterbook also lays a good share of the blame at the feet of middle class Americans:

No, I won't blame the greedy rich and the hypocritical politicians for the continuation of poverty amidst plenty, because this shifts attention away from the group that is most to blame: typical Americans. It is the country's middle-class, middle-income majority that endlessly demands new government benefits for itself, locking up public funds that could otherwise help the impoverished. It is the country's middle-class, middle-income majority that does not pressure politicians for higher minimum wages or similar reforms, because the country's middle-class, middle-income majority--much of which boasts of being Christian--doesn't care what happens to the forgotten poor at the bottom, or even likes the poor kept that way, as this ensures a cohort of lawn workers and burger-flippers who will accept low wages.

Most important, it is the country's middle-class, middle-income majority that endlessly demands the lowest possible price for everything, and instantly shifts its loyalties to Wal-Mart or whatever firm offers the lowest possible price. The lowest-possible-price sellers that increasingly dominate the United States economy get their low prices by paying less than a living wage, by cheating minimum-wage workers on overtime, by cutting health care benefits--to use the current California supermarket example--and otherwise ensuring that families of four remain mired at $18,850 annual income even when both parents work.

Delivery pizzas should cost a couple dollars more, groceries and paper towels and Old Navy pants and practically everything should cost slightly more so that the minimum wage could rise (there would be a ripple effect raising near-minimum wages as well) and poverty decline. It's a joke that the United States government, as of a few days ago, pretends a family of four earning $18,851 per year does not live in poverty. But it's a joke that the country's middle-class, middle-income majority has joined in.
Now I think there is something to this, although Easterbrook takes it a little farther than I might. The desire of consumers to seek lower prices probably has both positive and negative effects. The question is whether there are ways to capture the latter without the former. I also doubt whether a collective decision by "the middle class" (an analytically imprecise category if there ever was one) to stop demanding government benefits for itself would really "free up" money for the poor. You'd just start another round of tax cut fever.

But I think that Easterbrook is touching on a deeper truth that we often want to avoid: our individual decisions as consumers have moral implications. Like it or not, we are in relationship with the people who make the products we buy. If ignore all considerations except price, then you can bet the manufacturers of our products will do the same and the result is not likely to be good for the workers who make those products. I'd be willing to pay a couple extra bucks for a shirt and a pair of pants if it meant the person who made them could earn a living wage.

posted by Peter Nixon 5:02 PM
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TEEN PREGNANCY, ABORTION RATES DOWN: Some good news from a recent report from the Alan Gutmacher Institute. Both teenage pregnancy and abortion rates continue to decline. One interesting finding was that while the pregnancy rate among black teenagers dropped by 32 percent over the last decade--more steeply than other groups--the percentage of their pregnancies that ending in abortion rose to 41.5 percent, up from a low of 39.6 percent in 1995.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:27 PM
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TWELVE LEGIONS OF VAMPIRES? I had just gotten out of the shower this morning and my six-year old son was sitting on our bed next to my still sleeping wife. So I was certainly in no state to respond to his first question of the morning: "Daddy, why did the people who killed Jesus want to kill him?"

"Well...uh...," I began.

"Because he wanted them to follow God?" Joseph offered.

"Well, yes," I began haltingly, frantically trying to compress four Gospel narratives and 12 hours of Raymond Brown tapes into a summary suitable for a six year old. "It wasn't that they didn't know about God before, but they weren't always doing what God wanted them to do, even though some of them thought they did. So they got very angry when Jesus told them they were wrong."

"But why did they want to kill him?" asked Joseph.

"Well, sometimes when someone tells you something about yourself that's true, but you don't want to believe it's true, you get angry. Jesus told the truth and it made a lot of people angry at him. They thought if they killed him, they wouldn't have to listen to him anymore."

"Oh," said Joseph.

"Oh, and one more thing," I said, feeling I hadn't gotten it quite right. "Jesus was God, right? And people didn't want to accept that either. They didn't think God should be a person like us."

I was certain at this point that I had probably affirmed four or five major heresies, and I hadn't even had breakfast yet. But then another thought passed through my sleep deprived brain.

"Oh, and there were the Romans. The Romans didn't like Jesus either."

"Who were the Romans?"

"They were an empire?"

"What's an empire?"

"Well its a lot of countries where there's one king who wants to boss everyone around. The Romans controlled the country where Jesus lived and when he talked about the Kingdom of God, they thought Jesus meant that he wanted to be the king. So the Romans wanted to kill him too.

"You know what Daddy?"

"What?" I said, almost fearfully, knowing I was at the end of my exegetical rope.

"I would have sent three good vampires to chase away the soilders who came to get Jesus and they would take away all the swords and clubs and the fire."

"That's very nice, Joseph. I'm sure Jesus would have appreciated that," I said, which was a completely idiotic response but all I could muster at that point.

I guess Mel Gibson's not the only one who lets his imagination run a little wild when contemplating the passion.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:35 AM
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HAVE WE LOST THE CROSS? Michael Dubruiel asks some deeper questions about the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ. What if the problem is not so much how the cross is depicted but the cross itself?

We should fear that in our comfort and ease we have lost the true Christ who told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that it “was necessary” that the Son of Man suffer all of these things, because if we fail to see the true meaning of the Passion we will fail to see God’s design for us in our own lives and we will flee the cross like a possessed man—because indeed fear of the cross is a clear sign that something other than Christ has possession of us.

So there is confusion, what do we do with this man, for if we leave him alone the entire populace will believe in him and then our economy will be shot, our livelihood destroyed, our (fill in the blank)… This is always the inner conversation between the self God created and self that we feel we need to be to please others…the cross of Christ is the line in the sand…what will save us?
Good thoughts to bear in mind as we approach Lent.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:59 AM
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Thursday, February 19, 2004
FALLING IN LOVE: Fr. Ron Rolheiser, writing from Rome, wonders why our churches are graying and emptying. Conservatives decry the forces of secularlism and individualism, while liberals believe the Church is too rigid and patriarchial.

Rolheiser thinks the problem is more fundamental: "We've lost a romantic ideal for our faith and Church lives. We've no idealistic fire left."

We've subjected faith, religion and Church to a scorching exorcism and have not yet moved on, to restore to them again their angels, their proper light, their beauty. We need to re-romanticize faith, religion and Church and give people something beautiful with which to fall in love.

And to do this, we need more than good theology and good pastoral programs. Good theology stimulates and inflames the intellect. Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan would add that it also helps move the will. Love needs vision.

Recently we've been blessed with an abundance of good theology. The last 30 to 40 years have produced (literally) libraries of wonderful books on Scripture, Church history, liturgy, dogmatics, moral theology, spirituality and pastoral practice. We're not lacking for solid ideas.

What we're lacking is fire, romance, aesthetics, as these pertain to our faith and ecclesial lives. What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination and this is not so much the job of the theologian as it is the job of the saint and the artist. We need great saints and great artists, ideally inside the same person.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:48 PM
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A LAUGHING CHILD IN EXCHANGE FOR SIN: Christine Scheller writes in Christianity Today about her decision 20 years ago not to have an abortion when she was an unmarried college student. She writes about how, later in life, she encountered a young woman in a similar situation who had had an abortion and went on, her life seemingly unchanged. Initially, this led to feelings of anger:

I attended her bridal shower, but I didn't "understand" for some time. I was angry at the perceived injustice of others "getting away with" their sin while mine was costly and public. The anger subsided and I began to feel sorry for her as I recalled my exquisite experience of the grace of God: A laughing child in exchange for sin. How incomparable! Those who pile sin on top of sin acquire instead the leanness of soul described in Psalm 106:13-15: "They soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel, but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tested God in the desert. And he gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul." Think of David during his long-delayed repentance. I've heard it said that he never regained his moral authority because of his shame, thereby sowing destruction into his kingdom. I wonder how many Christians, because of shame over some act of duplicitous cover-up, are unable to speak with voices of moral certitude. And what is it costing our nation?

There was an important distinction between me and the Bible college coed who had an abortion. When I discovered I was pregnant, I knew that, in spite their devastation at my betrayal, my parents loved me more than they cared what the neighbors thought. She didn't know any such thing; her Christian parents had scorned girls like me.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:42 PM
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GNOSTICISM, CATHOLICISM AND GENDER: Lynn looks at how 2nd century Catholic and Gnostic texts looked at women, and raises questions about how we should read those texts today. Worth reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:13 AM
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PASSION LINKS: Beliefnet has a bunch of them: pro, con and in-between.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:58 AM
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PILATE: In the February 16th America, Eugene Fisher, a point man for the USCCB and the Holy See on Catholic-Jewish relations, has a good article entitled The Bible, the Jews and the Passion (subscription required for access). Apropos of my post yesterday, here is his take on Pontius Pilate:

Matthew and John, among the Gospels, seem to portray Pilate as a vacillating administrator who would have freed Jesus but for the manipulations of Caiaphas, the chief priest. While not exonerating Caiaphas (who is remembered in Jewish history negatively as a collaborator with Rome), other data from the Gospels and ancient secular sources such as Philo and Josephus portray Pilate as a ruthless tyrant. The Roman governor held absolute power over the chief priest, whom he appointed. When Pilate was called back to Rome, likely because his extreme cruelty (e.g., crucifying hundreds of Jews at a time without trial; see Lk 13:1-4) was stirring rebellion, Pilate’s successor immediately deposed and replaced the chief priest. The Gospels agree that in Roman eyes Jesus’ crime was that of political sedition against Rome, crucifixion being the Roman form of punishment for treason, a charge made explicit by the mocking sign “King of the Jews” nailed to the cross.
For the record, one thing that the byline bio about Fisher did not note was that he was the one who pulled together a group of scholars to review a leaked copy of the script. The problem was that Fisher's involvement gave the appearance that the findings were endorsed by the USCCB, which they were not. I don't think, however, that these facts change the truth of the above analysis.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:00 AM
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IT'S NOT JUST THE CATHOLICS: A performance of the Vagina Monologues at the University of Oregon is drawing left-wing protest because it was insufficiently "diverse."

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Wednesday, February 18, 2004
HE SAID YES!: My three year old daughter got a small but painful cut on her hand the other day. As we were saying grace before dinner, my wife asked the kids if there was anything they wanted to thank God for or ask him for. My daughter paused for a moment and then said "Dear God, please help Megan's hand feel better." Then, after another pause, she got a big smile on her face and said "He said 'YES!"

posted by Peter Nixon 5:20 PM
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THE PASSION: I've been listening to Raymond Brown's lecture tapes on the Passion narratives of the Gospels. A couple of points struck me.

The first is that the Pharisees aren't major players in the Passion narratives. While the Gospels tell of ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees during his ministry, it is the leadership of the Jerusalem temple (the "chief priests and the scribes") who finally move to arrest Jesus. The synopsis of The Passion of the Christ on its web site incorrectly identifies the Pharisees as the principal actors. I suppose it's possible that they thought using the term "leaders of the Jewish temple" might be even more inflammatory. In any case, this reflects a common problem of people seeing the Pharisees as "Jewish leaders." The Pharisees were a movement, not a leadership caste. Some members of the Jewish leadership were Pharisees, but others were not, and there was tension between the temple leadership and the Pharisees. At least some of the tension between the Pharisees and Jesus depicted in the Gospels probably reflects the post-resurrection conflict between the Pharasaic Judaism that gradually became normative after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and early Christianity.

Another point that Brown makes was that the leadership of the Temple had historically been willing to use violence to defend its religious and political preeminence. When the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, the Chief Priest sent an army to destroy it. They also intervened with the Egyptians to prevent a group of Jewish priests in Egypt from building a temple there. So the temple leadership was very, very touchy about the temple. All four Gospels record that Jesus caused a major disturbance in the temple (John locates it at the beginning of the ministry rather than at the end) and Jesus' statements about the temple were brought into evidence at his trial.

So while the perception of Pontius Pilate as a relatively passive player in Jesus' execution is probably not historically accurate, we should be careful about swinging too far in the other direction. Jesus clearly made everybody in power in Jerusalem nervous--as he continues to make people in power nervous today.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:52 AM
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AM I EXPLOITING MY NANNY? Those of you who enjoyed the discussion over at Open Book last week about nannies and child care might also enjoy the debate this week at Slate between Caitlin Flanagan, Sara Mosle, and Barbara Ehrenreich over at Slate.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:15 AM
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ASH WEDNESDAY: It surprises some people to learn that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. There is a new Catholic Update out that talks about Ash Wednesday and our developing understanding of Lent.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:52 AM
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A NEW VOICE IN BOSTON: Saint Anthony Messenger interviews Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley. O'Malley offers some thoughts on Voice of the Faithful that are worth bearing in mind:

During our interview, Archbishop O’Malley speaks about his desire to reach a better understanding with Voice of the Faithful and about the common concerns he shares with the group. “We share a desire,” he says, “to make the Church safe for children and to avoid the mistakes of the past. I’ve told them I want to make sure that our Church structures allow our laypeople and priests to have a greater voice in the formulation of policies, namely, through our priest council, our diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils. I really want to see those as the way that people are able to participate in a very active manner in the whole decision-making process....I know that many people who belong to Voice of the Faithful are faithful, committed Catholics.”
O'Malley clearly still has his disagreements with VOTF on some issues, but he is willing to speak about them respectfully and doesn't see them as a threat to his leadership of the diocese. It would be nice if the Internet discourse about VOTF was as polite and respectful as the words offered by the Archbishop.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:46 AM
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FORTY DAYS TO A NEW YOU: Ash Wednesday arrives in one week, and U.S. Catholic is ready with a set of daily daily meditations from a wide range of Catholic thinkers. The first 20 are in the February issue, and the second 20 will come in the March issue.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:39 AM
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Tuesday, February 17, 2004
CLONING: Interesting piece in the New York Times about cloning that raises the question of whether a cloned blastocyst is biologically and/or ethically equivalent to one created naturally. Cloned animal blastocysts seem to exhibit significant genetic abnormalities and at least one researcher in the article thinks the significantly more complex process of cloning human blastocysts suggests that a cloned blastocyst would have genetic abnormalities so severe that it could not ever develop into a human child. For this reason, some of these researchers believe that the cloned embryo should has a different moral status than those created for purposes of IVF.

This is an interesting argument, and we shouldn't dismiss it out of hand. But it troubles me. Is it the genetic abnormalities or the manner of its creation that would make a cloned blastocyst different? And if it is the latter, how severe do these genetic abnormalities have to be? What about IVF blastocysts with genetic abnormalities? Could they be used to harvest stem cells, too? What message does that send about how we value the lives of persons with genetic disease?

The idea of creating human life solely so it can be destroyed to provide benefits to another remains deeply chilling to me. But the idea of creating "subhuman" life for the same purpose is, in some ways, even more disturbing. If we are willing to do these things, one wonders if there is anything that we will not do.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:27 AM
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11,000: CNS and others are reporting that the forthcoming report from the USCCB on clerical sexual abuse will show that 4,450 priests abused 11,000 minors between 1950 and 2002. 78 percent of the alleged victims were age 11 to 17 years at the time of the abuse, 16 percent were 8 to 10 years old, and 6 percent were 7 or younger. More than half the accused clerics faced only one allegation, 25 percent had two or three allegations, 13 percent faced four to nine, and 3 percent had 10 or more. The 147 priests who comprised the 3 percent with the most allegations accounted for about 3,000 of the 11,000 victims.

There will be time for analysis of these numbers at another time. For now, let us pray that the survivors of abuse are able to find some measure of healing in this life or in the life of the world to come. Let us pray that we do everything we can to make that healing possible. Let us pray that we continue to do what is necessary so that there will be no more victims in the future.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:42 AM
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WHICH BOOK OF THE BIBLE ARE YOU? Here are the results of the latest quiz:

You are Ephesians
You are Ephesians.

Which book of the Bible are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

posted by Peter Nixon 9:17 AM
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Monday, February 16, 2004
CATHOLICS RETURNING HOME: The Chicago Tribune writes about a program aimed at Catholics who don't practice their faith. It's interesting how bad experiences in the confessional continue to resonate for so many people.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:13 PM
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DEAN IS TOAST but the fight is still on for the 1st annual Saint Blog's awards. I seem to be in the same position as the governor, however, as I am trailing badly and my campaign staff are beginning to jump ship. But voting closes in just two more days, so I think I'll postpone any concession speech until then...

posted by Peter Nixon 2:07 PM
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WHAT KIND OF CATHOLIC ARE YOU? Beliefnet has an interesting quiz that helps you--assuming you are interested--peg where you are on the Catholic spectrum. I wasn't thrilled with how some of the questions were worded, but I scored a 67, which puts me in the "Liberal Catholic" category although fairly close to the "Neo-Traditionalist" border. I think I can live with that.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:00 PM
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THE PASSION: I suspect most of my readers also make it over to Bill Cork's Ut Unum Sint. But if you don't, and you are interested in the controversy over The Passion of the Christ, you should check it out. Bill has been "flooding the zone" with links and commentary on this issue.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:52 AM
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YOU CALL THAT ART? There is an interesting discussion (isn't there always) over at Open Book about Notre Dame hosting a Queer Film Festival (their word, not mine, I should add) and a performance of the Vagina Monologues. Some posters--several of whom have some connection with Notre Dame--have suggested that a Catholic university should not allow such works to be performed, while others argue that even if the works are morally or artistically problematic, censorship is not the answer.

I tend to be in the latter category. Certainly, I think, now that the works are scheduled, the administration should not act to prevent their performance. Notre Dame and the Church as a whole would certainly not "win" that fight, even if the performances didn't go on.

The idea that a Catholic University should be a hermetically sealed world kept apart from the world that students will live in after graduation is true neither to the Great Commission nor to the idea of a University. Students need to be exposed to the culture and they need to learn how to ask hard questions about it. I've never seen the VM or any of the films at the film festival, but if they are really as bad as people say, then it seems to me it wouldn't be too difficult for someone to stand up in a lecture hall and pose those types of questions. But just to shut it down seems to me to reflect a fear that this is a fight the Church can't win. What message does that send?

Bishop D'Arcy has issued a statement concerning the performance of the Vagina Monologues. The problem, from my perspective, is that the statement is entirely too general. It asserts that the Vagina Monologues is "offensive to women" and "antithetical to Catholic teaching on the beautiful gift of human sexuality," without providing much in the way of detailed argument (the one exception is a brief discussion of the play's portrayal of a relationship between an older woman and younger girl). I really think we need more than this to make our case. If you want to engage the argument, then engage it. Go paragraph by paragraph, line by line if you have to.

We should also be open to the possibility that even in works that seem to us entirely corrupt, there may be glimmers of grace. There were once those who found nothing redeeming in the works of James Joyce or Graham Greene, but time has allowed us to see that judgment as mistaken. Does the presence of one narrative that is particularly offensive outweigh any possible good in the remainder of the work? If that is the standard, we might as well ban a number of films from the mid-20th century (including some children's films) that contain essentially racist depictions of African-Americans and Asians.

Ultimately, the best way to counter bad art and bad stories is with good art and good stories. Barbara Nicolosi has an interesting article in the Register entitled "Easy Things the Church Can Do to Fix the Culture." While none of them are really easy, she has a number of good thoughts that are relevant here. Here's a sample:

Eminem and Britney and Howard Stern and Kevin Smith are not the enemy. They are the mission field. We have to stop cursing the people who are poisoning the culture and instead start praying and working for their conversion. The goal is not to replace these people with us. The goal is to turn them into us.

There is a great need for focused spiritual direction for artists and entertainers. Somebody needs to consider the particular cross of creativity and help them craft a strategy to carry that cross to holiness. Once won over, these people will play a critical role in instructing our next generation ? because we don?t have the masters in our house to do the training we will need to be competitive in the culture.

Most of all, the People of God need to start praying for a new renaissance in the arts. One thing we can say for sure: A sustained, heartfelt cry rising up to the throne of God can change human history. The arts and entertainment community is ripe for harvest.

posted by Peter Nixon 6:59 AM
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Sunday, February 15, 2004
SHE'S BACK: Karen Marie Knapp is up and around a catching up on e-mail after a prolonged illness. Drop by and wish her well.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:23 AM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jer 17:5-8
Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6
1 Cor 15:12, 16-20
Lk 6:17, 20-26

You are probably familiar with the words of the Gospel, but you are probably familiar with these words as they appear in the Gospel according to Matthew. In this version from Luke, Jesus gives words of caution for people who believe that their lives are secure because they have money, food, or respect in the community. Luke uses woeful warnings more than on one occasion; two other examples include the man who finds out he will die that night and, also, the rich man who did not give aid to Lazarus.

Jesus preached according to a tradition used thoroughly throughout the Psalms. In the Psalms, people are reminded constantly that they cannot take their money with them when they die. People cannot take their food with them when the Lord calls them to judgment. The respect given to a person by other people in the community means nothing to God. That last part is very important because many people are worried much more about how they are judged by their community rather than how they are going to be judged by God.

If you pay attention to the signs along the sides of some roads here in the area, you are going to see signs that ask you where you are going to go when it is time for you to leave this world. Two of my favorites are on US 19 in Ela as you are driving south. In the spirit of these billboard prophecies, I ask you: Are you more concerned about your present situation and your present reputation? Or, are you more concerned about where you are going to go after you leave this world?

I promise you that if you care more about judgment than about your life, you are going to live a better life and a holier life than you are going to live if you do not think about eternity at all.

Jesus wants you to know now how blessed you are. Jesus wants you to share in greater blessings in Heaven. Since the first moment of creation, he has prepared Heaven for humanity’s ultimate point of union with him. If you want to go to Heaven, then live your life as if there is something more to life than what you have today.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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