Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sunday word, 03 Nov 2013

Alive in Two Cultures
31st Sunday of the Year C (03Nov2013)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Cultures differ. Though we know that, we seldom think how much culture shapes us. A culture is a set of patterns of human activity with certain symbol-codes. They give meaning to human actions. Cultures encourage some actions and discourage others. 

Cultural patterns get deeply imprinted. So deep we rarely give them thought. Take greeting some one in our culture. We are quick to extend a hand to another, who takes it just as quickly. The phrase, “they gave their hands in greeting,” conjures up an action about which we have no doubt. In a word the action is? Yes, a handshake.

Not every culture greets the way we do. With hands folded the Japanese bow to one another, and the junior person bows more deeply to the senior in age or rank. During my month in Japan its symbolic gesture of greeting never came immediately; I automatically offered my hand. It became an instinctive twitch to offer it, reminding me I indeed belonged to my culture.

In the 1970s and 80s I visited Greece several times. In Greece extending a hand in greeting wasn’t done on first meeting. When our cultural imprinting moved me to extend my hand in greeting, a Greek would look at it and at me with uncertainty. No Greek, though, failed to converse and help me, sometimes going out of the way. Clasping hands, though, was reserved for friends.

You have experienced cultural differences. In our pluralistic society differences are easily accepted. That was not so in Jesus’ culture. Eating together is an example. In his culture eating joined people and held them in relationship spiritually. It did not only satisfy hunger or pass time. Eating was no casual affair. It expressed friendship. Jesus readily ate with everyone. Everyone included people his culture considered ungodly at best or even opposed to God at worst. His readiness to eat with sinners put Jesus in conflict with the religious professionals of his day.

Friendship in Jesus’ day was taken most seriously. Friends were other selves.1 That most ancient phrase suggests friendship was spiritually deep. It was not for benefit.2 Table fellowship was as serious an undertaking as sex. People didn’t eat with just anyone! Eating symbolized union with another with whom you shared your soul, your heart, your mind. God fearing people did not eat with tax collectors. They sinned against God’s people because they colluded with the Roman colonizers and oppressors of God’s people and theirs. “Tax collectors” is a symbol-code for sinners in gospel culture. Religious culture shaped community actions to do and avoid; it expressed a community’s faithfulness and faithlessness.3

God always welcomed faithless people into God’s covenant. God desires reconciliation with people. God had revealed through Moses ritual ways of restoring right relationship with God and with others. Many obsessed over the rituals with a disastrous a result: they lost any feeling for God’s heart.

Others streamed to Jesus. Many of them felt they were not in right relationship with God and desired to reconcile. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, was one of them. His encounter with Jesus opens our eyes to God’s desire: in Jesus God sought people to reconcile them! God takes this initiative perhaps more often than people.

Jesus extended this divine initiative in his culture, notably staying at their houses and sharing their meals. Those human actions of familiarity, reserved for friends, Jesus transformed into divine searching and experiences of divine generosity.

Coming to our Lord’s table and sharing in his Eucharist reminds us our risen Lord welcomes all. His Eucharist is the sacrament of unity.4 Sharing his Eucharist empowers us to embody the divine desire to reconcile and welcome all. Nourished by his body and blood we grow more worthy of our divine calling as living witnesses of God’s heart. Put another way: we transform the culture in which we live by the culture of our dead and risen Messiah. We are sealed with the sign of his death and united with him in his resurrection5 not just for personal salvation but for our world.

Ease into your 15 minutes with Jesus this week.
  • Rest yourself in the invitation the Trinity extends each moment to you: “We love you as you are and invite you to grow more confident as the stewards of all we have created.”
  • Ask Zacchaeus, who longed to see who Jesus was, help you notice Jesus inviting you.
  • Chat with Jesus: praise him for working through you to extend his generosity to others; ask him to help you feel more deeply his forgiveness.
  • Consider one way you can extend his generosity to another and resolve to put it in action.
  • Close saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. It re-imprints within us our Christian culture each time we pray it.

Link to this homily’s Spiritual Exercise

  1. Found in Aristotle (the book of ethics he wrote for his son, Nichomacos). Aristotle used imagery already enshrined in his culture.  
  2. Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, Book 7.1244b
  3. Scripture contains the cultural patterns of a people, a time and a place far removed from ours. Joseph V. Crockett has written: "Scripture is taught so that persons may become formed and transformed into faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. The aim is for learners to claim the life of Jesus as their own and to embrace an identity in the fullness of their lives. But the formative and transformative processes must not ignore the cultural context through which identity emerges or faith is expressed. Culture is the con-tainer of a community's experience and the agent of the community’s expressions of faithfulness and faithlessness." (His Teaching Scripture from an African-American Perspective. His book is out of print. and voice made this quotation available.)
  4. St. Augustine recognized that. John Paul II echoed him during his catechesis entitled, “Eucharist is a sacrament of the Church’s unity” (8 November 2000).
  5. Romans 6.5-11.

Wiki-image by Fingalo of Church of St. Demetrius interior CC BY 2.0 DE . Wiki-image of Zacchaeus in the Sycamore public domain in the U.S.

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