viernes, 17 de octubre de 2014

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

picture from: Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Robert J. Perelli, CJM ©

A Month of Sunday, Volume 2
Chapter XXIV

Fables, myths, legends and fairy tales seem to last forever. They are repeated from generation to generation. We remember them in great detail. We tell them to our children and our children’s children. Why is that? Why does a good story last forever?

Well, I’m pretty sure it is because a good story captures some universal truth or some profound human experience and preserves it in a way that is easy to remember and retell.

Let me give you an example of a profound truth preserve in an ancient legend.

Have you ever hear of the mythological characters named Scylla and Charybdis? Let me refresh your memory.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the main character Odysseus is on a mythic journey to find him way home to Ithaca. One of the many trials that he had to endure along the way was to cautiously navigate between Syclla; a six headed, man eating monster on left; and Carybdis, a gigantic, ship crushing whirlpool on the right. Since Homer wrote that epic, Scylla and Charybdis have become the very image of what it feels like to have to choose between two difficult options. That experience is so common that it actually spawned a bunch of variations on the theme like: “on the horns of a dilemma;” “between the devil and the deep blue sea;” “from the frying pan into the fire;” and the most familiar, “between a rock and a hard place.”

I mention all this to set the stage for today’s Gospel in which Jesus is between a rock and a hard place.

Humor me while I tell you some important facts that you will need to know in order to digest this Gospel. In ancient near east at the time of Jesus, all Jewish people between the ages of 12 and 65 were required to pay a “census tax” of one denarius, the equivalent of a day’s wage. The Pharisees were a class of Jews people who opposed Roman occupation of their land and opposed the Roman government in every way that they could especially paying taxes. On the other hand, the Herodians were Jewish people who supported Roman occupation and were glad to pay taxes to Rome.

In today’s Gospel story the Pharisees and Herodians, once theological and political enemies, have teamed up to “entrap” Jesus.

If Jesus opposed the census tax he would offend Rome and get in trouble.

If Jesus approved of the tax he would offend the Jews and get in trouble.

And so, in every sense of the phrase, Jesus is “between a rock and a hard place.” But Jesus, like Odysseus, circumnavigates both Scylla and Charybdis, both the rock and the hard place, by standing in the middle. With his simple retort “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus acknowledges Rome and yet honors God. And in doing so he avoids the extremities, holds the middle ground Jesus and shows us that compromise, the space between the rock and the hard place, is sometimes necessary in a complex world.

Simply put, Jesus does the right thing.

The Roman poet Horace (65-27 BCE) reminds us that “the middle” is not always a bad place to be he coined the phrase “In medio stat virtus.” Virtue stands in the middle. Granted, “the middle” can be a place to hide from choices that have to be made. But, “the middle” can also be a place of compromise where minds can meet and extremities are avoided.

My favorite 20th century Odysseus was a skilled mariner able to navigate the “bark of Peter” between the “rocks” of a theological intransigent Church and the “hard places” of a politically volatile world.

Despite all obstacles, Pope John XXIII stayed his course and announced that the Roman Catholic Church would have its first ecumenical council in almost 100 years, a council that would propel the church into the modern world.

Now mind you, The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) didn’t just happen.

Cardinal Spellman of the Diocese of New York (at that time, the richest dioceses of the richest country in the world), no doubt one of the many “rocks” that Pope John XXIII had to avoid, wrote this to a friend: “How dare he summon a council after one hundred years, and only three months after his election. Pope John is rash and impulsive.”

Faced with this kind of opposition and worse, a man less familiar with todays’ Gospel, might have jumped ship.

But not Pope John XXIII.

In response to this kind of resistance; the fat, little, Italian man with enormous ears said this to the 2,500 bishops gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening of Vatican II:

“In the daily exercise of our public office, we sometimes had to listen – much to our regret – to voices of person who, though burning with religious zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion of measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin….We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom. In the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort, and even beyond human expectation, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s higher and inscrutable designs; and everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the church.”

John XXII stayed clear of both the “rocks” and the “hard places” and so changed the Catholic Church forever.

Friends, you know as well as I do that the world we live in is far too dichotomous, polarized and discontinuous; far too “either/or,” “black or white,” “all or nothing.”

Have you ever noticed how quickly we default to:

Red and Blue states
Shite and Sunni Muslims
Urgher and Han Chinese
Uzbek and Kyrgyz Central Asians
First-world and Third-world citizens
Haves and Have-nots
Conservatives and Liberals
Men and Women

But there is another way. There is always another way.

Recently, one of my counseling patients wanted to talk about a problem he was having at his parish. He was a particularly kind man who was recently ordained a minister.

He had just received a copy of a letter that was written to the committee of men and women who were responsible for running the church and for hiring the minister. The letter was about him. It was a complaint. The author, an older lady whose family was responsible for founding the church, was criticizing his preaching. She said his sermons were too long.

Because this particular lady had been on the minister’s case since the day he arrived, his first reaction was to resign. “I’ve had enough.” he thought, “She’s making my life miserable. I’m not appreciated. I’ll resign and then they will know what there are missing!” That was his Scylla.

His second reaction was shoot back, to write her a letter and challenge her groundless complaints. Good with a pen, he was sure that, in just six or seven hours, he could rebut her every criticism. That was his Charybdis.

But, because he was a kind man who took his faith seriously (and because he had a really good therapist), he decided to write a very different letter a copy of which he handed me to read:

Dear Brunhilda (not her real name),

Thank you for your letter. Although it was difficult to read at first, I have to admit you made some good points. I really want to be the best pastor that I can possibly be so I was wondering if we could get together over coffee and I could listen to your ideas about preaching.

Sincerely, John (not his real name either)

Then, he handed me a “happy anniversary of your ordination” card from that lady in which she wrote:

Dear Pastor John,

Congratulations on the anniversary of your ordination. I’m glad that you are our pastor. I look forward to meeting you for coffee. My treat.

Gratefully Brunie

I asked John when her card arrived. He said four days after he mailed his letter to her.

You see, when we Christians find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, we try to do the right thing.

We learn the art of compromise.

We search for the middle ground.

We don’t fight fire with fire.

We respect other people’s opinion.

We honor the experiences of different people.

We try to see things through the other’s eyes.

We avoid unnecessary conflict.

We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

We stand in the middle with virtue.

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