Saturday, April 18, 2015


Little Melanie was inconsolable over the death of her pet dog, Muffie. For days nothing seemed to work to alleviate the grief of the five-year old. Finally her mother sat the weeping child down and tried explaining to her,
- “Listen, Melanie, Muffie is now in heaven with God.”
With the cold literalism of childhood, Melanie stared at her mom through tearful eyes and asked,
- “What does God want with a dead dog?”


All of us are  bound by the limitations of our own expectations. We’re fascinated by fantastic stories of people overcoming impossible situations (such as the patient with the severed spinal cord who eventually walked again), and have a difficult time believing in the magic of  expressions such as Tug McGraw’s shout to his 1973 Mets teammates: “You gotta believe!” (They made it all the way to the World Series, with the lowest winning percentage of any pennant-winning team in history.)


The readings during the Easter season are, it seems to me, all about people coming up against the limitations imposed by their own expectations. Last week I reflected on Mary Magdalene's slowness to recognize the risen Jesus standing in front of her in the garden on Easter morning. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus likewise failed to recognize him during the couple of hours he spent walking and talking with them.

When Luke says of those two disciples on the road that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him,” I don’t think this means that God somehow intervened to blind them temporarily; rather I think it’s simply another way of saying that they were not expecting a suffering Messiah much less a Messiah risen from the dead. They were “blinded” by the limitations of their own expectations. Or lack of expectations.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the passage in Acts (5:35-42) where the respected rabbi Gamaliel advises his fellow members of the Sanhedrin not to interfere with the preaching of the apostles because if the apostles’ message is from God then the Sanhedrin would wind up fighting with God. So they should just take a wait-and-see attitude: These fanatics will probably just fade away on their own. But did his stance, seemingly sensible on the face of it, ever strike you as terribly cynical? He’s acting as if they don’t know if this movement is from God. Really, Gamaliel? You’ve heard about and perhaps seen with your own eyes the miracles that Jesus and now his disciples have performed right in the temple area! You’ve watched their words bring sinners to repentance and hopeless people to joyful trust in the Lord. And still you say “We don’t know if this movement is truly from God!” That seems to me a cynical remark from someone whose narrow expectations about the Messiah and the coming of the Kingdom of God have completely limited his ability to see God acting right in front of him.

The gospels tell of lots of "impossible" incidents. How about when Andrew warns Jesus that they have only five barley loaves and two fish - “And what are these among so many?” For a few chapters in John Jesus has been challenging his apostles to see beyond the limitations of their expectations, but once again they’re not able to pull it off; all they can see is five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus sees with different eyes indeed: "Tell the people to recline!"

And once again the infinite power of God shines through, completely dissolving the boundaries of the expected, of the possible. The Gospels are dotted with miraculous multiplications of loaves, with paralysed people walking again, with dead people casting off their winding sheets and rejoining their families.

Lucky for us that God is not bound by the winding sheets of our human expectations! The Easter message, the Paschal Mystery, says that out of defeat comes victory, out of suffering comes joy, and out of death comes life. 


The last words of this Sunday's Gospel passage are the risen Lord's words to his apostles who have just seen and heard him speaking: "You are witnesses to these things."
That's our job as His disciples, to witness to the fact that our expectations must not have worldly limitations.

For example, just yesterday I had to deal with a bright sophomore in my class who is living with deep psychological issues and whose family environment conspires to make things worse. He has recently stopped doing his homework and I caught him cheating on a test in my class. Now one obvious approach would have been to make him live with the consequences of his bad decisions by throwing a big fat F at him and maybe yelling a couple of insults. But something told me to sit with him after class instead and talk. The "something" that told me to take that approach must have been at least partly my refusal to be limited by my expectations of what a troubled kid from a dysfunctional home can accomplish. It turned out to be an enlightening conversation. It seems that he hadn't studied for my test because of some chaos going on at home, but had somehow managed to finish a report for Biology and study for another test, and finally got to bed at 3:00 a.m. The upshot was that he's going to take the test again on Monday. He's easily capable of getting an A. We'll see... 

Meanwhile I'm trying to be a witness to the Paschal Principle that our expectations can and must go way beyond the limitations of our prejudgments about what is possible.

"We are witnesses to these things"


No comments:

Post a Comment