“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’” (Matthew 18:20)
September 7, 2014
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“An atheist was taking a walk through the woods, admiring all that evolution had created. ‘What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!’ he said to himself. As he was walking along the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. When he turned to see what the cause was, he spotted a 7-foot grizzly charging right towards him. He ran as fast as he could. He looked over his shoulder, and seeing that the bear was closing in, he ran even faster, crying in fear. He looked over his shoulder again, and the bear was nearly upon him. His heart was pounding and he tried to run even faster. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up, but saw the bear right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike him.
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“At that moment, the atheist cried out ‘Oh my God!’ Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. Even the river stopped moving.
“As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky, ‘You deny my existence for all of these years, teach others I don't exist, and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?’
“The atheist looked directly into the light and said, ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as Christian now, but perhaps could you make the bear a Christian.’ ‘Very well,’ said the voice.
“The light went out. The river ran again. The sounds of the forest resumed. Dropping his right paw, the bear brought both paws together, bowed his head and spoke, ‘Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful.’” (Original source unknown)
The power of prayer! The atheist got what he prayed for—the religious conversion of the bear. And the bear got what he prayed for (or at least hoped for)—a tasty meal. Indeed, prayer works!
This time-worn story has remained so popular because it attempts to explain the power of prayer. Among its many lessons, it reminds us that God is listening, that God watches over all his creation, and that God works in mysterious ways. All of which is just fine as long as we’re talking about a fictional atheist and an imaginary grizzly bear. But we’re not…
This summer’s violence, especially evidenced in the Middle East but not confined to it, continues to remind us that, while fervent prayer may align our hearts with the heart of the Most Merciful God, it can also have quite the opposite effect. Consider a recently-published New York Times article authored by Timothy Egan. Entitled “Faith-based Fanatics,” I share an excerpt with you:
“He’s had a busy summer. As God only knows, he was summoned to slaughter in the Holy Land, asked to end the killings of Muslims by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, and played both sides again in the 1,400-year-old dispute over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad.
“This year, the ancient struggle of My God versus Your God is at the root of dozens of atrocities, giving pause to the optimists among us who believe that while the arc of enlightenment is long, it still bends toward the better.
“In the name of God, Sunnis are killing Shiites in Iraq, and vice versa. A jihadist militia, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, boasts of beheading other Muslims. And the rage that moved Hamas to lob rockets on birthday parties in Tel Aviv, and Israelis to kill children playing soccer on the beach in Gaza, has its roots in the spiritual superiority of extremists on both sides.
“The most horrific zealots may be Boko Haram in Nigeria, where 250 girls were kidnapped by these gangsters for the crime of attending school. Boko Haram’s God tells them to sell the girls into slavery.
“Violent Buddhist mobs are responsible for a spate of recent attacks against Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, leaving more than 200 dead and close to 150,000 homeless.
“The problem is that people of faith often become fanatics of faith. Reason and force are useless against aspiring martyrs.” (The New York Times, July 18, 2014)
In the face of these atrocities, we hear Jesus in today’s gospel passage addressing his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
What are we to make of it when we know that religion is the cause of such bloodshed? We may be tempted to reply that this summer’s atrocities were committed by non-Christians. But then remember the Crusades; remember Northern Ireland. Christianity is as guilty as all the rest.
Posting her struggle on Facebook, Jill, a long-time ER nurse, expressed what I believe is a theme shared by many these wearying days. She wrote, “I know I believe, but I struggle with religion. They all have such violent pasts. But I know God is watching over me.”
I responded to her, “Once faith gets institutionalized, it tends to be just as imperfect as its followers. I don't think there's any way around it. But I believe that the only way to God is through our care for one another.”
Jesus still says to his disciples—us!—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” While twos and threes will continue to gather in defamation of the holy name of the Most Merciful God, let us trust that our own communal prayers, with our every thoughtful word and kindly deed, are as balm for the brokenness of the world.