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Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Then give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22, 15-21
Today’s gospel reading begins with an attempt by the Pharisees (religious scholars) and Herodians (supporters of Herod’s civil rule) to catch Jesus off-guard by flattering him. It doesn’t work. However, politics and government are two topics on which many of us can be drawn out, and eventually trapped. Today’s first reading from Isaiah also touches on the theme of rulers and politics and makes reference to how God can even work through kings to bring about good in the world. So a brief excursion into history and personal experience might help with some background into today’s readings.
Governments, whatever their colour, have a reputation for upsetting the lives of ordinary people. They are a presence from which none of us can escape. Common opinion suggests that they are rarely benevolent, often threatening and always irritating. They can tax us, arrest us, conscript us into military service, torment us with bureaucratic processes and form-filling, and bore us to tears with their speeches. Most of us take part in electing them but rarely see them delivering on the promises which prompted us to vote for them. All too often we find ourselves disillusioned by the way in which they misappropriate the taxes we pay, and by the various corrupt practices in which some politicians engage in order to stay in power.
In today’s first reading, we are given something of a surprise as Isaiah describes Cyrus II, the King of Persia, being used by God to free Israel from slavery in Babylon. Isaiah tells how God took Cyrus by the hand and led him to disarm kings and open gateways. He then proceeds to quote God’s words of assurance to Cyrus: “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob and of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, have given you a title, though you do not know me.” (Isaiah 45, 4)
We know that Jesus knew well the Book of Isaiah, so presumably he had a good opinion of Cyrus II. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, Cyrus I (grandfather of Cyrus II) knew the vices that caused governments to fall. He lectured a group of his fellow Persians on the fate of governments that became too comfortable, fat and powerful: “Soft countries” declared Cyrus I, “breed soft men!” Herodotus then recorded: “The Persians had to admit that this was true, and chose rather to live in a rugged land and rule themselves, than to cultivate rich plains and be slaves.” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 9, ch. 16)
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Jesus had even heard of Cyrus I, and, for that matter, the great historian, Herodotus. But we know he lived in a rugged land. And in today’s gospel, the Pharisees were not able to draw him out on what he thought of the Roman government then occupying Israel and getting rich on the taxes it exacted on ordinary citizens. Perhaps he saw them mirroring the good and bad that exists in every society. Maybe he had already come to the conclusion that religion and politics don’t mix, for he certainly didn’t suggest that religion has any magical remedies for dissolving the forces of governments, be they just or unjust. Besides, he realized that he was being baited by religious and civic leaders who were more interested in trapping him than in searching for insights or truth. What’s more, they themselves had not dared to be openly critical of the Roman occupiers.
So, how did Jesus rate with the answer he gave his questioners? His response that Caesar should get what he deserves could be interpreted as dripping with irony. But that all depends on the meaning we give to “what he deserves”. Does Caesar deserve every shekel of the taxes he demanded or does he deserve nothing? But there’s nothing else in the text to suggest that Jesus was using irony. But what Jesus did say is that everyone claiming to be religious has to be discerning and discriminating in responding to the demands and decisions of government.
Support for this approach to government and civil authority can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans (almost certainly written before Matthew’s Gospel). The words Matthew had put into the mouth of Jesus echo what Paul had already written: “And this is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents, even while they are busily occupied with that particular task. Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due. The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill the law.” (Romans 13, 6-8)
Jesus did not go as far as both Isaiah and Paul. He certainly did not say, as they did, that rulers and governments all work for God. And most of us would surely adopt Jesus’ view that we be discerning and discriminating in our responses to government, and to both appointed and elected authority. However, Jesus did make it clear that we can’t hide behind government regulations for our failures to be kind, generous and caring. Love takes precedence over rules and regulations, whatever their source.
By the very fact that they had produced a Roman coin as they questioned Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians answered their own question. By using money with Caesar’s image on it, they declared that they accepted their obligations to Caesar. But Jesus’ answer made it clear that the choices we all have to make in life are rarely as simple as either-or choices. They require us to search and discern, and then to act out of our deepest convictions, to be guided by conscience. And to follow up by taking responsibility for whatever decisions we do make. When we look at our world and see how governments, leaders and politicians vacillate in their decision-making, we often find ourselves shaking our heads in confusion and disbelief. But somehow, we have to go deep into ourselves to connect with God’s guiding Spirit, who helps us to see God’s presence in all that comes our way and in every person we encounter. Then we will be able to deal with the complexities of our world and with the governments and authorities who are supposed to assist us in the task.
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding-garment?” But he was silent. Matthew 22, 1-14
I have to admit to being puzzled by today’s gospel parable for many years. I simply could not understand why someone dragged into the wedding feast would be punished severely for not wearing the appropriate clothes. After all, the poor fellow was only someone walking along, minding his own business, until he was accosted by the king’s servants and pressured to join in the lavish wedding reception. When I looked at the list of those who had already declined their invitations, and the reasons for their non-attendance, I concluded that this man and all the others who had agreed to make up the numbers were actually doing the king a favour. Besides, as the story is told, it is clear that the servants had no time to pick and choose. They dragooned everyone they could get hold of. So I could not work out why the king was so upset by the fact that there was one guest who did not have a wedding gown.
But, according to the story, the king was extremely upset. In fact, he was so upset that the only conclusion we are meant to come to is that the guest with whom he was upset must have deliberately refused to wear the expected dress. I have since discovered that many of the scholars who have analysed this parable observe that it was the custom of the time to provide wedding gowns to guests as they arrived for the celebration. So there was really no excuse for not wearing one. The man without the wedding garment was at fault, and he was guilty of insulting the king deeply. And the evidence for that is to be found in the very simple sentence that had escaped my notice for years: “But he was silent.” When the king confronted the offender, there was only silence. That silence spelt guilt. The man simply had no way of defending himself. He wasn’t speechless because of fear or confusion, or because he was overawed. He could not find even a single word to say in his own defence. His silence was his judgement on himself. That simple sentence - “But he was silent.” - speaks volumes. And I had not noticed it!
But that still does not explain the severity of the punishment the king imposed on him. Let’s take a moment to reflect on why any of us follows a variety of dress codes. We dress formally for formal occasions, and to show respect to those who have invited us to particular events. Some invitations even give us clear indicators about the expected dress code for the occasion. Not to follow it can lead to embarrassment for us and for our hosts. On other occasions, we wear uniforms to signify that we identify with a particular group. Even people who belong to criminal groups and street gangs have codes of behaviour and dress, which they must follow if they want to be accepted. But the parable tells us that the servants gathered in “everyone they could find, bad and good alike.” So nobody was excluded on the basis of his or her criminal or sinful past. And we are not told that the man without the wedding garment was one of the bad people who were brought into the celebration. My guess is that he was one of the supposedly good people, with no criminal record and no shady reputation. But, he was somebody who considered himself as being above all the trashy people dragged in from the streets, and seated near him. Haven’t we all met people who see themselves as being on a rung above everyone else, especially above those who drink too much, who have criminal records, who are HIV+, who have a physical or intellectual disability, whose appearance is grubby, who can’t keep a job, who receive social security benefits? So, how did the king feel when he looked at all the guests drawn in from the streets to share his happiness on the occasion of his son’s wedding? His joy was blown away by one, self-centred guest passing judgement on everyone else, and looking down his nose at “riff-raff” who were not up to his own standard. The man without the wedding garment could not even allow acknowledge that he might actually be no better than the rubbish people from the streets, whom he despised.
Today’s gospel parable challenges me to look at how I go about categorising others, whether consciously or unconsciously, separating them into desirable and undesirable, acceptable or unacceptable. Do I even act as though some are suitable to come into my office, to sit at dinner with me, to find a place in my school, to sit beside me at Mass, while others are definitely not?
This is a parable to press home the message that God’s love is for all. While nobody is excluded, nobody has special preference. Then again, nobody is forced to accept God’s invitation. Those who declined the invitation in the first place wanted no part of God’s kingdom, and wanted nothing to do with Jesus. They had found alternatives, and worshipped at the altars of business, wealth and every other attraction imaginable.
Then there are those who, for one reason or another have been so distracted or preoccupied with other things that they have not heard the invitation to God’s kingdom, to let God into their lives.
A 2002 article in Spirituality & Health, by a young writer, Courtney Cowart describes how a crane operator in New York volunteered to clear debris on the site of the burned out World Trade Center. Cowart recorded the crane operator’s words about how some of the categories in which he had placed young people disappeared on that unforgettable night:
“When I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids (Salvation Army volunteers), all pierced and tattooed with multicolored hair, had made a little makeshift stage. And they started to cheer as we came out, and that was it for me. I never identified with those people before, but I started crying, and I cried for blocks…I’ve been a construction worker my whole life…I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays, or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks, or those Broadway people, but now I know them all. We’re not the heroes. They are the heroes. They’ve cried and prayed out loud for me. I never thought I’d have a family like this one.”
Today’s gospel parable tells us that there is a place for everyone at God’s banquet table, irrespective of their age, race, religion or the way they dress. All that is required is a willingness to bury our prejudices and biases, and be ready to give generously of what we have, and receive humbly whatever others bring to the table - the little or much that they have, or just themselves.
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty; the people of Judah are the vines God planted.” Isaiah 5, 1-7
“I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Matthew 21, 33-43
Today’s gospel parable of the morally bankrupt tenants is very tightly constructed and has multiple layers of meaning. It is paralleled in the first reading from Isaiah with the allegory of “the friend’s vineyard”, in which God’s work in the world is described through images from farming.
Using imagery from horticulture, Isaiah describes how God goes about growing people. While it might sound a bit forced, I think we would have to agree that the image of “God, the gardener” is a significant improvement on the more frequent image of God as “the Grim Reaper”.
One of the lessons in this for us is that, whenever we take a hand in “growing” people, we have to respect the fact that they all have distinctive personalities and individual needs. We must recognise that some need shelter and protection, others are sensitive, while others still quickly recover from being trampled under foot. While all need physical and emotional nourishment, that does not mean that their every demand has to be satisfied. And then there are some for whom “pruning” is necessary. But it’s not always easy to convince them of that. Yet, we know that, if the cultivation and pruning process goes well, the reward is a rich harvest of people with a wide range of personalities and talents, which they generously share with those around them.
In the gospel parable, we see Jesus roundly criticizing the tenants of his day, to whom God’s vineyard had been entrusted. God is described as leasing the property to the religious leaders of Israel. Despite the fact that a long line of prophets (the servants in the parable) had been sent to them to remind them of their debts, they paid no heed. What’s more, not only did they ignore them but they also brutalized them. Their crowning treachery was to murder the vineyard owner’s son and heir, as he was the last remaining obstacle to their taking possession of the property in their care. Clearly, this is a thinly veiled reference by Jesus to himself, and how he would be brutally murdered outside Jerusalem (the vineyard). For Matthew, Jesus was the last in the long line of prophets rejected by Israel.
In looking at this parable, we have to wonder which parts of it fit into Jesus’ version, and which parts were added by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. There is little doubt that Jesus was intent on giving the opportunity to the religious leaders who opposed him to paint themselves into a corner. The parable is situated in the context of the religious leaders challenging Jesus’ authority to teach. The religious leaders seemingly saw both John the Baptist and Jesus as threats to the control they held over the interpretation of the Law and what they regarded as legitimate religious practice. To protect themselves, they questioned the authority of both John and Jesus. However, knowing the respect the ordinary people had for John, they did not criticize John in public. In the context of today’s gospel parable, both the Baptist and Jesus were asking for God’s rent to be paid, for what was produced by the religious practice of the nation to be used for the benefit of God’s poor. However the religious leaders preferred their own customs and status to the growth and development of the ordinary people they led. What the religious leaders (tenants) failed to recognize was that, in the long run, they would be required to account not to one another, nor to the Law, but to God, the one in whose name they claimed to act. But, by adding just one verse, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel shifted the focus of the parable from the religious leaders of Israel to the members of the new Christian community, to those who would be expected to be “fruitful vines” at the time of the Great Harvest at the end of the world. It is for that reason that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel attributed to Jesus the following: “I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21, 43)
But how does this parable touch our lives? I suggest at several levels.
To begin with, this story has some parallels with the creation story in Genesis. We are stewards of God’s estate, the earth. We are not its owners, and, as tenants, we have a responsibility to account for our stewardship. We have a duty to care for the earth, to treat it with respect, to protect it as our common home, giving opportunity to all of humankind to draw from the earth a sound and sustainable future.
It is important for us to accept that there is a temptation for those who are part of any institution, including the Church, to put privilege and position ahead of the demands of personal and spiritual growth. Even those of us in different levels of Church leadership can fall into the same trap as the religious leaders whom Jesus confronts in today’s parable. We can cling to the comfort offered by inflexible religious practice and, as a consequence, resist healthy change. Indeed, all of us can find ourselves quashing new directions for growth because of our fear of change or resentment that others may have suggested it first. To make matters worse, we can descend into bad-mouthing those brave enough to explore the new. If you can’t see that close to home, pause for a moment to hear the criticism directed at Pope Francis for wanting to open the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate fully in Eucharist. He is bad-mouthed as a heretic.
There is just one other corollary to this. We can all ask ourselves what is our way of distinguishing whether we are in a rut or whether we are growing. And what scale do we use for others? Here’s a simple measure: Do I hear myself and others talking about ways to grow? From those in ruts, one rarely hears anything about growing. Jesus spoke about it often. There’s something in there that is worth pondering. When did you last catch yourself thinking or talking about growing?
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“My thoughts,” says the Lord, “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours.” Isaiah 55, 6-9
“I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20, 1-16
Those reading the parable in today’s gospel from the perspective of employers of day-labourers would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the vineyard owner’s excessive generosity, and wondering if they would ever find willing day-labourers again. But this parable is about something very different from economics and labour markets. If we read the parable closely, we come to realise that it is not as silly as it sounds, and that it is a variation on the theme that runs through the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, the Guests Invited to the Wedding, and the Lost Coin. The vineyard in today’s parable represents the kingdom of God, where God’s love is limitless and where “comfortable expectations are withdrawn, and the unexpected prevails.” (Rod Doyle cfc) This vineyard is renowned for its owner’s generosity, boundless love and mercy, paralleling the qualities found in the father who waits for his lost son and the king who invites to the wedding feast all manner of peasant workers. In the parable of the wealthy vineyard owner Jesus invited those who were engaged first to understand something of the world into which they were invited and to imitate him in inviting into their lives the last and the least - the poor, the sick, the latecomers, the disregarded - instead of comparing and complaining.
All of the parables referred to above reveal a God who approaches us in gentleness, mercy and love - a far cry from the God we were once told is out to judge us harshly for our failings. Kings and potentates in the time of Jesus were no more into forgiving heavy debts than Visa Card would be into cancelling thousands of dollars of spending on our credit cards. Nor would any sensible shepherd risk exposing a whole flock to marauding wolves while he went searching for one stray sheep. And no woman with any degree of common sense would clean the whole house searching for an almost worthless coin. Neither would a first-century father run to meet his wayward son, forgive him for his debauchery, and then throw a party to celebrate his home-coming. He would be more inclined to put him on probation until he demonstrated that he really had turned his life around.
We can empathise with the workers of today’s parable, who, after toiling all day under a hot sun, feel aggrieved when they discover that those who turned up for only an hour in the late afternoon receive the same pay. And as if to rub salt into their wounds, the vineyard owner instructed his foreman to pay the late-comers first, and exactly the same amount as every other worker. The vineyard owner then told the complainants and whingers that what he did with his money was none of their business.
But stop and ponder for a moment the thread that runs through all the parables to which I have referred. The workers who were engaged late, the servant whose huge debt was forgiven (last week’s gospel), the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son are all the same character. Through all these parables Jesus proclaimed that, as far as God is concerned, everyone is dear to God, no matter who they are or what they have done. All fringe-dwellers, the marginalized and the alienated, those crippled by debt or laziness, the lost and the late-comers are offered welcome, kindness, forgiveness and mercy. And they don’t have to earn it. But they do have to accept it.
It’s worth noting also that the prodigal son’s elder brother and the grumbling workers of today’s parable are similar characters in that they are all envious. They are unable to be satisfied or even delighted with what they have. They are driven to look at the good fortune of others and feel as if they have been cheated. A sense of entitlement takes over.
But look at today’s parable as a kind of allegory. Think of the agreed daily wage as God’s forgiveness, acceptance and love. They can’t be earned. They are not a reward for effort. It makes no sense to think that God’s grace, love and forgiveness can be halved or multiplied or distributed in different amounts. God’s forgiveness is forgiveness and God’s love is love, complete, entire and boundless. Yet somehow we allow envy to trap us into thinking that we can get more of something that is already perfect. We end up not being able to enjoy what we have been given because envy makes us fear that somebody else might have been given something better.
So the real point of this challenging parable is that the vineyard owner (God) does not favour some workers over others but that he wants to give the same to everybody, the same to first and last alike. God gives to everyone of us according to our needs, and there is not one of us who is not in need of God’s love and forgiveness. Let’s dismiss, once and for all, that God’s love and forgiveness are distributed to each of us on the basis of merit.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Could anyone refuse mercy to someone like himself/herself, while he seeks pardon for his/her own failings?” Sirach 27, 30 - 28, 7
“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” Matthew 18, 21-35
While today’s gospel reading presents readiness to forgive as a central dimension in the life of anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, the parable of the unforgiving servant, around which the reading is built, is an object lesson on what happens in the lives of those who not only refuse to forgive but who fail to learn and express genuine compassion.
I had occasion this week to visit a chiropractor here in Rome. On the table of one of his consulting rooms there is a plaque presented to him for some volunteer work in which he had been involved, On it were inscribed some words attributed to the 19th Century American Puritan theologian and mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pale into insignificance in comparison to what lies within you.”
Those words are a fairly accurate description of the message of the parable of the unforgiving servant. The loan the king had given his servant is a symbol of something more significant than money. The parable is really asking us about the way in which we live our lives. Do I give to life and the people I encounter more than I expect in return? Do I really serve others rather than anticipate being served by them? Do I expect everyone I invite to dinner to return the invitation? Do I insist on being thanked for anything I give or do to others? Do I harbour resentment when I think my efforts for others have not been adequately acknowledged? Do I store up in my mind memories of the people who have not danced upon me the kind of attention I thought I deserved? Maybe I had a deprived childhood or a mean and petty boss, and can use them to justify my bitterness and selfishness. Do I hold onto hurts from the past and relive them angrily to others when opportunity presents itself? To the extent that I behave like that I resemble the unforgiving servant. Do I want God to treat me generously and compassionately, while expecting others to give me kid-glove treatment, in accord with the dignity and respect to which I believe I am entitled?
We can all invent our own ways of making that single petition in the Lord’s Prayer that has a condition it - Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us - come back to bite us.
Refusal to act with compassion, failure to reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us does not stop God from loving us. But what does happen is within us: something changes in our own hearts and attitudes. Our own inner self rebels against us. From being open and expansive, we notice that our moods change, our words develop an edge of hardness, our hearts become progressively closed. We begin to feel uneasy, we are dissatisfied with ourselves, and find it difficult to put our finger on the cause.
Harbouring resentment and anger affects our emotions, our spirit and even our body. Hostility, turned either inward or outward, prevents us from praying at any depth, and manifests itself in emotional upheaval, difficulty in being present to others, distracted thinking, and an inability to sit still.
In our lucid moments, we recognise that we are made for love. It is the ability to relate that distinguishes us as human. Forgiving and genuine compassion are reflections of God’s love and measures of our humanity.
If we dare to look closely at what it is in others that disturbs and pains us, we quickly discover that we are like them in our frailty, our humanity, our worth. It is then that we can begin to allow understanding to displace our irritations. When we come to appreciate that God extends to us and to others exactly the same generosity and love, we begin to understand what is meant by living compassionately.
This does not mean that forgiveness is ever easy. Shifting the focus from our seething anger or from our outrage at being slighted or wronged and replacing it with concern for the person who has offended us is hard work. It can be a little easier if we have the humility to recognise that, in other times and places, our selfishness and insensitivity have been the cause of hurt to others. But we also know the liberation and healing that can come when we are prepared to forgive or to ask forgiveness of someone we know we have hurt.
The kernel of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is that nothing is unforgivable. Neither does Jesus allow us to put limits on our capacity to forgive. There is a certain irony about the fact that Peter was the one to question Jesus about measures of forgiveness, as it was he who received forgiveness beyond measure following his denial of Jesus to bystanders during the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus responded to Peter by making it clear that his and our readiness to forgive should mirror God’s limitless forgiveness and compassion extended to all.
Forgiving and seeking forgiveness exposes us in all our vulnerability. But let’s not forget that the Prodigal Son experienced the enormity of his father’s forgiveness only because he had sinned. It was the poet Dante who reminded us that refusing to forgive and to ask forgiveness is a choice we make to distance ourselves from others and from God. It is, as Dante says, like pushing God to say to us: “Thy will be done!” Fortunately for us, however, we will never control God.
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“If your brother/sister does something wrong, go and have it out with him/her alone, between your two selves.” Matthew 18, 15-20
The early Christian writer and father of western theology, Tertullian reported that, in referring to Christians, ordinary people in the Rome of his time were heard to exclaim: “See how they love one another!” (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Harper and Collins, New York 2010). While the cynics among us might be inclined to say that Christians have gone only downhill since then, it would be remiss of them and us not to acknowledge that an enormous amount of disaster relief and outreach to the needy and marginalized in the history of the world has been carried out by Christians in the name of the Gospel.
The challenge of Jesus in today’s gospel to all of us to examine ourselves on our record to reach out to others in reconciliation is a challenge that is relevant to a world that is inclined to seek solutions to differences and disagreements through threats and shows of military might. It’s a challenge that Paul saw as relevant to the very early Christian community of Corinth and that moved him to write:
And how dare you take each other to court! When you think you have been wronged, does it make any sense to go before a court that knows nothing of God’s ways instead of a family of Christians? The day is coming when the world is going to stand before a jury made up of followers of Jesus. If someday you are going to rule on the world’s fate, wouldn’t it be a good idea to practise on some of these smaller cases? Why, we’re even going to judge angels! So why not these everyday affairs? As these disagreements and wrongs surface, why would you ever entrust them to the judgment of people you don’t trust in any other way?
I say this as bluntly as I can to wake you up to the stupidity of what you’re doing. Is it possible that there isn’t one level-headed person among you who can make fair decisions when disagreements and disputes come up? I don’t believe it. And here you are taking each other to court before people who don’t even believe in God! How can they render justice if they don’t believe in the God of justice?
These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you’re doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family. 1 Corinthians 6, 4-8
In addition, today’s gospel reading attributes to Jesus an exhortation on the process of reconciliation to be followed by his disciples whenever divisions and disputes occurred. Difficult as it may be, reconciling with one another is arguably the primary plank of Christian living, because it is an expression of the primary law of love. Jesus himself had stressed that the greatest commandment is to love God, and that the only way to demonstrate love of God is the manner in which we reach out in love to everyone we encounter.
The impact of Christianity is as powerful as the witness of those who claim to be Christian. The great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth once said that if those who claimed to be followers of Christ really knew what they were committing themselves to, “their number would melt like snow before the sun”. And the noted homiletics professor at Emory University, Georgia, Fred Craddock, 1928-2015, observed that “throughout history, Christianity had civilized millions, moralized thousands and converted a few.” Hardly a record of which to be proud!
The whole point of what Jesus says is that break-downs in relationships in any community worthy of the Gospel have to be mended. When divisions occur in families, religious communities, parishes or friendship groups, they should not be put under the carpet or treated with silence, whatever their cause. Fear of mentioning a “forbidden” topic such as someone’s drunkenness, gambling addiction or abuse (verbal or physical) can turn into a powerful controlling mechanism. Warnings to say nothing, to not mention a delicate issue, or to keep quiet in order to avoid an emotional explosion can cause us all to shrivel up and die. Jesus urges us not to tolerate the kind of silence that stands as an obstruction to reconciliation and healing. His approach to reconciliation means that we have to be big enough to put aside anger, self-pity and wounded pride and take the first step towards mending whatever it is that separates us from others. That means actually speaking to the person we feel has wronged us.
As a matter of interest, the only petition with a condition in the prayer that Jesus taught us is the one about forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Clearly, Jesus knew that forgiveness would always need special emphasis, simply because he knew human nature. As a matter of interest, the three-step process of reconciliation put to us by Jesus is the very same process practised by the Essene community in Qumran (150 BCE - 75 CE, and the site of discovery of the now famous “Dead Sea Scrolls”).
Jesus challenges us to take on the difficult work of reconciliation, to commit ourselves to finding the solution to our disagreements and divisions, not out of a sense of wanting to justify ourselves, but out of a desire to imitate the love and mercy of God. It’s a significant challenge, but one which leads to peace of mind and heart, and one which helps us to grow into being healthy human beings.
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Then, taking Jesus aside, Peter started to rebuke him. “Heaven preserve you, Lord”, he said, “this must not happen to you.” But Jesus turned to Peter and said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks, but as humans do.” Then, he said to his disciples: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16, 21-27
I want to suggest that today’s gospel reading gives us another incident in which we see Jesus in his full humanity. Peter had just publicly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and affirmed him in his ministry. After acknowledging Peter’s enormous potential for leadership, Jesus proceeded to predict that, instead of being a popular Messiah and an acclaimed liberator of Israel, he would be executed in Jerusalem. Moreover, anyone who wanted to follow him as a disciple would encounter pain, humiliation and rejection rather than popular approval.
Repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus had urged his followers not to be afraid, pointing out that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. I want to suggest that, while Jesus could clearly see that the Jewish leaders, whom he had alienated, were planning for him a bloody end, the prospect of what they were plotting terrified him. Understandably, he was afraid of what lay ahead. And that’s why Peter’s interjection was a powerful temptation for him. Humanly speaking, and Jesus was fully human, he did not want to die the violent death he could see was being planned for him.
To state that Jesus was actually tempted by Peter’s interjection - “Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen!” - is to honour Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was afraid, and why wouldn’t he be?” Yet, deep down, he knew that the easier way that Peter urged him to follow was not a real option. He knew that he had to keep challenging the Jewish religious leaders and the unjust burdens they continued to put on the shoulders of the people they led, especially the poor. It was his conscience and his sense of mission that made clear to him the way he had to follow. That’s why he saw Peter’s easier solution as a seductive temptation. And that’s why his rejection of it was so forceful.
In stopping by Caesarea Philippi and asking his disciples who they thought he was, Jesus was looking for reassurance and the courage to continue along the path he had chosen. Peter uttered the encouragement Jesus needed to hear, but just as quickly chipped in with an unrealistic expression of support and reassurance - that bad things should not happen to good people. Peter acted in a way that we, too, are inclined to imitate.
Pause for a moment to listen again to some of the things we find ourselves saying: “Don’t talk like that, grandpa, you’ll outlive the rest of us!” “Don’t be silly, grandma, you’ve never said a bad word about anybody!” If we delude ourselves with the view that there is nothing wrong with the people we love, that they never do wrong to others, we are really protecting ourselves from the difficult challenge of speaking the truth to them in love. If Jesus could have been stopped from being crucified, Peter would not have had to even consider the possibility of crucifixion for himself. Discipleship is not about us, but about following the lead that Jesus gave us, and accepting his invitation to walk with him. It is about naming injustice and evil and delusion for what they are. There is a cost to that. And the cost is rejection, humiliation, loss of popularity. And Jesus described that cost with the metaphor of taking up the cross ourselves.
Peter reminded Jesus of his humanity. That was his gift to Jesus, and that is his gift to us as well. The easy way will always seem attractive, but against that we know we have committed ourselves to the difficult path of discipleship and that we need the help of God’s Spirit to keep us on that path. When we reflect on the fact that right now in Yemen a child is dying every ten minutes of the day from malnutrition or cholera, that people seeking asylum from war are being denied shelter, safety respect and dignity, that millions of people in developing countries do not have access to clean water and sanitation, we begin to doubt whether our voices and actions for justice can make a difference. We wonder whether the difficult path of discipleship of Jesus is worth the effort to walk it. But if we stop pursuing justice, peace, healing and wholeness for our world and for ourselves, we become supporters of the very things we oppose.
But let’s not forget that we have other disciples to support and encourage us along the true path. In 2001, Dorothy and Gwen Hennessy, two Franciscan nuns who were siblings went to prison in Iowa for trespassing in protest on the grounds of a military education institution (Fort Benning, Georgia), built to train Latin American soldiers to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Two of the graduates of Fort Benning were the notorious General Manuel Noreiga of Panama and Roberto D’Aubisson, of El Salvador, who were both linked to human rights abuses in their respective countries. A brother of the two Franciscans, Ron Hennessy, had worked for many years as a Maryknoll missionary in Guatemala. In letters to his family, he described how many of his parishioners, Mayan Indian peasant farmers, were being terrorised and murdered by Government soldiers. He had urged family members to become active in efforts “to help stop this madness.” Sisters Dorothy and Gwen became active, and for their efforts were imprisoned. Meanwhile, Fr Ron and Archbishop Oscar Romero had become close friends, and Ron was present in the crowd of mourners at Romero’s funeral when the military fired live bullets at them (New York Times, June 24, 2001).
The way of the cross is the way of faith - of claiming life and truth in the face of everything that tells us not to. Once we have seen and heard too much, once Jesus has come too close, then the only thing we can do is to witness to the truth, follow and keep on the path. But remember that this path of the cross is never lived outside of God’s love. That’s the promise in which we live, and that’s the promise that keeps us keeping on.
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to them: “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter said in reply: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” Matthew 16, 13-20
Today’s gospel, like every other gospel reading, is designed to involve us as participants rather than spectators. The question Jesus put to his disciples - “But who do you say I am?” - is directed to every one of us. Whatever reply we make in words has to be confirmed by the way we act. What then are the implications for the way we live that follow from whatever proclamation we make to Jesus’ question? And if we dare to identify with Peter in his response, how do our words translate into action? To be authentic, any kind of profession of faith has to find expression in the way we go about our daily living.
While Peter’s response was welcomed and affirmed by Jesus, it very soon became clear that Peter himself did not understand the full significance of his words. In the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death, and Peter’s response was to take him aside and point out that what he was saying was nonsense: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16, 22). In the space of a couple of verses, Jesus goes from telling Peter that his proclamation has been inspired by God and that he will be the rock on which he will build his Church to reprimanding him as an obstacle in his way, as one who thinks “not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16, 28). In the blink of an eye, Peter had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse.
For dramatic effect, the Gospel writer has deliberately placed together two separate episodes in Peter’s life. One inspired moment of partial insight on Peter’s part prompted Jesus to affirm Peter on his potential for leadership. But, while Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he held to the popular belief that the Messiah would be a powerful liberator who would free Israel from foreign rule. He had not yet come to appreciate that the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would be a way of living by which people would reflect the love and mercy of God in their relationships with one another, and that the Messiah who promoted such a way of living would be tortured and murdered for daring to challenge inflexible religious leaders, who could find no room in their lives to accommodate justice, compassion, tolerance and care of the poor. Peter proved to be a rock of support for Jesus by reinforcing Jesus’ unique sense of mission. Jesus expressed appreciation and respect for Peter by calling him blessed. He also added that all those who identified with his vision would need the support of people like Peter who could recognise, promote and affirm them in their gifts.
All those called to leadership in our contemporary Church would do well to take the lead from Peter and make affirmation and encouragement an integral part of their leadership style. We have all encountered leaders who can tie people up in knots and stifle their gifts. We have met others who know how to set free those whom they lead. It was precisely because Peter was not the kind of man who stifled the giftedness of others that Jesus could say to him: “What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven; and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Matthew 16, 19).
I think there’s something more we can take from today’s gospel. Jesus put a question to all of the disciples, but it was Peter alone who responded, and his response stood in stark contrast to the silence of his companions. Isn’t Jesus’ question one that calls for a personal response from all who claim to follow him? Surely it’s not enough to respond with the words of others! Are we not being invited to express our own commitment to Jesus and his Gospel in our own distinctive way? And if we dare to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ of God, what exactly is involved in making such a confession? Perhaps we have to acknowledge that Matthew was not only saying that Peter did not fully understand what awaited Jesus as Messiah, but also that he was never meant to understand what lay ahead for Jesus, and for anyone who would follow Jesus. If our faith in Jesus is genuine, we will commit to following in his footsteps, even into a future whose demands we do not know. The question that Jesus put to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi came at the mid-point of his ministry. It was not his first question to them, nor would it be his last. We hear his question part way through our own following of him. Our world is so messy and unpredictable that we can hardly guess what will happen next or what the following of Jesus will demand of us tomorrow. However, we do know that whatever eventuates, we will still be required to change, to be flexible, to grow; to take up some kind of cross, to somehow lose our lives in order to find them again - but we can be assured that we will find ourselves changed, renewed and better for the experience.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Lord,” the woman said, “help me.” Jesus replied: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.” She retorted: “Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15, 21-28
In one way or another, all three of today’s readings raise the question of how we relate to people whose religious practice is different from ours. While Isaiah proclaims that Israel will become a “house of prayer” for all nations, it is clear that foreigners will be welcome on condition that they leave behind their own religious practices, and accept Israel’s traditions.
In the second reading, Paul laments the fact that the Jews with whom he had previously worshipped in the synagogue have not come to share his convictions about Jesus. His hope is that his reaching out to the Gentiles will make his fellow Jews jealous, especially when they realize the worth of the message the Gentiles are receiving. However, he does concede that God’s mercy, so prominent in the life and message of Jesus, will eventually be welcomed by his fellow Jews.
The encouraging thing about the gospel reading is that it contains a reluctant admission by Jesus that great faith can be found beyond the religion in which he grew up. It took the persistence and faith of a despised Canaanite, and a woman, to boot, to bring him rather begrudgingly to acknowledge that his ministry was not confined to the Jewish people. This story held a special significance for Matthew’s community, which was predominantly a Gentile one, even though it was a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles. Matthew was surely using it as a model for bringing together those who had come from different religious traditions.
The encouraging aspect of all three readings is that they contain no directions as to how those from different religious traditions are to go about relating to one another as they make the transition from one tradition to another. That leaves the way open to discuss their differences and to discover for themselves how to come to a shared way of living in harmony and with integrity, as they pursue their way to God.
All this has some relevance for us who belong to a Church that has not always been at ease with other faiths and religions. However, one of the less known documents of Vatican II, The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, (# 2), offers some guidance for us: “The Church, therefore, urges her children to converse and collaborate with the followers of other religions in order to preserve, indeed to advance, those spiritual and moral goods as well as those socio-cultural values that have a home among people of other religious traditions.”
We are urged to acknowledge, learn from and engage with Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And without setting out to convert them to our way of living, thinking and worshipping! It takes big-mindedness and big-heartedness on our part to be secure in living our own Catholic faith and, at the same time, to look for what is good in those who are different.
Now, for a closer look at today’s gospel. The woman at the centre of the story knows that she is a despised outsider. The disciples immediately see her as a nuisance. They are disturbed by her loud and vulgar yelling, and by her persistence. They want Jesus to send her about her business. Yet it turns out that Jesus is the one who ends up being disturbed. He acknowledges that he sees his mission to the Jews, and nobody else: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Initially, she had called out: “Hey, Jew (Son of David), what about showing some mercy to the likes of me?” Moreover, she’s not going to be put off. She comes back by dropping the reference to their ethnic difference, and addresses Jesus more politely: “Lord, help me.” Effectively, she appeals to Jesus to set aside name-calling and racial slurs. Pushed off balance, Jesus continues to play the race card, referring to the woman as a “dog”, an insult commonly used by Jews for foreigners and outsiders. Here, it is important to note that Jews did not allow dogs into their houses. Scraps from the meal table were picked up and thrown outside to any waiting dogs. Jesus asks her if she wants him to get up, take food that was intended only for Jews, and throw it to an outsider like her. However her quick-wittedness catches Jesus off guard. In a flash, she comes back with: “Please, Lord, for even dogs (like me) eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters.” And Jesus admits defeat. He acknowledges the woman’s faith, but, more than that, he knows that she has taught him to let go of his narrowness, and to accept that his mission is to all people, irrespective of their race, colour or religion.
What drove this Canaanite woman to risk rejection and scorn was the fact that she was the mother of a tormented girl. Her love for her daughter and her conviction that the girl needed to be spared a life-time of prejudice and rejection moved this mother to risk all. Ethnic division was just not going to stop her. If this Jewish rabbi was as good as the reputation that preceded him, she was not going to let her opportunity pass her by, she was going to call him to account. This woman is every mother who is determined to protect her children from whatever can destroy their lives. There is something of the tigress in her. She will stop at nothing to ensure that those she loves are not harmed, neglected or led astray. She is a model of fierce determination, boundless love and hope that will never say die. The risk of humiliation and personal rejection is as nothing to her as she seeks to find a better future for the love of her life. She is an inspiration for every parent and teacher, for every guide and mentor who has a passion for justice, fairness and compassion.
She is an exceptional woman who stopped Jesus in his tracks and expanded his understanding of his mission in the world. There is nobody in all of the Gospels quite like her. She is a model for us all.
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake - but the Lord was not in the earthquake…but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a gentle, whispering wind. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face. 1 Kings 19, 9-13
At once Jesus spoke to them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14, 22-33
Today’s first reading and gospel give us two examples of men who, in different ways, were struggling with their faith in God. To understand the first reading, we have to look at it in the context of the whole story of why Elijah was in the depths of depression and despair. Threatened by Elijah’s honesty and his decisive action of putting all the false prophets to the sword, Queen Jezebel set out to do away with him: “May the gods do thus and so to me if, by this time tomorrow, I have not done to your life what was done to each of them” (1 Kings 19, 2). Elijah fled across the desert, and was soon physically and emotionally exhausted. He became so depressed, that he even contemplated suicide. At the end of his tether, he sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life: “Enough already; I’m ready to die:”
While we may not have reached the point of contemplating suicide, we can all find some consolation from Elijah’s story simply because we can resonate with some of his feelings. We know what it is to be down in the mouth, to be at the end of our tether. Loss, grief and fear touch us all, at one time or another, at the personal and communal levels. We struggle with the unpredictability of war-mongering political leaders, and taste the fear of unknown consequences that could come from decisions motivated by narcissism. We look with dismay at the plight of millions of refugees begging for shelter from nations deaf to their pleas. We are aghast that a football club will pay a transfer fee of 222 million euro to gain the services of a Brazilian player and pay him 550,000 euro per week, while tens of thousands of fellow human beings die daily from starvation and lack of clean water and sanitation. At the personal level we know the loss of loved ones through separation, imprisonment, divorce, disease and death. We know directly or vicariously the hurt that comes from job loss, broken trust, addiction, loneliness, betrayal and depression. We all have Elijah moments. We all know of friends and family who seem to have lost the will to keep going, who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Today’s story of Elijah is a reminder to us to step back from trying to control what is hurting us either from the outside or from within our own minds, hearts or imaginations. It’s an invitation to stop and listen for the presence of God who is not to be found in the spectacular but rather in the quiet of our hearts or in the gentle whispering of the wind. Uplifted by the encouragement of an angel, Elijah picked himself up and journeyed forty days and nights to the mountain of Horeb, where he took shelter in a cave. And there, the presence of God was revealed to him, not in thunder, lightning, earthquake or fire, but in a refreshing, gentle breeze. God was present to him in a way he least expected. And God comes to us, too, in ways we least expect.
While there are still people around who want us to view cataclysms, tsunamis and earthquakes as dire warnings and punishments from God, their threats and warnings don’t fit a God whom Jesus revealed as merciful, compassionate and loving. The American poet, Grace Noll Crowell surely got it right when she wrote: “Hold up your cup, dear child, for God to fill. He only asks today that you be still.” (Prayer for One Who Is Tired) If we’re patient enough, we will find God in the depths of our own hearts.
Today’s gospel story uses a different metaphor from the one we find in the Elijah story. We hear of a rather spooky encounter between Jesus and his disciples on a turbulent sea, where they are being battered by the waves on the outside and fear on the inside. Peter is us as he steps out of the boat in response to an invitation from Jesus. But as he gets closer to Jesus, he begins to sink. We have a desire to be open to Jesus’ invitation to come to him, but falter when he gets too close for comfort. He might ask too much of us. Perhaps it’s safer to know him from a distance.
There is real irony in all this, for our faith in Jesus matures as it is challenged in the rough and tumble of everything happening within us and around us. Moreover, closeness to Jesus will often mean venturing into turbulent waters, and taking the risk of “rocking the boat”. Living the way Jesus invites us to live, translating his message into action will involve us in actively confronting some of the agents of fear, disruption and injustice that unsettle our faith in the first place.
One of the obstacles we encounter as our faith struggles to grow and develop is to be found in the excuses we can make when the Gospel looks to be too demanding: “I’m not good enough, I’m not properly qualified, I’m no saint, I don’t have what it takes, I can’t do what’s expected”. We know we can put God off and shrink from the demands of the Gospel by a false humility that proclaims that we are not worthy. We want to forget Paul’s observation in his letter to the Corinthians: “God chooses the weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1, 27). Perhaps one of the reasons why Peter faltered and began to sink was that he did not have enough self-confidence, he did not think he was good enough for what Jesus wanted of him.
Even if our faith in God, Jesus and ourselves might not be all we would like it to be, we can find consolation in Jesus’ words of encouragement to Peter and to all of us: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The Transfiguration (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
From the cloud there came a voice which said: “This is my beloved Son; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.”…Jesus gave them this order: “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Matthew 17, 1-9
There must be something quite important about this story of the transfiguration of Jesus for no other reason than that it is put before us twice each year - during Lent and on the annual celebration of the Transfiguration. What message is so important that there is a need to have us deliberately reflect on it twice a year?
Occasionally, most of us have moments when we feel close to God, experiences that remain etched indelibly in our memories. They are few and far between, but they help us to deal with disappointing and hurtful experiences when they come our way, remembering that God is always with us, even when life looks bleak. Psychologists refer to our uplifting “God moments” as peak experiences.
Today’s gospel story of the mountaintop experience we now call the Transfiguration is Matthew’s rewrite of a story that was passed on to him. It’s also his way of trying to make sense of that story. What Matthew has put together operates as a parable, even though he does not call it a that. This story is loaded with symbols. There’s a mountaintop, because it was on mountaintops that prophets and other holy people encountered God. There’s a face, shining brightly, calling to mind Moses’ meeting with God on Mt Sinai. There’s a voice from heaven. Included are the great champions of the Jewish Law, Elijah and Moses. Where there are symbols, there’s an invitation to explore them for their meaning. The characters of parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan represent much more than the individuals involved in the story. They stand for actions that we are all capable of doing, and they act as mirrors into which we are invited to look. For example, in the characters who ignore the man who was beaten and robbed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can see something of ourselves. In the same way, the story of the transfiguration carries a message for us to reflect on. Just in case we missed that message on the second Sunday of Lent this year, we are invited to ponder it again this week.
We have to remember that Matthew was writing for a community that was experiencing rejection and persecution because of its adherence to Jesus and all he had taught. Peter, James and John were names well-known to Matthew’s community, and the story of their intense religious experience on the mountaintop when they were given an assurance that God was really with them was meant to remind Matthew’s community that God was with them as truly as he was with Peter James and John. The inclusion of Moses and Elijah, giants of faith in the history of God’s love for their people, is a double reassurance that God was with them and would continue to be with them. The voice from heaven urging the apostles to hold tight to what Jesus taught them, followed immediately by an unexpected reference to the death and resurrection that awaited him, was intended to be a call not to lose hope, even when things looked bleak and hopeless. That was the message of this parable for Matthew’s community, and that’s the message for us, too, as we struggle to stay faithful to Jesus and his Gospel in a world that is gripped by fear and confusion, in a Church that looks to be faltering and whose morale has been seriously dented.
There is a message for us, too, in the stunned response by Peter, James and John to what they had experienced. They could hardly be blamed for wanting to linger on the mountaintop after such a revelation? There were plenty of examples in their tradition of others building monuments and altars at places of divine encounter. But perhaps there was more than that to their wanting to linger. As they had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, they had seen an endless trail of human brokenness and need, and could anticipate that there would be more to come. Staying where they were would give them some respite from the heartbreaking human longing that awaited them back down the mountain.
Aren’t there times when we find ourselves wanting to distance ourselves from a world whose needs are unable to be addressed, a world gripped by fear, battered by frequent acts of terrorism, and overwhelmed by wars, racial conflict, starvation and disease? While our urge may well be to retreat from strife like this, we also know that it is often only the privileged who have the means to do that. Right now, we know that there are millions of refugees fleeing the civil strife that has descended upon countries like Syria and South Sudan. We know, too, that many of them are being turned away by nations and governments unwilling to respond to their plight.
However, it seems to me that the disciples’ desire to stay on the mountain came from their thinking that what they had experienced was the pinnacle of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. But Jesus was quick to make it clear to them that God’s ultimate revelation was still to come - in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. That is how God’s love and power would be put on full display - not in self-importance, not in glory or dazzling whiteness, but in self-emptying, in standing in solidary with the forgotten, the down-trodden, the poor and the suffering. Maybe, that is why the only thing Jesus said in this whole story was an instruction to the disciples not to tell anyone about their mountaintop experience until after his resurrection - so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. And that’s precisely why Matthew sandwiches this transfiguration story between two predictions of Jesus’ passion and death, along with a reminder that the cross will be a part of the life of everyone who wants to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Jesus put to one side the brilliance and exhilaration of the transfiguration, and headed down the mountain to listen to the pleas of a man whose son, gripped by mental illness, was repeatedly endangering his life by throwing himself into the fire or into the water. He rejected personal privilege, nailing it to the cross for the sake of the needy, the forgotten and the dispossessed, indeed, for every one of us as well. While his transfiguration on the mountaintop was intended for his disciples and for us to be a reminder not to lose hope, no matter how bleak life may become, Jesus made it clear that lasting transfiguration would come for us and our world through his cross and ultimate resurrection. In laying aside privilege and special treatment, he reminds us to do the same for the sake of others and the good of our world. In today’s gospel story, that message is reinforced by the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And let’s not forget that there are many other transfiguration moments in our lives as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to reach out to others in love: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God said to Solomon: “Ask something of me and I will give it to you”. Solomon replied: “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” 1 Kings 3, 5, 7-12
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field…a merchant searching for fine pearls…a net thrown into the sea…” Matthew 13, 44-52
In today’s gospel reading, we are offered three more parables. The first two, the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl, highlight, at one level, the need for disciples to be totally attached to Jesus and his message, and detached from whatever gets in the way of our Christian commitment. The parable of the net cast into the sea is a reminder to us to seek the things of God, camouflaged in the clutter of life. In encouraging us to be builders of God’s kingdom in our world, Jesus reaches for parables and illustrations that capture his experience of God’s presence and action in the world. Perhaps we can only hope that his comparisons about God’s final judgement limp a little.
However, I would like to suggest that we try to look through the eyes of Jesus at the parable of the treasure buried in a field. For starters, Jesus would see exactly what everyone else looking at a field sees: soil, grass, weeds, litter. But he knows that underneath the surface, under the dirt and grime and weeds, there lies a treasure - you and I and all the people around us. So he gives away all he has, including his divine connections, comes down to our level and invests his energy, his talents and his life in buying the treasure that is us. We are so precious that Jesus spends all he has and is to bring us to himself. The parable of the merchant buying the precious pearl carries a similar message. From these two parables we can conclude that Jesus is our biggest fan.
I also want to suggest that there is something to be gained from delving into today’s first reading about Solomon. If we can acquire even a little of his wisdom, we might not be in a rush to judge others. The writer of this story makes it clear that Solomon’s wisdom was at work in a social context: “I serve you, God, in the midst of the people you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.” This is a reminder to us that we must always see our faith development in conjunction with the faith development of all those around us. If we really looked at ourselves and the people around us, all of us with our complex personalities and behaviours, our fears and our emotional upheavals, we might moderate our views of God’s final judgement, and be a little less hasty to want to separate the “weeds” from the “wheat”.
It is telling that Solomon asks God for wisdom, for an understanding heart to distinguish right from wrong. In the years that have elapsed since Solomon’s time, the bearers of wisdom have come to appreciate that it is over-simplistic to view people and their actions in terms of right and wrong, black and white. We all know that there are shades of grey between black and white, and gradations between right and wrong. Yet, we still fall into the trap of categorizing others as traditionalists or radicals, as liberals or conservatives, as leftist or rightist. Over and over, we slip into articulating our political, social, cultural and, even, theological realities and concepts in exclusive ways. Such discrete categorization is a neat way of avoiding the difficult and complex work of discovering subtle differences and modulations in the views and opinions of the people with whom we engage. Crude categorisations of others and their views imply that we engage with our world as spectators rather than as participants.
Reflection on our own lives as individuals, as members of communities and groups, and as citizens of nations demonstrates that what we have become is considerably more than an accumulation of right and wrong decisions or the result of participation in liberal or conservative social, religious and political groups.
We live in a world gripped by fear, a world that seems over hasty to separate terrorists from pacifists, radicalized from those who are “middle-of-the-road. Yet, it’s a world in which some have become extremely wealthy through injustice, exploitation and violence, while others have become destroyed by those very same practices. Somehow, we have to learn from engaging with one another around our various histories - histories of our family of origin, of our local communities, of our nation - and exploring how those histories interconnect with our economic, cultural, political, geographic and military histories. We have all been touched by these various histories and, along the way, some of us have been advantaged by them, others impeded by them, and others still, strangled and impoverished by them.
This is not easy work leading to simple solutions. It is work that calls for patience, insight and creativity; work that ultimately calls us to strive to change some of the social, economic and political structures that obstruct freedom, self-determination and the common good.
Discipleship of Jesus demands that we challenge and work to dismantle structures that enslave people and systems built on the accumulation of power and wealth through injustice, violence and destruction. The irony, of course, is that working for justice, challenging unjust structures, advocating for refugees and collaborating with those made poor will attract labels like radical, liberal. Solomon looked at the legacy he had inherited from his father, David, reflected on its implications for his people, and responded by asking God for wisdom. We could do a lot worse than to imitate Solomon.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“We do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.” Romans 8, 26-27
Matthew’s Gospel is notable for the fact that it contains just over fifty references to the kingdom or reign of God. Because of that distinguishing feature, some Biblical scholars refer to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. But for both Matthew and Jesus, the kingdom of God is neither a place nor an identified and named area of land. Rather, it is a way of living and relating, built on practiced values such as justice, compassion, tolerance and reconciliation. The kingdom of God grows out of the coming of Emmanuel - “God with us” - in the person of Jesus, and is made up of people living in communion with one another, respecting one another, living good and decent lives, and reaching out to one another in care, compassion and support. It has nothing to do with temporal power, control or subservience to authority. Today’s gospel offers us three short parables which illustrate different characteristics of God’s kingdom on earth - the parables of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast, and the first of these parables is not quite as simple as it looks.
The parable of the wheat and weeds strikes me as contradictory, presenting God as someone who is patient and considerate in dealing with evil and those who do it, but, in the long run, dispatching them. So I would like to suggest that the parable is more than an attempt to underline the patience of God. Might it not be a way of reflecting back to us our own desire and tendency to deal with evil things and evil people by trying to exterminate them summarily? After all, they are, at best, obstructive and, at worst, harmful and destructive not only of our growth, but of our very survival. Yet, Jesus himself would probably be urging us to be less hasty and more tolerant, if only to give us time and space to come to the realization that the world is not made up solely of black and white, good and evil, but that there are weeds and wheat existing side by side in all of us. We know that we are equally capable of both heroism and treachery, of the very best and the very worst. Perhaps we might even come to believe in a God, described in today’s first reading from Wisdom, as one who is not hell-bent on taking out revenge on those who do evil.
But, we are still left with the less comfortable parts of today’s gospel which suggest that God will eventually come up with a “final solution” to rid the world of evil and those who do it. The only plausible explanation I can offer is that there is a little bit of Matthew mixed in with the thoughts of Jesus. Matthew was writing for a community struggling with persecution, and, understandably, flagging under the pressure. He wanted to stiffen their faith and assure them that the God of Jesus would eventually triumph over those causing them grief. So, we may need to overlook his zeal to have God come up with a violent solution.
At the same time, today’s gospel challenges us to reflect on the ambiguities that are part of real life, and on a God who is merciful and patient on the one hand, yet impatient and decisive on the other. That might well explain why Paul, in the second reading from Romans, refers to our prayer as sometimes sounding like groaning that simply cannot be put into words. We find of the existence of evil in the world, and, consequently, unable to pray as we would like.
The parable of the mustard seed suggests that God’s kingdom grows out of the smallest, most insignificant and humblest of beginnings, and that we contribute to that growth through very ordinary acts of kindness, care, compassion, affirmation and encouragement.
The parable of the yeast emphasises that we often don’t realise the impact that a very ordinary act of kindness or encouragement can have on those for whom it is done. Just as a tiny quantity of yeast can transform dough into bread, so simple acts of kindness can have an impact for good far beyond what we can imagine.
By way of illustration, I offer a couple of stories for both of which I am indebted to retired parish priest, William Bausch. An elderly parishioner, conscious of her approaching death, penned the following to the usher in her parish church:
“Dear Harry, I’m sorry I don’t know your last name, but then you don’t know mine. You’re at the ten o’clock Mass each Sunday. I’m writing to ask a favour of you. I don’t know the priest too well, but somehow I feel close to you. I don’t know how you got to know my first name, but every Sunday morning you smile and greet me by name, and we exchange a few words - how bad the weather is, how much you like my hat, and how I was late one particular Sunday. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to remember an old lady, for your smiles, for your consideration, for your thoughtfulness. Now for my favour. I am dying, Harry. My husband has been dead for 16 years, and the kids are scattered. It’s very important for me when they bring me to church for the last time that you will be standing there at the front entrance. It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t say: ‘Hello, Gert. Good to see you.’ If you are there, Harry, I feel assured that your warm hospitality will be duplicated in my new home in heaven. With love and gratitude, Gert.”
The second illustrates how we can all rise to the heights, despite out human frailty:
During the decades when East and West Germany were separated by the Berlin Wall, thousands of people met their death attempting to escape to freedom across the wall. One day a small, chubby boy arrived at the wall, his hands held apart in an expression of pleading. The East German guard who encountered the lad had a reputation for being a thief and a drug-dealer. However, he was so moved by the boy’s pleading that, after checking to see that nobody was watching, he lifted the lad over the wall to freedom. Shortly afterwards, the young soldier was arrested and executed by firing squad for an act of compassion for a young boy to whom he had not said a single word. Nevertheless, they had met heart to heart.
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The seeds sown in good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it.” Matthew 13, 1-23
In today’s first reading from Romans, Paul describes an experience with which, I suspect, many of us can identify. Using the image of the slow rate of change in the created world, Paul applies it to the frustrations we experience and the lamenting we do about how slow we are to let the action of God change our hearts and minds. While we express the desire for the kind of conversion of heart needed to be genuine and committed disciples of Jesus, we know our frailty and the struggle we have to change, even a little. Embracing the “glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God” proves to be much more difficult than it sounds. Perhaps the slowness of our progress has a lot to do with the way in which we relate to God. God loves us extravagantly, yet so often we find ourselves hesitant or even cringing at the very thought that God really does love us in our weakness and human fragility.
Today’s gospel is decidedly more optimistic. It speaks of our faith in God growing and developing like a seed sown in the ground. While the dangers facing the seed are listed, our faith is described as something that grows, sometimes even laboriously, over time. With the care of a patient “farmer”, who knows how what is planted develops and changes shape, we are assured that our spiritual and personal evolution is underway.
Like all of the stories that Jesus told, the parable of the sower is multi-layered. Within this parable there are meanings tucked away, which sometimes don’t register with us for years. Paradoxically, the parable of the sower is so well known to us that we can probably repeat it in its every detail. But knowing the details so well, of any story, means that we can miss the hidden meanings. Yet, if we consciously set our imagination to work on it, some of those hidden meanings might well come to light. The simplest meaning of the parable is that that we are invited to mirror both Jesus, the story-teller and the Sower in the parable. We are invited to scatter the seeds of the Gospel by the way we live it, and we just don’t know what kind of ground they will land on, or how long they might take to germinate. And we are asked to share our stories - the stories of our lives, of where and how we encounter God each and every day of our lives. Stories, by nature, create ripples in the minds and hearts of those who hear them. They fire not only our own moral imaginations, but the moral imaginations of others.
Jesus grew up and was educated in an oral culture. We, too, belong to an oral culture, but it is being squeezed out by an electronic one. Many of our stories are being told in abbreviated form on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Despite that, everyone still loves a story. Maybe one of the following stories might touch your moral imagination in such a way that you will shape it as your own, expand it, and pass it on in your words to someone else:
Every day of the week, except Saturday, wonderful smells wafted up from Moishe’s bakery. Customers came early to make sure they did not miss out on Moishe’s fresh bagels. And every day old Aaron turned up, just to smell the bagels, because he could not afford to buy even one. He stood outside the shop every morning, sniffing the air, with a smile on his face. Moshe started to get annoyed by Aaron’s presence and eventually told him to get out of the way because he was getting in the way of regular customers. Aaron replied by stating that his meagre pension prevented him from buying, and that he came each day because the smell of garlic and poppy seed in the air reminded him of his childhood days, when fresh bagels were within his father’s budget. Some of Moshe’s customers took Aaron’s side, telling Moshe to stop harassing the old man. Others tried to make light of the matter, telling Moshe to take Aaron to TV court - Judge Jackson’s Jiffy Justice. “Not a bad idea”, Moshe replied, “I’ve seen that guy on the box, and he’s pretty clever!” So the following week, Moshe took Aaron to TV court. Proceedings began with the Clerk of Court calling everyone to stand while Judge Jackson took his place at the bench. The judge wasted no time, and immediately called Moshe to state his complaint.
“Well, your Honour”, Moshe said pointing at Aaron, “that man stands outside my bakery every morning, taking up valuable space and stealing the smell of my fresh bagels, and he never buys one. So, I want full compensation for the smells he steals”.
“Well, Aaron, you’ve heard Moshe, the baker’s charge, so what do you have to say?”
“It’s true, your Honour, I do come for the wonderful smells, because they remind me of my childhood days, when my father could afford to buy. Now, in my old age, I don’t have the money.”
“Thank you both”, said Jude Jackson, “I will retire to consider my verdict.”
The judge was back in no time and announced to the assembled court: “This was not an easy decision, but I rule in favour of Moshe, the baker.”
And uneasy murmur went through the courtroom. Judge Jackson banged his gavel, and turned to Aaron: “Do you have any money in your pocket, Aaron?”
“Just a few coins, your Honour”
“Will you please shake them, Aaron?” Aaron did as Judge Jackson requested.
“Moshe, did you hear those coins rattling?” asked Judge Jackson.
“Yes I did, your Honour. But when do I get my compensation?”
“Moshe, the baker, you’ve been fully compensated. The sound of Aaron’s coins just paid for the smells of your bagels.”
Now, before we hurry on to the next story, we might take a few moments to reflect on our own demonstrations of pettiness and narrow-mindedness in our relationships with others.
The second story comes from a retired policeman, reflecting on some of the embarrassing situations in which found himself. He told of seeing a middle-aged male driver being tailgated by a frustrated female driver on a busy arterial road. Suddenly, the traffic lights turned amber, and the man stopped his vehicle. That resulted in a stream of four letter words from the woman behind. She leant on the horn, produced some even more colourful language, and took out her cell phone. Her ranting was interrupted by a gentle tap on her window. She looked up to see a stern-looking Sergeant of Police. The policeman ordered her to move to the side of the road, and then took her to the police station where she was required to surrender her belongings to the duty officer, and then placed in a holding cell.
About two hours later, she was escorted back to the desk by a somewhat embarrassed arresting officer. Her personal effects were returned, and the officer explained: “I’m very sorry for my mistake. You see, I pulled up behind you just as you were leaning on the horn and cursing the driver in front of you. And then I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ registration plate holder, and the Greek Christian fish emblem on the rear window. I naturally concluded that you must have stolen the car.”
What’s it like looking into that mirror?
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11, 25-30
Here in the northern hemisphere, summer holidays are in the air. It’s hot, the markets are full of peaches, plums, figs, cherries and apricots - all announcing that summer is here. The schools have closed until late August or early September, and university exams are all but over. Families are making plans to get out of Rome for some cooler place. Despite what Paul seems to be saying in today’s second reading from Romans, we really do owe a debt to the flesh, in the sense that we have a responsibility to care for the bodies with which God has blessed us. Our bodies, minds and spirits all need to be renewed and refreshed from time to time, and, for most of us, summer is the traditional time for that. Paul’s focus is on a theme he often repeats: If we engage in dull, destructive, repulsive pastimes, we’ll naturally end up dull, deadened and repulsive. And that’s hardly an expression of appreciation to the God who loved us into life. The debt we owe to the flesh is to revive its energy, to bolster it up, to prepare it to encounter life’s stress.
Yet, one of the paradoxes of the world in which we live is that rest and recreation are almost dirty words. In some quarters we are thought to be “indulgent” or “self-centred” if we dare take a day off. Busy-ness is rewarded, and those who can multi-task from dawn to dark are held up for admiration. The standard response to the question “How are you? is no longer “Well”, but “Busy” or “Stressed”. Busy-ness now carries the implication of value, worth, indispensability.
Yet, in today’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ invitation to rest. And it’s an invitation that is supported by his action. The Gospel writers make frequent references to his going off by himself to rest and pray. Without rest and renewal, we do, in fact, reduce our productivity, and become irritable, prickly and testy. All too often, rest and holidays fall into the category of privilege rather than necessity. I am reminded of a cartoon that depicted a family on a beach outing, all in swim wear - dad is sitting under an umbrella tapping away at his laptop, mum is seriously talking on her I-phone, and two teenage children are fully engrossed in electronic games. Even on holidays, we feel the need to be constantly connected with the business and people we have left behind, through emails, texting, What’s Ap, Facebook and other social media. Perhaps we might need to consider that rest for the weary and heavily-laden is as much a matter of justice as of anything else.
What’s more, we may well benefit from reflecting on some of the implications of accepting Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Is it an invitation we accept with eagerness? When did you and I last respond to it with alacrity? In reality, I can use busy-ness as a means of keeping myself away from a personal encounter with Jesus, of keeping God at a distance. Accepting Jesus’ invitation implies getting close to him, and that can make me uncomfortable. I may have to ponder some of his questions and reflect on his challenges.
Seared into my memory is the image of a Turkish soldier holding the body of three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi. He, his five-year-old brother and their mother drowned in their attempt to reach safety. In the wake of this and other tragedies, of frequent incidents of terrorist savagery and of the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London which claimed more than 80 lives, people have been heard to ask: “How does one square these things with a God who is supposed to be gentle and merciful?”
Digging into questions like that inevitably leads me to ponder just what kind of relationship I have with God. What is my God like? The only way to answer those questions is to explore my relationships with other people. After all, the kind of relationship I have with God is reflected in the way I relate to everyone I encounter. All relationships are built on trust. We get nowhere if we try to turn relationships into contracts: “I will be faithful, if you are faithful. I will be honest, open and loyal if you are.” Human beings don’t successfully relate that way. We learn from experience that there are no guarantees when human beings get involved with one another. We learn to forgive, to be flexible enough to allow one another to make mistakes and to grow from them, to live with uncertainty, to be tolerant, to accept one another’s deficiencies.
But when it comes to God, we want to change the rules. We slip back into wanting a contract: “God, I have been faithful to my religious commitments, I have been kind and generous to people in need, so why did you let my brother commit suicide, why did you let my mother die of cancer?”
Somehow we suffer from memory lapse. Every year in Holy Week, we commemorate the brutal torture and death by crucifixion of the one whom God called “my beloved Son”. God did not intervene to take back the freedom of choice given to those who hatched the plan to have Jesus falsely condemned and executed. Neither does God take away anyone else’s freedom. Still we slip into expecting a relationship with God that is built on predictability and an iron-clad guarantee. We would not expect that kind of relationship from anyone other than our insurer. In practice, the faith and trust we place in other people go out the window when it comes to our relationship with God.
Perhaps we even subscribe to the view that Jesus himself had some kind of inside running in his relationship with God; that he endured torture and crucifixion in a detached way, knowing that God would eventually come to his rescue. Yet we know that he experienced doubt, and felt the same kind of abandonment experienced by the rest of humanity: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Still, we persist in clinging to the view that Jesus had the full script tucked up his sleeve. In Hebrews, we are reminded that Jesus was like us in everything except sin. Having become human, he experienced the human condition in its fullness; he felt all the unfairness that life has to offer. True, life is unfair. We can all testify to that. Yet, the resurrection of Jesus is clear proof that God will have the last word. In the meantime we know that love sustains us, and keeps us living in the kind of trust and hope that allows us to accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him. But accepting the invitation is still risky!
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward; and anyone who welcomes an upright person because he is an upright person will have the reward of an upright person.” Matthew 10, 37-42
Today’s gospel describes the price that had to be paid by members of Matthew’s community for being disciples of Jesus. As those disciples abandoned the traditional practice of Judaism to embrace Jesus’ version of it, they experienced considerable personal pain. For instance, family and friendship connections came under great strain. Those who followed in Jesus’ steps were seen as traitors to their great Jewish heritage. How different is it now? Matthew presents in very stark terms the cost of siding with Jesus: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It’s one thing to deal with family division and conflict, quite another to deal with the inner conflict that rises as one struggles to interpret Jesus’ vision and values in real life situations. Living that vision and those values in all manner of work and social situations will lead to interpersonal tensions and disagreements.
While the interface between Christianity and our contemporary world is different from what it was like in Matthew’s time, there is still a price to be paid for being a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century. We have to stop and measure our willingness to adhere to our Christian values when they are a source of conflict in the social arenas of our lives. And, when we look at our personal life ambitions and potential, do we stop to ask ourselves if they resonate with the values of Jesus and his Gospel?
Jay Cormier, a contemporary writer who explores issues that confront those who try to live as disciples of Jesus in today’s world, shares a speech given by an extremely successful company director at his retirement dinner. As he brought his speech to a conclusion, he turned to the company’s younger executives and said:
“I know you all want my job. Let me tell you how to get it. Last week my daughter was married, and as I walked her down the aisle of the church, it struck me that I didn’t even know the name of her best friend, the main bridesmaid, or the last book my daughter had read, or her favourite colour. That’s the price I paid for this job. If you want to pay that price, you can have it.” (Jay Cormier, Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Matthew, New City Press, 2010)
Sometimes, we discover our own poverty only by doing a stock-take of our successes and achievements. We can become so wrapped-up in pursuing our ambitions that we fail to develop our humanity. In today’s gospel, Matthew presents Jesus calling those who would be his disciples to lay aside their obsessions and empty pursuits in order to find a quality of life that is truly human and energized by hope, gratitude, compassion and presence to others.
Max Lucado, a Church of Christ pastor and writer, tells the story of an encounter he had with a young woman in Los Angeles airport. The woman, from an Eastern religious sect, stopped him as he walked through the terminal, and offered him the gift of a book explaining the philosophy of the cult to which she belonged. Max thanked her for her kindness and continued on his way. However she pursued him: “Would you like to make a donation to our school?” “No”, he answered, “but thanks for the Book.” He set off again, but was challenged: “Sir, everyone so far has given a donation in appreciation of the gift”. “That’s good”, Max replied, “but I don’t think I will. However, I do appreciate your gift.” He was about to keep going when the woman, by now quite agitated, said: “Sir, if you were sincere in your gratitude, you would make a donation in appreciation.” “That may be true”, Lucado replied, “but if you were sincere, you would not give me a gift and then ask me to pay for it.” The woman reached for the book, but he tucked it under his arm and walked off.
Later, reflecting on the exchange, Lucado wrote: “This incident made me think of my own self-serving gifts, how often I expect something back, and how far removed I am from the total giving of Jesus of himself. And so we ask ourselves: When we give a gift, is there a hook? Are we hospitable without expecting recompense, the ‘I’ll have you over for dinner, and then you’ll have me over for dinner’ sort of thing? Can we be as generous as God who makes it rain on the just and unjust alike” (Max Lucado: And the Angels Were Silent, Thomas Nelson, Nashville 1987)
Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings tells the story of the hospitality offered by the Shunammite woman and her husband to the prophet Elisha. The woman recognized Elisha as a “holy man” and persuaded her husband to build a special room for Elisha, where he and his servant could stay whenever they were passing. Recognising her kindness, Elisha asked, through his servant, if she wanted anything in return for her hospitality. Her simple response was that she was satisfied with what she had: “I live with my own people about me.” But Elisha’s servant quietly pointed out to him that the woman’s husband was advanced in years, and they had no son (to care for them). Elisha had his servant call her, and then announced: “This time next year you will hold a son in your arms.” This is simply a metaphor for saying: “For your selfless kindness and hospitality you will find yourself embracing new life.”
We must always remember to be careful not to take literally much of what we read in the Scripture. It is literature. In today’s gospel, Jesus is not launching an attack on family life. But he is saying that following him calls for generous commitment to his vision and mission. We have to be wary of what can distract us from being generous, compassionate and caring. In order to receive “the prophet’s reward”, we have to use our God-given gifts to mirror the love of God in every one of our encounters and interactions with others. In our own way we have to be prophets, too, witnessing to God’s mercy, compassion, justice and love. Jesus is as alive in our world today as you and I make him. But there is a cost to making that happen. Are we prepared to pay that cost, to lose some of our popularity, to set ourselves up for ridicule?
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing…So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.” Matthew 10, 26-33
One of the very clear messages that Jesus gives in today’s gospel is that we really matter to God. If God cares for the sparrows, God will care much more for us, who are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.
I have to admit that I’m really not an admirer of Facebook. That’s because I struggle to use it, and, besides, it takes too much time. However, I discovered recently that the chief operations officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is rated as one of the most visible and successful women in corporate America. Just three years ago, her husband, Dave, died of a heart attack while they were holidaying together in Mexico. In April this year, a book Sheryl Sandberg co-authored with psychologist, Adam Grant was published. The book is entitled: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, and is an account of how she and her two children - a 7-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son - dealt with their grief and loss. Early in the book, Sandberg, reflecting on the inability of friends to offer comfort or even acknowledge Dave’s death, had this to say:
“People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? My friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist, said he was certain that people wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?” but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? (Remember, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre.)
…Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start.”
Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Penguin Random House, New York, April 2017
Sheryl Sandberg goes on to explain how she guided herself and her children to cope with their loss and grief. She stressed the importance of “mattering”, “family” and “memory”. I will limit myself to “mattering” in this reflection, recommending that this is a book well worth reading in its entirety.
When we stop to remind ourselves about how Jesus lived and spoke about his relationship with God, we end up concluding that Jesus is the sacrament of God and we, the Christian community, are the sacrament of Jesus. That means that one of our principal roles is to mirror Jesus to everyone we encounter. In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us in graphic imagery that we matter to God. In our relationships with others, we demonstrate our authenticity as followers of Jesus, as the sacrament of Jesus, by treating them in ways that clearly transmit that they matter - to God, to Jesus and to us. Sheryl Sandberg repeats in the language of sociologists what Jesus said in language that everyone could understand. Sociologists would say that we know that we matter when others notice and acknowledge us, when they show they care about us, and signal in their actions that they rely on us. At some stage in our lives we find ourselves wondering if we really matter. We feel devalued when we are ignored. We feel valued when others acknowledge, encourage and affirm us.
In times past, one of the prescribed texts for the Year 3 undergraduate English course at Sydney University was the Middle English allegorical poem, Piers Plowman, written by William Langland. Some of Langland’s insights were centuries ahead of their time. Langland believed that, as we were all created in the image of God, baptism was not essential for being united with God after death. In the text of Piers Plowman one can read: “The divine fire comes not to consume, but to bring light. So an honest man who lives by the law that he knows, believing there is none better (for if he knew of a better he would accept it) - a man who has never treated anyone unjustly, and who dies in this spirit - surely the God of truth would not reject such honesty as this.” Elsewhere in his poem he writes: “…faith alone is sufficient to save the ignorant. And that being so, many Jews and Saracens may be saved, perhaps before we are…the Jews possess a true Law, which God himself engraved on stone so that it should be steadfast and last forever. ‘Love God and your neighbour’ is the perfect Law of the Jews, and God gave it to Moses to teach to men until the Messiah came. So to this day the Jews follow that Law and believe it to be the best.” Jesus undoubtedly agreed.
Jesus’ allusion to the fall of a sparrow emphasises his view that God is attentive to us individually. Isaiah made the same point when he has God say: “…I will not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palm of my hand” (Isaiah 49, 15).
We need to periodically remind ourselves that faith is well and truly alive in humanity because of the love and loyalty of God, who gives freely, and who is totally unmoved by our prejudices, our anxieties, our categorisations and our tendency to be judgemental of the spiritual state of our neighbours. God is not selective. In God’s eyes we are all worth more than many sparrows. So let’s not do God a disservice.
The Body and Blood of Christ
“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6, 51-58
I find today’s gospel reading difficult because my early religious education led me to a literal understanding of Jesus’ words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” To take those words literally places me squarely in the same camp as the Jews, who could not comprehend the meaning behind them. One of the principal differences between John’s Gospel and those attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke is that John’s Gospel works through poetry, symbol and metaphor, while the other three Gospels are substantially a collection of stories.
A further difficulty about matching today’s reading from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with the institution of the Eucharist is that John’s account of the Last Supper ignores completely any reference to bread and wine. Eucharist is all about building community, and John’s point is that the cement of community is hospitality, symbolized by the welcome that is extended to a guest through the washing of his/her feet. For the other three evangelists, close, welcoming community is nourished through the sharing of a meal. For John, genuine community is built and nourished through the ritual of gracious foot-washing. He makes it clear that the way we are in communion with one another, the way we treat one another with welcome, dignity and respect reflects the way we are in communion with God. The challenge for all of us is to match the beliefs and values we say we hold dear with the way in which we actually live. The greater the congruence or harmony between our rhetoric and our behaviour, the more authentic will be our humanity. And our model for that is Jesus himself. There was no credibility gap between what he said and what he did. Jesus engaged with the messy reality of life with integrity and credibility. The challenge for all of us is to do likewise.
In turning our attention to Eucharist, we have to keep in mind that, for Jewish people, sharing in a meal (breaking bread and drinking wine) was a demonstration of intimate relationship with one another and, consequently, a symbol of our communion with God. True hospitality to others reflects our relationship to God. In other words, if what we celebrate when we gather in our parishes for Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday does not lead us to treat one another with respect and dignity, does not bring us closer together as a community or parish, then we have little in common with the Jesus we claim to follow.
In today’s gospel reading, John ascribes to Jesus the words: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6, 51). A few verses earlier, John has Jesus say to the Jews who had gathered: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 48). Very clearly this is poetic language, metaphors used by John to say that Jesus is the way to God. Fully immersed in our humanity through the flesh and blood realities of life, Jesus is pointing out that the way to God is to be found in engaging with and processing the earthy events of our lives. God is to be encountered in the ordinary stuff of life.
One of the real difficulties with understanding and fully participating in Eucharist is that most of us have to move into the uncomfortable territory of letting go of what we learned all those years ago when, as children, we were preparing for our First Holy Communion. If it has to be unlearned, it was poor teaching in the first place. My memory is of being told that the high point of Mass was to receive Jesus, “body and blood, soul and divinity”, into my heart and that this was a private moment between Jesus and me.
Jesus is, indeed, really present in the Eucharist, but it is not in the form of physical flesh and blood. We do not receive the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the Jesus who chased the money-lenders out of the temple. Rather, it is the risen Jesus, sacramentally and spiritually present. Even Thomas Aquinas explained that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. But that does not mean that his presence is less real. Somehow, we have been brainwashed into believing that the only true reality is material or physical. In the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus and all he stood for and proclaimed. Surely that is enough to change our lives. That encounter is a sacramental one, but still real.
When we hear the word of God proclaimed and respond with “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, we are committing ourselves to live what we have heard. What’s more, in our western world, we have lost the true meaning of the offertory. Celebration of the Eucharist in every African country involves the whole community. Everyone walks or dances to the front of the church to make his/her monetary gift, and those selected for the offertory procession itself come bearing everything from fruit to canned goods and toilet tissue. These are gifts for the support of the priest and needy people in the area. But the gifts represent the life of the community and the people who make up the community. And when those gifts, represented by the staples of bread and wine, are consecrated and made holy, it is the community that is made holy, and immersed in the life of Jesus. That is why Augustine can suggest that the priest distributing communion might well say to everyone approaching the altar: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” - See, you are the body of Christ, the way to God for others, become the body of Christ and be for others the way to God.
There is ever so much more that can be said about Eucharist. However, let’s not forget that each Sunday we gather as community to encounter the Word of God, Jesus. Jesus Christ is, for us, the way to God. By welcoming Jesus into our lives when the Word is proclaimed and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally at communion, we in our turn become what we receive, namely, the way to God for others.
(For many of these thoughts I am indebted to Frank Andersen, MSC whose book Eucharist: Participating in the mystery, John Garratt Publishing, 1998, transformed my understanding of Eucharist when I read it nearly 20 years ago. I hope I have not done Frank a disservice.)
“God so loved the world that he gave his only son…God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” John 3, 16-18
If we get caught up in our memories of what we learned about “The Trinity” in our school days, we might easily miss the point of today’s celebration, and launch ourselves into an excursion into theological gymnastics. Today’s readings say nothing about exploring the mystery of how there can be “three persons in one God”. So, if you’re not a full-time, speculative theologian, my suggestion to you is to forget the mental gymnastics and ponder the readings, especially the gospel for today. Over centuries, lots of metaphors have been used to explain the Trinity. I prefer one that was presented by St John Damascene (also known as St John of Damascus, Syria). John was an 8th century Orthodox Catholic bishop. He suggested that we think “of the Father as a root, the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the sustenance of these three is one.” This is simply stating that God has been revealed to us as Father, the root which sustains life, Jesus (Son), the Word of God who grafts us to that life as branches (cf. “I am the vine; you are the branches”, John 15, 5), and Spirit, the fruit of God’s love in everyone, binding us all together in love.
One of the great paradoxes in our lives is that, after hearing John’s assertion about how God loved our world and all who belong to it, many people end up hating it, somehow mesmerised by the way it is being abused, instead of seeing how it can continue to reflect God’s goodness and glory. God is incarnated into it in the person of Jesus. Yet, again and again, we fail to recognise God’s presence in and around us. Charles Causley, a twentieth century, Welsh poet gave us the following reminder:
I am the great Sun, but you do not see me.
I am your Husband, but you turn away.
I am the Captive, but you do not free me.
I am the Captain you will not obey.
I am the Truth, but you will not believe me.
I am the City, where you will not stay.
I am your Wife, your Child, but you will leave me.
I am that God, to whom you will not pray.
I am your Counsel, but you do not hear me.
I am the Lover, whom you will betray.
I am the Victor, but you do not cheer me.
I am the Holy Dove, whom you will slay.
I am your Life, but you will not name me.
Seal up your soul with tears and never blame me.
Charles Causley, 1917-2003, Inspired by a Norman Crucifix, 1632
One good reason as to why we gather regularly in our religious and parish communities is to stop to take time to recover our sense of vision, to pause to ponder and celebrate the God we have bumped into each day, often without knowing it, to listen to God’s Word in Scripture, to handle the bread of Eucharist, and to look at our communities with the awakened awareness that such ordinary people and things harbour the very presence of God.
The great obstacle in the way of this is our own cynicism and our urge to opt for peace and quiet, to be left undisturbed. There is no doubt that we are bombarded every day with physical pollution of our planet and moral pollution of our values. But faced with today’s reminder that God’s love for us and our word is inexhaustible and unconditional, our only genuine response as Christians is to praise God, in spite of the mess around us, to search for God hidden in that mess, to sense ultimate goodness pulsating through the planet and all of creation, to acknowledge the beauty and truth that are really in great abundance in our world, and to be sensitive to love, present at every turn.
Today’s second reading from Corinthians directs us to give our attention to the love that is present in the members of our parish, family or religious community, for that love reflects something of what God is like: “Live in peace. Be agreeable. Keep your spirits up. Live in harmony. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure (2 Corinthians 13, 11).” In order to live in peace and harmony, we have to learn to identify ourselves with others, to see ourselves in them. For most of us that’s difficult, for we are reluctant to want to identify ourselves with those we regard as “over pious”, or ponderous sermonisers, or rigorous ritualists, hypocrites, cynics or railing activists. Yet our capacity to welcome and include all these is an indication of the similarity between our love and God’s. And that’s quite a challenge!
Yet we know that love breeds love, and love finds a multiplicity of expressions, from the ordinary and unspectacular to the never-say-die dedication of those whose efforts at loving seemingly elicit no response from the beloved for no other reason than impaired capacity caused by illness. Here’s an example of a simple act of love that became contagious, as love often does:
A small high-school social-justice group decided to take on the project of cleaning up a local park that had become a haven for drug-abusers. They removed all the litter, mended the fence, and created raised-up garden beds from disused book-cases. They planted daisies and dahlias, and took turns to water them. Some days, they were discouraged by the number of used syringes and discarded bottles that were left in the park. However, they persisted, and their efforts caught the attention of local residents, who donated more plants and signed up on the watering roster. The group co-ordinator was invited for an interview by the editor of the local community newspaper. His simple comment was: “In our group we started to think about how we could improve our local neighbourhood. Someone suggested the park project, pointing out that the beauty of nature can work against neglect. And it really did work. Isn’t that one small way of building God’s kingdom?” (Carol Merritt, Church in the Making: Knee-deep in Renewal, The Christian Century, December 9, 2015) And isn’t that just one small reflection of God’s love at work in our world?
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2, 1-11
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20, 19-23
After the death and burial of Jesus, the disciples, gripped by fear and confusion, sought seclusion. While we can only speculate about the prayer and discussion in which they engaged, they came to a resolution to embark on the mission that Jesus had entrusted to them. Pentecost was a moment of realization for them, a moment when they came to the conclusion that they had no alternative but to share with others the dream for a better world that Jesus had inspired in them. That was what they understood establishing God’s kingdom on earth to be all about. That’s essentially the Christian understanding of Pentecost, which was a combination of a Jewish harvest festival and a commemoration of the time when Moses received the Law on Mt Sinai. It was celebrated by devout Jews with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That explains the reference in today’s first reading to the presence in Jerusalem of “devout Jews from every nation” (Acts 2, 5).
Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church. While theologians debate about the accuracy of that, Pentecost marks the event at which the gift of God’s Spirit was given to everyone in the infant Christian community that was just beginning to take shape. God’s Spirit was and is a gift for all - those who were present at that first Pentecost, and those who through the centuries continue to walk in their footsteps. That’s a pretty good reason for a party, and what a gift to celebrate! Today’s reading from Acts gives us a glimpse of who was on the invitation list. Almost everyone was represented: Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Arabs, Romans and Cretans. And they were all having such a great time that onlookers thought they were drunk. But no, they had just been given the most extraordinary party gifts - prophecy, visions and dreams. It must have been a really rousing and riotous event!
Over the years, I have found myself wondering why families sometimes make a big thing of celebrating a child’s first birthday, especially as the child will have no memory of it in later life. It is a particularly important event among Asian families. A very significant event in an Asian child’s life is his/her very first birthday because it highlights the fact that the child has survived infancy (there were times when the mortality rate among infants was extremely high), and is now ready to be blessed for a future which families hope and pray will be prosperous in one way or another. The child is normally dressed in rainbow coloured clothing, which is a reminder of the dreams parents have for their children. Rice cakes are provided in abundance, because they are a sign of prosperity. The highlight of the party occurs when various objects representing different kinds of prosperity are placed on a table in front of the child, who is then encouraged to reach out for one of them. A book, for instance, stands for wisdom, money represents wealth, a long piece of multicoloured thread means long life. Whatever attracts the child’s attention is a symbol of the destiny the child claims for herself/himself.
However, the good news for all of us is that we don’t have to choose. Irrespective of our age, gender and social status, the gifts of God’s Spirit are made available to us, for the Spirit, present at the first Pentecost, is present to us now. In the verses of Acts following immediately on today’s reading, Peter addresses the gathered crowd and refers them to the words of the prophet, Joel: “The Lord declares: ‘I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams. Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit’” (Acts 2, 17-18). God’s Spirit embraces us, grounds us in the traditions of the past through the words from Joel, and launches us into the future with the exhortation to dream dreams and to envision possibilities. Implied in that exhortation is the call for us to prepare the ground and to make the space for our dreams to be taken up by others and allowed to blossom and expand. Clearly, those dreams and visions are not meant to be dreamt alone, but in the various communities to which we belong, communities united in the Spirit. This challenge to dream and envision involves all of who we are. We are reminded that we hear and feel it, “like the sound of a violent wind”. We also see and feel it, like “tongues of fire”. Moreover, we speak it out in our own language and it is heard and understood by foreigners. After all, love speaks all languages.
If we care to look closely enough, we can see signs of the kind of community envisioned in today’s reading from Acts. I am reminded of another story I came across in the New York Times last month. It was called Making a Mark on People, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist, David Brooks, and inspired by the outpouring of tributes for a fireman, Joe Toscano, who had died of a heart attack while fighting a fire in March of this year. David Brooks and Joe Toscano were contemporaries who, as teenagers and young adults, had worked side by side as counsellors at Incarnation Summer Camp over a 15-year period. Incarnation Summer Camp was founded in 1886 by the Incarnation Episcopal Parish community in Manhattan.
Moved by the number of former Incarnation campers who turned up at Joe Toscano’s funeral, Brooks wrote about the mark the camp experience had left on them: “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven't worked at Incarnation for 30 years, but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life, and in so many other lives. A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul . . . Members of such organizations often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink. They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with . . .Thick institutions have a different moral ecology.” New York Times, April 20, 2017
Many of us have belonged to “thick” or closely-knit groups that have left us not only better for the experience, but also have shaped the values and direction of our lives. Parish groups like the Catholic Youth Organisation (CYO), St Vincent de Paul conferences, school year groups, Edmund Rice Camps have helped to shape us into who we are, as we have dedicated our time and energy to accompanying people in need and helping one another to grow and mature, and live out our Christian commitment.
These groups mirror the Christian community that had its beginnings at Pentecost. They live and reflect the love of God made real in the life of Jesus as they inspire us to give generously of our gifts for the good of all. In very ordinary ways, they bring God’s life and love into our world. The same Spirit, breathed upon the disciples on that first Easter night (cf. todays gospel reading from John), continues to breathe on us, giving us life and direction as we work to mirror the Gospel through lives of selfless and generous caring. We, indeed, have every reason to celebrate.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1, 1.11
“The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure, but the celebration of a presence.” That statement by writer, Jay Cormier captures in a nutshell what the Ascension is all about. Yet, we can easily be distracted from this central message if we get drawn into sympathising with the disciples who were paralysed by self-pity and grief. To do that is to miss the whole point. The angel’s message to the disciples is for us, too.
Today’s story from Acts describes how the angel, who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, summed up the situation perfectly and confronted them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around, dawdling? Get going, for you have a job to do. Your best friend, who helped you to find real meaning in your lives, has just given you a mission to accomplish. Moreover, he has empowered you to continue his mission of witnessing to the wonderful works of God. So, get a move on!” Luke’s angel is a little more polite than that. But that was the substance of the angel's message. Yet the disciples took time to digest that message.
Ascension is a difficult celebration in the Church’s calendar because of the way in which Luke talks about Jesus being “taken up to heaven” as though it was literally a physical transfer from one place to another. However, if we were to accept that literally, we would be subscribing to the simplistic cosmology of the ancient Israelites, who believed in a three-tiered universe, with the dead down below in the bottom tier, the divine powers up above in the heavens, and the living between them in the middle tier. Indeed, some biblical poetry (So think “metaphor”!) pictures the might of the universe as something/somebody beyond our knowing, as if it were a throne room in the sky. For Matthew, “heaven” is another word for God. But we have to blame the Medieval mystics for giving us the notion that heaven is a place “up there somewhere” to where we will go after death and see God face to face. Earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato introduced the idea that humans were made up of two parts - a body and soul fused together, and that after death the soul would enjoy a place called heaven. Relics of these ancient cosmologies still survive in the creed we recite on Sundays, which situates the risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father”. And believers and non-believers alike often speak as if God is “up there somewhere”.
Like all great metaphors, the picture is an engaging one: a deity, sitting on a throne, surrounded by supernatural powers, with Jesus, God’s Prime Minister making sure everything and everybody are in their right place, and justice and peace are flourishing. Despite all this imagery, as early as the 5th century, no less a person than Pope St Leo the Great stated that “Christ has ascended into the sacraments”. Today we say that Christ is alive and active in the Christian community, in all of us who live and proclaim the Gospel entrusted to us. That very message is encapsulated in the final few lines of today’s second reading from Ephesians (cf Ephesians 1, 22-23).
I think the real clue to understanding the Ascension is to be found in the three verses of Acts that follow on from today’s first reading. They tell of how the disciples, after Jesus had been taken from their sight, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem and joined together in prayer. That is Luke’s way of telling us that they were bewildered, fearful, and just didn’t know what to do next. They were a leaderless, shattered community. So they went into hiding to give themselves time to decide what to do, hoping that somehow the promise Jesus had made - “you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 5) - would come true. They found themselves in an in-between time, caught between loss and promise. And that’s an experience we have all had, and we know how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be. Most of us, for example, have felt the pain of losing a close family member through accident or terminal illness. It’s as though we are in a vacuum, bewildered, hurting, yet trying to hold ourselves together as we strive to get our life back on track.
Others know the in-between time of going away to boarding school or leaving home to take on full-time employment or study in the big city. Securities they have taken for granted have evaporated and the pall of homesickness envelops them.
Still others find themselves no longer needed in their place of work. They are casualties of an economic downturn. They are too old to retrain for something new and too young to retire. They fear they may not get another job. And then there are those whose marriage falls apart, and those who find themselves wondering if they will ever recover from a debilitating physical or mental illness. All these people know what it is to struggle through in-between times.
Implicit in today’s reading from Acts is a recipe for how to pull through: pray, find support from close friends, accept that one can survive without living in luxury, and don’t lose hope. That’s what the disciples did. And living like that is not beyond us either. The essence of it is to live with authenticity and integrity.
Maybe, we can all learn something from the German tennis star, Boris Becker. At the age of seventeen, he had already won Wimbledon. Despite his youth, he had come realise that the German people were beginning to idolise him. In reflecting on that, he made this extraordinary statement: “The German people wanted me to live for them…When I entered my home town people stood and gazed at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope. When I looked into the eyes of my fans at the Davis Cup matches last December, I thought I was looking at monsters. Their eyes had no life in them. When I saw this kind of blind, emotional devotion, I could understand what happened to us a long time ago at Nuremberg” (Heather MacLachlan, The Telegraph, London, Nov 26, 2001). Boris Becker wanted to be authentically himself.
The readings for Ascension are a challenge to us to be authentic witnesses to the values we have learned as disciples of Jesus. They are a call to us to involve ourselves in the life of the Christian community to which we claim to belong. Am I able to hear and respond?
Sixth Sunday of Easter
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” John 14, 15-21
The Easter season retells and celebrates the greatest love story the world has ever known. It spells out in detail the story of God’s love made real in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel readings of five of the last six Sundays (and on almost all of the weekdays) have been taken from John’s Gospel. They are John’s way of driving home to us what he understood to be the essence of God’s love for us and our world. John also set about showing how Jesus had reflected that love in the way he lived and reached out to everyone he encountered.
On a note of caution, many translations give us the opening words of Jesus in today’s gospel as: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That sounds pretty much like a threat or a bit of gentle blackmail. But Jesus is hardly telling his closest friends that, if they really loved him, they would do exactly what he tells them to do. Rather, he is saying that if they were truly inspired by his love for them, the natural thing for them to do would be to reach out to others as he had reached out to them.
John makes it clear that we, as disciples of Jesus, are also invited to radiate God’s love to everyone we encounter and to live acutely aware of the fact that God’s love is ever present in our midst and is reflected to us in creation and in the goodness, compassion and decency of people all around us. Moreover, we often glimpse that love in unexpected places and ways.
For me, one of the benefits of frequent international travel is that I get to read journals and newspapers from many cultures and countries. On a plane to the United States in early March, I came across an article written by a woman whom I had known only through her story-picture books written for small children. I soon discovered that Amy Krouse Rosenthal was also a journalist and host of a radio programme. The article I read was in a copy of the New York Times, published just a few days before. It appeared under the heading: You May Want to Marry My Husband, and turned out to be a truly loving tribute to her husband, Jason from whom she was about to be separated. That article was Amy Rosenthal’s last published writing, for she died just 10 days later of ovarian cancer. Here are some extracts from it:
“I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains…Still, I have to stick with it because I’m facing a deadline, in this case a pressing one. I need to say this while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.”
Amy went on to compile a profile of Jason as a Valentine’s Day gift for him, but also in the hope that her letter would be published, and that “the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins”.
In the body of the article, she had written: “He (Jason) is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day…By the end of dinner, I knew I wanted to marry him. Jason? He knew a year later…He is a sharp dresser. Our young adult sons, Justin and Miles, often borrow his clothes…If our home could speak, it would add that Jason is uncannily handy. On the question of food - man, can he cook?...He loves listening to live music; it’s our favourite thing to do together. I should also add that our 19-year-old daughter, Paris, would rather go to a concert with him than anyone else…Here is the kind of man Jason is: He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers…If he sounds like a prince and our relationship seems like a fairy tale, it’s not far off, except for all of the regular stuff that comes from two and a half decades of playing house together. And the part about me getting cancer.” (Amy Krouse Rosenthal, You May Want To Marry My Husband, New York Times, March 3, 2017)
This humorous yet moving tribute from a dying woman to the love of her life reflects something of the complete and unconditional love we have been celebrating throughout the whole Easter season. It is love that is able to express gratitude despite the pain of parting. Moreover, it is love that genuinely celebrates the goodness of the other even in the presence of sadness and heartache. Today’s reading from John assures us that the Spirit of the risen Jesus can open our eyes and hearts to recognise the love of God present in the lives of those who love and care for us, especially when we are hurting.
Today’s gospel reading also speaks about the Spirit of truth whom many in our world cannot accept because they cannot “see or know him” (cf John 14, 17). John is highlighting a reaction to truth that springs from denial. Tragically, there are people whom we have all known or met who are intent on clinging to denial of the truly known shape of love. John accuses the world of putting on blinkers to its own capacity for loving, and of ignoring the evidence and signs of love all around. And John has Jesus alerting us to the fact that the Spirit of God, deep within us, is ever reminding us of the shape of love.
Jesus refers to the Spirit of God as an advocate, a lawyer who argues a case for love against anyone who wants to deny its presence. The Spirit insists that genuine love is possible, and has a recognisable shape, to be seen in the lives of people around us, people like the Amy and Jason Rosenthals of this world, in the people who make up our families and communities, in the people we name as friends.
But John also knows that there are people who insist on promoting counterfeit love, who, even in the name of religious commitment, want to promote viciousness, violence, terrorism and murder in the name of love. Equally dangerous are those who insist on trying to delude themselves and others with what they present as alternative facts, alternative truth. The best way to counter such counterfeiting is to live our lives lovingly.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father.” John 14, 1-12
Today’s gospel is taken from John’s long account (5 chapters) of Jesus’ last night on earth. To convey his message, John uses a stylistic device previously used by some of the Old Testament writers: Leaders who realised that death was imminent followed the custom of gathering together family, friends and followers to give them farewell advice and instructions for maintaining traditions. Prominent figures like Moses, Joshua, David and Tobias had set the trend. Jesus, in his turn, dwelt on encouraging and comforting those who would continue his mission, and exhorting them to remain faithful.
The thrust of Jesus’ message in today’s gospel is for his disciples, ourselves included, to embrace the implications of his parting words. If we were to really hear those words, our living would change dramatically. In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard gives us a woman’s perspective on taking the Gospel seriously. All too often, what we hear each Sunday in the set readings sails over our heads. That prompted Annie Dillard to write:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets… For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
Jesus, in today’s gospel, draws us to a point from which we cannot return. What he says is not for the faint-hearted. But it’s not easy to grasp. We’re often reminded that one effective way of tapping the richness of any scripture passage is to identify with one or more of the characters. So, what do I make of the following exchange between Jesus and Thomas, if I identify with Thomas? Jesus said: “Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
While those words would have stunned me, I think Jesus is saying that I have to learn what he has learned. And he did learn and grow from seeing the faith of the many people whom he encountered and cured. They inspired him. He learned from the Syro-Phoenician woman whom he initially called a dog. The woman’s persistence and quickness of wit shook him into seeing differently and shedding his prejudice. He learned something from a foreigner of a different faith, and a woman, to boot! So, he’s asking me to let go of prejudice, to learn as he has learned, to realise that God graces everyone not just those whose religious belief is the same as mine, to listen to others, and not to refuse to use my God-given gifts to enrich the lives of everyone I encounter, especially those in need. Learning from and imitating the way Jesus learned and lived is the way to God, the way to wholeness, the way to full humanity.
There are many other challenges in today’s gospel. What, for instance, do we make of the following:
“I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14, 12)
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14, 9)
“Philip said: ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” (John 14, 8)
And in the few verses that follow today’s reading: “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14, 14)
There are lots of questions here, and we have to ask ourselves where our preference lies. Do we prefer: “Ask me anything, and I will do it.” or “the one who believes in me will do greater works than these”? Do we emphasise “in my Father’s house there are many rooms” or “where I am, there you may be also”? Are we more inclined to choose “I am the way and the truth and the life” or “no one comes to the Father except through me”? In all of the above pairs, the distinctions may seem slight or unclear. But ask yourself as you look at each pair: Am I looking at what’s in it for me, or at what I can do in response? Am I looking for clarification and certainty, or do I trust in what I have already seen and experienced? Do I focus on what my place in heaven might look like, or am I able to recognise and enjoy Christ present in every day and everyone and everything around me? Do I find myself thinking about who’s in and who’s out, rather than about following Jesus who is the way? Of course, thinking about these things is much easier than following the one who takes the lead! Do I believe my experience of the Jesus I have come to know, or do I side with Philip, wanting a little more evidence? Can you and I hear Jesus saying to us as he said to Philip: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Look, my friend, this is as good as it gets!” (cf John 14, 9)
Finally, while today’s reading concludes with Jesus saying: “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14, 12), we really have to take into account the very next verse, where Jesus continues with: “Whatever you ask for in my name I will do…” (John 14,13). What can I actually ask Jesus for, if I am assured by him that I can do myself greater things than he has done? That leaves me wondering. But John gives me the answer in the next chapter when he has Jesus explain that there in no greater love than to spend one’s life for one’s friends, and to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 15, 12). Maybe I should be asking Jesus to help me to do that.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” 1 Peter 2, 20-25
“I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.” John 10, 1-10
The gospels for the Sundays of Easter present Jesus in a multiplicity of disguises: the gardener who spoke gently to a grieving Mary Magdalene, the “apparition” who startled the disciples locked away in fear, the barbecue chef cooking breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the sheepfold gatekeeper opening the door to rich and energetic life, the insightful stranger accompanying the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I suggest that this is the Gospel writers’ way of making the point that Jesus is very much alive in the ordinariness of our daily living. The Risen Jesus is alive and well, and present to us in everyone we encounter and everything we experience. While we are not always conscious of his presence, we can all point to times when we have sensed his presence acutely. We’ve probably all had an experience similar to that of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus.Let me share an extract from an article I read recently in one of last year’s editions of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. It was written by a young woman, who, in her first year as a university lecturer, had to deal with unexpected eviction from her rented accommodation, and serious illness in her family. She had volunteered to fill in as the organist in her parish church before a string of crises came into her life. Her first thought was to withdraw from her parish commitment. However, despite the other demands on her time and energy, she honoured the commitment she had made. This is part of her reflection:
Recently, our congregation said farewell to a member named Gail, who lived to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, in spite of admitting to a nearly eighty-year-long smoking habit. To an ordinary observer, Gail was unremarkable - a small, frail fellow with sunken eyes who lived in one of the nearby housing projects. He didn’t usually say much beyond “hello” and “how are you,” but I know from experience that Gail could always be trusted to provide a cigarette lighter whenever the sacristan or altar servers could not find the matches. Many eulogies would paint a bigger picture of Gail. He was, in fact, a man of deep and remarkable talents amid curmudgeonly flaws: a prolific painter and poet, a beautiful soul who could nevertheless be stubborn and self-centred, and hold an impressive grudge. But one thing was about as dependable as the sun coming up: Gail occupied the same seat in the same pew, near the back on the right side, every single week, almost without fail.
During his final weeks, in hospice for cancer, this loner and lifelong bachelor enjoyed a steady stream of visitors, the majority of whom knew Gail solely from church. Some visited because, at one point or another, they had formed a deeper bond with Gail and knew well the tales of his younger life at sea or had shared his fanaticism for baseball. Others went out of the simple habit of Christian duty.
One of these visitors was a middle-aged truck-driver named Mark. After his visit, Mark reported that Gail had insisted on one puzzling request: that Mark sing Jesus Loves Me. Now, Mark doesn’t sing in the choir, and he’s certainly never sung a solo in church or anywhere else. But later, it became clear that Gail hadn’t asked anyone else to sing. Mark told us that, before agreeing to Gail’s request, he had said: “Are you sure? If the cancer doesn’t take you, then my singing very well might.” But he knew the song, so sing it he did.
Later, when Mark recounted this to other parishioners, remarking how it really was the strangest thing, a woman named Susan pieced it all together: “Well, you all know Gail sits in the same place every week. And Mark does too - right behind Gail.”
Whatever going to church had meant for Gail, it must have been wrapped up with the experience of hearing Mark’s flawed, strong voice behind him every week, singing out the old songs, slightly above the pitch of everyone else’s voice. And that was apparently something that Gail wanted to relive, one more time, at the end of his life.
Living in the world as it is, no one has to go looking for pressures. They will find us. Demands and aspirations compete not only for our time, but also for our claims to identity; they ask us to be authentic, unique, innovative. As I navigate the opportunities, expectations, and challenges that confront me in my daily life, somehow church—with all of its flaws—stands out like Mark’s voice, making me conscious that it’s all the things in between, all the habits taken for granted, that most fundamentally shape who we are. What I needed most in my hardest year was, paradoxically, to be needed. In retrospect, I realized how much making music alongside saints like Gail and Mark sustained us all. (Michelle Sanchez, On Habit, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2016)
Michelle Sanchez somehow recognised the voice of Jesus in the unspectacular, and she responded. In essence, her story is no different from that of Mary Magdalene in the garden, of the two disciples walking to Emmaus, of the disciples returning from their fishing. And it’s our story, too. When we’re troubled and upset, Jesus comes in the form of a friend, a neighbour or a complete stranger. When we’re experiencing arid dryness, the Gardener appears. When we are hungry and thirsty for trust and comfort, the Cook is there. When we’ve strayed or have become lost and confused, the Shepherd is there. When we’re afraid and go into hiding, an Apparition comes to restore us. When we feel excluded or locked out, the Gatekeeper arrives to bring us in. Whenever we feel overlooked, betrayed, belittled or rejected, the Risen Jesus is at our side in one disguise or another. In one way or another, Jesus is present to us in every situation that unfolds in our lives, and for no other reason than to open whatever gates will lead us to life in abundance.
I cannot finish this reflection without a brief word on today’s second reading (1 Peter 2, 19-25) which risks leaving us with the impression that there is something intrinsically meritorious about suffering. However, it’s important to look carefully at what is written: “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.” God does not approve of suffering, whether it is self-inflicted, gratuitously meted out by others, or delivered as punishment. However, there will be times in life when we will suffer for actions we have taken. Confronting injustice in the work place, speaking a challenging truth, or marching in support of asylum seekers are actions that can lead to criticism and alienation. They are actions that are expressions of our integrity and they are freely chosen. They are very different from situations of violence and abuse that people would get out of if they could. When we stand up, speak out or demonstrate out of personal integrity, we are willingly doing something that we know may have painful consequences. It’s that willingness that gets the stamp of God’s approval. The reading goes on to point out that Jesus endured suffering because he was unwilling to return abuse for the abuse he received. He saw his mission as something bigger than that. And that was a conscious choice on his part. One of the reasons he conducted himself like that was to demonstrate how we could live in order to promote right values (righteousness) and justice. Conducting ourselves that way is living as God would have us live. And that’s our choice. Involuntary suffering is totally different. As far as God is concerned, it certainly does not meet with any kind of approval.
Third Sunday of Easter
And it happened that, while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognising him. He asked them: “What are you discussing as you walk along?”…One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” Luke 24, 13-35
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is very tightly structured. Moreover it has much to say to those of us who want to see ourselves as ordinary Christians, struggling to do our best. Before exploring the story, we might do well to look at some of the subtleties within, and even to see what assumptions we come with.
This is the only place in the New Testament where the disciple Cleopas is identified by name. The root meaning of the name is “renowned father” or “glory of the father”. Perhaps Cleopas was his father’s greatest treasure. We know well the feminine form of the name in Cleopatra. There might be value in asking ourselves why Cleopas’ companion is not identified by name. Indeed, we may have assumed that his companion was another man. Yet there is nothing to suggest this, and we do know that Jesus had female disciples. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two and that their message to those they encountered was to be: “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10, 9). I want to suggest that it is not just coincidence that Jesus is described as “coming near” to the disciples when he encounters them on the road. They had been taught that when they engage in doing good, God’s kingdom comes near to those to whom they reach out. Yet, they failed to recognise that God’s kingdom was present to them when a stranger came near and encouraged and comforted them. And isn’t that the same with us? Don’t we often fail to recognise God’s presence in the ordinary kindnesses we receive from friends and strangers? The last part of preparing ourselves for this Emmaus story is a brief exploration of the word “stranger”. Luke uses a Greek word paroikos, meaning stranger, exile or alien. Our translation gives us the sanitised word visitor.
But think about it. Jesus and his message were alien to the powerful people of his day. In fact, in his infancy, he and his parents were quite literally aliens and illegals in Egypt, as were his Jewish predecessors, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Jeremiah, who all lived as aliens at some time or other. “Alien” is an ugly word signifying difference or not belonging. In these days of border protection and locking people out, those who manage to elude immigration police are frequently described as illegal aliens. I want to suggest that the two disciples of today’s gospel mistook Jesus as an alien, because of his pretended ignorance of local happenings or maybe because of his Galilean accent. Such misrecognition is essential to the story as Jesus plays “hide and seek” with the disciples. But notice that the other resurrection stories are all built around misrecognition. Mary Magdalene did not recognise Jesus. Peter and the disciples, when they were out fishing, did not recognise that it was Jesus who was cooking breakfast on the shore. And finally, those in the early Christian community regarded themselves as belonging to a paroikia (from which the words parish and parochial are derived) - a group of aliens – because their lives were built around the person and teachings of one who was executed as an alien, outside the walls of Jerusalem. The message that we as Christians try to live and proclaim is alien to so much that is happening in our world.
So, the Emmaus story is Luke’s way of teaching us that Jesus is somehow present in every event of our lives but all too often we fail to recognise him. The story of the two disciples on the road is our story. It's a story of everyday discouragement, disappointment and drudgery. It’s about bumping into a stranger on the way to work or in the supermarket; about the everyday occurrence of sitting down at table and sharing a meal with family or friends. It’s about the commonplace things that make up our daily lives and about our efforts to make sense of them all and to ponder where they are leading us.
As the two disciples made their way to Emmaus, they were certainly dispirited. Their life with Jesus had not turned out to be what they expected. As we follow the story, we know that these disciples are on the road of life, and they have just experienced one hurt too many. They certainly can’t see God anywhere in what has happened. So their meeting with a total stranger allows them time to vent, and to pour out their woes to someone who is a willing listener. Their venting is no different from ours: the insensitivity of our politicians, the mess of the economy, the refugees around the world, the pressure at work or in school and university - all the threads of our lives. And they finish off by voicing their deep disappointment: “We had hoped…” But for what? The same kind of thing we think about and hope for: Where is God in all the mess? What’s the point of slogging away at what we’re trying to achieve? Why did I get cancer and am now forced to go through chemotherapy? I wish I had some kind of a sign from God.
This Emmaus story picks up the worries, questions and concerns we all face, whether we are in the second half of life, the middle or just venturing out. Along the way, we talk with others, we argue, we question, we wonder if it all makes sense. Every now and then something good happens. But we bemoan our lot when the cheats of our world seem to prosper. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus find the words we may not be able to articulate: “We were hoping that we had found the Messiah, a God of compassion and justice who would put things right and help us to make sense of it all.” And then, unexpectedly, in response to an offer of hospitality, comes the Risen Jesus - in the disguise of a stranger with holes in his hands. He shares a meal with them, he shares himself.
And, of course, that’s the very point of the story. God is here in our midst. God touches the everydayness of our lives, but we so often fail to recognise what is happening. This story is a potent reminder that God wants to be near us; that God can be found everywhere; that resurrection moments abound in our lives, if only we could see them.
A keynote speaker at an education conference (we’ll call him Frank) was on his flight home, and was allocated a seat next to one of the conference participants. They struck up a conversation, during which the man told Frank that one of his sons, a young man of 24, was in a nursing home in a comatose condition, as the result of a serious road accident. The man startled Frank when he admitted: “My wife and I visited our son often, out of our duty as parents, but we got to a point when we stopped loving him. We saw love as a reciprocal relationship, and our son could neither give nor receive. We continued visiting him, but we really stopped loving him. However, when we turned up routinely one day for one of our weekly visits, our son had a visitor who was a complete stranger to us. We soon realised that he must have been a Eucharistic minister from our local parish. As we waited impatiently outside the room, we saw the visitor talking to our son, as though they were having a conversation. I thought to myself: ‘As if my son could appreciate a conversation!’ Then he prayed a psalm from the Bible - ‘As if my son could appreciate a psalm!’ Then he gave him communion - ‘As if my son could appreciate receiving communion!’ And then it struck me that the visitor really did know something. He did not see my son as a case, but as a young man who had value and dignity. He saw my son as God sees him.”
That eucharistic minister was the stranger on the Emmaus road. How many strangers are we likely to encounter in the coming week?
Second Sunday of Easter
Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side…He said to them again: “Peace be with you…” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20, 19-31
Some years ago, Christine Kingery, a woman of Jewish extraction, explained how stories told to her by her grandmother helped her to make sense of her own life. Christine's Russian-born grandmother had been captured by the Nazis and taken to a work camp in Germany when she was 17. They shaved off her waist-length hair and tortured her. She never saw her parents or siblings again. However, the resourceful young woman escaped and worked for many months as a nurse in underground movements in Germany and Belgium, until she was captured a second time and taken to a concentration camp. There she met Christine's grandfather, and the two escaped. Eventually, they and their newborn-daughter - Christine's mother – made their way to the United States.
Christine remembers hearing that story when she was eight years old, and saying to her grandmother: "I hate the Germans for what they did to you! Don't you just get so mad at them?" But, to this day, she remembers her grandmother's response. In broken English the elderly woman said: "The German people are my friends. When I escaped and had nowhere to go, they gave me food, shelter, and clothes. They were my friends, even in the camps. The Germans are the kindest people I know." While her grandmother’s answer shocked Christine, it was her first introduction to the meaning of compassion.
A few years later, when Christine was in high school, she had the chance to go to Japan. She visited Nagasaki. The experience was overwhelming. In almost every photograph she looked at, in every Japanese victim's face, she saw her grandmother's reflection. Christine had to go outside to Peace Park, located on the bomb-site. Beautifully coloured origami cranes - thousands of them - were draped over statues and trees. Christine sat on a park bench and cried uncontrollably. An old Japanese woman, about the same age as Christine’s grandmother, saw the teenager on the bench, and came and sat next to her. The old woman put her wrinkled hands in Christine's, and, in broken English, said: "Peace starts right here. Peace starts with you and me. It starts today." (Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe Inc, 2010)
As we grow and mature, we all struggle to establish our identity, to stabilise it and to understand it. And to tell the truth, there are times when we behave in ways that surprise us, and leave us wondering whether we really do know and understand who we are. When we are courageous enough to stop and ponder who we are, we soon realise that we are a strange mixture of body, emotion, intellect, relationships, plans, hopes and happy and haunting memories. And we consciously set ourselves to manage all these elements with as much skill as we can muster, trying not to self-destruct. We discover that the task is not simple, especially when we become aware of our inner conflicts and contradictions. We become even more confused when our mood swings take over and our psychic circuitry becomes overloaded. Yet, we live in the hope that, if we make the effort to grow and discover ourselves, one day a relatively peaceful and well put-together person will emerge. But we will still carry the scars of our struggle.
Notice in today’s gospel that Jesus, immediately after offering his disciples the gift of peace, showed them the scars on his hands and side. Why does the Gospel writer connect the peace of Christ with the wounds of Christ? Ponder this for a moment: How would those near us react at the “Sign of Peace” during Mass if we exchanged greetings like: “Peace be with you, Henry, and have a look at the scar on my chest from my bypass surgery!” “Peace be with you, Madonna. I’ll show you the huge electricity bill that arrived in my mail today.” “Peace be with you, Helen. Did you hear about my son’s broken leg?” While we are people of faith, we are fooling ourselves if we try to pretend that the personal hurts we suffer do not make us guarded and fearful.
Back to the gospel story: A week later, when Jesus appeared to all the disciples, Thomas included, he greeted them with peace, and immediately pulled up his shirt and invited Thomas to trace his scars with his finger.
Jesus was demonstrating graphically that our wounds, our inadequacies are part of who we are. In the room where the disciples had locked themselves, everyone’s wounds were on display, including the wounds of Jesus. Thomas came to belief precisely because those wounds were on display. He was struggling not just with the possibility that Jesus was alive, but with the apparently senseless need of his having to die in the first place.
There are still a couple of other challenges in today’s readings. If the disciples believed that Jesus was risen, why had they locked themselves away, apparently paralysed by fear? Was it simply because they feared the Jews would murder them as they had murdered Jesus? Might it have been because women were regarded as unreliable witnesses, and, therefore, could not be believed? But, there is not even a hint that they did not believe the women. So, I suggest it was because they were not confident that even a risen Jesus could save them. Doesn’t that reflect something of you and me? We say we believe in God, but we’re not always confident that God can or will help us when things are tough. The Letter to the Hebrews has a lot to say about faith, including this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who approaches God must believe God exists AND rewards those who seek God.” (Hebrews 11, 6) The small-minded part of me might prefer to criticise the disciples for not believing women. But, if I am honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I really don’t earnestly seek God and that I could, like the disciples, lock myself away in the belief that the risen Jesus doesn’t really care about me. And let’s not forget that today’s second reading reminds us that the trials that come our way are to test us to see if our faith is genuine: “Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so, your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure.” (1 Peter 1, 7) The fact that we have not seen God or Jesus makes our faith tougher - tougher to attain and tougher or more durable once we have embraced it. So, today’s readings push us to examine the depth and genuineness of our faith.
Finally, there’s a puzzling aspect of today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It presents an idyllic picture of faith, giving the impression that the fledgling Christian community had no inadequacies, no problems with which to deal. Yet the remainder of Acts describes how the community almost fell apart at the seams. There are episodes of confusion, squabbles, rivalry, deceit and recrimination. Luke records how those early community members grew as they came to appreciate the price of a mature faith that refused to see religion as an escape from the realities going on among and around them. So, too, for us, faith is not some kind of haven where we can ignore or dismiss what is going on inside ourselves and in the world around us.
The enduring message of Easter is that the Risen Christ leaves his disciples (and that includes us) with the gift of his peace - a peace that is ever so much more than an absence of conflict; a peace that renews and transforms; a peace that grows out of gratefulness and integrity; a peace that respects the needs, hopes and dreams of others above our own; a peace that welcomes the lost, heals the broken-hearted and honours the dignity of all. Today’s readings ask us if we are able to embrace this kind of transforming peace and share it with everyone we encounter. Let’s not forget that peace in our world begins with us.
“My love for you will never end; I will keep forever my promise of peace.” Isaiah 54, 5-14
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat on it…Then the angel said to the women… “Go quickly and tell his disciples ‘He has been raised from the dead and he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.’ ” Matthew 28, 1-10
Two weeks ago we were invited to ponder Tolstoy’s comment: “Anyone over thirty-five who does not reflect on death is a fool.” Today, we cannot avoid thinking about death, but from an entirely different perspective. After all, one has to love something very, very deeply to want to bring it back from the dead. Think, for example, about what it is that keeps slums from developing. It is a mixture of disdain from those outside and self-hatred on the part of those within that keeps slums the way they are. And it’s a scarcity of caring people that locks entire nations into cycles of poverty, starvation, unemployment and hopelessness. If we all cared enough for the earth, our common home, rivers would run clear again, stars we haven’t seen for decades would reappear, and trees would look resplendent. Dead and strained relationships in families, communities, work places and schools; boredom and edginess; sullen distancing than keeps out strangers - all these could begin to be transformed with a word of encouragement, acceptance, humour or welcome. At Easter, we can dare to ask: Who can love enough to resurrect the earth and all its people? The answer, of course, is to be found in the gospel readings.
But that’s just for starters! What kind of love can brighten the lot of the sick and elderly who wait, frail and faltering, for death to come their way? And, what of all those who, since almost the dawn of time, have lain buried in the earth?
Yet, the focus of our Easter celebration is the boundless love than can handle all this death and more. It is God’s love for Jesus, the Christ. As we listen to the readings and the Easter proclamation, we are given a grandstand view of how God stunningly expresses love for Jesus in a resurrection. Even more incredible is the fact that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, for he has linked himself irrevocably with us, and elicits from God for us the same kind of recreative love that God has for him. Jesus presents us to God as his brothers and sisters, not because of our virtue, but on account of our humanity, however frail it is. In the Easter Vigil reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that, through our Baptism, we have been crucified with Jesus, and, therefore, will be raised with him by God. We can all too easily gloss over the first part of that reminder, giving it dutiful assent, but hoping it won’t come true. But let’s pause to look at what it really means. Baptism is much more than being blessed and doused with water. It means being initiated into a community that tries to reach out to others in love and compassion, and getting criticised and crucified for our efforts. There isn’t one of us who has not been hurt while straining to do our best in the service of compassion and love. Christians don’t have to make arrangements to be crucified. It’s just a consequence of trying to stave off the many kinds of death that plague us as humans. What’s more, if we are honest, we have to admit that we have even done our own share of crucifying. Yet somehow, Jesus spruces us up and presents us to God as old friends who share with him all the limitations that go with being human. Whatever our inadequacies, Jesus sticks by us, overlooking our failures to stand by him. It’s his way of reinforcing his message that God loves us unconditionally, and has always loved us. If we need any further convincing, all we need do is return to the readings of the Easter Vigil, which offer us a panoramic view of the history of God’s love for humanity. Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus, of all that Jesus lived and proclaimed. The empty tomb signals the ultimate victory of the Gospel, of compassion, forgiveness, respect, generosity and love over humanity’s inclination to slip into despair, isolation, prejudice and self-interest.
Easter is not entirely a gentle or welcome experience, for it tumbles us out of the tombs we build for ourselves. Confinement can dull us into a sense of safety and security. After all, we come to know the limits of our tombs, and learn to exist within those limits. Easter signals the return of the risen Christ who comes to dismantle the protective walls we build, to drag us from our tombs and to push us into light and life. Easter is never about safety; it’s about freedom. As one of today’s gospel readings proclaim, Easter is not about the past in Jerusalem, but about the hope and freedom that await us in Galilee. This is all summed up in the words of a poem written by Michelle Berberet:
After the agony and humiliation
would you be willing to give up
the cold comfort of death
for the pain of rebirth
and the cell-splitting joy of glory? (America, Nov 17, 2016)
We manage to adjust to suffering and humiliation; we come to accept our crucifixions and deaths, relieved that they're over. We accept our existence in our "tombs," happy that the humiliation is behind us: a promised promotion doesn’t materialise, so we keep our heads down to hold on to the job we have; we apply for a position in another institution, fail to make the interview list, and try to convince ourselves that we’re better off where we are; the constant clashing with a work colleague has settled into a silent if uneasy truce of sorts, and we pretend that all is well.
We say to ourselves: “Keep the difficult stuff buried. Don't risk anymore. Get on with life.”
But at Easter, our spirits find voice. We're really not satisfied with the incomplete, the broken, the lost, the dysfunctional in our lives. The empty tomb challenges us to give up the Good Fridays we've adjusted to in order to experience the "cell-splitting joy" of Easter. Are we equal to the challenge?
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“I will put my breath in them, bring them back to life, and let them live in their own land.” Ezekiel 37, 12-14
The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth…“Unbind him and let him go free.” John 11, 1-45
Tolstoy once said that anyone over thirty-five who doesn’t give a lot of thought to death is a fool. There are others who say that death is God’s way of testing us. However, it might be more accurate to say that our though of death is our last opportunity for indulging our practice of testing God. That’s precisely because reflecting on the certainty of our approaching death provides us with out last opportunity to complain against God and to question God’s trustworthiness. Thinking about death inevitably forces us to reflect on the kind of God in whom we really believe. And that can be so uncomfortable that we prefer to avoid thinking about death altogether.
Yet, not a day goes by without our being confronted with the reality of death. We receive phone calls and emails informing us of the death of friends, relatives and colleagues. We reach out to neighbours who have lost a loved one through illness, suicide or accident. Our TV news networks show us graphic pictures of terrorist atrocities that claim scores of lives. In the face of all that, today’s three readings assure us that God’s love, reflected in so many ways by prophets, saints and ordinary, decent human beings, is stronger than death. The clear message is that God favours not death but resurrection.
Coming as it does on the Sunday before Holy Week, today’s gospel story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is effectively a preview of the resurrection of Jesus. The prominent Biblical scholar, Raymond Brown explains that John’s Gospel structurally consists of four parts: The Prologue (1, 1-18), The Book of Signs (1, 19 -12, 50), The Book of Glory (13, 1 – 20, 31) & the Epilogue (21, 1 – 25). The raising of Lazarus is the climax of the Book of Signs and, in John’s view, clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, who offers life to all who put their faith and trust in him. The details of today’s story underline this. In responding to Jesus’ assurance: “Your brother will rise again”, Martha expresses a belief in bodily resurrection that was held by many Jews: “I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11, 24-25) But, notice how Jesus replies in the present tense: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11, 26) What Jesus is saying is that we have to look at living and dying in a completely new way. We have to look at them not just in reference to the last day, but in relation to the present, to the deaths we experience in our daily lives, when we lose people close to us, when our close relationships fall apart, when family members just don’t come home, when others sneer at us, when we fail to live up to our own values and expectations, when our human frailty gets the better of us. Belief in Jesus and his message strengthens us to see all those kinds of “death” in a new way. That kind of trust and belief in Jesus helps us to see that resurrection is already here. So, instead of complaining, instead of lapsing into grief, depression and despair, we are encouraged by Jesus to trust the power of God’s love at work in our midst and to see God’s love as an unfailing source of renewal and life. The words that Jesus addresses to Lazarus: “Unbind him, let him go free” (John 11, 44) are meant to resound beyond today’s reading into our own lives. Jesus invites us out of the graves in which we can so easily bury ourselves; out of our graves of anger, self-pity, bitterness, desire to get even, or anything else that binds us from experiencing the richness of God’s life and love. And as a corollary to that, we, in our turn, as disciples of Jesus, are urged to set free other people from their graves of embarrassment, shame, fear, addiction, or whatever is keeping them bound up without freedom, life or hope.
I conclude with a true and touching story from 1992:
When a young couple were expecting their second child, they decided that it was important to prepare four-year-old Michael for the arrival of his new sister. Every night before being put to bed, Michael would sit beside his mother, Karen and sing to the baby inside Karen’s tummy the only song he knew: “You are my sunshine.” That ritual was repeated every night for months. At the birth of the new baby, there were serious complications, and she was rushed by ambulance to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Mary’s Hospital. In the course of the following week, the tiny baby’s condition deteriorated so much that the doctors told the parents to prepare for the worst. They, in turn, contacted the local cemetery and purchased a burial plot. However, young Michael, sensing something was amiss, started to insist on singing to his baby sister. Despite the fact that children were not allowed into the NICU, Michael’s parents took him to the hospital, reasoning that if he did not see his new sister there, he would not see her alive. When the duty nurse spotted Michael, she ordered: “Get that child out of here now! You know that children are not allowed.” The usually mild-mannered Karen replied with equal force: “This child is not leaving until he has sung to his sister.” Michael sidled up to his baby sister’s cot and, in full voice, started to sing: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” The baby’s pulse rate changed almost instantly, becoming quite steady. Her breathing soon became as smooth as a kitten’s purr, and her whole body relaxed. Without knowing what was happening, young Michael continued his singing: “You never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” And on he went: “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms…You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…Please don’t take my sunshine away.” When he reached the end, his parents turned and, through their own tears, saw tears streaming down the face of the head nurse. The medical staff could hardly comprehend the change that had come over the baby, whose improvement was so rapid that she was discharged from the hospital the next day. The doctor-in-charge called it a miracle. (Story as told by Karen Simmons-Knapp, the children’s grandmother.) Perhaps it’s another version of the Lazarus story, assuring us that love really is stronger than death.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“One thing I do know: I was blind and now I see…I have already told you, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Maybe you, too, would like to be his disciples?” John 9, 1-41
Oliver Sacks, once described as “the poet laureate of medicine” was a distinguished neurologist and a prolific writer. In his book An Anthropologist on Mars (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1985), he tells the story of Virgil, a 50 year old man who, blind from a very early age, had his sight restored. Because he had no visual memory, Virgil could see but could make no sense of what was registered by his optic nerves. As a consequence, he became profoundly depressed and urged his doctors to re-blind him. When they refused, he persisted in wearing a blindfold so that he could return to the only world in which he was able to function. That story was based on the medical history of a man by the name of Shirl Jennings. Sacks elaborated on that experience in an article entitled To See and Not See, published more than a decade later in the New Yorker (New Yorker, May 10, 1993).
To See and Not See would be an appropriate title for today’s gospel. In reality, there are various kinds of blindness. There is physical blindness, congenital in some people and in others caused by injury or accident. There is emotional blindness, sometimes caused by severe shock or trauma, at other times by insensitivity, as when some people can’t or won’t see the needy, the lonely and the rejected in their society. In the wake of the Pol Pot atrocities, there have been recorded cases of women who cannot see because of the trauma they experienced, even though ophthalmologists have demonstrated that there is nothing organically amiss with their eyes or optic nerves. There is also spiritual blindness, the kind evidenced in the religious authorities of today’s gospel, who could not see any good at all in Jesus. They could not deviate from literal adherence to the Law. There is intellectual blindness, demonstrated by those who insist that global warming and climate are myths. Perhaps many of us, at one time or another, have experienced personally one or several of these kinds of blindness. Today’s gospel, paradoxically, invites us to look into the mirror to see the kinds of blindness which might be keeping us from seeing and accepting the truth.
Structurally, today’s gospel story from John is a one-act drama made up of six scenes: Jesus healing the blind beggar on the Sabbath by mixing spittle and soil and rubbing it on the man’s eyes; the crowd’s reaction to what they witness; the cured man’s testimony to the Pharisees; the spoken evidence of the cured man’s parents; the beggar’s cheeky response to the Pharisees when they interrogate him a second time; the cured man’s return to Jesus and Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees.
The drama opens with the disciples asking Jesus for an explanation of the beggar’s blindness. There is no hint of their seeking a remedy. They are intent on knowing where to attribute blame for his disability. The prevailing belief was that bad things happened to bad people, that affliction and disaster were punishments from God. In this particular situation, the man’s blindness was seen as a punishment for his sins or those of his parents. The message for us is that, when we focus on wanting to attribute blame, at best we can get trapped into digging up the past and, at worst, can get caught up in vindictiveness. Attributing blame is often our way of coping with situations that threaten or discomfort us. It is decidedly unproductive. By contrast, Jesus’ eye is on making real God’s possibilities in the here and now. His focus is not about determining why we can’t see, but on getting us to open our eyes and minds so that we can see. Blame, recrimination and punishment do not belong to the kingdom of God. All they achieve is blinding us to what Jesus is all about.
When the man returns from the pool of Siloam with his sight restored, an argument breaks out among the crowd as to whether he is the same man as the one who was their neighbour and who spent his time begging. He quickly sets them straight. Their response is to lead this living proof of a miracle to the Pharisees. And that, in turns, heightens the tension between them and Jesus. The significance of the miracle quickly becomes irrelevant as the Pharisees use it to discredit Jesus. By making mud from spittle and soil, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes, Jesus has engaged in physical labour on the Sabbath, thereby profaning the Jewish holy day. John holds up Jesus’ work of compassion to compare it with Pharisees’ cold and slavish adherence to empty legalities. Yet the control they have over ordinary people is illustrated by the fear that grips the cured man’s parents. They dare not contradict their religious authorities, so refer them to their son for his opinion. He, in his turn, speaks with courage the truth of his experience, and even taunts the Pharisees. This makes them so uncomfortable that they resort to discrediting him, doing what the disciples tried to do at the outset - attributing his blindness to his personal sinfulness.
John, in his narrative, skillfully plays on the man’s blindness to emphasise his point that it is Jesus’ enemies who are spiritually blind, while those who, like Jesus, subordinate law to love, are the ones who have really seen the light. Ironically, had the Pharisees been sincere in the stance they had adopted and had they been as clever as they tried to present themselves, they could have used the same imagery to counter Jesus: He’s the one who claims to see, but he’s even more blind than the man who has come to us claiming to have been cured.
The final scenes of this drama - the inquisition of the blind man and his parents (scenes 3 & 4) and the expulsion of the man himself from the synagogue (scenes 5 & 6) - are of historical significance for us. The members of John’s community were ridiculed for adhering to their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and punished with expulsion from their synagogues.
And the message for us? We are asked to assess the kinds of blindness that dull our lives. In the apparent mess and upheaval of our world, in the abysmal lack of integrity and enlightenment we experience in our elected leaders, are we able to see evidence of the goodness and compassion of God still at work? Are we sufficiently insightful to admit that we are meant to be instruments of God’s compassion and goodness wherever we live and work? Or do we find ourselves with those who see and yet do not see?
Third Sunday of Lent
Jesus, tired and thirsty from his journey, sat down at the well. The hour was about noon. John 4, 5-42
The symbol of water runs like a stream through all of today’s readings. In the first reading from Exodus, we find Moses, at God’s direction (and to protect himself from being stoned), striking the rock with his staff: “You are to strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17, 6). In the second reading from Romans, Paul describes the love of God as a flood “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5, 5). And the gospel is filled with images of water.
Everyone knows the centrality of water in sustaining life. We also know its cleansing qualities, how it can clean away the dirt and grime that diminishes and destroys life. In his encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, describes himself as life-giving water, and discloses that his principal mission is to reconcile all people with God.
Today’s gospel story reminds me of an incident in the first Harry Potter book, The Philosopher’s Stone (originally, The Sorcerer’s Stone). Harry and his friend, Ron have just rescued Hermione Granger from a mountain troll. Till that point in the story, Hermione has been an outcast. But when Harry and Ron are about to be penalised by their teacher, Professor McGonagall, Hermione rescues them in a manner than stuns them: “Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?” When the excitement dies down the three students come together as all the students gather for a meal: “Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates. But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, Ch. 10, Halloween)
Hermione had been an outsider, and she knew it, too. She had no reason to believe that her situation would change. But then, surprisingly, it did.
The scene that plays out in today’s gospel has a similar impact on us, even though we know the whole story and its intent. We know that Jesus came for all people, with a preference for the lonely, the marginalised and the rejected. But it took time for that message to sink in, even to sink into us. So, in John’s story, this unnamed woman comes to the well with no reason to expect anything in her life to change. As a Samaritan, a woman, and a person who has had multiple partners, she has little reason to expect anything good to come out of meeting up with a Jew, who was a stranger and a male.
But Jesus showed her that God was up to doing something new. (cf. Isaiah 43, 19: “Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the wastelands”). The encounter begins with what may seem an ordinary request. Jesus asks her for a drink. She sees this for what it is - a transgression of boundaries. When she hesitates, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak of a different kind of water, one that satisfies every thirst and gushes with eternal life for anyone who will drink it.
Jesus pushes the conversation a bit more, speaking of a time when the divisions between God’s people will be healed, when true worship will be centred neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. They, and, by implication, all people, will worship together in spirit and truth. The woman seems to understand the direction in which Jesus is leading her, for she also has been waiting for the Messiah. That is the moment for John to deliver the punch-line of the story, and Jesus says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
This marks a shift in the story. The Samaritan woman’s life is transformed. She is no longer an outsider, for she has been brought into the kingdom that Jesus has come to realise. She has become a member of the family of God, transformed by the living water offered to her by Jesus. She now knows that she is valued and loved, and that Jesus the Messiah has come, and has come for her.
And that’s the very same message of today’s gospel for us. Moreover, we are explicitly told to rid ourselves of the kind of unspoken thoughts attributed to Jesus’ disciples: “What do you want from her? What are you talking to her about?” (John 4, 27) Notionally, we can accept that Jesus has come for all people, yet, in practice, we can find ourselves thinking: “But surely not for people like that Samaritan woman.”
A telling aspect of this story is that Jesus did not condemn her. Neither did he send her away, urging her to change her life. In her elation, she hurried off to share her experience with those who had previously scorned her. She became a disciple herself, and her testimony was so effective that those who heard it came to Jesus and “begged him to stay with them.” (John 4, 40) They too were changed, just as she had been.
Like the Samaritan woman and so many others before us, we are invited to come to Jesus in our frailty and brokenness. And the encounter leads to his sending us, too, to give testimony, through our lives, to the light and life and love that he offers to all.
Sadly, much of our world is gripped by fear of the stranger. Countries like Australia, Hungary and the United States are closing their borders to refugees. It was, therefore, heartening for me to read, recently, of a group of people in Missoula, Montana, who have opened their hearts to refugees from Laos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria. They call themselves Soft Landing Missoula, and their efforts are having such an impact on fellow citizens that more and more are joining the group and welcoming refugees to their “well”. They are breaking down the fear and prejudice that label people of other religions and cultures as dangerous and undesirable. It is the inspiration of groups like Soft Landing Missoula that can help us to move beyond fear, suspicion and selfishness to embrace and live the challenge of today’s gospel.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…From the cloud came a voice that said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Matthew 17, 1-9
A children’s book that has stood the test of time is The Black Stallion. Written by Walter Farley back in 1941, it tells the story of how a boy and a wild stallion developed a close relationship after becoming stranded on a deserted island, following a shipwreck. As the ship foundered, seventeen-year-old Alec was able to free the stallion, which then pulled him to a nearby island. Everyone else on the ship, including Alec’s father, perished. The only thing that Alec was able to save was a small figurine of Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, a gift from his father, and a reminder of his love. Dependent on one another for survival, the boy and the horse learned to love and trust one another, forming a relationship that endured. Whenever the loneliness of isolation closed in on him, Alec would take from his pocket the figurine of Bucephalus, which had become for him an icon of his father’s love. Looking at it gave him renewed hope, and the energy to deal with his struggles to survive. Eventually, the young man and his horse were rescued by the crew of a passing freighter, and went on to greater things.
Almost two thousand years before The Black Stallion was published, the story we now refer to as the Transfiguration was written down and included by Matthew in his Gospel. This story is a piece of creative writing, not an eyewitness account, intended to convey a message of hope to Matthew’s fledgling and struggling Christian community. In the style of other Semitic writers of his time, Matthew shaped his story by drawing on symbols and themes familiar to his Jewish audience.
So, he included a mountain, because that’s where God was thought to dwell. He added a cloud, a common symbol of God’s presence. Moses and Elijah were included because they were the great Jewish champions of the Law and the Prophets. And the shining face of Jesus recalled the way Moses looked when he came down from the mountain, following his encounter with God. To guarantee that his message would not be missed, Matthew repeated the words that came from the heavens at the time of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (Cf Matthew 3, 17) What Matthew then did was to locate his story between two pivotal events in the life of Jesus - his baptism, which launched him into his public ministry and his execution on the cross, which looked to spell failure in capital letters. He knew that, in the course of our lives, we all experience moments of elation and bitter disappointment. There are times when we feel that God has deserted us. We therefore need powerful memories to sustain us.
Of course, Matthew knew that Jesus, too, had experienced similar feelings. In his darkest hour, Jesus had called to God from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27, 46)
With our schooldays behind us, we launch into the adventure of adult life, embracing the decisions and responsibilities integral to it. We pursue studies, work for qualifications, seek employment, make vocational choices, search to find the most fulfilling way to express the love in our hearts, decide to marry or to remain single. Then, for reasons we may not fully understand, the circumstances of our lives change. Relationships become strained, our own physical and emotional health or that of those we love goes into serious decline; sadness, disappointment, failure or grief have a profound impact on our lives. Sometimes catastrophic events overwhelm us, such as an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, a civil war or the destruction of a nuclear power plant. And our faith in a God who cares deserts us. We ask ourselves if we have been abandoned by the God in whom we had put our trust.
That’s why the transfiguration event of today’s gospel has significance for us. As Peter, James and John came back to earth, and set off down the mountain after their experience of intense elation in which they witnessed something of the divine in Jesus, they were stopped in their tracks by what seemed to be an off-hand comment from Jesus: “Don’t tell anyone about this until after I have been raised from the dead.” (cf Matthew 17, 9)
The disciples must have been wondering why Jesus would suddenly make a comment about dying, immediately after an experience that was no less than an encounter with God. Jesus was making it clear to them that the memory of what they had just witnessed was to sustain them in his darkest hour, when all seemed lost. This “beloved Son” of God whom they had just seen in glory would not be exempt from betrayal, rejection, public humiliation and execution as a criminal. And when that seemingly hopeless experience befell them, he and they would have their mountaintop experience to sustain them. It was because of that experience that Jesus was later able to cry out loudly from the cross and commend himself to God. (Matthew 27, 50)
What are we to take from this story? Peter, James and John saw the very life of God alive in Jesus. We have the assurance that a spark of that divinity is embedded in us, too. It is evident in every act of compassion, kindness, encouragement and affirmation we do. Such acts reflect the kindness, compassion, affirmation and encouragement of God. They bring to life in our world the very life of God. They enrich the lives of everyone we encounter. They bring hope to the forgotten, the lonely, the discarded.
Finally, I cannot leave this second Sunday of Lent without a brief comment on the first reading from Genesis. It’s the story of how Abraham and Sarai in their old age were asked by God to leave the familiar and comfortable and set out for an unknown destination. As I was flying into Newark last Sunday after eight weeks in Africa and anticipating eight more in North America, it struck me forcefully that we are all on a journey not of our own making. Like Abraham and Sarai, we are all called, again and again, to leave behind the safe and the familiar, and to venture into the unknown. Our birth was one of those moments, and so, too, were our first day at school, at university, on the job, in retirement and finally in aged care, as a prelude to death. Like Abraham and Sarai, we are all nomads, forever leaving and arriving, and, in this early part of Lent, we are invited to reflect on their lives as models for our own. What stands out in their story is that they stepped into the unknown trusting that God would guide and sustain them. That did not mean that there would be no difficulties. But along the way, they stopped to entertain angels - they extended kindness and hospitality to complete strangers.
For us, Lent is a time to pause and take stock of how we are growing towards God, developing in our humanity, and in faith and trust on our journey through life. Do we stop to entertain angels, to welcome strangers, to affirm, encourage, forgive? Are we better human beings than we were this time last year? Are we growing up, or just growing older?
First Sunday of Lent
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry… Matthew 4, 1-11
Back in the late 1840s, a Quaker Elder wrote the words of Simple Gifts, a hymn which picks up the true themes of Lent - to unclutter our lives by living with simplicity, and to turn our minds and hearts away from whatever lessens us and to point them towards the things of God:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed;
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Joseph Brackett, 1848
Aaron Copland echoed Brackett’s tune in his orchestral ballet piece, Appalachian Spring. In much more recent times, Frank Andersen msc has picked up the same themes in his beautifully haunting Ash Wednesday antiphon based on the call of the prophet, Joel: Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn; turn to the Lord, turn to the Lord, again. Frank Andersen msc, Rising Moon, Ash Wednesday
The Latin word convertere (meaning to turn around, and from which comes conversion), the Greek word metanoia (change of heart) and the Hebrew nahum (to take a different course of action) are all basically equivalent, and have the same meaning of turning as it is used in the hymn Simple Gifts. And the final piece in this linguistic exploration is the old English word Lent, which means Spring, the time when the northern hemisphere of the earth turns toward the sun and when the farmers turn over the soil in preparation for sowing crops. In that whole context, the Ash Wednesday readings and all the readings of Lent urge us to turn away from our complacency, to turn over our mean-spirited attitudes, to turn towards the things of God.
The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent gives us Matthew’s account of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness and the temptations that confronted him there. All three temptations, paralleling the temptations to which the Israelites succumbed during their wanderings in the wilderness, are directed at Jesus’ personal integrity. The tempter offers him possessions, power and personal comfort, and Matthew makes it clear that if Jesus were to compromise his integrity, he would actually be breaking the great commandment spelled out in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy6, 5). And it is no coincidence that, each time Jesus rejects the temptation put to him, he quotes from other parts of Deuteronomy. Weakened by hunger, Jesus is tempted to resort to magic and turn stones into bread. However, the temptation is more subtle than that. Effectively, the tempter is saying: “Look, aren’t you God’s Son? And if you really are, it’s beneath your dignity to go hungry.” He responds to his tempter: “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8, 3) It’s a response from which we can all learn. Isn’t it true that we sometimes think that, because God loves us, we are entitled to special treatment? In rejecting the temptation, Jesus makes it clear that being loved by God does not exempt us from being hungry, weak, tired, depressed. God’s love for us is a guarantee that, no matter what happens to us in life, God will guide us through it. Yet, we still sometimes hear ourselves saying that, because we live decent lives, care for the needy and go to church regularly, God should keep us healthy, comfortable and safe from disappointment and loss. Status, position, importance do not mean that our lives will be free from pain and hurt. Nor do pain and loss and hardship mean that God is indifferent to what befalls us or that God has stopped loving us. I am reminded of the story of how a priest once responded to a grief-stricken mother whose anguish led her to scream at him: “Where was God when my son drowned in the river?” The priest could only reply: “The same place when Jesus died.”
The second temptation was all about the foolish things humans can do when they are besotted by power. Jesus is tempted to play Superman and jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. God is not going to overturn the laws of gravity simply to comply with the stupidity of people. We can’t experiment with drugs, fiddle the books or walk into danger with our eyes wide open and expect that there will be no consequences. Jesus’ simple and direct response is: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6, 16)
The third temptation is to worship at the altar of materialism, consumerism, the accumulation of possessions. Treat yourself to as much pleasure and comfort as you want! Jesus points out that to live like that is to choose death, for it spells the death of healthy relationships, sharing, generosity, compassion, justice and respect for others. There is more to being truly human than satisfying all our urges and desires: “The Lord your God is the one to whom you are to pay homage; God alone is the one you are to serve.” (Deuteronomy 6, 13)
All of us experience wilderness or desert times in our lives. They might come in the shape of broken relationships, the death of a loved one, failure in a university exam, losing secure employment, an international transfer. And we all know what it is to be tempted to compromise on our principles and values, to follow paths that can lead to moral bankruptcy. We can all be seduced into becoming less than we are, into compromising our integrity. Temptation is not always bold and brazen, or emblazoned in neon lights. So, I conclude with a parable entitled Give them what they want, adapted from a story told by William Bausch, a retired pastor:
A wealthy industrialist, interested in animals, decided to establish his own private zoo. He collected and carefully housed animals from all over the world. He was so successful in developing his zoo that it became the envy of zoo- keepers around the globe. One day he learned about a rare and beautiful African gazelle, which had eluded capture. No zoo in the world had this particular kind of gazelle. The industrialist, determined to be the first to get one, mounted an expedition to Africa. When he arrived, he was told by the local people that his efforts would come to nothing. That made him only more determined to succeed. He even boasted to a reporter that he would not only get one prized gazelle, but as many as he wanted. And that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.
When his party located a herd of the rare gazelles, he had his helpers spread around a blend of oats and barley rolled in molasses. Every night for two weeks they repeated the process. And every night the gazelles returned to feed on the sweet mixture. On the first night of the third week, the food was put out in the same place, but his men sank a two metre post in the ground about six metres away from where the gazelles were feeding. Each night from then on, when the sweetened food was put out, another post was added, until he has sunk a circle of posts around the feeding area. Then he started putting boards between the posts. And every night the gazelles returned to eat the sweet food. They learned to find the gaps between the boards, totally unaware that they were losing their freedom as they were being gradually corralled.
Isn’t that exactly how temptation can seduce us? It blocks our peripheral moral vision.
Finally, after about a month of feeding and slowly closing the gaps, the industrialist watched the entire herd squeeze through the last remaining gap to get to the sweet food. He quietly moved in behind the gazelles and put in place the final board to complete the corral. He picked out the animals he wanted transported to his zoo and released the others. When the reporter who had earlier interviewed him returned and asked him how he knew just how to catch the gazelles, he said: “I treat animals the way I treat people. I give them just what they want. In exchange, they give me their freedom.”
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“You cannot serve both God and money. That is why I tell you not to be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes?...Your Father in heaven knows you need all these things. Instead, be concerned, above everything else, with the kingdom of God…” Matthew 6, 24-34
Just over ten years ago, Ms Lockwood, an English teacher at Xavier High School in New York, gave her students an exercise in persuasive writing. She asked them to write a letter to their favourite author, inviting him or her to visit their class to speak about the art of successful writing. Several students wrote to Kurt Vonnegut, author of books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut was unable to accept the invitation but wrote back, saying:
“I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.
Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
On Palm Sunday 1980, Vonnegut had been invited to deliver a sermon in St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York. In the course of it, he described himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic, but went on to say: “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by - and then we will have two good ideas.” (Dan Wakefield, Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Worshipping Atheist, Image Journal, issue 82)
Despite his cynicism, Vonnegut knew that our world could be very different if only Christians took seriously the message of Jesus, and extended their efforts at making the kingdom of God a reality.
Reflecting, then, on the letter he wrote to the English class at Xavier High School, I came to the conclusion that the crux of his challenge to each of the students resonates with today’s gospel: “Forget about getting anxious, and do something each day to discover what’s inside you, to make your soul grow!”
And that is very close to the challenge that Jesus puts to us in today’s gospel. In urging us not to invest too much nervous energy worrying about what we are going to eat and drink and wear each day, he is pointing out that we can easily become so absorbed with the basic essentials of food and clothing that we forget what gives meaning and purpose to our lives - deep joy, compassion, intimacy, gentleness and love. We will discover those true necessities only by taking the time to plumb the depths of our hearts, to look inside ourselves and to discover what will help our souls to grow.
In alerting us to the way in which God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus invites us to ponder the fact that our worth lies in the regard that God has for each of us. Our consumer society proclaims that we are nobodies if we do not sport Manchester United tops, Nike or Puma shoes, a Rolex watch and designer-label clothing. The corporate world measures our worth by the magnitude of our salary and the prestige of our academic qualifications. Yet, in his letter written from prison to the people of Corinth, Paul reminds us all of the true source of our worth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and the grace that God gave me has not been fruitless.” (1 Corinthians 15, 10) Resonating with Paul’s assertion are the words of Isaiah in today’s first reading, with which Jesus would have been entirely familiar: “Can a mother forget the child of her womb? Certainly not, but even if she should, I will never forget you, my people.” (Isaiah 49, 15)
Today’s gospel prods us to let go of the compulsions and peripheral things that can clutter our lives and to concentrate on what gives them true meaning - acting with justice and mercy, accompanying those around us to find dignity and to realise their hopes and dreams. As we shift our attention to Lent, which begins on Wednesday, we might make a conscious decision to loosen our grip on the consumer world, and absorb some of the beauty of the natural world; to reconnect with someone with whom we have lost contact; or to get in touch with our own inner poetry, art and creativity, as a way of nourishing our souls.
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other. If anyone wants to go to law over your shirt, hand him your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two miles…My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are sons and daughters of your heavenly Father…In a word, you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5, 38-48
Many of us can surely recall the TV news coverage of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, back in 2003. It followed the invasion of Iraq by forces of the countries that had joined together to form the “Coalition of the Willing”. Iraqi citizens beheaded the statue and dragged it through the streets of Baghdad, giving it (and the man it represented) the worst possible insult by hitting it with their shoes. Thirteen years later, Khadhim Sharif Hassan, who had played a leading role in toppling the statue, stated: “Things have started to get worse every year. There has been infighting, corruption, killing, looting. Saddam has gone, but in his place we have a thousand Saddams.” (BBC News, July 5, 2016)
Khadhim’s words are a penetrating comment on part of today’s gospel - the futility of our efforts to get even with those who have wronged us.
In Jewish law, the accepted understanding of retaliation - "an eye for the eye" - was intended to restrict vengeance, and to keep violence within limits. But Jesus taught his Jewish audience to respond to injustice the way God wants us to respond. So, in today's Gospel, we see Jesus pointing to three offences that seem, at first sight, to be relatively insignificant. And he explains that, with a little bit of calm and cunning, those who are abused can turn the tables on those who try to take advantage of them.
First, there is the slap on the cheek. In Gospel times, a superior could slap a worker or slave with the back of his right hand. Such a slap was intended to insult and humiliate, but not injure. But turning one’s cheek when struck, forced the striker to hit with an open hand, thus making him face as an equal the person he had hit. Such a "turning" of the cheek robbed the aggressor of the power to humiliate and, in effect, shamed him.
Then there is the matter of suing somebody for his clothing. In Jewish culture, nakedness was considered a grave humiliation, both for the person stripped and the one who did the stripping. Genuine hospitality required that no person ever be shamed in that way. “So if someone makes an unreasonable demand for your shirt”, Jesus said, “give him your coat as well. Give him everything, so that he might come to realise the impact of his avarice, and see that he has reduced you to nakedness, thereby shaming you.”
And finally, there is going the extra mile. A Roman soldier could force anyone to carry his equipment for one mile, but no farther. Going a second mile trapped the Roman soldier into a difficult position: he could be severely punished by his superiors for abusing his authority. By choosing to go the second mile, Jesus taught, a man could make a despised Roman treat him as an equal. The man who chose to go the extra mile was really teaching the soldier that, while he could demand a service permitted to any member of the occupying forces, he could not control anyone’s generosity.
In today's Gospel, Jesus is challenging all of us to answer oppression and injustice with dignity and calmness. He proclaims that behaving as God would have us behave undermines the cycle of fear and violence, and replaces it with justice and big mindedness.
It’s quite likely that we rarely find ourselves hating anyone. However, I’m sure that we can remember finding ourselves brooding or festering over hurts we have received. We know that we can invest lots of emotional energy into harbouring our hurt feelings and trying to avoid interacting with the person who has wounded us. We can so easily surrender our peace of mind and risk destroying a relationship that may have been healthy and purposeful right up to the time of the hurt. Planning to get even can disturb us emotionally and even upset our thinking, leading us to act irrationally. In the long run, we end up doing more harm to ourselves than we do to the person who has insulted or injured us. We give our “enemy” power over us, over our emotions, and even over our sleep and blood pressure. And if our “enemy” knew how he/she was keeping us restlessly plotting revenge or giving us sleepless nights, he/she might well be delighted.
So, Jesus surely knew what he was talking about when he urged us to forgive and love our enemies. Besides, if we want Jesus to forgive us, it makes no sense at all for us to insist on denying forgiveness to those who have hurt us, or to refuse to reach out to them in love.
And even if we don’t hate anyone, we know that there are some people in our lives whom we keep at a distance by our attitude of superiority. They are the people whom we regard as not measuring up to our standards of what is good, right and correct. We might have similar attitudes of superiority towards those who don’t share our political views, our religious beliefs or our skin colour, towards those who are different from us.
In pointing out that there is no virtue in loving only those who love us, Jesus is implicitly condemning us whenever we demonstrate a lack of respect, sensitivity and empathy for the poor, the bedraggled, the unkempt and the shabbily dressed. The kingdom of God is on the way to becoming a reality only when we treat the poor, the forgotten, the destitute and the alienated as our sisters and brothers. It is so easy to treat them as inferior or beneath us. Yet, they are worthy of not just our help and tolerance but of our respect, our care and our love.
The kingdom of God begins when we actually realise that all those people are us. It is then that Jesus’ dream for us - that we might be perfect, like God, - begins to become possible.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“…whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5, 17-37
When a friend unexpectedly came upon W.C. Fields (American comedian, writer and actor) reading the Bible, he said jokingly: “I’m just looking for loopholes.” He was simply reflecting what so many of us do when we find ourselves challenged or constricted by laws, commandments, regulations and rules, be they religious or civil. - we look for loopholes. Alternatively, we become obsessed with law and its interpretation and demand of ourselves and others exact adherence. Some few of us realize that law is intended to breathe freedom into the lives and actions of those for whom it is designed. Particular laws and rules are meant to ensure that we preserve our own dignity as responsible human beings and respect the freedom and human dignity of all whom we serve and encounter.
Some of us belong to a generation schooled to observe in every detail the Ten Commandments of God and the Six Commandments of the Church. Religious practice was reduced to a set of “dos” and “don’ts” to be applied to just about every possible life situation. Failures to adhere to every commandment were graded into “venial” and “mortal”, with the latter qualifying an offender for committal to hell if he or she were to die without seeking God’s forgiveness. To willfully neglect attending Mass on Sunday or to intentionally eat meat on Friday were mortal sins. The legalists got to work to define what was essential for Mass attendance, concluding that, provided one was present from the start of the Offertory to the conclusion of the Post-communion prayer, the requirements of the law were met. Others advised that abstaining from meat on Friday also meant abstaining from the gravy produced by meat.
These 19th and 20th century legalists had a lot in common with the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Historically, the role of the scribes had evolved. They had progressed from being mere classifiers and recorders of what was contained in the Torah into interpreters of the Torah itself. Complementing the scribes were the Pharisees. Their focus was making sure they observed the Law meticulously, thereby setting themselves up as models of observance for everyone else to imitate. Today’s gospel gives us the first hints of the tension and trouble brewing between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities.
As he taught the crowds, Jesus had begun to emphasise the more difficult practice of looking beyond the letter of the Law to seeing how God’s Spirit gives all laws their life and meaning. Jesus clearly understood the role of the human heart and one’s personal integrity in determining what is right and wrong for each of us. He proceeded to illustrate that by pointing out that our prayers and piety are meaningless for as long as we allow our anger and bitterness to keep our sisters and brothers alienated from us.
All the comments about law and commandment attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel combine to tell us that all just and healthy laws and commandments are meant to help us to live in freedom - freedom from fear, from the burden of stifling adherence to meaningless detail. Even his comment which, on the surface, might seem to support the oppressive interpretations coming from the scribes and Pharisees: “until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law until all these things have taken place” is saying that, ultimately, freedom from the Law is a freedom that comes through the Spirit who inspires the Law. It is not the abolition of the Law that will set us free, but its proper fulfillment. Paradoxically, what impedes us is our tendency to be drawn into giving undue attention to our favourite jots and tittles, rather than to the fullness of life and freedom that come from proper appreciation of the Law.
While none of us would want the title of scribe or Pharisee attributed to us, that does not exclude us from being like them in our blindness to our own little hypocrises. The good works which others see in us and for which they “give glory to your Father in heaven” (last Sunday’s gospel) are not jot and tittle adherence to any law, but, as the prophets declared: setting free the oppressed, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, feeding the poor and caring for the widow and orphan.
For contemporary examples of jot and tittle adherence, we need look no further than the nit-picking critics of Pope Francis. They are determined to find errors of doctrine in his proclamations of mercy, acceptance and tolerance for those Catholics excluded from full participation in Eucharist because of their “irregular marital status”.
Fulfilling the commandments and living the spirit of God’s Law call us to die to letter-perfect obedience and to see and live as Jesus saw and lived; to notice the human hurt and deprivation all around us, and to address them as Jesus did and as God invites us to. Too much notice given to the letter of the law becomes an excuse to do nothing. We are being invited to run to the stranger, the widow and the orphan in their need. We can apologise later for ignoring the “Keep Off the Grass” sign.
I conclude with a story from an article that appeared late last year in America magazine. It’s about someone who understood law and ignored the ‘rules’:
“During my annual retreat I was praying a meditation on gratitude. I suddenly thought of Sister Thaddeus, the nun who had taught me in fourth grade at our parochial school in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1960s.
Three images returned. My friend Vince had the worst handwriting in the class. Rather than upbraiding him, as other teachers had done, Sister Thaddeus would cheerfully tutor him during recess. “It’s getting better, you know. Keep up the good fight.” This was no minor issue. In the preconciliar Catholic grammar school, penmanship enjoyed quasi-sacramental status.
The poorest pupil in class was Charlotte. The school’s class structure was simple: the split-levellers, the row-housers and the people from ‘the project’, where Charlotte lived. She also stuttered badly. In Sister Thaddeus’s class, one of the girls would call out a pupil’s name from a stack of cards as we ploughed through the daily oral drills. After several weeks, however, I noticed that Charlotte was the one pupil whose name was never called. Only years later did I surmise that Sister Thaddeus had withdrawn her card to avoid any humiliation.
Our parish was an endless round of social celebrations: the May procession, the carnival, the St. Patrick’s dance, the St. Joseph table, bingo, the concert by the Mummers string band. Sister Thaddeus would circulate among the families with a warm greeting for each person. When our family showed up at the festivals, we often brought our sister Nancy, who had Down syndrome. Sister Thaddeus would always go out of her way to give a small gift to Nancy. We quickly acquired “the Sister Thaddeus collection”: a St. Bernadette medal, holy cards of Our Lady, a plastic rosary bracelet.
After decades of teaching, it dawned on me that Sister Thaddeus had long ago made her own preferential option for the poor. Whereas many teachers play for the stars, Sister Thaddeus cared for the vulnerable. Her pedagogical compass was compassion. The Gospel made her tick.” (John J. Conley, Teachers Who Teach, America, December 19-26, 2016)
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” 1 Corinthians 2, 1-5
“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…” Matthew 5, 13-16
In today’s first reading we hear Paul’s reflection on how he saw himself when he arrived to preach to the people of Corinth: “I came to you in weakness.” With those words, Paul effectively speaks for all of us. As we go about trying to live our lives as followers of Jesus, the best we have to offer is limited. True, we have some talent, some gifts and good intentions. But what we all have in common is human weakness, frailty and limitation. However, we can take comfort from the assurance that Jesus invites us to be witnesses out of our weakness. Just a little before in that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul had written: “God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; God chose those who by human standards are weak to confound the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1, 27) The consequence of this is that there is no room for making excuses, for protesting that we lack capability. God expects us to use whatever little we have to work to make our world better.
The following is a story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle some years ago. Whether it’s fact or urban myth matters little. It carries, nonetheless, a message worth hearing:
“As a child, the world-renowned violinist, Itzhak Perlman was stricken with polio. As a result, he relies on crutches for mobility, and his walking is slow and laboured. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.
But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap -- it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.
But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signalled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.
He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said -- not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone – ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’
Perhaps that is the definition of life -- not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.” (Houston Chronicle, Feb 10, 2001)
However inadequate, broken or fragile we are, whatever our story, our role is to make the music of the Gospel - the upside-down values of the reign of God, the Beatitudes - for everyone we encounter.
Today’s gospel reminds us that God has chosen us to be salt and light for our world. Jesus does not say “ You must be”, “You will become” or “You should be”, but you are salt and light. That implies giving ourselves away fully. When salt savours food, it becomes invisible and succeeds in making the food tasty. When light is freely dispersed, it is obstructed neither by a bushel nor any other screen. It is liberated from the captivity of darkness. However, in the lived reality of our lives, most of us are hesitant to give ourselves away completely. We are inclined to hold something back or even to share our saltiness only with those with whom we are comfortable. When that happens, our saltiness loses its edge and we end up savouring nobody. Being salt for our world runs the risk of rejection, alienation and insult. We don’t want to see ourselves as ignored Christians, belittled Christians, persecuted Christians.
In calling us light, Jesus warns us not to hide ourselves out of fear that our light will be dissipated if we allow it to reach as far as it will go. Is that because we secretly hold the view that there are some corners of God’s world unworthy of being illuminated or because we think that our light will be rejected? In the long run, to be salt and light is to allow ourselves to be used up by God, to dissolve and dissipate without fearing what will become of us. And in the process we will flavour and enlighten the world around us. In recent weeks, I have found myself in churches in Sierra Leone and Kenya, where I have heard people singing the late 19th Century Methodist hymn “I Surrender All”. Its opening lines are: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give.” Being salt and light, dissolving and dissipating, means nothing less than surrendering all, in fact, dying - if not physically dying, at least dying to my own ego. And that’s a big ask!
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Blest are the hearts of mercy, to them shall be mercy returned…all who strive for peace, God’s own children shall be; all who live afflicted, pursued for the sake of justice, surely, surely, theirs is the reign of God…Blest are gentle hearts, they inherit the earth; Blest are all who hunger and thirst for the taste of justice, surely, surely, they shall receive their fill.” The Beatitudes (Mt. 5, 1-12), St Louis Jesuits, Steadfast Love
The way we look at ourselves and the world to which we belong has a profound impact on our behaviour. For instance, if we allow ourselves to be contaminated by a culture that says we will be satisfied if we go to university and find a profession that pays well, we will be able to afford a car, a comfortable house and enjoy a level of luxury. In some previous reflections, I have referred to Harsh Mander’s book, Looking Away, in which he explains that wealthy Indians cannot see the tens of millions of their poor and destitute sisters and brothers because their gaze is fixated solely on the good things of life and on acquiring more and more.
It was the way in which Jesus saw his world and the religious establishment that controlled his fellow citizens that propelled him to begin his public ministry by announcing that God’s dream for the world was near to becoming reality: “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4, 17). When he sent his disciples out to preach and to heal, he instructed them to make the same announcement (Matthew 10, 7). In today’s gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples, through eight statements, which we call the Beatitudes, what that kingdom looks like. In fact, in the first and last Beatitude, he states that God’s kingdom is already present in the lives of those who are “poor in spirit” - those who know they are inadequate, but who trust that God will make up for what they lack. The other six Beatitudes are promises of how God’s dream will come to reality in the lives of those who are meek, merciful, overcome with grief, work for peace, and have a passion for justice. These are people who see the way Jesus sees; people who have not been seduced by power, comfort or possessions. The way of seeing and living which Jesus proclaims (the kingdom of heaven) infiltrates the lives of the unfortunate (those who are overlooked and ill-treated) and transforms them. In this context, blessed or blest does not mean holy or special, but fortunate.
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit philosopher and palaeontologist, was passionate in stating that he regarded his main mission in life as one of helping people to see: “Seeing. We might say that the whole of life lies in that verb.” (The Phenomenon of Man, p.31, translated by Bernard Wall, Harper and Brothers, New York 1959). In the preface of his book, And Now I See, theologian Robert Barron (now auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles) writes: “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in the world has a distinctive accent and flavour. What unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth.” (Crossroad, New York, 1998, p.1)
Of significance is the fact that the much-published Rabbi Harold Kushner shares the same view as Teilhard de Chardin and Robert Barron. In his book, Who Needs God?, Kushner writes: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a difference.” (Fireside, New York, 2002, p. 21)
So, having started out on his ministry by selecting co-workers and taking them with him as he healed the sick, Jesus paused to tell his disciples about what it was that was compelling him to follow the path he had chosen. And he did that through a series of eight brief, poignant and somewhat cryptic statements which reveal how he saw the heart of God, reaching out to people whose circumstances in life were less than comfortable - the poor in spirit and fact, the meek and humble, those who were grieving and persecuted, those who had a passion for peace. We can imagine how many in the crowd would have seen themselves in one or other of those categories, and how they would have been encouraged by being called blessed, as they dealt with the challenges and opposition confronting them.
Likewise, even if our own life circumstances might suggest otherwise, we may find the courage to believe that we too are blessed, fortunate to have the assurance that we are dear to God.
There has been a long succession of women and men who have come to see as Jesus saw, and have found the courage to act on what they saw. They have seen what is important, what matters, what needs to be addressed immediately. They are our saints, whether or not they have been given Church or civil recognition for their deeds.
Ajahn Brahm is a British-born Buddhist monk, who is abbot of a monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia. He has compiled a book of stories about dealing with life’s difficulties in ways that lead to peace and contentment. One of his stories illustrates what can come from living in tune with the Beatitudes:
A monk was asked to teach meditation at a nearby prison. Many of the inmates had never met a monk. After the first session, they began to ask him about his life in the monastery.
"We get up at four o'clock every morning," the monk began. "Sometimes it's very cold because our rooms don't have heaters. We eat one meal a day, all mixed together in the one bowl. There is no alcohol, and we live as celibates. Much of our day is spent in silence. We work hard, and sleep on our cell floor. We also spend a lot of time in prayer and meditation."
The inmates were stunned by the austerity of the monastic life. It made their high-security prison seem like a five-star hotel. One prisoner, moved by what he heard, said: "Why don't you come in here and stay with us?"
The monk thanked the inmates for their kindness, but said he was happy as a monk. He had chosen this life in order to seek God in a community of like-minded men. The monastery was not a prison; it was a place in which, the monk said, he has never been as free. (Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung, Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA, 2004)
Anywhere we don’t want to be, no matter how physically comfortable, is really a prison. It might be a workplace, a domestic situation, a group that does not share our values. But we can escape from such confinement by embracing the spirit contained in the Beatitudes of today’s gospel. They have the capacity to transform our lives, to help us to see and live, inspired by the mind and heart of Jesus.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
From that time on, Jesus began to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”…As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers…they were fishermen. He said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him…He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and curing every disease and illness among the people. Matthew 4, 12-23
This is a fascinating story about the commencement of Jesus’ ministry, fascinating for what it does not say. Matthew records nothing of the reactions of the family of Simon and Andrew as they come to terms with the sudden departure of two adult bread-winners. Neither does he tell us what Zebedee had to say when his two sons, James and John, dropped the nets they were mending and followed Jesus. Fishermen have long been notorious for their coarse language, so it’s very likely sensitivity on the part of Matthew that stopped him from reporting what came out of Zebedee’s mouth. Maybe all four fishermen who responded to the invitation from Jesus imagined that they were being offered a promising future. Whatever their motives for leaving their nets, it seems clear that they had no idea that the rabbi whose invitation they accepted would end up being executed as a public criminal. Yet there must have been something magnetic about the personality and message of Jesus that compelled them to leave behind family and job to follow him. Whatever it was, it changed their lives dramatically.
From our vantage point, some two thousand years later, we can look at how the four Gospel writers and other New Testament commentators have summarised and explained the life and teaching of Jesus and his first followers. We can appreciate how countless generations have been captivated by Jesus and his message. Above all, we know from personal experience that all he is and stands for gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and that we, too, are committed to his invitation to follow after him as fishers of women and men.
Much of the following we do is from the safe distance of our lounge-room armchairs. We follow the football, the tennis, our favourite movie stars and the unfolding events in the world around us from the comfort of our homes. We might even find ourselves becoming emotionally involved in what we see. However, we know in our hearts that Jesus extends to us the same invitation as he offered to Simon, Andrew, James and John. We also have the advantage (Or do we see it as disadvantage?) of knowing what those four did not know - that the following of Jesus calls for nothing less than unconditional commitment to a set of values and principles that leave no room for compromise or dilution.
Commitment to Jesus and His Gospel is not limited to turning up to Mass on Sunday, or, indeed, on every other day of the week. It involves living out the compassion, the mercy, the forgiveness, the tolerance, the justice, the witness to God’s love that infused everything that Jesus said and did. It is a way of life that admits of neither compromise nor concession. Yet there is something attractive about it. Otherwise we would not set our hearts on embracing it. The magnetism of Jesus and his message is as alive today as it was when it drew Simon, Andrew, James and John to drop everything and follow.
As we reflect on all this, it is worth pausing to consider the circumstances and urgency that launched Jesus on his public ministry. Matthew outlines them for us. The civil and political establishment was clearly unsettled by John the Baptist’s outspokenness and by the restiveness he was causing among the general populace. The privileged, religious class was threatened by a fiery prophet who heralded that God’s kingdom was nigh. Even though he held out to them the promise of participating in something that would change their lives for the better, they baulked at the very prospect of change. Jesus saw what was happening around him and responded with urgency. He set his mind on speaking even more boldly than John, and realised the need to engage others to assist him. The dramatic change of lifestyle embraced by the four fishermen of today’s gospel is a metaphor for stating that the major change that Jesus would set about leading required an enormous shift in perspective, lifestyle and attitude.
We would be less than alert if we failed to realise that our world and our Church are in the midst of dramatic change. Political upheaval surrounds us. Legitimately elected leaders are being blocked from office by incumbents who refuse to step aside. Civil unrest has become the norm in many countries. The orthodoxy and leadership of Pope Francis are being questioned and challenged by some of his cardinals and bishops. Religious Congregations are facing diminishment. Securities are shifting and certainties are being eroded. Our Church is being challenged to the growing need to reach out to refugees and to take a stand against the religious bigotry that exists within and beyond its boundaries. We all are being pressed to address the changing needs that are emerging and to decide whether traditional ways are sufficient to address those needs. Do we have the flexibility to change and to grow or are we content to hold fast to what is known and comfortable? Are we open to the kind of dramatic change that transformed the lives of Simon, Andrew, James and John?
Today’s gospel signals the revelation that Jesus was about to make to the world of his time. That revelation continues in our time and place. It continues to be disruptive and challenging. We have to ask ourselves if we are open to allow it to disrupt, to disturb and to challenge us.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1, 29-34
From my reading of the Gospels, I am left with the impression that there was nothing meek and mild about John the Baptist. He is presented as a vigorous, fiery preacher and prophet calling people to repentance. So, it comes as a surprise when he points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God”. That’s an expression that is out of character with my image of the Baptist. It suggests gentleness and calmness, even passivity. In fact, the Old Testament has references to God’s chosen one as being “led like a lamb to the slaughter”. And it might have been more appropriate on John the Baptist’s part to have referred to Jesus as “the Lion of God”, one who really meant business.
We Catholics are so accustomed in our praying and reading to references to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”, that we become dulled to its significance, especially when we read that Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” If we stop to think of our own frailty and weakness of character, and the sinfulness of the whole of humanity throughout history, that amounts to a lot of sins that Jesus had to deal with. And all that is something that we seem to take for granted.
When we come to consider some of the evils that have existed in our world, we can look to some of the interventions made by leaders who have done their best to promote justice, peace and respect for all people. Think, for a moment, of the way in which Gandhi spent his life campaigning for peace through non-violence. Think, too, of how reformers in America in the 1920s set out to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol because drunkenness had led to wide-spread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women and children. And look at how that very Prohibition led to the rise of the bootleggers who sold alcohol that was produced illegally. In fact, the bootleggers recruited children to deliver the illegal alcohol to clients. As a result there were public demonstrations to do away with Prohibition in order to save children from being corrupted. In Australia, gambling has been a cause of domestic violence and family breakdown. In some States, poker machines (called “slot machines” in other countries) were banned. So people hired buses to take them across State borders to casinos and clubs where they could gamble to their heart’s content. And when hotel owners successfully lobbied governments to extend the sale of alcohol for an additional four hours every day, there were demonstrations to protect women and children from abuse resulting from drunkenness. But the casino operators and the hoteliers carried the day because Governments gained revenue form high taxes levied on gambling and the sale of alcohol.
In Eastern Europe and China we have witnessed the rise of Communism, promoted to address the evils of capitalism at one end of the economic spectrum and poverty at the other end. It was meant to convince people that they are all equal, yet anyone who questioned its leaders was exterminated. In the process, the common good was pushed aside while those supposedly promoting it lined their pockets and lived in comfort. Communism’s failure to nourish people’s bodies and spirits caused its ultimate collapse. In more recent times, “the Coalition of the Willing”, a group of so-called “developed” countries, joined together to rid the world of the sins of terrorism and of dictators accused of amassing weapons of mass-destruction. Instead of bringing the blessing of peace, they have left the rest of the world with an insoluble problem of trying to address the needs of millions of refugees and asylum seekers. In addition they have all but destroyed cultures that have enriched the world for millennia.
In contrast to all this, John the Baptist, immersed in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, heralded the advent not of one who would take the world by storm and rid it of evils, but of one whom he described as “the Lamb of God”, who would change the world by calling its people to live with integrity, decency, compassion, dignity and respect for all, irrespective of their race or religion. John pointed to one who understood that justice, mercy, goodness and love came from the hearts of little people who understood the value of living in harmony with one another and sharing the gifts of creation.
For too long, our world’s little people, others of God’s lambs, have been exploited by morally bankrupt leaders and politicians and by wealthy individuals with no ethical or moral compass. Ultimately, it will be those who embrace the “Lamb of God”, those who live by the message and values which he lived and proclaimed, who will bring to our world the peace and contentment for which it longs. Those who lionize themselves and who rely on force and violence to rid the world of the evils they perceive will end up replacing one set of evils with another.
John the Baptist, the last of a long line of Israel’s great prophets recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and urged all who heard him to behold him, to look closely at Jesus and heed his message. If we really hear what Jesus proclaimed, we ourselves will be transformed and will not see the world the same way again. To heed Jesus’ message will be to set aside suspicion, distrust and prejudice and to replace them with tolerance, understanding and acceptance. By acting with justice, generosity and compassion, we demonstrate that we are at home in the company of “the Lamb of God” and that his way of addressing the evils of the world is our way.
I read recently the story of a couple who had been married for nine years. On their wedding day, the bride’s Aunt Alison had given them a nicely wrapped box on the outside of which was written: Do not open until first argument. Despite times of tension and disagreement, despite occasional harsh words and the slamming of doors, the couple resisted opening the box, because they had come to regard opening it as an admission of failure. They had come to believe that their love for one another would be sufficient for handling whatever happened to them. On the night they celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary, after putting their two children to bed, they decided to open Aunt Alison’s wedding present, not because they needed to, but because they were now convinced they would not have to open it. What they found was entirely unremarkable - an envelope with money for flowers, a bottle of wine, a packet of bubble-bath and another envelope with money for pizza, just what might be useful to create a moment to stop and calm down. That’s when it hit them that the real gift was not what the box contained but what they had acquired over the previous nine years - tolerance, patience and the ability to forgive one another. They discovered “the Lamb of God”, the compassion, the forgiveness and the love of God right in the middle of their lives together.
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2, 1-12
In his autobiographical work, Letters from the Desert, Carlo Carretto describes how his observation of the stars from the dark nights of the Algerian Sahara desert had a profound impact on the way in which he came to contemplate and reflect. Carretto had left behind in Italy a successful career as a teacher, writer and activist to embark on a 10-year-long pilgrimage in the desert, and to join the religious congregation of The Little Brothers of Jesus. In a blog posted in 2007, Frederick Henry, Bishop of Calgary quoted from Letters from the Desert and added an accompanying comment:
"The first nights I spent here made me send off for books on astronomy and maps of the sky; and for months afterwards I spent my free time learning a little of what was passing over my head up there in the universe...It was all good material for my prayer of adoration. Kneeling on the sand, I sank my eyes for hours and hours at those wonders, writing down my discoveries in an exercise book like a child.... Finding one's way in the desert is much easier by night than by day ... In the years which I spent in the open desert I never once got lost, thanks to the stars. Many times I lost my way because the sun was too high in the sky. But I waited for night and found the road again, guided by the stars.”
It is also true that we can sometimes navigate best in life in the darkness of pain and suffering. The glitz and glitter of the daylight today can blind us and cause us to lose our way. The solution is to continue to gaze upon the face of Christ in the sick and suffering who will show us the way as we get close to them. (Bishop F. Henry, August 3, 2007)
The Epiphany of Christ (derived from the Greek word for manifestation, appearance or revelation), which we celebrate today, is a reminder to us that the natural world, the sacred and the secular interpenetrate one another to form one living and dynamic reality. The Divine is, indeed, with us and in us and all around us. We can, therefore, encounter God in nature, in the events of ordinary life, in our encounters with others and in the times and places we set aside for prayer, reflection and worship. That is where we experience our own epiphanies, revelations and inspirations.
Today’s gospel tells the story of the Magi, wisdom figures from the East and followers of Zoroaster, who trust in the ultimate victory of light over darkness, and who come to worship a seemingly simple child born in poor circumstances. Their story is a reminder to us that the fullness of God is not normally to be found in the temple of Jerusalem or the basilica of St. Peter in Rome, in houses of Parliament or in the board rooms of big corporations. Of course, God can be found in these places, but Epiphany is a stark reminder that God comes to us in the destitute and vulnerable, and in the birth of a small child whose parents will be forced into exile in order to ensure the safety of their infant son. It is not long before the Magi discover that the rich and powerful want to hold on to power and position even at the expense of the dispossessed. We see this in our own day, with national leaders refusing to heed the results of properly conducted elections or moving to seek constitutional amendments that will keep them in power. At the same time their citizens slip deeper and deeper into poverty. When the Magi discovered the machinations of Herod, they were urged in a dream to change their plans and bypass Jerusalem. And so, “they left for their own country by a different road”.
In real life, the same happens to us. We make our plans, and then find that we have to amend them because circumstances change or because we get new insights or because we experience unsettling intuitions. Sometimes we get to choose another road. At other times, it is thrust upon us by illness, loss of employment, natural disaster, failed marriage, mid-life crisis or even a national election result we just did not anticipate. As a consequence, we have to make other plans and make our way ahead on unfamiliar paths, unsure of where they will lead us. Somehow, we have to decide how we are going to choose life on whatever path uncertainty and change of circumstance force us to take.
Even when civil leaders lose their moral compass and Church leaders disappoint us with their human frailty or their wanting to revert to pre-Vatican II certainty, we have to find our own stars to guide us along another route. But let us not forget that God’s light has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and that light is for everyone.
In today’s second reading from Ephesians, Paul points out that the Gentiles are “co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in God’s promise” made to us all in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. We, therefore, must ask ourselves who are the Gentiles of today’s world. Surely they are the immigrants and asylum seekers from all over the globe, the homeless people of all our cities and towns and with whom we are reluctant to engage, our forgotten indigenous brothers and sisters, those who have changed their gender. As Christians, we must extend a welcome to the foreigner and the stranger, and demonstrate that welcome in practical kindness and compassion, in advocating for their rights and in working to transform our communities through education and example. For good measure, Psalm 72 (It follows immediately after today’s responsorial psalm) assures us that rulers and political leaders get their credibility from the ways in which they treat the poor with justice and protect the rights of the oppressed. (Psalm 72, 2-4)
The readings for today’s celebration of Epiphany urge us to stop and consider whether we need to chart another course for ourselves, one that may be filled with obstacle and challenge, one that may bring us into conflict with political and even religious leaders. Our role is to keep the Christ light shining. We can take comfort from the fact that Pope Francis, to keep that light shining, is leading us along a different route. Are we prepared to walk that way with him?
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
“When the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were subject to the Law, so that we might become God’s sons and daughters.” Galatians 4, 4-7
And Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2, 16-21
The events surrounding the birth of Jesus were so extraordinary that it was little wonder that Mary spent considerable time reflecting on them and trying to make sense of them. To begin with there surely was a mismatch between being asked by the angel to be the mother of the “Son of the Most High” and the circumstances of that Son’s birth in a stable for sheltering farm animals. Surely she must have been wondering where God was in all that mess.
As her child grew and developed, just like every little boy’s mother, she surely found much more on which to reflect. She would have had to pacify and comfort him when he was teething. She would have guided him in his first steps when he began to walk, and stopped him from climbing into danger once he started to explore. Like every other little boy he would have collected bugs and beetles and stowed them safely in his pockets, and he would have had his fair share of bumps and bruises that needed kissing better. And would he not have been as restless and fidgety as any other Jewish child on his early trips with his parents to the synagogue for prayers?
The ability to reflect on ourselves, our lives and all that happens around us is uniquely human. While it starts in childhood when we begin to search for explanations for the things we cannot understand, reflecting or pondering in depth is essentially an adult practice with which we become more comfortable as we mature. Mary had thirty years to practice it. And how she must have puzzled over the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth, the predictions of what he was to become, and the meaning of the disconcerting prophecies made by Simeon and Anna when Jesus was but a baby!
How did she make sense of her son’s departure from Jewish tradition when he left his trade behind and not only started to preach, but set about challenging the teaching and authority of his country’s religious leaders? Must she not have experienced extreme embarrassment at his unconventional behaviour? How did she cope with the gossip that must have circulated about him? How she must have struggled to see where God was in all of that!
That kind of challenge and puzzlement is not foreign to us either. We, too, have to learn the art of pondering as we try to make sense of our personal frailty, our contradictions and our inner conflicts. We, too, struggle to discover the presence of God in what is happening in our world as human beings do violence to one another and as those close to us behave in ways we cannot easily fathom.
Yet the almost incredible consequence of God’s becoming one with us in the person of Jesus, born of Mary, is that we are, as today’s reading from Galatians assures us, brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God. And the consequence of that for us is that we have a responsibility to reflect something of the presence, the goodness and the love of God to others in the ordinariness of our living.
So, as another year begins and we think of New Year resolutions, let’s start by committing to put the practice of pondering high on our “to do” list.
Through her pondering Mary came to understand how God’s love for her and her family was evident in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and in all that unfolded as he grew and developed, as he went about his work as a carpenter, and as he encouraged, affirmed and challenged all whom he encountered in his public ministry.
If we, in our turn, do not make our world a little more beautiful and a little better for having been part of it, then our lives will be meaningless. Through our reflecting on ourselves and our role as Christians, we have to decide how we are going to mirror something of the face of God to others in ordinary, practical ways.
I am reminded of a story told by a man about his school days. Somehow, on his way home from school each afternoon, he managed to get distracted. Invariably, he was late home and late for his dinner. Finally, his parents had had enough and his father issued an ultimatum: “Next time you come late for dinner, you’ll be sitting down to bread and water. Now that’s it!”
True to form, the very next afternoon he was late again. When he came into the dining room, the other members of the family had plates of meat, potatoes and other vegetables in their places. In his place was a slice of bread and a glass of water. He was deflated, and sat miserably in his place staring at the bread and water. After waiting for some minutes for the lesson to sink in, his father quietly got up and exchanged his own full plate for the slice of bread and glass of water. The boy, now a grown man, reflected: “Ever since then, I have known what God is like, from what my father did that night.”
Canadian writer, Eleanor Coerr and illustrator Ronald Himler have published the beautiful story of Sadako Saoaki, a young Japanese girl who, at the age of two, survived the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, she was severely affected by radiation, and, by the time she was eleven, was dying from leukemia. As she lay in her hospital bed, her friend Chizuko gave her some hope by telling her that, if she made a thousand origami cranes, her wish would be granted. So she decided that each day she would make a white paper crane. This she did for 644 days, and then she died. Her school friends brought the number up to 1000. On her grave is written: “I will write peace on your wings. And you will fly all over the world.”
What will emerge as a result of our pondering during 2017?
“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2, 1-14
“What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again, even in us.” Frederick Buechner
“It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you.” W.H. Auden, A Christmas Oratorio
Here in Rome in recent days there has been lots of activity in churches, piazzas, other public places and shops, as Christmas cribs have been built and displayed. In Piazza del Popolo, there is an outdoor exhibition of cribs of all shapes, sizes and designs, and one of the large churches has live animals in its crib. The daily papers carry invitations to parents to bring their children to come and see “Bambino Gesù” between December 26 and Epiphany, in any number of churches. There is something admirable about all this, for it calls us all, not just the children, to look back to the historical birth of Jesus more than twenty centuries ago, and to come back to the present in order to stop, to ponder, to wonder at and celebrate the very presence of God in our midst here and now. And while everyone who visits a crib, here in Rome or anywhere else, might not grasp the full significance of the event it celebrates, they are reminded that there is something special about the Child in the centre. Sad to say, there are so many other cities around the globe where distorted political correctness demands that Christmas cribs not be displayed in public and the Christmas story not be told in schools.
At the birth of Jesus, hope and promise were born into our world. And just as the creative genius of artists and designers finds expression in endless variations of that first Christmas crib, so too, are hope and love and promise born into our world in every act of generosity, kindness and compassion done in imitation of Jesus who was born in that Bethlehem stable and lived among us.
Jesus is born again and again into our present world, but all too often we are unable to see it happening. A single father and his two sons have managed together somehow for another year. They forget their own struggles and build a make-shift table on which to serve up a Christmas dinner for elderly people in their street, who would otherwise spend their Christmas alone. Their “stable” becomes a dwelling place for God.
Fred and Dulcie, both in their 80s, sit in their assisted-living unit, eating a special dinner that Fred has cooked. Dulcie is reliving Christmases of years ago, with no awareness of this Christmas. Fred is cutting off pieces of turkey and coaxing his wife of 60 years to eat them. When the struggle of the meal is over, he will patiently remind her of who he is, who they are, and that it is Christmas. He will take down the family photograph and name each of their children for her and tell her stories of the kids as they were growing up. Into this nursing-home “stable”, Jesus is born day after day after day…
Clare is up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Eve. Everything is in readiness for the family celebration of Christmas, leaving her free to spend the day cooking scones and cakes for the meal served by her local parish for the homeless in the area. Her husband, Brian, will deliver all the goodies late that afternoon. They have been doing this since they were in university together, when they were “volunteered” by a friend - that was 28 years ago. Just knowing that what she cooks and he delivers can bring joy to others has kept them at it all those years. Their kitchen is another Bethlehem (house of bread) where Christ is born.
Frederick, Buechner (quoted at the head of this reflection) is a 90-year-old Presbyterian pastor. In the course of his life and ministry, he has written some 36 books, from novels, to essays to sermons and theology. In a reflection on the birth of Jesus he wrote: “Once we have seen God in a stable, we never know where we might see him (sic) again. If God is present in this least auspicious place, there is no place or time so lowly or earthbound but that holiness can be present too.” (The Hungering Dark, 1968) And that leads us into what W.H. Auden wrote: “It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you.” (A Christmas Oratorio) The challenge for all of us as we celebrate Christmas is to allow Jesus to be born in our own hearts, and to have him live in all we say and do.
There is one other aspect of today’s gospel that calls for reflection. The journey that Joseph and Mary made on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem was approximately a hundred miles - quite an ordeal, especially for Mary in full-term pregnancy. It was not undertaken by choice, but at the behest of the bureaucracy of Caesar Augustus. They were required to make the trip just to fill in some government census forms. Millions of poor and defenceless people of every place and time have had to do likewise, for no other reason than to comply with what thoughtless and heartless governments and their bureaucracies dream up. The red tape that refugees and asylum seekers have to cut through when they are allowed to cross borders or are released from detention, beggars belief. While Joseph and Mary and their unborn child dutifully made for Bethlehem to be counted, they really didn’t count at all. As far as Rome was concerned they were mere numbers, worthless nobodies. Current governments the world over are busy counting the people fleeing from places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan. Rarely are these poor people named or treated as deserving of respect and dignity. And seldom are they made to feel welcome by governments who, uninvited, joined in wars to “liberate” them.
The hope of Mary and Joseph was certainly not in Caesar, but definitely in God. We can only pray that the millions of refugees, men women and children displaced from their homes by warring Caesars, are able to place their hope in God. The Caesars of our world, if they’re not fighting wars, are sitting on their hands.
The fact that God became one of us in the person of Jesus means that we all count. Even if we are among those who are beaten down, trampled upon, discarded or forgotten, the birth of Jesus among us gives us reason to hope. In Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us.
What kept Joseph and Mary going was not the hope that one day they would strike it rich or that the stable they sheltered in would miraculously become heated. Their hope was in God - that with God’s guidance they would negotiate whatever befell them and make the most of it.
They were carried by the kind of hope described by former Czech Republic President, Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out".
To all who read these weekly reflections, I extend best wishes for a blessed and peace-filled Christmas, and a graced and rewarding year ahead.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
“Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: ‘Joseph son of David do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife…’ ” Matthew1, 18-24
I am sure we can all remember times when the family unit of Joseph, Mary and Jesus was held up to us as the ideal family to be imitated. When we piece together the snippets about Joseph we get from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we discover that this “holy family” got off to a fairly rocky start. Acting in accord with how a sensitive and just Jewish man might do, Joseph had decided to divorce Mary discreetly, so as to save her the embarrassment associated with falling pregnant outside of marriage. His plan was to save Mary not just from the full fury of the Jewish Law, which could have meant her death by stoning, but also from a life of shame, alienation and destitution. However, his mind was changed by the intervention of an angel of God. Because of this intervention a thoroughly decent man was thrust into an unanticipated future that was certainly not of his own making. While his intended marriage to Mary was probably arranged, because that was the custom of their time and culture, he was being asked not only to grow into loving the woman who would be his wife but also into accepting and loving a child he had not fathered.
While the angel of God appeared to him in a dream, Joseph was hardly offered a plausible explanation for Mary’s pregnancy. Yet he courageously accepted the explanation that seemed totally incredible. Consequently, the lives of this young, engaged couple were turned upside down even before Mary’s child was born. As a matter of interest, the only real attention given to Joseph in the Gospels is when danger loomed. In those situations, he came to the fore as the fearless protector of his wife and child.
Surely it comes as no surprise to us that the angel didn’t give Joseph detailed information about the child to whom Mary would give birth. If Joseph had heard the prophecy of Simeon and Anna before Jesus was born, if he had known that he would have to seek refuge for his young family in Egypt, if he knew how Jesus was to be pursued by religious authorities during his ministry, and if he had been given even a hint of Jesus’ trial, public humiliation and execution, he might well have refused the angel’s request.
Recently, I heard of a priest who was asked to take on a new parish. This was his first appointment to leadership, and he decided to get off to a collaborative start by inviting parishioners to visit him to discuss their hopes and aspirations for their parish community. Some turned up to express their dissatisfaction with how his predecessors had treated them. Others came asking for changes in the Sunday Mass times. And there were those who came expressing their readiness to be in the choir or to help count the Sunday collections or clean the church. One couple, however, simply came to ask their new pastor to listen to the story of their son who had opted for a gender re-orientation and was now called Sandra. What these two parents were really looking for was support from the priest who presided over the parish to which they felt they belonged. While they still loved Sandra deeply, they felt that friends and neighbours would not understand, and that some Church leaders would condemn.
Four years ago, an extraordinary book entitled, Far From the Tree, was published by Andrew Simon, a psychologist, who simply does not fit into any stereotype. (I’ll leave readers to find out more about him on google.) Far From the Tree is the result of more than 300 interviews with parents whose children were differently abled. Those children and their parents struggled to cope with deafness, autism, dwarfism, schizophrenia and multiple combined disabilities. Some of the children had criminal records, others where conceived in rape, some were transgender, and others were blind or had Down syndrome. Solomon explores how parents are challenged into tolerance, acceptance and generosity, noting that all these qualities are born out of love, which is able to transcend every kind of prejudice.
It was not by accident that Jesus was born into a family that had a very shaky-looking start. All three had to grow into accepting and loving one another. When Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary, humanly speaking, were at their lowest ebb; they were in desperate need, utterly confused and with no one to welcome and comfort them. In the midst of their human imperfection and confusion, Jesus was born into their laps.
So, if your family and mine as less than perfect, we can take heart, for that exactly is what Jesus’ family was like. In humble beginnings, Jesus learned humility, compassion, mercy and love. And it has been no different for us. In our families we learned forgiveness that followed from hurting one another. It was there that we also learned about love that didn’t set conditions. The miracle, of course, is that all families would simply disintegrate if their members did not learn to forgive. There will be times when people like Sandra’s parents come to us. So often, all they are seeking is a listening ear or another human being to say no more than: “I understand.” All we are asked to do is to companion others, not to save them. That’s the job of Jesus. We are reminded of that towards the end of today’s gospel reading: “She (Mary) will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1, 21) And the reading concludes with a direct reference to the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1, 23)
When all is said and done, this is not a matter of how easy or difficult it was for Joseph to accept and love Jesus. Nor is it about whether we bring ourselves to accept the Christ child as “God with us”. After all, God is the one who adapts to meet us in our need. It is God who meets us in the person of Jesus; it is God who loves us as we are, in all our frailty, inadequacy and imperfection. God chooses to come to us before we can choose to come to God. The angels urge us not to be afraid, to come as we are, for Jesus will be with us, as Mathew states at the conclusion of his Gospel, “to the end of time.” (Matthew 28, 20) This is what we ponder in hope during Advent.
Third Sunday of Advent
“The desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wastelands. The desert will sing and shout for joy.” Isaiah 35, 1-6, 10
“Go and tell John what you see and hear…” Matthew 11, 2-11
Today’s gospel invites us to reflect on what was going on inside both John and Jesus as the former’s life and mission were clearly coming to an end and as Jesus was starting to discover what lay ahead for him. John’s star was in decline. Jesus’ star was beginning to burn bright. Their influence on the crowds who had come to listen to them was so great, that it is easy to forget that, despite their respective reputations, they were both thoroughly human in the ways in which they felt and thought and speculated, in fact, in everything they did.
Both men had a grand vision for the kingdom of God to become a reality in the lives of their people. And there was an urgency in each of them as they did their best to bring their vision to reality. Having very different personalities, each of them approached his task in his own distinctive way. And it is clear that they took one another’s measure. As we go about our lives, we catch visions from those around us. But that involves looking closely not only at a particular vision that attracts us but at the person who carries that vision. That’s our way of testing whether they and we are authentic carriers and representatives of the visions we adopt, whether those visions be ours or shaped by others. We look closely at one another’s character, courage, determination and conduct. And when we engage in that, interpersonal relations can become tense.
It seems that Jesus started off as a disciple of John. And there is no doubt that John saw in Jesus great promise and potential. It is probable that Jesus came to be clearer about his own role in promoting and proclaiming God’s kingdom as he reflected on what John was doing. In today’s gospel, however, we see that John was beginning to have doubts as to whether Jesus was on the right track.
That should come as no surprise to us. After all, Herod had silenced John by throwing him into prison. People in authority resent being bad-mouthed, especially when the criticism comes from a wild-eyed, cranky eccentric. As the days of his imprisonment dragged into weeks, John probably began to realize that he would not be released. Despite being isolated, John had heard rumours of what Jesus was doing, rumours about the one he himself had baptized, and those rumours did not fit John’s vision. John’s preaching seemed to indicate that he believed God’s kingdom would arrive in a storm of retribution. Clearly, that was not the view of Jesus. But, like the rest of us, John is vulnerable to disillusionment and depression. And isn’t that more likely to happen when another comes and seems to be discounting our dreams? And it’s worse when we cannot even issue a challenge because we have been deprived of our freedom. John is not exempt from the human condition, and his question, delivered through messengers, is that of a man who is disappointed and depressed: “When John the Baptist heard in prison about the things that Christ was doing, he sent some of his disciples to him. ‘Tell us,’ they asked Jesus, ‘are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Matthew 11, 2-3)
Both John and Jesus are on the same page concerning the broad vision for the coming of God’s kingdom, and they are both familiar with the code language for the Messiah - ‘the one who is to come’. But John has become uneasy about whether it is Jesus who will be the one to usher in that kingdom.
Jesus is surely aware that there is no better place than a prison for blunting a person’s vision. But the best answer he can send back to John is to point to what is happening as a consequence of what he himself is saying and doing. In essence, he says that God’s kingdom is beginning to materialize. But he immediately pays tribute to John not only for his part in initiating the kingdom, but also for his acceptance of persecution and suffering as an essential part in the process. Jesus’ accolade enshrines for history John’s role in making real God’s love for the world.
But Jesus cannot allow John’s situation to prevent him from working to implement his own vision. His only option is to get on with it. And that is surely where today’s gospel impacts on us.
We all have to know what our role is in continuing the vision for our world that Jesus invites us to carry forward and develop. We all have to know, too, when we and others have had our day, when to step aside and allow others to take the reins. We have to accept that we will never satisfy everyone. So it’s important for us to heed our critics, to judge the wisdom of what they say and, then adjust accordingly, and get on doing what our own integrity dictates. But we cannot afford to let go of the larger vision.
In today’s world and Church we all need to adhere to a big vision. But we also need to see the potential in those coming after us and be big enough to nurture that potential and to make room for them as they enhance the vision. We have to play John to the Jesus alive in them. In that way we bring out the best in those around us. There is no place for pettiness, nit-picking, carping criticism or a demand for dogmatic exactness. After all it is Jesus’ vision of God’s dream for our world that matters. And Jesus was not afraid to challenge slavish practice that stifled people and hampered vision.
Jesus urges John’s disciples to return with the message that God is in our midst in every act of compassion and kindness that we and others do, in every attempt to mend a broken heart, in every effort to bridge divisions between people, in every way we try to overcome violence and replace it with peace. And one of our roles is to keep alert to where others are doing that even more effectively than we are, and to step aside and encourage them to take the running. In recent times we have seen people in powerful political positions step aside from leadership. For many of them, it was to avoid being pushed. We have to be prepared to step aside to keep alive the vision of Jesus and to entrust its promotion to those who are likely to do it better. Let’s not hang on till others have to come and push us aside.
Second Sunday of Advent
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea, saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”…This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather loin-cloth round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey…But when he saw a number of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said: “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming retribution? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Matthew 3, 1-12
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew puts the focus on John the Baptist and his mission of preaching. That prompted me to ask myself just what it is that connects John the Baptist with this season of Advent. Furthermore, I started to wonder what a modern-day John the Baptist might look like. As Matthew invites us to look at the Baptist, he introduces one of the key themes of his Gospel: the importance of the practical expression of the way Jesus calls us to live. In today’s gospel reading, we see the Pharisees and Sadducees joining the crowd gathering for one of John’s revival meetings on the banks of the Jordan. When John sees them, he takes aim and gives them the full blast of his anger: “Act in ways that will demonstrate that you have really repented and turned away from your hypocrisy.” And when John moves on to describe what Jesus will do, we are left with the very clear impression that serious action will be required: Jesus will take the axe to trees that don’t bear fruit; on the basis of who is performing and who isn’t, he will launch into a clean-up mission. With his wild-eyed look, his shaggy dress and his Spartan diet, the Baptist would surely have been threatening. So, when he launches into Jesus’ even more spirited and firey baptismal program, we are left in no doubt that the emphasis will be on performance. When we put John’s words beside those of Paul (second reading from Romans), we might experience some confusion: How can God be “the source of patience and encouragement” (Romans 15, 5) while God’s representative, Jesus, is preparing to take an axe to anyone who does not produce? How do God’s mercy and justice fit together?
However, our anxiety might be soothed if we remember that Jesus does not set a demanding program without offering a vision on which to base our actions. In that context, today’s first reading from Isaiah gives us the details of an encouraging program of global rehabilitation: “Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.” (Isaiah 11, 9) Moreover, that same visionary quality is central to Jesus’ dream for our world expressed in so many ways throughout the Gospels. Jesus did not formulate expectations or issue commands without first describing for his disciples a vision for better times. So anyone now calling us to perform without giving us a vision to aspire to is deluded. It would be a sure indication that the Gospel is being twisted.
And there’s the cue to us to come in and find the relevance of today’s gospel to our lives. John the Baptist was all about alerting his listeners to the fact that God was present in their midst, and that God’s presence would become more clearly visible to the extent that they lived with integrity, compassion, tolerance and mercy. John’s baptism was about a change of heart, a transformation from self-centredness to selflessness. John pointed to the coming of Jesus, and, in the same way, Advent points us to be more aware that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is really in our midst and that we make him more visible to ourselves and others by the ways in which we live and relate. It is for each of us to decide how we do that as authentic and credible witnesses of the Gospel. We may, indeed, be the only gospel that some people will ever read!
One of the Brothers with whom I live drew my attention to a group of ex-students of Istituto Marcantonio Colonna (a school, now closed, which the Christian Brothers conducted here in Rome for 100 years). The group, which goes under the name of Luconlus, derived from the name of one of their number, Luca Grisolia, is dedicated to perpetuating their friend’s selflessness. Luca died in 2006 at the age of 39. He was known to his peers for his generous spirit. In their words: “Luca was generous because he knew that life was hard for everyone, and so there was a need for everyone else, without exception, to lend a hand to others who were more needy.” Since 2007, Luca’s classmates and their families have built a school in Togo to cater for 220 infant and primary school children who otherwise would have missed out on education. In addition, they have established and serviced medical clinics in Mali and Kolkata.
In Yambio, South Sudan a small group of Brothers, Mercy & Presentation Sisters, at considerable risk to their personal safety, conduct a clinic called STAR, which provides medication and human dignity to well over a thousand people suffering from AIDS.
Countless lay volunteers turn up every morning of the week to shelters conducted by the St Vincent de Paul Society all over the world. They wash bed linen, sweep floors, scrub down showers and toilets and prepare meals for the homeless, the poor and the hungry.
A retired teacher comes every day to the studio of a community radio station and broadcasts news bulletins and reads books to listeners who are sight impaired or profoundly blind.
A university student spends every Saturday morning companioning Paul, a 12-year-old youngster struggling with autism. This allows the boy’s mother some brief respite and gives Paul a regular experience of male bonding. The student says he gets more inspiration from his time with Paul than from any other activity during his week.
All these people are a gospel to those to whom they reach out. They are messengers of the love, hope and mercy of God. They are modern-day John the Baptists. Are you and I at home among them?
First Sunday of Advent
“…stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…Therefore you also must be ready.” Matthew 24, 37-44
As Advent begins, all three Scripture readings of this first Sunday invite us to reflect on the coming of God into our lives. While our thoughts probably automatically turn to the birth of Jesus in the stable of Bethlehem, there is no mention of that in any of today’s readings. Their focus is on the final coming of Jesus at the end of the world. However, more immediate for us is the fact that God comes into our lives every single day of the year. In reality, that coming of God is something which we all too often miss. Yet every event in our lives is potentially an encounter with the divine, with the one we call God.
About this time last year, the Jesuit magazine, America carried an article entitled Under the Gun. It described an encounter which a female lawyer had when a masked intruder invaded her apartment, pointed a gun at her head and demanded money. Below is an extract from that article, recording Brittany Conkle’s reflections on an event that changed her life:
“These days, when I am among friends at a dinner party or spending time with family members, I find myself looking at each one and thinking how blessed I am that these unique individuals are knit into my life. When I’m outside, I remember to keep an ear out for the birds singing. I was not always this present, nor was I so grateful. It took the barrel of a gun at the back of my head to bring me to life.
The day everything changed was the most ordinary of August days. I drove to my hometown to visit my mother. As I sat at the kitchen counter, watching my mom make grilled cheese sandwiches, I directed our conversation into familiar territory. I went over my unhappiness with my career and my feelings of despair and anger at where my life was currently plateaued. I was an unhappy lawyer who had no love, or even affinity, for law and its practice. I couldn’t tell you why I had gone to law school. I was single with zero dating prospects, while my friends were in one of two camps: busy having weddings and adorable children or leading exciting ex-pat lives abroad. In comparison, I was living in Pittsburgh, unable to see beyond my own self-pity. After a full hour of listening to my litany of complaints, I am sure my mother exhaled when I left to go back to my tiny apartment in the heart of Pittsburgh’s North Side.”
Inexplicably, when Brittany explained to the intruder that she had no cash to give him, he turned and fled. She continues her reflection:
“And then it hit me. The one regret, the unfinished business I had with this life of mine. My mother would always think of our conversation and believe that her only child had died a miserable person, unfulfilled and greatly at odds with life. That is what brought tears to my eyes. I realized what a beautiful life I had actually lived; I just hadn’t always appreciated it.
As I knelt on the kitchen floor and contemplated the big picture, I knew that I should have taken my mother’s advice and focused on everything that I had been given. I should have spent more time serving others and less time serving my own selfish introspection. I’m sorry, Mom, I thought.
A meaningless act of violence. That’s what people say when they hear about what happened to me. I do not agree. Everything that happens to us—both the good and the bad—has meaning. The blessing is that we get to determine the meaning, as well as the story we tell about our lives to ourselves and others.
Every day, I have the option to decide: Is my story going to be one of anger, fear and unhappiness? Or can my story be about peace, forgiveness and walking a new path of gratitude and compassion? Even though it seems a clear pick between the former and the latter, it is never an effortless decision. After all, anger can be intoxicating, especially righteous anger. It is a cheap, easy emotion and as addictive as an opioid. It’s often much harder to find the love and forgiveness inside. It is only by God’s grace that I am able to locate those virtues at all; but they are there, bubbling along like an underground stream beneath the stony ground of my heart.
The clarity that I’ve received, as well as the gratefulness that I feel, is inextricably linked to a moment of violence. When I look at the night sky and marvel at the thought of the millions of miles that the light travelled through the darkness to reach me, I realize that there were months, even years, when I never took the opportunity to look up. I am alive, just in a different way than I was before. For that, I thank God.” Brittany Conkle, Under the Gun, America, Dec 7-14, 2015
While we instinctively see Advent as the time to reflect on the first coming of Jesus into our world, let’s not forget that that first coming of Jesus was all about preparing us for his final coming. Yet between that first and final coming are the countless comings of Jesus who is present in everything that happens to us. Jesus is the sacrament of God. The first sacrament of God is creation. Both those sacraments touch our lives. Advent is a reminder to us to be present to God present in one another, in every encounter of each day, in our thoughts and feelings, and in all of creation.
Our lives are God’s gift to us, and we can see even more of God’s gifts reflected in the love and care that others extend to us. Advent brings to us an invitation to be attentive to and to really encounter God’s unmistakable presence in all the people we meet, in all that is beautiful and in everyone and everything offering us care, compassion and nourishment of every kind.
Solemnity of Christ the King
“Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23, 35-43
We live in a world in which the very notion of king and kingship is in decline. Kings and queens just don’t fit easily into what we are still struggling to call democracy. Yet there are still leaders who want to cling to power and to hold on to all the pomp and circumstance that accompany it. Historically, Pius XI instituted the “Solemnity of Christ the King” in 1925 when some European leaders were starting to flex their muscles and clearly threatening world peace and stability. Mussolini had held power in Italy for three years, Hitler, only 12 months out of prison, and the Nazi party were becoming increasingly popular, the Great Depression had paralysed the world’s economy and millions of people had come to experience personal poverty and destitution for the first time. All this galvanized the Pope into asking Christians what and who really ruled their lives. Those same questions are still relevant today: To whom do we give allegiance? What impact does secular culture have on us? To what extent are we committed to Jesus and his Gospel? Is moral integrity central to the way in which we live? The clear message of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate in John’s Gospel (reading for year B) is that whenever truth prevails in our words and actions, we will be king, in spite of being belittled, ignored, rejected or discarded.
In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Henry VIII tries to coax Thomas More into agreeing with his intention to divorce Catherine. In their conversation in the palace garden, Henry says:
“You must consider, Thomas, that I stand in peril of my soul. It was no marriage, she was my brother’s widow. ‘Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife’; Leviticus chapter eighteen, verse sixteen.”
More replies: “Yes, Your Grace. But Deuteronomy…”
Henry interrupts angrily: “Deuteronomy’s ambiguous!”
More replies quietly: “Your Grace, I’m not fit to meddle in these matters - to me it seems a matter for the Holy See…”
Once more Henry interrupts: “Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a pope to tell him when he’s sinned? It was a sin, Thomas: I admit it; I repent. And God has punished me; I have no son…Son after son she has borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth or dead within the month. I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything…I have a daughter, she’s a good child, a well-set child. But I have no son. It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the Popes back to St Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.”
More replies: “Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?”
“Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest…There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves - and there is you.”
(Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Bloomsbury, Act 1, p.34)
Confronted with More and his integrity, Henry knew who was really king, and who was really the subject.
As this Sunday brings to a close the 2016 liturgical year, we are invited to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the focus and centre of our lives. To remind us of that, Luke gives us the example of the faith put into words by the thief beside Jesus on the cross. This man, who was being executed for a life of crime, made no excuses and blamed nobody but himself. He took full responsibility for what he had become. At the same time, he was able to recognise in Jesus what so many others had failed to see. The prominent Protestant Reformation figure, John Calvin, commenting on this dying thief, wrote: “How clear was the vision of his eyes, which could see in death, life. In ruins, majesty. In slavery, royalty. I doubt if ever, since the world began, there’s been such a bright example of faith.”
There are extraordinary ironies here. While Jesus had been stripped of everything he had, while most of his followers had deserted him, while soldiers were gambling for the clothes that had been torn from his body, this thief could recognise that Jesus really did have a kingdom, that there was something beyond this life. Pilate had placed a sign in three languages above the head of Jesus: “This is the king of the Jews.” In so doing, he was making an anti-Semitic joke, proclaiming to every Jew hoping for a king to liberate Israel: “If you people think you’re going to find a king, this is what he’ll look like. He’ll be a criminal condemned to death by crucifixion. He’ll be powerless against the might of Rome.” Ironically, in hindsight, Pilate’s sign was entirely appropriate.
There was something in this thief that was able to grasp that life did not end in death, that Jesus, despite his being fixed on a cross and close to death, was able to help him, that the innocent man beside him had a kingdom somewhere. And so he could ask for a favour in words that have become a prayer for all Christians: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
That other great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther had written: “This request was for Jesus a comfort like that supplied to him by the angel in the garden (of Gethsemane). And God would not allow His Son to be destitute of subjects. So now, the Christian church has survived through this one man. Where the faith of Peter broke off, the faith of the penitent thief took up.”
I wonder what went through the mind of Jesus when he heard the thief’s request. Might he not have thought to himself: “At last, here’s somebody who actually gets it. Here’s somebody who understands what my life has been all about. Here’s a man who appreciates that I’m dying because of the dream I have been promoting for the world; I’m being executed because of my integrity.”
Today’s gospel invites us to reflect on the depth of our faith, to consider the quality of our commitment as followers of Jesus, to ponder the meaning of what it is to live with integrity. It invites us to put Jesus at the very centre of our lives.
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
"The days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down . . . When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but the end is not so soon…men will seize and persecute you…and bring you before kings and governors because of my name…and that will be your opportunity to bear witness." Luke 21, 5-19
To appreciate the context of today’s gospel reading, it is important to see Jesus as another prophet in the succession of a long line of Hebrew prophets. A distinguishing characteristic of Biblical prophets was that they were able to read the signs of their respective times and point to likely outcomes. Jesus clearly saw that Israel was under threat from the forces of the very powerful Roman Empire. He appreciated that it would only be a matter of time before Rome attacked and destroyed Jerusalem. His familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures would have taught him that Israel had experienced a long history of invasion and oppression, and that generations of its citizens had lived their lives in exile. He knew how his nation had been invaded by Egyptians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Babylonians and Persians. He could see that the Romans were martialling their armies with the intent of seizing the next opportunity to demonstrate their might. Accordingly, today’s gospel reading from Luke has Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which actually took place in the year 70 A.D. For nearly all devout Jews, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of their nation, their culture and their religion. For them, all that signalled the end of the world. As it turned out, it is estimated by historians that close to one million Jews perished in the siege that the Romans conducted against Jerusalem. In the verses that follow immediately on today’s gospel reading, Luke has Jesus saying: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you must realize that she will soon be laid desolate. Then those in Judea must escape to the mountains, those inside the city must leave it…For great misery will descend on the land and wrath on this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive to every pagan country; and Jerusalem will be trampled down by the pagans until the age of the pagans is completely over. There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars…When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand” (Luke 21, 20-28).
In all this turmoil and destruction, Jesus, surprisingly, sees a sign of hope. And it is in that sign of hope that today’s gospel is relevant to us, as it invites us to be alert to the signs of our own times.
In the last seventy years we have seen powers and empires come and go. The British Empire is now almost non-existent. Some commentators see “Brexit” as the last nail in its coffin. But we have also witnessed the demise of the Spanish Empire, the fall of the Japanese Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Some are even asking if there are cracks appearing in the American Empire. Is the current election campaign featuring Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump merely a charade of democracy? Have the United States and its European and Australian allies contributed to generating enemies for themselves through their foreign policy in the Middle East and their war on terrorism? Have their policies and walls to exclude asylum seekers left Australia and some European countries morally bankrupt? And doesn’t the West bear some responsibility for the emergence of ISIS and the multiplication of fundamentalist Islamic forces engaged in all kinds barbarism and terrorist activity? Even the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches are under threat because of revelations of sexual abuse and other abuses of power that have led many to question their credibility and authenticity.
Yet, in all of this turmoil, there are clear signs of hope. The collapse of some of the empires listed above has seen repression disappear and justice restored; it has led to the reunification of families and seen survivors of abuse find peace and reclaim their dignity and self-determination. More and more decent people are mobilising themselves to demand justice from those they have elected to govern them, to campaign for the rights of children and women, to protest against the kind of wealth accumulation that is driving the poor to resort to violence. And our churches are demonstrating a new-found humility.
As followers of Jesus, as people who embrace his Gospel, we are entrusted with the mission of working for peace, justice and reconciliation wherever we live. The first thing we have to do is to look beyond what is crumbling around us and to claim and use positively all the gifts and talents with which we have been blessed. Then we have to consider what is possible, what we can do with what we have, and take the risk of joining with like-minded others to set about the work of rebuilding, encouraging, affirming and reclaiming what we know to be right and just.
There’s a delightful story of an Australian who went to Ireland to find his family roots. After a long trip, he booked into a hotel in Dublin, placed his order for breakfast the next morning and went to bed. He was annoyed when he was woken up an hour later than he had asked to be called. His frustration was increased when boiled eggs were delivered to his room instead of a full Irish breakfast. When he discovered that he had been given the Irish Independent instead of The Irish Times, he called the front desk to register his complaint. The receptionist heard him out and then, in her typical, lovely Irish way, responded: “Well, Sir, you’re awake aren’t you, and isn’t that a blessing? And you’ve something to eat and something to read over breakfast. I’d say you’re not badly off, now, are you?” Perhaps we too need to be reminded of the blessings we have.
Our times bear some resemblance to the apocalyptic times described in today’s gospel. However, they have been repeated in the course of history, and, no doubt, will occur again. After Rome had been overrun by the Barbarians, the Emperor and the Senate fled to Constantinople, and decay set in. About a century later, Pope Gregory the Great described the situation as follows: “What Rome herself, once mistress of the world, has now become, we now see. Wasted away with afflictions, the loss of citizens, the assault of enemies, the frequent fall of ruined buildings. Where is the senate? Where are the people? All gone. All the pomp and dignity of this world is gone.”
Pope Gregory responded to the situation by establishing food distribution centres for the starving, throwing open monasteries to address the needs of the poor, and doing all he could to revive learning and scholarship. Without knowing it, he initiated the rescue of Western civilization. In doing what he could with what he had, he encouraged others to join him in re-establishing hope and confidence among the ordinary people.
It’s that same challenge put to us in today’s gospel, which invites us to remember that, even though collapse and destruction might be happening around us, God still remains constant. Our role as disciples of Jesus is to build community and to work together to realize God’s dream for our world.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“God is the God of the living, not of the dead, for to God all are alive.” Luke 20, 27-38
Back in my primary school days, we were treated to stories of heroic missionaries who died for their Catholic Faith in countries like China, Japan and Korea. We were often challenged to ask ourselves if we could do the same. For decades we prayed at the end of Mass for the conversion of Communist Russia.
In very recent times, we have been outraged and terrified by the phenomenon of young people from supposedly “normal” families being “radicalized” and then stealing away to join ISIS fighters in various Middle Eastern countries. It comes as no surprise to learn that young people sometimes imagine themselves as heroes or even contemplate going off to volunteer to join a cause or to fight a threatening enemy. These days, however, wars are trickier than they once were, and religious faith generally does not involve sabre rattling. And on the domestic front, if a rescue attempt or aid to an accident victim misfires, heroes who have offered help risk being sued for damages.
Many governments have learned the hard way that good causes require good enemies. And being able to identify a villain always helps to justify military intervention. Sometimes, enemies are invented (Is that what the West did to Saddam Hussein?), but most of the time, the opposition is already there. In that respect, I find it a little puzzling to read Paul’s warning in today’s second reading: “Pray also that God will rescue us from wicked and evil people, for not everyone believes the message” (2 Thessalonians 3, 2). Using our religious faith to identify enemies does not strike me as a particularly healthy practice. That’s quite different from testing much of what contemporary culture proclaims against the values of Jesus and his Gospel.
The seven courageous brothers in today’s first reading were clearly convinced that they had a cause. Their treasure was their fidelity to the religious laws of their nation, Israel. Torture, mutilation and the certainty of execution did not matter to them. Their religious tradition was what inspired them, and that was at stake. So there was no choice but to defend it. They had a cause that had substance and shape, one which they knew inside out, and which gave them their identity. Their sincere commitment to their cause could be tested only by their dying for it.
It’s the theme of dying that leads into the exploration of life-after-death in today’s gospel. However, those who selected today’s readings have provided us with a forced parallel by placing the seven Maccabee brothers side by side with the seven husbands of the very unlikely scenario which the Sadducees presented in their debate with Jesus about resurrection. The Pharisees and Sadducees were keen to debate with Jesus the question of life-after-death because they were trying to trap him into saying something against Jewish religious doctrine or practice that would give them a reason to have him executed. This was not their first attempt to trap him. Once again he proved to be too clever for them, pointing out that, as there would be no need for propagation of the race in the next life, marriage would not be necessary. He clinched the debate with a neat grammatical point from the Scriptures, where God is described as being the God of Isaac, Abraham and Jacob. The logical conclusion from that is that those three great Jewish Patriarchs must still be in existence. So there is life after death.
We need to remember that, while the Maccabee brothers of the first reading had an interest in the after-life, entry into that after-life was not their main reason for defending their religious tradition. Winning a debate about resurrection was the main concern for the Pharisees and Sadducees. For the Maccabee brothers and for Jesus, resurrection was the main issue. Their cause was about the way in which they lived their lives in the present. Jesus proclaimed the importance of living with integrity, of treating others, especially the poor, with dignity, justice and compassion. The Maccabees were intent on living true to themselves and to their religious commitment.
In our own lives, we have met people who lead good lives so that they will eventually get to heaven. Their focus is on being raised by God to some future happiness. Somehow, the meaning of what they are doing in this life seems lost to them. They do not seem to appreciate the intrinsic value of the life with which they have been blessed. They seem to be disconnected from the drama, the excitement and the adventure of their life and have forgotten that it is a gift to be shared with others. People like this are very difficult to enthuse or to interest in causes, even in the cause of Jesus and his Gospel.
The issue, then, for us is not about whether we will face death with hope in some kind of future life, but whether our way of facing life now is valid, authentic and effective. What is worth spending my life on?
This gospel is also about another issue for me - the issue of what I believe. Have you ever caught yourself wondering whether you really believe all the things you say you do when you recite the Nicene Creed during Mass? I’ve had that experience. Yet, I still claim to be a Catholic. Having doubts is not a denial of faith. To explore this issue, I invite you to return to the religious instruction classes of your primary school days and to ask yourself what has disappeared from your list of “beliefs”.
Do you still believe in Limbo, St Christopher, St Philomena? In the light of current evolution theory and research, do you still believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh? Do you believe everything you hear in the homily on Sunday?
A look at the history of the word “believe” might be helpful. It came into English from German. When it was “borrowed” from the Germans, it meant “to commit to somebody or something”. To believe in Jesus meant to commit to him, what he taught and the way he lived. In its infancy, Christianity was called “The Way”. It was a way of seeing reality as Jesus did, and a way of living as he taught and lived.
In time, some people started to misinterpret and even disagree with what they thought Jesus had taught. Their misinterpretations were labelled as “heresies”. In order to combat these heresies, Church leaders called ordinary people to accept various intellectual propositions, whether they understood them or not. The word “believe” changed in meaning from commitment to somebody or something to accepting as true the doctrines and dogmas the Church proclaimed. So Catholics were taught to learn by heart the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Precepts of the Church, the Holy Days of Obligation, the Apostles’ Creed and so on.
Somehow, we have to reclaim the notion that religious belief is about commitment to Jesus and his Gospel, about putting into practice the justice and mercy and compassion of Jesus, and not about accepting a set of propositions. Once we do that, we can begin to accept our own doubts. They are simply a reminder to us of our inability to understand everything. They are also an invitation to be critical of ourselves when we slip into the arrogance of certainty. We might do well to pay attention to something the French philosopher and satirist Voltaire wrote in a letter to the Prince of Prussia: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
I’m not even going to suggest that you try to get your head around “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. Jesus tells us that it is a mystery we can never explain or describe in human concepts. Maybe we can take some comfort from the concluding lines of Thornton Wilder’s famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, where love is described as the only thing that will ever transcend change, decay and death:
“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” (Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p.138)
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus looked up and said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. “Today salvation has come to this house…” Luke 19, 1-10
Last Sunday’s gospel made it very clear that tax collectors were very unpopular in Jewish society. Popular belief was that they grew rich by ripping off their fellow Jews. Because Zacchaeus was “one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man”, the crowd who heard Jesus telling Zacchaeus that he would like to pay him a visit had jumped to the conclusion that he had made his fortune by cheating people like themselves. Here was a man who was automatically ostracized by his neighbours because of his occupation. Ironically, the very meaning of his name was “clean”. So, this gospel story may very well be cautioning us not to judge anyone on appearances, not to categorise people according to long-standing prejudice or reputation we would like to attach to them.
I suggest, then, that we need to listen carefully to how Zacchaeus defended himself against the crowd’s criticism: But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord: “Look, sir…if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount.” He did not admit to defrauding anyone. Neither did he act like the tax collector of last Sunday’s gospel who beat his breast saying: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18, 13) He openly said that, if he had wronged anyone - and the implication is that he really hadn’t -, he’d make up for it. There is no mention of sin in the story, there is no expression of sorrow, and there is no begging for forgiveness. Moreover, Jesus said nothing to Zacchaeus about repentance or conversion of heart or change of lifestyle.
It seems to me that Zacchaeus was a decent man who had been categorized as a crook by people who wanted to hang that label on everyone who collected taxes for the Romans. And are we not inclined to behave like the people in the crowd? Stop for a moment and look at the prejudices many of us have attributed to bankers, real estate agents, used-car dealers, lawyers, bookmakers and jockeys. Jesus vindicated Zacchaeus, and, in the process, challenges us on our readiness to blacken others’ reputations through rumour, gossip and pet prejudice. And isn’t that what the Pharisees and others had done to Jesus himself, because he visited sinners and people whose reputations had been destroyed by popular agreement? Jesus was really telling Zacchaeus that he did not fit the bad reputation others had attributed to him and he reinforced what he said by telling him that he was prepared to come and eat with him - the true sign of acceptance.
There is a long line of people who have been misjudged, discredited and punished by others who might have been expected to know and do better. St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and Blessed Edmund Rice (Founder of the Christian Brothers) were discarded, belittled and maligned by Bishops. Similar treatment has been directed at scientists and inventors. In the late 1870s, Thomas Edison was publicly ridiculed by the British Parliament when he presented to them his plans for an electric light. He was told that his invention was unworthy for presentation to the scientific community. In the early 1940s military strategists dismissed the idea that the helicopter had any potential for use by the military. In more recent times political commentators questioned Nelson Mandela’s ability to lead South Africans into a new and peaceful era.
We have all experienced the two vantage points that are presented to us in today’s gospel. Like Zacchaeus, we can be “up a tree”, disconnected from what everyone else says and does. That’s sometimes the cost of living with integrity. Or we can be down on the ground with those who want to judge Zacchaeus (and others like him) wrongly. We’ve all been victims of rumour, gossip and unjust criticism. And we’re all experienced being out on a limb, unfairly excluded and ridiculed for standing up for what is right. What’s more, we’ve all been on the ground with the crowd, rashly judging others and delighting in their discomfit, hurt and isolation to which we have contributed. This gospel offers both vindication to all who are wrongly judged and forgiveness to all of us who have played a part in the slander, gossip and wrong judgement that undermines others.
But while this gospel vindicates Zacchaeus, it does not say that he is perfect. Through the metaphor of climbing a tree, it points to possibility. We are all capable of change and growth, and all opportunities for living with greater authenticity require some shift in us. Sometimes we have to climb to new heights, away from the crowded ground level, to gain new vision. When Zacchaeus climbed the tree, he saw Jesus, and new possibility for himself.
What motivated Zacchaeus to climb the tree was what so many regard as a limitation or disadvantage, namely his smallness of stature. Yet it was this limitation that triggered his creativity. He converted his so-called deficiency into an opportunity to see what others could not. In so doing he encountered the divine, present in Jesus.
The Lutheran philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, says that "being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt." Zacchaeus' answer was in an ordinary tree, although he was uncertain whether Jesus would even notice him. This short man resiliently climbed a tree, inviting the mockery of people already biased against him. It took courage to look foolish. Yet, Zacchaeus needed to climb, because the crowded ground level offered more of the same sights and ridicule that had been wounding him.
To all his detractors, Jesus announced, "Today salvation has come to his house for he is a son of Abraham." Jesus declared a new type of healing for the invisible wounds the world can’t see. Zacchaeus was free to see himself as a child of the covenant. Jesus' declaration was a licence for him to reimagine and restart his life. That same opportunity extends to us, no matter what our limitations or our history.
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
But the tax collector stood at a distance and would not even raise his face to heaven, but beat his breast and said: “God, have pity on me, a sinner!” I tell you, the tax collector was in the right with God when he went home. Luke 18, 9-14
In order to understand the message of today’s gospel, we have to appreciate that the Pharisee’s prayer was not one that he put together himself. It came straight from the Jewish Talmud. Moreover, the Talmud contains several prayers with similar sentiments. One of those prayers has been translated as follows: “Praised be the Lord because He did not make me a gentile, for all gentiles are as nothing before Him; praised be He because He did not make me a woman, for woman is under no obligation to fulfill the Law; praise be He that He did not make me an uneducated man, because the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sin.”
So, the Pharisee in today’s gospel story is simply praying in the traditional Jewish way: “Thank you, God, for making me better than the rest of humanity, for placing me a rung above this tax collector who is clearly not one of us, for he has no knowledge of the Law and certainly does not practice it in his own life.” The Pharisee of today’s gospel story is a clone or a twin of the rich man who was the focus of the gospel reading of the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31). This Pharisee and Dives are so narcissistic, so wrapped up in themselves, that they hardly notice the strugglers all around them. The Pharisee of today’s gospel notices the tax collector for no other purpose than to compare himself with him and to take satisfaction from seeing himself as superior. Both Dives and this Pharisee are so focused on themselves and their own importance that they are blind to the presence and needs of people in the wider community. They are both spiritually destitute.
The Pharisee in today’s parable invests himself in the trappings of religion. He is interested in impressing others with his religious observance, somehow convincing himself that what he does in public will impress God. His spiritual horizon extends no further than himself.
This parable invites us to examine our own religious practice. We can be faithful in our attendance at Mass, we can pray the rosary daily and participate in all kinds of novenas. However, if we are not careful, we can assault God with words or verbal gymnastics and fail to present ourselves to God as we truly are, as fragile, broken people in need of God’s mercy.
The tax collector is willing to look into the mirror and name what he sees: a flawed human being with a hunger for grace. Like all the tax collectors of his day, he was regarded as a collaborator with the Romans who occupied Israel. Tax collectors exploited their own people and made themselves wealthy in doing so. Understandably, many in Jesus’ audience would have been wondering about the genuineness of the tax collector’s contrition. Would his words be matched by a lasting change in his actions?
In contrast, the Pharisee’s litany, while it lists the sins of others, is blinkered. It shows neither self-knowledge nor any need of forgiveness and healing. He expresses gratitude to God that others have done things he hasn’t.
While we might wonder if there was any change in the tax collector’s life when he returned home from the Temple, we are challenged by this parable to look at our own lives. It is one thing to acknowledge our human frailty and guilt, it is quite another to embrace the call to conversion of heart that finds expression in changed behaviour. Guilt without growth causes paralysis. There is no point to acknowledging our fragility and sinfulness if it is not accompanied by a sincere resolve to change. Honesty about ourselves and true humility before God are one and the same. To be of value they must take us to new levels of creativity, compassion and love.
We have all engaged in breast-beating at the personal level, and have witnessed it at the communal and national levels. However it is meaningless until there is a shift, at all those levels, from apology to action and from guilt to justice.
Justice and mercy are cheapened and made meaningless when they fail to touch our hearts, when they don’t lead us to revolutionise our living. Essentially, this parable is not about a Pharisee and a tax collector. It’s about the audience that had gathered to listened to Jesus. It is about us. We can listen to what Jesus says, and, like the tax collector, we can proclaim our unworthiness. However, that is just the first step. Nothing less than conversion of heart, expressed in compassion, mercy and justice, will verify our authenticity.
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say: ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’” Luke 18, 1-8
While Jon Hassler is a rather obscure American writer, his novels have recently been re-published. His stories explore the moral dilemmas with which people often struggle in the ordinary decision-making of their lives. His writing, which is characterised by gently satiric humour, explores some of the contradictions he experienced within the Catholic Church. Agatha McGee is a character who appears in several of his novels. In an interview Hassler gave not long before he died in 2008, he stated that Agatha’s complaining about the Church’s excesses relieved him from having to do the complaining himself.
In his novel, The Green Journey, Agatha McGee is very much like the widow in today’s gospel parable. Agatha was one of those primary school teachers who become legends to generations of their students. She taught grade six in St Isidore’s parish school, Staggerford, where she earned the respect of all for the way in which she cared for her students, especially those who were disadvantaged. She would not allow injustice to go unchallenged, especially when it was inflicted by the powerful on the powerless.
The Green Journey begins with Agatha welcoming into her home an unmarried, pregnant teenager by the name of Janet Raft. It was Christmas Eve, and the weather forecast was for heavy snow. Janet’s family lived in a rural area, far from the nearest hospital, and her family had asked Agatha to take their daughter in and get her to the hospital if she went into labour during the expected snow-storm. Knowing that her former teacher would not approve of the conduct that resulted in her pregnancy, Janet arrived at Agatha’s door ashamed and embarrassed. She replied to Agatha’s welcome with her eyes cast down and an almost inaudible: “Hello, Miss McGee.”
In her characteristic, school-teacher manner, and with the spirit of the widow in today’s gospel, Agatha responds: “Please look me in the eye and say that, Janet.” When Janet replies to the reprimand, Miss McGee says: “Oh, that’s ever so much better. You see, this is no time for hangdog expressions. This is a time for strength. You’re about to give birth in a blizzard, and the poor baby’s father is a thousand miles away, and God alone knows if he’ll come home and marry you. And furthermore, if you insist on keeping the baby, you’ve got years of great responsibility ahead of you. So, promise you’ll refrain from self-pity.” Well, Janet did not go into labour until very late on New Year’s Eve, and Stephen Raft was born early on New Year’s Day, three hours ahead Daniel Buckingham III, son of the owner of the town’s furniture shop. But it was Daniel Buckingham who was listed in the newspaper as the first baby born that year. So the supply of gifts donated by the local Chamber of Commerce were presented to Daniel as the first New Year’s baby. Janet Raft was prepared to let the injustice pass, but Agatha McGee was so outraged that she would not be satisfied until justice was delivered. She draggged Janet and Janet’s reluctant father (also one of her former pupils) down to the furniture store where she confronted baby Daniel Buckingham’s father with the “mistake”. Then, through a combination of cunning, persuasion and threat, she convinced the shop-keepers of the town to provide an identical set of gifts for baby Stephen Raft. Then, she demanded that, as an added extra, cash payments be made by the Chamber of Commerce to several teen-agers who had been similarly cheated when they were born.
This picture of a white-haired retired school teacher with an inflexible and persistent sense of justice making grown men squirm as she calls them to account mirrors the story of the widow in today’s gospel. And, in the process, perhaps we, too, are made to squirm. If we are serious about living as Jesus challenges us to live, we have to ask ourselves not whether we are charitable, but whether we are just. Any efforts we make to be charitable to those in need are completely meaningless unless we are, first of all, just. That’s the message proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets. And that’s the message that Jesus proclaimed and one that all employers, including Church agencies, need to heed.
So, the God-like figure in this parable is the widow. Anyone who persistently names and denounces injustice, and then works to dismantle it is acting as God acts. The widow in the parable pesters and persists even though her grievance is with a person of position and power.
We miss the point of the parable if we think it is all about a prayer campaign to wear down a reluctant God. After all, anyone who “neither fears God nor respects man” can hardly be held up as an image of God. A God who “hears the cry of the poor”, who is willing to give good things to those who ask, surely does not have to be bribed, worn down or bargained with.
The widow held up to us to imitate had no power and no rights in Jewish society. Widows of that time depended on charity for survival. The widow of the parable represents the battlers of society who chip away at righting the injustices visited upon them by the likes of bureaucrats who devise systems to grind down ordinary people, of officials who create complex telephone answering systems to prevent callers from getting through to real live human beings, of corporations for whom little people are regarded as nuisances. Yet the widow turns out to be a formidable opponent of injustice, despite the magnitude of the task she faces. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer who seem ready to follow her. Yet today’s gospel really says that she should have us for company.
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the lepers, realizing that he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?” Luke 17, 11-19
Recently, I. and two of the Brothers with whom I live, spent a week with twenty-eight others exploring our emotional intelligence. It was a challenging and revealing experience. Shortly afterwards, the man who lives opposite me in Rome met with a group of younger men. They had just come from dinner, generously prepared and cooked by three of their number. “You’ve just enjoyed a good dinner. I believe it was cooked by three of your companions. How many of you said ‘Thank you’ to them?” asked the man who lives opposite me. Nobody in the group had said a simple “Thank you.”
That got me wondering why it is that so many people have difficulty expressing gratitude, even when a “Thank you” really seems the appropriate and natural thing to do. It is all too easy to explain it away as thoughtlessness. But there are enough instances of adult discomfort with expressing gratitude to give cause for exploring why it is that so many of us have difficulty with saying “Thank you”.
Why is it, for instance, that when we accept an invitation to eat out, we feel uneasy when our host picks up the tab? Why do we feel humiliated or indebted when others go out of their way to serve us? Why do teachers and actors and performers feel that classes and audiences are very demanding, and have difficulty in expressing gratitude? Why do counselors and therapists who accompany clients through the exploration of painful experiences often feel that, when a resolution is reached, their clients don’t want to see them again? Why do doctors report that patients seem more interested in searching for reasons to complain or to sue them, than to celebrate the steps they have made towards healing?
Today’s gospel story of the ten lepers raises the issue of gratitude, and challenges us as to our readiness to say “Thank you”. It also prods us to explore our own experiences of being labelled or of labelling others as “lepers”.
Let’s examine the gratitude issue. What exactly was it that prompted Jesus to ask: “Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?” It seems to me that there is an edge of personal hurt to this question. We so easily assume that Jesus had some private reserve of divine power stored up for the purpose of healing people when the need arose. However his ability to empathise with people and cure them surely came out of the close relationship he had developed with God through time spent in prayer and contemplation. As a man who was fully human, Jesus had to spend time and energy in discovering who God was for him and in developing an intimate relationship with God. It was out of the intimacy of that relationship that his capacity for compassion and healing grew. No wonder that, having developed a sensitivity that all he was and had was pure gift from God, he could find himself asking why it was that so many people could live their lives without a sense of gratitude, without realising that their lives and all their blessings were pure gift.
When we stop to ponder why we and others have difficulty with expressing gratitude, we discover that our inability to say “Thank you” often comes out of a low self-image. We just don’t believe that we are worthy of being favoured by others. Even those of us who have received the blessing of physical or emotional cures can’t stop feeling like lepers or social outcasts. We still feel excluded, second-rate, or just not good enough. Nothing seems to be able to penetrate our feelings of unworthiness.
What is more likely is that many of us are afraid of the intimacy that is an integral part of expressing gratitude. Saying a sincere “Thank you” to another person actually brings us into eye contact or close physical contact with that person. And if the other person has actually given us a gift or token of their appreciation or affection, we can slip into giving disproportionate attention to the gift, and forget the giver. Even if we haven’t done so ourselves, we’ve all heard others making comments about the size and value of a gift that has been given them. We can so easily hide behind the “it” in order to avoid being touched by the person who has given us the “it”. Otherwise, we might have to accept that the giver actually likes, loves or appreciates us for who we are.
People of my generation made ourselves expert at this kind of practice in our dealings with God. We learned to turn God’s graciousness and love into a utility, something like water, gas or electricity. We thought of grace as a thing or regarded it as heavenly currency. We were able to point to how we earned it, under what circumstances we lost it, when we were “in it”, and when we had fallen out of it. And it’s too easy to place the blame on our teachers for our “thingifying” grace. We co-operated in turning grace into a thing simply because that helped us to keep our distance from developing a personal relationship with a God who might make us a bit uncomfortable. It so happens that expressing genuine gratitude pushes us into relationship. So, by numbing ourselves into conceptualising grace as a substance to be accumulated, we managed to stop God from getting too close to us.
In addition to all this, there is the rationalisation that we really can’t allow ourselves to get too excited by feelings of gratitude to a God who allows our “leprosy” in the first place.
There are also less flattering explanations as to why we find expressing gratitude something of a challenge. You see, we sometimes do kindnesses to others for the wrong reasons - to show off, to suppress guilt, out of a need to look good, to control people or to make them dependent on us. That, then, allows us to assume that those who do kindnesses to us do so out of motives similar to ours. As a result, kindness develops into some kind of competition, and the one who is forced to say “Thank you” ends up being the loser. We convince ourselves that showing gratitude to somebody else amounts to a loss of independence. And if we find ourselves needing to thank God, how dependent does that make us?
It’s important to remember, however, that gratitude is not a matter of obligation. It is a courtesy. Being unwilling or unable to express gratitude is a weakness of personality or a lack of healthy emotion. Last week’s gospel challenged us about the depth of our faith. Faith is essentially is an ability to recognise the boundless love and compassion of God, and to respond with praise and thanks.
If we are not careful in our interpretation of a small part of today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy, we could end up getting the wrong message. Paul writes: “If we deny him (God), he will also deny us. We may be unfaithful, but he is always faithful, because he cannot be false to himself (2 Timothy 2, 12-13). The first part of this statement hardly presents God as a generous giver of gifts. But the second part is quick to point out that, even if we fail to accept God’s blessings, God will not be stopped from being generous and gracious. Even God’s “denial” of us is like a wake-up call, pointing to something about us that we already know - that lack of gratitude is bad for our development as human beings. Somehow, we have to realise that there is nothing wrong about being needy and that accepting another person’s generosity is not an insult. In fact, we might even come to accept that some people might actually like us. And that’s another blessing for which we can be grateful.
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree: ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.” Luke 17, 5-10
Have you ever asked yourself what it was that motivated or drove Jesus to pursue his public ministry the way he did and live faithfully the message he proclaimed? Surely it was his faith in God’s dream for humanity: that our lives would be transformed if we could bring ourselves to treat one another with respect, dignity and equality, and ensure that everyone had equal access to the abundance of creation. As followers of Jesus, we, too, claim to put our faith in that same dream of God. Today’s gospel reading challenges us about the genuineness of the faith we claim to have in the God of Jesus and in God’s dream for which Jesus spent his life.
In October 2014, award-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn published a book entitled A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. In reviewing the book, Paul Collier wrote:
In the wrong hands, “A Path Appears” is a dangerous book: You wouldn’t want to leave it lying around where your teenager might glance at it. He might get diverted from that reassuring ambition to be a banker. Frankly, only scoundrels and saints can read this book safely: Everyone else will find it upsetting and uplifting in equal measure. I certainly did. If you want to carry on with your life just as it is, best give it a miss…So, while protecting your teenagers, don’t protect yourself. Read this book. Seize one of the many opportunities it lists, and change lives for the better, including your own. (October 16, 2014, New York Times, Sunday Book Review)
One of the “opportunities” described in the book is a home-grown banking system that allows village women in developing countries to find their way out of crippling poverty:
“Saving money in poor African and South American villages can be all but impossible. One third of the world's population has no access to secure bank accounts, and so have to resort to hiding cash under rocks or in shacks. And many impoverished farmers often receive money in large sums just once or twice a year and immediately face already overdue bills and a deluge of loan requests, pressuring them to spend rather than save.
But relief organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam have begun organizing village savings and loans. All it takes it a lock box and three keys.
For example, several women who operate small shops and farms in their Nicaraguan village decide to organize their own savings group. The buy-in is set at a few dollars. Then, every week, each member brings a small amount of what they've earned (as little as a few cents) and the money is placed in the lock box they've obtained from a relief organization. The three keys are distributed to different members of the group, and the box is kept at the home of a fourth woman who doesn't have a key. Members can borrow money at a fixed interest rate to buy a new piece of equipment or supplies. The village Savings & Loans pays no interest on deposits, but they are, in effect, supplying their own capital, affording these women and their families the opportunity to build for the future. Within a few months, members of a typical village Savings & Loans are investing half of what they earn. Just a few cents a week can make a difference to people’s lives.” (Kristof and Wudunn, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, Knopf, New York, 2014))
Another of the “opportunities” about which Kristof and Wudunn write is a relatively small undertaking known as the “Cure Violence Health Model”, founded by a doctor who had spent ten years in Africa working to control infectious diseases. He applied the principles of disease control to curbing the spread of gang violence. He says: “We train selected members of the community to anticipate where violence may occur and intervene before it erupts.” The Justice Department estimates that, in some localities, shootings have been reduced by as much as 28% through the efforts of volunteers from “Cure Violence”.
What does all this have to do with today’s gospel reading? The ‘mustard seed faith’ at the centre of today’s reading is the simple conviction that one person’s few cents, when added to somebody else’s few cents can work miracles, even on the scale of uprooting mulberry trees and casting them into the sea. The belief that ordinary, law-abiding citizens, through a quietly spoken word, can defuse potentially bloody feuds is but another example of that ‘mustard seed faith’. Such faith calls for determination, trust, and commitment to the common good. It is built on a vision of hope that the near impossible can be achieved when we elicit from one another the goodness and decency of which we are all capable. A village of poor people pooling their savings to support one another mirrors the kind of faith to which Jesus refers in today’s gospel. So too does the simple courage and action of ordinary people who believe in peace work to quell anger, fury and hate. Simple interventions that are seemingly insignificant and all but invisible can contribute mightily towards making God’s dream for our world a real possibility. Mustard-seed faith comes in many shapes and sizes - determination, courage, commitment, ingenuity, encouragement, a few cents shared, a will to promote non-violence. It challenges us to seize the opportunities that come our way for planting for a harvest of justice, compassion and community wherever we live and work.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16, 19-31
In May 1998, the great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut (author of the satirical anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five), in addressing a graduating class at Rice University, told of a conversation he had with fellow writer Joseph Heller (author of Catch 22) at a party hosted by a multi billionaire: “I said: ‘Joe, how does it make you feel to realize that only yesterday our host probably made more money than Catch 22, one of the most popular books of all time, has grossed world-wide over the past forty years?’
Joe said to me: ‘I have something he can never have.’
I said: ‘What’s that, Joe?’ And he said: ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough.’
His example may be of comfort to many of you, who in later years will have to admit that something has gone terribly wrong — and that, despite the education you received here, you have somehow failed to become billionaires. This can happen to people who are interested in something other than money, other than the bottom line. We call such people saints — or I do.”
Today’s gospel parable of Dives (not the name of a real person, but simply the Latin word meaning “rich”) and Lazarus (the only character in all the Gospel parables to be given a name (the meaning of which is “God helps”) is a reminder to us that the gifts and blessings entrusted to us are for sharing selflessly and lovingly for the benefit of others. Gifts reach their full potential only when they are shared. This is a truth that the rich man has not been able to grasp. While there is no suggestion that he has acquired his wealth dishonestly, the focus of his life is himself. He is so obsessed with self that he simply cannot see Lazarus lying destitute and neglected at his gate. Moreover, he has grown to accept that wealth, concentrated in the hands of a minority of people like himself, is exactly the way the world should be. It was not his hard-earned fortune that kept him “from Abraham’s bosom” when he died, but his inability to share it with the needy and the destitute. He could not appreciate that he was meant to be a steward of all the gifts he possessed.
This parable (and the succession of parables that come before it in Luke’s Gospel) is probably best understood in light of a comment that could easily be missed (but made by Luke himself a few verses before the start of today’s gospel reading): The law and the prophets were in effect until John (the Baptist) came; since then the news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. (Luke 16, 16-17)
If the law and prophets stressed anything, it was the absolute justice of God. As a consequence, people began to lose sight of the mercy of God. So, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus set out to restore the balance. The parables we have heard over the last few weeks together point to the absolute justice and mercy of God. Today’s parable of Dives and Lazarus makes the point that the laws according to which both heaven and earth operate are the laws of a righteous God in whom justice and mercy, goodness and peace are equal.
The people of Jesus’ time held the simplistic belief that the misery and poverty of people like Lazarus were a direct consequence of their sinfulness, and that the fortunes of the rich came to them because they had lived virtuous lives. However, God’s law called people to live with both justice and mercy and, among other things to care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and their neighbour, to address the inequity between rich and poor. God’s prophets challenged people to live according to God’s law, and called them to account when they failed to do so. And this parable makes the point that, if God’s people failed to heed the law and the prophets, no intervention from beyond the grave would bring them to repentance or obedience to the law: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead” (Luke 16, 31). We have all had the experience of miracles great and small - the miracle of our expanding universe, the birth of a baby, extraordinary escapes from disaster and accident, the functioning of the human eye. But did they give us faith? We might have had our faith strengthened by them, but not given by them.
Each of the parables and stories of Jesus serves as a mirror into which we are invited to look. Today’s parable is no different as it invites us to reflect on the behaviour of the rich man and to look at ourselves with a view to assessing the extent to which our motivations for acting reflect his. Even after death, when his fortunes and those of Lazarus are reversed, he still speaks as though he is entitled to special treatment. In his arrogance, he still regards Lazarus as having only the status of a servant, for in addressing Abraham he pleads: “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too” (Luke 16, 27-28). He is interested only in his own family, with no thought or concern for anyone else. And he persists in clinging to the view that miracles will bring people to their senses. He wants status in this life and in the next as well.
So, the parable forces us to look at the value system on which we base our lives. It challenges us to ask ourselves what we consider to be “enough”. And it compels us to examine our attitude to the poor, the forgotten, the discards of society, and to ask ourselves if we even notice them.
In 2015, the Indian social activist, Harsh Mander published a book entitled Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India (Feel Books, Delhi 2015). In essence, the book is a contemporary commentary on today’s gospel parable. It crosses national boundaries as it challenges us, wherever we live, not to succumb to spiritual blindness, nor to let comfort and possessions steal from us our listening heart. We, too, can look without seeing, and hear without listening, and end up ignoring the Lazaruses on our doorsteps.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light…If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?... No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Luke 16, 1-13
Obsession with money is not limited to the wealthy people of this world. Rich and poor alike can get caught up in the pursuit of money. Sometimes the already rich want to get even richer by exploiting those who have little. And there are many poor people who delude themselves into thinking they are going to get rich by gambling in casinos or on race-tracks. Addiction to playing the slot/poker machines has ruined countless lives and destroyed many families.
However, when one person makes a fortune in business or on the stock market or even in a casino, there are usually many others who end up getting hurt. And that’s the concern that Amos points to in today’s first reading. He launches a blistering attack against those who become richer at the expense of the poor. The dishonest dealers of his society matched their products and their prices to the cynical assessment they made of poor people: “We can sell worthless wheat at inflated prices. We’ll find a poor man who can’t pay his debts or even afford the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave” (Amos 8, 6). But what upset Amos even more was that these robbers tried to make stealing and religion sit comfortably together. He pointed to those who even endured going to the synagogue while they were itching to get out to continue their dishonest practices: “When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start our selling again?” (Amos 8, 5) And the same effort to make religion and greed coexist peacefully is challenged in today’s gospel: “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16, 13).
Yet the parable of the shrewd steward is both challenging and bewildering, for it seems to give the impression that Jesus is supporting theft and deceit. However, since Jesus clearly supported neither injustice nor dishonesty, we have to ask ourselves how Jesus’ hearers could have made sense of this parable in the context of how the economy operated at that time.
The steward in the parable has been dismissed for mismanagement. Clearly, he did not challenge his dismissal. However, he used his wits and gambled on his intuition that his master would be tolerant with him. So, working quickly before word of his impending dismissal spread, he went to the clients with whom he had been dealing and gave them all a reduction on what they owed his master. The clients assumed that the generous reductions came from the owner of the business, and that’s exactly what the steward wanted them to conclude. So, when the owner realized what the steward had done, he was caught in a bind - he could go to his clients and tell them that he had been fooled by a deceitful, dishonest servant whom he had dismissed. That would be personally embarrassing for him and would risk losing clients. Or, he could say nothing, accept the appreciation of grateful clients and allow the steward to enjoy his popularity and keep his reputation. And the parable makes it clear that the owner chose to be the “generous businessman” that the steward set him up to be. The steward knew from experience that his boss was merciful and generous, risked his future on that, and won.
Knowing that he had been outsmarted by his employee, the master was forced to admit it and effectively said to the steward: “Well, I’ve got to acknowledge your cleverness. If I were in your situation, I probably would have done as you have.”
So this parable is really another example of a message that is repeated in the Gospels of how the first shall be last and the last first. We see it in the stories of the Pharisee and the publican, Dives and Lazarus, the wedding banquet where those invited are excluded and the tramps and nomads are welcomed. The Gospel turns normal expectations upside down, and if we embrace the message Jesus proclaims, we have to learn to be subversive, to use all our cunning to challenge injustice and inequality wherever they are operating.
So, the story from Jesus in today’s gospel is more an enigma than an illustration, a problem to be puzzled over rather than a moral to be learned. His parables often leave us to do some of our own interpreting, even if occasionally the Gospel writers add their own interpretation in order to bring closure to something that offers no easy answers.
The rich man had so much money that he could afford to admire a petty criminal's cunning at his own expense. The wily manager turned everything to his advantage, going from potential ruin to making friends and influencing people. And the rich man's debtors profited from the manager's mismanagement of the boss's resources. Nobody in the story came off looking very good.
The world of the parable is much like the world in which we live. Of such is the kingdom of earth, governed by the "children of this age," where dishonest wealth is more often than not the accepted currency, and "true riches" extraordinarily difficult to believe in, let alone to find.
Maybe, then, the point of this brief story doesn't need to be the crystal clear message that we want. Maybe its very presentation of our malady serves Jesus' purpose. It just might be that we are disturbed by what the rich man says at the beginning: "What is this I hear about you? Give me an account of your management." Perhaps that's the question and the demand for accountability that we all need to hear.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”…”Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep…because I have found the coin that I lost…because your brother was lost and is found.” Luke 15, 1-32
There are echoes of the readings of Lent in today’s liturgy as we are invited to ponder on the forgiveness of God. For thousands of years, Jews and Christians have debated among themselves the question of how forgiving God really is. In today’s first reading we have a delightful demonstration of Moses putting it on the line to God, stating that God has no alternative but to be forgiving. And in the second reading, we see Paul launching into over-the-top breast-beating in order to emphasise what a great forgiving God we have: “This is a true saying, to be completely accepted and believed: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am the worst of them, but God was merciful to me in order that Christ Jesus might show his full patience in dealing with me, the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1, 15-16).
The three parables in the gospel reading, taken together, are a revelation of God’s boundless love and readiness to forgive without conditions. Because of the ways in which we relate to and do business with one another, we have become conditioned to thinking and acting as though we have to earn God’s forgiveness. Today’s three parables, taken with Jesus’ preference to eat with sinners and despised tax-collectors, make the point that it is a merciful and loving God who chases after us in the first place, no matter what mistakes we have made or how we have failed. And God’s preference is for those who have the greatest need.
Our understanding of biblical shepherding has been contaminated by the sickly sweet representations of “Jesus the Good Shepherd” to which we have been exposed over a lifetime. There is nothing smelly or grubby about either the sheep or the Shepherd. In reality, the shepherds of Jesus’ time had a reputation for stealing, violence and crime. They were also expected to be strong and tough. They rarely worked alone, but in teams of three or four for protection against gangs of poachers and wild animals such as wolves. Having a team also allowed one of them to go in search of strays, while the others stayed with the flock. Rescuing a single sheep meant that the shepherd might have to carry back to the flock over fairly rugged terrain a 20 kilo struggling animal. So it’s important not to underestimate what a shepherd’s work entailed. The point of the parable is that God does whatever is required to bring back to his loving protection and care anyone who is lost or misplaced.
Having to find a small coin on the dusty, dirt floor of a poorly lit Judean house would have been a considerable challenge for any householder. A coin of any value is precious to a poor person. So the poor woman in the parable turns her hovel upside down searching for the coin lost in the dirt and dust. The point, of course, is that everyone, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is valuable to a God who will go to extremes in order to search out anyone who is lost.
The third parable is probably the most inaccurately titled story in the whole Bible, for it is the missing son’s father who is prodigal and lavish in his love; who forgives his wayward boy and joyfully welcomes him home even before the boy can carry out his resolution to ask for forgiveness and acceptance. The father’s generosity and largeness of heart are in marked contrast to the elder son who cannot even bring himself to call the home-comer “brother”. Instead, he angrily labels him with the cutting remark “this son of yours”. The father of the parable is the model of forgiveness that Jesus holds out to his audience, his disciples and to us.
These three parables throw light on what is behind the complaint of the Pharisees at the very beginning of today’s gospel: “This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” Judean society in the time of Jesus was very clannish and tribal. People ate and drank only with those who belonged to their social rank. The Pharisees are scandalized by Jesus’ openness to associate and eat with the outcasts of society. Jesus challenges their prejudice by daring to mix with the broken and rejected. And he adds to their discomfort by inviting them to imagine themselves as shepherds, as members of the underbelly of society. Having disturbed their comfort, he challenges them to examine their capacity to forgive and to open their closed hearts. That challenge is directed equally to us.
His first message is that God forgives us. But being forgiven implies our repentance. The root meaning of repentance (from Greek) is the price that has to be paid for vandalizing someone else’s property. In a real sense, we are God’s property. While we would never even think of vandalizing a telephone booth or writing graffiti on the walls of houses, trains or buses, our sins and failures imply that we stand accused of mucking up God’s property. But we are not being invited into a blame game. God’s invitation to repent is built on respect for us, and is certainly not a threat. Repentance, the other side of forgiveness, is an affirmation that God regards us as worthwhile. It presupposes that we are valuable in God’s eyes. And isn’t that one of the hardest things to accept and believe about ourselves - that we have worth and dignity? If we are unable to grasp that we and everyone around us are worthwhile objects of God’s love, we miss the very point of today’s gospel. When we can grasp that God reaches out to us as friend, our fears and defences will melt. In God’s invitation to forgiveness and repentance there is always a jolt to recognise our personal worth. That Jesus “welcomes sinners and even eats with them” is testimony to his recognizing their and our personal worth and dignity. Whenever we, in our turn, and our Church fail to proclaim that message in our actions, we’re simply not dealing with the kind of God we find in today’s gospel, the kind of God Pope Francis is pleading with us to imitate.
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14, 25-33
Today’s gospel reading is about the demands of discipleship and the expectation of Jesus that we embrace discipleship with our eyes wide open, fully conscious that there is a personal cost to following in his footsteps. We also need to note that, in describing that cost, Luke uses hyperbole or gross exaggeration. He attributes to Jesus words that seem very harsh. Different versions of the Bible translate the original Greek in various ways. Some have the expression “turning one’s back on family” and others use the word “hate”. A more accurate translation says that those who prefer the love and comfort of family cannot genuinely be followers of Jesus. There are many examples of Semitic exaggeration attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Here are two of them: “If your hand or your foot gets in the way of God, chop it off and throw it away…and if your eye distracts you from God, pluck it out and throw it away! (Matthew 18, 8-9) And in Luke, we read: “He was given the message: ‘Your mother and brothers are outside wanting to see you.’ He replied: ‘My mother and brothers are those who do God’s word. Obedience is thicker than blood.’” (Luke 8, 20-21)
The clear message is that there is a substantial cost to following in the footsteps of Jesus, and that cost has something to do with embracing his Cross. Crosses come into our lives in all kinds of shapes - in difficult people we might prefer to avoid, in the struggles and challenges of strained relationships, in criticism of the values we use to guide our living, in caring for those who have made terrible mistakes, in spending time with those who test our patience or who seem to have nothing to offer us, in visiting the sick, the grumpy and the dying, in praying not for an easier life but for the strength to put up with whatever comes our way. But whatever the shape of the cross that comes our way, it is important to remind ourselves that it is not necessarily an instrument of torture. Carried in the right frame of mind, it can become a means of transformation, conversion of heart, a way to a changed life. Any of that can happen to us if we can only see in faith that Jesus carries that load with us.
In his novel, Ah! But Your Land is Beautiful, the South African author and anti-apartheid activist, Alan Paton, tells the story of Robert Mansfield, a white man in South Africa more than thirty-five years ago. Mansfield was the headmaster of a white school. He took his athletic teams to play cricket against the black schools until the department of education forbade him to do it any more. He resigned in protest. Shortly thereafter, Emmanuel Nene, a leader in the black community, came to meet him.
“I have come to see a man who resigns his job because he doesn't wish to obey an order that will prevent children from playing with one another.”
“Mr. Nene, I resigned because I think it is time to go out and fight everything that separates people from one another. Do I look like a knight in shining armour?”
“Yes, you do, but you're going to get wounded. Do you know that?”
“I expect that may happen.”
“Well you expect correctly, Mr. Mansfield. People don't like what you're doing. But I am thinking of joining with you in the battle.”
“You're going to wear the shining armour, too?”
“Yes, and I'm going to get wounded, too. Not only by the government, but also by my own people as well.”
“Aren't you worried about the wounds, Mr. Nene?”
“I don't worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, ‘Where are your wounds?’ and if I say I haven't any, he will say: ‘Was there nothing to fight for?’ I couldn't face that question.”
(adapted from Alan Paton, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, Simon & Schuster, NewYork,1981, p. 64-67)
Embracing the Cross as it presents itself each day of our lives will take us on a journey whose only assurance is that our hearts will be changed - and for the better. That journey may change our understanding of power, fame and success, but we can be sure that we will come to know peace, hope and lasting joy as go about our lives.
There is one more piece to today’s gospel: the parables of the king preparing for war and the unfinished tower. They are reminders that we don’t end up following the way of Jesus and his Gospel by chance. Discipleship calls for planning, and deliberate choice of the values we want to guide our lives. The dialogue between an employee and her department manager as seen by the creator of the Dilbert comic strip might give us something to ponder:
Employee: “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was terrible.”
Dept Manager: “Isn’t the traffic from your house always terrible at this time?
Employee: “EXACTLY! That’s why I’m late every day.”
Dept Manager: “Do you see ANY way you could fix that?”
Employee: “I can’t control the traffic.”
Dept Manager: “You could leave earlier.”
Employee: “Then I wouldn’t get enough sleep.”
Dept Manager: “You could go to bed earlier.”
Employee: “Then I wouldn’t have time to watch Netflix till 2.00 am. Do you want me to hate my life?”
Dept Manager (sighs): “I didn’t until now.” (Scott Adams, Dilbert, July 3, 2016)
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Then he said to the host who invited him… “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun, whom many Catholics also know as “the Little Flower”, once wrote some words that connect with the theme of today’s gospel: “Never mention anything concerning yourself which people account praiseworthy, such as learning, goodness, birth, unless with the hope of doing good thereby, and then let it be done with humility, remembering that these are gifts of God.”
In contrast, a superficial reading of today’s gospel could lead us to conclude that humility can be regarded as a tactical measure to be used to one’s advantage: “If I choose to slip unnoticed into a dinner or a social event, the host or the organizers will come searching for me to place me in a more prominent position, and the attention of others will be on me as I am moved higher up. Playing the ‘humility game’ will make me better known.”
It’s, therefore, important for us to get a proper understanding of what humility really is, and it’s certainly not abasement. We’ve just had a demonstration of what a superlative athlete the world has in the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He has just won the sprint double (100 and 200 metres) at his third successive Olympic Games. If he were to say something like: “I’m not really special, you know. I get out there and run around just like everyone else, and I’ve just been lucky at the Olympics”, I don’t think we would conclude that he was being humble. It would sound much closer to insincerity. Humility is essentially truth. It’s about appreciating the gifts we have, our achievements and whatever we possess for what they really are. The way towards genuine humility is to acknowledge and appreciate our gifts, not to downplay them, not to devalue them, not to pretend we don’t have them. If you stop to think, you will realize that denying or devaluing our gifts and talents is another face of pride.
Another step towards a proper understanding of humility is to realize that we are stewards of our gifts not owners. Our gifts have been entrusted to us to develop and to use in the service of others. We grow in humility to the extent that we put that into practice. Gifts only reach their full potential when they are shared. They are not meant to be used to boost our self-importance. Possessions, position and status are for service, not for impressing others. When we go in search of these things for ourselves, we set ourselves up as consumers and begin to believe that we are the source of our gifts rather than stewards of them. When that happens, we risk wanting to be in the spotlight so much that the poor, the disadvantaged and the needy become invisible to us.
An indication of whether we are truly humble is our openness to God’s Spirit, our alertness to how and where we can put our gifts to the service of those in need. That’s an acknowledgement of the fact that we owe all we have to the goodness of God. It’s an admission that we are not self-sufficient, an acknowledgement that we are dependent on God not just for all we have, but for life itself.
Now back to today’s gospel, which opens with a highly charged statement: “On a Sabbath, Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully.”
Clearly, the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely, waiting to see if he makes a false move on a day of rest. They are wondering: What will he say and do? To whom will he speak directly? Will he lay hands on anyone? The anticipation of something dramatic is palpable, and those attending want a front-row seat. From what follows, it’s also evident that Jesus has been doing his own watching. He has noticed guests jostling for places. None of this kind of manoeuvering ever happens in silence, so he would have picked up snippets of the social chatter. When he has gathered enough data, Jesus speaks a challenging parable as a way of offering an alternative view of how such a gathering might be conducted. While what he says is directed to those assembled for the occasion, if we don’t resolve to change something in our behaviour as a result of hearing this story, we will have missed its point.
In challenging us to invite into our lives those who cannot repay us, Jesus invites us to reflect the love of God - to do what is appropriate, good and just simply for the joy that comes from doing it, not out of any sense of duty, self interest or wanting to feel superior. To appreciate the humility that Jesus teaches, all we need to do is to realize that the blessings we have come from God’s love for us, not because of anything we might have done to earn that love. Our role is to share with others the love we have received.
There’s a story about a young, successful company executive who was showing off his new sports car to the people in his neighbourhood. He was zipping through the streets, keeping an eye out for children, but going a little too fast. Suddenly, from nowhere, a brick hit the front side door of the car. He slammed on the brakes, ran back to where the brick had been launched, and grabbed the only boy he could see: “Just what the devil do you think you’re doing? That’s a brand new car you’ve just hit, sonny, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money. Why did you throw that brick?” “Please, mister. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do”, pleaded the boy. “I threw the brick because nobody else would stop.” As the tears rolled down his face, he pointed behind a parked car. “It’s my brother”, he said. “He rolled off the footpath into the gutter and fell out of his wheelchair, and I can’t lift him back up. Would you please help me to get him back into his wheelchair? He’s hurt, and he’s too heavy for me.” Stunned into silence, the young driver lifted the injured lad into the wheelchair, took out his handkerchief and wiped clean the scrapes and cuts. “Thanks, mister”, said the grateful child, “and I’m sorry.” The young man, to his credit, did not get the damage fixed. He kept it to remind himself not to speed through life so wrapped up in himself that someone would have to throw a brick to get his attention.
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Someone asked him: “Lord, are they few in number who are to be saved?” He replied: “Try to come in through the narrow door. Many, I tell you, will try to enter and be unable…” Luke 13, 22-30
I’m sure many have heard the story of the man who arrived late for the start of a large Evangelical gathering. From the back of the crowded hall, he searched for an unoccupied seat. Finally, he spotted one in the very front row. Embarrassed, he headed for the vacant place and asked the woman sitting next to the empty chair: “Is this chair saved?” Back came her whispered response: “No, but we’re praying for it!”
Those of us who grew up in the pre-Vatican II Church learned that life as a Catholic was all about “saving one’s soul”. Since Vatican II, we have grown to appreciate that, as followers of Jesus, we are invited to contribute to making real his dream for the world. By imitating Jesus and proclaiming his message we say that it is possible for people to live in peace and harmony with one another. By accepting that we are all created in God’s image, we acknowledge that all people have a right to be treated with dignity, respect, justice and equality. In living this way, we contribute to building what Jesus called “the kingdom of God”. The Christian life is, therefore, not about saving ourselves or anybody else but about spending our lives so that others may live in peace, harmony and dignity, with access to an equal share of this world’s goods. The gift of life with which we have been blessed is to be lived in such a way that our sisters and brothers may have life. In the process of spending our lives for others, our hearts will be transformed and we will grow into the kind of people God invites us to be.
Today’s gospel reminds us that transformation or conversion of heart is not a matter of getting through a narrow door or finding a key to a locked door, but persevering on the life-long journey of growth into God, of living in tune with the Beatitudes which Jesus offered us as a guide for life. Yet, despite our best intentions to spend our lives that others might live, we can slip into cluttering our lives with stuff that distracts us from our true purpose, or we can fail to give full expression to the gifts with which we have been blessed. The very virtues we have worked to develop can end up cluttering our lives because we have failed to use them. Our lives may not be cluttered with mistakes and failures, with unresolved hurts and disagreements, but burdened with dreams unfulfilled, wisdom not shared, potential not realised, gifts neglected - because of fear or hesitation or embarrassment or the risk of criticism.
I conclude with a North American Cherokee story:
The bird called Meadowlark lives in the lowlands, and he is about the same size as Quail. He walks the same way that Quail walks. Once, long ago, one meadowlark had feet that did not stop growing when the rest of him did. His feet grew stronger and stronger, his toes longer and longer, and his heart heavier and heavier.
"Poor feet, you are so ugly!" good Meadowlark cried. "And so heavy! When I try to soar up to the sky you weigh me down. How can I sing my beautiful song if I cannot soar? If l do sing, the animals and other birds will not hear, for they will be too busy laughing at my feet. I wish I were a mole and could hide under the earth!" Instead, Meadowlark hid in the grass and tried not to look at his feet. He hunted insects there and built his nest there. Sometimes he sang his beautiful song softly to himself.
One day, Grasshopper came looking for Meadowlark. As he hopped through the grass he heard the soft little song and followed it to the downhearted bird. "Why are you hiding, friend Meadowlark?" he asked when he found him. "No one has seen you all summer." Meadowlark hung his head. "I am ashamed to show my beak," he said. "But why?" Grasshopper asked. "Can't you see?" the bird asked, holding up one large foot. "Because my feet are so long."
Grasshopper shrugged. "So? Why worry? One of these days they'll turn out to be useful." Meadowlark blinked. "Useful? How? How will I know?”
“They will. You'll see," said Grasshopper. "You want to sing, don't you? Well, stop this hiding-in-the-grass nonsense and go out and do it."
Grasshopper's visit cheered Meadowlark so much that he went out then and there to take to the air. He flew low over the fields, singing so beautifully that all the animals stopped to listen to him. And all of the birds folded their wings and perched in the trees to listen. Next day, Meadowlark went out again to sing, but, as he flew, his toes touched the tops of the grass.
He could not help thinking: “Oh, how long my poor feet are, and how ugly!” So he dropped to the ground and hid again. Not far away was a wheat field near a Cherokee town. A little female bird had made her nest in the middle of the wheat field. She had laid her eggs there, but now the wheat was ripe, and she heard farmers saying that it was time to cut it. "Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?" she cried as she huddled over her eggs. She wept and wailed loudly, for she had no way to save them. Grasshopper heard her cries, and came hopping to her nest. "Why are you crying?” he asked. "The farmers are going to harvest the wheat, and my eggs will be crushed, for I have no way to carry them to safety.”
"Well, now," said Grasshopper, "I know a bird over in the meadow beyond your field who is always hiding because his feet are so big. He could help you." The little bird hopped off her nest. "I shall go see him at once. Perhaps he can pick my eggs up with his claws and carry them to safety." She flew off to find Meadowlark, who said: "Of course I will help, if I can."
Meadowlark followed her back to the wheat field, and found that with his long toes it was easy to pick up her eggs. Two at a time, he carried them off to the meadow grass and set them down in a safe nesting place. "That Grasshopper is a wise little fellow," he said happily. And he flew up to circle the meadow and sing his beautiful song once again.
Perhaps we’re sometimes like Meadowlark, with beautiful songs within us left unsung, because we’re unable to see beyond our faults. Are our gifts locked up so deep inside us that they’ll prevent us from getting through the narrow door of today’s gospel? Do we allow to slip away opportunities for making a difference, for reaching out with encouragement or affirmation, for letting loose the love in our hearts? Unexpressed potential and putting things off can clutter our lives just as easily as bitterness, negativity and selfishness.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!...Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No I tell you, but rather division.” Luke 12, 49-56
There is no doubt that Jesus and his Gospel have been causes of division. During his life time, he and his message were so threatening to the political and religious establishment that their only way of dealing with him was to eliminate him. Jesus himself knew that proclaiming the truth, teaching that everyone had a right to be treated with dignity and equality would disturb the comfort of those who exploited the poor. Speaking the truth has always been a cause of division because it separates those who value justice from those who trade on injustice. Jesus knew that promoting truth and justice (the kingdom of God) had the potential to trigger political unrest, for it would make ordinary people aware of God’s dream for them and would threaten those who stood to lose out if God’s dream were ever realised. That’s why Jesus can describe himself in today’s gospel as coming to cause division. This man of peace proclaimed a message that had many come running to him and many others running far from him. And it is the same still.
Jesus was and is a light in the darkness of injustice, inequality and exploitation. Jesus and compromise simply cannot exist side by side. One cannot claim to accept Jesus and his message and try to make peace with a world that cannot tolerate him and all he stands for. Moreover, he knew the cost of embracing God’s way of seeing and doing. He realised that living by God’s truth came at a price, for it was a purifying, refining process. That’s why, in today’s gospel, he uses the message of a refining fire that burns away compromise and half-heartedness. Prophets before him had used similar language.
Malachi, for instance, referred to the impact of God’s messenger of truth on the people of Israel in these terms:
“He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes. He’ll scrub the Levite priests clean, refine them like gold and silver, until they’re fit for GOD, fit to present offerings of righteousness. Then, and only then, will Judah and Jerusalem be fit and pleasing to GOD, as they used to be in the years long ago.” (Malachi 3, 2-4)
People through the centuries have known the cost of embracing truth and justice and have expressed it in proverbs to challenge others. An ancient proverb found in both Turkish and African cultures says: “Whoever speaks the truth will be expelled from nine villages.”
And in his book Gifts of Many Cultures, Samuel Ryan quotes the following proverb attributed to an unnamed first-century philosopher:
“A candle-light is a protest at midnight.
It is a non‐conformist.
It says to the darkness,
‘I beg to differ.’”
Today’s first reading from Jeremiah gives an account of how Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern and left to die, simply because he dared to speak an unpalatable truth.
Maintaining one’s integrity comes at a price. It calls for courage and is often met with public criticism and threats of violent retribution. In the lead-up to the most recent national elections in the Philippines, scores of out-spoken journalists were assassinated for daring to speak the truth. The candidate who was eventually elected as President, Rodrigo Duterte subsequently stated that many of those journalists deserved to die. When it was alleged by Human Rights Watch that Duterte, in his previous role as mayor of the city of Davao, was responsible for 1000 extrajudicial killings, his response was that he would “execute 100,000 more criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay.” Being an advocate for truth and justice in a political climate such as this is a threat to those who use and abuse power. It has dire consequences because it causes the division about which Jesus spoke.
Pope Francis himself has reportedly been given a less than warm welcome by the Bishops of Poland because he had accused politicians in the ruling Polish Government of fuelling “an artificially created fear of Muslims”. Both the Bishops and Government of Poland have seemingly been unenthusiastic about Francis’ plea to Europe to welcome refugees fleeing from Syria.
And, for his recent article published in the UK Tablet, journalist Paul Donovan has been roundly criticised for stating: “While many Christians are rightly committed to charitable work, fewer engage with wider social issues and the importance of Catholic Social Teaching that underpins the Church’s response to injustice.” It is, apparently, more acceptable to make a donation that often contributes to keeping recipients dependent than to speak the truth and advocate for justice. Perhaps there is more in today’s readings than we might have thought.
But let’s leave the final word on all of this to advice attributed to St Peter:
“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner. If you’re abused because of Christ, count yourself fortunate. It’s the Spirit of God and God’s glory in you that brought you to the notice of others. If they’re on you because you broke the law or disturbed the peace, that’s a different matter. But if it’s because you’re a Christian, don’t give it a second thought. Be proud of the distinguished status reflected in that name!” (1 Peter 4, 12-16)
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father…From this one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, as many as the countless grains of sand on the seashore.” Hebrews 11, 1-2, 8-12
“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be…You, too, must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come…Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the one entrusted with more.” Luke 12, 32-48
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist Victor Frankl described how survivors of the Holocaust had one characteristic in common - faith in someone/something beyond themselves. Even though that faith ended in disillusionment for some, Frankl noted that those who did survive concentration camps did so only because they were able to sustain some level of visionary faith, be it faith in God or in the conviction that someone dear was waiting for them:
“When we spoke about attempts to give a man in (prison) camp mental courage, we said that he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return. But after liberation?...Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams came, found it so different from all he had longed for!...Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves…Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom…Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
All three of today’s readings say something to us about faith - a significant aspect of our ‘why’ for living the way we do. The ‘living in faith’ of today’s readings could probably best be described as having great expectations. In the first reading from Wisdom, we hear how the Israelites, in exile in Egypt, lived in expectation not only of being delivered, but of seeing their captors beaten up (pay-back, I trust, is something we would not subscribe to now). The whole of chapter 11 of Hebrews contains a list of our ancestors in faith. For instance, we are told that “By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen, with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household” (Hebrews 11, 7). In today’s second reading, we learn how Abraham and Sarah expected a tangible inheritance from God, including land, herds and descendants. Their expectations went even further: “For Abraham was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and maker is God” (Hebrews 11, 10). In the gospel, we are told of servants who anticipate the return of their master from a wedding feast: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival…he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them (Luke 12, 37)
What is common to all these readings is that, while those who believe are not exactly sure of what is coming their way, they still act with the assurance that something good will be given to them. The writer of Hebrews puts it like this: “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11, 1).
However, we know from experience that it is not only faith that grows out of a vision of what is unseen. Mistrust or ‘lack of faith’ have similar origins. The reason we move away quickly from a stranger on a dark and lonely street is because we imagine him doing something bad. People who lose faith in a marriage partner, a business associate or a church imagine the possibility of future actions that will dishearten them. Both faith and mistrust grow out of a level of imagination.
Our religious faith is largely a matter of what we imagine God to be like, how we picture God will act towards us. However, there might be real value in stopping to ponder faith from God’s perspective. God has faith in us. That’s one lesson that Jesus taught us. His actions were based on the belief that God had faith in him and in the future Jesus created for all who would follow in his footsteps. And, of course, that meant trusting that we would rise to the challenge of setting our hearts and minds on building God’s kingdom of peace, justice, compassion and love. If we would only let ourselves feel what it is to be trusted by God, we might grow into trusting God in return. And the greatest challenge for all of us is to really believe that God does actually love us with a never-ending love.
The three cryptic parables that form part of today’s gospel are different ways of challenging us to look at how we live our lives. How we spend our time, on what we spend our money and energy, to what we give our attention will tell us much about who we are and the values out of which we live and work. They are the indicators of where our treasure is located. These three parables ask us to look at how we are using the gift of time that is given to us - a gift whose life-span is unknown to us.
The great 19th Century Afro-American orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass once stated that “a man (sic) is worked upon by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.” All too often, our words about what we say we value are betrayed by the busyness we allow to creep into our lives. We let ever-increasing demand on our time and energy undermine the value system we would like to live by. Today’s readings call us to reassess our priorities, and live according to them..
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Luke 12, 13-21
A very prominent and wealthy businessman had not made a donation to the hospital fundraising campaign in his town. So, the chairman of the fundraising committee decided to pay him a visit, with the intention of asking for a generous donation: “Our records”, he began, “indicate that you have not yet made a contribution to the fund. Maybe you have been so busy that the matter has slipped your mind.” The businessman replied: “And do your records show that my mother died penniless? Do they indicate that my only brother has a serious physical disability and has to move around in a wheelchair? Do they also note that my sister was abandoned by her husband and left to support four young children by herself?”
The chairman was very embarrassed, and responded: “No, I am very sorry that none of that is in our records. I apologise for my insensitivity.” “Well”, said the businessman, “if I haven’t helped any of my own family, why should I help you and your hospital?”
Greed in our world presents itself with all kinds of faces. Today’s gospel and the story of the wealthy businessman push us to stop and reflect on just how greed can creep into our own lives. And when it does, it can blind us and desensitize us. The circumstances of our lives can lead us to be so possessive that we can end up even neglecting family and friends as well as the needy people we encounter begging on our street corners.
One of the indicators of an unhealthy life-style is the disproportionate emphasis people sometimes put on work, acquiring possessions, building a big bank account and boosting their egos and self-importance, based on what they own. There’s a long-standing joke about wealthy people living in fashionable neighbourhoods. If you ask them who they are, they immediately point to their car or their private yacht. Western society tends to hold up position, power and possessions as measures of success in life. Today’s gospel makes the point that our lives, our personalities, our talents and possessions are gifts entrusted to us by God for our own healthy growth and development, and for the benefit of everyone around us.
While the focus of today’s gospel is the parable of the foolish rich man, what prompted Jesus to tell the parable was a request put to him by somebody in the crowd who invited him to solve a family dispute: “Rabbi, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” The response from Jesus was short and sharp: “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” While it was not unusual for rabbis to be called upon the resolve family and community disputes, Jesus, in this case, refused to take sides and, instead, with a parable, addressed the greed that was at the basis of the dispute. Even just the prospect of gaining a fortune can distort our vision and create the illusion that wealth will be the key for controlling our lives.
The following story likewise illustrates Jesus’ message: Two families called upon their rabbi to settle a dispute about a plot of land they both claimed. The rabbi listened to the members of the first who told how the land had been in their family for generations. They even produced documents in support of their claim. The second family described how they had lived on the land and worked it for decades. They said they knew the land intimately and had formed a relationship with it. While they had no papers to support their case, they showed the callouses on their hands and the produce of the harvest, in order to make their point. The rabbi then called them together on the plot and knelt down in front of them, putting his ear to the earth. He listened for some time, then stood up and announced: “I have listened to both sides. But, out of necessity, I listened to the land itself, the centre of the dispute. And the land has spoken, telling me this: “Neither of you owns the land over which you are squabbling. It is the land which owns you.”
Greed can blind us to the realities that are integral to building Jesus’ dream for our world, repeatedly referred to by Jesus as the kingdom of God. We can become so blinkered that we fail to even notice those around us who are struggling to survive, let alone live with dignity and self-respect.
In his penetrating critique of the impact of wealth on the rapidly growing middle and upper classes of his own country, Indian writer Harsh Mander describes how wealth and possessions prevent those who have them from seeing the poor and destitute all around them. He cites the extreme example of the reputedly wealthiest man in India, Mukest Ambani, who built for his family of five, at the cost of 630 million pounds sterling, a 27 storey house which included a health club, a 50 seat cinema, a ballroom, three helipads and 37,000 square metres of floor space. How one family of five can live in such opulence, while hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens struggle to eke out an existence, beggars belief. (Harsh Mander, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, Tiger Books, 2015)
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the content of Jesus’ parable is the repetition of the personal pronoun “I” and “my”, and the repeated references to “self”: “I have no place to store my harvest…I will build larger barns…I shall store my grain and other goods…I will say to myself…enjoy yourself…” The wealthy man’s use of I, me and mine prevent him from seeing himself first, and then beyond himself. He simply cannot comprehend just how poor he is in his personal and relational life, and how poverty-stricken are his mentality and outlook on life. Note, too, that the only person he addresses is himself. When people have a glut of possessions, they lose the need to consult anyone beyond themselves, even God.
A further clue to understanding this parable is given to us in today’s second reading from Colossians where Paul reminds us that we are continually being formed in the image of our creator God. That means using our talents, energy, initiative and imagination to shape the way we think and act, to shape our inner lives as well as the way we live. The rich man in the parable falls short as a creative person. He is a poor image of God as creator because he is unwilling to share what he creates. How well do we measure up?
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“For everyone who asks receives; everyone who searches finds; everyone who knocks will have the door opened.Luke 11, 1-13
Today’s gospel reading starts by telling us that Jesus had been “in a certain place praying”, presumably by himself. On his return, one of the disciples made a request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” The response from Jesus is a three-part instruction on prayer, which includes a pattern for prayer, a parable about prayer and some reflections on “effective” prayer.
The model for prayer that Jesus offers and his comments that follow complement each other. He invites his disciples, including us, into a personal relationship with God, urging them and us to address God in the same intimate way as he did - to address God as Abba, the form of address reserved to children calling out to a loving parent. In other words, he really told his disciples that they belong to God and that God wants for them whatever will give them life. And to reinforce that invitation, he provided an analogy: If ordinary parents, inadequate as they are, know how to give their children what is good for them, then our Father in heaven will be infinitely better in the parenting role, giving us, when we pray, what is good for us, including the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When God’s name (which is synonymous with God) is honoured (hallowed or held holy) and when God’s kingdom becomes a reality (that is when justice and peace flourish and when all people are treated with dignity and equality), there will be food enough for all, we will readily forgive anyone who hurts us, and peace and harmony will prevail in the world. According to Jesus, that’s God’s promise to our world when we live in right relationship and genuinely treat one another as brother and sister. That’s the very reason why the prayer that Jesus offers as a model begins “Our Father” and not “My Father”. We are created to be in relationship, to be community. We are on a life-long journey to build that community in its fullness.
With that, Jesus launches into a parable to demonstrate that God is trustworthy. The character to be imitated in the parable is the man who wakes his neighbour in the middle of the night. While we might sympathise with the man whose whole household has been disturbed, we must remember that hospitality in biblical times was of the utmost importance. The man who did not have enough bread to feed his unexpected guest would fail in hospitality if he were unable to provide. So he shamelessly and persistently badgers the man next door until he gets what he wants. We are urged to approach God for what we need with those same qualities. The parable is not saying that God can be moved by persistence or some kind of social pressure to preserve God’s good name or reputation. Persistence and shamelessness in approaching God change our hearts. Those qualities in us demonstrate that we really know in our heart that only God will satisfy us. God’s Spirit will come into the heart of the person who profoundly desires God and who genuinely wants to hold God in his or her heart.
There was once a holy man who took one of his followers to a river and held him under the water until he almost drowned. When the disciple came up gasping for air, his teacher said: “When you want God as much as you just wanted air, God will surely come to you.” And the prophet Jeremiah tells of a similar experience. After years of dedicated work as God’s prophet, Jeremiah begged God to affirm him in his work and to bring the chosen people out of exile. This was God’s response: “When you call to me and come and pray to me, I shall listen to you. When you search for me, you will find me; when you search wholeheartedly for me, I shall let you find me.” (Jeremiah 29, 13-14)
So, persistence is not about trying to persuade God, for God needs no persuading. We are urged to persist because of the effect persistence has on us. If we persevere in seeking God, we will come to want God more and more. The trouble with us is that we waver. We want God one day, but forget about God the next, especially when God’s presence makes us uncomfortable or is inconvenient. In the context of this parable, the door we have to beat on is the door that keeps our heart closed.
But the most difficult part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the third piece, where he states: “Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; everyone who searches finds; everyone who knocks will have the door opened” (Luke 11, 9-10).
We all know from experience that many of our prayers seemingly go unanswered. And it’s all too simplistic to rationalise by telling ourselves that whatever happens must be God’s will, or that we are not always wise in some of our requests, or that God sometimes says no for our own good. It cannot possibly be God’s will that people destroy one another in wars and family feuds or that thousands of children die every day from starvation and preventable disease or that people who protest decisions of governments are imprisoned and tortured. Jesus himself preached against injustices such as these. While we believe that God can bring good out of evil, we surely cannot conclude that when evil happens it is God’s will. The reality is that, while God’s goodness and power are at work in our world, the forces of evil are also at work. The consequences of our being created with the ability to make free choices are that we all have the capacity to do evil. And sometimes we do. And if there is freedom in the created world, the laws of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics will continue to work. So there will be volcanoes and earthquakes and tidal waves that destroy lives. God does not give freedom one day and take it away the next. We must not lose sight of the fact that the resurrection of Jesus testifies to the fact that God and God’s goodness will ultimately triumph. We can take comfort from the encouragement that Paul gave in his letter to the Romans: “God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us on our way. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. The Spirit does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. The Spirit knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. (Romans 8, 26-28)”
In the Quaker tradition, there is a wonderful saying: “Put your heart to God, and your hands to work.” Jesus urges us to pray but also makes it clear that we have a vital role in bringing to reality his dream for our world. In that context, let’s conclude with a modern parable:
There once was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart, and all sorts of other good things for which she prayed, but she was frustrated. The world seemed to her to be falling apart. Whenever she read the papers or watched the news on TV, she would fall into a depression. One day she decided to go shopping and took herself off to a mall where there were plenty of choices. She selected a shop at random and went in. She got a shock to find Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus because he looked just like the pictures she had seen in the devotional shops. She kept looking at him until she finally got the courage to speak: “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No, I own the shop”, Jesus replied. “Oh, what do you sell in here?” “Oh, just about anything!” “Anything?”
“Yes, anything you want. What are you looking for?” “I’m not sure”, the woman said. “Well”, Jesus replied, “just walk up and down the aisles and make a list. Then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She saw peace on earth, no more violence, peace in families, no more hunger or poverty, clean air and water for everyone, sharing of resources, cessation of exploitation by the wealthy. She wrote furiously, and by the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took her list, skimmed through it, and then looked at her and smiled. “No problem”, he announced. With that he started to reach under the counter and pull out all sorts of packets. “What are these”, the woman asked?
“These are seed packets, and this is the catalogue shop.” “You mean I don’t get the finished product?” “No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what’s on offer, and I give you the seeds. You take them home, plant and nurture them, and make sure they grow. Other people reap the benefits.” “Oh,” she said. And left the shop without buying anything.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Luke 10, 38-42
In order to get maximum value from this story of Martha and Mary, I suggest we look at it in the context in which it occurs in Luke’s Gospel. It follows immediately after and complements the story of the Good Samaritan. Mary exemplifies what is required of anyone who wishes to follow the first great commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” The Samaritan is held up to us as an example of one who knows well the second great commandment and translates it into action: “And love your neighbour as yourself.”
Both stories have an edge to them in that they also challenge us to reflect on the rules of “proper conduct” that our societies pressure us to follow. In the time of Jesus, Samaritans were mixed-race neighbours who had intermarried with their Assyrian invaders and practiced a religion that recognised the God of Israel but which had assimilated aspects of idolatry. Proud of their identity as “God’s chosen people”, the Jews would have nothing to do with their Samaritan neighbours. The Samaritans had departed from what was regarded as “proper” behaviour in the kingdom of Judah.
Mary, too, departed from the script that Jewish society had written for her. Women were not supposed to be disciples. Neither were they to be educated nor to sit at the feet of a rabbi (the traditional position taken up by males only, who intended to be students of an acknowledged master). Moreover, women were to have no interaction with men beyond their own family circle. By sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary transgressed all these rules. And lest we think that this was merely social convention, the Talmud itself left no room for doubt: “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” The famous First Century rabbi, Eliezer also made his position clear when he said: “There is no wisdom in women other than in the spinning wheel.”
So the principal lesson of both the story of the good Samaritan and that of Martha and Mary is that the rules of the new kind of society that Jesus preached - the kingdom of God - are very different from what we have come to expect. There is an equality and a justice in God’s kingdom that did not exist in the society of Jesus’ time and in every culture and society since then, including our own.
Many of the stories we hear invite us to identify with one or other of the characters in them. The Martha and Mary story is no exception. I suspect that many of us would be more comfortable with this story if it were to end with Jesus saying: “Mary, Martha has a point, don’t you think? Why not go and help her, so that all three of us can have this conversation over our meal together?”
But a remark like that from Jesus would distract from the central message of the story. Jesus is not pitting Martha against Mary. Neither is he criticising Martha for simply being “busy about many things”. But note carefully what is said. Luke first tells us that Martha “was distracted with all the serving”, and Jesus gently but firmly challenges her with: “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.” Not only is Martha tense, frustrated and emotionally worked up, but she also tries to tell Jesus what to do as she makes every effort to shame Mary into action. And Jesus refuses to be manipulated - he does not allow Martha to use him to pressure Mary to change her decision.
We, who hear the story, are left to work out for ourselves what Jesus means by his comment: “It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.”
What then is “the better part”, ‘the one thing necessary” which Mary has chosen? Whatever it is, Martha is not going to find it easily, for she is distracted - the Greek word used in the gospel has the literal meaning of being pulled in all directions. She is so worked up emotionally that she can’t find room for genuine hospitality, the essence of which is giving full attention to a guest. What’s more, she descends to trying to embarrass her sister in front of their guest and makes it worse by trying to drag Jesus into the family squabble and putting him on the spot by implying that he doesn’t care about the fact that she is doing all the work. Her seething emotions prevent her from being genuinely present to a guest in their house. That was the “one thing necessary” - being present to, chatting with and listening to the guest who came their way. She does not realise that the essence of hospitality is being present to the one who comes to visit, bringing the gift that is carried within. As Elizabeth Johnson puts it: “The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.” (Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Continuum, New York, 2003)
And there lies the message for all of us. We can allow ourselves to become frenetically busy with all kinds of seemingly worthwhile activities. But we take on so much that we end up giving ourselves no time for quiet prayer and reflection, for simply being in the Lord’s presence, pondering things like today’s gospel reading. Whether or not we are fully conscious of it, we are all on a search for God, the only one who will satisfy us. By setting aside everything else in order to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him, the Mary of today’s gospel demonstrates what it means to go in search of the wisdom of God. She exemplifies for anyone who will stop and look just what it means to live the first of the great commandments.
There are countless busy Marthas in this world, and very likely we are among them. To all of us Jesus says something intended to stop us in our tracks: “You are all het up and distracted. But don’t forget that only one thing is needed.” How seriously do we go in search of that “one thing”?
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“And who is my neighbour?” Luke 10, 25-37
The parable/story of The Good Samaritan occurs only in Luke’s Gospel. Yet it has had such a profound impact on so many cultures that it has taken on the status of a common noun. The French for someone who does an act of kindness is un bon samaritain, the Spanish speak in similar strain of un buen samaritano and the Oxford English dictionary defines a good Samaritan as a kind or charitable person. Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, Chad, India, The Dominican Republic, The Philippines and the United States all have hospitals and clinics named after the Good Samaritan. And in Australia there is a congregation of religious women called The Sisters of the Good Samaritan. I wonder if Jesus ever dreamed that the story he told in response to the lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbour?” would have such a profound and wide-spread impact.
While we all know the details of this wonderful parable, I suggest that there is a depth and complexity to it that can easily escape us. To discover some of that depth, we can go to the Book of Leviticus. The lawyer who sets out to test Jesus is an educated man who, because of his profession, is naturally interested in legal analysis and distinctions. And note that it is he who quotes from the Law of Moses as it is recorded in Leviticus. So when Jesus asks him what is written in the Law, he replies: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” (cf Leviticus 19, 18) Like that of so many conservatively pious people across the centuries, the lawyer’s focus is on his personal salvation; he wants no room for error; he really wants to get it right. However, if he knew well the Moasic law, which he quoted to Jesus, he would certainly have known other sections of it, including the following: “If you have resident aliens in your country, you will not molest them. You will treat resident aliens as if they were native-born and love them as yourself - for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19, 34) The law of love is to be applied to neighbour and foreigner without distinction. At opposite ends of the human spectrum, both are to be treated with love, respect and dignity. The law of love knows no bounds. But the lawyer is seemingly not interested in how far the law extends. Rather, he wants to know the minimum he has to do to earn God’s salvation. And the fact that his focus is on himself implies that he is going to find it difficult to love anyone. And isn’t that the risk we all run when we become obsessed with legalism?
And that’s where I believe the real message of the parable is to be found. The lawyer is focused on self-interest. In contrast, the Samaritan is motivated by selfless compassion and kindness for a fellow human being. Ironically, while Samaritans and Jews generally treated one another with suspicion, distrust, bitterness and outright hostility, the religious practice of both nations was based on the five books of Moses (The Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible). This irony was not lost on Luke. (Remember the reading we had for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time in which we heard the story of James and John wanting the inhospitable Samaritans consumed by fire because of their hostility.) The Samaritan in the parable is able to rise above the bitterness and petty distinctions that had built up over centuries. Moreover, he is free of the constraints of religious legalism and is well ahead of the lawyer in his understanding and application of the law of love as set out in Leviticus. And, of course, that’s another irony. The lawyer who, in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, would have been expected to have some mastery of the law, is outshone by Jesus (a mere carpenter) and by the practical action of an heretical Samaritan. In telling this parable, Jesus is clearly saying that we all have to let go of the rigid constraints of religion to which we sometimes cling in order to embrace and live God’s law of love.
While those who heard Jesus tell this parable would have been shocked by the fact that a Samaritan knew more about the law of love than a Jewish lawyer, they surely would have been stunned at the thought that a Jewish victim of a savage assault and robbery, on regaining consciousness, might find himself in the care of a traditional enemy. Yet Jesus was telling them and us that there will be times in our lives that God’s mercy and compassion will reach us only after we have plumbed the depths of our hearts and let go of our dependencies, including our prejudices and fears. Paradoxically, the parable invites us to imitate the man who was beaten and robbed and to bring ourselves to accept that goodness and compassion can come from those we least expect are able or willing to offer them, even from those we label as enemies.
Underneath all of this is the message that God has invested sacredness in every human being. The very fact that Jesus became one with us is testimony to the holiness of humanity. His presence among us as brother clearly tells us who we are in God’s eyes and who are all those other people among whom we live. That explains how the law of Moses and the “greatest commandment” can say that there is no distinction between love of God and love of neighbour.
And there are times when we have to find the courage to say that by the way we live and the decisions we take.
In April this year, the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, carried the story of Austrian Bishop, Agidius Zsifkokvics who refused to allow part of an anti-migrant border fence to be built on Catholic Church property. As a result, the Austrian Government has been forced to leave a gap in the fence. Commenting on his decision, the Bishop stated: “Such a fence is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and Pope Francis’ clear message to Europe…I grew up with the Iron Curtain and I know what it meant for us all when it finally fell. I have said repeatedly that new fences will not solve the refugee problem. We need to tackle today’s problems at root, and that means stopping organised human trafficking, stopping European arms sales, stopping war and the deliberate destabilisation of the Middle East, and stopping the exploitation of African raw materials and agriculture by European firms.” What could happen if we were all to speak out and act as Bishop Zsifkokvics has done?
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. And he said to them: “…Into whatever house you enter, first say: ‘Peace to this household.” Luke 10, 1-12, 17-20
Today’s gospel reading opens with a statement that clearly reflects that Jesus knew that his mission of establishing God’s kingdom was not a solo pursuit, but required the assistance of willing helpers. So, we are told: “The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit.” If you are wondering why Jesus settled on engaging seventy-two helpers, the simple explanation is that, at the time, seventy-two was considered to be the number of nations that made up the known world. Noah and his family survived the great flood, and the descendants of his three sons, Japeth, Shem and Ham, numbered seventy-two, and from them came that number of different nations. This is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus sent his disciples out to all the nations of the world. And he instructed them to travel light, not to waste their time making small talk with everyone they met along the way, and not to try to impose themselves where they were clearly not welcome.
Furthermore, he left them in no doubt about the obstacles, challenges and risks they would encounter. Whatever was their state of anxiety and apprehension as they set out, they returned full of excitement and satisfaction at the success with which they had met. But he brought them back to reality, warning them not to get swelled heads, because their achievements were due not to their own power, but to the power of God working through them. If they had any right to rejoice, it was not over what they had done for God, but over what God had done for them and, through them, for others.
And the message for us? It is clearly that it’s now our turn, as followers of Jesus, to take the message of God’s love and mercy to our part of the world. And that world seems to be becoming increasingly deaf to Jesus’ message that everyone has a right to peace and justice, that the inhabitants of this world are equal in dignity and worth, that the gifts of God’s creation are for all.
In recent days, the political analysts have been doing their best to explain why just over fifty percent of voters in the United Kingdom referendum chose to exit the European Union. The general conclusion is that the choice to leave was based largely on self-interest, fear of the stranger and refugee, and loss of appreciation for the common good. Young voters have lamented that the older generation has voted for an insecure future for generations to come. Those who voted to leave the European Union seemed to be looking after their own short-sighted interests. In sending out the seventy-two, Jesus required them to enter the lives of those they encountered, to consider their perspectives, to experience what it was like to walk in their shoes, to be messengers of peace for them, to give them a glimpse of how their lives could be different if they could but embrace the message of Jesus about God’s love for them.
There is an old Chinese tale about a woman whose only son died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and asked, "What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?"
Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said to her: "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life." The woman went off at once in search of that magical mustard seed.
She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door, and said, "I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me."
They told her: "You've certainly come to the wrong place," and began to describe all the tragic things that recently had befallen them.
The woman said to herself, "Who is better able to help these poor, unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?"
She stayed to comfort them, then went on in search of a home that had never known sorrow. But wherever she turned, in hotels and in other places, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune.
The woman became so involved in helping others cope with their sorrows that she eventually let go of her own. She would later come to understand that it was the quest to find the magic mustard seed that drove away her suffering.
There are, indeed, countless ways of bringing the peace of Jesus to others. Sometimes, in the process, we find it for ourselves as well. If we want any further convincing of our responsibility to step into the shoes of the seventy-two, we need only to reflect on the words of Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.” Luke 9, 51-62
We don’t have to look far to see that there are many places in our world that are shrouded with the darkness of arrogance, deep-seated prejudice and bitter hatred. Minds have been poisoned by propaganda and the hearts of ordinary people alienated by do-gooder invaders coming to right the wrong they had a role in creating. For evidence of darkness we need not look beyond events of this last week - the shooting and stabbing death of British MP, Jo Cox and the shooting rampage by a 29-year-old in an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 wounded. Against this, in today’s gospel Jesus urges us to commit ourselves to the work of preventing arrogance and hatred from extinguishing the light of hope and peace.
But he further extends us by calling us to be consistent and not to waver in our commitment to building God’s kingdom: “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the kingdom of God.” None of us likes to be criticised for our hesitation or lack of consistency, but Jesus is pointing at us and saying: “If you say you value your commitment to me, what’s holding you back? Stop creating obstacles, and match your words with credible action.”
So, in today’s gospel Jesus does not mince his words. He clearly states that following him is not something we can dabble in, the way me might dabble in transcendental meditation or yoga or creative writing. The world of politics has an excess of dabblers who make endless promises during the electioneering process and end up delivering little or nothing. In the last six months, European countries have dabbled in welcoming refugees from Syria. They opened their borders in a show of sympathy and promptly closed them when the tide of humanity presented problems. Dabblers, whether they are individuals or national governments, might well be sincere but lacking in seriousness. The way of Jesus does not give us the option of picking and choosing, especially when what he calls us to is not exactly to our liking.
Yet there is something in today’s gospel that might leave us wondering if Jesus himself is being inconsistent. When his disciples tried to impose their thinking on the inhospitable Samaritans, Jesus stopped them in their tracks: “When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ But he turned and rebuked them, and they went on to another village.” How do we explain the contrast between the attitude of Jesus toward some and not toward others?
I suggest the answer is to be found in today’s second reading from Galatians, where Paul points out that the way to discriminate between legitimate excuses and no excuses at all is to be found in whether or not we have genuinely encountered Jesus and his Gospel. Being a disciple of Jesus is a lot more than having a baptismal certificate or a Catholic-school education. But it does have a lot to do with being able to look at ourselves and our world with a God-centred perspective, and acting consistently in accord with that perspective. Paul explains that once we have discovered and experienced the freedom and responsibility that come from knowing Jesus, there is no room for pretending that nonsense, pretense and double standards suddenly make sense. Paul’s words are both eloquent and to the point: “Christ set us free to live a free life. So, take your stand and don’t let anyone put a harness of slavery on you again.” (Galatians 5, 1)
Jesus can make excuses for the Samaritans because they had been ostracized by mainline Judaism for 800 long years. It was little wonder that they had become unwelcoming and even hostile towards anyone heading for Jerusalem via their territory. Jesus’ disciples should have known better. In reprimanding the disciples for wanting to be vindictive, Jesus set the standard for all who would want to demonise others for their beliefs, their nationality or for the fanatical conduct of some of their fellow citizens.
We can look around our world and trawl our memories to find examples of women and men who have shown life-long fidelity in walking in the footsteps of Jesus and utter dedication to building the kingdom of God wherever they have gone. And let’s not forget that promoting the reign of God does not belong to Christians only.
The France 24 Observers is both a website and a TV show in four languages - French, English, Arabic and Persian. It covers international events using eyewitness accounts and videos from volunteer contributors. In April this year it broadcast the story of Saber Hosseini, an Afghan teacher who began distributing books to children in remote areas of Afghanistan. His work has earned him the affection of hundreds of children, and death threats from the Taliban. Many of the areas to which he goes are accessible only to bicycles. Not even 4-wheel drives can manage it. He started his deliveries in late October 2015 with a collection of 200 children’s books. He carried as many of these as he could in a large box strapped to his back. Already he has attracted 19 other volunteers to assist him. Now known as “The Book Cyclists”, they have been successful in attracting book donations and have become a travelling children’s library, making weekly visits to isolated villages and bringing different books in exchange for the ones the children have read. In explaining his initiative, Hosseini says:
“We ride bikes for several reasons: First, we don’t have enough money for cars. Second, some villages are only reachable by bike, and lastly, it’s a bit symbolic - the Taliban have at times used bicycles in their bomb attacks, so the message I want to convey is that we can replace this violence with culture…At first I chose very simple books, but now most of the older kids are able to read more serious books - for instance, we’ve got simplified versions of books by Victor Hugo, Jack London, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Samad Behrangi (an Iranian writer) and Ferdowsi (an Iranian poet)…Every time I bring books to children, I try to talk to them about a topic. I mostly talk about the importance of peace, the dangers of drugs and the need for tolerance between people with different beliefs and cultures…These kids lead stressful lives. They live in a society that is full of death and violence…Schools are rarely havens for them - many teachers are uneducated, and dish out physical punishments every day. So we want to keep delivering a bit of joy and calm to their lives through books.”
There is a dark side to the work of the Book Cyclists. They are the target of death threats from the Taliban who demand that they distribute “only Islamic books”. Hosseini’s wife, also a teacher, had to resign from her position when one of her young students told her that members of his family who belong to the Taliban were planning to murder her. Hosseini and his fellow cyclists receive frequent telephone threats. However, despite the threats they keep on peddling for the benefit of the children they care about. To me what Hosseini and his friends are doing looks a lot like building the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about.
Authentic discipleship demands that we all get involved in the challenging work of making the reign of God a reality, despite the risks, the personal inconvenience, the threats and criticism of those whose comfort is disturbed.
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“But you - who do you say I am?” he asked them. Peter said in reply: “The Messiah of God.”…Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wishes to be a follower of mine must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps.” Luke 9, 18-24
The focus of today’s gospel is on the question that Jesus put to his disciples: “But you - who do you say I am?” And, of course, it’s a question that is asked of all of us who would also be disciples of Jesus. But before examining Peter’s response and then proceeding to look at how we might answer, let’s take some time to reflect on the questions we ask, the reasons for them, and the circumstances in which we ask them.
Most of our questions are about seeking information about facts, other people’s perceptions or their readiness to assist us - On which platform do I catch the train to Florence? What did you think of the film, Spotlight? Will you assist me to prepare my graduation speech? We also use questions to probe another’s rationale for behaving in a certain way or to come to an understanding of why he or she holds particular political views. These are but samples of the kinds of questions we ask, and pursue until we are satisfied.
The questions that Jesus put to the disciples in today’s gospel strike me as his attempt to get them to articulate for themselves what exactly they were doing by choosing to pin their hopes on him and his message, by committing their lives to him and his cause. After he had heard from the disciples the kind of superstitions that people in the crowd had attached to him, he confronted them with this penetrating question: “But you, who do you say I am?” Notice that, when Peter identified him as the Messiah, Jesus didn’t say: “What a great answer, Peter. Now, what do the rest of you think?” But he proceeded immediately to disabuse them of their expectations of a messiah who would triumph over every obstacle and make them rich and famous. He immediately turned the conversation to the topic of suffering. He knew in his bones that there would be a heavy price for adhering to his integrity, for continuing to challenge tribal elders, chief priests and teachers who had lost the spirit of the Jewish Law and slavishly adhered to its literal interpretation. Yet, while Jesus anticipated that physical violence would come to him from his harshest critics, there is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that he saw it as part of God’s plan for him. Such a God was totally abhorrent to him. He knew that he had made enemies - those whose hypocrisy he named, those who were jealous of his leadership and the influence he had on the crowds, those whom he had accused of exploiting the poor, and those who criticized him for the company he kept. While he knew he was a marked man, he surely despised suffering as much as we do. If anything, he would have been angered by the kind of forces in life we’ve all witnessed; forces that further suffering in our world - forces like ignorance, hatred, selfishness, tolerance of injustice, comfortable tradition, pretending that everything is fine and the turning of blind eyes when personal integrity is what’s required. Jesus did not embrace suffering as an end in itself, and at no stage did he see it as a way of storing up brownie points with God.
Sadly, though, there are people among us who somehow see suffering as dear to God, even part of God’s “great blueprint in the sky”! Quite possibly those same people might resent God’s non-intervention attitude in the matter of human suffering, but be afraid to admit it, even to themselves. And when it comes to God’s allowing Jesus to share suffering with the rest of humanity, they are even less impressed.
God is not keen on suffering, and neither was Jesus. But even he, at this stage in his life, did not seem entirely clear in his own mind about what it all meant. Notice that as he anticipated his own suffering and predicted what awaited those of us who follow him, he became increasingly vague: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it.” Maybe, words just failed him.
But let’s not forget that penetrating question that Jesus has put to us: “But you - who do you say I am?” It is in answering this question and in pursuing answers to our other deep questions that we will come to discover our identity as Christians and to define who we really are. While they are challenging tasks, let’s not think that Jesus had some short cut to answering his questions and defining for himself who he was. That was part of the cost of being fully human like us.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a man who every day, for years, had visited his wife in a nursing home. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was slipping deeper into dementia. Yet, every day he would come to help her with her lunch. And every day, he would sit with her and tell her the latest news of all the family, knowing that she would forget it as soon as she heard it. With not the slightest sign of impatience, he would remind her of who he was and of how they had been married for well over fifty years; that they had three grown-up children and four grand-children. He would hold her hand as she drifted in and out of sleep, and, before he left each afternoon, he would kiss her and tell her how much he loved her. His distressed friends would often ask him: “Why do you keep doing that every day, when she doesn’t even know who you are?” And his answer was always: “Because I know who I am.” (Harold S, Kushner, Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, Knopf, New York, 2006 p.35)
Is there a better answer to Jesus’ question than the words of that elderly man? If we know who we are and to what and whom we are truly committed, then all the decisions we make are ultimately our best response to Jesus’ question: “But you, who do you say I am?” The love with which we reach out to family and friends, the respect we extend to the needy and lonely, the passion we show for justice, our commitment to moral integrity, our ordinary acts of courtesy and kindness are our most effective testimony to the belief we have in Jesus as our inspiration and the source of life and love for us and our world. But all that comes at a personal cost.
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
He (Simon, the Pharisee) said to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of person it is who is touching him and what a bad name she has.”
Luke 7, 36 – 8, 3
The central character in today’s gospel reading is Simon the Pharisee. Simon is all of us who are quick to categorize others for their mistakes and keep them there by gossiping about them. Would others have a bad name, if nobody else gossiped about them or engaged in behaviour to convince them that the labels we put on them were true? And the very penal systems we establish for people who have been convicted of criminal conduct are often designed to keep offenders marked for life. And our media use tags like “prior convictions” for people who are arrested to ensure their histories keep them confined to the categories in which they have placed themselves or been placed by others.
Today’s gospel, therefore, challenges each of us to reflect on our propensity to prevent those who make mistakes from changing and developing. Keeping others in the categories we invent for them and allocate to them allows us to compare ourselves favourably to them and to ensure that they will not threaten our sense of self-satisfaction.
Back in 1974, Stephen King published the first of his fifty-four novels. It was called Carrie. In 2000, King published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in which he wrote at length about two girls who were the inspiration for Carrie White. One he called Sondra and the other Dodie, to protect their true identities. This is what he wrote about the latter, Dodie Franklin:
“Dodie and her brother Bill wore the same stuff every day for the first year and a half of high school: black pants and a short-sleeved checked sport shirt for him, a long black skirt, gray knee-socks, and a sleeveless white blouse for her. Some of my readers may not believe I am being literal when I say every day, but those who grew up in country towns during the fifties and sixties will know that I am.
Dodie’s sleeveless white blouse began to grow yellow with wear, age, and accumulated sweat-stains. As it grew thinner, the straps of her bra showed through more and more clearly. The other girls made fun of her, at first behind her back and then to her face. Teasing became taunting. The girls didn’t just laugh at Dodie; they hated her, too. Dodie was everything they were afraid of.
After Christmas vacation of our sophomore year, Dodie came back to school resplendent. The dowdy old black skirt had been replaced by a cranberry-coloured one that stopped at her knees instead of halfway down her shins. The tatty kneesocks had been replaced by nylon stockings, which looked pretty good because she had finally shaved the luxuriant mat of black hair off her legs. The ancient sleeveless blouse had given way to a soft wool sweater. She’d even had a permanent. Dodie was a girl transformed, and you could see by her face that she knew it. I have no idea if she saved for those new clothes, if they were given to her for Christmas by her parents, or if she went through a hell of begging that finally bore dividends. It doesn’t matter, because mere clothes changed nothing. The teasing that day was worse than ever. Her peers had no intention of letting her out of the box they’d put her in; she was punished for even trying to break free. I had several classes with her, and was able to observe Dodie’s ruination at first hand. I saw her smile fade, saw the light in her eyes first dim and then go out. By the end of the day she was the girl she’d been before Christmas vacation—a dough-faced and freckle-cheeked wraith, scurrying through the halls with her eyes down and her books clasped to her chest. She wore the new skirt and sweater the next day. And the next. And the next. When the school year ended she was still wearing them, although by then the weather was much too hot for wool and there were always beads of sweat at her temples and on her upper lip. The home permanent wasn’t repeated and the new clothes took on a matted, dispirited look, but the teasing had dropped back to its pre-Christmas levels and the taunting stopped entirely. Someone made a break for the fence and had to be knocked down, that was all. Once the escape was foiled and the entire company of prisoners was once more accounted for, life could go back to normal. Both Sondra and Dodie were dead by the time I started writing Carrie. Sondra moved out of the trailer home in which she and her mother lived, and into an apartment. She must have worked close by, probably in one of the mills or shoe factories. She was epileptic and died during a seizure. She lived alone, so there was no one to help her when she went down with her head bent the wrong way. Dodie married a TV weatherman who gained something of a reputation for his drawling delivery. Following the birth of a child - I think it was their second - Dodie went into the cellar and put a .22 bullet into her abdomen. It was a lucky shot (or unlucky, depending on your point of view, I guess), hitting the portal vein and killing her. In town they said it was postpartum depression, how sad. Myself, I suspected high school hangover might have had something to do with it.” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 78-81, Scribner, 2000)
We have all witnessed the kind of cruelty that adolescents can sometimes mete out to those who are different. Yet, we know we are capable of similar conduct ourselves, albeit with a little more sophistication and cunning.
Because of his blindness, Simon the Pharisee was only able to see the woman who gate-crashed his dinner party as a sinner because of the reputation attributed to her and the labels that had been attached to her. He allowed her no scope for change. And he saw Jesus as a fraud, and for that reason denied him the customary hospitality extended to guests. By defining the woman as a sinner and Jesus as a sham, he implicitly claimed for himself the labels of “virtuous” and “true believer”. He had no need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Simon failed to recognize that we are all subject to human frailty, and are in need of forgiveness, healing and compassion. We all hurt and are hurt by others. Yet, we are all invited to be like Jesus and to be instruments of healing for those who struggle, and, at the same time, to acknowledge that we, too, have a need for the kind of acceptance and forgiveness that the woman in today’s gospel finds at the feet of Jesus.
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Now when he was near the gate of the town, there was a dead man being carried out, the only son of his mother and she was a widow. Luke 7, 11-17
While today’s gospel story is clearly about compassion and hope, it is also an invitation to each of us to ask ourselves just how closely we identify with the widow of Nain who was burying her only son. But, like many stories, it operates on several levels.
To begin with, we are invited to look at a funeral in another very different time and culture, where we are confronted with a funeral procession with a difference, for it is the “funeral” of two people - that of a widowed mother’s only son and of the widowed mother herself! As a widow, this woman knows that she is facing destitution, for, having no right to any inheritance, she has lost her only source of livelihood and will now be totally dependent on charity. With no man left in her family, this woman joins the “walking dead”.
We’ve all met people who, because of experiences such as neglect, emotional abuse or domestic violence, have died on the inside. All their energy is invested in survival. And we’ve also met those whose lives have become little more than a shell because of the trauma of war or terrorism; and others still who have drained the life from themselves by substance abuse. In reference to people in one or other of these situations the American poet, Dorothy Thomas wrote in an unpublished poem Far Echo:
We thought that you had gone past all recall
And mourned your spirit lifted from its shell.
(quoted in Charles L. Batlow, God’s Human Speech, Eerdmans 1997)
And this is the cue for us to move ourselves from the position of observers of today’s gospel story to participants in it. This story challenges us all with searching questions: “Are you alive? Just how alive are you? How much in need of resuscitation are you? Are you alive enough and generous enough to hold out the promise of life to others?” Do we depend on others for life, because of misfortune that has befallen, because of the fact that we have been abandoned or abused, because of troubles we have been instrumental in bringing on ourselves? And if we happen to be free from serious threat, are we able to reach out to others whose quality of life is diminished or under threat?
But there is another dimension to today’s gospel. The Polish-born, 20th century, American rabbi, philosopher and theologian Abraham Heschel reminded us of the extraordinary, almost incomprehensible gift that life is, when he said: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” Today’s gospel story of the restoration to life of the widow’s son is an unambiguous statement from Jesus that God reaches out to us in compassion both in and beyond death. Jesus is clearly stating that God’s love will eventually triumph. It would be inaccurate for us to conclude from this story that Jesus came to do away with death. That is clearly wrong, because Jesus himself endured the humiliating and brutal death of a public execution. Ultimately, God’s love triumphed in the vindication, at the moment of the Resurrection, of all Jesus had said and done in his life. And today’s gospel holds out that same hope to us, and invites us to be instruments of God’s hope and love in situations where all kinds of manifestations of “death” threaten the moral, emotional and physical lives of people we know and love or with him we have some connection.
In his book, World of Stories, William Bausch tells an old Indian story of a 12-year-old boy who died from a snake-bite. His grieving parents took the boy’s body and laid it at the feet of the village holy man. All three of them sat in silence around the body for a long time. Finally, the boy’s father stood up, went over to his son’s body and placed his hands on the boy’s feet saying: “In all my life I have not worked for my family as I should have.” With that, the poison left the child’s feet. Then the mother got up and stretched her hands over the boy’s heart, and said: “In all my life, I have not loved my family as I should have.” And the poison left her son’s heart. Finally, the holy man stretched his hands over the dead boy’s head and said: “In all my life, I have not really believed the words I have spoken.” And, with that, the poison left the boy’s head. The child then stood up, and his parents and the holy man stood up, and the village rejoiced. (William Bausch, World of Stories for Preachers & Teachers, Twenty-Third Publications, 2007, No.123)
And that’s another way in which today’s gospel story applies to us. None of us is going to cure the whole world. However, in the providence of God, we each live at this time, in our own particular place and set of circumstances. And each of us can make some contribution towards preventing death and enhancing life, because we each have the power to reach out in compassion and to offer a word of hope and encouragement to someone we sense to be struggling. We can all pick up the phone or mail a card to tell someone that he or she is not forgotten. We all have the ability to heal hurts. It is so easy to say to others that we notice, we care, we want to reach out in friendship or support. What matters most is the gesture of hope and support, which we care enough to make. That’s exactly what Jesus did. Today’s gospel story invites us to do likewise.
The Body and Blood of Christ
Jesus replied: “Give them something to eat yourselves.” Luke 9, 11-17
At the conclusion of every Eucharist in which we participate, with the words: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, the priest commissions us to go and be “Eucharist” for our world - to use our time, energy and talents to become bread broken and given for others. If we can manage to do that, our lives and the lives of those we encounter will be enriched, even transformed.
Today’s celebration of The Body and Blood of Christ is an invitation to pause and ponder just how we translate into our day-to-day living what we celebrate in our churches every Sunday of the year (and for some of us, almost every day). Today is a time when I remind myself of Augustine’s words of advice to priests. He recommended that, as they hold up the Body of Christ to every person coming to communion, they say: “Behold who you are, become what you receive.” If we truly took these words seriously, translating them into the message they carry, our lives and our world would be transformed.
Just last week, the Euronews channel carried the story of the German born Arsenal football player, Mesut Özil, who visited the Zaatari camp in Jordan, densely populated with Syrian refugees. Özil spent his visit playing football with hordes of boys and girls, and in doing so brought some passing joy to their otherwise drab and desperate lives. While Özil is a practicing Muslim, my theology says that his action demonstrates how Eucharist can be lived once we Christians step out of our churches.
That TV clip set me searching further, and I discovered an organisation called Team IMPACT. This is a not-for-profit group of volunteers in the United States, which links children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses to college and university athletic teams. The children are signed onto the teams in exactly the same way as the players. They attend practice sessions, games and team meetings, and are allocated lockers. Right now, there are nine hundred seriously ill children linked to teams across 400 tertiary institutions. The children’s doctors are reporting that many of their patients are showing signs of improved physical health, as well as marked social, emotional and academic development. Team players, in their turn, report that the children have had a profound impact on their lives, teaching them lessons in resilience, determination and patience. Others have acknowledged that committing some of their time each day to the children and their families has had a profound impact on their own lives. And the spin-off for the students has been that their academic performance has generally improved.
St Anselm College is a highly ranked liberal arts college, located in the state of New Hampshire. Its ice-hockey team has a distinguished record. Players and coaches to a man report that the most valuable member of their squad is seven-year old Ben, who suffers from a rare form of leukemia. Ben’s presence at every practice session and game serves as a living example for team members of what’s possible in the face of adversity. Not only have team members taught Ben to skate, but they help him with his homework, visit him when he is hospitalised and go to events at his school. One team member even escorted him at his First Communion. His mother says that the most important lesson the players taught her son was how to be a friend, because his illness had turned him into a “very shy little boy”.
Of course, there are countless ways and opportunities for making Eucharist part of our day-to-day living, and responding to that challenge of Jesus to all of us who would be his disciples: “Give them something to eat yourselves!” We can’t all belong to college athletic teams extending welcome, friendship and support to seriously ill children. But we all have the capacity to reach out in welcome to friend and stranger, to those with whom we are comfortable and, also, to those who look different and who are different, because of their circumstances, their culture, their religion, their nationality.
One very fundamental aspect of Eucharist is hospitality. The stories of Team IMPACT and Mesut Özil are as much about hospitality, about welcoming the stranger as they are about as offering food and nourishment to those in need. Another story in Luke that is about Eucharist is that which tells of the encounter with the risen Jesus, which the two disciples had on the road to Emmaus. It was only after telling their stories to Jesus (breaking the bread of their lives) and offering him shelter for the night, that he accepted their invitation. And it was afterwards in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal that they recognised him. Two grieving friends and a complete stranger through the very simple process of engaging in conversation and sharing stories of their lives built relationship and community without even realising it. Isn’t that our experience, too, when we dare to engage with people we sometimes hardly know? And isn’t that true, as well, when we hear the words of Scripture proclaimed at Mass or in Lenten discussion groups, and then make the effort to share with others what they mean to us?
Today’s gospel is a story about how Jesus created a community out of a motley crowd of people by taking bread and then blessing, breaking and sharing it among them. That same spirit of generous sharing created a bond between a football player and throng of children in a refugee camp in Jordan, and similar bonds between college athletes in Team IMPACT and the children for whom they made space in their lives. If the Eucharist in which we participate in our parishes each week is celebrated in the way in which Jesus meant it to be, then we will find support, compassion, acceptance and understanding from those who gather with us. And then, in our turn, we will become Eucharist for others as we mirror the love of Christ to them through our compassion, open-heartedness, encouragement and care.
Trinity Sunday (The Holy Trinity)
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you to the complete truth…” John 16, 12-15
It would turn out to be a futile experience if we were to use the celebration of the Trinity as a launching pad for an excursion into theological concepts, which really have no impact on the way we actually live our lives. While volumes have been written about the mystery of God as trinity, I suspect they have had little or no influence on the lives of the millions of ordinary Christians spread across the globe. I have to admit to being much more comfortable with St Anselm who referred to the Trinity as “three I don’t know what”, and the great Benedictine mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, who used the threefold metaphor of fire, heat and light.
Today’s liturgy is a celebration of the ongoing revelation of God, not only in the natural world and in the miracles of science, but in every human experience of love and every human expression of compassion. Indeed, the following true story gives us an insight into how two people have come to discover something of God’s love and self-revelation in their love for one another - a love that has taken them on an extraordinary journey into medical research.
“Just over five years ago, Sonia Vallabh was found to be carrying a genetic mutation for an incurable disease. Doctors said she inherited the gene from her mother, who died of the disease, a form of rapidly progressive dementia called fatal familial insomnia (FFI). It is a very rare illness that afflicts one person in a million. The diagnosis: Sonia would probably be dead by the age of 50. For her husband Eric (Minikel), her disease was his disease as well. With so little known about it, Eric realized that, if they wanted this cured, they would have to find the cure themselves.
But the newlyweds knew nothing about medicine - she had graduated with a degree in law and was working in a small suburban practice, while he was a technology consultant in the transport industry. So, they started with Google, reading everything they could find on Sonia's disease. They enrolled in evening courses in biology and chemistry. They resigned from their jobs and found work as lab assistants in a university. Eventually, they were both accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard.
Today Sonia and Eric are researchers at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, where they have been working side by side, searching for the causes of and a cure for FFI. They have even raised money to fund testing on a promising compound they have developed. They are now respected experts in the field, and their work holds promise not only for Sonia, but for more than 7,000 who die every year from this disease.
When they do find a cure, it will be a huge medical break-through. But for Sonia and Eric, this will always be first and foremost, the story of their love. Sonia says: ‘I think the miracle of my lifetime is that we two met. Even if we discover a cure for this disease, our meeting will always be the real miracle for me.’
And for Eric, it all began the first time he saw Sonia smile: ‘Maybe, it's a lot to read into a smile. But the years have shown that I wasn't wrong. I think fundamentally Sonia believes . . . that the world is an incredible place, a place that surprises you and where you can surprise yourself. And somehow, believing it makes it true, because that's how her life has been, and since we got together, that's how my life has been, too.’" (D.T. Max, A Prion Love Story, The New Yorker, 27 September, 2013. A more detailed account of the story of Sonia and Eric was published in the Harvard Gazette, March 25, 2016)
The “Spirit of truth” in today’s gospel is John’s way of describing the boundless love that binds God to Jesus and to us. That same Spirit of truth influences our lives in ways that we hardly notice. God’s Spirit impacts on us in the people and events that lead us to see the truth that the real meaning and purpose of our lives are realised to the extent that we allow ourselves to embrace and be embraced by the creative and sustaining love of God.
Today’s celebration of the Trinity is essentially a reminder to us of the relational character of God. The love with which God relates to us is the model for our relationships with one another. As a consequence, we can only conclude that our lives as Christians are not about what we believe or about “being good”. Rather, they are about our relationships with God and with one another - relationships that are meant to take us on a journey of transformation. We will be transformed as we open our hearts and minds to God’s Spirit whose love and hope for the world will be reflected in the love and hope that shine through our living in very ordinary and unassuming ways.
Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying: “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?” Acts 2,1-11
Jesus said to them again: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said: “ Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20,19-23
A few years ago, a middle-aged woman went into a gelato shop in Beverly Hills, California and ordered an ice cream cone. She was shocked when Paul Newman walked in and stood right beside her. Despite her brush with fame, she was determined to maintain her composure. She paid for her ice cream and confidently walked out. Then she realised she didn’t have her cone. Not wanting to look foolish, she waited a few minutes before going back inside. However, her ice-cream was nowhere to be seen. A gentle tap on the shoulder interrupted her confusion. She turned to find herself face to face with Paul Newman. He politely suggested that if she were trying to find her ice cream, she might try looking in her hand-bag.
I caught myself this week wondering how the disciples felt in their hiding place when Jesus suddenly arrived from nowhere. Paralysed by fear that they too would be pursued, tortured and executed, and wracked by guilt and shame at having deserted their leader in his darkest hour, they must have been struggling with their conflicting emotions. Their temporary solution was to seek comfort and protection in seclusion. Perhaps rumours of an empty tomb had also raised glimmers of hope in their hearts. Yet, at the same time, they were probably experiencing anxiety at the possible prospect of having to explain to Jesus reasons for their cowardice and betrayal if, by some miracle, he were to reappear.
Today’s gospel is the story of how the risen Jesus penetrated bolted doors and appeared in the midst of that bedraggled and frightened lot. They are so stunned that they are clearly speechless. It is Jesus alone who says anything. From the disciples, there is no recorded word of welcome; there is not even an exclamation of surprise. Yet from Jesus, there is no hint of recrimination nor a “Please explain”. The very fact that he extends a greeting of peace, followed immediately by an invitation to continue his work, is a more than eloquent statement of forgiveness and a vote of confidence in them, despite their glaring inadequacies. And he confirms his words by empowering this motley group with the gift of his Spirit.
Today’s first reading from Acts gives us a very different account of the Pentecost event, with the emphasis on what is heard rather than on the content of what is said. According to Luke, the real miracle of Pentecost is how God’s Spirit overcomes the barriers of language and perception, opening not only people's minds but their hearts as well, to hear the Gospel of the Risen Christ. And it’s that same Spirit of God who enables us to hear the voice of God, and to find practical ways of bringing God's peace and justice and compassion to those people and places where we sense they are lacking. To do that, we have to learn to hear what God actually speaks and not what we want or hope to hear. And it is God’s Spirit who opens our hearts and ears to hear what God speaks.
One of the practical difficulties with which we struggle is the fact that our thinking has been “contaminated” by inadequate theology we learned in our early years of religious education. We are somehow compelled to attribute different kinds of influence to this or that person of the Trinity. So at Pentecost, we talk about God’s Spirit as the principle of healing, joy, prayer, solidarity and so on. However, by talking that way, we are not expressing things that the Spirit of God does alone, according to some pre-arranged division of labour agreed on by the Trinity. By assigning different actions to different persons of the Trinity, we are simply trying to put order and sense into our own thinking. And when we reflect on that, we have to conclude that the observations that Jesus made about the Spirit were made with the very same constraints of human language as we have to deal with. He lived under the same human limitations as we do.
Let’s ground all this philosophising with a story. Just over twelve months ago, America magazine published a piece by a Benedictine monk, reflecting on some aspects of racial unrest that occurred in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, in the wake of the shooting death of an 18 year-old, unarmed black American, Michael Brown. In searching for ways of bringing together the Ferguson, predominantly while police force and the protesting, black community, Dom Augustine Wetta O.S.B. cited the practical action undertaken by two junior secondary school students:
“A couple of months ago, Max, an eighth grader, and his older brother asked their mother if they could drive down to Ferguson to help with the clean up. She understandably declined to send them into an active riot zone. Still, Max and his brother felt they needed to do something, so they went online and looked up a list of the businesses that had been damaged. They found the name of one of the owners and called her on the telephone. She hung up on them. So they drove out to her house. For three and half hours, they sat in her living room and listened to her anger. And it turned out that, unless they had $20,000, there was not much they could do. Well, that was the answer, wasn’t it? They went home, started an online petition, and eight days later, they had raised $20,608. As a result, Maria Flores rebuilt her business.
When Max and his brother saw injustice, they didn’t lash out in anger. They didn’t choose a side. They listened carefully. And their listening led them to reach out with their hearts and create partnerships, and an answer emerged.”
Two teenagers somehow heard the voice of God’s Spirit speaking in the midst of confusion and tension, and in the pain and despair of people whose lives had been turned upside down. That same Spirit invites us to listen and to open our hearts to the invitation of God that comes to us in unexpected times and circumstances.
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When Jesus had said this, as they were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. Acts 1, 1-11
“You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.” Luke 24, 46-53
Today’s readings provide us with a very clear illustration of the fact that the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament were not written as history books. Rather, they are reflections on the meaning of the life of Jesus and the impact he made on his world during his public ministry. If you are puzzled by the fact that today’s readings give us two different versions of Jesus’ Ascension, you are in good company. They also puzzled St Augustine, who was eventually proclaimed as one of the great minds of the early Church. That wasn’t the only part of Scripture with which Augustine struggled. In an extensive series of sermons on the Book of Psalms, Augustine tried to get his head around the fact that the psalms contain the whole range of human emotion, from gentleness and tenderness, to violence, revenge, anger, lack of trust in God and total despair. What helped Augustine to make meaning of all this was the way he came to understand the significance of Jesus’ Ascension. But more of that, shortly.
For the record, it’s probably important to note the reasons as to why Luke gave us two versions of the Ascension. The gospel account is the completion of the journey of Jesus that started in chapter 9, 51: “Now, as the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely took the road to Jerusalem, and sent messengers ahead of him.” Luke concludes that account with the Ascension of Jesus as the fulfilment of his work as Messiah. Today’s reading from Acts gives us a second account of the Ascension, and places it 40 days after Easter. Luke interprets it as the prelude to the ministry of teaching the Gospel of the Resurrection which Jesus entrusted to the Apostles and to all of us who follow in their footsteps. Through the promise of the Pentecostal Spirit, Jesus continues to live in and among all who are his disciples. That promise explains how he could say to Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” While Jesus was physically dead and gone, Paul came to understand that, in persecuting those who followed Jesus, he was actually persecuting Jesus himself. That enabled Paul to later write to his converts and explain to them that the connection between them and Jesus was so intimate that they were, in fact, “the Body of Christ”. And despite the turmoil, the failure, the scandal and the corruption that have been evident in the lives of some members of the “Body of Christ” in recent times, God’s Spirit still lives among us to guide us, encourage us and give us reason to hope.
And now back to Augustine. In trying to depth the meaning of “the Ascension”, Augustine concluded that it was the moment which confirmed that everything that God did in Jesus was not only for our benefit, but was for us to take to our world by the way we live our lives in imitation of Jesus. The ascension is a reminder to us that the Risen Jesus fills the entire universe with his presence and activity. As a consequence, he makes claim on us as his witnesses and extensions of his Gospel. Yes, we are meant to be extensions of the Gospel of Jesus! Through his Spirit breathed upon us, Jesus equips and missions us to continue his work in our world, to witness to all he is and has done, and to share the good news that, in him, God has broken into human life to raise it up and to set us all on a path to grow in God’s Spirit towards full maturity. Augustine actually wrote: “For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his Resurrection would have been useless to anyone but himself.” In returning to God, Jesus took with him the whole range of human emotion and experience, which he shared with us by being one of us. Without the Ascension the saving mission of Jesus would have been unfinished.
Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality. He has picked up the sounds that he hears in suffering, struggling humanity. And think of what those sounds are: the quiet cries of abused children; the despairing tears of refugees and asylum seekers pleading for recognition; the pleas of the victims of the mindless brutality of ISIS and Boko Haran. He picks up the cry of the hungry and the forgotten. He hears the human beings that nobody else hears. And he calls to us, saying: 'You listen too'. He makes his own the joy and celebration and thanksgiving of human beings going about their routine work and finding their fulfilment in ordinary, down-to-earth love and fidelity. All of that is taken up by Jesus to God.
So the Ascension is a celebration and an affirmation of the glory and the potential of humanity, of the unlikely possibilities of people like you and me, the boundless potential locked up in our muddled, struggling lives. It’s a celebration, too, of God's capacity, through the Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, and to take them home, to reshape and recast them.
The promise of the Father is that we, as Christians, will receive that level and dimension of life that we call 'Holy Spirit', so that, like Jesus, we will find that nothing human is alien to us. That promise is that, by the love of Christ spreading through us and in us, the world will be brought home to Christ, who, in turn, brings it home to God.
We who are Christ’s body have to learn to hear with his ears and see with his eyes. In the midst of a struggling, failing, suffering humanity, we see and we hear what God can do. If we truly remember that Christ has raised up our human nature, our compassion will be deepened immeasurably, our awareness of the pain of others will be similarly deepened, and, through the inspiration of God’s Spirit, our hope will become limitless. The risk that Jesus took in entrusting his Gospel to us will not have been in vain.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love you...we will come and make our dwelling with you...do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid...my peace I give you.” John 14, 23-29
In the December 2015 issue of Maryknoll Magazine, Theresa Baldini wrote of her experience with a Scripture reflection group in South Sudan. The group was discussing the passage from Chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’s challenge to love one’s enemies. Theresa asked her Sudanese companions: “How would you describe an enemy?” Most of the women responded by saying that their enemy was the Khartoum fundamentalist Muslim government troops who were bombing innocent civilians.
“Then one woman said: 'I believe my enemy is someone who has wounded my heart, but whose [own] wounds I do not know.' She went on to say: 'Maybe if I can know the person's story better, especially to know the person's wounds, and the person can know my wounds, we would not be an enemy to each other.'
"The theology of the Sudanese women," Sister Theresa writes, "has deepened my faith, compassion and forgiveness."
The “peace” that Jesus promised his followers in today’s gospel is something much more than an absence of hostility. In the context of today’s gospel, peace is the quality of relationship that results from the often frustrating effort of creating community - community that is built on respect, tolerance and selflessness. As one of those Sudanese women realised, peace begins from coming to understand the “wounds” of the other, from opening our minds and hearts to listen to the story of another person’s pain and brokenness.
All communities, even church ones, require an investment from their members in terms of time, patience, tolerance and understanding. It’s easy to create opposition and enmity if we lack those qualities and are set on promoting ourselves and our ideas, and forget about the fact that we are all wounded and broken in one way or another.
Today’s first reading from Acts gives us a window onto how the early Christians had to struggle to get beyond intolerance, petty politics and cultural difference to build vibrant community. They had to work to create harmony between members who had come from a strong Jewish background and those from the Gentile world for whom Jewish custom and practice made little sense. Had they held inflexibly to “their way” of following in the footsteps of Jesus, divisions among them would have become entrenched.
The two issues that threatened to cause polarisation were to do with the question of whether adult converts from the Gentile world should be circumcised and whether those same converts should be expected to observe Jewish dietary laws. While Paul had little patience for the Jerusalem based early Christians, he did have the good sense to refer the question of adult circumcision to Jerusalem, respecting the fact that a policy was needed and that Jerusalem had an important role in such policy making.
Let’s for a moment imagine the debate that was going on. If people from the Gentile world are captivated by the message of Jesus, if they have a new-found sense of freedom and joy, if they are reaching out to the poor and needy, should they not be expected to take on the trappings of their Jewish-born brothers and sisters in Jerusalem? If the Jerusalem based Christians are circumcised, why shouldn’t the same be expected of converts from the Gentile world? One wonders if anyone considered the physical discomfort involved and the risk of infection. So new Christians in the Gentile world held their breath while the matter was referred to Jerusalem for decision. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and sighs of relief were heard in Christian communities throughout Asia Minor. There are times when policy can be crucial.
But bickering and debate continued over dietary laws and practices. If the former “pagans” would not be circumcised, at least they would surely have the good grace to accept the Jewish eating traditions of their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Another policy was formulated in Jerusalem: “We won’t put any unnecessary demands on you Gentiles. Just stop eating what you’ve been used to!” What a neat side-step for keeping the peace! While one of the convictions of the leaders of the early Christian community was that they should be free of the crippling demands of the Jewish law, those same leaders had the good sense to promulgate a policy of co-existence and compromise.
Are our Christian churches any different today? We can still get trapped into liturgical and ritual nit-picking. We get caught up in the legalism of who can come forward to receive communion, to partake of the “bread broken for a broken people”, and who can’t. Synods of Bishops still get caught up in policy squabbles.
Maybe we should look more closely at the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “All who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and my Father and I will come and live with them.” (John 14, 23)
While that sounds simple, it is not always as straight-forward as that in a complex world and a complex Church community. We have to accept that Church policy is one of the ways through which God’s Spirit acts. Policy takes the pressure off some people and complicates the lives of others. Policy shifts and changes from time to time, and is interpreted in different ways in different places. Pope Francis is going out of his way to make that clear to us all. New policy emanates from changing circumstances, new insights and new developments. Policy-making will always involve Church politicians, politicking and debate. Yet it is the Christian community’s way of trying to keep us all pointed in the same general direction and focused on the Gospel of Jesus. Generally, anyway.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way as I have loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13, 31-35
While Anne Lamott is not your average spiritual writer, she has published a string of books which help people like me to get an appreciation of the kind of spirituality that nourishes the lives of those of us who try to marry the Gospel of Jesus with the unspectacular events of each day. In her book, Bird By Bird, quoting a priest friend, she writes: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” (Bird By Bird, p.22).
In another of her books, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, Lamott reflects on her personal pain and struggle to reach out in love to her son, Sam and his girlfriend when, as mere teenagers, they have a child and are ill-equipped for their responsibilities as parents. She makes the mistake of trying to tell the young parents how to live their lives and how to care for their new baby, Jax. As a consequence, frustrations increase on both sides and tempers flare. However, the issues with which they are all struggling take on a different perspective when a young man they all know dies in tragic circumstances. Reflecting on the situation, Lamott writes:
"The only son of some people Sam and I know from town has died.
How on earth can the parents survive that? How can the grandparents?
Same old inadequate answer: They will survive with enormous sadness and devastation. I don't see how this is possible. But looking back over the years, I see that people do go on against absolutely all odds, and truly savage loss.
Some of us have a raggedy faith. You cry for a long time, and then, after that, are defeated and flattened for a long time. Then somehow life starts up again. Other people set up foundations so other kids don't die the way theirs did, and so their kids didn't die in vain, or they do political work for the common good. Your friends surround you like white blood cells . . .
Life is a very powerful force, despite the constant discouragement. So if you are a person with connections to life, a few tendrils eventually break through the sidewalk of loss, and you notice them, maybe space out studying them for a few moments, or maybe they tickle you into movement and response, if only because you have to scratch your nose."
I am reminded again of words I quoted two weeks ago from Kevin Bates in his paraphrasing of the message of the risen Jesus that love can come into our lives in all kinds of unexpected ways: “Love will be the bond that holds you, love will let you run; love’s my Spirit of surprises, the hope of Easter in your hearts begun.”
And love does indeed come to us from friends, and strangers sometimes, who “surround us like white bloodcells”.
Today’s gospel has Jesus explaining his “new commandment” of love: “Love one another. In the same way as I have loved you, you love one another.” I sometimes think that we limit Jesus’ words “in the same way as I have loved you” to his death on the Cross. Pause for a few moments to reflect on the significance of the incarnation, of Jesus’ taking on all the limitations of the human condition, and loving us in ways we couldn’t imagine.
By becoming one of us, Jesus embraced the acculturation route. It’s called “flesh and blood”, and it involves the full range of human emotions. So, he felt angry, frustrated, anxious, annoyed. He experienced sexual desire. He learned the “dos and don’ts” of Jewish culture - how to be polite, when to keep quiet, how to engage in small talk. He got butterflies at the prospect of public speaking and learned to get a crowd’s attention by trial and error. He had to learn his way into understanding the Jewish holy books and to read them with human eyes. He tasted the silence and waiting that is part of praying, and, no doubt, felt helplessness, fear and incomprehension as he explored the mystery of God. As he grew in his relationship with God, he did his best to free up in their relationship to God all who would listen to him.
Just imagine how he felt and reflected when he saw so many people restricted by legalism in the way they practiced their religion and related to God. Could you imagine Jesus thinking: “People seem so constipated in the way they approach God. It will take a lot of effort to free them up, to come to see that God is more tender, more understanding, more tolerant than they ever thought possible. I might lose my cool at times or run on about fire and brimstone. And then, most of them are adults. So, if I stretch a law here and there to make my point about God, they should be flexible enough to cope. And when I talk about sin, I hope they will grasp that it is whatever stops us from being truly human. By consistently teaching the way of love, I will surely get my message across. After all, who would want to reject anyone who is in favour of love?” Sadly, there were some who were not in favour of love.
The love that Jesus lived was human in shape and expression. We know that when we look at his life and reflect on our own deepest longings. One of the greatest difficulties we have when we look at Jesus is not that he was somehow divine, but that he was relentlessly human. As we take time to reflect on Jesus’ invitation to “love as I have loved you”, we might do well to consider the words of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That holds for Jesus every bit as much as it does for us.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.” John 10, 27-30
Over the centuries, there has been a long line of religious fundamentalists and fanatics who have found in themselves the temerity to use this verse from John’s Gospel to tell us who is “saved” and who isn’t. Indeed, we know from our own experience how we bristle with indignation when some narrow-minded religious fanatic applies a spiritual measuring tape to us to determine whether or not we are on the right path.
As I write this reflection, Pope Francis, as if in anticipation of today’s gospel reading, has just released “The Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia), an exhortation on family life. The Pope clearly states that the Church - leaders, pastors and all of us - should avoid simply judging people and imposing rules on them without considering their struggles.
Jesuit priest, James Martin, writing in a special edition of the magazine America (April 8, 2016) offers some comment and analysis of Pope Francis’ exhortation:
‘The church needs to understand families and individuals in all their complexity. The church needs to meet people where they are. So pastors are to “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (296). People should not be “pigeonholed or fitted into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (298). In other words, one size does not fit all. People are encouraged to live by the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy. “Thinking that everything is black and white” is to be avoided (305). And the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives” (305). Overall, he calls for an approach of understanding, compassion and accompaniment…
“It can no longer simply be said that all those living in any ‘irregular situation’ are living in a state of mortal sin” (301). Other people in “irregular situations,” or non-traditional families, like single mothers, need to be offered “understanding, comfort and acceptance” (49). When it comes to these people, indeed everyone, the church needs to stop applying moral laws, as if they were, in the Pope’s vivid phrase, “stones to throw at a person’s life” (305)…
The church must help families of every sort, and people in every state of life to know that, even in their imperfections, they are loved by God and can help others experience that love.’
Well in advance of these words from Pope Francis, an elderly, Irish, missionary sister in reluctant retirement, commenting on those who are inclined to categorise others as sinners or saints, remarked: “It’s better to be around sinners. They don’t put on airs, you know.”
Still, today’s gospel may leave us with the impression that some sheep belong, while others don’t. We may still be wondering who’s “in” and who’s “out”. The second reading from the Book of Revelation leaves us in no doubt that those who have suffered persecution for their belief in Jesus are “in”. But it is too simplistic to conclude that, while those whom John describes as listening to the voice of Jesus are “in”, those who don’t listen to Jesus or who cannot hear him are “out”.
Today’s first reading from Acts indicates how Paul and Barnabas struggled with various groups to whom they tried to bring Jesus’ message. Instead of condemning them outright for their resistance and physical violence, they “shook the dust from their feet and headed for Iconium.” Paul and Barnabas turned away from those who could not accept Jesus’ message that the joy of God’s forgiveness and graciousness was available for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. They walked away from those who could not open themselves to the demands of love but found more comfort in the security of law and correct observance.
Therein lies a challenge for us who make up the Church of today. We can meet that challenge by taking the lead from Pope Francis, who urges us to walk the way of love. He points out that “love does not have to be perfect for us to value it” (Amoris Laetitia #122). Yet, all too often we can allow ourselves to be sidetracked by trivial matters of ritual performance, of who’s worthy and who’s not, of who can proclaim the gospel and who can’t, of what kind of dress is appropriate to wear in a church and what’s not. Controlled performance seems to be so prevalent in some of our churches and parishes, and so over-emphasised by some of our religious leaders that we might find ourselves wondering if Paul and Barnabas would shake the dust from their feet in protest if they were here to witness it. But lest we get too caught up with thinking about whether we or anyone else should get consider shaking dust from feet, we might first stop to ponder another point made in today’s first reading: “The believers in Antioch were full of joy and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13, 52). Perhaps the surest signs of followers of Jesus are the joy and love, the compassion and tolerance they radiate.
Third Sunday of Easter
Jesus said to them: “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: “It is the Lord.”…Peter was distressed that Jesus had asked him a third time: “Do you love me?” and said to Jesus: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” John 21, 1-19
Today’s gospel gives us the story of an encounter between the Risen Jesus and the Apostles who, trying to deal with their grief, disappointment and frustration, had returned to the activity with which they were most familiar. They dealt with their pain by going back to fishing. And that, too, was equally frustrating and disappointing, for they had caught nothing. Absolutely nothing was going right for them. And then, with no warning, the Risen Jesus turned up. With next to no knowledge or experience of what fishermen do, he urged them to try their luck on the other side of the boat. And bingo, their net was filled to breaking point! It’s the kind of story that many fisher-folk would sheepishly tell about themselves.
But why did John include this story in his Gospel? I suggest it was to give us all a message about how to deal with the grief, disappointment, fears, failures and doubts we experience at some stage or other in life. When life looks bleak, we are urged to recall this story and to remember that it’s ever so easy to bury ourselves in tombs of depression and self-pity; to withdraw from life and its risk of further hurt and disappointment, and to seek consolation and comfort in the busyness of familiar activity.
So today’s gospel story is for all of us who have found ourselves trying to pick up the pieces after a set-back, hurt or disappointment. But we’ve all had the experience of meeting up with the “stranger on the beach” who turns up unexpectedly and somehow connects with us through a word of encouragement, a smile or an expression of sympathy. For the times when we know failure, emptiness, doubt and uncertainty, this gospel story holds out to us a message of hope.
Many of us have read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies. J.K. Rowling, whose imagination created Harry Potter, knows what it’s like to be burdened with depression, hopelessness and failure. Within a few years of graduating from university, her life was in tatters. Her marriage had ended in divorce, leaving her struggling to find stable employment and having to care for her young daughter. She shared some of her early experience with a 2008 group of students graduating from Harvard:
“I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools. What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default…Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”
The “stranger on the beach” comes into our lives in all kinds of disguises because God’s Spirit will not be contained. God’s Spirit is full of surprises and touches us in unexpected ways and at unexpected times and places, even in the words of a graduation speech given by J.K Rowling which, on the surface, might look as though it has nothing to do with God or religion. But look again at what this woman said to a group of new graduates. It might well apply to you and to me.
Whenever any of us acts out of love, whenever we set aside our own fears and expectations for the sake of others, whenever we dare to imitate the selfless compassion and concern of the risen Jesus, we might discover the capacity and strength of our own “nets”, and, as a consequence, bring hope to ourselves and to the lives of countless others.
As songwriter Kevin Bates writes in Easter Expressions, the risen Jesus “tells a message most surprising: love will be my Spirit’s only law!...Love will be the bond that holds you, love will let you run; love’s my Spirit of surprises, the hope of Easter in your hearts begun.”
Today’s gospel concludes with Jesus asking Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Some would have us believe that this is a reminder to Peter of his three denials of even knowing Jesus, let alone being one of his followers. But Jesus’ question to Peter is not: “Do you remember what you did to me?” or “Are you sorry?” or even “Have you had a change of heart?” Jesus is not taunting Peter or trying to send him on a guilt trip. His question is simply: “Right here and now, do you love me?” The past is past, and there is nothing to be gained from recriminations. So, let mistakes, failures and sins be forgiven and forgotten. Jesus is, in fact, asking Peter and us the only question that matters: “Do you love me - right here and now, in the present without carrying guilt and baggage from the past?
In the final analysis, this is the only question that matters in your life and in mine: “Do you love me?” Do all our actions and the way we relate to friends, family and strangers emanate from a “yes” to that all-important question: “Do you love me?”
Second Sunday of Easter
Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace be to you.” Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31
Lizzie in the cartoon below and Thomas in today’s gospel have much in common. They are both asked to believe something because someone in authority or those around them have told them to. And neither Thomas nor Lizzie accept that as sufficient. They are determined to find out for themselves. For Lizzie, it’s the truth about ice-cold flagpoles, and for Thomas, it’s the truth about the resurrection of Jesus.
There is much to admire about Thomas, despite the fact that doubting will always be inseparably linked to his name. He does exactly what God expects of all of us - he reflects on his own experience as the way to growing into a mature and adult faith. He rejects neither Jesus nor all that Jesus proclaimed. But he does recognise within himself the ability to discover and depth how God works in our lives and invites us to keep growing. Perhaps Thomas’ most admirable quality is that he refuses to be a consumer of religion, to take his religion off the shelf, to accept mindlessly what everyone around him says or does. Genuine faith is not passive acceptance of a list of rules and dogmas. It is not parroting the words of the catechism. But it does have a lot to do with being present to God who is alive and active in every person and event of our daily experience. Our faith grows and matures to the extent that we are open to recognising and responding to the signs of resurrection and re-creation all around us. To that extent, we allow ourselves to be transformed into the life that God holds out to us. Thomas surely did not analyse his experience as I have just described. However, he had the courage to stand his ground, to resist peer pressure and to say effectively: “I’ll work this out for myself. I need more time.”
But there is another aspect to Thomas’ doubting that requires our consideration. Running through John’s Gospel are the themes of blindness and seeing. There are some characters who have physical sight but who simply cannot see what Jesus does and says. There are others who are physically blind but who see and grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions. There are some who register Jesus’ signals (John calls them ‘signs’), while others miss what is right under their noses and blindly demand more evidence. Jesus himself repeatedly pointed to his works as indications of his power and authority, and taunted his critics and enemies by stating that the only sign they would get would be their inability to kill him for good.
Underneath all the signs that Jesus did were questions for those who witnessed them: Who is this man Jesus? Could he be the final destination for a nation that had been wandering and searching for centuries? Could Jesus be the chosen one of God, the long-awaited Messiah?
John used the figure of Thomas to explain just how far the early Christian community had come in answering those questions about Jesus. By identifying Jesus as “my Lord and my God” Thomas was echoing words found in the book of Hosea that stated that Israel would find its fulfilment in God (Hosea 2, 24). By pointing to Jesus as the fulfilment of the promise, John was clearly stating on behalf of the early Christian community that Jesus is God.
By telling the story of Thomas, John was reminding his community that the desire or need for signs can be risky and deceiving because it really undermines faith and trust. He was giving his community (and us) the very same reminder that Jesus had given to those who had stubbornly remained blind to his words and actions: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead” (Luke 16, 31).
However, if we put today’s gospel reading next to the first reading from Acts, we can be forgiven for thinking that we are being given mixed messages. The reading from Acts seems to give the impression that signs and miracles are desirable, because they increase the number of believers. That message is reinforced by the description of what happened in the afterglow of Pentecost when Peter and the other apostles worked wonders. We are even told that: “Sick people were carried out onto the streets and placed on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by (Acts 5, 15).
However, it’s worth remembering that this part of Acts describes the “honeymoon” period of the early Christian community. Communal life got tougher after the “honeymoon”. The remainder of Acts describes how God’s Spirit also brings disagreements, fights over doctrinal issues and rituals and over earthy issues like deciding whether adult Gentile converts should be circumcised. There are also personality clashes and political turmoil, such as the clash between Peter and Paul. It becomes clear that not everyone is going to believe in Jesus. Those who do believe in him come to learn that faith does not dissolve life’s complexities or protect believers from suffering or do away with the need for ongoing conversion of heart.
There are times in our lives when we all catch ourselves looking for signs. Perhaps we find ourselves asking for signs that Jesus is working within us. We might even look for signs of Jesus’ risen presence in the world around us. With so many signs of violence and terrorism in our world, we might even find ourselves wondering if God really cares. But let’s not forget that the integrity of our own living, the goodness of people around us, and the practical expressions of the love in our hearts are signs to ourselves and others that the Spirit of Jesus is still alive in our world. Jesus is as alive and well in our world as you and I make him. If we are looking for signs we would do well to start by first looking into the mirror.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.” Luke 24, 1-12
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning…and saw the stone removed…So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved…”They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” John 20, 1-9
Today’s gospel readings offer us two resurrection stories. The one for the Easter Vigil liturgy from Luke is as much a reprimand as it is a story of discovery. Motivated by a desire to ensure that Jesus’ body was properly laid to rest, the women headed for his tomb, taking with them burial spices. Clearly, they had given little thought as to how they would move the large stone covering the entrance to the tomb. However, they discovered that it had already been removed. Even more startling was the fact that they were greeted by angels who confronted them with a sharp question and answer: “What are you doing looking for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” That was followed immediately by a firm reminder that they had failed to grasp what Jesus had repeatedly told them: “Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”
Luke’s angels were not exactly brimful of sensitivity and sympathy for the grieving women who were hardly expecting to be told to stop wasting their time checking on Jesus’ grave. With no chance to recover from their shock, they were confronted with: “Remember…” - hardly a word of encouragement, but definitely one of challenge: “When will what he said about rising from the dead actually register with you?”
Despite the abruptness of the message, it is important to comprehend the significance of its being given to a group of women. Luke deliberately highlights the fact that, of all those who followed Jesus in his public ministry, it was women who were the first to proclaim his resurrection. In the Jewish society of the time, women had few rights and were credited with no credibility. Accordingly, the male disciples of Jesus refused to believe them. It is interesting to note that, in the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, their verbal account of what they had seen and heard is described as “the babbling of the insane.” It is also noteworthy that their evidence was all but ignored. Peter was the only who went to check their story. And while he is described as being “amazed” at what he encountered, he still did not comprehend its significance.
The Easter Sunday gospel reading from John has as its focus the empty tomb. There is no mention of earth tremors or confrontation by angels. Peter and “the other disciple” respond to Mary Magdalene’s news by racing to the tomb to verify what they have been told by her. But all three had different reactions to what they had seen: Mary Magdalene was concerned that someone had taken Jesus’ body; Peter could make no sense of what he had heard from Mary and then seen for himself; the “other disciple” - the consistent model of discernment throughout John’s Gospel - immediately understood the significance of it all. All of Jesus’ previously puzzling allusions to rising from the dead suddenly became clear to him.
But what are we meant to take from these two gospel stories?
The angels’ reprimand to the women contains something for us. Surely it is a call to us to extract ourselves from the tombs in which we are inclined to bury ourselves - tombs of selfishness, of preoccupation with our concerns, worries and failings - and instead live our lives for others, especially those less fortunate than we are. It is all too easy to hide in lifeless cemeteries of our own creation, to dodge moral responsibility, to seek comfort in compromise. Easter shakes us to life, to see that Jesus is not entombed by fear and doubt and lethargy, that he is not confined by the burial cloths of mediocrity and cynicism, fear and lack of initiative. If Jesus and his message and no longer entombed, why are we?
In so many ways, we are no different from Mary Magdalene, Peter and “the other disciple”, because we, too, struggle to make sense of the empty tomb. The very same Jesus who proclaimed a message of love of neighbour, of compassion and practical outreach to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the rejected and those in prison, is vindicated by God’s raising him from the grave. While that is cause for both consolation and hope, it is also reason for us to embrace the Gospel of Jesus in its fullness.
In 2010, Michael Hirsch, a Vietnam War veteran become journalist published a book called The Liberators. It is a selection of interviews he conducted with American soldiers who were involved in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. However it also contains an interview with a Dutch Jewish tailor, Coenraad Rood, who had been left to die in a covered ditch when those guarding the camp in Ampfing fled from the liberating army. Rood tells of how the soldier who discovered him picked him up by the collar of the jacket he was wearing and told him that he was free:
“As dirty and sick as I was, that soldier kissed me. And I kissed him back, and he was holding me, and he took me out of the ditch into the light and said: ‘See? You are free now.’ And he cried, too.”
Easter is God’s never-ending invitation to freedom. Not only does God free us from self-made tombs of fear, self-hatred and selfishness, but invites us to be liberators ourselves, freeing others from whatever confines them and holding out to them the promise of life and hope.