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.
Passion (Palm) Sunday
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19, 28-40 (The blessing and procession of palms)
The criminal said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied: “…today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 22, 14 - 23, 56
Palm Sunday is an invitation to us to accompany Jesus on the road to Calvary. Our Hosanna is not just a hymn of praise sung happily at the start of the journey. It gets its full expression and harmony when we raise our voices in compassion, in support and advocacy for those in need, in the work of demonstrating for justice for refugees, in our selfless efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. In all the capital cities of Australia this Palm Sunday there will be marches and demonstrations in support of refugees and asylum seekers. If we fail to add our voices to intercede for those coming to our country for shelter and new life, the very stones on which we have built our so-called “civilization” will cry for justice. That’s the message of the gospel reading we hear at the blessing of the palms we will carry home.
In 1786, Haydn completed what he himself regarded as his greatest composition, an orchestral work entitled: The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross. He later adapted it for a string quartet, and in 1796 further adapted it as an oratorio for solo and choral voices. A few years ago I came across a rather unusual publication consisting of a large collection of meditations to complement Haydn’s oratorio - Echoes from Calvary (ed. Richard Young, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005 Plymouth, U.K.) What follows is based partly on one of the accompanying meditations by Alison Boden, Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University.
Today, the lives and hopes of countless people around the world will be dashed as they hear words like “I’m afraid there’s been an accident and your husband didn’t make it…” “We have diagnosed a cancerous growth, and it is both malignant and well advanced…” “As far as I’m concerned, our marriage is over…”
In contrast, countless others will have their lives transformed and their hopes realised as they hear words like “The car’s a write-off, and miraculously your son got out with nothing worse than a couple of scratches…” “It’s a girl, and she’s perfectly healthy…” “Your dissertation has been accepted with first class honours…”
Today, - and, indeed, every day - for countless numbers of God’s daughters and sons, the world is turned upside down.
We know next to nothing about the two thieves crucified beside Jesus. Apparently, they were both guilty of theft. One cursed Jesus. The other engaged him in conversation and saw in Jesus the innocent ruler of a kingdom that was nothing like the one that had nailed his companion, himself and Jesus to crosses of death.
In his account of that terrible event on Calvary, Luke captures the snatches of a conversation between two dying men, struggling to speak as their lungs were being crushed by the weight of their bodies. It is a conversation seemingly initiated by one who has lived a life of crime but who, as he is being slowly executed, recognises in Jesus something that transforms him. It is a conversation in which two condemned men - one innocent, the other a criminal - talk about today, about turning the world upside down today, about seeing one another in Paradise today! They extend comfort and hope to one another - yes, in a two-way expression of support - as life drains slowly out of them, today.
Like the “good thief”, there are times when we feel little reason to hope, when we feel life being drained out of us. However, we can learn something from this thief whose very last earthly encounter is with Jesus. That encounter brings him to realise that he has met a man who will reign in a kingdom that he has not even been able to dream of - and he asks for a place there. And Jesus, the very essence of compassion, mercy and peace promises that a place will be his - today!
Every day carries with it the potential to be a day of hope, of healing of transformation. Today, Jesus makes a promise to the good thief, and to all of us as well. We can open ourselves to receive that promise. Or we can let the particular circumstances of our lives block out that promise. By imitating the compassion, the forgiveness, the open-heartedness of Jesus, we demonstrate that we believe that Paradise is not just a hope for the future, but is hidden in the present. Jesus promises to be with us in Paradise not only after we die, but today, in the present moment, in the “Paradise” we create and open to others in our own time and place.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Let the one who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8, 1-11
One of the traps that we human beings can often fall into is to define others by the labels we attach to them. As a consequence, we can then allow the labels to dictate how we approach or, indeed, avoid those people. The woman in today’s gospel has no name. Instead, she is identified by a label: “the woman caught in adultery”.
By contrast, David, the very same man who, as a mere teenager, slew Goliath with his slingshot, and who subsequently became King of Israel, is not labelled “the adulterer”. Yet he seduced Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, made her pregnant and had Uriah sent to his death on the frontline of battle. Does political prominence exempt people like King David from derogatory labels?
In the book of Daniel we read the story of the young woman who was treated as an object of lust by two elderly, respected judges who, after getting voyeuristic pleasure from spying on her when she was taking a bath propositioned her for sex. When she refused, they concocted a story about their catching her in the act of adultery with a young man, who allegedly got away because he was too strong for them. Her virtue triumphed when Daniel cleverly trapped the men in their own lies. Tradition subsequently labelled the young woman as “the chaste Susanna”. One might even wonder if the word “chaste” has been attributed out of surprise, as though Susanna’s conduct was something out of the ordinary.
Prejudice and inequality have been well and truly at work across centuries in the labelling of those who have engaged in sexual improprieties. Women who have sold sexual favours to men have persistently been called “whores” or “prostitutes”, while the men who buy their services are described as “needy” or listed as “clients”. As recently as last week, the film Spirits’ Homecoming premiered in South Korea. It tells the story of an estimated 200,000 Korean women forced into prostitution during the Second World War to satisfy “needy” Japanese servicemen. This barbarity was perpetrated by a male dominated group of Japanese imperial forces. So, the women who were brutalised were not “prostitutes” but “comfort women”.
The woman in today’s gospel is identified by her sin. Jesus challenges us to look beyond the sin, beyond the failure, beyond the brokenness, beyond whatever label we want to attach to somebody else and see a human being like ourselves - perhaps not in every detail like us, but much more like us than not. For we all have our personal failings and we have our particular brand of brokenness. Instead of taking up hard stones to throw, we are invited to reach out with open hands, not because we are healthier or are closer to having it all together, but precisely because we are not.
It’s fairly easy to reflect on how various elements of our society attach labels to others, especially to those whose conduct they disapprove of. However, in today’s gospel Jesus puts the focus on the group of teachers and Pharisees who wanted to attribute the stigma of “adultery” to the woman they brought before him. They are almost gloating about the fact that they caught her in the act. There is something voyeuristic in that. But they make no mention of her partner, as if, by implication, we are meant to conclude that he is innocent. It would seem that they are filled with disappointment at the fact that their Roman occupiers had passed a law forbidding Jewish authorities from executing anyone.
But by putting the focus on the woman’s accusers, Jesus is highlighting their hypocrisy, pointing out to them that they need to change their own hearts before they start pointing the finger of blame at anyone else.
And that same message is directed to us. Compassion, generosity of heart and readiness to forgive are much more constructive and personally beneficial than seeking self-justification by pointing to the sins of others. How often do we catch ourselves trying to make excuses for our failings by shifting the focus to the mistakes and sins of others? We look to excuse ourselves by making favourable comparisons: “At least I’m not as bad as my neighbour who comes home drunk every night and beats his wife and children.”
We can look at our neighbourhoods and our cities and see all kinds of excesses, injustices and crimes. But the prerequisite for confronting the evils that surround us is to confront the evil in our own hearts. We will have no qualification for rescuing the weak and the fallen unless we can accept that we, too, are weak and fallen. We have no right to pass sentence on others until we honestly judge our own lives.
Today’s gospel invites us to look into the mirror, and to identify the aspects of our lives that call for healing. It’s only then that we can be instruments of healing for others.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
The father said: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But this brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found. And for that we had to celebrate and rejoice.” Luke 15, 11-32
There is an adage among story-tellers that claims: The story begins when the teller stops talking. The parable of the prodigal son is one of those stories which we all know in detail. Yet whenever it is read to us, it evokes all kinds of reactions and responses. We find ourselves taking sides or identifying with one or other of the characters. If we are honest, we can probably admit that there surfaces in us at different times some or other quality of all four characters in the story. We complete it for ourselves each time we hear it.
The main conflict in the story is between the father and the elder brother. We are immediately attracted by the personal qualities of the father: he is a peace-maker, very keen to normalise the family relationships as quickly as possible; he has no thoughts of revenge; he doesn’t worry about what the neighbours will think or say about his younger son; he doesn’t say a word about his rights; he does not call the young man to give an account of his behaviour. Moreover, he is quick to change the subject to prevent an emotional outburst from the elder brother. He is clearly physically affectionate, and he has excellent judgement about the right time and circumstance for a party.
By contrast, the elder brother’s focus is on recriminations. He has tallied up in his mind a detailed list of past rights and wrongs, merits and claims. His arithmetic is faultless. His righteousness culminates in an emotional tantrum which turns into sullen silence.
One begins to wonder just how these three men could belong to the same family. But look again! In its three main characters, the parable brings together the struggles and desires of all of us. We know what lust feels like, there are times when we are generous, forgiving and kind-hearted, we know we can be calculating and protective of our own rights. However, the climax of the story leaves us in no doubt that it is the elder brother in all of us that is, in fact, the greatest obstacle to bringing about reconciliation in our world.
Whoever shaped this story did it with consummate skill. It is loaded with ironic parallels and contrasts. For instance, in his angry outburst, the elder brother refers to himself as working for his father like a slave. However, his father gently reminds him that he has really been working for himself, toiling to manage and supervise what he is going to inherit: “Son…everything I have is yours.” By contrast, it is the younger son who has really experienced what slavery is like. He was on the point of selling himself into slavery, until he came to the realisation of how generously his father treated the servants at home. Knowing that he is “no longer worthy to be called ‘son’ “, he decides to go and humbly ask to be treated as a hired hand. The story-teller deliberately draws an ironic parallel between what the two brothers say about slavery and sonship. Their claims are complete opposites.
There is yet another delightfully ironic parallel drawn between the two brothers. The wayward one, starving in his self-imposed exile, eventually comes to his senses, repents in his heart and humbly returns home, where he is welcomed with a celebration put on by his father whose generosity and forgiveness are boundless. In contrast, the elder son, whose conduct has been faultless, takes himself into self-imposed emotional exile. His righteousness has frozen him into inflexibility and drained from him any trace of joy he may have had. He simply cannot rejoice in his younger brother’s restoration to life. Yet his father, by coming out of the party to plead with him, extends to him the very same tenderness as he did to his younger brother.
The elder brother is too stuffy, too full of his own righteousness to allow his father’s passion and tenderness to touch him. He will not let his father’s infectious joy distract him from his fixation with duty. And he cannot accept that it is his own inner anger and self-pity blocking him from softening. He can’t even acknowledge that it is his own brother who has returned home. Instead he spits at his father a stinging insult: “Then, when this son of yours returns after squandering your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.”
However, his father is equal to the situation and responds in parallel fashion, but much more gently: “But this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found. And for that, we had to celebrate and rejoice.”
And that takes us back to the opening line of this reflection: “The story begins when the teller stops talking.” Therein lies some of the artistry of this story. We simply don’t know the end. Did the elder son relent and go to join the party? Did he stubbornly cling to his righteousness, certainty and self-imposed exclusion?
And it’s here that the focus shifts to us. For this story is an invitation to us to join in celebrating with all those who have messed up their lives in one way or another but have opened themselves to accept God’s forgiveness and mercy. Even in our own confined worlds there is no shortage of public sinners - tax evaders, embezzlers, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and traffickers, child abusers and bigots. This parable asks us if we are prepared to eat with them, chat with them, associate with them, worship beside them. Our words often say that we want to associate with Jesus, while we do all we can to avoid his friends. We are happy to join with Jesus in calling God “father”, but we can only demonstrate that we are all children of the one father by the way in which we care for one another, especially those who are excluded, those whose actions have brought public disgrace, those who have been thrown onto society’s scrap heap.
At the same time, let’s be careful not to be too harsh on the “elder brothers” among us. They’re the ones who spend their lives sticking to the rules. They just don’t know how to fall into the arms of a God who reaches out to prodigals.
Third Sunday of Lent
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” Luke 13, 1-9
Today’s gospel seemingly falls into two distinct parts. It opens with Jesus being needled by a group of people who can hardly control their hostility. Apparently, they believe in a God who, to punish sinful people, arranges for them to meet with fatal accidents. One could well imagine that those confronting Jesus would have been delighted had the ground suddenly opened up and swallowed him. That would have been proof positive that Jesus was really in league with the devil.
Even today, we occasionally hear of preachers and teachers who get media attention when they claim that natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are visited on the world by a God who is sick and tired of rampant human sinfulness. This strikes me as a classic example of projection. By making such dire pronouncements, these people are disclosing how they would act if they were God.
That raises the question for all of us as to the kind of God we actually believe in. Just think for a moment about how you would like God to deal with the members of ISIS wreaking havoc in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq; or with the Boko Haram militants who last month incinerated over 80 children and adults in north-eastern Nigeria; or the terrorists who, last November, murdered more than 120 people in Paris; or those, who in their fight against terrorism, are obliterating countless defenceless civilians, with bomb-laden drones? Your answer to questions like these might tell you something about the God you would like to have. And you might even ask yourself if you would like a God who is kind to good people (Whoever they are!) and severe on those who are less than we would want them to be.
Now let’s shift our attention to the very simple parable of the fig tree that concludes today’s gospel reading. It’s sometimes called a parable of “the God of second chances”. Clearly, in the parable the owner of the vineyard is God, the manager of the vineyard is Jesus himself, and the tree represents all of us who are expected to bear good fruit. In telling the parable, Jesus clearly demonstrates that he believes in a God of tolerance, a God who is prepared to give us opportunities to improve, to get our lives in order. And that confronts us with at least two questions: How do we make the most of all the “second chances” that come our way? What’s our attitude when those around us depend our offering or declining second chances?
But for all that, today’s readings still give us two different faces of God. In the first reading from Exodus we are presented with a God who is passionate for social justice: “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters. I know their pain, and now I have come to help them” (Exodus 3, 7). Yet in the gospel we meet a God who is set for decisive action: “For three years now, I have been coming to this tree expecting figs, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?” (Luke 13, 7) This is the God to whom the vineyard manager (Jesus) intercedes on our behalf for a second chance.
But let’s not confuse decisiveness with vindictiveness. The God we see here in the parable is decisive, but not some frenzied, out-of-control, frothing-at-the-mouth God. This is a God who reminds us of our personal and social responsibilities, implying that we really can do something to ease the plight of refugees, to address prejudice and racial discrimination, to demonstrate against people trafficking. Doesn’t God have a right to be annoyed at our reluctance to develop our potential, to become active on behalf on the needy, to champion the rights of those treated with injustice?
And if today’s readings are not enough to shake us from complacency, maybe we can learn from the example of fellow human beings who either offer second chances or work to right the wrongs served up to both friend and stranger.
When Thomas Edison was struggling to perfect the light bulb, it took his team of workers twenty-four hours to put together just one light bulb. Once, when the team had completed a light bulb, Edison gave it to a young boy to carry upstairs. Step by step the boy carefully climbed the stairs, afraid that he might drop this priceless piece of work. And that’s exactly what happened: the poor boy dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs. It took Edison and his team twenty-four more hours to produce another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison gave the nod for the bulb to be carried upstairs. He entrusted it to the same young boy who had dropped the first one. Edison knew the meaning of today’s parable.
The 2015 April edition of Maryknoll Magazine featured the story of Margarida Ferreira, a young woman whose downward spiral went from drinking to smoking crack to stealing in order to support her addiction. She ended up in the largest women’s prison in Brazil, Sant’Ana in the city of Sao Paulo.
“God gave me a piece of land and I threw it away”, Ferreira says. “Then one day God gave me the opportunity to have another piece of land. This time I took advantage of it.”
That opportunity came through a former lay missionary, Katie Coldwell and Ariane Carvalho, a young woman majoring in environmental studies. They convinced the prison staff to allow them to start a garden in the prison courtyard and recruited other university students to help. Prisoners volunteered to participate in the project, and the garden was soon flourishing. While Coldwell and Carvalho admit that the creation of the garden was their primary focus initially, they now recognise that its success turned out to be the relationships and community building that developed among the prisoners. They came to appreciate that what the women most needed was the social and intellectual stimulation that came from mixing with one another and with visitors who came to see the garden.
“The garden was a clinic for me,” beamed Ferreira. Drugs were destroying my life. I believe that I will leave this place changed. I now have faith in God and faith in my own willingness to change.”
We all have the chance and the choice to work the soil and to nourish our potential for growth, or we can allow ourselves to be cut down by our sadness, disappointment, failure and self-pity.
Second Sunday of Lent
While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Luke 9, 28-36
Perhaps the most insightful commentary on the meaning of today’s gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is to be found in a single sentence in the preface of today’s liturgy: “He revealed his glory to strengthen them (Peter, James and John) for the scandal of the cross.” But, however well and good it was that the three apostles would have a vision to sustain them in the difficult times that were to come for them, isn’t it entirely acceptable for us to ask if the same kind of support and encouragement is available to us in our times of difficulty and struggle? Where might we find a vision on which we can rely when life gets difficult?
It is a fact that we all experience, at least occasionally, moments of “transfiguration”. However, it is equally true that we often fail to recognise and appreciate them. Seeing is one of the frequently mentioned paradoxes in the Bible. Jesus, for instance, tells us that people with perfectly good physical eyesight are often blind to moral and spiritual realities. In contrast, those who are physically blind have much greater insight than sighted people. Many mystics have made reference to a “third eye” - the ability to see with the soul. They knew well before it was articulated by modern psychology that perception very quickly becomes reality. The way we see people and things determines the way we behave.
Nearly three decades ago Stephen Covey wrote a self-help book called Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Its sales have passed the 25 million mark, and it’s still selling. One of Covey’s stories is about an experience he had on the New York subway on what started out to be a quiet Sunday morning. There were not many passengers, and those who were on the train were reading quietly, lost in their own thoughts or dozing. That was until a man and his children got on. In no time the peace of the carriage was shattered. The children were soon yelling at one another, running around the carriage, even snatching newspapers from some of the passengers. Despite the disturbance, the father just sat next to Covey, seemingly unconcerned about the behaviour of the children. Eventually, it all got too much for Covey who, with what he regarded as admirable restraint, said to the man: “Sir, it seems to me that your children are disturbing a lot of people. Do you think you could control them a little more?” The man lifted his head, as if coming to consciousness, and replied: “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Reflecting on the moment, Covey wrote: “Can you imagine what I felt? Suddenly I saw things differently. And because I saw differently, I felt differently, and I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour. My heart was filled with that man’s pain.” (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 1989 p.31)
Nothing changed in the carriage. But something changed in Stephen Covey. It was for him a transfiguration experience, a moment of revelation. In order to recognise the revelations of God, the transfiguration moments in our lives, we have to learn to see differently.
Just pause for a moment to think about it: If God is somehow revealed in the humanity of Jesus, Jesus is, in turn, revealed in the actions of all those whom we touch and who touch us in love, compassion, encouragement and support. But we must open our eyes to see those revelations of God.
People of my vintage are old enough to remember what is now known as the “Montgomery Bus Boycott.” It was triggered when an unknown African-American girl, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white, male passenger. The girl’s arrest catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr into leading a non-violent protest that lasted for many months. Of his own admission, King was a reluctant prophet. He lived in fear for his own life, and the lives of his wife and daughter. One night after returning home about midnight from a strategy planning meeting, he received a death threat via an anonymous phone call. This was but another of a long line of death threats directed at him. He was told that, if he didn’t leave Montgomery immediately, he would be killed within a few days. Paralysed with fear, he made himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to pray. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, he records his experience:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything." (Martin Luther King, Jr, Stride Toward Freedom, Harper & Row, 1958, p 114-15)
Three days later, following the bombing of his house, angry crowds, threatening retaliatory violence, gathered outside what was left of the building. King addressed them, urging them to pursue the way of non-violence: “We must meet hate with love. If I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with the movement. Go home with this glorious faith and this radiant assurance.” King attributed his new-found strength and moral determination to his transfiguration of a few days before. However, he knew that the journey of living the Gospel would inevitably lead to the cross. He understood the significance of the reference in today’s gospel to Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus “about his passing (death) which he was to complete in Jerusalem” (Luke 9, 30)
The transfiguration moment that Jesus experienced was a fleeting “God moment” for him. It was sufficient to sustain him for the difficult journey to Jerusalem and the cruelty and death that he feared awaited him there. Realising that this was a road he had to walk alone, he rejected Peter’s suggestion that they all settle down and bask in the glory they had experienced on the mountain. Jesus, too, realised that transfiguration moments come in small doses. He knew that, for most of his life, he would have to rely on his faith in God that told him that sacrifice and love would eventually triumph.
Daring to be disciples of Jesus will inevitably involve some experience of rejection and suffering. By striving to live in the present, avoiding being caught up in the fear of what might be, being fully present to others, we grow to be transparent to those with whom we interact. It is then that we become more alert to moments of transfiguration; it is then that the light of the transfigured Christ begins to shine through us.
First Sunday of Lent
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, for forty days being put to the test by the devil. Luke 4,1-13
Today’s story of the experience that Jesus had in the desert is the gospel’s way of inviting us to consider a “desert experience” for ourselves. Luke tells of Jesus being invited by God’s Spirit to venture into the isolation of the desert so that, away from all distractions, he could give his full attention to discerning and clarifying what his mission in life was going to be and how he wanted to express it.
This story is read to us on the first Sunday of Lent to remind us that, as we embark on the “wilderness experience” of Lent, God’s Spirit is also prompting us to stop and ponder who and what are most important in our lives. Integral to the way in which we respond to the challenge of Lent are the practices of fasting and self-denial. Of themselves, they have little value. They serve their true purpose when they generate in us the self-discipline we need to let go of whatever is distracting us from living the way we really want to live - with integrity, compassion, honesty, selflessness, justice. That may mean uncluttering our lives to provide space for quiet reflection, taking seriously the insistent invitation to conversion we experience deep within us - an invitation to break out of the cynicism that locks us into negativity, the paralysis of self-absorption, or the bleakness of being ever critical of others.
Fasting from food and drink is meant to be a reminder to us that our deepest sense of satisfaction is to be found elsewhere - in the God who loved us into life, in the God whose wonder and goodness are reflected in creation all around us, in the people we encounter, in the insights that come to the surface when we take time apart to reflect. And there are many other kinds of fasting that we could practice. For instance, we could fast from the canned entertainment disseminated by media outlets - it is often little more than fairy floss (cotton candy) for the mind. We could even fast from shopping in order to share what we save with those for whom every day is a struggle to survive; from incessant texting, tweeting, updating our facebook page, so as to give quality time to those with whom we live; from feeding our addictions - the things and practices that we have converted from wants into the needs that we have decided we can’t do without. We can give our attention to fasting from whatever it is that distracts us from being centred on the great love of God that is ever present to us, in us and around us. These are launching points for venturing into the desert of our lives and deciding what needs to be turned around. That’s what conversion of heart is all about.
To put it another way, a desert experience or fasting, seriously undertaken, helps to focus the mind. They help us to become more aware of our basic dependencies. If those dependencies are broken, we can find ourselves getting nervous about who or what will nurture us now.
At the conclusion of his long fast in the desert, Jesus received a sharp reality check. Luke describes that reality check in terms of three temptations. Underlying all three is the attractive prospect of being presented with a short cut through painful reality. And let’s face it, we all find short cuts preferable to the hard slog of having to do things the normal human way. The implication of this temptation is that God will collude in some kind of magic rather than risk losing Jesus’ co-operation. The crunch question underneath all three temptations is: Will a new way of living (the kingdom of God) built on faith be sustainable, be worth the effort? Luke is really saying that Jesus was confronted with how he was going to live out his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Wondering how he would cope, Jesus was tempted to look for short cuts, ways that would win him popular support. Temptations to cut corners confront everyone who walks in the footsteps of Jesus.
Jesus’ first temptation was to do with bread - material provisions, money, a nest egg. Effectively it refers to stockpiling material resources, just in case investing in the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. So Jesus was tempted to bribe people into accepting his message with material incentives. (A modern day adaptation of this is the cargo cult, practiced in many Melanesian and other Pacific countries, where missionaries rewarded people with material goods for joining their churches.) Matthew’s Gospel develops a very similar theme. Matthew has Jesus warn his hearers that their concern for bread should not weaken their trust in God’s competence. If we really trust God, we can’t credibly assume the role of being God’s back-seat drivers: “There’s a bad bend coming up, so take your foot off the accelerator. Mind that big pothole on your right. Do you think you’ll manage the next sharp turn at this speed?” Trust rules out trying to give God advice.
Jesus dealt with the first temptation by resolving to be bread himself, rather than trying to base his platform on distributing goodies. He chose to nourish people with his own person, his own thoughts and insights, the example of his own fidelity. He refused to seduce them with promises of wealth and success. He could not have done that without first trusting in God. The second and third temptations were similar attempts to undermine that trust. In the second, he could choose to embrace evil as a doorway to power and glory or opt for the way of love that puts God and others first. He chose love. The third temptation was an invitation to find out whether God is a saviour or a killer. This was a real dilemma because Jesus knew that to venture into Jerusalem - a hotbed of narrow-mindedness, bigotry and prejudice - proclaiming a kingdom of God for all, without exception, would be tantamount to suicide. So, why not tempt God with a swallow dive from the pinnacle of the Temple? This was the first time that he found himself asking if he could believe that God would stand by him whenever the crowds or the Jewish authorities found his message unpalatable. “Would God back him when the going got tough?” was a question he asked himself as he was about to launch into his mission. And it was a question with which he struggled right to the end of his life.
Jesus was tempted with the thought that God might be unpredictable, incompetent, even malicious. After all, that’s a conclusion reached by many before and after him. So, how easy was it for him to reject those temptations? If we think that trust in God was something that came automatically to him, how could he be tempted in the first place? And if Jesus could be tempted, can we expect anything different?
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…I then heard the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’…And I said: ‘Here I am, send me.’ Isaiah 6, 1-2, 3-8
I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence. 1 Corinthians 15, 1-11
“Leave me Lord; I am a sinful man.”…But Jesus said to Simon: “Don’t be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching.”Luke 5, 1-15
Have you ever wondered how you would answer if someone were to ask you: “How do you feel about being a Christian?” As I reflected on that question, I had to admit that I’ve not experienced a sleepless night, anticipating that, in the morning, I would have something very important to do because of my commitment as a Christian. All three of today’s readings give us insights into people who pursued their faith life with energy and purpose, and they did so in spite of the fact that they acknowledged that their past lives had been sinful.
All that prompted me to examine my own faith-life - in theory and in practice. Is being a Christian about a committed way of living, being emotionally and intellectually attached to a set of religious beliefs and values, and then applying them as I go about living each day? Or is my faith little more than an itch that calls to be scratched? Do I wear faith like a lucky charm, or even use it as a weapon with which to bludgeon others into submission? Does my faith stir me up more than watching football or big-bash cricket on TV? Is it more important than my daily fitness regime? Do I look at it as I do at a note stuck to the fridge, that is meant to remind me of something?
What was it about Isaiah, Paul and Simon Peter that allowed them to sustain their faith as something real and meaningful at the same time as they were fully conscious of their sinfulness? To begin with, they were able to do something that many Christians seem incapable of - to comprehend that God can see past the sin and actually respect and value the sinner. Until we can do that, we are at risk of seeing God as someone who is punitive, arbitrary and vengeful.
The main characters in today’s readings were able to grow beyond those negative attitudes. Isaiah could have persisted in using his sinfulness as an excuse for dodging God’s invitation. Instead he responded by saying: “I will go! Send me.” (Isaiah 6, 8) Paul had to admit that he had been actively engaged in persecuting Christians: “I am not really fit to be called an apostle because I had been persecuting the Church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15, 9) But he refused to be paralysed by his past: “What I am now, I am through the grace of God, and the grace that was given to me has not been wasted. (1 Corinthians 15, 10) In today’s gospel, Simon Peter is presented as a man who is clearly aware of his own sinfulness: “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5, 8) Yet he managed to rise above his personal sense of sinfulness to become “the Fisherman”.
I suspect that past sinfulness is a source of depression for many people - people of all faiths and of none. Preoccupation with sin and failure drains both physical and emotional energy. Beneath it all is a feeling - I believe it is a feeling rather than a rationally arrived at conclusion - that God has no time for sinners. Yet, the first challenge of faith is how to deal with such feelings. Then follows the giant step of coming to accept that God works with sinners. I’m even inclined to think that God wants to work with us because we are sinners. Those of us who endured the era of fire and brimstone parish missions carry the scars of being frequently told that sin creates an enormous distance between God and humanity. So it’s a big leap to even contemplate that God could select sinners to be dynamic messengers of the Gospel. Regrettably, we will never accept ourselves as agents of God’s good news so long as we harbour the belief that this is automatically ruled out by a carefully kept record of all our sins and failures.
The Christian Churches have never been short of moral taskmasters (and I use that word advisedly), but even when we do as they say, many of us are not quite sure if we are pleasing anybody, let alone God.
But taking a lead from the irreverent Monty Python, and trying to “always look on the bright side of life”, might I not unreasonably suggest that our doubt, despondency and depression actually stem from our lack of faith in God’s generosity and big-heartedness in the matter of our past sins? And if we really think that our past moral lapses and self-centredness are going to get in God’s way, then we are deluding ourselves. When it comes to our acting as messengers of the Gospel, do we really believe that God would label us as “damaged goods”, “high risk” or “totally unreliable”? However, we have a knack of putting those labels on ourselves, and using them to do our best to keep God at a distance. Yet even that does not stop God from having high expectations of us. And if we still have doubts, today’s readings should convince us that God has a pretty good record of working with sinners.
But, if we need further convincing, we can look to Pope Francis. In a magnificent interview with Antonio Spadano SJ, recorded shortly after his election as Pope, Francis was asked: “ ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ The Pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask.... He nods that it is, and he tells me: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’ “
This is a theme to which Pope Francis has repeatedly returned: “I am truly conscious of my many limitations, with so many problems, and I am a sinner - as you know!...There’s no clean slate. We have to bless the past with remorse, forgiveness and atonement…It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because God’s mercy is an unfathomable abyss - but we must do it.” Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Bloomsbury 2015, pp 119, 124
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however, is the following way.” 1 Corinthians 12, 31–13, 13
“No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Luke 4, 21-30
The 1928 Nobel Laureate in literature, Sigrid Undset, once wrote that love is almost invisible since it has no well-documented history. That was a sad comment on humankind’s inability to express adequately the love implanted deep within their hearts. When we look at how the people and nations of the world have related to one another in the 88 years since then, we can only conclude that there has been no improvement on what Undset observed.
For two thousand years, Christians have struggled to live what Jesus described as the greatest commandments: “One of the scribes…now came up and put a question to him: ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied: ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and 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 second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12, 28-31) Try as we might, we always seem to fall short in our efforts to live these two commandments.
And as we listen to today’s second reading from Corinthians, we might be tempted to write off Paul’s description of love as pure fantasy or, at best, conclude that only exceptional people are able to really believe in the kind of love that Paul talks about.
A more measured examination of what Paul says about love might lead us to conclude that he has created a composite picture of love by joining together a whole lot of isolated expressions of human care and kindness. For instance, we’ve all seen mothers and fathers patiently dealing with their children; we’ve witnessed individuals expressing kindness and courtesy to strangers on crowded trains and buses; we’ve seen women and men in important public positions refuse to put on airs and graces; we’ve marvelled at how friends and work colleagues have bounced back without bitterness and brooding from insults and unjustified criticism. But to set our sights on combining all these qualities in our own lives might seem beyond our reach, completely illusory. We wonder if these different aspects of love are like pieces of a puzzle that just won’t go together.
But, give him his due, Paul does acknowledge that we are as bumbling at love as a child is at grown-up pursuits. In our hands, love is as awkward as the blocks of a Lego set. Though we may push them aside in frustration, invariably we go back to them for one more attempt to put them all together. Even a brief look at ourselves is sufficient to convince us of just how difficult we find the challenge of committing ourselves to something as elusive as loving. And there is no shortage of people who have been disappointed in love and who now want to tell us their sad stories in order to convince us that there is really no future in trying to realise our desire to love.
All the same, our experience tells that that there are people crying out for love all around the world. We wonder whether the available supply of love, however imperfect, will ever be sufficient to meet the demand. That demand is crying out on places like Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, slums and refugee camps around the world. It is high in marriage and in friendship. It affects us as we grow old or just try to get by. But as our energy to love wanes, we really do get anxious as to whether the supply still left within us will meet the demands made upon us. Paul’s response to that is blunt and direct: “Love is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 13, 8)
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of love is that there are times when it has to put on a hard face. We get a glimpse of this in today’s first reading when we hear God telling Jeremiah: “You will be like a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall.” (Jeremiah 1, 18) And then, in today’s gospel, Jesus is far from being sweetness and light as he confronts his own townspeople for their prejudice and small-mindedness. He accuses them of diverting themselves from the way of love by giving their attention to irrelevant issues such as his pedigree, his qualifications and his forceful way of making his point. In the interests of love, he returned as good as he got. He told them a few home truths, and, in response, they did as so many after them have done, they resorted to force: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built. They intended to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went his way. (Luke 4, 28-30)
Rugged confrontations such as this give us cause to stop and ask ourselves just how compatible God’s love is with them. Therein lies one of the great mysteries of love. Luke’s Gospel is dotted with such confrontations as he sets out to tell us something about Jesus and his mission. However, our own experiences tell us that the way of love is at times very uncomfortable and problematic. And the Gospel of Jesus reinforces that message. The call to love is constant and very demanding.
Explorations into the nature of love, how it finds genuine expression and the demands it makes on us can be unsettling. However, reflection on our own lives will soon bring us to the realisation that God’s love is a vast resource from which we can all draw. Even though we might, at times, be inept in our expression and pursuit of love, it’s surely better to pursue that path than to go the other way. That will only turn us into lemons.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the message where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Jesus said to them: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21
Luke directs his Gospel to a Gentile audience, probably because of his own Gentile origins. It would seem that he was Greek by birth and a medical physician by profession. In the course of his Gospel, he gives considerable attention to the way in which Jesus reached out to the poor, the forgotten and the rejected - all those who belonged to the category of “second class citizens”, those for whom the society of his time had little regard, such as women, public sinners, untouchables like lepers, the poor and destitute and tax-collectors. Interestingly, he is the only one of the four Gospel writers who addresses his audience in the first person. The introduction of his Gospel (quoted at the start of today’s gospel reading) suggests that he is writing to a high-ranking inquirer to explain just who Jesus was: “I…have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus (literally means friend or lover of God), so that your Excellency may learn how well-founded the teaching is that you have received. Of course, the name “Theophilus” might also be intended to represent all those who regard themselves as friends/lovers of God.
The remainder of today’s reading is an account of how Jesus launched into his ministry of teaching and preaching. With echoes of the way in which an important public figure might launch his career or policy, Luke located Jesus in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. Galilee (the name is derived from the Hebrew word meaning ‘circle’) was a significant agricultural region of Palestine, surrounded by Gentile nations and cultures. It had a reputation for being tolerant of progressive thinking. Nazareth gained its importance because it was a town where trade routes to Damascus, Alexandria and Jerusalem intersected. It is, therefore, clear that Luke very carefully chose an important place for Jesus to launch his public ministry. And, as if that were not enough, he put into the mouth of Jesus words from Isaiah with which everyone in the congregation would have been familiar.
After reading from the Isaiah scroll, Jesus sat down, thereby announcing that he was about to deliver an important teaching. He startled his listeners by stating: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” (Luke 4, 21) To a people who for centuries had been looking in hope to the future for the coming of the Messiah, the claim by Jesus that here among them was that Messiah was surely shocking, incomprehensible, incredible. Initial approval of his eloquence was quickly replaced by disbelief. After all, didn’t the local people of Nazareth know that Jesus was just “Joseph’s son”, the local carpenter’s boy? He must be out of his mind.
And isn’t that the way with us. We hang on every word that comes from the mouth of somebody we regard as important and are quick to disregard the wisdom of those with whom we rub shoulders every day - work colleagues, family and community members. We know their weaknesses and foibles, and wrongly conclude that they could not possibly be bearers of good news, especially if what they say disturbs our comfort.
In today’s gospel reading, Luke presents a Jesus whose humanity is marked by compassion for all who are overlooked and forgotten and points to a God who is not only approachable but who is present to us in all that is good and right and loving in our midst.
James Martin is a Jesuit who is a regular contributor to the Catholic periodical, America. Last year saw the publication of his first novel, The Abbey. While it will probably not win a major literary award, it contains stories of how a humble and unassuming abbot of a Trappist monastery touches the lives of people who struggle with a variety of life crises.
Anne is a 40 year-old divorced woman whose life had been shattered when her only son, thirteen year-old Jeremiah, was killed when his bicycle collided with a car. One day, when her own car broke down, she called one of her friends for help. He responded immediately, but when he could not start her car, he set out to drive her home, diverting to a nearby Trappist monastery to collect the cell phone that he had left behind when he was working there earlier in the day. While she was waiting for her friend to return to the car, Anne had a chance meeting with Fr Paul, the abbot. It was the start of a friendship that helped Anne to break free of the grief that had been crippling her. The abbot was not only generous with his time, but with the way in which he shared his own experiences of doubt, hurt and confusion. Effectively, he gave Anne a safe place in which to vent her anger with God. After several conversations with Fr Paul, she began to experience some measure of peace.
In one of their meetings, the Abbot asked Anne when was her most recent experience of feeling happy. She answered that it was while she had been working in her garden the previous weekend. “Strange”, she said, “I thought that it felt as though God was patting down the soil…around me. Does that sound insane?”
“Not at all,” replied the abbot. “It sounds beautiful to me. Maybe God’s inviting you to see things in a new light. God is the gardener who tends you like a flower, who nourishes you…Perhaps this is God inviting you to see things in a new light…There are lots of images of God…I think God’s just given you a new one.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks to the people of his own town about his image of a God who sends him to bring good news to the poor, liberation to prisoners, sight to the blind and freedom to people oppressed by the circumstances of their lives. At one time or another, many of us struggle to make sense of our lives as we deal with experiences of grief, doubt, brokenness or disappointment. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel in this year’s Sunday readings will challenge our images of God as he reveals a God of compassion and mercy, a God whose presence is to be experienced in every act of kindness, encouragement and support extended to us by friends and strangers.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
At a wedding feast in Cana, Jesus said to the servants: “Fill the jars with water…Draw some out now and take it to the head waiter.” John 2, 1-11
In reading John’s Gospel, we have to be aware of the fact that he makes extensive use of symbols and writes with many levels of meaning. For instance in chapter 10, he uses the metaphor of the “good shepherd” to refer to Jesus, and has Jesus say: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10, 11) The phrase “lays down his life” is multi-layered in meaning. It can mean “sacrifices his life for his sheep”, “lives his life for his sheep”, “puts his life on the line protecting his sheep” or, indeed, all these meanings together. Similarly, in today’s gospel reading, the changing of water into wine represents what happens to people who open themselves up to God’s Spirit. They become new. We can also read this incident as a story of Jesus as the one who transforms the blandness of our lives into joy and hope.
From a slightly different perspective, we can read today’s gospel story as a reference to Jesus, who, when all is said and done, is himself “the best wine saved till now”. That surely was how many of the people of his own day who encountered him came to regard him. Men and women branded as sinners, those who were excluded because of their race or gender, those regarded as untouchable on account of illness and disease found in him acceptance, encouragement and new life. He accepted them as they were and released them from exclusion and rejection. For them he was truly “the best wine saved till now”.
And isn’t that the way it is even now? The “best wine” that we ourselves taste is often to be found in the kindness, recognition and encouragement extended to us by those very ordinary people who reflect to us something of Jesus as they touch our lives. It is in their kindness that we savour something special, and the taste lingers.
Isn’t it true that there are times when we feel as though the wine has run out of our lives? Our zest for living wanes, there is no longer a spring in our step, facing a new day has little attraction for us. The sense of satisfaction in our vocation, our relationships, our job, our faith becomes dulled. We start functioning on “automatic”. I suspect that this is an experience we’ve all had at some time in our lives.
Arthur Gordon was a journalist who contributed articles and human-interest stories to Reader’s Digest over decades. He died in 2002 at the age of ninety.
Back in the 1970s, he published a book called A Touch of Wonder. It is a combination of an anthology of his articles and a reflection on the very ordinary events of life, which, he claims, we don’t savour and celebrate sufficiently. In one section of his book, he tells of a time in his own life when his wine ran out:
“Not long ago I came to one of those bleak periods that many of us encounter from time to time, a sudden drastic dip in the graph of living, when everything gets stale and flat, energy wanes, enthusiasm dies. The effect on my work was frightening. Every morning I would grit my teeth and mutter: ‘Today, life will take on some of its old meaning. You’ve got to break through this thing. You’ve got to.’ But the barren days went by and the paralysis grew worse. The time came when I knew I had to have help.”
Gordon goes on to describe how he went to see his family doctor, a general practitioner, a man much older than himself but one who had acquired a fund of wisdom. He trusted the doctor completely, and told him everything, finishing his story with: “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I just seem to have come to a dead end. Can you help me?”
“Where were you happiest as a child?” the doctor asked.
“Why, at the beach, I suppose. We had a summer cottage there. We all loved it.”
“All right,” said the doctor, “here’s what I want you to do.”
He proceeded to direct Arthur to drive to the beach the following morning and to make sure to get there no later than nine o’clock. He could take his lunch, but was not to read, talk to anyone or listen to the radio.
“In addition,” the doctor said, “I’ll give you a prescription to take every three hours.” He then tore off four prescription blanks, wrote a few words on each, folded and numbered them, and handed them to Arthur.
“Take these at nine, twelve, three and six,” he instructed.
Arthur looked at the doctor and asked: “Are you serious?”
The doctor gave a short bark of a laugh and said: “You won’t think I’m joking when you get my bill.”
The remainder of the article is about Arthur’s going to the beach and spending the day in silence, reflection, reliving old memories, and being ministered to and healed by the sights and sounds of the ocean and sky. The doctor’s prescriptions were brief. The first one he opened simply read: “Listen carefully.” The one at noon said: “Try reaching back.” The ones at three and six were similarly brief and to the point.
Gordon’s story ends this way: “The western sky was a blaze of crimson as I took out the last piece of paper, six words this time. I walked slowly along the beach. A few yards below high-water mark, I stopped and read the words again: ‘Write your worries on the sand.’ I let the paper blow away, reached down, picked up a fragment of a shell and, kneeling there under the vault of the sky, I wrote several words on the sand, one above the other. Then I walked away and did not look back. I had written my troubles on the sand, and the tide was coming in.”
We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we, in the laments of people whose wine has run out, and in our own complaints, if we’re honest enough to admit it to ourselves: “What’s the point in voting in the election? It really doesn’t matter who wins. They’re all morally bankrupt.” “After all these years, I’m not going to change now. Why try?” We even hear it from teenagers: “Same old, same old. This place is boring.” And about the Church: “Rome’s not going to change. They’re heartless there. I may as well give up.”
But today’s gospel story puts the focus on Jesus who could take one of the ordinary things of life and transform it into something other. And that’s the lead for us. Are we able to see the ordinary things of life as gift and grace?
Perhaps we will if we can learn from people like Arthur Gordon and his doctor. On the advice of his doctor, Arthur Gordon went to the beach and listened for the voice of God in the ordinary. He stopped long enough to find the presence of God in the upsets, the dissatisfactions and discomforts of his own life. By taking time to reflect, to listen and to see, we can find the space to let Jesus touch the very ordinary in our lives and put the spark back.
Baptism of the Lord
After Jesus was baptised, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.”
Luke 3, 15-16, 21-22
For most of us, being interviewed for a new job is an emotionally draining experience. We are required to compile a resume of our professional qualifications and our previous experience, and then provide through interview some justification as to why we believe we are the most suitable applicant for the position. We pursue a path that looks a little like a balancing act - we are reluctant to appear to be too eager for the job, we don’t want to be rattled by any of the questions, and we are hesitant to appear to be boasting about past achievements. Going through such a process is sometimes described as a “baptism of fire”.
The baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan raises the question of what kind of qualifications are required by someone who puts himself or herself forward to work for God. At his baptism, Jesus was given the commission of ushering in what he came to call “the kingdom of God” - a way of living and relating where justice and peace would be paramount, where people would treat one another with dignity and respect, where everyone would have access to food and shelter. In today’s second reading from Acts we are told how Jesus was specially anointed by God’s Spirit in preparation for his role of announcing the kingdom of God: “You know how Jesus of Nazareth began in Galilee, after John had been preaching baptism. God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good…” (Acts 10, 37-38)
Furthermore, to set the scene for the baptism of Jesus, Luke takes imagery from Isaiah where the heavens are torn open and God is seen to descend from above in some tangible form: “Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down…as fire that sets brushwood alight and makes water boil…” (Isaiah 64, 1) In the voice that is heard from the heavens at the baptism of Jesus, there is a message of confirmation and congratulations.
But we might start to wonder if Jesus was given this special role because of his “divine connections”. Did he have any personal qualifications to fit him for the role? Luke tells us that, by presenting himself to John for baptism, Jesus was fully prepared to meet John’s list of expectations: sharing food and clothing with others in need, reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged. Jesus proved his mettle by affirming his readiness to be identified with a struggling, fragile humanity. Having taken on the human condition by being born into the world, Jesus demonstrated that he was prepared to accept all the implications of being human. It is all too easy for us to conclude that, because of the heavenly voice that accompanied his baptism, Jesus was given special favour and privilege by God. That’s probably because we are inclined to believe that many people are given high-level positions on account of their connections, or even because of their readiness to throw their weight around and grasp every advantage they can take. Some of us may conclude that no achievement is beyond such favoured people simply because they have been blessed with tons of talent. We seem to assume that Jesus was one of them - not only specially favoured, but also free of all human limitations, and that there was no need for him to dig deep in order to meet with courage and determination the obstacles and challenges that others, such as the religious authorities of his time, deliberately put in his way.
When Jesus was commissioned at the time of his baptism, the voice of God was not the announcement of an arrangement that had been reached at some previously held backroom meeting. His Father was responding to Jesus’ impressive statement of intention and commitment. And let’s not forget that any one of us interviewing for a place in the Jesus enterprise will have to answer satisfactorily the very same question with which Jesus was confronted: Are you willing to fully accept with faith and trust in God your human condition, your limitations?
In Steven Spielberg’s recent political thriller, Bridge of Spies, an insurance lawyer, James Donovan is appointed to represent an accused Russian spy, Rudolf Abel, in an espionage trial. The authorities wanted the world to see that they were giving the Russian a fair trial, but to appoint an insurance lawyer to defend him in a criminal trial meant that he would almost certainly be found guilty. However, Donovan did far better than expected, and succeeded in saving Rudolf Abel from the death penalty. He proceeded to negotiate a prison exchange with the Russians: Rudolf Abel in exchange for an American pilot shot down in Soviet air space.Earlier, during the trial, Donovan was approached by a CIA agent, who wanted to know if Abel had given Donovan any information about his contacts. The lawyer refused to violate lawyer-client confidentiality. The CIA agent tried to bully Donovan:
“Don’t go Boy Scout on me”, the agent threatened. “We don’t have a rule book here.”
“You’re Agent Hoffman, aren’t you?” Donovan asked.
“Yeah”, Hoffman replied.
“Yeah, so what?”
“My name’s Donovan - Irish, both sides. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing - the rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules. That’s what makes us both Americans. It’s all that makes us American, so don’t tell me there’s no rule book…”
The irony, of course, is that of all those around him intent on preserving the “American Way”, Donovan is the only one living it.
In a very real way, God’s Spirit of justice and right had come into Donovan’s life, leading him to pursue what was just for Rudolf Abel, and in the best interests of the American pilot and the cause of promoting peace between two quarrelling nations. Through our baptism, we, too, have been claimed by God to be people of justice, peace and compassion - agents for bringing the vision of Jesus to reality, builders of the kingdom of God wherever we live and work.
Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Matthew 2, 1-12
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” That question, which Matthew attributed to the Magi in his story about the birth of Jesus, has been asked in an endless variety of ways by countless people down through the ages. That question has come from the mouths of people struggling with grief and despair, by others filled with longing and desire, by men and women searching for meaning in their lives, by people fighting illness. In one way or another, as we have tried to make sense of any number of life’s issues, we have asked that very question. And it was that question that prompted the magi to set out in search of an answer.
Underlying that question is an awareness that there is nothing in all of our human experience that will ever be able to satisfy our deepest longings. St Augustine encapsulated those longings of the human heart when he said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are always restless until they rest in you.”
Matthew’s story of the journey of the magi is the story of the search on which all human beings embark for the mystery we call God. Matthew illustrates the universality of that search by particularising it in a story of three seekers from beyond the Jewish world who are so preoccupied with what is absent from their lives that they leave everything behind to embark on an exploration whose destination is unknown to them. The very search gave purpose and meaning to their lives, despite the fact that they did not know where the search would take them.
We, too, have experienced the desire and the searching that were theirs. At times we have expressed it with calm and reasoned assurance. At other times it has found expression as a prayer on our lips or as a plea from the depths of our being.
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” That’s a question that is not asked in search of information. Simply by asking it, we are creating space in our lives to receive the revelation of the divine. It’s not a question as much about what is going on in our heads as it is about what is happening in our hearts. It’s not so much a question to be answered as it is a question to be followed. That does not mean that there is no destination. There definitely is. But that destination is unknown in advance and is a personal encounter with the child, the son of Mary and Joseph, rather than a place.
Moreover, there is no end to the ways in which we encounter the divine, in which God reveals God’s self. In fact, if we are alert, we can encounter the divine in every circumstance of our lives. There is only one God, but that God is present to us in many different guises and in countless situations, circumstances and interpersonal encounters.
The Epiphany of Christ, the revelation of God in the person of the child born in Bethlehem is not limited by time and place. It is as real today as it was 2000 years ago. Throughout our lives we journey to a succession of encounters with and revelations of the mystery we call God. There are as many metaphorical stars to point us to those revelations as there are physical stars in the sky.
The reason why Herod was unable to see the star sprang from his inability to be in touch with his own incompleteness, his own deep longing. He saw no reason to embark on a journey of searching himself. It was sufficient for him to pressure the magi to find the child and report back with information. All he wanted was information. There was simply no room within him to accommodate revelation. We cannot search for the mystery we call God by proxy, by deputising somebody else to do the searching for us. God offers only first-hand experience. None of us can settle for an account of what the magi saw. We have to do the searching ourselves. And the searching is life-long.
Paradoxically, glimpses of and insights into the mystery we call God, manifestations of Christ’s light, happen so often in the night skies of our lives. Sometimes those night skies are the struggles and sorrows of life when someone close to us dies of an unexplained illness, when a family member is consigned to prison, when a marriage ends in separation. At other times, the night sky comes when we trust beyond what we can see with our eyes or reason with our minds, when people and circumstances keep us in the dark, when we travel into unfamiliar territory, quite unsure of where we are going and how we will get there. Irrespective of the intensity of the darkness of our particular night skies, it is that darkness which provides the context in which the presence, the light and the love of Jesus lights up our way and changes our life. Jesus is the light that makes all the difference for us, not because he changes the world, but because we and our attitudes are changed through the encounters we have with him.
Whenever we experience something of the mystery we call God, we are changed to the extent that, like the magi, we can do nothing but open up the treasure chests of our own lives, sharing with others who we are and what we have. Our epiphanies do not offer us an escape from home, from the circumstances of our lives. However, like the magi, we return to “our own country by a different road.” The same old road won’t get us there, because we are no longer the same old people, thinking and acting in the same old ways.
The Holy Family
After three days, they found Jesus in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers… and his mother said to him…“See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.” He replied: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he meant. Luke 2, 41-52
Today’s liturgy celebrates the love that bound together the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. By extension, it asks us to stop and reflect on the relationships we experience in our families, communities and friendships. What is the quality of those relationships? Are they characterised by genuinely felt and expressed love, care, forgiveness and compassion?
Brian Doyle is a Canadian who has written extensively for teenagers and young adults. Many of his books focus on his experience of growing up in and around Ottawa. Editor of Portland Magazine, official journal of the University of Portland, a Catholic university located in Oregon, he has also written much about his own life as a committed Catholic. In his book of essays, Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola Press, 2003), Doyle writes about how our lives are not without fear:
“It is a journey we all make at some time in our lives, sometimes more than once. We make the trek accompanied by family and friends - or we travel alone. We never forget our travels in the country of fear…
In the country of fear, you are never physically comfortable; you never relax or sleep. In the country of fear, you are gripped in grogginess, illness, depression, despair. In the country of fear, it is difficult to hear what another says, it is a struggle to grasp reality.
The soul facing death and the helpless family by his or her side walk the dark road through the country of fear.
The abandoned spouse can suddenly find himself or herself hopelessly lost in the country of fear.
The parents searching for their lost child desperately struggle through the country of fear.
Yet, it is in the country of fear where we find our true selves.
It is through the country of fear that we find our way home.
And the only path through the country of fear is love; the only light is compassion.” (p. 154-55)
Fear was no stranger to Joseph and Mary. Like parents in every place and time, they experienced deprivation, struggle and pain as they dealt with a difficult and unexpected pregnancy. They were forced to flee their home. And, as today’s gospel relates, they experienced every parent’s nightmare: the disappearance of their child. But they made their way through the country of fear by the love that bound them together as husband and wife. It was their love for one another and for their son that transformed their home into a place of welcome, acceptance and peace. It is that love that we remember and celebrate today.
Scholars agree that this story of the distraught Mary and Joseph searching for their teenage son is a later addition to Luke’s Gospel. Similar to many stories about the childhood of people who later become famous, this particular story about Jesus was told over and over because it pointed to the fact that there were signs early on in Jesus’ life of the qualities he would show in his adult life. Today’s reading also clearly foreshadows events that would unfold when Jesus was apprehended and killed: the journey to Jerusalem at Passover, the encounter with the Temple authorities, and the three days during which he was “lost” in the tomb.
Today’s gospel makes it clear that the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, like the families to which we belong, experienced its share of anxiety, fear, pain and misunderstanding. It is called “holy” because of the manner in which its members dealt with those experiences. Christmas is the time of the year in which families traditionally come together. Many families have to deal with the absence of missing or lost members. Their absence often intensifies the pain of those who gather, especially when they have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the lost and missing. Moreover, Christmas dinner together as a family sometimes has stress and tension, especially for those who turn up out of a sense of duty or fearful that old wounds might be reopened. Bringing a family together often calls for patience to listen, openness to be forgiving enough to let go of old grievances. The family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus knew something of the struggle and challenge of staying together, and they were only three. Surely we can take some comfort from that.
The real challenge of Christmas for all of us is to reflect in our living something of the love that Jesus, Mary and Joseph expressed for one another as they dealt with the kind of pain, misunderstanding and disruption that every family experiences.
And if Jesus and all he stands for are lost from our lives, we might have to put ourselves out and undertake the inconvenience of searching. That searching might take us to where we would rather not go. Rabbi Laurence Kushner offers the following illustration:
A rabbi prayed to the great prophet Elijah. “Where,” the rabbi asked, “shall I find the Messiah?”
“At the gate of the city,” the prophet replied.
“But how shall I recognise him?”
“He sits among the lepers.”
“Among the lepers!” the rabbi cried. “What is he doing there?”
“He changes their bandages,“ Elijah replied. “He changes their bandages, one by one.”
Are there any lepers in your family and mine?
Christmas: The Birth of Jesus
As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2, 1-20
Just as every parent remembers the birth of a son or daughter, Mary, too, remembered. Surely, she would often relive those extraordinary days: the discovery of her unexpected pregnancy, Joseph’s loyal and selfless love and support (despite his confusion and hurt), the excruciating trip to Bethlehem, the terror of that night in the cave, the helplessness and pain of giving birth alone, the appearance of those strange shepherds.
It's a telling detail that Luke includes in his story of Jesus' birth: Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. She remembered; she pondered and reflected on what had happened. Like any other mother or father, she would relive the details of her son's birth and childhood. Perhaps she even asked: What kind of God would do all this?
As the rest of her son’s life-journey unfolded, the answer, tinged with a mixture of pain and insight, gradually became clearer: a God whose love for creation knows no limits; a God who loves human beings despite everything and because of everything we succeed in messing up; a God who wants human beings to once again breathe divinity, to rejoice in themselves and in one another as sons and daughters of God; a God of joy, of hope, of all that is good.
Christmas invites us, too, to "ponder" these events, to make sense out of the God born this day in the person of Jesus. Like Mary, we are called to remember the promise of this holy night when God touches human history; like Mary, we are challenged to understand how what God is doing this day reaches out to transform every day; like Mary, we are called to relive the story of Jesus as we live out the day-to-day joys and sorrows of our own stories.
The Christmas crib is an invitation to us to step aside from the stress and commercialism of a world that has lost contact with Jesus, and to ponder the meaning and significance of the Incarnation, of God among us in the person of Jesus, sharing our vulnerability by being born as helpless as we were. We are invited to ponder the mystery of it all, to witness the compassion of God that dawned in that cold, cramped, dirty cave.
What kind of God would do this? Only a God who is not afraid. Only a God who will risk everything for love.
May the birth of Jesus, the Christ, illumine our dark nights with the brightness of God’s love. May the poverty of his birth help us to recognise our own poverty; may his breaking into our lives as one of us inspire us to respect and honour the dignity of all we encounter - all daughters and sons of the same God.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
“Here I am to do your will, O God” Hebrews 10, 5-10
And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1, 39-45
I find today’s readings puzzling because, on the surface, they look as though they could provide the raw material for an exciting TV drama. The first reading from Micah opens with the inhabitants of the town of Bethlehem congratulating themselves and boasting that the one who will come to save Israel and be its shepherd-ruler is going to come from their home town. The runt of the litter will produce the saviour of Israel! The second reading from Hebrews gives us a picture of a God who is fed up with an endless succession of bulls, heifers, goats and pigeons being burnt in sacrifice. The gospel reading presents us with two women chatting and rejoicing about intimate aspects of their pregnancies - pregnancies that are full of promise and hope. A creative director could turn all this into an engaging soap-opera.
Through it all, there runs a theme that invites us to explore what doing God’s will is all about. It is the second reading from Hebrews that introduces this topic explicitly. What is this “will” through which, as is stated in the Hebrews reading, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all? On the surface, having Jesus die to fulfil God’s will sounds like the same old sacrificial slaughter. That kind of “will of God” language somehow just does not sit comfortably with the kind of God I believe in. We all know that to work our will on others is abusive. We’ve seen lives destroyed by parents who push their children into careers and professions of their (parents’) choice. We can point to dictators and rulers who, by working their will, have created citizens who are cowed and resentful, whose humanity looks like a shell of what it might otherwise have been. And it’s no more acceptable to attempt justify such coercion simply by attributing it to God. Yet there are many “religious” people who would have us believe that all kinds of violence and destruction are God’s will.
Much of the will-of-God language that I hear invites a kind of infantilism. It carries overtones of a parent working his will on his child for the good of that child: Daddy will slap if son touch hot stove! Could such a comparison ever illustrate how God’s will functions in our regard? Surely it can only do so if we assume that God wants to treat us as children. The result of that would be that we would never get beyond a child’s understanding of God’s plans and purposes. If we reject that, we can only accept the possibility of engaging with God as adults. I can find nothing in the Old Testament and the Gospels to suggest otherwise. However, if we don’t get our thinking right about what is really meant by “doing God’s will”, we could end up playing a game of hide-and-seek with God, hoping to get an occasional glimpse of God’s plans for us. We might even end up being obsessed with anxiety about doing exactly what we think God expects of us, with no room even for the slightest divergence.
How does all this fit in with today’s gospel? The story of Mary’s going off to meet Elizabeth has to be viewed in the context of the Annunciation story. What artists have described over centuries as an angelic visit to a young woman at prayer, was more likely an unexpected inspiration breaking into the life of a peasant woman who was cleaning up the house and shaking out the door mat. And today’s gospel tells us what happened next. It’s the story of a shrewdly intelligent woman setting off to get confirmation of what she has been told. It’s a good example of a hard-nosed, common sense action. Mary hurried away to visit her cousin, and before she could even ask her delicate question, Elizabeth greeted her with: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the baby in your womb, and how is it that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me?” And Mary was delighted at hearing what she had come to find out: “It’s true, dear, the two of us are pregnant!” Mary’s response was to break out in praise of God.
She sang of a God of surprises, a God who has a preference of the little over the self-important, a God who chooses the weak ahead of the strong and mighty. It is that God who made fruitful an elderly woman and a young virgin. Mary realised that she was chosen not because of her goodness but because she was a nobody. Isn’t it ironic that we now sing of Mary’s motherhood because she deserved it, while she sang about it because she didn’t deserve it.
It’s so easy for us, with the advantage of hindsight, to regard Mary as the woman who was most suitable to be the mother of the Messiah. We conclude that, because she was so good, she would naturally drop everything and rush off to look after her elderly cousin. By doing that, we put Mary on a pedestal, accept that we ourselves could not measure up to her, and settle into believing that God can’t even come close to breaking into our lives.
However, if we can accept what today’s gospel story tells us, - that God can break into the lives of a woman well beyond child-bearing age and a very ordinary and unlettered peasant girl - we might bring ourselves to believe that God can and will come into the lives of people such as you and me, fragile, hesitant, confused and insignificant. It is then that we come to understand what doing God’s will is all about. It is about reaching out in selflessness and generosity and compassion to those who need our support, especially to those forgotten and overlooked. And it’s certainly not about putting God off, on the grounds that we are not qualified.
God’s will is neither more nor less than doing what we know in our hearts to be true and just and right. It is living with integrity. That demands that we take time to ponder and to pray, to discern where God’s Spirit is prompting us to act. It is then that our actions will have the stamp of integrity and conviction. Then we will be in touch with God’s will for us.
Third Sunday in Advent
“Sing and shout for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem!” Zephaniah 3, 14-18
“Whoever has two cloaks must share with the person who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same.”...To the tax collectors he said: “Exact no more than the appointed rate.”…To the soldiers he said: “No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!” Luke 3, 10-18
Today’s first reading from Zephaniah could leave us with the impression that the people of Israel and, very specifically, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, had every reason to feel good about themselves and to start celebrating. However, Zephaniah’s invitation to rejoice comes only at the conclusion of a prolonged tirade directed at his contemporaries for their poor religious observance. His attack/console tactic is one that has been repeated by prophets and preachers through the centuries: “Knuckle down, tighten your belts, stop complaining and repent for your sins, and happiness will come your way.” And to complement Zephaniah, some of what Luke says in today’s gospel doesn’t leave us bouncing around with joy. It’s a though we’re being forced to pretend that we’re really happy. The Spirit of Jesus might well inspire us to do good things, but’s Luke’s observation that achieving right living will be a bit like going through a purging fire isn’t particularly comforting. And his statement that Jesus will come and make a clean sweep of things, leaving us all feeling as though we have been hit by a shovel, doesn’t exactly fill me with joy and expectation.
So, what kind of God is actually drawing near to us to make us radiant with joy? We might be slow to answer that question for ourselves, because so often we set about trying to be joyful despite God, whom we have mentally labelled as something of a killjoy. Perhaps we’re inclined to harbour thoughts like those of the great Greek epic writer, Homer, who suspected the gods of having private jokes at our expense, as we wear ourselves out with endless toil and strife on some windy plain down here. Or maybe we secretly agree with Shakespeare’s character, Gloucester whose opinion of the gods was even worse: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” (King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1, lines 41-42)
The God of Jesus is certainly not a tyrant or somebody we’re told to fear. But, when God comes close to us, it’s not to engage us in empty chatter or small talk. Neither is God one of those deadly serious beings who dourly pronounce that we are looking miserable. Moreover, God does not try to sugarcoat our grimness with some kind of false joy. However, what God does is remind us of the joy we already know, but to which we rarely give our full attention. Today’s gospel gives us some of these reminders. For instance, nobody has to tell a tax-collector that he would feel less like a louse if he were to stop ripping off his burdened victims. And nobody has to tell military personnel and police officers that they would be more at peace with themselves if they stopped bullying the weak and vulnerable. Just as nobody has to tell us that life would be much more attractive for us and for those around us if we were to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. And we all know that we actually feel some kind of inner warmth after spending time helping to feed the homeless or giving someone in need the shirt off our back. God repeatedly reminds us that deep, inner joy is tied to generosity of heart.
Perhaps the key to understanding the intent of today’s readings is to be found in the second reading from Philippians where we hear Paul urging us: “May you always be joyful.” (Philippians 4, 4) If our lives were genuinely joy-filled, they would find expression in generous care, compassion and respect for everyone we encounter.
The storyteller and poet, John Shea wrote a long and haunting poem about John the Baptist, entitled: Advent VII : ‘The Man Who Was A Lamp”. The poem begins with John, sitting in prison and reflecting on his work as a prophet. From his cell, he hears music and dancing above him and Herod promising to give half his kingdom to Salome. That promise triggers a reflection in John in which he sees himself as merely a half-man and a half-prophet, who has completed only half a job. True, he has called people to repentance and criticised the excesses and immorality of rulers and potentates, but he has not offered solutions to society’s problems. He says of himself:
I can denounce a king
but I cannot enthrone one.
I can strip an idol of its power
but I cannot reveal the true God.
I can wash the soul in sand
but I cannot dress it in white.
I devour the Word of the Lord like wild honey
but I cannot lace his sandal.
I can condemn the sin
but I cannot bear it away.
Behold, the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!
It was this poem that inspired the priest writer, Ronald Rolheiser to compare John’s baptism with the baptism that Jesus offered. John was able to denounce Herod by fearlessly speaking the truth. For anyone who cared to listen to him, he could “wash the soul in sand” by blasting off accumulated dirt and corruption. But he did not empower people to correct their lives. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, shaking people up, bringing them to see their sinful behaviour and resolving to change it. Rolheiser continues: “What is Jesus’ baptism? It is an entry into grace and community in such a way that empowers us internally to do what is impossible for us to do by will-power alone…This has been proven inside the experience of thousands of people (many of them atheists) who have been able to find an energy inside of them that clearly does not come from them yet empowers them beyond their will-power alone. Ask any addict in recovery about this. Simply put, too often, as mature adults, we are still trying to live out our lives by John’s baptism alone, that is, by sheer will-power. That gives us a valuable insight into what is wrong in our lives and what is wrong in the world, but leaves us mostly powerless to actually change what is wrong. There is no salvation through willpower alone. Years of trying to change our lives without real results should have taught us that. What we need during our adult years is something that can empower us beyond our own strength, a fire beyond our own, a baptism into grace and community. (Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity, Image, New York, 2014, p. 129-30)
Today’s readings remind us that Advent is a time for us to embrace John's baptism of repentance - realising what is off centre or missing in our lives - so that we might then immerse ourselves in Jesus' baptism of transforming reconciliation and peace. That, of course, means that we have be alert to the gifts of God (grace) all around us, in the events of each day and in the support and encouragement we receive from family, friends, neighbours and strangers (community). We really do have lots of reasons to be joyful.
Second Sunday in Advent
John went through the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3, 1-6
Just a few years ago, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a man in his thirties, dressed in frayed jeans and a flannel shirt, started frequenting a large London supermarket. After closing hours, he was often seen rummaging through dumpsters searching for left-overs discarded by fast-food outlets. Yet there was something about this man that drew shoppers to engage with him whenever he spoke to them. About mid-morning each day, he would take up a position near a fountain in the gallery area of the shopping centre and set about questioning shoppers about why they were spending so much on food, gifts and decorations in preparation for Christmas.
He could be heard teasing passers-by with remarks like: We really like lots of sugar for our Christmas, don’t we? Having gotten their attention, he would proceed to make comments: Christmas is really all about hope and love - and that can be a struggle for many of us. Why not think about giving others gifts of love and kindness and compassion? Perhaps you could go in search of forgiveness and reconciliation from family members and friends who have disappeared from your life. Why not think about carrying the spirit of the Christ Child into the rest of the year?
Interviewers from media outlets started asking shoppers about the impact this man was having on them. Some acknowledged that they agreed with him. Others admitted that they went off and bought toys or clothes for charities they knew. Some even said that they visited nearby churches to pray quietly. Still others dismissed the man as an oddity.
Yet the man persisted with his gentle confrontations, at times criticising the Christmas music being piped through the centre, or ridiculing the gaudy decorations on display. When the Santa hired by the shopping centre turned up, the self-appointed critic made fun of him by asking him questions about the real meaning of Christmas. It wasn’t long before the shop owners started complaining to the mall manager who responded by calling security and having the offender escorted from the premises. When interviewers caught up with the mall manager, they were told that, while the man wasn’t really hurting anyone with his questions and comments, he had to be sent away because he was spoiling people’s Christmas.
The thought occurred to me that this is what a modern-day John the Baptist might look like. Instead of threatening fire and brimstone and calling people to repentance, he might come as a gentle, inoffensive person asking penetrating and discomforting questions. Every second Sunday of Advent John appears in the gospel reading, disturbing our comfort and asking niggling questions.
Clearly, Luke regarded John the Baptist as a very significant figure. He refers to six notably historical personages to mark John’s arrival on the scene. In Luke’s eyes, John was a very important prophet because, in addition to his calling people to change their lives, he heralded the coming of the Messiah. Just as most of us, if we’re old enough, can recall where we were when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon or exactly where we were when we heard of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Luke records John’s appearance as a prophet with no fewer than six markers, something like a prelude to a great musical symphony: “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the territories of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, and while the high priesthood was held by Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, in the desert.” (John 3, 1-3)
You know, there’s something very important about that last phrase “in the desert”. Just for a few moments recall all those people who had a desert experience, and ponder what impact that desert experience had on them. Moses, a murderer on the run, met God in a burning bush in the desert. King David fled to the desert to escape from his son, Absalom, and came to his senses there. It took forty years of wandering through the desert for the Israelites to realise just how important God was in their lives. Mohammed encountered Allah in the desert. So what is the significance of the desert? Deserts are places where people come to appreciate the narrow space between life and death. There are no luxuries in a desert. No television, no cell-phone relays, no microwaves, no ice-cream. That’s where people have traditionally found God, because there are no distractions to get in the way. It was in the desert that Jesus spent forty days and nights, coming to an appreciation of what God was inviting him to do with his life.
Essentially, the desert experience is about letting go of the things that clutter up our lives, and making space to let God in. It’s also about seeking out a time and place of solitude so that we can hear God speaking to our hearts - in the feelings we feel, in the thoughts we think, in what we feel and see around us. God is present in the internal and external events of our lives, and in the whole of creation. Can we stop long enough to let God in?
Now, back to John for a moment, for it is he who foreshadows the real significance of the Christmas event - the coming of Jesus among us, as one of us, and motivated by limitless love for us. John’s niggling presence is a reminder to all of us that God’s presence is all around us and in us, but often we are too preoccupied, too busy, too disinterested to notice.
The same wake-up call, the same God whom John encountered in the desert, the same word of God comes to the barrenness of our own hearts, nudging, disturbing, inviting us to accept the role of prophet and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus by working for justice, reaching out to others with generosity and compassion and forgiveness, and treating everyone we meet with dignity and respect. Can we stop for long enough to hear God’s word and allow it to penetrate our hearts? Advent is an invitation to stop, listen and hear.
First Sunday of Advent
"But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand." Luke 12, 25-28, 34-36
I’m writing this coming Sunday’s reflection as I near the end of two personally enriching weeks in the United States where candidates from both sides of politics have been engaging in debates aimed at convincing the electorate that they have the skills, experience and wisdom equipping them to be the next President. Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz have openly stated that the U.S. refugee program should give preference to Syrian Christians over Muslims. Donald Trump has stated that if he were to be elected, he would build a wall along the U.S. – Mexican border to keep illegals out, and would set about deporting all the illegal immigrants - it’s estimated that there are approximately 11 million in that category.
It reminded me of the yarn about the latest threat from the Australian Government: From next January, the Immigration Minister, in an effort to boost the national economy and to demonstrate his support for the Federal treasurer, has decided to stop deporting illegal aliens and asylum seekers arriving by boat and, instead, to set about deporting elderly Australians. His rationale is that the elderly are easier to apprehend and won’t remember how to find their way back home.
Tears came to my eyes when I thought of all my elderly friends, until I realised that I will be with them, waiting on the wharf for the boat to Nauru.
Talking of January and the start of another calendar year brings me to the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. It will be signalled in our churches with the arrival of the Advent wreath, a change to purple vestments for Mass, and a move to cycle C of the Sunday readings. The early readings of Advent focus on endings: stars falling, the moon failing to reflect light and sunlight declining in intensity. Then there will be a change as the readings in the latter part of Advent begin to anticipate something new arising out of all the destruction. All the while, we are challenged to wait patiently, to make space for reflection and to let go of whatever is cluttering up our lives.
As I thought about the readings for this coming Sunday, I could not get out of my mind things that I have read in my recent wanderings, things that have left me asking what my generation is leaving as legacy to succeeding generations. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of our world is widening at an alarming rate. For instance, in 2013, the executive director of Oxfam, the international charity founded in England in 1942, reported: “It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world’s population - that’s three and a half billion people - own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”
For examples of obscene extravagance, we need look no further than the contract payments made to sporting identities. In 2012, Ohio State University signed up Urban Myer to coach its football team for a fee of $4 million. At the time, that was over three times more than the university President’s salary. In 2013, the American model and social media personality, Kim Kardashian married basketballer, Kris Humphries. The wedding cake alone cost $20,000. The marriage lasted just 72 days before Kardashian filed for divorce. In the space of those 72 days, she earned more than $2 million from the sale of wedding photos and stories syndicated to popular magazines. She has now been married three times, with the combined cost of the weddings estimated at $30 million. Humphries is back playing for the Washington Wizards and this year earned a mere $4.4 million.
Meanwhile, fifteen children are dying somewhere in the world every minute of every day (that’s more than 21,500/day) simply because they don’t have access to clean water, sanitation, food and basic health care.
Today’s gospel reading calls us to look at the social, cultural and moral devastation and degradation that surround us, and confronts us to do something about it, even if that something seems close to futile. It challenges us to emerge from our comfort zones and, at the very least, to voice our disapproval at some of the excesses we have been ignoring.
I’m in the process of reading Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Its heroine is 16-year-old Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of the widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Marie-Laure loses her sight at the age of six due to congenital cataracts. Her father is determined that his beloved daughter will not live a life of self-pity, so he teaches her Braille, and designs intricate puzzle boxes for her to solve. Under his guidance, Marie-Laure learns to negotiate her way with her cane from their apartment to the museum, and then home again. Despite her natural shyness, Marie-Laure develops a sharp, inquisitive intelligence and a steely resilience as France becomes locked into World War II.
When Paris falls to the Nazis, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the town of Saint-Malo in Brittany where they take refuge with relatives. Her father constructs a detailed model of the town. By touching each door, each tree, each streetlight in the model, Marie-Laure memorises every street and landmark until she can confidently negotiate her way around the coastal town. She counts the steps and manhole covers; she learns the sounds and smells unique to every street and place; she follows railings and cables and hedges.
This shy, blind girl grows into a courageous and resourceful young woman. Her ability to make her way through Saint-Malo during the occupation enables her to become an effective operative for the Resistance, contributing significantly to Saint-Malo's liberation, and eventually the liberation of the whole country. Marie-Laure's intelligence, resourcefulness and courage enable her to perceive "the light" that the "seeing" world around her cannot see. She embraces the simple wisdom of the housekeeper in Saint-Malo who takes Marie-Laure under her wing: "If God wants us to see something, we'll see it."
Yet, it’s not always as simple as the housekeeper says. Sometimes things happen around us which we don’t want to see. This first Sunday of Advent invites us to pay attention to the signs of God’s presence in our world, and, by implication, to be attentive to the signs of what is blocking out God’s presence, and then, to respond actively to both. All too often, we are not alert to those signs, or even choose to ignore them because really seeing them, reflecting on them and responding would come at a personal cost we are reluctant to pay. It’s ever so much easier to retreat to the safe isolation of convention and what everyone else is doing. We are not courageous enough to rock the boat or to protest against abuses. There are times when we seek protection in excuses and rationalisations, preferring to block from our consciousness the brokenness of our sisters and brothers victimised and in need. But to fully grasp the meaning and implication of the signs all around us, we have to be courageous enough to face the truth, and then to look beyond ourselves and our own personal comfort and to confront what we know to be patently unjust; to challenge actions and decisions of government, industry and corporations that grind down the vulnerable and treat the poor as if they count for nothing. Imitating the persistence of someone like Marie-Laure in ‘seeing’ with the analytical eye of her intellect, we can begin by first looking with our senses and then with our hearts, eventually coming to examine through the prism of the Gospel, through the prism of justice and compassion everything that is going on around us.
Advent opens by looking at ‘end times’ and extending to us the invitation to reflect on what is collapsing around us. But as Christians, we know that we are also called to look forward in hope. In quiet reflection over the weeks leading up to the hope of Christmas we might do well to open ourselves to the signs of God’s love in our midst and confront situations where we see that God’s love, mercy, compassion and justice are being obstructed.
Christ the King
“For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” John 18, 33-37
Across the centuries, poets, novelists, architects and historians have traced the contours of the greatness of the human spirit. Philosophers, in their turn, have offered us the reasons for that greatness. Yet somehow or other it all comes tumbling down when we look at the communities and countries to which we belong and see the countless poor and homeless on our streets, the mushrooming of our prisons, the stockpiles of weapons, endless slums, recurring slaughter of the defenceless, relentless warring and killing. Our worst nightmares stride across the world in broad daylight. And all we can do is to lament and wring our hands or make threats of vengeance. The kings of earth are firmly set in place.
In his book called The Demons (also variously known as The Possessed or The Devils) Dostoevsky’s character, Shatov, in an extended monologue, comments: “Nations are moved by an unquenchable desire to go on to the end, and, at the same time, to deny the existence of that end.” Some commentators claim that Dostoevsky saw that end as God.
Strangely, even when we are great, our greatness seems to get tinged with a certain guilt, a reluctance to have ourselves stand out from the crowd. We are intelligent, reflective beings, but are often hesitant to analyse the causes of pain and failure. Who of us wants to search for insight into the causes and effects of human misery? Who really wants to look knowingly into darkness?
I am currently reading a book called Looking Away, by Harsh Mander. It is a disturbing and biting critique of how the members of an upwardly mobile middle class in one of the world’s greatest democracies can ignore hundreds of millions of their sisters and brothers living in dire poverty, without the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter and access to running water and sanitation. Harsh Mander is exceptional because of his courage to explore aspects of the darkness that has fallen over his own country and to attribute blame for that darkness.
Today’s gospel deals with a dark moment in the life of Jesus. His enemies have set in motion the process for his destruction. His meeting with Pilate is just one event in a long sequence that sees his hopes disintegrate one after another. However his meeting with Pilate is instructive for it demonstrates how at one moment someone can be exalted to the heavens, and in the next, totally abandoned and left to face the darkness alone. In his moment of darkness, Jesus confronts the truth of what it means to live with integrity.
When the chips are down, we soon realise that none of us is free from personal responsibility to the truth. While the circumstances in which we find ourselves might provide us with all kinds of plausible excuses for dodging our responsibility, we still have to determine whether or not we are going to opt for integrity. The rationalisations that confront us are endless. No doubt they were the same excuses that tempted Jesus: “You have to look after yourself; what one person does hardly matters in the long run; there’s really no point in trying to buck the system.”
Yet, in the middle of his personal crisis, Jesus chooses what he knows in his heart to be the way of integrity. He opts to challenge Pilate to be responsible to his own truth as he sees it: “Does this question come from you or have others told you about me?” (John 18, 34) Pilate’s inability to cope with the question has led to his becoming a symbol of expediency and compromise - a reputation that has given him a place in history that otherwise he would not have attained. Whatever Pilate’s response, it is doubtful that he would have been able to change the course of events that was unfolding. The question that Jesus put to him gave him the opportunity to accept the responsibility of his position and own his part in in the fiasco that was developing. What Jesus knew is that whenever we lose contact with the small truths about ourselves, we are well on the way to losing completely the habit of truthfulness.
A commitment to truth is a perquisite for recognisng Jesus whenever he enters our lives. If Pilate can pretend that he has no knowledge of who Jesus is and his impact as a religious leader, if he can delude himself about what he really thinks of those who have pushed Jesus in front of him, then he is bankrupt as far as his personal truth is concerned.
Jesus, too, has to face his own personal truth. As he is being overwhelmed by the forces of evil, he has to ask himself what all his efforts have really amounted to. He could have hedged as Pilate did, and put the focus on the malevolence of his enemies. He could have attributed blame to the well-meaning incompetence of his disciples. He might even have attributed to naievity and unchecked enthusiasm the longing for the better world that he and his cousin John had envisaged as the Kingdom of God in the now. And he could have given in to doubts and dark thoughts about the God he called Father. But one thing he is certain about is his own commitment to the truth, and what now seemed like a failure of that commitment. His statement to Pilate: “My kingdom does not belong to this world” is a stark acknowledgement that what he had hoped to achieve looked to have fallen short. Yet, amid the farce of a trial, what stands out as Jesus’ greatest personal truth is his simple trust in God’s providence. He is a faithful witness to that truth. Beyond the nightmare that he is enduring, he can somehow see the brightness of a new dawn. From the ruins of his shattered dreams, perhaps he can somehow see a kingdom of justice emerging. One thing we do know is that he confronted the darkness that surrounded him, even as it enveloped him. Is there something we can learn from him?
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Son of Man is near… Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 13, 24-32
The first part of today’s gospel reading (Mark 13, 24-27) presents us with a challenge because it is apocalyptic writing. Such writing gets its name from the Greek apokaluptein, meaning “to unveil”. Mark was writing for a Christian community that was suffering persecution from the Roman Emperor, Nero. So, in order to be able to comment on the atrocities his community was facing, Mark resorted to a kind of “underground literature” that used symbols his audience understood. He was interpreting the events of his own time in light of what had occurred in earlier times. Other Biblical authors wrote in a similar way. For instance, the Book of Daniel repeatedly refers to the terrible deeds of King Nebuchadnezzar, but is, in fact, a savage critique of the brutality of the Syrian tyrant and invader Antiochus Epiphanes, who was in full flight when the Book of Daniel was written. The modern writer, Albert Camus, did the same thing when he wrote his play Caligula. While it seemed as though he was writing about the insane Roman Emperor, Caligula, his French audience saw clearly that it was all about an insane Adolf Hitler. So, rather than presenting predictions of terrible disasters for those who had gone into hiding, Mark was offering a message of hope: your suffering will all be over soon, so have courage and stand firm. The signs you will see in the heavens will point to an earth-shattering experience for all people: the arrival of the new kingdom of God, when peace and justice will prevail.
Mark then switches time frames, and has Jesus use the analogy of new growth on the fig tree to give a message to his community, and equally to us. Just as anyone can see that new growth on the fig tree is a sign that summer is coming, so we have to be alert to the signs around us of God’s presence in our world and in our lives. While we are told that God will come in splendour to judge the world at the end of time, it is important that we remain alert to the fact that God comes into our lives every single day, often in the most unlikely of disguises: in the friendly check-out person in the supermarket, in the crabby bus-driver, in the sick child, in the generous next-door neighbour, in the short-tempered bank clerk, in the beggars we encounter on the street. How do we respond to God’s messages brought to us by all these different people? Perhaps we are inclined to screen them out, to stop them from unsettling us, or to last them out until they recede from out consciousness. But we can also find it in ourselves to make a response that leaves us, and those we encounter, better for the experience.
In April this year, speaking to a group of 19 men presenting themselves for ordination, Pope Francis urged them: "make sure that your homilies arrive directly in people's hearts because they flow from your heart, because what you tell them is what you have in your heart." He went on to talk to them about the importance of keeping their homilies brief and using stories. In a book written just a few years back, Preaching from Memory to Hope (2009), Thomas Long shares the following story:
A minister and his wife were leaving church one evening and heading to dinner to celebrate their anniversary. As they were heading to their car, they saw an elderly man lying on the parking lot asphalt, the stricken man's wife bending over him. As the minister's wife ran back into the church to call an ambulance, the minister ran to the man's side to try to reassure him that help was on the way.
The man looked up at the minister and said "Charlie, please forgive me."
The minister did his best to comfort the man, "Don't worry, help's on the way."
But the man persisted; he said, "Charlie, please forgive me."
The minister finally said, "I'm Sam, but really, help will be here soon.”
The man was clutching his chest - it was clear he was not going to make it to the hospital. And with all the life that was left in him, he grabbed Sam's arm and said, "Charlie, I beg you, forgive me."
Sam said, "I do forgive you. I do forgive you."
Those were the last words that the man heard in this life. What Sam later learned was that this man had a son, one son, named Charlie, and in an ugly argument years and years earlier, he'd disowned him - and hadn't spoken to him since.
Sam later wondered if he had done the right thing, but later realised how this must have weighed on the old man's spirit, as he grieved over the broken relationship with his son and the pain it had caused. This man's dying wish was for forgiveness for something he'd done years and years before. Sadly, broken family relationships like this are not uncommon. Today's Gospel speaks to the precious limits of time. The days of our journey through life are limited. They are God’s gift to us. Yet we often squander our time trying to justify our self-righteous anger instead of seeking to reconcile with those from whom we have distanced ourselves. We so easily lament our inadequacies, forgetting to make the most of the treasures we possess in our hearts. In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to let go of fear and anxiety and to embrace the lasting, eternal treasures of love and mercy, the joy that comes only from selfless giving, the satisfaction that comes from lifting up the hopes and dreams of others, the opportunities of interacting with God present in the ordinary events of each day. As disciples of Jesus, our role is to be witnesses to the kingdom of God among us in the here and now.
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
"Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honour in synagogues, and places of honour at banquets... For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but [this poor widow] from her poverty." Mark 12, 38-44
While it is true that today’s readings (the first, from the Book of Kings and the gospel) are stories in praise of poor widows who give generously from their substance rather than from their excess, the gospel is also a social commentary on how institutions, even religious ones, can exploit the very people they claim to serve and support. On another level, these stories are about stewardship and how we use the resources with which we are blessed. The readings also carry an important message about the motivation behind our giving being much more important than the actual amount of that giving.
Let’s begin, then, with what looks like a mere detail in Mark’s story: “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, where he could watch people putting in their offerings.” Why did Jesus place himself so strategically? The scribes who conducted the temple treasury had earned a reputation for corruption. The gospel reading opened with Jesus criticising them for their social-climbing tendencies, for their focus on personal aggrandisement, their hankering for position and power. The Jewish first-century historian, Josephus makes mention of the Essene community. The Essene community was a mystical sect of Judaism, and there is evidence to suggest that the Essenes found the temple treasury so corrupt that they left in protest and went to live ascetical lives in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. Generally speaking, sitting and watching how much donors contribute to offering boxes is not a spectator sport. So why did Jesus engage in such an activity? I suggest it was something of a protest designed to make the scribes, whom he had already criticised, feel even more uncomfortable. Jesus deliberately niggles those he regards as guilty of exploiting the poor. Remember, too, that in Biblical tradition, widows were regarded as the most vulnerable people in Jewish society, given that, with the death of her husband, a woman no longer had a reliable source of income. Scribes, because of their legal expertise, often acted as trustees and managers of widows’ estates, and found ways of extracting disproportionate fees for service. For reasons such as these, they were the target of Jesus’ anger and criticism.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12, 43-44)
Calling his disciples together and introducing what he has to say with the words: “Truly, I tell you…” are indications from Jesus that what he has to say is of the utmost importance. And what he says is not a comment on the comparison of gifts that people make. It is a lament about the way formal religion can condition the conduct of people to the point that they even risk their livelihood. There is something badly amiss about a system that would reduce a poor widow to the risk of starving.
From yet another perspective, this woman who gives everything she possesses, stands in stark contrast with the rich young man who simply cannot let go of his possessions, and with the disciples who are calculating in what they will get in return for what they have been prepared to give up by following Jesus. Her action also contrasts markedly with so many of us, whose sharing with the poor is half-hearted, grudging and sporadic.
Today’s readings about how two destitute widows in different times and circumstances were prepared to give generously of their limited resources are a challenge to all of us regarding the responsible stewardship of the gifts and resources with which we have been blessed. If we declare ourselves as disciples of Jesus and his Gospel, we have no option but to reflect on how we use our gifts of time, talent and material resources. Genuine discipleship demands authentic stewardship. What has been entrusted to us is for the benefit of the various communities to which we belong - family, friends, neighbours, the poor on our doorsteps. We have no right to contaminate or misuse the gifts at our disposal; we have a duty to preserve the environment, protect our forests, keep the rivers clean. To abuse ourselves, to waste our talents, to horde our possessions, to pollute the earth are all in direct contradiction of the Gospel. I am reminded of something in the Book of Proverbs: “Honour God with everything you have; give God the first and the best.” (Proverbs 3, 9)
Finally, in commenting on the gift of the poor widow, Jesus surely wants us to appreciate that, in the economy of God, what matters is not the measure of our gifts but the measure of the love behind the giving.
In concluding, I share something of a story that appeared in the New York Times on 25th August this year. Augusta Chiwy was a black nurse from the Congo, and was employed in a hospital in the Belgian town of Louvain in the Second World War. In December 1944, when she was visiting her family in Bastogne, an American Army doctor knocked at their door seeking help. He was alone in a makeshift medical aid station. At the time, Bastogne was under siege from a last-ditch German counterattack. However, Augusta and another nurse, Renee Lemaire volunteered their services, transporting injured soldiers from the frontlines to the aid station, and then treating them. At the time, black nurses were not allowed to treat white soldiers - but the doctor got around the regulation by reminding wounded white soldiers that Nurse Chiwy was a volunteer - and added, "You either let her treat you or you die." On Christmas Eve, a bomb blast killed Renee Lemaire and thirty of their patients. While the blast threw Augusta through a wall, she survived and continued working with the injured. Sixty-seven years later, she was honoured by the Belgian government for her heroism. She simply said: “What I did was very normal. I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”
It’s the quiet dedication and generosity of people like Augusta Chiwy that mirror the greatness of the widow of today’s gospel and her mite.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Matthew 5, 1-12
Blessed are the hearts of mercy, to them shall be mercy returned.
Blessed are the pure of spirit, their eyes shall have sight of the Lord.
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. - St Louis Jesuits, Steadfast Love
Kenneth L. Woodward is a journalist, and has been the Religion Editor for Newsweek Magazine since the early 1960s. He has published several books, one of which is entitled Making Saints. In it he wrote: “A saint is someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like - and what we are called to be.” (Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints, p.13) Another journalist, Sidney Harris, commented: “A saint loves people and uses things. A sinner loves things and uses people.” And in Act 3 of A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde describes an exchange between Lady Hunstanton and Lord Illingworth:
LADY HUNSTANTON. Now I am quite out of my depth. I usually am when Lord Illingworth says anything. And the Humane Society is most careless. They never rescue me. I am left to sink. I have a dim idea, dear Lord Illingworth, that you are always on the side of the sinners, and I know I always try to be on the side of the saints, but that is as far as I get. And after all, it may be merely the fancy of a drowning person.
LORD ILLINGWORTH. The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
Finally, in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we read: “You are God's chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3, 12)
These various reflections on what a saint looks like provide a good basis for entering into today’s celebration of all the saints, not just those who have been officially “sainted” in a canonisation process. Today’s “Solemnity of All Saints” gives us reason and opportunity to celebrate all the saints who have touched our lives; those we have known and who have lived among us; those who are still part of our lives and who continue to inspire and encourage us (death is not a prerequisite for sainthood); the “blessed” of today’s gospel through whom God continues to touch us and our world. Today is the day when we honour all those ordinary women and men who have lived and continue to live among us, enriching us, encouraging us and inspiring us by their selflessness, their compassion, their love and their gentleness.
At some time or other in our lives, we have joined with others in praying the Church’s official “Litany of the Saints”. Today gives us an opportunity to draw up our own litany of saints. In order to get started, all we need to do is to take a blank sheet of paper and write the name of one person whose kindness has made an impact on us. Without too much effort, we will be able to add another name, and then another and another. If we need more prompting, we can take out our address book or our Christmas card list and tick off all those whom we remember with gratitude. Yet another way to draw up our list is to write the names of the 10 people who have made a significant contribution in shaping us into the person we have become. In a short time, we will have compiled a list of the people who have inspired us, taught us, supported us, loved us, challenged us. The list we complete is our “litany of saints” - all those people who, in different ways, have reflected to us something of the goodness, love and compassion of God.
The contemporary theologian, Philip Yancey, in his book Disappointment with God, tells the story behind a crumpled and battered photograph he came across while going through a box of family photos with his widowed mother. It was a photo of himself as an eight-month-old baby, and he wondered aloud why his mother had kept it, especially when there were several better ones of him at that age. Yancey’s father had been stricken with polio at the age of 24. As a result, he spent the last four months of his life in an iron lung. Because of the severity of his illness, his two young sons were not allowed to visit him. So he asked his wife to bring him pictures of herself and their two boys. Because he was unable to move even his head, the pictures where squeezed through a narrow slit in the iron lung and manoeuvred within his line of sight. For the last four months of his life, the father whom Yancey never knew spent his days looking at the faces of the people he loved. Reflecting on the story behind that crumpled and tattered photo, Yancey wrote:
“I have often thought of that crumpled photo, for it is one of the few links connecting me to the stranger who was my father. Someone I have no memory of, no sensory knowledge of, spent all day every day thinking of me, devoting himself to me, loving me. The emotions I felt when my mother showed me the crumpled photo were the very same emotions I felt one February night in a college dorm room when I first believed in a God of love. Someone like my father is there, I realised. Someone is there every day thinking of me, loving me. It was a startling feeling of wild hope, a feeling so new and overwhelming that it seemed fully worth risking my life on.”
That’s the kind of risk taken by the very ordinary saints of your life and mine. In the process of that risk-taking, they have loved us unto life. Let’s take the time to be grateful for them.
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside. He began to shout out: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me . . .!” Then Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him: “Teacher, let me see again.” Mark 10, 46-52
Today’s gospel is the account of the last cure Jesus did before he entered Jerusalem and endured the events that led to his death by crucifixion. Scripture scholars see the cure of Bartimaeus as an instruction to those in Mark’s community who were preparing for baptism. Notice, for instance, that Jesus puts to Bartimaeus the same question as he had asked James and John when they were scheming for special privileges: “What do you want?” In marked contrast to their request, the blind beggar responds with: “Let me see again.” As in so many of the miracles of Jesus, there is a spiritual dimension as well as a physical one. Bartimaeus not only asks for physical sight but also for spiritual insight, an understanding of truth. The book of Isaiah repeatedly identifies the healing of the blind as a sign of the new age that will accompany the arrival of the Messiah (see Isaiah 29, 18; 35, 5; 42, 7). In this story, Mark is clearly contrasting the insight of the blind beggar with the thickheadedness of the apostles. He is also comparing Bartimaeus with the rich young man. The blind man lets go of everything he has - his cloak that shelters him from the heat, the wind and the rain, and from the prying eyes of the curious. In the baptismal language of the early Christian community, he sets aside his former life and comes to Jesus in the belief that he will receive everything he needs.
There are several other aspects of this story that are worthy of note. Jesus affirms Bartimaeus with the very same words that he used to affirm the woman with the haemorrhage (Mark 5, 21-43) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7, 25-30): “Go; your faith has made you well.” Jesus points out that it was the faith of all three that was their saving grace, enabling them to live their new life in peace. In contrast to the rich young man, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way” - the way of discipleship, heading towards Jerusalem, a way that will involve suffering, persecution and even death.
This story of the blind beggar confronts us with all kinds of questions. Who are the people in our lives we would like to silence? Who are those who refuse to be silenced, who demand a hearing? Whose cries for help and support are we ignoring? If we are hearing the cries of refugees from Syria and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, how are we responding? To what possessions, masks and defences are we clinging to prevent us from hearing the questions which Jesus and today’s gospel are putting to us? Are we really serious about wanting to see with eyes of faith?
Chapters 7-10 of Mark’s Gospel, from which the Sunday readings over the last eight or nine weeks have been taken, contain a succession of stories to demonstrate that once we really encounter Jesus and the message he proclaims, we will be challenged and changed in our very depths. In his book, Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel, the Jewish writer, teacher, political activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1986), who survived the Holocaust (He endured a two-year ordeal in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.) tells the following story of how a man poured out his woes to his Rabbi:
“I come from Rizhin. There, everything is simple, everything is clear. I prayed, and I knew I was praying; I studied, and I knew I was studying. Here in Kotzk, everything is mixed up, confused; I suffer from it, Rebbe. Terribly. I am lost. Please help me so I can pray and study as before. Please help me to stop suffering.”
The Rebbe peers at his disciple in tears and asks: “And whoever told you that God is interested in your studies and your prayers? And what if He (sic) preferred your tears and your suffering?” (Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, p. 235)
I don’t accept that God wants us to weep and to suffer. However, when tears and suffering come our way they often test the strength of our faith in God who never abandons us.
I wonder if this is the kind of situation Jesus had in mind when he said: “Blessed are those who mourn”? (Matthew 5, 4) Bartimaeus knew what suffering was. Instead of being broken by it, he emerged courageous and strong. The reprimands from those in the crowd who tried to discourage him from approaching Jesus, made him even more determined. Compared with what he had been through, what they regarded as inappropriate was a mere pin-prick as far as Bartimaeus was concerned.
While the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (a bitter critic of Christianity) almost certainly did not have the message of Jesus in mind when he said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, Bartimaeus is one character in Mark’s Gospel who epitomises that. Through his courage, he preaches a lesson from which we might all learn something. When life brings us troubles and challenges that seem unendurable, do we take them to prayer, not in the hope that they will evaporate, but with confidence that, with God’s help, we might endure them and emerge stronger for the experience.
Bartimaeus asks Jesus to help him see again. Jesus responds by urging him to look with the eyes of the faith which he already possesses. Jesus affirms him by acknowledging that his determination in coming forward in faith demonstrates his ability to see God’s compassion at work within and around him. Jesus confirms Bartimaeus’ goodness by inviting him to discipleship, to be an instrument of God’s healing for others.
That same invitation was extended to the rich young man, and is extended to us. Do we have the faith and courage needed to embrace it?
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
"Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized…? You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all." Mark 10, 35-45
Among those who risk wagering their money on race-horses, there’s a saying which goes: “Always put your money on Self-Interest, because it will win every time.” The reality is that every punter who bets money on a horse or a dog is always focused on self-interest. James and John in today’s gospel story are so preoccupied with self-interest that they overlook their companions. In fact they want status, power and position without being prepared to invest themselves in hard work and effort.
Over recent weeks, the readings from Mark have repeatedly highlighted the thick-headedness of the apostles, who have been unable to grasp the message that there is a real cost to discipleship of Jesus. The request they make of Jesus is naïve in the extreme. It is the equivalent of asking him for a blank cheque: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In his account of the same event, Matthew makes excuses for the thickheadedness of James and John by blaming their ambition on their mother. Jesus responds by pointing out to them their naivety, and asking them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “Drinking the cup” is an ambiguous expression for it carries the double meaning of tasting both ultimate bitterness and ultimate joy - the two are inseparable. The irony of their “we are able” will be seen shortly. When Jesus prays to his Father to take away “this cup” (Mark 14, 24), James, John and all the others are found snoring their heads off. Moreover, in the Letter to the Romans, Paul comments: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6, 3) The irony of the request made by James and John and their hollow response is intensified by the fact Jesus had just explained to the apostles what would be involved in “drinking the cup” : “then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him;” (Mark 10, 34). Discipleship of Jesus will always involve the Cross in one shape or another.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is asking all of us, together with James and John, if we are willing to spend our life for the sake of the Gospel, if we will accompany him to the cross.
Commitment to Jesus and his Gospel includes the cross. We know from experience that being committed to honesty will attract pressure and even ridicule from employers and colleagues who want us to compromise. If we commit to truth, there will be others who concoct stories and rumours about us. If we commit to fidelity and chastity, the media will bombard us with Calvin Klein. If we commit to ethics, there will be someone to blow the whistle on us. Every commitment to the Gospel of Jesus will bring close association with his cross. James and John wanted glory but without the price of enduring commitment.
What then does the commitment demanded of us by Jesus actually look like? Perhaps it’s best described in manageable pieces. First, it’s about being present to those with whom we share our lives, especially family, friends or community members. Connectedness and intimacy grow only through presence to one another. They cannot be achieved through texting and voice messages. We have to commit presence and quality time to one another if we are to grow into healthy, integrated human beings. And we have to commit time to prayer and reflection if we are to grow close to God. The cross is the struggle to make time for those we say we love - for family, friends and God. The crown is love and God himself.
Deep within us there is a longing for completion. We long to be whole, or, if you prefer, holy. Perhaps the simplest definition of what it means to be holy is to grow into being unafraid of ourselves, of others and of God. In essence, that’s what intimacy really is. When we learn not to be afraid of public opinion, we are on the way to finding and being our true selves. When we are not afraid of those we call our friends, we can entrust our secret selves to them without fearing betrayal; we can say what we really think and feel without the fear of being assessed and measured, without feeling that we have to explain or apologise. The cross we risk is exposing ourselves to vulnerability and potential hurt and rejection.
Mother Teresa reminded us that ordinarily: “We can’t do big things. We’re just not capable of them. But we can do little things faithfully.” Faithful commitment to the little things in life is a form of holiness well-within our reach - the offered smile, words of encouragement, a meal prepared, a courtesy extended, a simple “thank-you”, a compliment freely given, a hug given, a birthday remembered. The cross is being ever ready to put oneself second. The crown is bringing joy to others, making their day more endurable.
Perhaps the most difficult commitment of all is to live with the awareness and conviction that God really does love us. Isn’t it true that Jesus described God as like a guileless and foolish father who ran down the road to embrace and welcome home a selfish, wayward son? And didn’t Jesus say that God was like a stupid shepherd who abandoned ninety-nine sheep to go looking for a single stray? God welcomes us no matter what mistakes we’ve made. To live convinced of that and to be committed to dropping our defences in order to let God love us is probably our most difficult challenge. The cross is to set aside our pride. The reward is God.
There are no short-cuts to any of this. And there are no blank cheques. Put together, they create the kingdom of God and our role in it.
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Mark 10, 17-30
It is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the story of the rich young man is really a reprimand directed at everyone who has acquired wealth. When the young man at the centre of the story acknowledged that he had held fast to the commandments ever since he was a boy, Jesus, according to today’s gospel, “looked on him and loved him”. The young man, however, in his eagerness and earnestness, stated that he wanted to do more than keep the commandments. Jesus responded by inviting him to sell up his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. However, the man’s enthusiasm outstripped his ability to commit himself to that extra step. While he was unable to rise to the challenge that Jesus put to him, there is not even a hint of a suggestion that Jesus stopped loving him. The man himself was sad because he could not bring himself to accept the invitation of Jesus to become an apostle, to leave everything behind, and set out on the road with Jesus and those close to Jesus who had left their families and their nets or their tax-collecting tables behind them.
Jesus proceeds to comment on how wealth can be a serious distractor for anyone: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth.” (Mark 10, 23) However, it would be a mistake to isolate this verse from the rest of the Gospel. After all, Jesus did not criticise Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, who seemed to live quite comfortably. Nor was Joseph of Arimathea was short of a shekel. And it was Jesus himself who told the story of the good Samaritan, who would not have been in a position to help the man who had been beaten and robbed if he were not a man of means. Moreover, when Jesus sent his disciples out to practice their teaching and preaching skills, he told them to rely on the generosity of those who had the means to feed and accommodate them. So, Jesus is not proclaiming that wealth is evil. He does make the point that it can get in the way and distract us from reaching out to the poor and needy.
We also should not forget that many of the Rabbis of Jesus’ time would have instructed people on the good things that came from keeping the commandments. The Book of Deuteronomy enumerates all the blessings that come to those who observe the commandments and fully obey God: “The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to…The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity - in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground…you will always be at the top, never at the bottom (Deuteronomy 28, 1-14).
Yet we all know that wealth can hinder our freedom and dampen our resolve to live the Gospel radically. While it is true that prophets like Amos seemed to rail against the wealthy, their anger was directed against those who got rich by exploiting and cheating the poor and who failed to give material assistance to widows and orphans: “Listen to this, you who crush the needy and reduce the oppressed to nothing…you who say: ‘We can make the bushel-measure smaller and the shekel-weight bigger by fraudulently tampering with the scales. We can buy up the weak for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals, and even get a price for the sweepings of the wheat’” (Amos 8, 4-8). And in the Book of Tobit we read: “If you are stingy in giving to the poor, God will be stingy in giving to you. Give according to what you have. The more you have, the more you should give. Even if you have only a little, be sure to give something.” (Tobit 4, 7-11)
As Jesus concludes his remarks on the risk of getting distracted by wealth and forgetting the poor and needy, he gathers everything together by asking us where we stand: It is with the first in this world or the last; is it with the poor or with those who lack nothing?
Wealth, possessions and attachments take many different forms. We know that, no matter what guise they come in, they can clutter our lives and distract us from the commitment we want to make to Jesus and his Gospel. Most of us, in our calm and reflective moments, can probably see ourselves as good people. None of us is perfect, yet we know that we generally don’t cheat or steal or lie. We respect ourselves and others, we are considerate and helpful to others and we don’t belittle or hurt those with whom we live and work. We could probably take a comfortable seat beside the “rich young man” in terms of our goodness and decency. But how might we respond if Jesus or another close friend were to say to us: “There’s something missing in your life. Switch off your cellphone, your computer and your iPad because they’re separating you from those you say you love, and from noticing needy people around you.” Maybe we would be as stunned and devastated as the rich young man of today’s gospel. If we were to let go of the devices to which we cling, we might think that we would miss out on something.
In recent years, psychologists have identified a behavioural disorder, which they have called FOMO (fear of missing out). It is a condition of anxiety and restlessness, triggered by messages posted on social websites suggesting that something interesting or exciting may be going on elsewhere. FOMO can find expression in all kinds of ways. Some people become so attached to their cellphones that they take them to the dinner table, the bathroom and even to bed. Others become so addicted to Facebook and Linkedin that they spend hours each day checking out new postings, to make sure that they are never out of the loop. The result is that one can find oneself alone in a roomful of people because everyone else is checking their text messages. (see Psychology Today, 3rd May, 2013 and 17th January, 2015)
It might come as a shock to some of us to be told that the Kingdom of God is not accessed digitally, and that genuine love is not a virtual experience. Maybe, one of the messages we can take from today’s gospel is to practice disconnecting from the internet and the cellphone in order to connect with God’s love that finds rich expression in relationship with real, live people.
Similar to the electronic devices which a consumer society has convinced us that we cannot do without, wealth, possessions and prosperity, all of which are meant to assist us on the journey to express the love in our hearts, can clutter our lives and distract us. What is meant to assist us on life’s journey becomes more important than the journey itself. Jesus invites the rich young man and us to set aside wants and desires, possessions (even cellphones), status and fame in order to engage meaningfully with those we love and to live and work with and for those in need. That’s what the demands of true discipleship look like.
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
So the man named all the birds and all the animals, but not one of them was a suitable companion to help him. Genesis 2, 18-24
“A man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against his wife. In the same way, a woman who divorces her husband and marries another man commits adultery...Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Mark 10, 2-16
It is with some degree of trepidation that I venture to comment on today’s readings, which give considerable attention to the topic of marriage and divorce. I will therefore do my best to keep the focus on the text of the readings.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus quoting from the section in Genesis from which today’s first reading is taken. He does so in order to emphasise that the covenant or binding agreement, which husbands and wives make to one another in marriage, is meant to reflect the covenant or promise that God has made with humanity. God loves us all with a love that is everlastingly faithful and unconditional. The reality is that no amount of preaching or advice about how spouses might best relate to one another or how we all might go about relating to one another will have any significant impact on us until we take time to explore the unexamined longings in our hearts for something or someone beyond us. Interpersonal relationships with those with whom we share our lives will begin to grow once we seriously explore our basic dissatisfactions and our upsets with and deep seeking for God in our personal lives.
Yet again, in order to properly understand the comments of Jesus about divorce, we have to have some appreciation of the place of marriage in the society of his day. Women and children had no rights. Consequently, marriage provided some degree of security for women and the children to whom they gave birth. However, the marriage contract gave all the rights to the man. He could divorce his wife simply by handing her a piece of paper stating that he was dissatisfied with her. And she had no right of appeal. The source of his dissatisfaction could range from spoiling the dinner all the way to marital infidelity. Any perceived failing on the part of a wife could be categorised under the flexible heading of “indecency”. Of course, “indecency” was open to all manner of interpretation. As a consequence, divorce was far from rare in the society of Jesus’ time, and discussion and debate about what exactly constituted “indecency” was a popular pastime among those who had a fascination with law. It was no surprise, then, that some Pharisees raised the topic of divorce with Jesus.
Jesus makes direct reference to the Genesis story of the creation of man and woman (Genesis 1, 27 and 2, 24) in order to stress that, in any marriage, husband and wife are equal partners (“the two become one body”). The implication is that husband and wife have a responsibility to love one another totally and to treat one another with mutual respect. In essence, then, Jesus is really championing the rights of women who, in first-century Judaism, had been deprived of all rights and treated as property.
Jesus squarely confronted anyone who favours easy divorce because it exposes vulnerable women and their children, reducing them to mere cast-offs. He insists that they be treated with dignity and respect, fully knowing that divorce exposes them to serious personal risk.
In recent months, Pope Francis has echoed Jesus’ call to protect those made most vulnerable by divorce. While marriage is meant to be a tangible sign of God’s love and presence among us, while it is meant to reflect the limitless and unconditional love of God, Jesus is clearly on the side of those who are hurt when marriages fail. True justice and compassion are much more to be promoted than adherence to a legalism that ends up punishing those who are defenceless.
In recent months, Pope Francis has stressed that, while good marriages are living signs of the graciousness and fidelity of a loving God, those whose lives have been shattered by divorce are still in good standing with the Christian community, and are to be treated with compassion, respect and dignity.
All too often, we are given the impression that the official Church monitors human matchmaking and mating with considerable vigour. It would be comforting if, at the same time, it were to offer married people a vision and appreciation of God that was attractive and well worth pursuing. Pope Francis is doing all he can to steer a compassionate course between the ideal for marriage which today’s gospel holds up and the need for gentleness and compassion for all those whose lives have been impacted by circumstances that fall short of that ideal.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
John said to him: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not one of us.” But Jesus said: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able in the next breath to speak ill of me. Whoever is not against us is for us…whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will, by no means, lose the reward.” Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48
Once again, we have a gospel reading that is dripping with irony. Jesus has just finished demonstrating to the disciples, and telling them twice over, that God’s company includes all those people whom everyone else excludes. And then John comes running up, calling out like a jealous teenager: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.” (Mark 9, 38) Jesus had just finished holding up to the disciples a child - a real, live symbol of all who were regarded as not belonging. In doing so, he had directed the disciples to welcome anyone who was “not one of us”. By complaining about the man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, John demonstrated that he and the disciples had failed to grasp what Jesus was saying. John was effectively seeking a divine restraining order on anyone whom he regarded as not belonging to Jesus’ inner circle.
It is all too easy to slip into an elitist view of faith that seeks to diminish the value of good done by people we consider to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Since they are “not one of us”, we can easily dismiss the good they are doing. Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that anyone who acts out of generosity and compassion, who is moved by mercy and a desire to see justice done, is welcome in his company.
Some 15 years ago, a farmer by the name of Will Campbell, who became an itinerant preacher, published a series of thirty reflections challenging readers on the depth of the religious faith they professed. His stated aim was “to deflate the pompous, indict the hypocritical, and expose the self-righteous”. His book entitled Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher includes the following story:
We refer to people living on the streets as homeless. Actually, they are houseless, not homeless. Their home is wherever they may be. A sad plight, especially with winter coming on. For the past few weeks, I’ve been out peddling books. Almost the way people used to do vacuum cleaners and hairbrushes: door to door. In every city I visited, I inquired as to the number of people living on the streets. Then I asked how many churches, synagogues and mosques there were. I was not too surprised to learn that, in most cities, there are about the same number of houseless people as there are congregations.
Quite often when I make a speech to a church group - they hardly ever ask me to do anything as sacred as a sermon - someone will say, "You complain a lot about the faithlessness of the steeples, but you never tell us what we can do to make the world better."
Well, how about this: Let every congregation adopt one person who lives on the streets. Ask no questions as to the worthiness of these people. Who among us is worthy? Just find them lodging, a job, friends - give them hope. That would solve the problem of people living on the streets.
"But how would you afford it?"
“The same way you afford your tall steeples, rich edifices, preachers' salaries, and all the rest. With tithes and offerings”. (Will Campbell, Soul Among Lions, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, p.15-16)
John, the disciples and so many of us who claim to follow Jesus have been extremely slow to grasp Jesus’ message. One does not have to be a Christian in order to behave honourably and do good. For hundreds of years, Catholics regarded themselves as superior to Christians of other denominations. Fortunately, Vatican II put a halt to that. Yet it took centuries for us to recognise that anyone, irrespective of his or her religious affiliation, who gives as little as a cup of water in Jesus’ name, will not go unnoticed.
In that context, I refer to a story that was included in the November 2014 issue of Reader’s Digest. It was contributed by James Didlow of Texas to the section Your true Stories in 100 words:
A friend told me that as a kid, his father—a poor farmer and binge drinker—became abusive when drunk, forcing the family to escape into their cornfield, with him frequently shooting after them with his .22 rifle. Their neighbour, an elderly Amish farmer, came by one day explaining that rats had been in his corncrib and asked if anyone could sell him a .22. After a bargain was struck, my friend followed the neighbour and observed him crossing the river bridge, stopping midstream, and dropping the rifle and ammunition into the river. (Readers Digest, November 2014, p.22)
What a refreshing “cup of cold water”, given so unobtrusively!
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all”…Taking the child in his arms, he said to them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9, 30-37
If your secondary school education in Church history was anything like mine, you were probably given the impression that Jesus’ apostles were metaphorical giants of faith, whose missionary efforts and life testimony turned the world on its head and led entire populations to embrace Christ and his Gospel. It has been only in fairly recent times that these close friends of Jesus have been demythologised and presented to us as uncomplicated men, bearded and scruffy, not inclined to clean themselves up every day, and fairly slow to grasp what Jesus was trying to teach them. Despite our readiness to spruce them up and to idealise them, they seem to have been every bit as self-centred, obtuse and bumbling as we often are. Mark’s Gospel labours the point that they just didn’t comprehend what Jesus was presenting to them about the kingdom of God. Today’s gospel reading once again discloses that the apostles had hopes of being big-shots in a new world-order which they hoped that Jesus as Messiah would usher in.
Anyone who has tried to work at directing adolescent hearts and minds to the values of the Beatitudes and the kingdom of God can take heart from the way in which the apostles couldn’t get the message either. In fact, Jesus’ message got through to them well and truly after he had departed the scene. However, when that message finally did get through, they were not only transformed themselves but they also did have a profound influence on those to whom they took the Gospel. So, there’s hope for all of us!
Mark’s account of how Jesus confronted them once they had arrived at Capernaum borders on the farcical. When Jesus asks: “What were you arguing about on the way?”, they behave like school boys who have been caught out. They are reduced to silence, unable to admit that they have been competing with one another, boasting about their achievements and ambitions.
But let’s not forget that such boasting is not exactly foreign to the Church of which we are part. A clerical Church has long held the view that the measure of a male’s capacities can be found in the colour of his hat and cassock. And so long as the rest of us insist on situating ourselves on the conservative – liberal spectrum, we’ll be inclined to judge which ones have the inside running as far as God’s will is concerned. Yet again, the Gospel is a mirror held up to all of us to look into.
The self-centredness of the disciples reminded me of a newspaper article I read in an airport terminal in July. It was a report on how a group of psychology students in Maryland University responded to the last item on their exam paper. Printed on the bottom of the final page was an instruction: “Select whether you want 2 marks or 6 marks added to your final grade. But there’s a small catch: If more than 10% of the class selects 6 marks, then nobody in the class gets any extra marks.” 20% of the students selected 6 marks.
In his interview with the newspaper (USA Today, 17th July 2015), the class professor explained that he added the final item to the exam to illustrate what is referred to by psychologists as “the tragedy of the commons”. Over the seven years that the item has been included on the exam, only one class has received the extra 2 marks credit.
The tragedy of the commons is a term coined by scientist Garrett Hardin in 1968 describing what can happen in groups when individuals act in their own best self interests and ignore what’s best for the whole group. A group of herdsmen shared a communal pasture, so the story goes, but some realised that if they increased their own herd, it would greatly benefit them. However, increasing one’s own herd without regard to the resources available also brings unintentional tragedy — in the form of the destruction of the common grazing area.
The way the students responded to the possibility of extra marks is rather like the way we can all behave as we use shared resources such as land, water, electricity and food. If we are sensitive to what we need (as opposed to what we desire), we will be mindful of the needs of others. Shortages occur when individuals make selfish options. Individual overuse of shared or common resources causes suffering for whole communities.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges his disciples to put self-interest in second place. All too often we can look at life’s challenges only from the perspective of how they affect us. The varying responses from governments around the world to the Syrian refugee crisis illustrate well the struggle between self- interest and the common good. We have even seen how people-smugglers have turned the misfortune of refugees to their own financial gain. In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges all who would be his disciples to choose the unnoticed greatness of putting themselves last, to find the authority that comes from being servants to others, to discover the power that emanates from advocating on behalf of the poor and the displaced, the forgotten and the alienated. That’s how we can find a place in our world as contributing and responsible members of society, and as worthy disciples of Jesus. That’s what will give our lives meaning and purpose.
Jesus went on to reinforce his challenge by drawing attention to a child - symbol of the vulnerability, uncertainty, fear and doubt we all experience from time to time. Remember that in Jesus’ time children had a precarious existence. They were prey to disease, poverty, hunger and abuse. They had no rights, and so were reduced to little more than slaves. Even in today’s world, children are trafficked, and, in some countries, exterminated if they happen to live on the streets. The care and reverence we extend to children and to the child-like in our society is surely a mirror of the love God extends to us.