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Second Sunday of Advent
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea, saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3, 1-12
As we edge closer to Christmas, we begin thinking about all those to whom we are going to send a Christmas message through snail mail or email, Twitter or Facebook. Could you see yourself putting together a Christmas message with a graphic of John the Baptist at the centre, and underneath a personal greeting: “Dear Bill & Margaret & Family, My thoughts and prayers are with you, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus into our lives; Clean up your act, you brood of vipers, and behave as though you understand what Christmas is all about”?
Well, that’s the kind of message with which John the Baptist confronts us in the gospel-reading of this second Sunday of Advent. It’s quite possible that the bustle associated with the end of the calendar year and the commercialism of Christmas shopping might shield us from seeing that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all preface the Christmas story with John the Baptist and his confronting, destabilising message. However, the only authentic way to understand the true meaning of what occurred in that manger in Bethlehem is to face up to John and digest his message. To ignore the Baptist is to block out the truth.
We’re all getting excited, in anticipation of celebrating the fact that God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, born like one of us, but in the unhygienic surrounds of a cattle shed, and then wrapped up in something warm and placed in a feed bin for the animals. Blocking our way is an eccentric, ranting prophet who is not about to take a backward step. He lets loose at us and anyone else smugly satisfied with their life style, in the same way as he did at the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? What makes you think you’re special? There are no short-cuts to repentance and change of heart!”
So, we’re having our cages rattled a bit and being challenged to reflect on how we might have slipped into a comfortable zone of spiritual lethargy. We might be physically exhausted from a hectic year but may have let ourselves slip into neutral when it comes to prayer, reflection and change of heart. The sin of settlement is a reality to which we are all vulnerable. Moreover, our political leaders are so predictably trapped in self-interest that we can switch them off and lull ourselves into dangerous disinterest. Their inability to engage us helps to reinforce our lethargy in other aspects of our lives.
History does repeat itself, and something like that happened among the Jews and Christians of Europe between the two great world wars. Christians allowed themselves to become deaf and blind to the moral dangers of Nazism and the Jews failed to grasp the significance of the mounting threat to their physical and material security. Both were paralysed by fear and inertia. One group was afraid to raise their voices in protest, while the other was afraid of dislocation.
The famed, but controversial, psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (of Austrian Jewish origin) won recognition for a book entitled The Uses of Enchantment (1976). It is essentially about the importance of fairy tales in a child’s development. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales make a vital contribution to a child’s healthy emotional development, assisting the child to process feelings like anxiety and fear, that could become problematic in later stages of development. After his death, Bettelheim was accused of plagiarising the work of Drs Julius Heuscher and Alan Dundes. Heuscher magnanimously commented: “We all plagiarise…I’m not sure whether it came out of my own brain or if it came from somewhere else…I’m only happy that I would have influenced Bruno Bettelheim…Poor Bruno Bettleheim. I would not want to disturb his eternal peace with this.” However, Bettelheim’s first published book was The Informed Heart (1960), in which he writes of his arrest in 1938 for being a dissident, and critic of the growing German threat against the European Jews. He had been urging his fellow Jews to emigrate if they wanted to save their lives. He and other young men like him had tried to warn the Jews in Germany that terror and destruction was almost on their doorsteps. Their elders however replied that they were well settled and could not leave their homes and possessions behind. Bettelheim and many of his peers were released from Dachau as a birthday gesture by Hitler, just before the start of World War II. Most of those young people fled Germany immediately. Their elders were soon swallowed up by the Nazi terror.
Bettelheim’s pleas of urgency echoed the challenges and warnings of John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. Only we will decide whether or not we respond to John’s challenge to let go of any hesitation to change or reluctance forego our false comfort or lethargy. We all know what exactly is blocking our freedom; we all know what it is to which we are addicted - work, cell-phone, computer, watching pornography, jogging, an unhealthy relationship - and we all can create reasons for holding on to those dependencies. The Baptist calls us to acknowledge what holds us back and to find the necessary courage, and trust in God to break the bonds.
The flip side of today’s gospel message is that we are also being challenged to imitate John the Baptist. At Baptism, we were anointed to be prophets - not in the sense of foretelling the future or threatening doom and destruction, but in proclaiming the truth in word and action. To be a prophet is to witness with courage and credibility that God is very much alive and active in our lives and in our world, that God is present in our places of work, in our homes, in our parish communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our places of rest, relaxation and entertainment. A prophet’s success is not measured by the numbers who come as disciples or by the applause of the audience, but in our fidelity to doing what we know is right, by the passion we have for justice, and by our readiness to speak the truth, irrespective of who our audience happens to be.
If Pope Francis is right in stating that what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas is “our encounter with God who was born in the poverty of the stable of Bethlehem in order to teach us the power of humility” (address to the Vatican curia, December 2014), then we might find within ourselves the humility to heed the call of John the Baptist and do something about it.
First Sunday of Advent
“If the owner of the house had known at what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24, 37-44
Today’s gospel reading gives us an image of God with which we may well be a little uncomfortable. The New Testament offers us many comforting images of God. Shepherd, forgiving father, non-judgemental father who welcomes us, boundless lover who does not put conditions on accepting us, mother hen who gathers together her chickens are but some of those images. But we might hesitate a bit at Matthew’s description of God as someone who comes like a thief in the night, as though trying to catch us unaware and unprepared. Yet, that same image occurs twice in the Book of Revelation (3, 3; 16, 15;) and in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5, 2;). But let us hold that thought for a few moments, for we are exhorted in the gospel reading of this first Sunday of Advent to wait patiently and to stay awake and alert to a God who, in reality, comes into our lives every single day.
Advent heralds the start of a new year in the Christian calendar and is, therefore, an invitation to look at our lives anew and to set our priorities right with a few new-year resolutions. In that context, have you heard of the joint agreement made by the leaders of Great Britain, the United States, Hungary, Italy, Australia and all the other so-called “developed” nations trying to lock out asylum seekers and illegal immigrants? They have had a change of heart and, instead of chasing down illegals and chasing away refugees, they have decided to begin deporting old people in order to boost their declining economies. The rationale behind it is that oldies are much easier to catch and will forget how to find their way back home. So there’s something new for many of us to think about.
Perhaps it’s also something new for us to think about God as a thief. Some of us build for ourselves a false sense of security. We take comfort in having a substantial bank account, a growing portfolio of stocks and shares, a couple of vehicles and season tickets for our favourite sporting teams or the opera and orchestral concerts. But all these things become meaningless when the bottom falls out of the national economy and the stock market, or when a spouse or another family member is snatched away in a fatal accident. Then there are thieves who break into our houses after making sure that nobody is at home. We feel violated by their intrusion and the knowledge that they have invaded what is private in our lives. All these things come unannounced and without warning. God, too, comes unannounced when those closest to us are called home in death. Do we ever think that seeking security in the things that will disappear is a fruitless pursuit? Does it ever occur to us that our greatest security and our best investment are to be found in our love for God and for all the people who are part of our network of relationships, including those people who struggle to make ends meet either financially or emotionally?
What’s more, if we listen carefully to what Jesus says about God, we come to realise that we are all loved intensely by a God who is intent on stealing our hearts. God does not shield us from the hurts and disappointments that are part of life. But God does offer us the security that comes from knowing we are truly loved, and a deep, inner peace that no one can take from us. However, to gain that lasting peace and security we have to let go of our false securities and begin rubbing shoulders with the poor, neglected and forgotten one’s of this world. We have to take the risk of being keeper to our brothers and sisters, and of opening our ears to the countless opportunities we have of encountering God in the beauty of the natural world and all the people with whom we engage each and every day of our lives.
Advent is a season in the Christian calendar when we are invited to pray and reflect on the true meaning of God’s incarnation in our flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. To do that requires time and patience - two things that we have become expert at ensuring are in short supply. We choose to live our lives at such a frenetic pace that we rarely take time out for prayer and reflection, and reduce patience to an unfamiliar virtue.
We repeatedly tell ourselves and others that there are not enough hours in the day to satisfactorily achieve the tasks and goals we set for ourselves and others set for us. And hardly a day goes by without impatience coming to disturb our equilibrium.
Those of us who drive cars and trucks often slip into vocal criticism of “all the ratbags on the road”. Yet we cannot admit to falling into that category ourselves. If we took the time to position ourselves near traffic lights, we would hear countless horns being blown at drivers who are slow to move off on the green light.
Could I suggest that we observe what goes on inside us when the doctor or the dentist keeps us waiting beyond the appointed time. We engage in internal muttering as to why people in the professions are the only ones who cannot keep to time. Does it ever occur to us that doctors and dentists are not mind readers; that they don’t know in advance the emotional and physical states of the people lined up for consultations. They cannot predict just how much time each of their patients will need. Still in hospital, medical and dental waiting rooms, intolerance levels skyrocket.
I wonder what might happen to us if, in advance of our medical, hospital and dental appointments, we made the decision to use our waiting time to pray, reflect and read, and actually came prepared. We might even spend some time praying for the doctors and nurses we are there to meet or for the other people waiting along with us.
Advent is a time for sharpening our senses in order to depth the significance of the love God demonstrated in giving us Jesus as one of us, with all the struggles, adventures, joys and disappointments of being fully human. It is a time when we are invited to use our gifts and creativity to do something new; a time for being alert to the action of God who comes to us in the people we meet and the events that fill up our lives. It is a time of waiting on God, conscious that God’s time is not measured by the time-keepers we carry in our pockets and on our wrists or by the clocks on our walls. It is a time for meeting God present and active in the depths of our hearts and in all those whom God sends into our lives. But for those things to touch us in meaningful ways, we have to find both time and patience.
Reign of Christ (Christ the King)
Above him there was an inscription: “This is the King of the Jews.” The other criminal said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. Luke 23, 35-43
Today, as a community of people who claim to give our allegiance to Jesus Christ, we celebrate the reign of Christ in our lives. Our life experience tells us that we were born to love and be loved. As followers of Jesus, we do our best to love in imitation of him whom we acknowledge as the ultimate revelation of God. Jesus is the sacrament of God, and we, in our turn, are meant to be the sacrament of Jesus - people who reflect to others something of his love.
On many of us, titles such as “King” and “Lord” sit less than comfortably. We even hesitate to attribute them to Jesus, the Christ, God’s anointed one. Yet, in today’s gospel reading, we see how Luke undermines the notion of kingship which his world knew. Jesus did not give himself the title of king. That came from Pilate, and then from the Romans, who ridiculed and taunted him. The irony, of course, is that he chose to be powerless, to be a king who served with basin and towel. As a king who refuses to resort to force and power, who commands no army, who does not play with the lives of others, who practices forgiveness and mercy to his final breath, Jesus Christ is unique. His way of leading is the very antithesis of worldly kingship.
At the same time, we know that there is something deep within us that desires power, that likes to be in charge, that wants to be in control. Yet, the one to whom we give our allegiance relinquishes dominance, position and control. The irony is that he is the one who becomes the victim of those whose desire for power, position and security leads them to execute him.
What is it about him, then, that attracts our allegiance and loyalty, and leads us to acknowledge him as “king”?
Perhaps we can best find the answer by looking at the lives of people who, in imitation of Jesus Christ, choose the way of non-violence and relinquishing the desire to be in control.
The Dalai Lama once said: “My true religion is kindness; my simple faith is in love and compassion.” Does that not echo the one whom today we celebrate as king?
In these weekly reflections, I have sometimes quoted an American writer, Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she tells the story of an encounter with a doctor who was caring for Lamott’s dying friend, Pammy:
“I remind myself nearly every day of something that a doctor told me six months before my friend Pammy died. This was a doctor who always gave me straight answers. When I called on this one particular night, I was hoping she could put a positive slant on some distressing developments. She couldn’t, but she said something that changed my life. “Watch her carefully right now,” she said, “because she’s teaching you how to live” (Anchor Books, 1994, p. 179). From his words and actions on the Cross, Jesus taught us how to live and love.
One of the challenges of our lives is to grow into the fullness of our humanity. In his life Jesus taught us how to be fully human. One of distinguishing marks of growth into the fullness of humanity is our ability to claim our freedom and to live free. One of the responsibilities of kings and rulers is to show their people how to be free. History, however, demonstrates how so many of them were so insecure and fearful that they forced their people into bondage and servitude. The true function of personal freedom is to free others. Freedom belongs not just to kings and rulers. It is for all. From the Cross and in his life Jesus taught us to be free, especially free from the control of others and from fear, including the fear of death. We, in turn, as followers of Jesus must take the risk of freeing others from whatever keeps them bound or unfree, whether they are in bondage to another person, an addiction or a way of life. Sadly, there are some who are unable to accept the freedom they are offered. They feel safer with dependence and compliance. They cannot risk embracing the freedom that comes from giving their allegiance to Jesus and the freedom his Gospel offers.
Unwillingness to attribute to Christ the title of “king” is to ignore the counter-cultural significance of the kingdom over which he reigned. He willingly relinquished the three predominant human urges - the urge for power, possessions and sex - and replaced them with service, selflessness and compassionate love. He lived and died for others, for all of humanity. What attracts us to him is the magnetism of his selflessness, his insistence that we are all dear to God and, at the same time, a mystery we cannot fully understand. What leads us to want to give our allegiance to him is the desire to imitate him, tempered by our reluctance to pay the full price. Yet we admire those around us who ultimately come to pay that price. Let’s look at it briefly in the life of Anne Lamott.
She had a chequered kind of childhood in California where both her parents were hippies. She witnessed their wild parties at which everyone indulged in drugs and alcohol. Somehow, she managed to survive her parents’ separation and divorce and negotiate her way through primary and secondary schooling. She herself excelled at tennis and won a sporting scholarship to a university in Maryland. She spent just a little more than a year there, studying Philosophy. Religion and English. Her reading of the philosopher Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac led her to a belief in God. She had tried drugs, but became addicted to alcohol. She had also started to write, and some of her stories were accepted by publishers. At the age of thirty, she had some kind of religious experience as she lay in bed recovering from a drunken spree in which she had fallen and cut herself, and woke up sensing a presence in her room, a presence she could not explain. In her book, Travelling Mercies: Some thoughts on Faith, she describes it this way: “I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner…I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus…And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant, hilarious, progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud: ‘I would rather die.’
However, the presence was so insistent that she finally gave in, and with characteristic irreverence called out: “Fuck it…you can come in.”
I ask myself: “Am I prepared to let him in, and pay the full price?”
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Some of the disciples were talking about the Temple, with its fine stones and the gifts offered to God. But Jesus said: “All this you’re admiring so much – the time will come when every stone in that building will end up in a pile of rubble…When you hear of wars and revolutions, keep your head and don’t panic. That’s the way of the world and no sign of the end…But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, drag you to court and into gaol...There’s no telling who will hate you because of me...But stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry. Your perseverance will secure your life.” Luke 21, 5-19
A little bit of history might help give some context to today’s gospel reading and fill out its meaning. While Biblical scholars are uncertain about when Luke’s Gospel was written, most place it somewhere in the 70s AD (or CE), at a time when the Romans under Vespasian and Titus were so vigorously suppressing a Jewish uprising that they completely destroyed Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple. Rome itself had been experiencing political unrest. Nero suicided in 68 AD and his death was followed by a brief period of civil war. In the year 69 AD, there were four Roman Emperors in quick succession - Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. The last of these had been busy suppressing Jewish unrest, and when he became Emperor, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was completed by General Titus in 70 AD.
It seems as though the early Christian community interpreted all the violence going on around them as signs that the world was coming to an end and the Second Coming of Christ was just around the corner. Understandably, these first Christians were restless, with a mixture of anxiety and expectation. Prophets of doom and destruction have long been part of human history. It would seem that there was no shortage of them in Judea at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. We ourselves have encountered them. In 2004, when the great tsunami affecting the Indian Ocean claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives, some prominent religious leaders interpreted it as punishment by God for humankind’s sinfulness and as an indication that worse was to follow if people did not reform their lives.
One of the consequences of being blessed by God with the gift of freedom is that we human beings can end up making choices that end up bringing disaster on ourselves and on those around us. Families fall apart because of petty jealousies, bickering and squabbles that their members just cannot resolve or put aside. Nations end up in armed conflict because their leaders are dominated by ego, self-interest and an insatiable quest for importance and power. Sound judgement is pushed into the background, and peace is given no chance. But God does not intervene by trampling on human freedom even when it is being misused. All actions have consequences, irrespective of the motives which drive them.
In today’s gospel reading, we see how Jesus used an innocent remark about the beauty of the Temple to prompt his disciples to practice looking beyond the surface of what they saw and experienced. I am reminded of a cynical but revealing comment made about Hollywood and its emptiness: “Scratch the veneer and you get to the real veneer underneath.” True, there was something magnificent about the Temple in Jerusalem, but its beauty distracted from some of the mismanagement and corruption happening within. This was coupled with the inability of Jewish leaders to read the events in the political arena that would eventually lead to the destruction of the city that housed the Temple. It was in this context that Luke urged his community to remain calm and do their best to rise above the political and civil unrest.
Is there a message for us in all this? Is it possible that the rot and corruption of some of our cities and their leaders are masked by the magnificence of our public buildings, the glitz of shopping malls and the empty rhetoric of those elected to leadership? We can let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security by the oily pretence of bureaucrats and politicians who make high-sounding promises and contribute nothing to the common good they claim to serve.
Closer to home, we can stop and look at how we can build polite exteriors around the way we relate to one another. We can say the right words in response to the strong emotions expressed by those around us but those words can be as impersonal as the moves in a game of chess. We can even deny the pain in both ourselves and others with our arsenals of defence mechanisms and rationalisations. We can manage these situations by arguing that it’s not our place to interfere, that someone closer is assisting with the problem or that it’s better to leave well alone and not cause further harm or upset by digging too deep. Many of us have a lot going on in the depths of our hearts, but it is much easier to rearrange the furniture or tidy our office, simply because we don’t know how to reveal to someone we say we trust the real issues that preoccupy, worry or embarrass us.
There are even some people who seem to think that religious practice will offer good protection when difficulties arise. In today’s second reading we are given a sobering reminder that religion is not exactly a soft option. Paul does not mince his words when he points out to his Thessalonian audience that religion is not something that one wears but something to which we are committed and which makes demands of us:
“Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you: ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’? And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This is not to be tolerated” (2 Thessalonians 3, 10-12).
In Paul’s mind, there is no room for pretending or lip-service. Commitment to Jesus and his community allowed no room for half-measures.
All the disasters, break-downs in interpersonal relations, wars and conflicts referred to by Jesus will continue to occur. They are all part of the mystery of life and the consequence of human choice. To those who have no hope, they make life and relationships meaningless. As we move towards the conclusion of our Church year, the readings invite us to stop and reflect on what we invest our time and energy, on whom we place our hope. We are prompted to ask ourselves if we are building lives that will ultimately end in ruin or whether we are investing in the things of God – in time for prayer and reflection, in building caring community, letting loose the love in our hearts to care for those who are discarded and forgotten. We are challenged to explore what is required of us to live authentically as disciples of Jesus.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush saying: ‘God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead people, but of the living. To God, all are alive.” Luke 20, 27-38
The readings of the last few Sundays of the Church’s year invite us to reflect on “the end times” - what will become of us when our life here on earth comes to an end. Those of us who were schooled in the contents of the “green Catechism” (sometimes called the “Penny Catechism”) learned about what was referred to as “the four last things” - death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Today’s gospel reading opens with a debate between Jesus and the Sadducees, who had no belief in spirits of life after death, about what happens to us after death. To make their point and to ridicule Jesus’ teaching on resurrection, they fabricated a far-fetched hypothetical case of seven brothers who, in turn, ended up marrying the woman who was widowed as each brother died in succession. If there happened to be an afterlife, then which brother would claim her as his wife? The mistake the Sadducees made was that they had limited themselves to thinking about the “reign of God” only in human terms. Jesus went on to clinch victory in the debate by quoting Moses to them. Central to their way of practicing religion was there unshakable belief in Moses. And Jesus reminded them of how God had spoken to Moses about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as still living in God’s presence. They were much more than memories of heroes who had died and disappeared.
But the debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is a bit like an intellectual contest. I don’t think that today’s readings are really about challenging individuals or groups to see who are the best at debating. Nor do I think that they are about an intellectual exploration into the meaning of resurrection or life after death.
But, as a way into exploring the message of this Sunday’s readings, let’s begin with a couple of verses from the second reading from Thessalonians. Paul urges his audience: “Pray that we may be delivered from confused and evil people, for not everyone has faith. But God is faithful, and will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (Thessalonians 3, 2-3). Our experience tells us that not all those people who have no religious faith are confused or evil. Moreover, many of us who do have faith in Jesus and his Gospel often struggle with doubt. I don’t know about you, but there are times when I am invited to proclaim the Creed at Mass that I have moments of hesitation. Do I really believe in “one baptism” and one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”? I have to admit that my faith in the Church has been shaken by scandals of sexual abuse and embezzlement of funds contributed by generous people in the pews. But I still believe in a Church that is a community of God’s generous, compassionate and caring people.
When I recite the Creed and say “I believe” I am really making a statement of commitment. The English word “believe” has been borrowed from Old German and originally meant “to commit to”. As Christians we commit ourselves to living in imitation of Jesus. Saul, before his conversion referred to the early Christians as “followers of the Way” (Acts 9, 2). In fact it was gentile believers who were the very first to refer to themselves as Christians (Acts 11, 26). For them, believing in Jesus was committing themselves to imitate the way in which he lived.
We have all met people who adhere inflexibly to Church doctrines, propositions and dogmas, whose lives are all about conformity to rules and regulations but who fail to understand that true belief is about commitment to actually practicing justice, mercy, compassion and kindness. When we grasp that being a Christian is about engaging with people, whatever their religion, their prejudices, their sexual orientation or their skin colour, and treating them with dignity and respect, then we are living out our faith and testifying in action our belief in Jesus and his Gospel. Then we are much more at ease in coping with doubt, which, of itself, is an indication of our limited humanity. Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher and bitter critic of the institutional Church, once commented: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” And we know that our institutional Church has not been without its share of people in leadership whose “certainty” has at times been nothing less than absurd. About a century after Voltaire, another Frenchman, Victor Hugo said: “To love another person is to see the face of God”.
Today’s first reading from Maccabees raises for us the question: “What is it worth spending a life on?” It certainly was not the hope of resurrection to an afterlife that motivated them. They were committed to living in fidelity to the Law that bound them to their Jewish brothers and sisters. They refused to buckle to the pressure of a king who resorted to torture in his efforts to force them to eat pork. Their commitment was to God. Their cause was their religious faith and they were not going to let the king force them into compromising their integrity. The courage they invested in that cause was admirable and truly heroic.
Our Church and our world has seen no shortage of people whose motivation for living good and decent lives is “to get to heaven”. But apart from that, their lives seem to lack meaning and passion. They seem not to have grasped that life has an intrinsic value; that God has loved us all into life for a purpose, but not one that has been pre-planned by God. We have been blessed with freedom and creativity, and know that we have been created to love. To lose sight of the fact that our lives are meant to be an adventure, characterised by excitement and drama, with a focus on wholesome relationships and service of others, is to fail to appreciate the God-given gift that we are. People who are trapped into thinking that life is all about getting to heaven will find it difficult to be captivated by causes, however worthy they may be, even the cause of Jesus and the Gospel.
The issue that confronts us all is not a matter of whether we will end up facing death with hope in a life hereafter. The real issue is whether our way of facing life here and now has the mark of authenticity about it; is valid, genuine and effective. The very thought of death raises in us all the question of “What next?”! If we’re not careful, we can be caught up in dualistic thinking - that there is one kind of life here in this world and another kind of life when we die. It just might be that the way we live our lives now will be the way we live after we die. If we live now full of our own importance, locked up in ourselves, motivated by self-interest, refusing to love and care for others, we are already shaping the future we are choosing for life after death. The choice is ours, for life after death may well be a continuation of the kind of life we are already choosing here and now. Perhaps the writer of Deuteronomy got it right when he reported Moses as saying to the people of Israel: “Today I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life then” (Deuteronomy 30, 15).
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
In considering this gospel reading, I suggest we need to read the text carefully and tread warily in interpreting it. This is one of the few stories in Luke in which the central figure is actually named. And the Jewish name Zacchaeus literally means “clean” or “pure”. In verse 2 of the story, Luke introduces Zacchaeus as “one of the senior tax collectors (of Jericho) and a wealthy man”. Does that give us the right to presume that he acquired his wealth by robbing the tax-payers, and that Luke is deliberately using the name “Zacchaeus” with heavy-handed irony? Perhaps Luke is tricking his readers into making the same assumption as the crowd seems to have made in the story: that all the tax collectors of the time were dishonest, and doubly so because they worked for the Romans. It is a common human failing to attribute stereotype qualities to people who practice occupations and professions that have fallen into popular disrepute. There have been times in recent years in the developed world when real estate agents and second-hand car sellers were gratuitously labelled as “crooked” because of the dishonest behaviour of some of their number. We know that we are all capable of being influenced by the crowd or “jumping on the band-wagon”.
Secondly, I suggest we look at what Zacchaeus is reported by Luke as saying when Jesus invited himself to dinner with him. Despite the audible bad-mouthing Zacchaeus received from the gathered crowd, we are told that he “stood his ground and said to the Lord: ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount’” (Luke 19, 8-9). Note that he neither expressed sorrow nor begged for mercy. Clearly affected by the fact that Jesus looked up at him and immediately said: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today”, this tax-collector, thrilled at not being judged, simply says that, if he has done anybody wrong (implying that he hasn’t), he will set things right. Moreover, Jesus himself made no reference to repentance, forgiveness or change of heart, and no comment about swindling anybody.
So, what meaning do we give to this story now?
Maybe, we have to allow that, while Zacchaeus is pursuing a career that has been popularly equated with dishonesty, he is a man of integrity and Jesus is actually vindicating him in the presence of the very crowd that has contributed to giving him a reputation for being corrupt. So, while we might be more comfortable with standing with the crowd, we may well be being challenged to pause and reflect on our tendency to be drawn into hastily misjudging others, especially those who have roles and positions that don’t appeal to us.
There is a popular English expression used to describe people who are in a difficult position. We say they are “up a tree”. Zacchaeus was literally and metaphorically “up a tree”. His shortness of stature meant that he had to set aside the dignity expected of one in his position and climb a tree if he wanted to satisfy his curiosity about Jesus. Did he sense that this was a cross-roads time in his life, a time when all that was being said about Jesus called for going to see for himself? Doing that would mean taking the risk of being seen in public by a crowd that had already misjudged him and catalogued him as crooked. It seems as though Zacchaeus took the double risk of setting aside the dignity of his public position by climbing up a tree (for there was no other way for a man of his small stature to see Jesus for himself) and exposing himself to public insult and abuse from a volatile crowd. He took the risk of following both his intuition and conscience, and Jesus noticed him and spoke up to vindicate him and accept him as a true “son of Abraham” - the equal of everyone else in the crowd.
There are times when we all find ourselves in something of a bind, when following our conscience, our integrity and/or our commitment to Jesus and his Gospel calls us to risk ridicule or public embarrassment. It might call us to voice an opinion that stands in stark contrast to that of the majority, it might mean speaking up when we see injustice being meted out to a minority group, it could be as insignificant as joining a protest march in support of releasing refugees and asylum seekers from detention or deportation.
This gospel story also puts in front of us a mirror in which to gaze at ourselves. Are we with those who are quick to misjudge others because of their family history, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their profession or occupation, their past failures and mistakes? What’s our record of speaking out to defend those who are victims of gossip, prejudice, innuendo and false judgement? Are there people in our society whom we want to see locked in cells and never to be released?
In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus effectively says: “Yes, I, too, have heard the gossip but I have looked beyond appearances and have found integrity and a good heart.”
A great diplomat and statesman of integrity and good heart was Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General to the United Nations. He was a true ambassador for peace and died with 15 others in suspicious circumstances while en route to engage in negotiations for a cease-fire in the Republic of Congo. Their plane crashed and burned near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). There were no survivors. Hammarskjöld was a deeply committed Christian and a man of peace, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961, having been nominated before his untimely death and during his second term as U. N. Secretary General. In his book of personal reflections called Markings (literally Waymarks or in Swedish Vägmärken) he wrote:
“I don’t know who - or what - put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering it. But at some moment I did say yes to Someone - or - Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
I suggest that Zacchaeus had a double experience of surrender - surrender to self and to Jesus. His hearing Jesus say “Today salvation has come to this house because this man is a son of Abraham” gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The tax-collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed: “God, have mercy on me a sinner!” ‘This man, I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘went home again at rights with God.’ Luke 18, 9-14
In this day and age, Catholic churches don’t exactly suffer from over-crowding at vigil Masses on Saturdays and throughout Sundays. Of those who do participate, many, especially the men, seem to favour the back half of the church. One could be forgiven for thinking that the back pews have been turned into a comfortable location for “self-confessed sinners”. I wonder if this is a result of misinterpreting the message of today’s gospel story of the Pharisee and the publican (tax-collector). Are the back seats now a reserved section for would-be publicans, proudly boasting about their sinfulness? Perhaps we have forgotten what it was in Jesus’ story that made the Pharisee the villain and the tax-collector the hero.
The main difference between the two characters in today’s story is that the Pharisee slipped into comparing himself with others, measuring his conduct against that of “other men”, while the tax collector just looked at himself in the mirror, as he stood before God. We all know that honest self-appraisal can be commendable and beneficial. However, it was not self-appraisal that landed the Pharisee in trouble. We have a saying in English: “All comparisons are odious”. It was the Pharisee’s resorting to distasteful comparisons in the hearing of others in the temple that showed him up in his true colours.
And isn’t that the mistake of those who insist of gravitating to the back pews in our churches today? Are they not making secret comparisons of themselves with those who regularly line up at the front? In doing so, they lose the kind of impact that the tax-collector in the original story has on us. He didn’t look to see who else was in the temple. He looked at himself and at the goodness and mercy of God, and that was all that mattered.
Today’s gospel story finds echoes in the Zen Buddhist story of the university professor who approached the holy man wanting to learn how to find true holiness. The guru invited the professor to share a cup of tea. Having filled the visitor’s cup, he kept on pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!”, he called. “The tea is spilling over. The cup can’t hold any more.”
“Like this cup”, the master said, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I teach you holiness and wisdom until you first empty your cup. Come back when your cup is empty.”
In today’s second reading, we are given another example of self-appraisal. Paul uses the image of an athlete’s performance to describe how he has lived his life from the time of his conversion: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance and I have kept the faith. Now there is waiting for me the prize of victory” (2 Timothy 4, 7-8). Like athletes who rate their event performances against what they know has been their “personal best”, Paul measures the way he has lived in terms of personal integrity. He does not compare his faith life with that of anybody else. Observers and commentators might do that. But Paul does not stoop to comparisons with anyone. He speaks as though there have been no others in the race he has run.
Paul’s statement is worthy of further reflection because it challenges us to stop and face the reality of our own lives as Christians. The gospel story has made the point that comparing ourselves with others is pointless and counter-productive. It is our own personal integrity or lack of it that we need to consider. And what if our own self-appraisals lead us to the accurate conclusion that we are faithful, sincere, generous-hearted and even loveable? Isn’t it true that many of us have been conditioned to down grade ourselves?
We have all come across people who carry the burden of low self-esteem. We have met barbers, bishops, bus-drivers and barmaids who suffer from this affliction. They cannot help running themselves down. They conduct themselves as though that is what is expected of them. It has nothing to do with the Gospel, for it stops people from ever accepting that they are loved, even by God. In fact it makes a mockery of the stance taken by the tax-collector in today’s gospel story. Those who keep running a measuring gauge over their flaws and failures end up struggling with all their relationships because they constantly see themselves as inadequate to manage anything and certainly unattractive to anyone. They are even ill-equipped to reflect healthily on their own sinfulness. They end up having hope in neither themselves nor God.
The only way into healthy Christian living and hope in God is to come to the realisation that God’s love can never be earned. It is already given to us free and unconditionally. We can’t attract God’s attention or favour by painting ourselves as helpless and hopeless or totally down-grading ourselves. Our self-disclosures of fragility, human weakness and personal sinfulness are meant to lead us to hope in a God who constantly loves us, who is always chasing after us, who has a deep respect for us and who places an adult confidence in us.
God has no need and no desire to build a reputation for justice and mercy by pretending that we are worse than we really are or by nudging us to make declarations of that kind ourselves. Once we grasp that God is a God who extends a warm welcome to people like the tax-collector, there is no pressure on us to be anything other than totally honest in our self-appraisals. We might even admit that we have qualities that others actually like and appreciate. That would be a giant step in the right direction, wouldn’t it?
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: ‘Give a just decision in my favour against my adversary.’” Luke 18, 1-8
We have all met in one incarnation or another the persistent widow of today’s gospel parable. She’s the woman who has battled pharmaceutical companies for decades seeking just compensation on account of birth defects to her son caused by thalidomide administered to her during her pregnancy. She’s the parent who has badgered school administrators to reinstate her daughter who was expelled for some infringement of school rules. She’s the husband who has repeatedly confronted inflexible and intolerant bureaucrats in the health-insurance company over their narrow-minded interpretation of his wife’s medical insurance policy. She’s the distraught widow who is badgering the funeral-fund administrators who will not cover the expenses of her husband’s funeral even though he had paid dues of two dollars a week for the last sixty-four years.
The parable about the widow and the unjust judge is a puzzling one, and becomes more puzzling as we dig into it, despite its brevity. Essentially, it’s a parable about the need to pray and not to lose heart. But it also explores the link between the quality of our prayer and the depth (or shallowness) of our faith. To launch into exploring this parable, let’s read a delightful story from the Hindu tradition:
A long time ago, the good and just emperor, Abaka called together his servants and invited them to join him for a day’s hunting. This he did fairly regularly as a way of getting away from the affairs of state. On this particular day, however, he had had no success with the hunt, and his dream of returning home with a good deer for the evening meal was quickly fading. Almost before he realised, the time for prayer arrived and the whole party was soon kneeling on the grass, their heads touching the ground. Despite his best intentions, Akaba’s focus was not on Allah and his prayer. His thoughts were divided between the challenges of leading his people and his hope that Allah, the Compassionate one would send a prize deer in his direction. Elsewhere in the forest, an elderly woman was beginning to worry about her husband, who had been away for much longer than she had anticipated. Just as Akaba and his servants were beginning their prayer, the woman, unable to contain herself, rushed off to search for her husband. Without even noticing, she came to where the men were all praying and, as she ran by, she tripped over Akaba. Quickly, she picked herself up and hurried on her way. A little upset, Akaba finished his prayer, got to his feet and ordered his soldiers to go in search of the woman who had stumbled over him and rudely departed. In the meantime, the elderly woman had located her husband and found that he would need her assistance to get back home. However Akaba’s servants soon found her and dragged her back to apologise to the Emperor. He, in turn, warned her to be more careful in her searching. After all, he was the Emperor, and she hadn’t even seen him. She responded in a flash: “And what were you doing on the ground in the first place?” “Saying my prayers!”, he replied. “You mean to say that you were saying your prayers, kneeling on the ground, facing east, with your head touching the earth, praying to the Great Lord of the Universe, and you noticed that I fell over you? I was searching for my husband, whom I love dearly, and so I didn’t notice you, but if you said your prayers better, you would be more attentive to the Lord of the Universe, and not even notice when someone falls over you.”
The Emperor listened to her intently, and was rather embarrassed. In fact, he presented her with some gifts and sent her on her way with her husband. After that, whenever anyone asked him how he had learned to pray, he said that he had been taught by a simple peasant woman who loved her husband dearly. It was she who had taught him what prayer really was.
Now pause for a moment and ask yourself how you think of the widow in today’s parable. Almost certainly she was no shrinking violet. Nor was she some feeble, old woman, stalking the judge with the aid of a stick and calling after him: “Now, you listen to me, young man!” If the judge himself is to be believed, the widow was neither feeble nor hobbling. In fact, he was afraid for his safety. The original Greek (hypopiahdzo) translates as “give me a black eye”, “hit me in the face” and “wear me out”. It is used in the New Testament in only one other place, where Paul describes himself as “boxing as though beating the air” (1 Corinthians, 9, 27).
The widow is sparring for a fight and the judge proclaims himself to be a godless man who cares about nobody. Neither judge nor widow is particularly attractive. So neither is being held up to us as role models for living our lives. And I cannot for one moment accept that the parable is suggesting that prayer is meant to be pestering God the way the widow pesters the judge. Let’s not think it is telling us to set about wearing God down until God gives in and does what we want. And it’s not exactly a Gospel value to ask God to deliver us vengeance (a more accurate translation of the word the parable uses for justice) against our adversaries and opponents. Moreover, surely it’s wide of the mark to believe that God would really answer our prayers just to shut us up.
So, I want to suggest that this parable is not about God at all. Rather, it’s about us and our hearts and what moves us to pray. It’s not a parable about who God is and how God operates in the world. It’s about who we are and how we might nourish our spirituality through prayer.
Note how Luke introduces the parable: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18, 1). Just a few verses later, Jesus ends it by bowling us over with a seemingly unrelated question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth” (Luke 18, 8)? And let’s not overlook the reality that faith in biblical times was measured by the quality and extent of one’s care for orphans and widows - even those widows who did not give rogue judges a moment’s peace. So this parable is an object lesson in how to work and pray with heart and perseverance, and to reflect on what genuine faith looks like in Jesus’ eyes.
Finally, a few thoughts on prayer and faith as they are presented in today’s parable. There have been times when I have asked myself why I need to persist in praying. The truth is that when I really persist with prayer, investing myself as fully as I can, something actually happens in me. I get a better sense of who I am and a clearer sense of the God to whom I know I belong. I come to see what really matters in my life and why. And surprisingly, there are times when good things happen, even if they are not what I’m praying for at the time. But, I would be less than honest if I were to suggest that there are not times when my efforts at prayer don’t leave me lost and bewildered. There are times when I feel that my prayers just bounce off God’s wall of silence. There are times when I know that what I am praying for is a matter of justice for people who are being crushed, and I ask myself why God does not seem to be listening. I find some consolation in telling myself that prayer, like God, is another mystery. And persistence in prayer is difficult. And then I get pulled up short with Jesus’ sobering question to all of us today: “Will I find faith on the earth?”
Perhaps the most consoling thought out of all this is a frequent reminder from the Psalms that we have God for our keeper, a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, a God whose persistence in chasing after us never slackens or ceases. Perhaps the widow and God do have something in common after all.
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the lepers, realising 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
There is much food for thought in today’s readings, especially in their invitation to consider the place of gratitude in our lives. Despite our being schooled during our childhood and youth in the courtesy and human decency of saying “thank you”, many of the adults I encounter seem to experience a degree of discomfort when others affirm them or extend to them a kindness. The inability of ordinary people to express gratitude for favours and compliments seems to me to be on the increase. Doctors report that some patients seem more inclined to threaten legal action than to express appreciation for the small and large victories that medicine and surgery can provide. And counsellors and psychologists, who work with clients to resolve painful relational and personal issues, indicate that their clients often disappear in haste and don’t want to come near them again. Moreover, have you noticed how many people want to brush off expressions of appreciation as though the sentiments expressed carry an expectation that the favour has to be returned?
Today’s gospel story confronts us openly with the issue of gratitude, as Jesus asks: “Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?” Do we take it for granted that Jesus’ cures were just a display of divine power and came at no personal cost to him? Does it ever occur to us that they were a result of his intense prayer and his enduring faith in God? There is an edge of personal hurt to his question as he wonders, as many of us sometimes do, just how people skip over the courtesy of expressing gratitude.
Expressing gratitude inevitably draws us into some form of contact with the person who has done us a favour or given us a gift. It involves us in the intimacy of relating. And intimacy frightens many people. I wonder if that’s because of our low self-image, of our inability to accept that there are some people who really like us and who want to express their admiration and affection for us by going us a favour or giving us a gift. Could it be that we slip into thinking thoughts like: “If she really knew what I was like, she wouldn’t be doing this for me.” or “That watch must have cost him a fortune. I just can’t understand why he would want to give it to me”? We focus on the value of the gift or the magnitude of the favour as a way of escaping from the expression of intimacy that motivated it. I suspect we sometimes operate that way when we are the focus of God’s graciousness. We used to refer to it as grace, and, instead of seeing it as an expression of God’s love, we turned it into a thing, as though it were stuff we collected and built up like a heavenly bank account. We invented ways of saying how we got it, how we lost it, when we lost it, and when we were in it. The result was that we were able to keep God at a distance. If we were alive to God’s graciousness, we would be drawn into relating to the God who loves us endlessly and unconditionally, and that could be uncomfortable, especially if we regard ourselves as unworthy of God’s interest and attention.
And while we’re taking time to reflect on gratitude and how it draws us into closeness with others, we might even dare to look at why we ourselves give gifts and extend favours. Could it be that we do it to make others dependent on us or to make them feel as though they now owe us something? Do we use gifts and favours as bribes or as ways of controlling those to whom we give them? Do we use gifts to make sure others have a good impression of us or even to ensure that God will give us credit for reaching out to the poor and needy people we encounter? If our thinking goes in that direction, we can end up concluding that God, too, is gracious and kind in order to make us dependent. That would be trying to limit God to our petty categories. Still, there’s a sentence in today’s second reading from the Letter to Timothy that can leave us with a false impression. It reads: “If we deny God, God will also deny us.” It could leave us thinking that God is intent on getting even with us if we don’t respond appreciatively to God’s love and kindness. It hardly leaves us believing that God is a gracious giver of gifts. But Paul immediately corrects the possibility of giving us the wrong impression by stating: “If we are not faithful, God remains faithful, because God cannot be false to himself.” In other words, even if we do not appreciate God’s kindness and goodness to us, that will never change God’s generous and loving nature.
One last thought. Even if there are times when we are needy, there’s no shame in that. Nor is there an obligation to be embarrassed if some generous person sees our need and helps us out. We might even end up seeing that there really are people who actually like us.
And that’s a good segue into today’s first reading and its story of Naaman, a big-time Syrian General who found himself stricken with leprosy. An insignificant Hebrew girl told him about Elisha, a prophet in Palestine who could cure him. So he put a parcel of gifts together and turned up at Elisha’s door, expecting Elisha to come out and cure him. But when the prophet sent a messenger with directions for him to go and dip himself seven times into the Jordan, Naaman couldn’t believe his ears. “If he thinks I’m going to wash in that mudhole, he’s got to be joking. Besides, you would think he could have come and met me in person, instead of sending a messenger. Doesn’t he know who I am? So, I’m going back home, to where we have some real rivers that are worth bathing in!”
But Naaman’s lieutenant prevailed on him to get down from his high horse (metaphorically and literally): “If you’ve come all this way, why not do what the prophet has directed?” So Naaman ate humble pie, dipped himself seven times into the muddy Jordan and was cured. As a result, his heart, too, was changed, and he adopted the God of the Hebrews.
This, of course, is a story that invites us to set aside our self-importance and our need to be in control and to be open to letting God come into our lives in ways we just don’t expect. Naaman had to do something that was totally foreign to him. He had to set aside the status he had adopted and do something that humiliated him. He could command an army, but he had no control over the leprosy that had taken hold of him. Helpless as far as his own health was concerned, he had to do what everyone who participates in an AA meeting does - acknowledge that there was a power greater than himself, surrender to the power of God transmitted through the message of a prophet he had come to know by reputation. We all have some spot, weakness or vulnerability in need of healing. In God’s eyes we are all equal. Status, role and qualifications count for nothing. We are invited to approach God from a position of powerlessness and simply pray with the lepers: “Jesus, Master have pity!”
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. The Spirit God has given us is no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise. Therefore, don’t be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord…but with the strength that comes from God, bear your share of hardship which the Gospel entails.” 2 Timothy 1, 6-8, 13-14
The apostles said to Jesus: “Increase our faith.” Luke 17, 5-10
Today’s readings are about faith, quite specifically religious faith. That’s something in today’s world that has fallen out of fashion. Surveys conducted by contemporary social scientists indicate that Religious illiteracy among those claiming to be Christian is on the rise. Moreover, in recent years we have seen a small band of high-profile intellectuals fired with a mission to launch an aggressive campaign against organised religion. At the forefront have been Sam Harris, the prominent American philosopher and neuroscientist, English journalist and social critic, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and Stephen Hawking, English cosmologist and mathematician. Despite their intellectual brilliance, they have done their best to discredit religion as spurious, empty and redundant. Yet, there is evidence of a marked increase in people searching for a satisfying spirituality and a will to believe that corresponds to “something out there”.
In an interview published back in 1989 in the magazine The Wittenburg Door, surgeon/storyteller, Richard Selzer wrote: “My entire life has been one long search for faith. I haven’t found it. I don’t believe in God. Having said that…I want you to know that I love the idea of God. I love piety. Without it, you lead a life unmoored, in a state of isolation. You are a tiny speck in a vast universe. I’m jealous frankly. I feel I’ve missed out on the greatest thing that can happen to a person - faith in God. It must be wonderful.” (The Wittenburg Door, “Have Modern Doctors Lost Their Souls? July-August 1989, p. 27)
The English novelist, Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker prize began his 2008 book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is both a memoir of his life and a reflection on death, with the words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” His story traces his journey from being an atheist to an agnostic, and points to his will to believe that corresponds to his desire for “something or someone out there.”
More than a century ago, William James, a prominent philosopher and psychologist and brother of the great American novelist, Henry James, delivered the Gifford Lectures (1901-2) on natural theology at the University of Edinburgh. The transcripts of those lectures were collected into a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James concluded that the natural world, mystical experience, poetry and story were all windows into a truth beyond measuring. Talking specifically about religious faith, he stated: “A man’s religion (sic) is the deepest and wisest thing in his life”
Even the great physicist and thinker, Albert Einstein wrestled with belief in God. He once stated that “Cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research” and famously said that chaos and randomness are not part of nature, that “God does not play dice.”
When I look at today’s gospel reading and hear the disciples request to Jesus: “Increase our faith”, I find myself wondering what exactly it was that they were asking for. Were they asking for a clear explanation of what was expected of them as disciples? Did they want a summary statement of what belief in God was all about? Were they asking for some feeling of assurance that God was close to them? In responding to them, Jesus did not give a clear, satisfying answer. Instead, using yet another semitic exaggeration he criticised them for the fact that they wanted something for themselves and reminded them that, as his disciples, their role was to serve others, often without being thanked.
For me, the key to understanding what today’s readings say about faith is to be found in the first two readings from Habakkuk and Timothy. There have been times when I have been given the message that faith is a collection of doctrines or things to believe or even rules to be kept. In reality, our faith is something that has been entrusted to each of us in a very personal way. Something given to us in trust makes demands of us in the way we live each day. Our faith is not something we take for granted, put away in a corner of our lives and check from time to time to see if it has been diluted or eroded. It is something that is living and meant to be kept alive. And that’s not always easy. It is something that engages us, not just in an intellectual way, but in the depths of our emotions. At times it can call from us a level of courage that we didn’t think we had. At other times, it can embarrass us in front of others. Yet Paul, in his letter to Timothy, reminds us that “the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1, 7). And then he proceeds to add that believing in the Gospel also means that challenges and hardships will come our way. The first reading assures us that faith also restores and sharpens our vision and gives us hope, as we see God restoring vision to Habakkuk himself: “Write down clearly on tablets what I reveal to you, so that it can be read at a glance. Put it in writing, because it is not yet time for it to come true. But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true” (Habakkuk 2, 2-3).
Our faith is really alive and active when we come to appreciate that we depend fully on the providence and graciousness of God. That realisation keeps us focussed and truly humble. Maybe we can learn something about both the ordinariness and inspiration of faith in action from a young man’s letter of application to a university college:
“I’m not a great student, nor am I a leader. You could say that I am incredibly average, because I really work hard for the results I get…Over the last three summer holidays, I have been a volunteer at a camp for children with cancer. At first, I was terrified that I would say something stupid or do something that would add to their pain. Yet, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed working with these kids. I have been even more surprised at everything I have learned from them about life and death, about coping with illness and disappointment, about what is really important and good. I would like to pursue a degree in education and psychology so that I might try to give boys and girls like these something of what they have given me.”
People like this young man do a lot to inspire and enliven my faith.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered in sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Luke 16, 19-31
The American writer, Kurt Vonnegut once described himself as an atheist with a fondness for the Gospel beatitudes. In introducing himself to the gathering at a commencement ceremony (graduation) at Rice University in Houston, Texas, he had this to say: “Have we met before? No. But I have thought a lot about people like you. You men here are Adam. You women are Eve. Who hasn’t thought a lot about Adam and Eve? This is Eden, and you’re about to be kicked out. Why? You ate the knowledge apple. It’s in your tummies now. And who am I? I used to be Adam. But now I am Methuselah. And who is the serpent among us? Anyone who would strike a child.
So what does this Methuselah have to say to you, since he has lived so long? I’ll pass on to you what another Methuselah said to me. He’s Joe Heller, author, as you know, of Catch 22. We were at a party thrown by a multi-billionaire out on Long Island, and 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 Adams and Eves, 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. Well-dressed people ask me sometimes, with their teeth bared, as though they are about to bite me, if I believe in a redistribution of wealth. I can only reply that it doesn’t matter what I think, that wealth is already being distributed every hour, often in ways that are absolutely fantastic…Most graduates from Rice, or from Harvard, or Oxford, or the Sorbonne, or any place else you care to name have commonly been rewarded with modest but adequate amounts of money - and even less fame. In place of fame, they may have had to be content with someone’s seemingly heartfelt thanks for something well done from time to time…In time, this will prove to have been the destiny of most of the Adams and Eves in this class at Rice. Please love such a destiny, if it turns out to be yours - for communities are all that is substantial about what we create or defend or maintain in this world. All the rest is hoop-la…Neighbours are people who know you, can see you, can talk to you, to whom you may have been of some help or beneficial stimulation. They are not nearly as numerous as the fans, say, of Madonna or Michael Jordan. To earn their good opinions, you should apply the special skills you have learned at Rice, and meet the standards of decency and honor and fair play set by exemplary books and elders.” (Rice University Commencement Address, May 9, 1998)
You may wonder what Kurt Vonnegut’s address has to do with today’s gospel reading and the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man. Vonnegut makes the point that what matters most in life are human decency, relationships and building community (networks of relationships that connect people with one another and offer companionship and security).
The tragedy of the rich man in the parable was that he apparently had nothing more than wealth and a life of luxury. It seems that he saw Lazarus lying in need at his door, but just didn’t notice him. He lived in a self-enclosed cocoon, insensitive to his surroundings and to everyone around him. There is not even a hint of compassion in his personality. Moreover he is blind to the realities in the midst of which he is living.
Underneath Vonnegut’s words to the Rice graduating class is the message that qualifications, experience and opportunities are for the benefit of those among whom we live and with whom we are meant to engage. Gifts and blessings come with the responsibility of stewardship. In the Christian context, they are entrusted to us to develop and share, especially with those less fortunate than we are. A gift reaches its full potential only when it is shared. The realisation that we have enough is inseparable from the awareness that having enough means being open to share.
Today’s parable, incidentally, is the only one in the Gospels in which one of the characters has a name. Lazarus is indeed poor, unnoticed and probably deliberately ignored. For the rich man to reach out to him would mean that his own comfort would be disturbed. For him, Lazarus is merely a nuisance. But the name “Lazarus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Eliezer”, meaning “God is my help”. True, Lazarus is desperately poor, but by identifying him by name, Jesus is signalling that, despite his poverty, social alienation and physical wretchedness, he still puts his faith and trust in God. By contrast, the rich man puts his faith and trust only in himself, and distances himself from relationship with anybody.
Today’s gospel parable is a reminder to us all that, irrespective of the circumstances of our lives, we all have something from which others could benefit, even if it is only our time or a listening ear. The parable is also an invitation to be on the lookout for the Lazaruses on our doorsteps. Could it be that they are the millions of refugees confined to camps and detention centres or wandering the globe in search of welcome, acceptance and hospitality, gifts in the storehouses of those who know they have enough?
I leave readers of this reflection with a suggestion. Try searching the internet for a not-for-profit organisation that calls itself My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group. It can also be accessed through The Sleeping Bag Project. On this site there is a window with the name Our Story. It is an account of how a woman with a very sick teenager was helped by a homeless man. She tells how this chance meeting left her with an indelible memory, and how that one experience led her and her family to open their eyes and their hearts to an endless succession of Lazaruses. As today unfolds for you and me, we can be sure there will be at least one Lazarus longing for us to engage with him or her.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.” Luke 16, 1-13
I have taken the Gospel passage above from a contemporary English translation because I believe it captures the central message of today’s gospel reading. The parable of the dishonest manager is found only in Luke and it is the fourth parable in succession dealing with the kingdom of heaven. I want to suggest that it is linked to the previous parable through the use of the word “squandering”. Remember that the younger son had squandered his father’s property in dissolute living. The steward of today’s parable set about publicly dispersing his master’s property as a way of building social capital for himself. His cunning was so clever that his master stood back, knowing that he himself had been tricked, and congratulated him: “I have to give it to you. You’ve outsmarted me completely.” Moreover, not wanting to carry the embarrassment of being outwitted by his finance manager, he probably said nothing to those with whom he did business.
The Greek word that Luke uses for “squandering” is diaskorpizo. It also has the meaning of “broadcasting” or “spreading around”. From Luke’s perspective, the master congratulates the dishonest manager for keeping the money moving. The steward’s behaviour led the master to the realisation that money and property are valuable resources only when they are shared and spent, especially in making provision for others in need and releasing people from the burdens of debt. In that way, money and property contribute to the building of the kingdom of God. By contrast, private accumulation of wealth that is protected from dispersal and sharing is an obstacle to reaching out in service to the needy and building the kind of relationships that enrich the givers as well as those who receive.
The dishonest manager seems to come to a new-found realisation, gained only when he finds himself in a tight situation, that generosity is really the best investment. And he gets himself out of difficulty by building social capital. Seemingly, at least to the story-teller, it is irrelevant that he ends up giving away money that doesn’t belong to him. At least, the God figure (the master) in the story doesn’t seem to mind. Moreover, I suggest that we can conclude that the wealthy master learned from the manager he intended to fire that the true secret of wealth is to be found in sharing it generously.
Another Greek word oikonomia helps me to fill out the meaning of this parable. While it gives us the modern word “economics”, its basic meaning is “household management” or “putting one’s house in order”. The squanderer of the parable is on the verge of losing everything - his security, his job and even the shirt on his back. Like the prodigal in the previous parable he “comes to his senses”. He takes the practical step of planning for what he will face when he is sacked. He makes sure that he will be welcomed into the homes of those with whom he did business for his boss. He does it by spreading around what his boss had squirrelled away. The money and property of the parable are symbols of God’s grace and generosity. The steward spreads around his master’s property and money in order to make friends of people and set them free. Isn’t that what God’s grace does?
The steward of the parable is no more a hero than the younger son of last week’s parable. Yet Jesus is prepared to use stories of flawed and broken people to teach a lesson. The steward came to the realisation that money is only a commodity, while friends and relationships are our greatest treasure. Our greatest investments are in the people to whom we are prepared to give our time, energy, talents and possessions. As the Chinese say, a crisis is a moment of decision. If the difficulties we face in life end up bringing us close to people, they will surely bring us close to God. This parable reminded me of a short story entitled How Much Land Does A Man Need?, and written by Tolstoy back in 1886. It is worthy of reflection. In the meantime, a brief summary follows:
The central character of the story is a peasant named Pahom, who overhears his wife and sister-in-law arguing over the merits of town and peasant farm life. He thinks to himself "If I had plenty of land, I wouldn't fear the Devil himself!". Unknown to him, Satan was present sitting behind the kitchen stove and listening. A short time later, a landlady in the village decided to sell her estate, and the peasants of the village bought as much of that land as they could. Pahom himself purchased some of it, and by working on the extra land was able to repay his debts and live a more comfortable life.
However, Pahom then became very possessive of his land, and this led to arguments with his neighbours. There were threats to burn his farm buildings, but they came to nothing. Later, he moved to a larger piece of land in another commune. Here, he grew even more crops and amassed a small fortune, but he had to grow his crops on rented land, which irritated him immensely. Finally, after buying and selling a lot of different plots of farm land, he was introduced to the Bashkirs, and told that they were simple-minded people, who owned a huge area of farm land. Their offer for transferring ownership was very unusual: for a sum of one thousand rubles, Pahom could walk around as large an area as he wanted, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade as he went along . If he returned to his starting point by sunset that day, all the land his route enclosed would be his, but if he did not reach his starting point, he would lose his money and receive no land at all. He was delighted, as he believed that he could cover a great distance and had chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime. That night Pahom had a dream in which he saw himself lying dead at the feet of the Devil, who stood laughing at him.
Not fearing his dream, he started out early next morning and stayed as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun set. Suddenly, he realised he was far from his starting point and ran back as fast as he could to the waiting Bashkirs. He finally arrived at his starting point just as the sun sank below the horizon. The Bashkirs stood cheering him on his good fortune, but, exhausted from the run, he dropped dead. His servant buried him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thereby answering the question posed in the title of the story.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.” 1 Timothy 1, 12-17
The Pharisees growled: “He takes in sinners and even eats with them.”…Then you call your neighbours and say: “I’m so happy, because I have found my lost sheep…because I have found the coin that I lost…because your brother was lost and has been found.” Luke 15, 1-32
Today’s readings lead us to reflect on God as someone who is forgiving. Is God really forgiving and just how forgiving? The first reading from Exodus gives us an insight into Moses exercising his persuasive powers with great skill. He is courageous enough to say to God: “You have no choice other than to be forgiving. Otherwise, all you have done for your people up till now will be a great waste of divine time and energy, and the Egyptians will have the last laugh.” Moses went on to remind God of the divine promises previously made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The second reading from Timothy follows up with Paul speaking eloquently of God’s forgiveness demonstrated in the compassion of Jesus: “Here is a true saying for your complete acceptance and belief: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I’m the worst of them, but God was merciful to me so that Christ Jesus could show his full patience in dealing with me” (1 Timothy 1, 15-16). The gospel reading presents the ultimate case for God’s forgiveness with the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the incredibly forgiving father. These parables are supported by the reputation for forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus enjoyed among the earliest Christians: “This man welcomes outcasts and sinners and even eats with them” (Luke 15, 2).
But implied in the reality of God’s forgiveness is our readiness to repent, and the word repentance, taken into English from Greek, refers to the price to be paid for having destroyed someone else’s property. To be in need of repentance is to be guilty of having destroyed God’s property. But let’s not get anxious about God’s call to repentance. It is founded on God’s affirmation of our basic worth and dignity. It presupposes that we are valuable to God. It’s rather like being taken aside and shaken up by a friend who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. And let’s face it: one of our greatest difficulties is really believing that we are worthy of God’s love, that God calls us friends. When we truly repent, we rue the times when we thought so little of ourselves and others.
The younger son of today’s third parable had experienced a sense of loss, and the pain that goes with it. That’s an experience we have all had. The circumstances of life have led us sometimes to drift away from friends, from promises and commitments, from responsibilities we have undertaken and even from faith in God. Others of us feel a deep sense of loss when we see our leaders showing little or no concern for the earth that is home to us, for the way in which water, energy and natural resources are wasted and polluted. Still others experience bewilderment and loss when they see street crime on the rise in their neighbourhood or witness mass killings of innocent people on their streets and in their shopping malls, bus stations and places of worship. They wonder if the society to which they belong has lost its bearings. And we all experience a sense of deep loss when we see the young and vulnerable physically, emotionally and sexually abused in our schools and churches by those whom they had a right to trust.
In addition to these losses, there is loss which accompanies significant transition times in our lives, such as the moving from adolescence to young adulthood, the mid-life crisis, the loss of a loved one, and retirement from full-time employment. These are all times when we experience a sense of loss. Reflecting on these various senses of loss in the context of today’s three readings reminded me of a book that was a best-seller over forty years ago. It was written by Gail Sheehy, a prominent journalist and public speaker. Her book was entitled Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (Bantam Books, N.Y. 1974), and in it she described how being caught up in a mass-shooting in Northern Ireland changed her life forever, and as profoundly as today’s second reading recounts how Paul’s life was changed on the road to Damascus when the Spirit of Jesus tracked him down and made him welcome.
Sheehy recounted how, after dragging herself from under the bodies of strangers who had been massacred, she called her partner in New York. His response was heartless: “Well, I told you, just interview the Irish women.” It left her feeling completely alone and unsupported. Later, she was able to write how she felt:
“From the moment I hung up on that non-conversation, my head went numb, my scalp shrank. Some dark switch was thrown and a series of weights came to roll across my brain. I had squandered my one wish to be saved. The world was negligent. Thirteen could perish - or thirteen thousand - I could perish - and tomorrow it would all be beside the point.”
She went on to tell how, now at the age of thirty-five, she had been living her life as a performer, playing a role, rather than being a full participant. The crisis she had experienced brought her back to her senses and made her see that it had brought her to a critical turning point. She had experienced a sense of loss and had realised that she felt lost and totally alone. Her glamour career had evaporated. That’s the kind of experience we hear Paul telling Timothy about in today’s second reading. Paul was probably in his fifties when he had his conversion experience. A sudden realisation hit him like a ton of bricks. He saw the people who supported him and the praise he depended on suddenly disappear. In telling Timothy that he had been arrogant, a blasphemer and the worst of sinners, he admitted to his vulnerabilities and let go of the secrets in his heart that really imprisoned him. He could not have been more lost than that. In his own words he spelled out the depths to which he had sunk and how he had been rescued: “Not only was I lost, but I was found…by God’s unspeakable mercy in Jesus”.
That’s the theme woven into the three parables of the gospel and today’s other readings. Coming home, recovering from our experiences of loss is all about allowing ourselves to be found by a God who searches us out rather than about anything we do ourselves. The best we can do is to recognise that our neediness is real and that it can be satisfied by none other than God. Recovering from our loss and coming home to ourselves, to one another and to God is the work of a God who loves us more than we will ever imagine.
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and wave them good-bye, you can’t be my disciple. Luke 14, 25-33
In today’s gospel reading, Luke illustrates how Jesus used Semitic exaggeration to shock his audience into putting their lives into perspective. Fully aware that the very foundation of gospel living is love of God through love of everyone we encounter, Luke points out that Jesus expects of us, his disciples, nothing less than complete commitment. This gospel message of single-minded dedication to Jesus is reinforced by the accompanying readings from Wisdom and Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The first reminds us that we will come to know what God expects of us by opening ourselves to the process of discernment and listening to those who bring wisdom. The second reading and the gospel present us with the wisdom of Paul and Jesus. Paul urges Philemon to welcome back with love his runaway slave, Onesimus, to grant him his freedom and treat him as an equal. After all, try as we might, we will not succeed in possessing anyone. Health care workers do not own their patients, lawyers do not own their clients, teachers do not own their students, husbands do not own their wives and parents do not own their children. Yet we come across situations when we see professionals trying to possess those they are meant to serve and accompany, teachers acting as though they own their students, parents clinging unhealthily to their children, and spouses behaving as though their partners were their property.
Today’s gospel is about the vocation of discipleship of Jesus, a vocation to which we all lay claim. Jesus himself spells out the cost of walking in his footsteps. It means letting go of possessiveness, walking beside others as our sisters and brothers, loving them for themselves and for who they are as the beloved of God, and not for ourselves or for what they can give us. That involves nothing less than taking up the Cross, and doing it day after day.
Over recent years, social scientists in the first world have commented on how a consumerist culture has crowded out what was once regarded as a vocational culture. Wearing the correct, old school tie, graduating from a prestigious university and having the right connections are preferable to having a sense of being called to service of those passed over, or fighting for the rights of society’s discards.
A former university campus minister recently made this telling comment: “Over ten years of being in charge of campus ministry, I received only a couple of calls from distraught parents pleading for me to reach out to a son or daughter caught in drug or alcohol addiction. In the same period I received dozens of calls from concerned parents, lamenting that their children had chosen to volunteer to serve in Church- sponsored outreaches: ‘I paid a fortune for my son to get a law degree, and instead he has become a religious fanatic, wanting to teach in a Catholic primary school in Malawi.’ ‘I thought my daughter was intent on being an architect, and now I find she has signed up for two years of service to a Caritas feeding programme in Haiti.’”
Chiune Sugihara grew up in pre-World War II Japan with a fervent desire to become the Japanese ambassador to Russia. By the late 1930s, he was ambassador to Lithuania, little more than a stone’s-throw from realising his dream. His career was suddenly turned into something that looked more like a vocation. One morning he woke to find a large crowd gathered outside the gates of his ambassador’s residence in Vilnius. It turned out that these people were Jews who had walked with their meagre possessions from Poland. They had come in search of Japanese visas, which would allow them to escape from Gestapo controlled Eastern Europe to the relative safety of Japan. Sugihara cabled Tokyo three times, seeking permission to grant visas. Three times his request was denied. He found himself faced with the difficult choice between realising his dream as an ambassador and rescuing thousands of Jews. He opted for the latter, and chose to disobey orders. For close to four weeks, he wrote out visas by hand, refusing to eat and sleep, until he was recalled to Berlin. As his train pulled away from the platform, he was still writing visas and passing them through the window to desperate, Jewish refugees. He saved more than six thousand Jews and lost his career and his wealth for his trouble. Yet, he had found a vocation of service. He ended his life as an itinerant light-bulb salesman.
Discipleship of Jesus is a lifelong journey of transformation that calls for perseverance and flexibility. Along the way, we encounter a succession of challenges, insights and setbacks as we negotiate our way through an ever-changing world and a Church in rapid transition. This road to an adult faith in Jesus demands that we put him, the source of compassion, love and peace at the very centre of all we say and do. Can we say ‘yes’ to those demands?
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
“…all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but they who humble themselves will be exalted”…Then he turned to the host: “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours, the kind of people who will return the favour. Invite some people who never get invited out - the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; they won’t be able to return the favour, but you’ll be - and experience - a blessing.” Luke 14, 1, 7-14
While Jesus was not consulted by those who set the readings for this twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, I think he would applaud the first reading from Sirach, especially the concluding sentence: “An attentive ear is the sage’s (wise person’s) dream.” Elsewhere in the Bible we read: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1, 19). After all, the very point of what Jesus says in the gospel reading is to get us to be attentive to the wisdom he offers.
All three readings of today offer us different perspectives of what we understand to be humility. The reading from Sirach suggests that genuine humility lies in accepting ourselves as we are, with all our strengths, foibles and limitations: “Don’t try to understand things that are too hard for you, or investigate matters that are beyond your power to know” (Sirach 3, 20). This does not mean that we simply surrender whenever our interpersonal relationships or the maths and physics we are studying look to be too challenging. The second reading from Hebrews contrasts two encounters with God: one, showy, spectacular and full of blazing fire, the other, a less awesome encounter with thousands of gentle angels. This seems to suggest that humility is something different from being blustery and throwing one’s weight around. Barging, pushing and shoving are out of place in that setting. The first section of the gospel reading sounds a bit like something out of the June Dally Watkins Book of Manners for Young Moderns or The Christian Gentleman politeness book: When you’re invited to a party, be sure to hold back. Be wary of pushing your way to the top table! In fact, Luke has Jesus quote a verse from the Book of Wisdom: “It is better to be told ‘Come up closer’ than to be humbled before the prince” (Wisdom 25, 7).
For generations, we were taught that humility had something to do with “eating humble pie” or being belittled or humiliated in front of others. Sadly, we were given messages that humility was all about God’s cutting us down to size whenever we got a little too big for our boots.
Ultimately, however, humility is all about honest, down-to-earth admission and acceptance of who we are and what we have. When we come to the realisation that we are all loved into life by a loving God and, therefore, all equal as created in God’s image, we can come to appreciate that we and all we have are God’s gifts entrusted to us for the good of one another and our world. It follows, then, that we are stewards of all we are and possess. Modern cosmology demonstrates to us that we are all made of star-dust and, therefore, all equal. The very word “humility” is derived from the Latin word humus, meaning earth. It follows that humility is all about being grounded, being aware that we are of the earth, connected to the earth and to one another. So there is no reason to believe that we are superior to anyone else. And, of course, we are all connected to the creator God in whose image we are made. That is what Jesus demonstrated in the way in which he lived his humanity, his earthiness, to the full.
Today’s gospel reading begins with the heading: Parable of the Invited Guests. However, it’s much more like a story with a very clear message attached: Don’t push yourself into prominence or you’ll probably be pushed to the bottom of the ladder. There’s nothing puzzling about it, and no need for interpretation. Jesus told it to his hosts at a dinner party. However, it was a party to which he was invited by hosts who merely wanted to check him out. Clearly, they saw themselves as superior and they were intent on examining his credentials. So, he was seated at the top table by invitation. After giving those in attendance a clear message about the risks of jockeying for position and the hollowness of fake humility, he launched into a critique of the criteria for inclusion on the guest-list, pointing out that honouring the truth of the real world in which we live involves recognising that among us are the people to whom we don’t extend dinner-party invitations - the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and all those whom we forget, exclude and choose not to see. It is this discomforting observation of Jesus that gives today’s gospel a logic that we can easily miss: it is only through contact with real beggars and cripples, with the unwashed and the smelly, that we come to appreciate that it is we ourselves who are the real beggars and cripples before God.
In his dramatically understated account of the horrors of World War I, German novelist, Erich Remarque described how a 19-year-old German soldier, Paul Baumer, hiding in a large shell hole, used a dagger to kill a French soldier named Duval, who jumped into the shell hole beside him. Baumer, the narrator of the story, tells of his inner thoughts and reactions:
“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up – take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
Baumer’s words underline poignantly the truth that not only are we all equal, but that all we are and have are a result of God’s boundless love. Conscious of this, the best we can do is to mirror something of that love to everyone we encounter. Therein lies true humility.
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Someone said to Jesus: “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” He said to them: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because many will try to enter and will not succeed.” Luke 13, 22-30
“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled the lame.” Luke 14, 13
I want to suggest that the metaphor of the narrow door used by Jesus in today’s gospel reading is not about the reduced dimensions of a door but about the clutter we can gather to ourselves, our unused gifts that we refuse to share with those around us, and our slowness to expand the love in our hearts to include those we don’t like and those who have offended us. It is these that are the obstacles that slow our progress on our life-long journey of growing into God. These are what will hamper our entrance into adult faith and true personal integrity. Such clutter will provide us with a comfortable place in the crowd of all those who subscribe to the belief that there is safety in numbers and who measure success by the size of their bank account and the things they acquire.
The narrow door and the narrow way are metaphors used by Jesus to describe the manner in which he himself lived. He chose the way of compassion, simplicity and unconditional love; a way that very few of us, who call ourselves his disciples, choose as our first preference. His way had nothing to do with narrow-mindedness, but much to do with true freedom, selflessness and inclusion of those pushed aside by those who found comfort in walking with the crowd.
Today’s gospel challenges me to ask myself what exactly is there in my attitudes or in the way I live my life that prevents me from opting for the narrow way of Jesus.
Today’s gospel opens with a question that someone in the crowd put to Jesus. If we’re honest, we will probably admit that we, too, have wrestled with similar questions about our final destiny. However, if we care to look at the various questions that people put to Jesus in the course of his ministry, we will notice that he rarely gave a clear, definitive, unambiguous response. The answer we hear today is no different, and pushes us to answer for ourselves what is involved in living like Jesus, in our contemporary world.
“Sir, will just a few people be saved?” is actually another way of asking whether there is safety in numbers. And Jesus seems to imply that sticking with the crowd really means a reluctance to dare to be different or being afraid to support those whom the crowd shuns and ignores. Look, for example, at how the majority of voters in the United Kingdom put self-interest first when they opted to leave the European Union. Similarly, voters in country after country are choosing leaders intent on locking out desperate refugees fleeing from the brutality of war, terrorist activity and economic exploitation. Would Jesus have opted for self-interest or chosen to exclude refugees?
From another perspective, we can acknowledge that certainty is sought by those of us who are unable to put our faith and trust in a God whose love is boundless and unconditional, and who persists in calling us to reflect some of that same love by reaching out to the needy, the destitute, the alienated and the desperate. Jesus was clearly less than impressed by those who viewed solidarity with him as taking time merely to be in his company, eating and drinking with him. Rather, his measure of true solidarity is to be seen in the genuine hospitality of inviting to our tables those whom the world, out of fear, is quick to exclude.
Dr Tom Long, the Lutheran preacher and professor of homiletics, tells of an incident that happened in the rural church in Georgia which he an his family attended when he was a child: “During worship one Sunday morning, a shabbily dressed stranger came through the side door of our church, made his way to the front and stared up at the pastor who had just started to preach. Nobody offered the visitor a seat and nobody said a word to him. The preacher stopped and nobody in the congregation moved. The visitor turned and stared at the congregation for about a minute, and then left by the opposite door. At the end of the service, most of the congregation gathered outside under one of the large oak trees in the church yard and discussed what had taken place. They continued their discussion for the next few Sundays. None of them knew the stranger who had come into their church, but they came to the conclusion that God had given them some kind of moral test and they had failed it. They admitted that God had repeatedly extended hospitality to them and that they had failed to extend hospitality to that lone stranger.”
Jesus eventually gave some kind of an answer to the question put to him at the start of today’s gospel when he referred to the expansiveness of God’s love: “And people will come from the east and the west and the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Instead of trying to list for our satisfaction the “who’s who” or the “who will be who” in the kingdom of God, we might do better by committing ourselves to following the narrow way to the narrow door modelled by Jesus. That, of course, means that entry to the kingdom of God is not something that is earned by strategy or effort. Like life itself, it is pure gift. So let’s give our attention to living with generosity and integrity, the way Jesus taught us to live. That might involve narrowing our focus and taking on the discipline of Gospel living.
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… Hebrews 11, 1-2, 8-12
“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be…You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Luke 12, 32 – 48
Woven into today’s three readings are the themes of readiness for God and faith hope and trust in God. The first reading from Wisdom recalls how the Hebrews stood in readiness to move, eating their meal of unleavened bread and roast lamb, and waiting in expectation for God to lead them out of slavery. In the gospel reading, we hear Jesus urging his disciples not to let themselves be contaminated by the kind of pretense practiced by the Pharisees, but to be ready and waiting whenever the “master” comes. In the second reading from Hebrews, we hear the story of how the Israelites’ faith, hope and trust in God had their origin in the covenant or agreement that God made with Abraham. By the time we hear the three short parables in the latter part of the gospel reading, we are left with the message that the gifts with which we have been blessed are meant to be used to bring hope, justice and compassion to everyone we encounter in our everyday lives. In that way we will make our contribution to making real in our time and place the kingdom of God.
I would now like to shift the focus of this reflection to the faith and hope which are central to today’s second reading from Hebrews, which opens with this assertion: “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen” (Hebrews 11, 1). The writer proceeds to identify Abraham as the “father of faith” in what would become the Hebrew nation. Today’s text and parts of the Old Testament describe how a nation and their leaders came to develop great expectations of God because of the faith they grew to have in God. The Israelites, for example, came to expect that God would not only deliver them from Egypt, but would also make the Egyptians pay dearly for their cruelty. Abraham and Sarah expected God to give them a tangible reward for the risk they had taken in venturing into unknown, foreign territory. They lived in expectation of land, flocks, crops and children. But that was not all. We learn today that Abraham lived in expectation of “the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations” (Hebrews 11, 10). In today’s gospel, too, we hear how servants expect a reckoning with their master on his return. The common factor in all these examples of faith-expectation is that, even though the “believers” do not see what exactly awaits them, they still behave confident that something will come. The writer of Hebrews expresses 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 New American Bible).
In our earlier days, many of us were urged to have what was referred to as “blind faith”. My experience tells me that there is really no such thing as “blind faith”. I suggest that all faith is accompanied by some kind of “seeing”. Whenever we are faced with the unknown, we try to imagine how it will look. Moreover if we fear the unknown, the pictures we paint are fearsome or even catastrophic. That’s what we start believing. We envision in our minds what we can’t physically see and shape things that either terrify us or give us something on which to pin our hopes.
We know from reflection that this is all about what might come to reality in the future. In our better moments, we can admit that we might be deceiving ourselves, but we hold on to what we imagine until the reality which eventuates tells us otherwise. In his extraordinary book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, psychologist, psychotherapist and survivor of Auschwitcz, describes how our faith envisions things: “When we spoke about attempts to give a man in camp mental courage, we said 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 finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for!”
Of course, faith and hope are closely related, and we all have to learn to hold them both. In the past, I have quoted Vaclav Havel’s understanding of hope, and I think it is worth keeping in mind here:
“Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit. You can’t delegate that to anyone else. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out. It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”
But as with faith, when we hope for something, we form within our minds a picture of how that something will look. However, it’s not only faith and hope that build on a vision of the unseen. So also do mistrust and lack of faith and hope. The reason why we try to hurry ahead of the stranger we think is following us in the dark is that we envision the worst he might do. Those who are walking away from our churches in the wake of the child abuse scandals imagine a repetition of some kind of abusive behaviour, or a church leadership incapable of adequately addressing the crisis. They see a future that disheartens them. Hope, faith and mistrust are all built on a capacity to imagine or envision.
If it is true that faith and hope are essentially matters of what we imagine that the God we cannot see is up to, it might be worth our effort to try to imagine how this might look from God’s side. Isn’t it true that God has put faith and hope in us human beings? And we can see hope and faith at their very best in our brother Jesus, who came to show us how to be truly human. Jesus must have had to imagine how we, his followers, would respond to the faith and hope he placed in us. He must have done that, too, as he commissioned his very first disciples. He had to wonder just what they and we would get up to. If we dare to let ourselves feel just how uplifting it is to know that we are trusted by God, then we might find ourselves able to trust God in return. One way into doing that might be to list for ourselves those people who are our ancestors in faith and hope, those who have inspired us to live our Christian vocation, those who knew they were trusted by God.
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
“A person’s life is not made secure by what she/he owns, even when that person has more than is necessary.” Luke 12, 13-21
There was a time in Israel’s history when rabbis were called upon to arbitrate on family disputes. In today’s gospel reading, we hear of an incident in which Jesus was asked to adjudicate an inheritance settlement. Wisely, he refused to be drawn into the issue. However, he gave the contestants something to ponder when he invited them to consider what it was that was motivating them to engage in the action they were pursuing. He concluded with a parable about avarice and the dangers of wealth. Another story might help us to clarify our own thinking about today’s gospel:
As sometimes happens, two farming families fell into a dispute over the exact boundaries of their adjoining farms. They took their case to their local rabbi. He agreed to listen to both families. The first came to him with documents and plans to demonstrate how the land had been in their family for generations. According to them, the documents showed clearly the perimeters of the land they had been cultivating. The second family claimed that they had come to know by word of mouth where the land in dispute started and finished. That information had been passed from one generation to the next, and their practice had not been challenged in the past. Proof of their hard work was not written on paper but on their calloused hands and backs bent by hard, physical labour. Both families agreed that they would abide by whatever the rabbi decided. However, having heard both sides, the rabbi knelt down and put his ear to the ground. A few minutes later, he stood and pronounced his verdict: “I have listened to both of you. Then I had to listen to the land over which you are in dispute. And now, the land itself has spoken. Neither of you is right, for neither owns the land you each say is yours. It is the land that owns you.”
Putting our energy into accumulating money and other material possessions runs the risk of deluding ourselves into thinking that we can control our lives and shape unshakable futures. The more we focus on acquiring personal gain, the less sensitive we become to the needs and dreams of those around us. The “foolish” man at the centre of today’s gospel parable makes the bitter discovery that “wealth” in the kingdom of God has nothing to do with fat bank accounts, ownership of property, prominent social status or full grain silos.
At the same time, we have to be careful to put the right perspective on today’s gospel reading. It is good management to make sure to use our energy and talents to provide for those who depend on us - and that includes the needy, the overlooked and the destitute as well as family and friends. The danger lies in going to extremes and not knowing when enough is enough. Putting all our trust and hope in what we acquire can drown our felt need for God, the only one who will ever be able to satisfy us. The parable that Jesus tells makes the point that greed is a sickness of the heart and soul. For as long as our lives are controlled by acquisition of wealth, popularity and power, we will never be satisfied. Only God and the things of God will ever truly satisfy us. The worst kind of poverty that any Christian can ever experience is the emptiness that comes from a life full of material things but devoid of the things of God - compassion, mercy, forgiveness, care, joy and gratitude.
Taken together, today’s three readings are rather unsettling, to say the least. In the first reading from Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth offers no encouragement at all: “As long as you live, everything you do brings nothing but worry and heartache. Even at night your mind can’t rest. It’s all useless (Ecclesiastes 2, 23). The gospel reading is equally grim: “You fool! This night you will have to give up your life” (Luke 12, 20). Less negative, but still challenging, Paul offers an exhortation: “Keep your mind focussed on what is above, not on things here on earth (Colossians 3, 2). Taken together, they are confronting us with the question of the values on which we base our lives. In particular, the gospel confronts us with the rich man who resides in the heart of each one of us.
In the parable that Jesus tells there are only two voices - that of God at the conclusion and, for ninety percent of the time, that of the rich man speaking to himself. He is so obsessed with himself (he uses the pronoun “I” five times) that nobody else comes into his plans and considerations. He simply has no idea of how empty and poverty-stricken is his own life.
Notice, too, that Jesus makes no comment on how the man’s wealth might have contributed to social injustice. While we are not told that his accumulation of grain might have been a force for driving up market prices, we are told that he is a downright fool. And not because of his imminent death. He is intent on creating something grand for the purpose of satisfying nobody but himself. His folly is not in giving expression to his creative skills, but rather in the expectation that he will enjoy it all by himself. Ironically, it will fall into the laps of others to enjoy, to the very people he is intent on excluding.
In today’s second reading, Paul gives us a comment on our own creativity. He points out that, as Christians, we are created anew in the image of our creator God: “You have put on a new self, which is being renewed in the image of its creator” (Colossians 3, 10). Paul is reminding us that we have been formed to be creators, in imitation of the God who loved us into life. Human creativity at its best is surely about using our gifts and energy to grow the love within our hearts and to contribute to the world in which we live. In imitation of our God, it should lead us to serve others and to inspire wonder and joy. All this resonates with the reminder Paul gave to the people of Ephesus and to us, too: “We are God’s masterpiece, God’s work of art. God has created us anew in Christ Jesus, to do the works for which God has prepared us” (Ephesians 2, 10).
So, the rich man of today’s gospel parable is an incomplete creator in that he has not been able to develop his full potential. He cannot bring himself to share or even to want to share. As a consequence, he is a poor image of God and, therefore, just not rich enough.
As I look into the mirror of today’s three readings, I am challenged to ask myself questions like: “Am I rich enough? Do I give generous expression to the creativity with which I have been entrusted? How do I share myself as God’s work of art?”
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we too forgive all who do us wrong;’” Luke 11, 1-13
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were both written about the same time (AD 85-90, in Greek), some 15-20 years after Mark’s Gospel and a good decade before John’s Gospel. Despite the names attributed to them, all four Gospels had unknown authors. Today’s gospel reading gives us a version of the prayer we now know as the “Our Father”, a prayer we learned by heart as children and one to which we frequently return. Luke’s version is shorter, more direct and less personal than Matthew’s. For instance, Luke does not address God as our Father, and he has two petitions in comparison to Matthew’s three. Mark and John make no mention of this prayer. Moreover, it’s style is very different from the traditional Jewish way of praying, which was based on psalms, and firmly grounded in the tradition of the Law, Moses and the Prophets. There is a directness about this prayer of Jesus which was probably unfamiliar to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Implicit in the words of this prayer is a way of living life. I want to suggest that this was picked up with greater sensitivity in the Shaker tradition than in many of the other Christian traditions. The Shakers have a frequently repeated saying which sums up their approach to prayer in this way: “Hearts to God, hands to work!” In effect, they are saying to one another: “Take time to discern God’s vision for us and our world, and then bring that vision to life through practical action.” Prayer and the way we live are intimately related.
The prayer that Jesus taught the disciples in response to their request to him, after they has seen him frequently go apart to pray, was simple and direct. There is something of those qualities to be found in Abraham’s very personal engagement with God in today’s first reading. Abraham launches into a “conversation” with God, starting by blocking God’s way and then appealing to what he believes is God’s sense of fairness, and relying on a bit of simple psychology, giving God some positive strokes: “The men set out for Sodom, but Abraham stood in God’s path, blocking the way. Abraham confronted God: ‘Are you serious? Are you planning on getting rid of the good people together with the bad? What if there are fifty decent people left in the city, will you lump the good with the bad and get rid of the lot? Wouldn’t you spare the city for the sake of those fifty innocents? I can’t believe you’d do that, kill off the good and the bad alike as if there were no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the earth judge with justice?’” (Genesis 18, 22-25) And the bargaining went on until Abraham whittled the number down from fifty to ten: “‘For the sake of only ten, I will not destroy the city.’ When God finished talking with Abraham, God left. And Abraham went home.” (Genesis 18, 33)
I ask myself if there is that kind of freshness and openness when I take time to talk to God.
And that leads me to stop and reflect on what are some more fundamental questions. The first of these is: “Who is the God with whom I engage when I pray? What is my image of the God in whom I believe and to whom I pray?”
John reminded us that God is love. Have I really taken that image of God to heart, or is God someone of whom I’m a bit wary? Do I see God as a bean-counter, tallying up all my faults, failures and mistakes? Do I regard God as friend, who forgives, who has no interest in getting even, but one whose focus is on forgiveness, compassion and mercy?
Then it is worth asking myself why I pray and what is it I pray for. If you’re like me, you probably find yourself praying for something you think is missing in your life. I am grateful to God for the good health I have enjoyed over many years and my prayer is that it will continue. But logically, if it continues the way I would like it to be, does that mean that I will not die? I pray to God in gratitude for many blessings that I have received, but I can forget that death and deterioration and change are integral to the human condition. Friends and people I love and admire have gone from my life because of illness and death. Moreover, good people who have touched my life change and make choices to live in other places that are not easily accessible to me. So relationships that I cherish change and diminish because of separation. Even love itself undergoes changes in intensity and quality. Yet, if I trust God as loving father and mother I will come to trust that God’s love for me doesn’t change even though the circumstances of my life and relations undergo change and transformation.
The bottom line to all that is given to me in the latter part of today’s gospel reading, with a reminder to ask God for what I need rather than for what I want: “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need…If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing - you’re at least decent to your own children. So, don’t you think that the Father who conceived you in love will give you the Holy Spirit when you ask him?” (Luke 11, 10-13) I am reminded to ask God for what I need, rather than for what I want. Needs and wants are often poles apart. Am I prepared to pray for only what I need? Moreover, do I know what I really need?
Finally, we don’t have to be embarrassed by the fact that we all struggle with prayer. We can let busyness or disappointment push it aside. We can forget that God is always present to us even when we feel alienated or disinterested. Our faith in a loving God waxes and wanes. There are times when we think we can do without God. Yet, the God we all know is a God who runs after a prodigal son; one who welcomes us back irrespective of where we’ve been or what we’ve done or haven’t done. We all go through difficult patches at work and in family and with friends. As we mature, we come to reflect more closely on the good, the painful and the bitter experiences of our lives. In time, such reflection leads us to recognise that God’s grace and presence are to be found in everything that comes our way - in sickness, in the death of loved ones, in personal failures and disappointments, in fractured relationships, in separations. But with patient practice, we’ll find God by staying with our experience rather than running from it. And there are times when the familiar can become stale, and we can end up taking God for granted. So, we have to start all over again. I invite you, therefore, to pause a while with a different version of the prayer Jesus gave to his disciples in response to their request: So, he said: “When you pray, say: ‘Father, reveal who you are; set the world right; keep us alive with three square meals; keep us forgiven with you and forgiving of others; keep us safe from ourselves and the evil that surrounds us.’” Looking at the familiar with new eyes can sometimes work wonders for us.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part. It is not to be taken from her.” Luke 10, 38-42
Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, I can’t help thinking that Martha came out second best from the disagreement with her sister. After all, there was a household to run and a meal to be prepared, and all the work seemed to fall to her as her sister sat starry-eyed at the feet of their important visitor. So, I can understand why there was some “electricity” in the air. Martha knew the practicalities that were part of entertaining a guest. So, she was taken aback when Jesus told her to stop getting het up. And when he told her that Mary had made a better choice by sitting idly on the floor listening to what he had to say, she was cut to the quick. If she gave both Mary and Jesus a piece of her mind, Luke did not record it. However I’m sure she probably felt like doing that. So, what, I wonder, was Luke’s point in putting this story right after that of the Good Samaritan?
I suggest that Luke is pointing out that, while it is important at times to put the needs of others first, especially the needs of the sick, the injured and the neglected (the Good Samaritan), there is also a time for being fully present to those who come to us with a message that deserves our full attention. There are times when true discipleship calls for generous and selfless, practical action. There are other times when it is more important to take time to hear and reflect on Jesus’ message.
But let’s briefly return to Martha, for she is a mirror for all of us. She was angry with Mary who had left her to do all the work, and she was angry with Jesus for not telling Mary to give her a hand: “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all by myself?” There are times when we all get upset with others who we believe are not pulling their weight. Moreover, we show our disapproval by resorting to sarcasm or sharp speech, and end up feeling aggrieved and full of self-pity. Our meanness of spirit can end up closing off all possibilities for God’s Spirit to get a look in. If we’re honest, we will recognise that there is something of the Martha in all of us. We get some satisfaction out of proving to ourselves and others that we are being victimised when all the work is left to us. All we are really doing is massaging our own ego.
However, the challenge for us in the story lies in Jesus’ assertion that Mary has made a better choice. That assertion leaves me scratching my head, wondering what Jesus was getting at. The answer, of course, is that Jesus is not devaluing Martha’s hard work in the kitchen but rather the way in which she has gone about it, full of resentment and self-pity, and slipping into comparing herself with her sister.
One of the characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is the many mentions made of Jesus’ acceptance of invitations to dine with others. What especially scandalised people like the Pharisees was that most of his dining was with public sinners. But hospitality is a recurring theme in Luke. And the Pharisees could not help comparing themselves with the “disreputables” whose invitations Jesus accepted. Are there times when we decide to accept or decline invitations on the basis of who else is on the invitation list?
More important, however, is the real value on which hospitality is based - everyone who comes into our lives is a guest, worthy of respect and bringing promise. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Make hospitality your special care…Have the same attitude towards everyone…Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly” (Romans12, 13-16).
That’s the kind of hospitality that Jesus modelled as he went about his ministry, engaging with everyone he encountered. In acting like that, he showed people something of the hospitality of God, demonstrating that nobody was outside the scope of God’s boundless embrace. Jesus extended God’s hospitality to everyone without distinction, and accepted the hospitality of others. We know he dined with those who were regarded as the riff-raff, and accepted the hospitality of friends like Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He also welcomed the invitation to dinner extended by the two disciples who poured out their troubles to him as they journeyed together to Emmaus. The distinguishing characteristic of all these encounters was the quality of his presence. And it is Mary’s quality of presence that he singles out in his gentle response to Martha’s exasperation: “Martha, Martha (notice how the repetition of her name softens his reprimand), you’re fussing too much and getting worked up over nothing; one thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it, and it won’t be taken from her” (Luke 10, 41-42).
This story echoes one of Luke’s earlier accounts of how members in the crowd listening to Jesus relayed to him the message that his “mother and brothers” had come to join him. His response was: “My mother and brothers are the ones who hear and do God’s word” (Luke 8, 19-21).
So, while there is something of both Martha and Mary in each of us, and while we know how we struggle to hold the two in tension, today’s gospel reading reminds us that reflection & contemplation and selfless service are both essential dimensions of true discipleship. In lived reality, we are more inclined to let the busy-ness of life dull our sensitivity to the need to make room for quiet reflection.
If it is true that hospitality is an essential dimension of Christian discipleship, and that presence is integral to hospitality, it follows that we have to learn to be alert to the obstacles that get in the way of presence and hospitality. Two of those potential, contemporary obstacles are the internet and the cell-phone. I read recently an article entitled “I used to be a Human Being” by Andrew Sullivan, a researcher who described what it’s like to have one’s soul hollowed out by the world wide web. Sullivan wrote about how the internet broke him and led him down a path of chronic distraction. Other research has demonstrated that, in countries where the sales of cell-phones and smart phones are booming, owners check on them over 200 times a day or in excess of 30,000 times a year. One teacher-researcher commented about his secondary school students: “Their bodies are in the classroom, but their minds are inside their cell-phones” (Dr Delaney Ruston, Screenagers, May 2016, PBS Documentary).
Excessive time with gadgets effectively reduces necessary growth time with people. The knock-on effect is that our potential for presence, hospitality and authentic discipleship risks being depleted. “What”, I need to ask myself, “are my obstacles to authentic discipleship?” What prevents me from being truly present to others?
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The command that I am giving you today is not too difficult or beyond your reach…No, it is here with you. You know it and you can quote it, so now obey it.” Deuteronomy 30, 10-14
“But a Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him.” Luke 10, 25-37
Today we are confronted with two fascinating but challenging readings. They are both related to living our lives with moral integrity. If we really think about it, we don’t really need anybody else to tell us the difference between right and wrong. The writer of Deuteronomy reminds us that the code for living as authentic human beings is written into our hearts. None of us needs to be told how to relate to other people, whoever they are. The person who sticks his chewing gum under his seat in the bus or drops his cigarette buts on the footpath already knows he is a thoughtless slob. The driver who runs down a pedestrian and speeds away knows the wrong she has done. The smooth-talking man who seduces young women and walks away does not have to be told how self-centred he is. Moral debates about issues such as these are mostly about efforts to justify what we know is wrong, or putting up smokescreens to hide our own immorality. I’m sure few of us have ever come across people who admit to having problems with being moral.
Before we look at today’s gospel reading, I suggest that it is worth pausing to explore why it is that many of us are slow to admit to our own sinfulness or moral lapses. In our youth, we were often given the message that God was someone who was on the lookout for all the mistakes we made, counted them up and recorded them in preparation for when we would have to account for our lives. If we have transformed our image of God into that of a judge, it is very uncomfortable to try living our lives with the image of God as friend. We know we are sinners, but we are reluctant to admit that to the one we fear will judge us harshly. So we choose to keep an uneasy silence on the topic. Alternatively, we enter into half-hearted arguments about what sin is or isn’t, and end up ill at ease, even if we think we have won the argument.
The gospel parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar to us that we can very easily slip into stereotyping the characters into “bad guys” and one “good guy”. Note, too, that It comes as a bit of a surprise that Luke has Jesus presenting a Samaritan as the hero in the story told by Jesus, soon after being turned away from a hostile Samaritan village (Luke 9, 51-56).
Strictly speaking, the story of the good Samaritan is not really a parable. It is not based on allegory, metaphor and symbol that require interpretation. Rather it is an example of how to live our humanity in its fullness. But let’s begin by looking at the lawyer. He does not set out to trap Jesus. He simply engages in what professional and educated people did in those times. Our modern equivalent would be a seminar or discussion group in which participants explore a topic or a contemporary issue. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, and this was an opportunity for the lawyer to engage him in exploring a moral and ethical issue, the answer to which was not entirely obvious. Like any good teacher, Jesus made a comment, and then threw back a question in the form of a story to the lawyer and all who had gathered to watch and listen to the proceedings.
Both the priest and Levite were decent people who had responsibilities that were associated with their respective roles in Jewish society. They both came across the man who, to all intents and purposes, looked as though he were lying dead in a ditch, after being assaulted, stripped and robbed. Had they touched his body, even with their shoe, they would have made themselves ritually unclean, thereby excluding themselves from carrying out their responsibilities in the temple and in assisting the people whom they were appointed to serve. They made sure to observe the requirements of the purification laws of Judaism. Through his story, Jesus suggested that, while they had made good decisions, they could have made better ones. Here were two respected figures who were following the law, yet not allowing love and compassion to be factors in influencing their decision-making.
This, then, is a story that has application to some of the moral dilemmas that confront decision makers in our contemporary world. Is it ethical in the pursuit of political goals for some governments to impose economic sanctions on Iran, thereby depriving innocent civilians of needed food and medication? Are humanitarian aid agencies to refrain from air-dropping vitally needed medicines and supplies to besieged Syrians lest the lives of those collecting such aid be put at risk? Expressing care and compassion doesn’t always make political or economic sense. But love’s only way is sometimes to take the risk. Love and compassion do not always make sense.
The Levite had an additional problem. He had considerably less authority than the priest who was higher up the chain of command. Aware that he was behind the priest who had refused to get involved in helping the victim on the roadside, the Levite would have been breaking ranks if he had stopped to help: “I’m only a Levite, who am I to embarrass a Priest?” And that’s the kind of dilemma faced by every modern-day whistle-blower, who recognises injustice in the workplace, but knows that speaking out would put his or her employment at risk.
Last of all, there is the Samaritan. He is already an outcast because he is an object of contempt in a society where segregation and religious prejudice were rife. Seemingly, he had nothing to lose by choosing to reach out to a an unknown victim, whom he wasn’t sure was alive or dead. Whether he helped or not would neither elevate nor lower his status as far as the average Jew was concerned. But the Samaritan religious law had very similar restrictions to the Jewish law about touching dead bodies. Yet they did not stop him from acting with genuine humanity and compassion.
Notice, however, the way in which Jesus twisted the question to which the lawyer sought an answer, and to which Jesus’ story was an initial response: “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus changed the focus of the story by asking which of the three (Priest, Levite or Samaritan) acted as a true neighbour: “Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands?” Like the man in the ditch, the Samaritan was an untouchable. Yet he realised that neighbourliness is not created by physical or, indeed, racial, religious or emotional nearness, but only by genuine love. Love does not decide who its objects are. Love does not discriminate, because it is boundless. Luke uses this story to demonstrate that the Samaritan is at the pinnacle of Christian living. In Luke’s estimation, it is the Samaritan and anyone who imitates him who have found the way to eternal life.
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, let your first words be: ‘Peace to this house!’” Luke 10, 1-12, 17-20
Jesus was so fired up with his appreciation of God as father and his dream and hope for a world in which all would be free, equal, respected and treated with dignity that he saw the need for helpers in bringing his vision to everyone without exception. Relying on what he had heard about Jesus, Luke gave us a picture of how Jesus engaged seventy-two assistants in an effort to put order and organisation into spreading his message. We now call it “evangelisation” or spreading the good news. However, it indicates just how practical Jesus was. Convinced that his message was worth sharing and conscious of his own human limitedness, he gathered together a group of assistants and gave them basic instructions as to how to go about spreading his message.
Over centuries, the Christian community, taking the lead from Jesus, has set about packaging and promoting his vision in many different ways in their efforts to convince others of the value of Jesus’ dream for us and our world. Sometimes, they presented his message in a distorted way and ended up using fear as a tactic or motivational force to pressure others to embrace the “good news”. Ultimately such efforts became counter-productive as they presented God as someone of whom to be afraid rather than as “loving Father”. As a result, many people have come to regard “organised religion” with a degree of suspicion because they have experienced so many organisations as oppressive, controlling, bureaucratic and institutionalised. Many contemporary Catholics have a healthy suspicion of their local churches because they have experienced them as authoritarian, hierarchical, prejudiced against minority groups, and reluctant to fully accept women and the gifts they bring.
Yet, if we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of identifying God with the Church, as if the flaws and failures of the organised Church can be attributed to God. The truth is we look to attribute our dissatisfactions to what we perceive to be the failure of Church leaders and members to be faithful to the commitments emanating from their baptism. It seems to me that there is a three-fold source of our dissatisfaction: the scandal and betrayal of child sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up by leaders; the apparent reluctance or inability to celebrate liturgy with imagination and creativity and with connection to the lives and needs of teenagers and young adults; the insistence on prescribing a brand of religious education heavily-laden with doctrinal material that has little relevance to the struggles of life.
Since Vatican II, the demanding challenges of Jesus and his Gospel have been so domesticated that their impact is all but neutered. Those challenges have been replaced by a kind of “placebo Christianity” that seems to ignore the fact that Jesus named the deficiencies of his disciples for what they were and confronted with vigour, and even venom, the Temple money-changers, the Pharisees, and religious hypocrites. Paradoxically, however, service of others, especially the poor and needy, is now more in evidence than ever before.
Still, we would be deluding ourselves if we were to think that doctrine or theological dissertation moved anyone to embrace Christianity. The earliest converts to the Gospel seem to have been drawn by the vibrant, attractive and magnetic person of Jesus, as well as by the kind of people like the seventy-two disciples of today’s gospel.
We are given no details of the gifts, preparation or qualifications of that group of seventy-two. Their only claim to fame is that they were selected and commissioned by Jesus himself, to address a need he clearly saw as urgent. And they returned rejoicing in the fact that the straight-forward directions he had given them actually worked. The implication, of course, is that we and others like us are their modern-day successors. God is sufficiently big-minded to work through people as ordinary and ill-equipped as we are, through ordinary people like us who visit the sick, the lonely and the forgotten. What these people offer matters much more than who they are or their qualifications and training. They come as messengers of peace, and their love speaks all languages and touches all hearts. As today’s second reading from Galatians reminds us, external characteristics count for little. What matters most is that we are renewed and enlivened by the grace and love of God. And the messages of peace we give and receive can come in surprising ways. So, I conclude with the story of Brennan Manning (1934 – 2013), former Franciscan priest, writer, speaker and recovering alcoholic. It is a story about himself, and this is how he told it:
“A few years ago, I lay desperately sick on the floor of a motel room. I learned later that within a few hours, if left unattended, I would have gone into alcoholic convulsions and possibly died. At that time, I could not admit to myself that I was an alcoholic. I did my best to crawl to the phone to dial for help. However, my hands were shaking so hard that I managed to press only one digit. Providentially, it connected me to the operator, who dialled Alcoholics Anonymous for me. Within ten minutes, a complete stranger walked into the room, scooped me up in his strong arms and rushed me to a detox centre. After I had endured the pain of withdrawal, that stranger loved me back to life. A fallen-away Catholic who had not been to Mass in years, he told me repeatedly that the Father loved me, that God had not abandoned me and would draw good out of what had happened to me. He told me that this wasn’t the time for guilt and fear and shame, but for survival. Above all, he affirmed me in my emptiness and loved me in my loneliness. In time, I learned that my benefactor was an itinerant labourer, who fronted up daily at an employment agency in the local area, taking whatever work was on offer. He put cardboard in his work boots to cover the holes. Yet, when I was able to eat, he took me to McDonald’s for my first meal. For a full week, he breathed life into me physically and spiritually, day and night, and asked nothing in return. I learned later that he had lost his family and fortune through drinking. Yet every night he would spend fifteen minutes reading a meditation book. And before going to bed, he would thank God for what he had left, pray for other alcoholics and then open his window and bless the world. Two years later, I returned to that city to reconnect with my friend. When I was unable to locate him, I called AA, only to be told that he was back on Skid Row. So I went in search of him. When I thought I had spotted him sitting in a doorway, I went up and discovered another wino who was neither drunk nor sober. ‘Hey man’, he said, ‘can you gimme a dollar to get some wine?’ I knelt down in front of him, took his hands in mine, and looked into his eyes. They filled with tears, and I leaned down and kissed his hands. He began to cry. He didn’t want a dollar. He wanted what I needed two years earlier as I lay on that motel floor: to be accepted in his brokenness, to be affirmed in his worthlessness, to be loved in his loneliness. He wanted to be relieved of what Mother Teresa described as the worst feeling of all: the feeling of not being accepted or wanted. I never located my friend.”
“Several days later, I was celebrating Eucharist for a group of recovering alcoholics. Midway through my brief homily, my friend walked through the door. My heart skipped. But he disappeared during the distribution of communion and did not return. Two days later, I received a letter from him which read in part: ‘Two nights ago in my own clumsy way, I prayed for the right to belong, just to belong among you at the holy Mass of Jesus. You will never know what you did for me last week on Skid Row. You didn’t see me, but I saw you. I was standing just a few feet away in a shopfront window. When I saw you kneel down and kiss that wino’s hands, you wiped away from my eyes the blank stare of the breathing dead. When I saw you really cared, my heart began to grow wings, feeble wings, but wings. I threw my bottle of wine down the sewer. Your tenderness and understanding breathed life into me and I want you to know that.” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Penguin Random House NY, 1990)
Flawed and addicted though these winos were, strangers to one another as they were, they still ministered caringly to each other, they breathed life into one another. Were they different from the seventy-two sent out by Jesus to bring peace, comfort and consolation to others? Flawed and broken like the rest of us, they reached out in their brokenness in the alleyways of shame and loneliness. Can we step away from today’s gospel reading thinking that we can leave being Christ to others? Are we not really among the seventy-two sent out to breathe life and love into those we encounter?
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time & Saints Peter & Paul
“When Christ set us free, he meant us to remain free.” Galatians 5, 1, 13-18
“No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9, 51-62
This Sunday, some local churches put the focus on Saints Peter & Paul. In other parts of the world, the focus is on the readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. I will try to link the two as there is some similarity between the themes of both sets of readings.
While both Peter and Paul made their way separately to Rome, they both ended up being martyred because of their allegiance to Jesus and his Gospel. While earlier in their lives they had their differences of opinion and lived differently their response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, their integrity and their commitment to Jesus were the qualities that unified them as true disciples of Christ. While Peter and Paul were probably working together in the same place for not much more than a few weeks (at the Council of Jerusalem and later, for a very short time, in Antioch) they both travelled to Rome, the centre of the ancient world, but a city that was very hostile towards Christians.
In the gospel reading for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke tells how Jesus “resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem”, a city that long had a reputation for murdering prophets. Moreover, he chose a route through the hostile territory of Samaria where he was rejected so strongly by the people in one village that James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven as pay-back. With no desire to settle scores, Jesus let James and John know that he was not interested in violence.
The readings of both the 13th Sunday and “Peter & Paul” confront us with the price of commitment. Despite personal risk to his life, Jesus, true to his vocation, set out resolutely for Jerusalem. Similarly, both Peter and Paul, aware of the dangers for Christians in Rome, still made their way there in order to encourage a community of disciples who had long endured persecution. For them, following in the footsteps of Jesus came at considerable personal cost.
In the 13th Sunday’s first reading from Kings (1 Kings 19, 16, 19-21) we discover that Elijah was the only prophet to have escaped the wrath of the Israelites, who had murdered all the other prophets. Yet God still gave Elijah a threefold mission - to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Nimshi, king of Israel (a very risky task), and to search out Elisha and anoint him as his own successor.
And just in case we may have missed the message about commitment, we have it spelled out for us in the account of Jesus’ journey through Samaria. To begin with, he was rejected in the first village he and his disciples entered because they were headed for Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish faith. Religious prejudice flourished even in the time of Jesus. Commitment to being God’s messenger can end in rejection. God’s message isn’t particularly popular among those whom it challenges and discomfits. So, Jesus was treated with hostility by those who had no room for religious tolerance.
Luke then highlights the cost of commitment with three brief examples of people who are attracted by Jesus and his message, but come up with excuses for their inability to commit themselves fully. And isn’t it the same with most of us? So often we make an initial commitment and, in time, our enthusiasm wanes.
Reflection on the life journeys of Peter and on the readings of the 13th Sunday raises for us the issues of vocation, commitment and freedom. Blessed with freedom, we have a responsibility to use that freedom to choose our vocation in life. Our faith tells us that God’s Spirit is at work in the world and in the depths of our own heart. But it is up to us to choose, and to commit ourselves to the choices we make, to the people to whom we make commitments, and to preserve our own integrity. Experience tells us just how difficult that can be, and we know that we sometimes slip up.
While Elisha did not literally give his life for Elijah, he did let go of personal comfort and the life he knew, in order to invest himself as a prophet of, and a participant in, the unfolding story of God’s love for Israel. He walked away from the farming life he knew and set himself on the uncertain path of being a prophet. He put purpose and commitment ahead of personal satisfaction. That’s not the choice for everyone. Yet, whatever we choose as the way to live our lives will come at a cost. That cost involves expressing the love in our heart, and living our lives with purpose commitment and integrity. And the love we express has to grow to embrace much - as much as ourselves, our family & friends, strangers we encounter, and the world itself.
To love others is to want what is best for them, to walk beside them, assisting them, when needed, to grow into their best selves. It seems to me that the best kind of love we can offer anyone is the kind that demonstrates love for him/her by being the person we know in our heart we are meant to be.
There is one last piece in the reading from Galatians (2nd reading, 13th Sunday) worthy of note. It relates to our freedom and how we use it. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.” (Galatians 5, 1) Moreover, he added that we ought be careful not to let ourselves become slaves to anyone or anything. Jesus demonstrated his freedom by not allowing rejection to upset him. He was able to respect the freedom of the Samaritans, and not let them draw him into being controlled by anger or vindictiveness.
Paul proceeded to add that for us to slip into self-indulgence is to go the way of surrendering our freedom for the satisfaction of getting even with those who insult or reject us, or allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desires for personal gratification. The challenge for me, then is to be free enough, and sufficiently integrated to serve others in love, irrespective of what they say or do to me. Now, that’s a real challenge!
The Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)
Then, taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke 9, 11-17
The more I dig into Luke’s Gospel, the more I come to appreciate how carefully it has been constructed. In the account of the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it, Luke tells us three times, in the space of 12 verses, how Mary’s new-born baby was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger” (Luke 2, 6-17). A manger is a feed bin for cattle, sheep and goats, and the word is very closely related to the French verb manger and the Italian mangiare, both meaning to eat, feed or chew. So, Luke uses the symbol of the feeding bin in which the new-born Jesus was laid to point to how Jesus would eventually become food, the “bread of life” for the whole of humanity.
This Sunday’s readings are effectively the Church’s invitation to us to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist for us and the way in which we integrate it into our daily lives. Whenever I reflect on Eucharist, I find myself dwelling on the words St Augustine believed were appropriate for people to hear when they came to the altar to receive communion: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” It was Augustine’s view that, if we really grasped the meaning of that very profound statement, the way we live our lives would be transformed immeasurably.
“Behold who you are…” - “Look, you are the body of Christ! Do you really appreciate who you are? You are the Christ for everyone you will meet today, and until you come back to the altar to be reminded once again just who you are meant to be”.
“…become what you receive!” - “Become nourishment for everyone with whom you interact when you walk out of the church today! Be bread, broken and given to nourish the lives of those you will encounter today and into the future. Give selflessly of yourself and of your time and energy. Breathe life and hope into others, into your family members, your friends, your work colleagues and the strangers you meet.”
In his Second Letter to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul challenged his audience to test the genuineness of their Christianity by answering a very simple question. “Do you recognise yourselves as people in whom Jesus Christ is present? If you don’t, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13, 5) Augustine went a step further and urged his community to come to the realisation that they were Jesus Christ to everyone they met. The manner in which they engaged with the people around them would demonstrate that. The Eucharist they received would have its full impact as they encouraged, affirmed and loved into life all those around them.
In our neighbourhood, Vincentian chapel here in Rome, the priest finishes Mass each morning with the words: “Go and glorify God in your lives.” If we take him seriously, we will spend the remainder of our day in our own very ordinary efforts to nourish those around us by the way we relate to them, by the way in which we greet them and acknowledge their presence, by the ways in which we express appreciation to them.
And, if we are alert, we will see others around us doing the same, and find encouragement from how they do it. Moreover, if we look beyond our own narrow boundaries, we will find inspiration in abundance.
The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof found it in a quietly-spoken priest and a religious sister in South Sudan. Kristof wrote in May 2010: “I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of state-wide examinations… Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. ‘It’s very normal to have malaria,’ he said. ‘Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal’. Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest…He would make a great pope.”
Kristof continued: “In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity with Southern Sudan… Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.”
But we don’t have to go across the world to see people breaking the bread of their lives and giving it to others, to those with whom they live and work and to those who are homeless, lonely or needy in all kinds of ways. For decades, two wonderful Good Samaritan Sisters, Mary and Marie have been giving of themselves to people in their neighbourhood in Balmain, Sydney, who have struggled as single parents, who have carried the burden of mental health issues or who have been unable to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of a complicated Social Security “service”. These two extraordinary women have kept their door open to all comers, at all hours of the day and night. Their lives have been an endless succession of days when they have been bread broken, and have given selflessly to people broken by the circumstances of their lives.
As we approach the table of the altar in our churches this coming Sunday, let’s imagine that we hear the Eucharistic minister saying to us, as he or she holds before us that small, consecrated particle that hardly resembles bread: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” And let’s leave our churches to be and do that for everyone we encounter.
“The Spirit of truth…will guide you to all truth. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason, I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16, 12-15
I find the selection of readings for today fascinating and challenging at the same time. While we human beings all know and accept that we will never depth the mystery of who God is, our lived experience reveals that we look for answers to everything that we don’t understand. We accept in faith that God is personal and free, yet we continue to grapple with the notion of God as Trinity - Father Son and Spirit. Our best efforts to understand God as such lead us to the conclusion that God is relational. The earliest chapters of Genesis assure us that we are made in the image of that God - free, good and loving, and that last quality means that we are made for love. And loving cannot occur unless we are relational.
Over the centuries, human beings have come to see themselves at the top of the evolutionary tree, because of their ability to think, reason and reflect on themselves thinking and reasoning. Genesis affirmed us in our self-importance: “God said: Let us make man (sic) in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and the creatures that creep along the ground. God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1, 26-27).
Many years ago, in what seems like another life-time, my hesitant excursions into philosophy revealed something of humankind’s delusions of grandeur. Kant reinforced these delusions by suggestions that we created reality for ourselves with our minds and then proceeded to make rules about what is good and what is evil. Earlier, the French philosopher, Descartes, confidently posited the belief that human beings were the centre of the universe, and, as such, were the source of all that was subsequently worthwhile: “I think, therefore I am”, he stated, without qualification.
Just a passing reflection on our contemporary world uncovers the prevalence of individualism and self-interest. Uppermost in the thinking of many are “my rights, my possessions, my personal fulfilment, my opinions, my self-care, my needs and the like”. The ego is king. And the competition between egos and challenges to self-interest, led Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to declare: “Hell is other people.” While there might be times when we are inclined to agree with him, the very notion of God as Trinity proclaims that love is born of God, of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. And, remember, we are made in God’s image, made to relate and to love. In our love for one another, we mirror the love that exists in the Trinity, and we know that we can relate back to God in love. We know and experience intimacy with those we love, and in that way, too, we reflect something of the intimacy of God’s love for us.
Today’s first reading from Proverbs presents us with a poetic, female personification of God’s wisdom. Depending on how one translates the Greek, Wisdom is presented as either a foreman or master-craftsman standing beside God and assisting with the work of creation. Alternatively, the Greek word for God’s assistant can be translated as “nursling” or “little child”. This interpretation fits more comfortably with the birth imagery surrounding it. So, rather than God’s being assisted by someone with tools of trade, God is accompanied by little Wisdom, held by one hand and, with the other, getting on with the work of creation. The reading goes on to say that Wisdom’s delight is in humanity. Is this not another way of saying that God’s way of being in the world is marked by delight and play? Underneath all this is an image of God nursing all of creation, including humanity (“the sons of men”). That’s a long way from the traditional image of God as a decrepit, bearded, passionless patriarch.
Psalm 8, which follows, is a hymn of praise for creation and its creator God. In recent weeks we have been treated to breath-taking pictures of the “black hole”. In advance of those photographs, NASA scientists reported that they had detected gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes, which created such forces of gravity that even light could not escape. That discovery was the result of collaborative research by scientists across a hundred years, triggered by Einstein (1879-1955) and his theories. Mathematical genius though he was, Einstein’s wisdom and sensitivity were such that he once stated: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
While the writer of Psalm 8 celebrates creation and its creator, whose hands made the moon and stars and whose glory is even “above the heavens”, he proceeds to marvel at the role human beings have in creation: “You have made them a little lower than God.” To that status is attached the responsibility of stewardship.
Paralleling Einstein, contemporary theologians and cosmologists point out that the marvel of the universe is not how the earth is, but that it is. The persistent, patient, rigorous and collaborative manner in which mathematicians and physicists have explored both the world and the universe continues to be a truly admirable way of celebrating those realities. In their own way, these scientists, consciously or not, truly affirm the psalmist’s words: “O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
In today’s second reading from Romans, we hear how Paul called his community to have confidence in an outcome they could not see. He wrote: “It is through Jesus Christ, by faith, that we have been admitted into God’s favour, in which we are living, and look forward boastfully to God’s glory” (Romans 5, 2). I don’t know what the Romans thought of boasting, but what Paul wrote sounds a little like counting one’s chickens before they’re hatched. Yet, he is adamant that that those who place their faith and hope in God are assured of the outcome he describes. We tend to believe that boasting and over-confidence are indications of an impending fall from grace. But, according to Paul, Christians need to base their boasting not on their own achievements but on God’s. In Paul’s view, the resurrection of Jesus provides all the confidence Christians require.
Paul adds that this brand of faith and hope is produced through the sufferings we endure, and the character-building they produce. In Jesus Christ, God has given us every reason for confidence. The former President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel put it this way: “Hope is an orientation of the spirit...It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” It comes from knowing that even though we have the responsibility of “calling the shots”, ultimately it is with God’s help that we make them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2, 1-11
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.” John 14, 15-16, 23-26
Today’s readings invite us to pause and reflect on the Christian community into which we were initiated when we were baptised. They also invite us to take time to ponder who it is who breathes life, love and energy into each of us individually and into the community we form together - a community which is bigger than all of its parts added together and a community, which, at its best, reflects to our world, the love and compassion of God. I want to suggest that the love and compassion to which I refer are seen at their best in the actions of very ordinary people like the first disciples, and in the ordinary people who live next door to us, who work beside us and you sit in the pews around us when we gather each week in our parish churches.
One of the finest people I have encountered over the years, and only through his writing, was the American columnist, poet and novelist, Brian Doyle (1956-2017). Born in New York, he went on to graduate in English Literature from Notre Dame University and eventually became the editor of Portland, the magazine of the University of Portland, Oregon. This university, like Notre Dame, is conducted by the Holy Cross Congregation of priests. Doyle wrote many pieces about Catholic customs, beliefs, practices and mysteries not just because he was a practicing Catholic himself, but because he described Catholicity in his own words as “illogical, unreasonable, unthinkable, unprovable, nonsensical, counter-cultural, and in direct defiance of all evidence and human history”, to which he added: “Isn’t that great?” (Prologue to his essay Grace Notes”) Later, in a radio interview, he commented: “To grow up Catholic is to be especially lucky as an artist, because you are soaked in miracle and mystery and symbol and smoke and the confident assertion that every moment is pregnant with miracle and possibility and stuffed with holiness like a turducken.” (Interview with Nick Ripatrazone)
What struck me as I reflected on the significance and meaning of Pentecost were his his essay entitled Leap, in which he described some of the events associated with the destruction of the Twin Towers, New York on Sept 11, 2001, and a comment he wrote to a youngster in Korea in response to the boy’s fan letter: “Stories are prayers of terrific power”. When I think about it, I come to see so many of the stories of everyday life and those woven into the New and Old Testaments as Spirit-inspired “prayers of terrific power”.
Leap is both an essay and a prayer (it is available free on the internet). Let me quote a little of it: “A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped. Their hands reaching and joining are the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against such evil, hourly evidence that love is why we are here.”
In the continuation of today’s first reading from Acts, Peter defended the other apostles from allegations that their speaking out was a result of their being drunk. He went on to quote the prophet Joel and to explain to the crowd that apostles’ words were inspired by God’s Spirit of love: “The Lord declares: I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams. Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit” (see Joel 3, 1-5).
Peter painted Pentecost as another chapter in the story of God’s love for human kind. It is God’s love that inspires us to reach out to one another, to those we know and to those who are foreigners and strangers. The “miracle” of Pentecost shines a light on a motley community - women and men from the very first community that would come to be known as Christians, together with immigrants from “every nation under heaven”, who had come to live in Jerusalem. Here they were, listening to one another, understanding one another and reaching out to one another in acceptance, enabled and inspired to do so by the Holy Spirit. While we might not yet fully appreciate it, that’s a miracle of community-building that is possible for all of us to engage in, because, as Brian Doyle wrote: “love is why we are here.”
It’s the action of that same Spirit that has given us Pope Francis to set about the challenging work of rebuilding a Catholic Church that is faltering and broken. And the same Spirit who inspired Francis of Assisi in the 13th century to revitalise a Catholic community that had slipped into disarray and chaos. It was God’s Spirit who led Mother Teresa to reach out to the sick and destitute in the slums of Calcutta, and who even now prompts 15-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg to lead strikes by secondary school students to pressure politicians to take affirmative action against climate change. Protests by school students in the United States to control the sale of lethal weapons, and action by Australian students in support of asylum seekers and war refugees are expressions of Spirit-inspired action.
While Pentecost (pente is the Greek word for ‘fifty) was originally a Jewish Spring festival celebrated fifty days after Passover, it has been adopted and reshaped by Christians because it was during this festival, when Jerusalem was crowded with people who had come to celebrate, that the first apostles were inspired by the Spirit to preach and to teach.
Pentecost urges me to ask myself: Am I so alive with the love of God made visible in Jesus to allow myself to be an instrument of God’s Spirit to reach out in welcome to everyone I encounter in the course of each day? Am I even conscious that God’s Spirit is at work within me every single day of my life? And if so, am I attuned to the Spirit’s promptings, and then, courageous enough to respond to them?
They were still staring into the sky when suddenly two men in white were standing near them, and they said: “Why are you people from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” Acts 1, 1-11
The more I think about the meaning of today’s liturgical celebration of the Ascension of the Risen Christ, the more convinced I become that it is much more about us than it is about the risen Jesus Christ. I have come to believe that it is a celebration that might more appropriately be called something like “The Passing of the Baton” or “The Bestowal of the Mantle of Responsibility”. In departing from the disciples, the risen Jesus assured his disciples that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do remarkable things: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and, indeed, to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1, 8). And, as descendants of those first disciples, through baptism we have inherited that very same responsibility to witness to Jesus and his Gospel by the way we live our lives.
Moreover, the very same prod directed to those very first disciples is aimed directly at us: “Don’t just stand there looking paralysed and overawed! Roll up your sleeves and set about the task you’ve been given! Go, be the Gospel in action for everyone you encounter!”
There’s a delightful story about a little boy who, in the manner of many other little boys, confronts his grandfather with a litany of guileless questions: “Grandpa, what happens when you die?” While Grandpa explained as well as he could, the boy had another question: “Does that mean you won’t be here anymore?” “Well, yes, that’s true”, replied Grandpa. But the inquisition continued: “Does that mean you won’t be able to play cricket with me anymore?” “Yes, it does, I’m afraid.” “And that means you won’t be able to take me fishing either?” “Yes, it does.” The questions kept tumbling out of the little boy’s mouth until he concluded with: “Well, Grandpa, when that time comes, who’s going to do all these things with me, if you’re not around?”
The wise grandfather was equal to this last question, and explained: “Well, when that time comes, it will be your job to do those things for another little boy.”
Today’s commemoration of Jesus’ Ascension is the official announcement of “It’s your job now. It’s your responsibility.” As followers of Jesus, as members of today’s Christian community, it’s time for us to be the mouth, the hands, the feet and the presence of Jesus to everyone we encounter and with whom we engage.
Those who recorded the lived experience of those very first disciples telescoped what happened in their lives into a compressed time frame. In reality, it probably took time for the disciples to grasp the meaning and magnitude of the responsibilities that had been dropped into their laps. Almost certainly that did not happen in the space of a calendar week. They probably asked each another if they thought they would be equal to the task. They were almost certainly daunted by the prospect of what lay ahead of them, especially when they started to think about it. They were every bit as human as Jesus had been, and he was thirty years old before he ventured into the unknown. Admittedly, had been well-taught by Joseph and Mary, and he, in his turn, had schooled his disciples thoroughly. But there was still plenty of evidence to suggest that they were not always the sharpest knives in the block. There were times when they were slow in grasping what he tried to teach them. And now, they had to imagine a different future for themselves and find the creativity and courage to venture beyond their geographical and emotional confines. They needed a nudge to shake them out of their caution, doubt and hesitation. Jesus promised them the impetus of the Holy Spirit and Luke described how “two men in white” (heavenly visitors or angels) put a “blow-torch” under them.
In a very real sense, the Risen Christ just had to be set free from the confinements of an earthly body, the narrow worlds of Galilee and Jerusalem, and even of Judea and Samaria. He was even too big for the confines of the whole physical world. His Spirit needed to soar and be available to the whole of the created universe. The Ascension is the marker event for that Spirit to soar free, and a pointer to the transition that the disciples would experience when the Spirit enveloped their lives.
As we approach both today’s first reading from Acts and the gospel, we need to exercise a little caution. Scripture scholars tell us that the Gospel of Luke and Acts are two parts of one extended piece of writing, both written by the same person. In fact, Acts is sometimes referred to as Luke’s “Gospel of the Holy Spirit”. In what we now call Luke’s Gospel, the Ascension of Jesus occurs on the very first Easter evening. There, Luke interprets Jesus’ Ascension as the completion of his mission to the world as the Messiah, God’s anointed one (Luke 24, 50-53). Then, in the opening verses of Acts (the continuation of Luke’s Gospel and today’s first reading) Luke locates Jesus’ Ascension forty days after Easter, and he describes it as the launch of the disciples’ mission to the world. So, two different purposes meant two different ways of illustrating them. And, let’s not miss the symbolism here. Luke parallels Jesus’ ascension with the story of the Prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. In the process, he lost his cloak, which fell at the feet of his friend and successor, the Prophet Elisha. Elisha’s taking up of Elijah’s cloak prompts the other prophets to say: “The spirit of Elijah has come to rest on Elisha.” (2Kings 2, 15, However the whole of 2 Kings 2, 1-18 is well worth reading.) The echoes of this story with that of the coming of Jesus’ Spirit on the disciples are loud and clear. Note, too, that “forty” should not be passed over. Jesus fasted, prayed and reflected in the wilderness for forty days before he began his ministry. The Chosen People wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the promised land. And Luke says the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles at Pentecost, forty days after Easter. Forty is a symbol for a significant period of time for growth and maturity to take place. We would do well not to take it literally.
The long and the short of all this is that Ascension is all about us. It is the signal that the mission of Jesus is being handed on to us just as it was to those first disciples. We, too, are commissioned to make real for our world the compassion, the forgiveness, the acceptance and love of Jesus. To do that, we, too, need daring, imagination and creativity, as well as faith in the Risen Jesus. Moreover, we are assured that the Spirit of Jesus has been set free to enliven and inspire us very ordinary people to witness to Jesus and make him alive in our corner of the world.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Some men had come down from Judea (to Antioch) and taught the brothers: “Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved.” Acts 15, 1-2; 22-29
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have told you.” John 14, 23-29
The Christian community has long been troubled by literalists, people devoid of common sense and bent on observing rules and regulations in every detail. In the fledgling Christian community of Antioch, some, who had come from Jerusalem, started to demand that adult, Gentile converts be circumcised. These Judeans paid no attention to the health risks involved. All that mattered to them was adherence to the letter of the law. Paul and Barnabas had the good sense to refer the matter to community leaders in Jerusalem. It took what is now known as the Council of Jerusalem (A:D:49) to resolve the matter. Those councillors, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, relied on common sense in reaching their decision.
Not only did they write a letter to the new converts in Antioch, but they sent Judas and Silas to confirm the contents of their letter. However, it is fascinating to read what the leaders in Jerusalem regarded as “essential” for membership of the new Christian community: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols; from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from fornication. Avoid these, and you will do what is right.” (Acts 15, 28-29)
Now there’s an unusual list of “don’ts”! And notice that there are no “dos”. Understandably, participation in pagan sacrifice and fornication are out. But so too are rare and medium-rare steak, and black pudding. And what about what’s not listed? The glaring omission is Jesus’ new commandment: “Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13, 34-35)
This prompted me to stop and ponder the relationship between the Church and things like culture and custom that has been played out over centuries. Moreover, “God’s will” has sometimes been twisted and interpreted to accommodate barbarities perpetrated in the name of Church and the guarding of orthodoxy. For example, people gratuitously labelled as witches were burned at the stake because they were regarded as being in league with the devil. There was a time when people of my generation were taught about “just wars”, as though killing could ever be justified. The Spanish Inquisition was designed to rid the Church of “heretics”, and Crusades were conducted to put Muslims in their place. There have been times in religious orders when the direction of the superior was equated with the will of God, regardless of whether or not what was directed made sense. And we’ve probably all encountered people who are convinced that only their way of doing religion is in harmony with God’s will. Moreover, throughout history there have been those who have invoked natural law and God’s will to justify slavery, caste and class distinction, submission of women, and inequitable distribution of opportunity and resources.
Let’s not forget that our contemporary Church is not free of squabbles and bickering. They go on at every level. There are Cardinals who criticise the efforts made by Pope Francis to welcome divorced Catholics back to participating fully in Eucharist. Arguments go on in local churches and parishes about the use of inclusive language in the liturgy, the wording of the Creed we use at Mass on Sundays, why giving the homily is restricted to ordained priests and deacons, and whether parish funds are for assisting the poor or buying a new organ. In large organisations there is need to have policies. The Spirit of Jesus can be found in policies. But in every policy handed down by a parish priest or bishop? Policies can take pressure off some, complicate life for others and lead others still to parade in triumph at getting their own way. New policy is often born out of healthy change and new developments. At its best it is about keeping us all pointed in the same general direction, in harmony with one another in our efforts to follow the way to God modelled for us by Jesus.
I suggest that the answer to all these questions and challenges is to be found in today’s gospel reading: “Jesus said to the disciples; ‘If anyone loves me she/he will keep my word…but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’”
Surely this means that God’s Spirit, present deep within us, will prompt our hearts and minds, and help us to discover the meaning of God’s Word as Jesus proclaimed it. Then it’s up to us to translate God’s Word into appropriate action. But for that to happen, we have to first take time to reflect on Jesus’ words as they are recorded in the Gospels.
An indication that we are on the right track will be that we will know peace deep within. Not the peace, Jesus was quick to say, which the world offers. Rather it is the peace of interior wholeness. It is a sense of being at peace with ourselves and with those around us; free from agitation, anxiety, worry and hostility; a sense of self-worth based on knowing that we are loved by God. It is a peace that cannot be stolen from us, for it does not depend on the opinions of others, on our successes and failures or on the passing fads and fantasies of the world around us. When we experience that kind of peace, we can be confident that the Spirit of Jesus is alive and active in our words and actions.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to 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, 31-33a, 34-35
On the surface, today’s gospel looks to be fairly inoffensive, the run-of-the-mill stuff we expect of Jesus. I suggest we look at it in the context of when Jesus spoke those words about loving one another, and in the contemporary context of Francis’ papacy.
In what we now call “The Last Supper”, Jesus had a very clear premonition that his enemies were about to do away with him. So, he turned his attention to the legacy he wanted to leave to his closest friends. He set out to give them something that they could hold onto when confusion and grief would overcome them, after his death. He sensed that the only experience that would carry them through would be love. And let’s not forget that love is much more than a feeling. It is a verb; it is action; it is action that makes real demands.
To better understand the pressures under which Jesus lived his life, we have to appreciate that he was fully human. That’s what incarnation means. He was flesh and blood like us, with all the accompanying emotions and feelings that are part of being human. To spell that out, I am indebted to a piece written by a man I greatly admire, the late George McCauley SJ. He described, in a very imaginative way, how Jesus loved us:
“I will act as though I’m not God. I’ll go the acculturation route, wear native dress - they call it flesh and blood - live like them, be one of them. I will take on their full emotional range. I will get angry, frustrated, anxious, annoyed, guilt-stricken. I will get knots in my stomach before I preach, just as they do, and I’ll have to raise my voice to be heard. I’ll pray like them, dealing with all kinds of distractions and doubts. I’ll taste the silence and waiting of prayer. I’ll experience the fear that, in prayer, I just might be waiting for the echo of my own voice to return. I’ll draw near to God in all my humanity, and pray that I don’t melt when I get too close. I’ll feel the deep human shudder before the mystery - the helplessness and the incomprehension.
“I’ll try to free up other people in their relationship to God. People can get so constipated in this regard; sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh at them or cry. It will take a lot of convincing to get them to see that God is smarter, funnier, more sophisticated, more tender and knowing, more classy than they are. I will probably lose it at times, and run on about fire and brimstone. But I can’t be expected to take on a kind of measured expression that is really inhuman.
“Many of them are over twenty-one. So, if I break a law here and there to make a point about God, they should be able to figure that out, too. I’ll reject sin because I will come to see it as the enemy within my own humanity. Getting things across to people will be difficult at times. They seem so uptight, isolated, selfish and even vicious. Will that happen to me, too? In any case, I know there will be no shortcuts. I’ll be especially conscious of people’s history - where they have come from, and what resources, customs and habits they come with. I’ll work out how to deal differently with adults and young people. I’ll live with all their myths and legends, and their late-night storytelling.
“I’ll forge my own values out of the disarray I see and the conflicting opinions I hear. And when I share my values with others, I’ll take the consequences - incomprehension, misquoting, suspicion of my motives and of my convictions (they really know how to go for the weak spot, don’t they?) But it won’t be so bad. At least my friends will never abandon me. Anyway, who would want to hurt anyone who is in favour of love?” (George McCauley, The Unfinished Image, Sadlier NY, 1983, p. 165-167)
The love with which Jesus loved is completely and authentically human in shape and form. It’s the kind of love that God’s spirit has planted deep within us, and which has been reinforced by the parents who loved us into life and who modelled for us the selflessness of love. The biggest difficulty that most of us have with Jesus is accepting that he was consistently, relentlessly human. We have often been reminded of the words of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Those words hold just as true for Jesus as they do for each one of us.
Being told by Jesus to love one another leaves no room for word games, rationalisations, negotiations, exceptions or explanations. “One another” surely means those all around us, those with whom we live and work and play and worship. They mean our parents, siblings and the next-door neighbours. They mean those with whom we argue and litigate about the fairness of grandad’s will. Loving one another means much more than tolerating or getting along with our brothers and sisters. It means actually loving them, wanting what’s best for them, rejoicing with them in their successes and supporting them in their losses and failures, and when they make mistakes and end up in prison. And if today’s gospel is not quite enough, we can stop and look at how St Teresa of Avila spelled it out in detail for us: “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 through 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.”
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013, it was not by accident that he chose the name Francis. He was acutely aware of Francis of Assisi - a man of poverty and peace, a man whose heart overflowed with love of those around him, and whose love embraced creation, the environment and all the other creatures among whom we live. But the new Pope was also acutely aware of the profound change of heart that Francis of Assisi underwent in the broken church of San Damiano, outside the walls of Assisi. It was there that the first Francis heard the call: “Go, rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” Our present-day Church is broken and falling into ruin. According to census takers, the second largest “religious group” in the world is now ex-Catholics. They have been disillusioned and disaffiliated by things like the scandal of sexual abuse, clericalism, the Church’s inability to stay connected with young people, its inertia, and reluctance to invite into leadership lay women and men. Pope Francis realized that he inherited a Church that is in desperate need of rebuilding. It will be rebuilt when we, as a community, take seriously Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” That means being a community that engages with the poor, the dispossessed, those driven by war, terrorism, violence and injustice from the places they call home. It means reaching out with genuine love and care to our needy brothers and sisters. It means love in action. It means, as Pope Francis says, getting our hands dirty, catching the smell of sheep in need. Love in action speaks all languages. It also helps to rebuild broken lives and broken communities.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10, 27-30
Last month, the Australian media gave a lot of attention to comments about gay people made on social media by a high-profile Australian Rugby player. While officials of the Australian Rugby Union stated that the player is entitled to hold to his religious beliefs, they indicated that his contract would be terminated because of his intemperate, discriminatory and bigoted comments posted on a public media site. In the player’s view, gay people have no place among Jesus’ sheep. So, in the context of today’s gospel reading, I found myself wondering who’s “in” and who’s “out”. I even wondered if John had quoted Jesus accurately, and what exactly Jesus meant when he said: “My sheep listen to my voice;”
We all know from experience that many people get turned off religion when they hear categorical statements made about who is “saved” and who isn’t. Over the centuries, fanatical adherents from a wide range of religious institutions have publicly voiced this kind of discrimination. I find it depressing, for it gives religion a bad name. Every now and then, I encounter somebody or other who has the gall to judge my orthodoxy, to give me a spiritual once-over with a measuring rod of their own making. I find myself wondering about how such people arrived at their calculation standards. However, I am always comforted by the remark of an elderly religious sister who was pressured into reluctant retirement after spending thirty years among poverty-stricken people in India. In her delightful Irish brogue, she would sometimes say: “It’s better to be around sinners. They don’t put on airs and graces, you know.”
Yet, today’s gospel reading still leaves me with the uncomfortable impression that some sheep belong and others don’t. Moreover, the other two readings don’t help me very much. The second one from the book of Revelation gives me the message that those who are persecuted for their faith (members of John’s Christian community) are definitely “in”: “He will guide them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7, 17). Persecution and the threat of death are not exactly the most attractive indicators of assuring anyone that he or she is in the right group of sheep.
There’s a bit more encouragement for me in the first reading from Acts. It describes something of the dilemma experienced by those who set out to proclaim the message Jesus had entrusted to them. When Paul and Barnabas experienced opposition in Antioch, we are told that they “shook the dust off their feet in defiance” and went to Iconium. They had made no impression at all on a group that insisted on basing their religious practice on soul-destroying, rigid adherence to rules and regulations: “Paul and Barnabas spoke out even more boldly: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you (Jews). But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we will leave you and go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13, 46). However, those (converts) who did listen to them “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13, 51)
Therein, I suggest, is to be found the clue for recognizing just who belong to Jesus’ sheep. They are the people who have come to the realization that God truly loves them. We all struggle to be convinced of that. But people whose lives are bound by rigidity and correct and controlled performance rarely demonstrate much in the way of love and joy.
Underneath that is a question for all of us: Is the parish or community to which I belong noted for its vibrant, energetic, joyful members who are ready to engage with one another and make visitors welcome? There’s a challenge for our churches today! Is there anything attractive about them? Do we read welcome on the faces of their leaders? How much energy is expended on reminders about who can and who cannot receive communion? And then there are the really momentous questions and debates as to whether “altar girls” are allowed or grudgingly tolerated, or whether women qualify to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. Can you believe that St Peter’s Basilica in Rome still has a dress code, and temple police to enforce it: Men in shorts, women in short skirts and with bare shoulders are not permitted to enter. Control is the order of the day. One wonders if Paul and Barnabas would shake the dust from their feet today if they experienced the controls practiced in some of our parishes and churches. But let’s not go too far in the direction of shaking dust from feet. There are some very vibrant parishes and communities in which people are actually “full of joy and the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps it’s true that Jesus’ sheep are distinguished by their graciousness and their cheery smiles.
But we can’t leave today’s gospel reading without giving some attention to the opening words attributed to Jesus: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice…” Guided by God’s Spirit, we are invited to listen to the voice of Jesus in the depths of our heart, and in the cries of his and our brothers and sisters calling for compassion and care in the world around us.
This fourth Sunday of Easter is also “Vocation Sunday”, and therefore a reminder to us to live true to our vocation as disciples of Jesus. Whatever our state in life, as Christians we would do well to remind ourselves that each one of us might be the only gospel that some people will ever read or encounter. Our vocation as Christians is to somehow be the face and the voice of Jesus to the people who come into our lives each day, and to see the face and hear the voice of Jesus in everyone we meet. I think we have little difficulty in seeing reflections of Jesus in those who have been officially recognized as saints. But we often fail to see Jesus reflected in the very ordinary “saints” we encounter in the office, on public transport, in the newspapers and magazines we read, and in the people who live with us. About 12 years ago, I was struck by a book review I came across in The New York Times. It was about a book written by Pauline Chen, a surgeon who specialized in liver transplants, but who took time out to write about what she described as “the troubled relationship between modern medical practice and the emotional events surrounding death”. She even admitted to the discomfort she experienced in medical school, when she and others were given “lessons in denial and depersonalization” which were intended to help would-be doctors to achieve high levels of technical competence without letting their emotions get in the way. She then wrote of doctors she met who were unable to empathize with the relatives of dying patients or even confront their own fears about death. However, she wrote movingly about her experience of a man whose heart began to fail rapidly after a long battle with colon cancer. She called his family, and then summoned the surgeon on duty. The man’s wife arrived first and Dr Chen took her to her husband’s bedside and quietly slipped away (as hospital protocol required). When the surgeon arrived, he quietly took the woman’s hand and gently explained what was happening. He indicated what the monitors were registering and whispered to her that her presence and her holding her husband’s hand were a comfort to him as he breathed his last. The surgeon stayed with the woman for another thirty minutes. Shortly afterwards, the man’s wife stepped out and quietly thanked the surgeon and Dr Chen. Pauline Chen went on to explain that what the duty surgeon did that morning completely changed her way of dealing with dying patients (Pauline Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality and William Grimes, New York Times, Jan 10, 2007, Doctor Confronts the Human Drama’s Inevitable Finale). The face and voice of Jesus are reflected to us in unexpected ways. We, in our turn, might reflect something of his face and voice to others.
Third Sunday of Easter
Jesus said to Simon the third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” John 21, 1-19
Before we launch into a discussion of today’s gospel reading, I think it is worth noting that Scripture scholars point out that this last chapter of what is officially John’s Gospel was not written by the person who wrote the first twenty chapters. The style and vocabulary of this chapter are so different from the rest of the book that the experts conclude that it was an addition at a later date, probably to pick up on the unfinished story of Peter. The last mention of Peter before Jesus’ resurrection was of him standing around a charcoal fire warming himself and vigorously denying that he had any connection with Jesus. Presumably some member of the early Christian community wanted to explain how Peter found his way back to acceptance and future leadership. Among other things, this epilogue story describes Peter and the disciples gathered around another charcoal fire.
But let’s start with another story. It’s about a young lad who had gone with his sister to stay on their grandparents’ farm. The boy’s grandfather had given him a slingshot and sent him off to practice with it in the woods. Despite all his efforts, the lad failed to hit anything he aimed at. As he made his way back to the house for lunch, he took aim at his grandmother’s pet duck. This time his aim was accurate and the duck fell dead in front of him. At first, he was shocked, but then guilt at what he had done overcame him. He was afraid to tell his grandmother and was also aware that his sister, Sally had seen him hit the duck and then watched him as he hid it in the wood heap. But she didn’t say a word. After lunch, Grandma asked Sally to help her with the dishes. Instantly, Sally replied: “Grandma, Johnny told me that he wanted to help you in the kitchen today, didn’t you, Johnny?” Then, she whispered in his ear: “Remember, the duck!” So, Johnny quietly helped with the wash-up. Later that afternoon, Grandpa asked if they wanted to go fishing with him, but Grandma said that she needed Sally to help her to get the evening meal ready. Sally, however, didn’t miss a beat, and quickly volunteered Johnny to help Grandma: “Johnny already told me that he wants to help you, Grandma.” Then she whispered to Johnny again, “Remember, the duck?” So, Sally went off fishing and Johnny stayed in the kitchen helping Grandma. This went on for several days, with Johnny doing all the helping around the house, and Sally enjoying herself endlessly. Finally, Johnny cracked and went and told Grandma how he had killed her pet duck. She bent over and gave him a big hug, saying: “I know, sweetheart. I was standing near the window and saw what happened. But I love you very much, Johnny, and forgave you immediately. However, I’ve been wondering just how long you’re going to let Sally make a slave of you.” Sometimes we can let guilt tie us up in knots and allow it to paralyze us.
Another clue that helps us see today’s gospel reading as an addendum to John’s Gospel is the fact that it doesn’t fit into the sequence of the resurrection stories of the last two Sundays. There is a strong suggestion that the disciples were at a loss following the death of Jesus and, in their grief, they went back to doing something they were used to doing and which would distract them for their grief. They went back to fishing. As they were winding up their night’s unsuccessful work, they heard from the shore something that every fisherman is used to hearing - the voice of a stranger calling out: “Lads, did you catch anything?” When they admitted that they had had no luck, they got the advice that lots of fisherfolk get from passers-by: “Well try somewhere else.” Except this particular morning, the stranger calling out told them to put their nets out on the other side of the boat. Their success was immediate and so far beyond expectation that one of them realized that the stranger calling out was more than an ordinary passer-by. It could only be Jesus. Impetuous Peter was in the water in no time, and before long the others joined him around the charcoal fire, having dragged their net and their catch behind them.
When they had all eaten, Jesus singled out Peter and asked him three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This, of course, is part of the story-teller’s stock in trade: Jesus’ three-time questioning parallels Peter’s three-time denial. And that fits perfectly the Jesus the disciples had come to know. Mercy and forgiveness were the focus of all he had said and done. There was not an ounce of vindictiveness in him. And that’s the reassurance that Jesus offers every one of us. This story recounts how Peter was forgiven and reinstated as leader of the community. It also reassures us that Jesus is in touch with the realities with which every disciple struggles - a ready willingness to give generously together with the knowledge that we all falter and stumble, despite our best efforts. Yet forgiveness is readily offered to us all.
2003 saw the publication of Kiss of Death: America’s Love Affair with the Death Penalty. It was written by John Bessler and published by Northeastern University Press, Boston. Bessler is a serious researcher and gives an exhaustive account of how law codes throughout history have evolved. He recounts how the Babylonian Law Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) listed 25 offences punishable by death. Among them were corruption, theft and the fraudulent sale of beer! The Legal Systems of the United Kingdom and the United States differ considerably, but both have come a long way since Hammurabi. However, both have evolved and both have struggled with capital punishment. It is no longer practiced in the U.K. There are strong campaigns in the United States to have it abolished. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King has stated that the death penalty “does a disservice to everything my husband lived for and believed.” A brochure published by campaigners states: “We can’t stop all violence but we can work to stop the violence carried out by a government that kills in our names.” Three Federal Government prisoners have been executed in the United States this century. One was Timothy McVeigh who discharged a bomb in a Federal Government building in Oklahoma in April, 1995. The explosion killed 168 people and left more than 500 injured or maimed. Bud Welch, whose only daughter was killed in the blast, was one of the few people who spoke out against McVeigh’s execution: “The day Timothy McVeigh is taken from that cage in Indiana and put to death is not going to bring Julie Marie Welch back and is not going to bring me any peace or anybody in this nation any peace,” he said. “God did not make us so that we feel good about killing a caged human being.” For months after his twenty-three-year-old daughter died in the bombing, Bud Welch, a Texaco service station owner, felt only rage, depression, and grief. “I didn’t even want trials for them,” Welch said of Timothy McVeigh and his codefendant, Terry Nichols. “I wanted them fried.” After smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drinking himself to sleep at night, Welch, realizing his life was falling apart, finally abandoned thoughts of revenge, let go of his rage, and arranged to visit Bill McVeigh (Timothy’s father) at his home near Buffalo, New York. “The reason Julie and 167 others were dead was rage and revenge,” Bud Welch would say before Timothy McVeigh’s execution. He went on to say: “If Timothy McVeigh is executed I won’t be able to choose to forgive him. As long as he is alive, I have to deal with my feelings and emotions…It’s a struggle I need to wage. To me the death penalty is vengeance and vengeance really doesn’t help anyone in the healing process.”
The message that rings out from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus wants nothing to do with vengeance or vindictiveness. Nor does he want anyone to be imprisoned by guilt. Both stifle life, both run counter to the Gospel. We are less than we can be if we allow ourselves to be controlled by the hate and bitterness of others. The choice is ours.
Second Sunday of Easter
When the disciples said: “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas answered: “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…I refuse to believe.”John 20, 19-31
One of our distinguishing characteristics as human beings is that we have a thirst for knowledge. When things puzzle and challenge us, we ask questions. When we can’t find answers, we become frustrated. Our thirst for knowledge becomes apparent early in life. We see evidence of it in little children who seek to satisfy their curiosity with endless “Daddy, why…?” questions. The history of scientific exploration and philosophical hypothesizing is peopled with inquirers from Socrates to Galileo, from Marie Curie to Rita Levi-Montalcini, from Charles Darwin to Einstein. These giants, and many others like them, have been driven in their search for answers to questions which only they had the intellectual acumen to formulate and the determination to pursue.
In his last book, published only after he died, the great mathematician, physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking posed questions the answers to which may not be found this side of eternity. His opening question: Is there a God? is one that has been asked and explored ever since human beings have walked the earth (Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, NY 2018).
We all struggle with questions. Our inability to answer some of them with speed and certainty not only frustrates us, but confronts us with our limitations. Most of us struggle to fully accept our limitations and the reality that we belong to a limited species.
Thomas, one of the central figures of today’s gospel reading, is a character who is often misjudged for his apparent disbelief. I want to suggest that he is worthy of our admiration. He had seen and felt the fear, doubt and depression that had overwhelmed himself and his fellow disciples in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. When he was confronted with the assertion that Jesus had risen and appeared to his companions, he did what most intelligent people would do. He asked them if they had let their imaginations run away with them or whether they had drunk too much in trying to drown their sorrows. Maybe he concluded that, out of desperate hope, the other disciples had become delusionary. He was not going to let himself be drawn in that direction. So, he was honest and open in stating that he was not prepared to accept an assertion that had no evidence to substantiate it. But he was punished for his honesty. Because he insisted on being given hard evidence, he found himself alienated by his friends, cut off from the group to which he thought he belonged.
But let’s not forget that John had already presented Thomas as a down-to-earth, plain-spoken man. When Jesus announced his intention to return to Bethany after receiving news of the death of his friend, Lazarus, all the disciples, except Thomas, tried to dissuade him, for it had been in Bethany that some Jews had tried to stone Jesus. Thomas, however, insisted that they not let Jesus go alone, even if that meant risking their own lives: “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11, 16). During Jesus’ long farewell speech, he was bold enough to interrupt, asking him to speak plainly, instead of talking in the kind of poetic and flowery language that he clearly found baffling. Jesus was saying: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This was too much for Thomas, who interjected with: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14,5)
A week after Thomas’ demand for convincing evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (and it must have been a long week for him), Jesus reappeared to the whole group. His first words were clear indication that he had neither isolated nor rejected Thomas. He simply invited him to set aside his doubts and believe. By making allowance for Thomas’ scepticism, the risen Jesus made it clear that he is open and ready to meet all of us, wherever we happen to find ourselves. The palpable irony of the story is that from the mouth of the man, who has subsequently been labelled as “doubting Thomas”, came one of the greatest expressions of faith: “My Lord and my God.”
While John put the focus on Thomas’ doubt, he glossed over the doubt of the other disciples. Even though Mary Magdalen had told them of her encounter with the risen Lord, all of them except Thomas stayed in hiding, while he, the practical one, might well have been out doing the shopping or even trying to verify what Mary Magdalen had claimed.
Yet, if we are honest, we have to admit that we, too, waver between faith and doubt, but come down eventually in favour of faith. In the course of our lives, we gain knowledge through direct experience, deduction or reasoning and through putting our faith in what others tell us. Social researchers point to the fact that more than 75% of our knowledge comes from accepting what others tell us. For example, if I go to a pharmacy searching for medication for an upset stomach, I accept the pharmacist’s recommendation or take as true the instructions for use and the description of possible side-effects printed on the package or bottle containing the medication I purchase. Whenever I board a plane, I take it on trust that the crew members are qualified to fly the plane. I don’t ask to see the captain’s flying licence. However, if we experience severe turbulence on a flight, we might catch ourselves questioning the competence of the captain. When we stop to reflect on an intangible reality like religion, most of us experience intellectual doubts from time to time. We catch ourselves wondering if the miracles in the Gospel actually happened. We have doubts about the divinity of Jesus and the existence of God. These days, we are aware of lots of Catholics doubting how a Church with a history of terrible sexual abuse can really be the Church that Jesus founded on Peter. And then there are our emotional doubts that come to the surface when tragedy and illness strike us or those we know and love. Those who have been faithful to their religious practice find themselves thinking that they are entitled to better treatment from a God who allegedly loves them.
Thomas wanted assurance and evidence. He also wanted Jesus and needed personal connection to dispel his doubts. While others can inspire and encourage us, they cannot give us their faith. The journey to faith in God and Jesus is ultimately personal and sometimes lonely. In today’s gospel we come to see that Mary could not experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples couldn’t experience Jesus for Thomas. In the long run, we come to understand that it is faith, shaken at times by doubt, that keeps us on the path of searching for our own experience of Jesus. And we need the support of community to help us along that path. John’s Gospel spells out that the fundamentals of being a disciple of Jesus are faith and love. To grow into these is the journey of a lifetime. And we human beings will never achieve them perfectly.
Then the other disciple (John) who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed. John 20, 1-9
In recent years, surveys conducted in both the United Kingdom and the United States have revealed that a little more than 50% of respondents in both countries believe in an afterlife, without necessarily believing in God. Moreover, there has been a spate of books describing near-death, out-of-body experiences attesting to a life after death. In 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was published, and sold millions of copies. It is the story of Alex Malarkey who was left a quadriplegic after a traffic accident, and describes the boy’s experiences of heaven, angels and hearing God’s voice while he was in emergency surgery. It was written by the boy’s father, Kevin who was in the accident with his son. Kevin later admitted that the story was a fabrication. Alex’s mother, Beth, subsequently told reporters that her son was not some kind of supernatural being and is still a quadriplegic. As a consequence of the writing and publication of the book and its subsequent withdrawal from sale, Alex’s parents are now separated. In stark contrast, Heaven Is For Real, also published in 2010, has sold more than 10 million copies. It recounts the out-of-body experience of Colton Burpo during emergency surgery to remove his burst appendix. It was co-written by Colton’s father, Todd Burpo and a family friend, Lynn Vincent and has been made into a film that has pulled in more than $101 million at the box office. It describes Colton’s experience of seeing Jesus and Mary in heaven. While I am not inclined to recommend either of these books to anyone, the volume of sales point to the urge in people to want to believe in heaven or an afterlife.
If that’s not enough, the popularity of the TV show, The Walking Dead, reinforces this acceptance in people of an afterlife. The programme is so popular in Australia that Foxtel tied up rights to it, preventing fans from buying weekly episodes from iTunes and Google (Sydney Morning Herald, October 2016). All of these contemporary productions get some of their inspiration (perhaps unconsciously) from very old creations like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite the advent of rationalism and the cynicism of Post-Modernism, there seems to still exist a deep conscious or unconscious longing in much of humanity for the existence of an afterlife.
I suggest that this longing is somehow connected to humanity’s search to find meaning in the unanswerable questions that life’s struggles and disappointments throw up. Somehow, very ordinary people instinctively conclude that the efforts they make to live decent, honest lives really come to nothing if death is the ultimate winner. Whether we are of any religious faith or none, deep down we cling to an intuition that we are going to die into life (albeit different) rather than away from life. We have within us a sense that the intangible realities of love, faith, hope, kindness, compassion and beauty will never die. The very fact that so much of humanity experiences a longing for more is testimony that there really is something more. Our continuing living and longing work together to keep this “truth” alive. It’s not a factual truth to which we can point, but it is a “truth” we come to by deduction.
I am writing this reflection in New Rochelle N.Y. where I have been for about a week. Yesterday, I came upon a story recounted by Michael Shermer, a member of the Skeptics Society and founder of their magazine Skeptic. The story was published in the magazine and is an account of an incident that happened on the day he married Jennifer Graf, who had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 2014. They married a year or so later. In transit from Germany, a trunk carrying some of Jennifer’s possessions was damaged, together with a transistor radio she treasured because it belonged to her deceased grandfather who reared her after her own father had died. All efforts to repair the transistor radio proved fruitless. Following their wedding, and during the reception held in their home, Jennifer confided to Michael that, despite her happiness, she felt really sad that there was nobody from her German family at the wedding and that the person she missed most was her grandfather. Shortly after confiding this to Michael, they farewelled guests and went up to their bedroom, where they heard music coming from somewhere. Eventually they traced it to a drawer in one of the cupboards. The 1978 Phillips transistor radio had come to life, and with tears running down her face, Jennifer acknowledged that her grandfather was at the wedding after all. She and Michael fell asleep listening to the classical music coming from grandfather’s transistor. By next morning, the music had stopped, and the transistor did not work again.
One final story: People who knew Pope Francis when he was a bishop and cardinal in Buenos Aires, find it difficult to understand what they see as a marked change in his personality since his election. In Argentina, he had a reputation for being shy, even boring, with no spark in his interpersonal engagements. When he was asked to be Pope, he said he was reluctant but accepted because he saw it as God’s will for him. When an interviewer in 2015 asked him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”, he replied: “I am a sinner. That is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” However, he did confide to a good friend and fellow bishop from South America some time before the 2015 interview: "On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace, and that sense has never left me."
Stories like the ones above give me reason to pause and ponder. They challenge me to ask myself exactly what it is to which I am committing myself when I recite the Creed at Mass on Sundays. Do I really look forward to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? These have been some of my thoughts and ruminations as I approach Easter.
Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, confronts all of us, the sisters and brothers of Jesus, with the prospect and hope of renewed life. It is resounding testimony to the power of love. It is not only God’s validation of the life and death of Jesus, but a profound affirmation that goodness, love, compassion, beauty and hope are enduring.
In the latter years of his life, the great impressionist painter Renoir suffered severely from arthritis. His arms and legs became stiffened and his hands twisted and distorted. Matisse, then one of his students, asked him one day as Renoir was working on a large canvas, barely able to stand: “Why do you keep on torturing yourself like this?” The master painter merely replied: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Jesus came to teach us by example how to be authentically human, how to live with dignity and integrity through the disappointments and ordeals we encounter. His efforts brought him cruel execution from those who could or would not see or listen. But God raised him as proof positive that beauty, love and life will ultimately triumph. It’s for us, now, to reflect some of that life and love and beauty to others. The apostle John “saw and believed”. All the puzzling pieces he had heard previously from Jesus fell into place. He needed no further convincing. Do we?
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
The Criminal said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 22,14 – 23, 56
The themes of today’s readings are love and human frailty and fickleness. The following poem is an introduction into the first of those themes.
Love's As Warm As Tears
Love's as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.
Love's as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts--infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.
Love's as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song hung in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering 'Dare! Dare!'
To sap, to blood,
Telling 'Ease, safety, rest,
Are good; not best.'
Love's as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, (1964)
The themes that run consistently and persistently through Luke’s Gospel are those of forgiveness, mercy and love. Luke, and the other Gospel writers, present Jesus as the complete and utter human personification of God’s love. In today’s gospel, the words we hear from Jesus on his way to Calvary and from the Cross are an expression of totally selfless love:
To the disciples, when one of them took a sword and cut of the ear of the high priest’s servant, he said: “Leave off! That will do!” He refused to fight violence with violence. To the women on the roadside watching him struggle to his place of execution, he said: “Don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children.” For those who crucified him, he prayed: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” And to the criminal who supported him: “I promise you today you will be with me in paradise.” And all those directives, advice and prayers are for our benefit, too.
The readings of today are held up to us like a mirror which reflects to us the fickleness of our feelings, attitudes and actions. We all have the potential to swing from one extreme to the other, from palm-waving enthusiasm and adulation to the peer-pressure fuelled vindictiveness of: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We may well recoil from the prospect of the latter, but today’s readings assure us that, even if we slip to that extent, the forgiveness and understanding of a merciful God await us.
Reflection on our own life experience teaches us that we can delude ourselves into acting as though we are messiahs, acting as though we can save others from visiting disaster and destruction on themselves and others. Alternatively, we can put on others such heavy expectations that we elevate them to the status of messiah. Even if we don’t go that far, there are times when we catch ourselves wanting others to live up to our expectations. When they don’t measure up, we can dismiss them and go in search of others in whom we see greater potential for delivering what we want. There are also moments in our lives when we can be drawn into crucifixion. They occur when we launch into demolishing the reputations of those we perceive as threats to us, of those we regard as competitors, of those on whom we look with jealousy and envy. Whenever we engage in stifling the life in others or blocking the life-giving actions of others, we are pursuing the way of crucifixion. The liturgy and readings of today and the next few weeks are a powerful reminder to us that we have a God who knows the rhythm of what we call the paschal mystery. Our God is one whose love and mercy for us is so powerfully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples, we, too, experience the pattern of death and new life as circumstances deprive us of our hopes and aspirations and lead us through the pain of loss to claim new life and new hope.
The Jesus whom Luke presents in today’s gospel reading is entirely consistent with the Jesus who presents story after story illustrating the compassion, forgiveness, mercy and love of God. One after the other, the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost, prodigal son reinforce the message that God does not give up on us, however lost and alienated we may be. It is this same Jesus who invites us to imitate the compassion and selflessness of the Prodigal’s father and of the Samaritan who rescued the beaten traveller, with no thought of ritual contamination to himself. The point of all this, of course, is that we are invited to express those attitudes to everyone who comes into our life. We have no control over how they relate to us, what they feel about us or what they think of us, but it is our choice as to how we relate and respond to them.
Today’s gospel reading is an invitation to us to reflect on the extent to which our story resonates with the story of Jesus. We will always experience people and situations that threaten our integrity or the values and principles on which we want to base our lives. The extent to which our lives reflect the love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus expressed as he was humiliated, degraded, tortured and executed is the extent to which our story coincides with his. Neither God nor Jesus expects us to do any of those things perfectly. However, Luke’s account of the last day in the life of Jesus asks us if we are courageous enough to reflect even a little of the selfless love that characterized Jesus’ life to the bitter end.
In one part of his letter to the Romans, Paul concludes one of his exhortations with: “Don’t let yourselves be mastered by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12, 21). Luke’s account of the passion of Jesus is the story of the triumph of mercy and goodness over jealousy, injustice and evil. Today we are asked if we can imitate Jesus in at least some small way.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin any more.” John 8, 1-11
Scripture scholars have pointed out that the story of the woman caught in adultery is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. In fact, it was added in the early part of the Third Century, when Christians were involved in heated argument as to whether there could be forgiveness of sin after baptism. While Tertullian, the early Christian scholar and writer from Carthage in Tunisia, was adamant that there was no forgiveness of sin after baptism, other scholars began to ask the question: “What would Jesus do?” That’s a question that has persisted through the centuries, and is often heard nowadays from people struggling with modern moral dilemmas. In the Third Century that question was answered by including in John’s Gospel the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which had been part of oral tradition from the time of the Apostles. The debate was a clear illustration that even the earliest Christians found it difficult to trust in Go’s unconditional forgiveness.
Christianity has been plagued by those whose only solution to immorality has been drastic action designed to discourage anyone inclined to repeat the immorality. Advocates of capital punishment belong to that group. And the Spanish Inquisition pursued such remedies with a vengeance. Jesus, however, promoted mercy and conversion of heart as the only effective and lasting answer. The blueprint for his approach is to be found in today’s gospel story.
Notice that his integrity demands that he does not gloss over the woman’s behaviour. He names it for the sin that it is, but he does not condemn the sinner. He urges her not to become trapped in guilt but to let go of her past and live her life with her heart renewed. If we don’t remember past mistakes and personal failures, we run the risk of repeating them. At the same time, it’s soul destroying to allow ourselves to become trapped by our past. Memory is an integral part of Jewish culture. The great rabbi Abraham Heschel made much of this when he said: “Much of what the Bible demands of us can be summed up in a single word: remember!” (Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity, 1997). Remember in the sense of calling to mind the past and re-member in the sense of putting back together the broken pieces. Decades earlier, Heschel had written: “There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory that is the main source of our faith” (The Holy Dimension, 1943). In today’s second reading, Paul remembers how he was once engaged in bitterly persecuting the early Christians. Remembering tells us something of our life journey, including both the good things we have done and experienced and the not so good. But we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of living in the past or being controlled by our past. In the gospel reading, we learn how Jesus rescued the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to condemn to death by stoning. He rescued her from being imprisoned by her shameful past, encouraging her to put back together the pieces of her broken life. Instead of shaming her further, he encouraged her to let go of the past and look to a future full of hope, reflecting in his treatment of her that she, too, shared in the “collective memory of God”.
The risk for the woman in the story was that she had a lot to live down. While those in the group that brought her to Jesus were pressured by him to reflect on their private sinfulness, she had the reputation of being a public sinner. She would have to live with gossip and the way that these Pharisees would continue to stare leeringly at her. She would have doubts as to whether her husband would forgive her. It was one thing to be assured by Jesus that God had forgiven her, but what about all her friends and neighbours? She ran the risk of being trapped in guilt. And that’s the risk we all face. Perhaps there are times when we wonder if we have been really forgiven by God for our past failures and infidelities. And most of us have probably met people who are wracked by scruples, unable to trust that God has forgiven them. One wonders what kind of God they have. And that prompts us to ask ourselves what kind of God we have. Do we believe that God loves us endlessly and unconditionally, no matter how broken our past lives have been?
Yet this story Is as much about the challenge Jesus puts to the Pharisees as it is about the forgiveness of the woman. Jesus is as aware of the seaminess of adultery as are the woman’s accusers. He does not deny the degradation of adultery or try to minimize it. But he does press the point that, before any of us wants to set about demanding that others change their evil ways, we must first change our own hearts. To make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now, we need to develop both a lived conviction that God really does forgive us and a way of relating to others that is built on generous heartedness, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. There is nothing to be gained by comparing ourselves with those we judge to be sinners in order to give ourselves a self-satisfying pat on the back.
Robert Cormier, in his book entitled Table Talk: Beginning a conversation on the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of an old priest who often wondered about the difference between heaven and hell. One night he had a dream in which he experienced God telling him what that difference really was.
God showed him hell first, and he was stunned to see that there were no flames and no horned and pointy-tailed devils prodding others with forks. But there was a crowd of very angry people, all holding 10-foot-long wooden spoons and jostling one another as they struggled to get their spoons into large wooden bowls that were placed in the centre of picnic tables and filled to overflowing with food. But, when any of them managed to fill their spoons, they were not able to turn the spoons around and get them into their mouths. The frustration, the arguing and the bitterness were sheer hell! Then God gave the priest a look at heaven. He saw the same wooden tables and bowls and people with the same 10-foot-long wooden spoons. But there was no jostling and pushing. There was an atmosphere of real peace and contentment. Here the people were happily engaged in feeding one another.
Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that, if we are to confront the evils of the world in which we live, we have to start by confronting the evils within ourselves. We just won’t be able to life up the broken and the alienated until we realise that we, too, are broken and we, too, alienate ourselves from God and from our brothers and sisters. It is futile to think we can credibly pass judgement on others until we assess our own lives and seek the healing that God offers us. We have the capacity to create both heaven and hell in our own time and place. When we find within ourselves the willingness to feed one another from the bounty of God’s gifts to us, we will get a glimpse of heaven. Hell is nothing but the abundance of selfishness and the endless presence of bitterness and spiteful competition.
Today we are invited to put down our stones of indignation, bitterness and superiority and to look within ourselves at the place where good and evil meet and wrestle with one another. Any of us without sin can lead the stone-throwing.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained. “This man”, they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he spoke this parable to them. Luke 15, 1-3, 11-32
We all know today’s gospel parable of The Prodigal Son so well that we can repeat it by heart in all its detail. So, as we pause once again to reflect on its significance for our lives, let’s keep in mind a saying to which many storytellers subscribe: “The story begins only when the teller stops talking.” I am confident that Jesus would have shared their view. So, what will this story evoke from you and me?
I want to suggest that the context in which Jesus first told this story is of equal importance to the story itself. Luke tells us that Jesus is among tax collectors and sinners, all eager to hear what he had to say. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes were looking on, tut-tutting at the fact that Jesus was associating and even eating with the dregs of society, those detested for their depravity and corruption. However, by the time we get to the end of the parable we are left in no doubt that nobody earns entrance into God’s kingdom. It is all gift. And there is an additional message for all those among us who see themselves as upright, religious people. A heavy investment in religious knowledge and practice, however impressive it might look, is no proof that we have a healthy relationship with God. What we display on the outside is not always a good indication of what is going on in our hearts. Impeccable religious observance may be doing more for our own ego than for those around us. It may also be doing little to nourish our relationship with God.
So, I am suggesting that this parable is especially directed at the good religious onlookers who would not even think of mixing with the group of sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors close to Jesus, let alone eat with them. Now, let’s look at some of the characters in the story and the significance of their actions. We’ve already mentioned the educated, religious leaders who were the standard bearers of morality, law and religious observance. They were the ones with status, power and control in the society of the day. Then there are any number of public sinners - those already mentioned, but also the two brothers, and the pig farmer, representing those despicable people who prey on the vulnerable and who use their cunning to seduce them from their culture, their principles and the values they learned from their childhood. And there’s the father who not only breaks all the conventions and expectations of how fathers were supposed to act, but who contributes to the dissention between his two sons. And these characters all have their modern-day equivalents.
We all know from bitter experience that none of us is above sin. We all fail, and fall from grace in one way or another. We also know that we can be quick to identify those whose sin is public while we do our utmost to keep our sinfulness away from the public gaze. But among us there are many so-called religious people who are intent on hiding their sin and their human frailty. We now know from bitter experience that even the administrators of some religious institutions colluded in keeping hidden the sins of their leaders.
While today’s gospel reading opens with Luke identifying the two groups (public sinners and religious leaders) listening to Jesus, the parable itself begins with the very direct statement: “A man had two sons” - just like the two groups listening to Jesus’ story. And the story is apparently directed at the public sinners, as the religious leaders smugly look on. But as the story unfolds we come to see that the younger son is a public sinner and the elder a private sinner. It is true that the younger son sank to the depths of depravity and infidelity. By demanding his share of the inheritance, he effectively told his father that he wished he were dead. Interested only in himself, he rejected his father, his family, his Jewishness and his religious practice. In so doing, he earned the hatred of his brother. Moreover, his reasons for deciding to return home are based on self-interest. He calculates that he can get a job on his father’s estate, be paid a wage and be given his meals. He returns on his own terms. And his father bends over backwards to welcome him back and restore him to his former status. His father asks no questions as to why he has returned. He is simply overjoyed that his wayward son has come back.
But while the younger son left in a way that humiliated his father, and went on to pursue a scandalous life-style, the older one was never really at home for his father. It is clear that he, too, was just waiting for his father to die. He adopted a martyr complex, regarding himself as a servant who spent his time slaving away on the estate, but was resentful, totally selfish, and full of anger and passive aggression. When his father left the party and went outside to coax him to come in and join the celebration, the elder son angrily pushed him away and blamed him for being forgiving and indulgent. All he wanted was a private party for himself and his friends. If we put the two brothers side by side, we see that they are not very different, except that the older one is a private sinner who not only can’t see that he has done wrong but even interprets his behaviour as virtuous. As the elder brother in a Jewish family, he had a responsibility for both his younger brother and his father. It was his job to go searching for his little brother and his job to protect his father from being humiliated in front of all his friends and neighbours. The younger son turned his father into a public laughing-stock, and the older son couldn’t care less. The younger of the two, despite his callousness, irresponsibility and utter selfishness, eventually came home. And we are left wondering if the older one relented, stopped pouting, let go of his anger and came into the party and back into the family.
When all is said and done, this parable invites us to look into the mirror to see for ourselves with which of the two we identify.
In sitting among the tax collectors and public sinners, Jesus adopts the role of a truly responsible brother, prepared to reach out to his brothers and sisters who have strayed, to celebrate their return and, thereby, to hold God’s family together. In that sense we can say that Jesus becomes the parable of God. And therein lies the challenge to those of us who like to pride ourselves on our fidelity and regular religious practice. Have we yet discovered who God is and do we ever reach out in welcome to and acceptance of those who have apparently gone astray? The parable invites us to reach out in mercy and forgiveness to others, and also to come in and celebrate whenever those we might be inclined to avoid accept the mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love of God which we sometimes take for granted.
Finally, there is something about this parable which is ageless. The younger son does not really want a father and the older one does not want a brother. Their attitudes are alive and well in our contemporary world. We meet any number of people who want no one to answer to, who shun the commitment of close relationships, who refuse to be accountable to anyone, who see themselves above and beyond the law. They want to be unrestrained to pursue a lifestyle that ultimately leads them to self-destruct. In addition, there are those around us who want neither sister nor brother. They don’t want anyone who might make a claim on them. They are intolerant of difference, and slip with ease into racism, discrimination and religious bigotry. Can we find it within us to reach out to these too?
Third Sunday of Lent
At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God…A person had a fig tree planted in his orchard: ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So, cut it down. Why should I exhaust the soil?’ The gardener replied: ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilise it; it may bear fruit in the future.’ Luke 13, 1-9
At first sight, this gospel reading looks to be made up of two separate and unrelated sections. The first section outlines a discussion between Jesus and some people who wanted to talk about disasters and their causes. The second is a parable about a non-productive fig tree. Both sections are challenges to us to stop and look at the concept of God on which we base our thinking, our religious belief, and our way of conducting our lives.
The people who questioned Jesus about the moral standing of those who were executed by Pilate when they were at prayer and those who died when the tower they were building collapsed seemed to hold the belief that accidents and disasters were God’s way of punishing the wicked. That was a popularly held belief in Judaism at the time of Jesus. There are several stories in the Gospels which illustrate how physical disability was attributed to the sinfulness of the person with the disability or to his/her parents.
Is having people executed the way God’s view of them is expressed? Is God’s opinion of people demonstrated in the accidents that happen to them? Most of us are quick to point out that questions like this, to say the least, are grotesque.
A modern version of the questions put to Jesus would look something like this: Were the 43 people who died in the bridge collapse in Genoa last August all living in sin? Were the 50 people who died in yesterday’s flash flooding in Sentani, Papua Province of Indonesia being punished by God for their immorality?
We wonder what it is that motivates people to ask questions like this? What is their image of God? Even allowing that the people who confronted Jesus might well have been hoping that Pilate would add another Galilean (Jesus himself) to his list of victims or that Jesus, too, might have a building collapse on him, we still scratch our heads in puzzlement at people who go on living their lives as though the vindictive God they seem to believe in is not going to obliterate them when they themselves are less than perfect. Perhaps we might just have to be satisfied with the conclusion that the people who ask this kind of question are revealing how they would go about righting the world if they were God. Another interpretation is that we have among us people who, with the best of intentions, use this distorted view of God as a way of motivating others to change their ways. There is at least a hint of this in today’s second reading where we hear Paul telling the community in Corinth about some of their ancestors: “Most of them failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Angel of Death.” That kind of motivational talk might have gotten Paul a role in a Parish Mission Team of the 1950s, but it certainly would not get him a job on the religious education staff of a Catholic school in 2019.
From Paul all the way up this present day, people have slipped into making faulty presuppositions about God. And most of us have probably met people whose God is a cross between a nit-picking bean-counter and Sherlock Holmes. They’re the kind of people who give religion a bad name.
In the 1970s and 80s, George McCauley S.J. taught theology and Religious Education at Fordham University. In a delightful piece about people’s various images of God, he wrote: “We all have our pet peeves in this matter: A god who whispers in ears. A god of special confidences and secret winks. A competitive god whose pastime is to take on all comers at spiritual arm-wrestling. A god whose chief concern is picking spiritual lint off people, telling them, like your least favourite aunt: ‘Don’t cross your legs. Sit up straight. Don’t be gawking out the window. Where’s your watch? Who was that you were just talking to?’ A god, finally, who stares into your eyes a lot.”
Whatever our current image of God might be, we can be sure that it will change in time. Moreover, we hope it will grow and develop. But it will take more than one Lent or one year for that to happen. Even after a lifetime, we will not be satisfied that we have the “right” image of God. Still, today’s readings put before us two (or even three) aspects of God which we have to try to hold in tension. The first reading from Exodus presents us with a God who is interested in social justice: “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings” (Exodus 3, 7). And the gospel offers us both a God of action and a God of mercy: “Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?” (Luke 13, 7). Now there’s action for you. But immediately, we hear the gardener bargaining for a stay of violence: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down” (Luke 13, 8-9).
One of the characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that they leave us with uncertainty, looking for satisfying resolution. Yet, that is part of their value. They raise questions for us to ponder. Did the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son eventually join the party? What happened when the Samaritan returned to pay the bill for the injured stranger? Did the Samaritan return at all? And in this parable, was the gardener successful in making the fig tree productive, or did he just delay the inevitable? And that last question is significant, because we know that the fig tree will eventually die. Jesus did not say that death would not touch us. But he, the prophets before him and saints and religious leaders after him have reminded us of our social responsibilities: feeding the starving, providing clean water for all, addressing homelessness, protecting the vulnerable and abused, caring for the earth, working to prevent people-trafficking. What is alien to Jesus and the Gospel is sterility and non-productiveness. In this parable of the barren fig tree, we are reminded that death will come to us all but that, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to be productive with the lives and talents with which we have been blessed. If we heed the call of Lent to change our hearts (not just our actions), to allow ourselves to be transformed by the hope that God offers us, we will not stave off the chaos of suffering and death but open ourselves to the one who can nurture us, to the gardener who wants to bring us to blossom. We are the fig tree of the parable, given yet another chance to realise our productive potential.
Let’s not forget that this parable is also built on metaphor. The owner and the gardener are two faces of God - the face of justice and the face of mercy. As the parable unfolds, we listen to justice and mercy in dialogue. And the vineyard is a scriptural image for the people of Israel, and, by extension, for the people of God, the Church. If the extraordinary measures proposed by the gardener (mercy) fail, then Mercy will agree to abide by the verdict of Justice (the owner). There is no place in God’s kingdom for those who are irredeemably non-productive and sterile. We, the people of God are struggling with the destructive consequences of abuse within our community: the abuse of power, the failure to give recognition and voice to women and men in the pews, sexual abuse. Being the kind of people Jesus invites us to be - people whose productiveness is demonstrated in social action, compassion, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, healing the wounds of abuse - is the fruit for which he is looking. That fruit will be produced only through the severe measures that will bring to all of us a change of heart and the life that issues from that change of heart. Only we, the fig tree, will provide the end to this parable waiting to be completed.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Luke 9, 28-36
As we grow older and wiser, we come to realise that where we stand influences what we see, and what we see influences what we say and do. One of the great paradoxes that emerged from the interpersonal engagements Jesus had in the course of his ministry was that the religious leaders who had two good eyes were blind to what they saw him doing, while those who were physically blind were able to see very clearly. Mystics in the Christian tradition, and, to my knowledge, in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, have spoken and written about seeing with “the third eye” – a way of seeing from the depths of one’s being or with what some of them refer to as “seeing with the soul”. Such seeing grows out of investing time in quiet and deep reflection. Whether or not we are practiced in deep reflection, we do know one thing to which modern psychology has drawn our attention: what and how we see has a significant impact on how we behave.
Just on thirty years ago, the American adult educator and businessman, Steve Covey published a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Essentially, the book is an exploration of how we impact on other people. In giving us insights about ourselves, Covey opens up for us possible changes that might improve the ways in which we relate to, and communicate with, others. One of his stories offers a powerful insight into how and what we see can influence our thinking and acting. It’s a story of an experience he had one Sunday morning on the New York subway:
People in the section I was in were sitting quietly reading their newspapers or just dozing. At one stop, a man and his children got into our car and in next to no time the peace was shattered, and replaced by something resembling mayhem. The kids were yelling at one another as they ran around the carriage. Then they started throwing things and grabbing at people’s newspapers. While all this was happening, their father sat quietly next to me and did nothing to quell the riot. It was as though he didn’t register what was going on. I couldn’t believe that he was prepared to let his kinds run wild and not even try to intervene. I could see the annoyance on the faces of all the people around me. Finally, with all the restraint I could muster I turned to the man and said: “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you could control them just a little bit.” The man lifted his head as though he was coming into awareness for the first time since he and the children had got on. Then he turned to me and said: “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. 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.”
Covey shared what happened inside him: “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”
For Covey, that was an experience of transfiguration, a moment of insight that turned him upside down and carried him through a very difficult situation. Are we any different? We, too, are given revelations of God in the ordinary events of our daily lives. Probably not every day, but if we don’t learn to see differently those revelations will pass us by.
Luke’s story of the Transfiguration begins with the simple statement: “Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain to pray.” Mark and Matthew tell of Jesus taking Peter, John and James to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. And the preface of this Sunday’s mass provides an explanatory link between Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of these three disciples and his having them accompany him during his agony in the garden: “He revealed his glory to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross.”
In commenting on these two experiences shared by Jesus with Peter, John and James, scripture scholar Bill Bausch notes that while the memory of the transfiguration was meant to bolster the three disciples when the going got tough, do the rest of us have only stories on which to rely when things are grim and when our faith is tested? The Steve Covey story demonstrates that our transfiguration experiences come to us wrapped up in the very ordinary, but there are times when we miss them because we are preoccupied with other things, or with ourselves. At other times, we catch up with them in hindsight, when we make time to reflect, and see them with our “third eye”.
One of my favourite writers is Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), a deeply committed Christian who is probably best known for her young adults’ novel A Wrinkle in Time (completed in 1960, it was rejected by more than thirty publishers before it was finally accepted for publication two years later). However, her writing covered a broad spectrum, from reflection on some of the very prominent characters in the Old Testament, to children’s books, poetry and memoirs of her own life experiences. She also had some talent for theatre and met and later married, actor, Hugh Franklin when they both had parts in Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard. The fourth volume of her memoirs (The Crosswicks Journals) is about her marriage with Hugh and carries the title Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. L’Engle had plenty of opportunity to reflect of the way her love for Hugh grew and developed, for she nursed him through his long and painful dying of cancer of the urinary tract. This is part of what she had to say: “I do not think that death can take away the fact that Hugh and I are ‘we’ and ‘us’, a new creature born at the time of our marriage vows, which has grown along with us as our marriage has grown. Even during the times, inevitable in all marriages, when I have felt angry, or alienated, the instinctive ‘we’ remains…Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.” (from an article “The Instinctive ‘We’” by Dan Wakefield, New York Times, December 18, 1988) This is not just about a particular marriage, it’s about the journey we call life. What L’Engle describes is what I would call the “second transfiguration”. On the mountain, the three apostles witnessed Jesus’ first transfiguration, with lots of drama and dazzling splendour. His second transfiguration was his resurrection, described in subdued terms, because nobody witnessed it. But let’s not miss the significance of the whispering between Moses and Elijah, mentioned in today’s reading. They were pointing to the transfiguration that comes after Jesus and we have negotiated the tough struggles of life - disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, deep pain, desertion, cynicism, bitterness, alienation, disease, loss of loved ones. God is in there somewhere, but so often we are not conscious of God’s presence and support. Jesus had to go through all these things on the way to his second transfiguration into glory. Along that way, he felt abandoned by God. And so do we, when we’re really down and troubled and hurting.
Today’s gospel story is about much more than a “sound and light” show. From time to time, we get a glimpse of the glory to come, but along the way we have to learn to shed whatever it is that holds us back. We have to struggle through the hills, the valleys and the deserts that life puts in our way. We have to remember that we are not alone as we travel that journey. But we have the support and encouragement of one another, of the community we call parish and church, the inspiration of the people like Madeleine L’Engle and Steve Covey, and the friendship and support of Jesus who’s been there ahead of us.
First Sunday of Lent
“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” Luke 4, 1-13
Last year, Pope Francis startled lots of Catholics when he suggested that there was need to change one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. He stated that this is really a poor translation of the original, pointing out that a loving God does not lead people into temptation just to see how they will cope. In making his comments, he referred to the opening verses of chapter 4 of both Matthew and Luke. This coming Sunday, the first of Lent, the gospel reading we hear starts with: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” Matthew’s Gospel has something similar: “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” I am encouraged by Pope Francis’ comments, because I find both of these translations troublesome. I just don’t believe that God puts temptation in anybody’s way. Pope Francis went on to say that he would prefer a translation like: “Do not allow us to be led into temptation.” Scripture scholars have joined the discussion with alternatives like: “Do not let us give into temptation when we are tested” and “When Satan leads us into temptation, please, God, give us a hand”.
So now, let’s look a little more closely at the context of today’s gospel reading. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan and, as preparation for what he saw was his unfolding mission, he decided to spend time in prayer and reflection in the solitude of the desert, to work out for himself how he was going to go about doing the preaching and teaching he felt inspired to do. Luke and Matthew present him as doing much the same as two other giants of the Jewish tradition had done. In their encounters with God, both Moses and Elijah went without food and water for forty days. Moses spent forty days in the presence of God when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34, 28). Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights before journeying to Mt Horeb (another name for Mt Sinai) where he encountered God in a cave in the form of a gentle breeze (1Kings 19). However, consolation for Jesus arrived only after he had battled his way for forty days and nights through temptations to take shortcuts to reach quick and easy ways to achieve his goals. He was tempted to dodge the kind of struggles that the rest of humanity also has to deal with as they set out to be true to themselves and to live with integrity.
Having taken on the human condition, Jesus was tempted to avoid having to do things the normal human way. Luke is really saying that, just beneath the surface, Jesus was being tempted to expect God to collude with such a plan. And if God wouldn’t agree to doing things by magic, then Jesus just wouldn’t cooperate and would refuse to accept the limitations of being fully human. That was the nature of his temptation. Underlying all three temptations is the question as to whether a way of living and acting built on faith in God is really worth spending a life on. Jesus realized that he had been invited to take on the role of being the Messiah for his people, and here he was being tempted to win people over with magic, razzle dazzle and impressive, superman tactics.
Yet, the temptations that Jesus faced were, in essence, the very same things that tempt us. There are times in our lives when we catch ourselves wanting to control God. Some of us want God to work it so that we get the winning lotto ticket, a perfect husband for our favourite niece or a top grade in our university exams, even though we don’t do the necessary work.
The first temptation Jesus experienced is presented in terms of bread. In contemporary English slang, bread is the equivalent of money or a stockpile of material and intellectual capital to be used as an insurance policy just in case the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. Jesus was struggling with the temptation to base his appeal to the people he encountered on what in the way of security and material well-being he could offer them. We, too, can get so involved in accumulating money, security and gadgets that we erode our ability to trust in God as one who is both competent and willing to care for us. There are times when we can even slip into giving God advice and directions: “Be a bit gentler here; be more sensitive there. Watch that trouble looming up in the distance. Do you think you’ll be able to negotiate the sharp turn coming up?” At other times we try bargaining.
As for Jesus, he did overcome the first temptation by deciding that he would himself be bread and nourishment for people instead of trying to base his public ministry on hand-outs. He proceeded to nourish people with his presence, his encouragement, his wisdom, his concern, his fidelity and the challenges he put to them. He came to know that we all grow through affirmation, encouragement and healthy challenge. He did not set out to win the support of people through promises of material goods or by offering them shortcuts to success. In order to proceed along the path he chose, he knew that he had to place his trust first, foremost and entirely in God. I ask myself if I will ever grow to the point of trusting God to that extent.
The next two temptations were further attempts at undermining the trust Jesus had grown to place in God. While they are presented as offers by the devil, they were more likely considerations by Jesus in his mind about the benefits that might flow from doing deals with the corrupt and the powerful of his day. After all, they would get things done more speedily and effectively than those who might respond to Jesus’ appeal to base their actions on love, kindness, compassion and justice.
I find the third temptation a little more difficult to grasp. Jesus was invited to test out whether God really cared for him or would let him die if he were to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus probably knew nothing about gravity. But he knew enough to appreciate that jumping from a great height onto stone would be fatal, and that God was not in the business of letting down gently anyone stupid enough to jump off the roof of the Temple. However, I want to suggest that Jesus struggled with something more subtle than that. Preaching about what he understood as the kingdom of God - about justice, mercy, forgiving one’s enemies - was not something that would easily win him friends and supporters, especially in a very conservative and narrow-minded religious community that was the Jewish world of his time. Jesus must have been tempted to doubt whether God would really support him when the going got tough, when religious leaders might think of having him removed. And we know from the description of his arrest, torture and execution that such doubts plagued him right up to the time of his death.
I want to suggest that these are the kinds of doubts and temptations with which Jesus struggled in the solitude of the wilderness and at other times in his life. Moreover, I am convinced that we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus easily brushed aside these temptations. They hung around in his consciousness for forty days and nights. Trusting God was not something that came to him spontaneously and automatically. If that were the case, he would not have been tempted in the first place. So, when we find ourselves struggling with our faith and trust in God, we might get some consolation and comfort from knowing that Jesus has been there before us. And when we are tempted to be less than our true selves, we might think of praying: “Please, God, give us a hand.”
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too, the defects of a person appear in his/her talk…Never praise others until you hear them talk; that’s the real test.” Sirach 27, 4-7
“Each of us speaks from our heart’s abundance…” Luke 6, 39-45
My reflection on today’s readings led me to a conclusion which is very obvious and not particularly profound: The best homilies I have ever heard are people! If I want to experience a good homily, the best thing I can do is to go around with my eyes and ears wide open, attentive to the extraordinarily good things that very ordinary people say and do.
So, there’s very little about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that has a churchy or religious ring about it. Very simply, what he says boils down to a very uncomplicated message: “If you want to be taken seriously, cut out being hypocritical; stop finding fault with others as you go about masking your own, and judging others is not only unfair, it helps you to delude yourself.” This is a very appropriate segue into Lent, which starts with Ash Wednesday later this coming week. We do that with a story from Pastor, Bill Bausch:
A small cruise ship, caught up in a very violent storm, lost power, drifted onto rocks and quickly sank. Only two men survived the disaster. They clung to floating debris and were washed up on a deserted island. By the time they had completed a quick survey of the island, they realized from the barrenness of the place that there was no running water. They sat down, discussed their situation and decided that the worst thing they could do would be to panic. So, they drew up a simple plan of action: First, they agreed that they would pray for God’s help. Then they decided that they would each take responsibility for a much closer survey of the island, and took half the island each. Moreover, they reasoned that such a tactic doubled their chances of seeing a passing ship searching for them. But they would have to live apart on opposite sides of the island. As they separated, they promised one another that they would keep up their prayers.
The first man prayed for food. The very next morning, he came across a tree laden with fruit, and ate to his satisfaction. He did not alert his companion to his good fortune, who stayed on his barren side of the island. Then the first man started to feel lonely, so the next night he prayed for a wife. A few days later there was another storm and an even smaller boat was wrecked. The next morning the sole survivor, a woman, struggled ashore on the first man’s side of the island. Still, the second man had had no luck with anything. He kept waiting patiently for a ship to come into sight. And he kept praying. He had spent his time building a huge pile of dried wood which he intended to burn to attract the attention of any ship that came into view. Meanwhile, the first man and his companion set about praying for more food and for clothes to protect them from the sun. A couple of days later, a crate was washed up on their side of the island, and it contained plenty of food and clothing. The second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed really hard for rescue to arrive. Three days later he awoke to see a ship anchored close by. He woke his companion and they headed out to the ship. As he climbed on board, his thoughts turned to the other man. Then he told himself that there was no point is going back for him. After all, since none of his prayers had been answered, he was clearly not worthy of God’s blessings. But as the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a booming voice from the heavens: “What about your friend on the other side of the island? Why are you abandoning him?”
“My blessings are mine”, replied the first man, “since I’m the one who prayed for them. Besides, all his prayers were clearly unanswered. He doesn’t deserve anything!”
“You are very mistaken”, the voice rebuked, “his prayer was answered. Indeed, he had only one prayer, and it was that all your prayers would be answered.”
That story fits in neatly with the stories collected in today’s gospel. It’s the kind of story Jesus would tell, then look at his audience quizzically and walk away, leaving them to reflect on how they might have judged others, hastily and wrongly.
A few years ago, a prominent English newspaper conducted a survey of its readers on their concerns for the future of the United Kingdom. This was well before Brexit was even on their radar. While there were lots of comments about the faltering economy, shrinking employment opportunities, terrorist threats, race riots and the pressure on the public health system, there were lots of surprising comments on the decline of morality, the disappearance of common decency, the collapse of values and the moral bankruptcy of many in public office. There was lament on the shift of focus from the common good to self-interest, from “us” to “me”, as one respondent expressed it. I suspect that a quick look at many of the so-called “developed” counties of our world would reveal that honesty, integrity, owning responsibility for one’s actions, compassion for refugees, respect for others, and speaking truthfully are becoming casualties very rapidly. Still, there is a ray of hope here and there to catch us by surprise. Those rays of hope are the people who turn out to be the best homilies. They nourish us until the next pleasant surprise appears.
I read recently on a website called, Chicken Soup for the Soul the story of an eleven-year-old, Rosalie Elliot, who was participating in a national spelling-bee in Washington. Rosalie was a softly spoken competitor from Florida and was asked to spell the word “avowal”. The judges were unable to hear whether she had spelt the last vowel as an “a” or an “e”. The judges replayed the tape several times but could still not decide what Rosalie had said. Finally, the chief judge put the question to Rosalie herself: Was the letter an “a” or an “e”? Unhesitatingly, Rosalie answered that she had misspelled the word, as she had used an “e”. She walked from the stage to a standing ovation. Centuries before Sophocles had said: “Rather fail by honour than succeed by fraud.” Jesus echoed that in today’s gospel.
We reveal who we are by what we say and do consistently. We can all say and do the wrong thing occasionally. We don’t need anyone else to tell us that. It’s the consistency of our word and action that truly reveals our integrity or its lack. In today’s first reading, the writer of Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) probably described us very accurately when he pointed out that what we say shows us to the world as confused, honest, devious or shallow. As George McCauley wrote in a book entitled The Unfinished Image (Sadlier, N.Y. 1983): “There is a thread that leads from our speech to our secret selves. There are many windings and detours along the way. But one iron law remains in effect: it’s easier to see into a person who has his mouth open. Sirach got it right centuries before Jesus, and so, too, did Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of…’” (Luke 6, 45).
We leave the last word to the letter of James (not one of today’s readings) where we are given yet another perspective: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it has never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3, 7-10)
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give, and there will be gifts for you…because the amount you measure is the amount you will be given back.” Luke 6, 27-38
The parents and teachers among us will all know the experience of teaching children to share. They will remember times when there was only one apple pie or one cream bun for two children to share. Their technique was to ask one child use a knife to divide the pie or bun into two and to invite the other child to have first pick. On rare occasions, one child might have said to the other: “You can have it all!” When we teach children about sharing, we are really giving them lessons about equity and unselfishness. Yet, a close look at today’s gospel reveals that Jesus is teaching everyone who would be his disciples to be prepared to say to others, even enemies: “You can have it all!”
To find an entry point into this gospel reading, I invite you to do your best to put to one side all the things you’ve ever learned about Jesus and all the images you have of him and your beliefs about him. Then, see if you can imagine yourself in the group gathered around him. Luke calls them “disciples”. Jesus would be dressed like all the other men in the group sitting down in front of him. And he would have the swarthy, bearded look of the Arab or Palestinian males we see these days on the streets of Jordan or Jerusalem and in airport terminals in the Middle East. If you are a woman in the group, you would be wearing a long, loose-fitting gown and have a head-scarf or khimar to protect you from the sun. And each of the men among you would have a keffiyeh on his head and be wearing a long flowing garment like a kaftan, maybe with a rope belt around the waist. And then you hear Jesus say something that leaves you totally stunned. And when you dare to look around, you see others shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself something like: “He’s got to be joking!” And you hear a murmur of incomprehension spread through the gathering. Maybe someone voices an objection or a protest. Some people in the group drift away, shaking their heads. Jesus has just said something that seemingly shocks to the core everyone who heard it. And you, too, are wondering if he has lost the plot. “After all, he’s asking us to do the impossible. I can cope with reaching out to family, friends and neighbours. But, who does he think he is, asking us to love Samaritans, and that crook at the market who sold me a donkey that turned out to be lame in the fetlock?” When the restlessness dissipated and Jesus finished talking, a deathly silence fell over the group. They were stunned into silence.
Now, let’s fast forward to today. Have you ever been courageous enough, after reading something in the Gospels, to say to yourself or to your local priest: “I can’t accept that. It’s codswallop!” Yet that would probably be more honest than giving notional assent and then sanitizing Jesus’ demands to stop them from unsettling you. If we were asked to give ourselves a mark for our Christianity, we might give ourselves a distinction on all the “I believes” listed in the Creed we recite at Mass. But I wonder what grade we would give ourselves for the way in which we live the Gospel with meaning and purpose? Many of us, I suspect, would fare much better on right belief than we would on right living. We could not even imagine ourselves ever denying the theological concept of the Trinity, but please don’t ask us when was the last time we prayed for the tradesman who swindled us or the neighbour who screamed obscenities at us.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Right belief is something to be pursued, but lots of rules and regulations in the Catholic Church have been promoted as truth whereas they have been little more than directions to ensure that we all conformed to what some authorities dictated. As a consequence, the measure of authentic discipleship sometimes slipped into belief in and adherence to promulgated Church doctrines. Comforted by our conviction that we were holding onto right belief, we continued to name those who were clearly enemies of our Church and, rather than pray for them or seek to be reconciled with them, we even prayed that they would be obliterated in one fell swoop. We found comfort in our own little enclaves, supported those who belonged to our Church, harboured prejudices about refugees and foreigners, gave atheists and agnostics a wide berth and labelled those we feared as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. Engaging with them as fellow human beings, forgiving them, and praying for them did not fit into our agenda. We can look back in horror at the period we now call the Inquisition when those identified by Church authorities as witches or heretics were hunted down and executed by burning or hanging. Right belief was the measure of belonging. Tolerance and forgiveness of unbelievers were non-existent, so why waste time praying for them? This kind of persecution of those who “did not belong” led Oscar Wilde to reflect:
"He who would be free," says a fine thinker, "must not conform." And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us. With authority, punishment will pass away. This will be a great gain - a gain, in fact, of incalculable value. As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
If we are really serious about calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we might have to begin by measuring the way we live by what Jesus proclaimed rather than by what we recite in the Creed at Mass each weekend. Would I have the courage to proclaim:
I commit to:
Really loving those I know are my enemies and doing good to those who hate me;
Blessing those who curse me and praying for those who treat me badly;
Turning the other cheek to anyone who slaps me;
Offering my shirt, as well, to anyone who steals my coat;
Lending to those in need without expecting repayment;
Giving to every beggar who asks me for something;
Refusing to judge anyone, no matter what others say about him or her;
Being merciful and compassionate in imitation of the God who loves me unconditionally?
A well-regarded American writer and educationist, Kent Keith, put all this another way when he wrote:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Blessed are you who are poor: Yours is the kingdom of God…Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” Luke 6, 17, 20-26
Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel to what we hear proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s gospel. The account in Matthew is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Luke has Jesus deliver a sermon on a plain in which only four beatitudes are listed, and they are paralleled with four woes, which well-off people throughout history have mistakenly used as measures of success in life.
In the gospel reading for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaiming to the people of his home town of Nazareth that his mission was “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the downtrodden and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. The four “beatitudes” at the start of today’s gospel are a more poetic rendition of his mission statement, and directed pointedly to the strugglers in his audience. His intention was to offer them a message of hope and encouragement. Then he directed a sterner message to those in the crowd who were smug, self-satisfied and comfortable. Clearly, he had summed up the audience in front of him and deliberately set about comforting the disturbed among them and disturbing the comfortable.
We know from experience, that our lives take lots of different turns. We have all known tough and difficult times and we have all experienced times of satisfaction and comfort. Consequently, there are times when we need to hear Jesus’ words of comfort and other times when our comfort and complacency need to be challenged. Implicit in Jesus’ words about the “four woes” is a message that we all have a serious social responsibility to reach out to the poor, the neglected and the alienated, especially when we have the means to assist them.
Of course, there is an additional message here for us about the way we speak to all the different people with whom we engage in the course of our day. Do we measure our words to fit what we think that others want to hear from us or are we prepared to say what our own integrity demands of us? How we say it is just as important as the content of our message. Therefore, we would do well to reflect on our readiness to speak the truth in love, especially when we realise that the truth of what we want to say might threaten or upset the person/s to whom our words are directed.
I suggest that it is not coincidental that Luke has Jesus speak this message of beatitudes and woes on a plain. I believe that Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was one with the rest of humanity on the same level. In proclaiming the beatitudes, he was giving assurance to the poor, the forgotten and the discarded that they were not disregarded by God; rather, that God had a preference for them. His words of warning to those who were comfortably placed were a correction of a prevalent belief that wealth and good fortune were indicators of God’s favour. Any who did not subscribe to that belief seemed to think that all they had acquired had come to them as a result of their own efforts, and their efforts alone. It did not seem to occur to them that all their abilities were God-given gifts in the first place. Yet Jesus was quick to disabuse his audience of their misconceptions, pointing out that wealth so preoccupied those who had it that it often insulated them from the poor and marginalized, and desensitized them to their plight, in which they barely eked out an existence.
By debunking the prevailing idea of what constituted strength and success and elevating the lowly, the needy, those psychologically and physically imprisoned and those whose lives had been upended by loss and grief, Jesus acted as the great leveller. In so doing, he became God’s beatitude - a blessing to all, but especially to the downtrodden, in a society that gave preference to the rich and the successful. His words are a reminder to us that, whatever our status and circumstance, we are not overlooked by God, even if God’s way of noticing us is to give us a wake-up call. Nor are we meant to live only in the company of those who enjoy a similar status. We’re meant to interact with everyone around us, rich and poor alike. The level ground we share with everyone else is that we are all equal in worth and dignity, all beloved of a God in whose image we are created. We are not alone in our experiences, our needs and our losses, and we have an obligation not to leave our fellow human beings alone in theirs. And that’s the kernel of today’s gospel.
If it hasn’t struck us yet, another look at this gospel reading might help us to see that the list Luke’s Jesus gives of beatitudes and woes echoes the sentiments spelled out Mary’s Magnificat:
“He (the Lord) has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1, 46-55
Let’s conclude with a Middle Eastern parable about priorities:
Once upon a time in the depth of winter, an eagle was searching the frozen landscape for food. It spotted on an ice-floe the carcass of a deer that had been left behind by a party of hunters. The eagle swooped down and set about satisfying its hunger. It became so consumed by what it was consuming, that it became deaf to the thundering sound of a waterfall in the distance. Just before the ice-floe was about to go crashing over the edge, the eagle sensed the danger and flapped its wings to make its escape. However, its claws had become frozen into the icy remains of the deer. The eagle met the same fate as the deer on which it was feasting.