Weekday Readings (Cycle 1), Weeks 1-11
The Mass Readings, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Bible texts are from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version).
These have already appeared on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests, in the homily resources section edited by Fr Pat Rogers, Dublin, Ireland. Many of the Gospel based reflections are from Fr. Martin Hogan, edited here with his permission.
God spoke in many and varied ways, but now through Jesus, his Son and heir
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you"? Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son"? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, "Let all God's angels worship him."
Jesus begins his mission and calls his first disciples
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.
The Scriptures begin where all of us begin, within the bonds of human love and family life, with the gradual development of hopes and possibilities. The Bible always manifests a healthy respect for the normal ways of human nature. Even if Hebrews affirms the divine origins of Jesus, its first words acknowledge the long, slow preparation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Israelite people for the birth of our Lord, "in times past, God spoke in many and varied ways to our ancestors through the prophets." Those words span the centuries from Abraham to Jesus, where the special Jewish sensitivity to God's presence and action in this world was handed on from father and mother to sons and daughters over many generations.
No spirituality that disdains the bonds of flesh and family can properly claim to be Biblical. Still, there are times when God calls people to "Leave your country and your father's house, and go the land that I will show you." So it was for those working fishermen, whom Jesus called to leave their nets and their families, to travel the countryside with him, spreading his message of love and reconciliation. This Gospel leads us into a prayerful spirit. If at times Jesus may seem only vaguely present to us, he is still nearby, calling us to follow him, not in order to deprive us of ordinary human love, but to enrich and transform it. In the providence of God, transformations take place: Those Galilean fishermen were never the same again. And if to us Jesus says, "Follow me," and we keep trying to respond generously, our life's fulfilment will be safe in his guiding hands.
Any encounter between two or more people has potential to be a lifegiving moment. The meeting that Peter, Andrew, James and John had with Jesus was such a life-giving moment for those four fishermen, the life-giving power of God was present to them in the person of Jesus. That power of God present in Jesus was the power of love, a love that promised forgiveness, healing, acceptance, a love that gave them a mission in life. The kind of encounter that Peter, Andrew, James and John had with Jesus is offered to each one of us. Jesus is not just a figure of history, belonging to the past. He is the living Lord, still present in his church and in the world, constantly calling out to us and meeting with us in the course of our day to day lives, as he met with Simon, Andrew, James and John while they were going about their work as fishermen.
The Lord meets with us and he speaks to us through the Sacraments, in particular the Eucharist, through the Scriptures, through other people, through nature and from deep within our own hearts. Each time the Lord meets with us we will first hear the good news of God's unconditional love for us, "the kingdom of God is close at hand." We will also hear the call to mission, the call to be good news for others, to be the Lord's body in the world, his feet, his hands, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, "I will make you into fishers of people." This morning we pray for the grace to be as open and response to the Lord's presence and call as Peter, Andrew, James and John were.
Jesus, crowned with glory, having been tested through suffering
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet."
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
Jesus teaches with authority and even commands unclean spirits
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
The bystanders in Capernaum wondered about Jesus, impressed by the power of his teaching and his unique authority over evil spirits. But was it really all that new? Others before him had wrestled with devils and evil spirits. We can recall Moses' tryst with the magicians in Egypt and his command over the forces of wickedness and havoc (Exod 7:22; 8:3).
What was unique about Jesus is well expressed Hebrews: He is the one who, during his life on earth was made lower than the angels, but is now crowned with glory and honour because of the death he suffered, "so that by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone." He is the pioneer of our salvation, himself perfected by his sacrificial suffering during his Passion. He brings us into a family relationship with God, for now "the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father."
We can take joy from this basic fact: Jesus counts us as his own brothers and sisters. His life's work was to gather us together as God's family, and his intention is clear, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters." This truth summons us to live life actively and prayerfully; to interact with others in promoting the Kingdom of God; to realize that Jesus has shared each of our trials and temptations so that in him we arrive at our full identity as children of God.
Jesus enters the synagogue of Capernaum and releases a man from an unclean spirit, a spirit which would have separated him from the worshipping community and from God. Our Blessed Lord lived and died to draw people into a new community of faith, hope and love, and thereby, to a deeper relationship with God. He did not try to lead people to God in isolation from others. He understood that our individual journey to God is always a journey that we travel with others. Our earthly pilgrimage, our journey towards God, is never a purely private pilgrimage; it is a shared pilgrimage. We need each other along the way. We have a responsibility for each other along the way. We have gifts that the Spirit has given us that others need, and others have gifts that the Spirit has given them that we need. Jesus himself never worked alone. The Lord calls us to journey together. The Christian life has to be, at some level, a shared experience, a communal experience.
Jesus shared our flesh and blood and so is able to help us in our trials
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Jesus cures Peter's mother-in-law, prays, and preaches the good news
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Hebrews says that Jesus shared fully in our humanity--even in the experience of loss and death. He explains that to be effective as our merciful high priest Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way. He was himself tested through life as we are, but remained "without sin" (4:15). Taking this at face value, one could say that there is no temptation, however ugly or strong, that he did not also feel, and it places our own temptations--however embarrassing or persistent--right there within our relationship to our blessed Lord.
The merciful side of our Lord is also seen when Jesus visits the home of Peter's mother-in-law. How good of him to care about her fever, for he is never present as a mere a spectator to people in trouble. Mark says vividly: Jesus grasped her hand and lifted her up, "and the fever left her." Then, mirroring the blessing she has received, the mother-in-law looks after the needs of her guests. When the neighbours learn of Jesus' presence they throng around looking for a blessing. All is hubbub as sick people are laid at the doorstep, and mentally deranged people are brought to be freed of the demons tormenting them. Growing weary of all this stress, early the next morning Jesus went off to a lonely place to think and to pray. And still he is told, "Everyone is looking for you." This draws him back into ministry mode and he sets off to the neighbouring villages to proclaim the gospel. His life has a clear purpose: "That is what I have come to do." This mission he would continue right up to his death--and after, through his Spirit, in the life of the church.
There are two quite different activities of Jesus in today's gospel. The first is the activity of healing. Jesus heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law in the house of Simon and Andrew by taking her by the hand and lifting her up, and then goes on to heal many sick people who were brought to the door of the house. This healing activity of Jesus is very public and is greatly appreciated by everyone; the whole town came crowding around the door, according to Mark. The second activity of Jesus is much more private. In the morning, long before dawn, he goes out by himself to a lonely place to pray.
Whereas his healing the sick was much appreciated by all, this second activity of going off by himself to pray is not appreciated by others. Even those closest to him didn't think much of it. Peter, the leading disciple, rebukes Jesus, "Everybody is looking for you," as much as to say, "Why are you wasting time out here on your own." Yet, Jesus knew that the source of his life-giving work was his relationship with God, which finds important expression in his prayer. The activity of prayer was as important to him as his work of healing. Prayer is as important for us as it was for Jesus, indeed, even more important. We need the Lord if we are to live as he desires us to live and if we are to share in some way in the Lord's work. In prayer we acknowledge and give expression to our dependence on the Lord; we open ourselves to the Lord's life-giving presence so as to be channels of that presence to others.
Open our hearts to God, not hardened by sin
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the desert, where your ancestors put me to the test, though they had seen my works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, ad I said, 'They always go astray in their hearts, and they have not known my ways.' As in my anger I swore, 'They will not enter my rest.'"
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
Jesus touches and cures the leper, who proceeds to tell everyone about it
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
"Value today," advises the psalmist, whose text is quoted in Hebrews, because right here and now God provides the grace and insight we need to live a life of faith, and therefore to enjoy a true spirit of peace. The Bible highlights faith in order to interpret the events of our lives. But this is not so much a dogmatic faith as an openness to God's guiding spirit. As today's reading insists, right here and now we must not harden our hearts. We must be open to new impulses, inspired by God's personal presence in our lives. Faith must be experienced and lived Today--and not as mere fidelity to forms of the past. The externals of our religion, even the most solemn of doctrines and the holiest of objects or sacraments, exist in order to facilitate inner communion with the Lord. Our inmost hearts are the true Ark of the Covenant and the place of encounter with the living God. Sometimes, for whatevef mysterious reasons, the externals on which we tend to rely seem to slump and almost collapse. In many places attendance at our church services has dwindled and religious expressions hallowed by time seem unable to contact today's Zeitgeist and leave us wondering how to share the faith with our contemporaries. It seems that we must cross this desert as the Israelites once did, to find our God again.
Discerning true from false fidelity is not always easy. We Christians and our leaders must bear our share of blame if agnosticism, superstition and New-Age fads are rampant among our people today, in part due to outmoded ways of presenting our handed-down Catholic faith. Every believer has some role in commending the faith, within our proper field: as parent or teacher, as priest or minister, as neighbour or friend. In our interactions we can and do influence others and can help them recover their former strength of faith and a more robust moral vision.
Today's Scriptures raise questions about governance, for bishops and all church leaders: Do I use my authority to serve my people, or to dominate them in the name of a hidebound system? Do I seek to reflect with others on what our times require, in light of the Gospel and current opinion, as well as listening to guidance from the Vatican? Does my teaching and example help my people be aware of God's presence? Do I seek ways to bridge the current painful breakdown in communicating the faith?
Often in the gospels Jesus heals people by means of his word. In healing the leper, however, Jesus not only spoke to him, but he touched him. In touching the leper, Jesus did what no one else would have done. For obvious reasons, people kept lepers at a distance, and lepers were expected to keep their distance from others. Jesus, however, kept no one at a distance, not even lepers. No one was beyond his reach; no one was untouchable. He came to touch our lives in a very tangible way, all of our lives, regardless of our condition. The leper wasn't sure whether Jesus wanted to heal him, as is clear from his opening words to Jesus, "If you want to, you can cure me." Jesus showed he wanted to heal him, by touching him. Jesus wants to touch all of our lives, because he wants to bring life to us all. Nothing we do or fail to do, no circumstance in which we find ourselves, need place us beyond his reach. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus." The Lord touches our lives, where we are, as we are. All we need is something of the leper's initiative in approaching Jesus.
Through faith we shall enter into God's day of rest
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, "As in my anger I swore, 'They shall not enter my rest,'" though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works." And again in this place it says, "They shall not enter my rest." Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day--"today"--saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."
If Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.
In Capernaum Jesus heals a paralytic after first forgiving his sins
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he said to the paralytic--"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
Several facets converge in today's readings, helping to balance each another. Jesus exemplifies at Capernaum how to adapt to dramatic change and yet move steadily onward, towards God's rest. There is a large gathering at the home of Peter's mother-in-law, presumably Jesus' temporary headquarters at Capernaum. We may see it as a symbol of church unity, a reality larger than our Roman Catholic model of church and one that enables all believers to be united with Jesus, and so with each other. From him, in the setting of Peter's home, comes God's word to all who would listen.
An unruly incident takes place in that house, showing the ingenuity and determination of the four men who carried their paralysed friend to Jesus. When they cannot get through the crowd, they proceed to carry the man to the flat roof of the house, make a hole in it and lower the sick man until he lies there before Jesus. The story shows a nice blend of helpfulness and dependency. Without the paralytic those four healthy men would never have gotten this close to Jesus, and without his friends the paralytic was unable to get anywhere.
The supreme moment comes when Jesus re-creates the work of the Creator, by healing the paralytic and restoring him to a new state of innocence: "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk again'?" But to enter into God's paradise there must be forgiveness--not only from Jesus, but also from each of us. We are all told to forgive our neighbour if we wish to be forgiven by God. Such is the prayer each day in the Our Father. With such forgiveness, we remain united as one people of God and we avoid the excesses of dominance and mutual recrimination. We can be one people, strong in our opposing infidelity and yet never succumbing to power plays, petty rivalry and materialism. We can cross the bridge of change and support one another in the difficulties of changing times, patient with the sins of others, ready to rally round again in a bond of love and hope.
The image of the four men carrying the paralytic to Jesus is a very graphic one. They were so determined to get him to Jesus that they opened a hole in the roof above Jesus when their way through the door was blocked because of the crowd. They wanted to get their friend to Jesus because they recognized Jesus as the source of health and life. They were taking their friend to a fuller life. The image of the four men carrying their friend towards the source of life puts me in mind of the many people who are trying to do the same for those still buried under the rubble in Haiti. This morning we remember those who may still be alive under the rubble and we remember those who are working so hard to get to them and to bring them to life and safety. There are times when we can do very little for ourselves and we are completely dependant on others for health, for life, for safety. There are other times when we might find ourselves in the role of the four friends in the gospel, in a position to help others to their feet, to bring others from darkness to light, from death to life. We are called to carry each other's burdens. When we are faithful to that calling we align ourselves with Jesus who said, "Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest." The Lord looks to us to help him to carry the burdens of others and to bring them to a greater fullness of life
Our merciful high priest has passed into heaven
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The vocation of Levi/ Matthew. Jesus calls sinners, not the self-righteous
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples--for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard this, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
In selecting a tax-collector, Jesus calls the least likely person to follow him. As a tax collector under the hire of the Roman occupation force, Levi was not permitted to enter a synagogue nor to go up to the temple. He was excommunicated from social contact with faithful, law-abiding Jews. It is not that God chooses riff-raff for religious leadership, but that He whose word penetrates the divide between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, "judges the thoughts of the heart", recognizes potential in people whom others too quickly discard. There may be many whose growth we have stunted by failing to second their ideas or show trust in their ability. Other people may have seen in Levi/Matthew only the tax-man the non-observant, half-pagan Jew, serving the foreign oppressors, but Jesus recognized someone with a compassionate heart, hopeful towards others--in fact, the very dispositions attributed to God himself as He led the Israelites out of Egypt and prepared for the covenant on Mount Sinai.
When thinking about our hopes for effective leadership in the church, the most basic quality, surely, is a strong desire for sharing faith and love. Leaders ought to recognize and encourage the good qualities in others. Jesus not only calls Matthew but also accepts Matthew's invitation to dine in his home with all his friends and fellow tax collectors. The training period is underway, friendship is being deepened, relationship being established. As pope Francis memorably said, this would be a pastor in touch with ordinary people "a shepherd with the smell of the sheep on him." Like our High Priest Jesus who shared the very depths of our human experience, the good church pastor will understand the range of emotions and even temptations experienced by people today. The Scriptures combine a pure insight into ideals and a compassionate view of human nature, two essential qualities for religious leadership.
Some religious scholars, the scribes, express surprise at the company Jesus kept. They ask his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Someone like Jesus, a religious teacher, was expected to keep better company than that; he should be in the company of religious people like himself. However, Jesus clearly did not restrict his company to those who were seen to have measured up in some way. He was happy to keep the company of those who were considered sinners, just as doctors are normally found in the company of the sick, at least during their working hours. The gospel reading reminds us that the Lord is happy to be in our company, even when we have fallen short of what some people expect of us, even when we are far from being all that God is calling us to be. Our failings and weaknesses do not drive the Lord away or drag him down, rather his presence to us in our failings and weaknesses lifts us up. We always come before the Lord in our brokenness and he never drives us away. His table is always set for us and there is always a place for us there, regardless of where we are at in life.
Jesus is our Priest, and the source of eternal salvation for all
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you;" as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
While the bridegroom is present, don't put new wine into old wine skins
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."
Jesus is contrasted to the high priests of the old covenant, who first had to make sin offerings for themselves and then for those of the people. Earlier in the same epistle (Hebrews) the author noted how Jesus can sympathize with our weakness because he was "tempted in every way that we are, yet without sinning." Rather than trying to reflect theologically about the interaction between Jesus' humanity and his divinity, it may be more fruitful to look at today's Gospel and then from that vantage point return to this issue.
When accused by some hard-line traditionalists that his disciples do not fast, he does not get trapped into debate about the value of fasting and its tradition in the Scriptures, but reaches for a common-sense parallel when he asks: "What normal person calls for fasting and mourning, so long as the bride and bridegroom are celebrating their marriage?" He then moves the conversation up to another level: New times call for new responses, and you cannot resolve every issue just by appeal to tradition. For this insight too, he draws examples from everyday life: Experience has taught winemakers not to put unfermented wine into old wineskins, or the old, shrunken skins will burst. And one who cares for the family garments will not sew a new piece of leather on an older, shrunken piece, for the new patch will shrink and make a larger hole. His appeal to common sense has a levelling effect: everyone can share in the discussion. Sometimes an unlearned person, untrammeled by layers of tradition, will more quickly find an honest, viable answer to a new issue. The example of Jesus seems to say that unless our theology can stand the test of common sense and blend with the accumulated insights of people today, that theology is suspect. How can it be it a valid theology, or truly God's word, if it does not fit the religious sense of God's people?
And so, back to the letter to the Hebrews. Our common-sense theology is confirmed when we find our Saviour, Jesus, "learning obedience" from what he suffered. It is so helpful to experience the close presence of Jesus within our own experience of weakness and temptation. "People who are healthy do not need a doctor; but sick people do," he said, and then added, "I have come to call sinners, not the self-righteous," (Mk 2:17.) Perhaps today's Scriptures will help us be humble in our theology and persistent in our common sense.
Wine is nearly always associated with a wedding feast, with the beginning of a marriage, as was clear from yesterday's gospel of the marriage feast of Cana. Having spoken of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus goes on to liken his presence to that of new wine. The new wine of the Lord's loving presence and life-giving activity calls for new wineskins. The Lord's love is a grace but it also makes demands on us, calling on us to keep renewing our lives so that they are worthy receptacles for his love. New wine, fresh skins. We have to keep shedding our old skin and grow new skin. We can never fully settle for where we are.
Abraham's long-delayed son. Learning patience
For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, "I will surely bless you and multiply you." And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute. In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
Jesus says that sabbath was made for people, not people for sabbath
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the Bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."
Today's Epistle alerts us to the possibilities of loving service present in the most ordinary events and people of our everyday contact, especially those of our own household. Routine matters, and familiar people whom we meet each day can hold the key to our peace and holiness in God's sight. Hebrews puts it plainly, "God--will not forget your work and the love you have shown him by your service, past and present." Our God notices each action and each thought--so that in His sight, even the hairs on our head are numbered!
The author also offers another encouraging truth in imagery derived from the ancient tradition of a veil separating off the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. It says that Jesus is our forerunner, who has followed the same route that we are taking through life, or to reverse the image, in our daily routine we walk in his footsteps, and so do our family and friends. Jesus has already reached the goal and is at home within the Holy of Holies. If we continue faithfully we too will pass beyond the veil into paradise. In another text from Hebrews, the image extends still further. By his death, Jesus has rent open the separating veil so that all have access into the Holy of Holies. The most human of any human activity, our death, becomes the means of full union with the divine.
Some life-enhancing questions are raised for us by today's readings: * Do I put my life actively at the service of others, seriously seeking peace, welfare and justice for them? * Am I appreciative of the potential for life in people who are handicapped, and even amid my own disabilities? * Am I minister of life, delighting in all its expressions, dedicated to its preservation and handing on?
The Pharisees criticized Jesus' disciples for picking ears of corn on the Sabbath and eating them. As far as they were concerned, this was a form of work, and, so, was forbidden on the Sabbath. They were convinced that they understood what God expected of people on the Sabbath. In fact, they did not understand God's will for the Sabbath. They saw themselves as experts, but in reality they were only learners and they had much to learn from Jesus' understanding of the Sabbath. When it comes to the ways of God, the ways of the Lord, we are all only learners. The Lord always has much to teach us. The Lord continues to speak to us and to teach and enlighten us in and through his word. That is why we approach the Scriptures in a spirit of openness and humility. We come before the word not as experts but as learners, inviting the Lord to enlighten us and to lead us further on our voyage of discovery towards the compete truth.
The priesthood of Jesus is mysterious and eternal, like Melchisedek's
This "King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him;" and to him Abraham apportioned "one-tenth of everything." His name, in the first place, means "king of righteousness;" next he is also king of Salem, that is, "king of peace." Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood--for the people received the law under this priesthood--what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who ha become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."
Good can certainly be done on Sundays; Jesus heals the man with the paralysed hand
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Today's readings raise the theme of conflict and finding solutions. Melchisedek meets Abraham on his way back from a short military excursion against some local chiefs, and blesses him; then in the Gospel we have the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus, about what is allowed on the Sabbath. He is "deeply grieved" by their insistence that not even a work of healing should be allowed on the day of the Lord.
The overriding concern of these texts is for the triumph of life over the forces of death. Hebrews concludes that like the mysterious priest-king Melchisedek, Jesus is a priest forever, with a power of life that cannot be destroyed. And in the debate about what is permissible on the Sabbath, Jesus makes clear that it is above all a day for life-giving activities. He stresses, indeed, the contrast between "good" deeds that preserve life, and "evil" deeds, that destroy it. For God is the Lord of life, not of death; of peace, not of violence; of justice, not of oppression.
The question whether warfare can legitimate is a thorny one, to which we cannot find a definitive answer in the Bible alone, for it offers such a variety of viewpoints on the matter. Throughout the biblical period, wars and soldiering--both local and international--were an accepted part of life. There are some texts that give clear justification for defensive warfare, in the era of the Judges, or to repel the Assyrians, some even favoured a war of invasion, especially the conquest of the Promised Land, while other texts provide support for a fairly radical pacifism. Towards the end of the Old Testament period, the apocalyptic writers maintained that only God himself can legitimately make war on behalf of his chosen people.
What the Bible says, unambiguously, is that we should live life fully, and with a sense of justice and compassion towards our neighbour. This can mean speaking out against evil and injustice, even at cost to ourselves. Jesus could have side-stepped the issue of how to keep the Sabbath, by healing the sick man in private, but he chose to confront the issue squarely and publicly, and performed the cure in full view of all. Even the normally peace-loving Abraham was drawn into action in order to rescue his relative from the violence of marauding local warlords--and is blessed by Melchisedek on his return from this righteous intervention. We need always to remember our Lord's warning that "those who take the sword shall perish by the sword", Mt 26:52 and his explicit ruling out of violence, even in self-defence, Mt 5:39. These ideals make it very hard for us to justify any militaristic adventures for the expansion of one's kingdom or ideas, since the basic Christian call is not to be served, but to serve, Mk 10:45 and give one's life in this service.
In today's story Jesus does good on the Sabbath; he does God's work on the Sabbath by healing the withered hand of a man in the synagogue. Yet, because of the good that Jesus did, some religious and political leaders immediately began to plot together to destroy Jesus. This is only the beginning of the third chapter of Mark's gospel, and, yet, it points ahead to the end of the gospel story. It was because Jesus was faithful to doing God's work that he was crucified. Jesus' life shows very clearly that the good that we do does not always bring a reward; sometimes it can bring the opposite of a reward. It is a strange paradox, but one that is often true to life, that good can sometimes generate evil. The goodness of some brings out evil in others. Yet Jesus was faithful to the good work that God gave him to do, regardless of how negatively it was received by some. Jesus teaches us that goodness is its own reward. We try to be faithful to what God wants of us, because it is what God wants of us and not because of any benefit it might bring us. We remain faithful to our calling to share in Jesus' work of bringing healing and life to others, even though it may, at times, bring us suffering.
Jesus our high priest serves in the true tabernacle of heaven
Jesus he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
Now the main point is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain." But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.
Jesus teaches the people from a boat
Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, "You are the Son of God!" But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.
The suspicion of the Pharisees is fanned into hatred when they notice the popularity of Jesus among the crowd. As men and women of faith, we often feel caught in tensions, like those faced by Jesus himself. Our life is a pilgrimage whose destiny lies beyond the horizons of this earth, in those heavenly places where Jesus has already gone "behind the veil." We are asked to achieve what is beyond our unaided human ability. Each of us is a strange mixture of bonding with Jesus and embarrassment at his demands, or even at times just plain tedium about all religion. While close to our relatives and neighbours, yet we know deep in our heart the seeds of jealousy or resentment that still lie hidden.
It is helpful to recognize the tensions inherent in the life of faith. By faith we accept as real what we cannot prove nor see; we not only accept but even risk our all on the conviction that the goal of life lies beyond the present earthly existence. By faith we are challenged not to succumb to what is often taken for granted, in order to survive on earth. Must I presume that people are liars, that they are always hiding half the truth from me and using me for their own advantage? Faith directs us to a glimpse of Jesus, our high priest, "undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens." Faith insists that our enthusiasm for the goodness of Jesus is not flimsy as the clouds racing across the sky. The enthusiasm of the crowd for Jesus is not a passing excitement. It is an echo of heaven, where people from all nations unite in turning with love and loyalty and gratitude to Jesus.
Tension and conflict bring about a deeper understanding of our complex lives, even a mature wisdom. The Scriptures advise us to look carefully. What we think is real may be only a passing shadow; what we think is strong and effective, like King Saul may only destroy itself. What we think is just the blind excitement of the crowd may be voicing the deepest everlasting instincts of faith. One day we will be with Jesus behind the veil and like Jesus we will be holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. Jesus, our God made human, functions always as our priest, so that our human nature be made like God's. Jesus is our pledge that this will truly happen, when all the tensions of our life will be resolved.
It was the people who were suffering, who were distressed, who had least going for them, that came to Jesus in the biggest numbers. They sensed that he had come to heal their brokenness, that he had come in a special way for the suffering, the broken, the lost. We too come to the Lord with the greatest urgency when we are struggling, when we are in some kind of distress. Like the crowds in the gospel, we reach out to touch the Lord in our brokenness, recognizing him as the source of healing and life. The Lord is as available to us as he was to the crowds of Galilee; he remains strength in our weakness, healing in our brokenness, life in our various experiences of death. We can approach him with the same confidence of being well received as the people in today's gospel.
Mediator of a new covenant
But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
God finds fault with them when he says: "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." In speaking of "a new covenant," he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
The twelve appointed apostles
Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
As Jesus goes up the mountain to summon the twelve he chose as leaders for his followers, it evokes memories of Moses who went up Mount Sinai to receive God's law and covenant, Exod 19. There, too, Moses pledged the covenant, surrounded by colleagues. Even though our epistle writer sees the first covenant as obsolete, the early Christians felt a link between the two covenants. Reference to God making a new covenant with the house of Israel does not mean that the Mosaic guidelines had lost all meaning, for they are often quoted in the Gospels.
What is obsolete in the old is not what it says but how we obey. The letter kills, the spirit gives life. We must seek to be conformed to the least desire of God, not as slaves but as children, not for seeking reward as much as for expressing love and gratitude, not for external show but for inner peace. Even the smallest demand of the law is fulfilled in essence when a Christian lives in that spirit, Matthew 5:18.The covenant is lived amid the vicissitudes of human life.
Jesus went up the mountain and calle those whom he had chosen. In Biblical times mountains were a favourable place for prayer and for locating sanctuaries. Here is an excellent example of combining the external symbols of strength with the interior spirit of love. To find the energy of love for living the new covenant, we need to ascend the mountain--to value quiet prayer, to find our one security in the Lord. So important is this that Luke notes how Jesus spent the entire night in a prayer-vigil before choosing the twelve. The mountain scene calls us to awareness of God's presence in our lives, letting Him touch our hearts and interior motivation. This can make our old life into a new undertaking, our old covenant new and vibrant with the presence of Jesus.
Early into his ministry Jesus sent out the twelve that he had chosen to share in his work. He sent them out to do what he has been doing, to preach the gospel and to heal the sick. Jesus understood that he needed the help of others to do the work he had been sent to do. He continues to need us today to do his work. We are to be his eyes, his ears, his hands, his feet and his voice. As risen Lord he wants to work in and through us. Paul understood this very clearly. He understood the church to be the body of Christ in the world. He was very clear that every member of Christ's body had a vital role to play. The body of Christ could not be all Christ wants it to be unless everyone plays the role they are called and equipped to play through their baptism. Each one of us has a unique contribution to make to the life of the body and, thereby, to the work of the Lord in the world today. Each one of us is indispensible and necessary. The first reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it very simply. In the church everyone is a "first-born child" and a "citizen of heaven." There are to be no second class citizens in the church. Each of us is a vital member of Christ's body uniquely graced by the Lord for his work and mission in the world..
Jesus enters the Holy of Holies, to enable us to serve the living God
For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.
Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent, not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
Jesus is mobbed; and his relatives fear he is out of his mind
Then Jesus went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."
The heart of Jesus was dedicated to his all-consuming ministry. Mark notes how sometimes he hardly had time to eat. His dealing with the crowds turned out to be so incessant that some of his relatives, when they heard of this, thought him out of his mind.
We read in Hebrews that we are united with God through the blood of Jesus. The symbolism of blood refers to life rather than death--yet it was by the death of Jesus that the veil of the temple was split and Jesus entered into the Father's presence. His death on the cross became the supreme sign of Jesus' loving dedication to us, to bring us to the Father.
Jesus is so caught up in the needs of others that, according to Mark, he had no time even to eat. His family planned to take charge of him, thinking him out of his mind. Up to that time at least, they did not sympathise with Jesus' aims. But we who are nourished by his life-giving blood are drawn into sharing his ministry. Like him we let ourselves to be absorbed by concern for others, our brothers and sisters, in their search for love, understanding, healing and new life.
For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Unity, its cost and its reward, is the central in today’s readings – very suitably, in light of the Octave for Christian Unity. According to Hebrews, Jesus unites and finalizes all the temple sacrifices, even the yearly Yom Kippur ceremony, by his one sacrifice on Calvary and his return to the right hand of the heavenly Father. As we read in Second Samuel, David creates a single kingdom out of the rival and jealous groups, the people of southern Judah and those of northern Israel. Finally, Jesus summarizes our thinking in a very practical way, “A household, divided according to loyalties, cannot survive.” The high cost of unity is particularly evident in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Through the blood of Jesus, poured out on the cross, we are united as one single community of faith and united with God in the heavenly Holy of Holies. Today’s reading returns several times to the subject of death and of blood.
In the gospel Jesus puts the cost of unity in terms of loyalty to the Holy Spirit and an unswerving rejection of Satan. In fact, Jesus solemnly warns of the one sin which “will never be forgiven,” namely blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Those who sin against the Spirit will “carry the guilt of their sin without end.” Persons who sin against the light, blinding themselves to the evident goodness of others, ascribing the good deeds of others to unworthy motives, closing their heart to the call for compassion and forgiveness – such persons close themselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit. In other words, then, there must be a unity and integral wholeness about ourselves: our intellect united with our eyes that see the goodness in others; our intellect united with our memory and so arriving at the solid wisdom of good experience; our intellect united with our flesh and blood and so judging with sympathy and compassion, able to forgive others.
There cannot be a bond of union and trust in a family, community, church or nation, unless each individual first strives to be peacefully united within the complexity of one’s character. We must be possessed by the Holy Spirit and through this Spirit find our inner peace, our sincere and kindly awakening to the world around us. We will not attribute the good deeds of others to Satan even if their actions threaten us in some way and seem difficult to harmonize with some of our own ideas. Once we have achieved inner peace and unity in the Holy Spirit, we are disposed to reach outward and strive for peace and unity in the local world of our family and neighbourhood, and to support good causes that work for peace in the larger world of Church and among nations. Our union with others should reach into the roots of our existence, our bone and our flesh, where no person is better or different than another person. Secondly, union cannot be just for one’s selfish advantage but for the common good and shared happiness of all.
From Hebrews we learn that all Christian attempts at unity must be founded, renewed and sustained in Jesus, the “mediator of a new covenant.” Jesus died that we may be united as brothers and sisters in the same family. The blood of Jesus becomes the vital element circulating in the veins in all of us, that brings us into a living bond with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In fulfillment of the symbolism of Yom Kippur, when the high priest sprinkled blood toward the Holy of Holies, the blood of our High Priest Jesus now flows between us and the Father. In the mystery of this divine life, we become one family, all of us. As in a family, blood is thicker than water and holds its own secrets of love and reconciliation. In the blood of Jesus, by which we are drawn into the Holy of Holies and united with God, there are secrets which we will never understand on earth. Through Jesus we can learn to trust the most basic instincts of life and unity and reach out to our neighbour who is our bone and our flesh.
The temple rituals were a type of the new covenant, brought by Jesus for all
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God' (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."
When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Jesus calls whoever does God's will his own brothers and sisters
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."
Fidelity to God's will makes a family of all Christians. Jesus identifies the true disciple not by by rank or position, special privileges of birth, talents and financial resources, but by fidelity in the routines of life. We are asked to undertake all we do as though in the context of family life, regarding others as sister or brother, mother or father to me.
At first reading today's gospel seems to show Jesus as breaking with family ties rather than as forming a new one for his followers. When his mother Mary and others of his relatives come to him, one might expect him to drop everything else and devote all his attention to them. The words of Jesus startle us. Clearly there are moments when we should embrace our family circle and other moments when we turn outward to be of loving service to outsiders. Jesus gives the example of both these apects: he is conscious of his world family, yet from the cross in his dying moments he provides for his mother Mary (John 19:25-27). Here as elsewhere, Mary is representative of the church, the centre of a praying community (Acts 1:12-14).
If God's prompting is normally found in both the small events of family life and in sharing of loving concern for others, the message in Hebrews is that we should root our daily intentions in the strength and goodness of Jesus. Repeatedly we need to turn to him, to purify our motives and to form an ever wider circle of love. The attitude of Jesus sanctifies our daily actions: "I have come to do your will, O God."
The spontaneity of children can teach grown-ups the spirit of the Kingdom of God. Children can flourish in the warm embrace of the family; but they can also run through the neighbourhood and wave at total strangers. They teach us the meaning of Jesus' words as he embraced people from all parts of the land: "These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God's will is brother and sister and mother to me."
This is the only passage in Mark's gospel where the mother of Jesus features, when she comes with other members of the family to "restrain" Jesus, to bring him home, because some people thought he was out of his mind. Mark presents Mary and other family members as acting out of genuine concern for Jesus. However, the fact that we do something out of concern for someone doesn't necessarily mean that it is the right thing to do. On this occasion, Jesus kept his distance from his mother and the other members of his family, in spite of their good intentions. When word came to him that his mother and brothers and sisters were outside the house looking for him, he identified those inside the house, his disciples, as his real family. There was an implicit invitation here to his mother and family members to come inside and to be part of his new family.
"Whoever does the will of God," Jesus said, "that person is my brother and sister and mother." Mary and the other family members had to learn to set aside their own plans for Jesus and surrender to God's will for him. It is perhaps reassuring to be reminded that even for Our Blessed Lady it was a struggle to live out the implications of the prayer, "thy will be done on earth as in heaven." It is a daily struggle for all of us to give priority to what God wants, but it is a worthwhile effort; it is the Christian effort and in that struggle we are assured of the help of Jesus and Mary.
Jesus offers one sacrifice that sets up a new covenant with God
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Parable of the sower and the mystery of the Kingdom of God
Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
"Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold." And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'"
And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, an it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."
God's promises are present within us, in ways that we must struggle to comprehend. As Hebrews says, "Jesus offered one sacrifice for sins--and by that one sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified." He who is our hope, our way, truth and life, lives in us as vine and branches are united in one circle of life. The reality of his divine life within us is expressed in another way, "This is the covenant I will make with them after those days: I will put my laws in their hearts and I will write them on their minds."
The gospel puzzles us with some of the most difficult words of Old Testament prophecy, "They will look and not see, listen and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven" (Isa 6:9-10.) That passage ends with hope--for the trunk of the oak remains even when its leaves have fallen. The gospel assures us that hope will blossom in its time; but it insists on the human factor too, the condition of the soil, dealing with the thorns, rocks and obstacles to growth. We are not to wait passively and do nothing, simply waiting for God brings all to fulfillment. While life is often beyond our control and eventually we must leave all into the hands of God, still we are expected to be faithful through difficult times. Salvation is the interaction of God's mysterious grace and our cooperation. We must achieve what is humanly possible, and then in the end we can say, like Paul, "I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, God made it grow", (1 Cor 3:6.)
The parable was probably spoken by Jesus as an encouraging word to his disciples. As Mark has been telling the story of Jesus' public ministry prior to Jesus speaking this parable, Jesus and his disciples have been encountering many difficulties and obstacles. The religious leaders have accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking the Sabbath; they have claimed that Jesus heals by the power of Satan. Jesus' own relatives have tried to take him in hand because of the general impression that he has lost the run of himself. In that context Jesus draws the attention of the disciples to the farmer sowing seed in Galilee. The farmer has to deal with all kinds of obstacles, with the result that much of the seed that he sows never takes root, or if it does it never reaches maturity. Yet, in spite of obstacles and setbacks, the harvest is great. Jesus is saying, look beyond the obstacles, the set-backs, the disappointments; God is at work in my ministry and the harvest will be great in the end. We can all become absorbed by what is not going well, by the failures, the losses all around us. The parable encourages us to keep hopeful in the midst of loss and failure, because the Lord is always a work in a life-giving way even when failure and loss seem to dominate the landscape.
We enter the Holy of Holies by the new and living path Jesus has opened for us
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The contrast between those who have and the have-nots
He said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."
The life-path Jesus leads us on goes via the cross and on to the heavenly sanctuary. Behind this Hebrews text lies the Old Testament ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when once a year the high priest entered behind the veil into the Holy of Holies. There, amid a smoking cloud of incense, he sprinkled blood towards the place of the Ark of the Covenant. This signified the people's purification by a flow of new blood--new life--between them and God. This ceremony took on new, poignant meaning on Calvary. Jesus is the high priest, the blood is his own precious blood, the cross is both altar and the place of the Ark. With a slight shift of symbolism, common enough in the Bible, the veil guarding the Holy of Holies is the flesh of Jesus. Both were torn open when Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus "gave up his spirit, suddenly the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom", (Mt 27:50-51.)
At the eucharistic table, the lamp is no longer hidden under a basket, and we see new meaning in our lives, particularly when times are difficult. The Eucharist is the tabernacle of God's special presence with us. If we have this kind of faith, then "to those who have will more be given." If we do not have this faith, then "what little they have will be taken away" and be lost in a n ultimately meaningless life.
If we give in full measure we will "receive, and more besides." By uniting our lives with the death of Jesus, the lamp is taken from beneath the bushel basket and placed on a lampstand. To extent this figure of speech in the light of Hebrews, the lamp is placed on its stand in the Holy of Holies and we see the wonderful mystery of God's love in the torn veil, the sacrificed body of Jesus, and experience a new flow of life and at-one-ment with God.
Today Jesus calls us to listen carefully to what he says, "If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to this. Take notice of what you are hearing." We hear a lot but we do not always pay attention to or take notice of what we hear. Just as there is often more to someone than meets the eye, so there can be more to what someone says than meets the ear. When we listen attentively we can often hear the more in what someone says that may not be immediately. What is true in regard to the speaking of others is even more true in regard to the Lord's speaking, the Lord's word. It is certainly true that there is always more to the word of the Lord than meets the ear. Jesus declares in the gospel that the more carefully we listen, the more we will receive, "the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given--and more besides." The riches contained within the Lord's word are plentiful and he is generous with them, but it is our generosity, our generous and attentive listening, that allows those riches to be released into our lives.
Do not abandon hope, but trust in God's promises
But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
For yet "in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back." But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.
The seed sprouts and grows mysteriously, to become the largest of shrubs
He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
The work of God is like a seed full of promise, which comes to fulfillment only after much patient waiting in the darkness of the earth. There is conflict and change as the seed breaks apart and loses itself for the new sprout to develop and appear on the surface of the earth. We should try linking Jesus' parable about the seed sown within the dark earth with the reading from Hebrews.
While it is not standard parable interpretation to take an incidental detail of a story as a prime element in its explanation, an occasional lapse from the rules may be allowed. Hebrews was probably written for converts from Judaism, some of them former priests of the Temple. (Acts 6:7, "many Jewish priests, embraced the faith.") These could easily remember--with nostalgia and regret--their former moments of splendid temple worship, whereas they now had only simple rites in private house, the eucharist in upper rooms, with little ritual and no grandeur. Their family ties had been disrupted and many of their own household now scorned and persecuted them.
Hebrews faces this problem of discouragement with the long trek of following Jesus on our earthly journey to be with him behind the veil in the Holy of Holies. In today's text we note the tone of persecution and delay; the readers have endured a great contest of suffering; were publicly exposed to insult and the confiscation of their goods. There is the call to persevere: do not surrender your confidence; just a brief moment. His promise is that he will not delay, to be with those who have faith and life.
We cannot quite grasp how the seed that falls into the ground becomes stalks of wheat to provide grain and bread, or becomes a tree with branches, letting the birds of the sky build nests in its shade. Nor can we understand God's ways in the history of his servants. Yet just as wheat provides bread and the mustard tree shade, so also their story encourages us and says that God does not abandon our growth in holiness. Salvation is a patient interaction between God and ourselves. And we must encourage the salvation of each other, by showing patience and confidence in members of our family, community and neighbourhood, through the long dark hours when the seed is in the earth, breaking apart and showing little or no sign of what it can, and eventually will, become.
The seed growing secretly suggests the mystery of growth. The farmer works hard to sow the seed, but then he has to wait. In a way he does not fully understand, the seed grows of his own accord. It is only when the seed is fully grown and the crop is ripe that the farmer can get down to work again. The wise farmer knows when it is time to work, and when it is time to stand back and wait patiently, and let nature to take its course. We are not farmers, but like the farmer in the parable we all have to try and get that balance between working to make something happen and standing back to let something to happen. The balance between engagement and disengagement is important when it comes to all growth, including human growth, our own growth and the growth of others. The process of growth is not something we can fully control. That is especially true of our growth in Christ. There are certain things we can do to bring that about, but there are some things only the Lord can do. There comes at time when we have the let the Lord to work his growth in us; that will often mean for us, easing up a little, doing less, making room for the Lord to work.
Divine blessing on Abraham and his descendants
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren--because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you." He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead--and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Jesus calms the storm
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
We are human beings, neither angels nor gods; we live on planet earth, not yet in our heavenly home. We deal with uncertain hopes and struggle with opposite tendencies within ourselves. But at our best, we still hold firmly to high ideals, implanted in us by nature and grace, and clarified in our Bible as the book of life. Today's readings invite us to reflect on the call to heroism through the lives of men and women who people the pages of the Bible. These were ordinary folk, with human weakness and temptations--yet lived with "confident assurance about things we do not see." These words from Hebrews identify a cloud of witnesses hovering over us and beckoning us also to be men and women of faith.
Ideals are more than statements in a book, even a book as sacred as the Bible; they go beyond mere philosophical deductions, for God is immediately and personally involved. Nathan, in God's name, told David, "You despised me in taking the wife of Uriah to be your wife." God is the origin of our ideals, so that in acting as we know we should, we seek God and love God; as on the contrary, when we hurt others, we repudiate and despise God. This is concretised in Jesus' words: "As often as you did it for one of my little ones, you did it for me".
To his frightened disciples Jesus said, "Do not be afraid!" He is with us always. We are not alone during the storms at sea, when buffeted by raging wind and by waves breaking against the boat of our lives. Jesus says to us, as to them on the lake, "Why are you so afraid? Why so little faith?" In him our inabilities are suffused with new strength and our eyes see again a vision of our heavenly home, that enables us while still on earth to forgive, to be patient, to remain faithful, and to put our ideals to work.
What a contrast between the calm of Jesus and the alarm of his disciples when the storm breaks out on the lake. He was lying in the stern of the boat, asleep, with his head on a cushion. The disciples were panicking and in their panic they woke and rebuked him, "Master, do you not care? We are going down." Jesus' sleep suggested his quiet trust in God, even in the midst of the storm. His disciples' panic suggested their lack of trust in God, their lack of faith. Jesus addresses them, "Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?" Jesus wanted them to have something of his own trust in God in the midst of the storm. We have all known storms of one kind or another in our own lives. We have been through very stormy times in the life of the church here in Dublin in recent times. Today's gospel invites us to trust that God is at hand, and at work, even in the midst of the most threatening of storms. We are asked to enter into Jesus' own trusting relationship with God, even when the ground seems to be opening up under us, whether as individuals or as a community of faith. Jesus was in the boat with the disciples; he is with us too as individuals and as a church. His communion with us, his nearness to us, helps us to imbibe something of his conviction that God will bring us to the other side, the far shore, in spite of storms along the way.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted and tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swne was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
The Scriptures respect our human situation, yet they also make us realize that while on earth we are engaged in a struggle with evil and are expected to respond heroically. Not that every day of our existence is such a dramatic struggle. If it were, we would collapse under the tension and lose emotional control like the demoniac. Yet at key moments of our life that struggle between good and evil spirits does occur and to survive we must be heroic. At such times the Scriptures call us to homely virtues like patience and hope.
In Hebrews we are coming to the end of one of the most theological documents in the New Testament, composed by a disciple of Paul and John who was able to blend Paul's insistence on faith with John's concern for Jesus' incarnation and earthly life and for the liturgy. The author of Hebrews portrays Jesus' life as a long pilgrimage through human life, stepping into the footprints of every kind of human existence and even sharing our temptations and discouragement, leading eventually after the struggle against death on the cross into the Holy of Holies. Hebrews has been continually drawing on Old Testament passages, but mostly of a liturgical or highly doctrinal nature. Today, however, it summarizes the earthly pilgrimage of Jesus in another way, by a litany of Old Testament saints, all of whom struggle heroically to be faithful to God's will in their life.
The heroism of the saints is not intended to set them apart but to unite them with us in the family of God. Even when we are at our best, like the Old Testament saints, we still need others to support and encourage us. Perhaps we can understand this final position of today's texts by re-reading Paul's hymn to charity: If I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give everything I have to feed the poor and hand over my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing…. There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:2-3, 13).
The gospel reading today tells a disturbing story about a man possessed by demons. This character is quite out of control, completely alienated from himself and from others. He was more dead than alive, as is shown by his living among the tombs. He was the total outsider. Yet, Jesus engaged with him and as a result of his encounter the man was restored to the community from which he came. Having just calmed a storm at sea, Jesus calmed the storm in this man's psyche and spirit and sent him out as a messenger of good news to his community.
We may never be as disturbed as this man evidently was, but we can all find ourselves out of joint from time to time, out of sorts with ourselves and with others, feeling only half alive within ourselves, tossed and thrown about. It is then that we need to come before the Lord as the man in the gospel did. His initial approach to the Lord was quite aggressive; it was full of anger, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" That can be our starting point too when we come before the Lord in prayer. Yet, he is never put off by our disturbance within. If we let him he will pour his peace into our hearts; he will calm us as he calmed the storm, and having done so he will send us out to share his peace and mercy with others, just as he sent out the man in the gospel.
Around us a cloud of witnesses, and above all Jesus, to encourage us
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Jesus cures the bleeding woman and restores the twelve year old daughter of Jairus
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and waiing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha kum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Jesus asks many questions in the four gospels. It can sometimes be worthwhile to notice the questions he asks and to sit with them. Today the gospel has one of those questions, "Who touched me?" The disciples found this a very strange thing to ask, "You see the crowd is pressing round you and yet you say, "Who touched me?"" The disciples were saying, "how can you ask that question; there are dozens of people touching you." Yet, Jesus knew that one person touched him in a way that was not different. Many people were brushing up against him; one person took the initiative to make personal contact with him. When Jesus discovered who it was, he said to her, "your faith has restored you to health." The woman was seeking him out in a way that was not true of others who were around him. The Lord is always passing by; he is always among us. Sometimes we can brush up against him without paying him much attention. The woman shows us the value of a very personal and very deliberate reaching out towards the Lord. The gospel reading suggests that this is how we will experience his life-giving presence in our lives.
In today's gospel, two people approach Jesus for help. One was a synagogue official named Jairus, a person of some standing in the community, who approached Jesus very publicly on behalf of his dying daughter. The other was a nameless woman who would have been excluded from the synagogue because of her condition and who approached Jesus very privately on her own behalf, discreetly touching the hem of his garment. For all their differences, these two people had something in common. Their need was great, and they approached Jesus in their need. They also shared a great trust in the power of Jesus to bring life where there was death. Faith in the Lord can bring together people who otherwise might have very little else in common. The church, the community of believers, is very diverse. All of humanity is there. The gospel reading also suggests that the Lord wants to engage with each one of us in our uniqueness. He wants a personal relationship with each of us. That is why he wanted to meet the woman who touched the hem of his cloak. He needed to look into her eyes, to talk to her, to confirm her faith that led her to him. The woman who wanted to be anonymous found herself addressed by Jesus as "my daughter." The Lord calls each of us by name; he relates to us as the unique individual that we are.
Trials will come; but yield a peaceful fruit of righteousness
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children--"My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts."
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitteness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
The people of Nazareth reject Jesus and he could not achieve faith there
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
The response Jesus got when he stood up to speak in his own home town was not encouraging. Who would take him for a prophet, anyway, since he's someone they've known for years? What could he have to say that they did not already know? St Mark even has the critics listing the relatives of Jesus--his "brothers and sisters"--with the implication that they were ordinary village-dwellers without any special distinction. So they did not expect any important new ideas from Jesus, either. This all-too-common response is further illustration of the depth of the Incarnation: He became like us in everything, except sin. As regards the "brothers and sisters" reference, from antiquity and in deference to faith in the perpetual virginity of Our Lady, the Church has taken them to be either "cousins" or "half-siblings", children of Joseph from an earlier marriage. At any rate they were members of his extended family or clan, and they were at first no more disposed to listen to his sermon than were the other villagers.
Apart from the extreme scepticism in the villagers' questions, there are a couple of other vivid and typically Markan elements in this Gospel story. "They took offence at him!" Far from the admiration so often shown to Jesus in other episodes, as in yesterday's healing of the bleeding woman or restoring life to the daughter of Jairus, the people of Nazareth are angry at his self-assurance, his conviction that he has God's message to spread. Then Mark adds, "He could do no powerful deed there"--it is as though their unbelief completely blocked his miraculous power. Certainly there is a vital link between faith and the ability to be healed!
For anyone discouraged by the apparent failure of their efforts to minister faith and love the others, there is peculiar comfort in seeing that this was the experience of Jesus too. And the author to the Hebrews adds his own brand of gruff encouragement when he writes to his fellow Jewish-Christians about the aspect of suffering and sacrifice entailed in their vocation. Trials are sent by God to test us and make us stronger, he says, adding the exhortation, "Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet." if we can only persevere in what is asked of us, we will not fail to obtain the grace of God.
The people of Nazareth were slow to recognize the implications of the wisdom of Jesus and the power for good that was at work through him on behalf of the sick and suffering. They should have concluded from all of this that God must be working through this man in a special way. Instead, they could not accept him; indeed, they despised him. He was too familiar to them; they knew his mother and his family. He was one of their own; he was too ordinary. He could not possibly be all that different to everyone else in Nazareth. It is a clear case of familiarity breeding contempt.
The story suggests that we can sometimes be slow to recognize the presence of God in the ordinary and the familiar. We don't have to go long distances, or come into contact with extraordinary phenomena to make contact with the wisdom and the power of God. It is all around us in the near and the familiar, in the humdrum and in the ordinary, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The gospel reading invites us to see the familiar and the ordinary with new eyes. The failure of the people of Nazareth to see in this way inhibited what Jesus could do among them. Our seeing in this way gives the Lord space to work among us in new ways.
The outpoured blood of Jesus opens up a new Covenant
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Jesus sends out the twelve in pairs, to preach, anoint and heal
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Jesus chose twelve men (their names are listed several times, though with some inconsistencies in the names listed (Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19-19; Lk 6:14-16; Ac 1:13). Mark tells us that he named them "apostles" (Mk 3:13) and it is clear that special significance was seen in the number twelve, since they are often referred to later as simply "the twelve" (Mt 20:17; 26:14. 20.27; Mk 4:10; 9:35; 10:32; Jn 6:67-71 etc) and when Judas Iscariot dropped out of their number, another had to be chosen in his place, to fill up that sacred number (Ac 1:20ff). According to St. Peter one of the group who were present during the public ministry of the Lord Jesus "must become a witness with us to his resurrection." Filling the place of Judas would fulfil a prophesy, and amalgam drawn from Psalm 69:25 ("let there be no one to dwell in their tents") and Psalm 109:8 ("may another take his place of leadership"), but the main reason for bringing the number back up to twelve seems to be that it mirrored the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:3). They were clearly to be the leaders of the new community formed by the followers of Jesus.
Over the subsequent centuries the idea of church leadership as apostolic succession has taken various forms, most especially in the episcopate, with the bishops seen as ordained successors to the Twelve. The formal episcopal functions of teaching, ruling and sanctifying are therefore linked in some direct way to the choice of the apostles. But while this structural interpretation is in some sense a valid development, it would surely be wrong to forget what was the original task entrusted to the apostles according to Mark, the earliest of our Gospels and the one most redolent of the living memory of St. Peter who (according to bishop Papias) was Mark's patron and mentor in Rome. They were to travel around in frugal simplicity as messengers of the Kingdom of Heaven, with words of repentance and of hope and healing, and to preach a message of peace. This would be the kind of apostleship on which bishops should often reflect, along with St. Peter's own added reflection: each bishop must be with us a "witness to the resurrection of Jesus."
Inspired and encouraged by such a renewed sense of apostolic mission on the part of our church leaders we might resonate to the bright vision of the church sketched in Hebrews, as Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, .. the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and be gathered around Jesus, mediator of a new covenant, the One who determines our identity as children of God.
Mark shows how early into his ministry Jesus sent out the twelve that he had chosen to share in his work. He sent them out to do what he has been doing, to preach the gospel and to heal the sick. Jesus understood that he needed the help of others to do the work he had been sent to do. He continues to need us today to do his work. We are to be his eyes, his ears, his hands, his feet and his voice. As risen Lord he wants to work in and through us. Paul understood this very clearly. He understood the church to be the body of Christ in the world. He was very clear that every member of Christ's body had a vital role to play. The body of Christ could not be all Christ wants it to be unless everyone plays the role they are called and equipped to play through their baptism. Each one of us has a unique contribution to make to the life of the body and, thereby, to the work of the Lord in the world today. Each one of us is indispensible and necessary. The 1st reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it very simply. In the church everyone is a "1st-born child" and a "citizen of heaven." There are to be no 2nd class citizens in the church. Each of us is a vital member of Christ's body uniquely graced by the Lord for his work and mission in the world.
A call to hospitality, contentment, care of prisoners and the persecuted
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
The detailed story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife!" And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The contrasting motivations between the readings today remind one of the contrast of colours in the famous novel by Stendahl (Marie-Henri Beyle) Le Rouge et le Noir. In Hebrews we have the exhortation,"Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality" .. a fine, heartfelt invitation to all that is best in Christianity. What a contrast with the brutal play of passions: lust, resentment, cynicism and callous violence that led to the beheading of John the Baptist.
Herod's superficial hedonism, publicly condemned by the Baptist, led him step by step to this tragic execution. Urged on by the venom of Herodias and the licentious dancing of her daughter (who may have been called Salome), and prevented by human respect from protecting one whom he regarded as a good man, the venal king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. What a far cry from the ideals of love, hospitality, honouring marriage and living a life of simple dignity, as counselled in the epistle. But even in this moment of dire crisis and in danger of his life, John the Baptist must have renewed his act of faith with that ultimate Psalm of promise, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"
Today's gospel scene is one that has inspired artists and playwrights over the centuries. The sumptuous banquet in Herod's palace for his birthday turns out to be a banquet of death. Mark follows this scene with the feeding by Jesus of the multitude in the wilderness. It is as if the evangelist wants to set Herod banquet of death over against Jesus' banquet of life. John the Baptist is described in the gospel as a "good and holy man." He courageously spoke God's truth, God's way, and that is why he was beheaded. Jesus was crucified for the same reason, because he proclaimed God's ways, God's purposess, by what he said and did. We are all called to proclaim the ways of God as revealed to us by Jesus. That will call for courage at times, the courage displayed by John the Baptist and Jesus. One of the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is courage. Today, more than in the past, we need a courageous faith; we need the courage of the Holy Spirit to witness to the values of the gospel, as John and Jesus did. A courageous faith is not an arrogant faith, but it is a firm faith, an enduring faith, a faith that holds firm when the storms come because its roots are deep. We pray today for the gift of such a faith, the kind of faithfulness that shaped John's life and death.
God raised up Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing--for that would be harmful to you.
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Jesus takes the apostles aside. The people are as sheep without a shepherd
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, so that they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.
As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
For almost forty years now, bishops have been chosen directly by the Holy See, with little or no input from the clergy or laity of the diocese they are to serve. While this process may have succeeded in promoting a semblance of uniformity of doctrine and practice, it seriously impinges on the sense of co-responsibility and personal involvement on the part of the local clergy. We might reflect on the topic of What Bishops Are For, in light of today's readings, both of which highlight Jesus as the great shepherd of God's flock. While the shepherding grace of Jesus is clearly more vital than the role of any church leader, a truly pastoral bishop still can enhance our experience of being part of God's People, the Church. In fact, the bishop's main task is to build and foster among the people both the reality and the perception of communion and personal involvement.
As Jesus looked around on the crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. His loving response was to animate them by his teaching, and then to feed them through the sharing miracle of the loaves and fishes. Responding with love to the people's deepest needs is the vocation of all who are privileged to have a share in his ministry. On this point, let us hear a few phrases from Martin Brown's article. A deep sense of communion--he says--"is what will protect a new bishop from becoming too full of himself and too impressed with his status, title or attire. He is to teach and to lead his people as a loving shepherd; to be both father and brother. And he does this most excellently when he presides at the Eucharist--in the midst of the people of the diocese." Later he says candidly, "a diocese is a local Church and not just an administrative unit. A bishop is a representative of Christ and not just a branch manager. They have lost most of the power they used to have, which is no bad thing--but we need to have a renewed sense of who and what exactly bishops are, if they are to foster communion wisely." For the health and coherence of our beloved Church, we should today pray that the spirit and example of the Good Shepherd will deeply animate the bishops who are now charged with shepherding his flock according to his Gospel message.
We are all familiar with the experience of our plans not working out. In the course of our day we might plan to get something done and our plans come to nothing. On a grander scale, some plan we might have had for our life does not materialize. We can respond in different ways to our plans not working out. In today's gospel, Jesus' plans for himself and his disciples did not work out. He intended taking his disciples away to a lonely place to be all by themselves, because they were so busy they had no time even to eat. However, when Jesus got to the lonely place, he discovered to his surprise that it had become a crowded place; the crowd had got there ahead of him. He didn't respond with annoyance to this unexpected interruption; instead, according to the gospel, he had compassion on the crowd and set himself to teach them. Jesus' plans did not work out, but something else happened that served God's purpose. When our own plans fail to materialize, sometimes something better can come to pass, which would never have happened if our plans had worked out. The Lord's purpose is always greater than our plans. Whenever we have to let of our plans, the Lord's life-giving purpose for our lives prevails.
God creates light, sky, earth and sun, moon and stars, in the act of creation
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights--the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night--and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
The sick were brought to Jesus and whoever touched him with faith was healed
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
The Genesis reading gives a wide-angle view of the universe as the sanctuary or throne for God's majestic presence. All religious ceremonies--whether in the Jerusalem temple or on the altars of our churches--must retain contact with the physical world of earth and sky, if they are to be reminders of God's redemptive acts for us, mortal, earthbound creatures. At the same time, without regular liturgy we can lose sight of the mysterious presence of God in our universe and in our daily living.
Genesis clearly declares that the world lit by the light of the sun and where we can hear the strange melodies of the wind, is indeed a world of beauty, a sacred world. Each facet of creation is a response to God's word, "Let there be light--let there be a sky in the middle of waters--let there be lights in the dome of the sky." And God saw that it was good--all that results from his creative word.
But even in God's good world there are many dark spots, of sickness, disorder, grief and injustice. In today's reading from Mark we see the healing touch of Jesus at work, bringing hope and consolation to those who were sick. He calls his followers--ourselves--to be like himself, instruments of God to cleanse and revive our good world. Our efforts of kindness and love extend the range of Jesus' healing touch; our words of forgiveness and encouragement echo the word of God. We go out as instruments of blessing, at the end of each Eucharistic liturgy, to carry on God's creative work in our real world.
The gospel today conveys the great popularity of Jesus among the ordinary people of Galilee. In particular, it was the sick and broken that he attracted, because God's healing power was at work through him. People begged him to let him touch even the fringe of his cloak, as the woman had done who was healed of her flow of blood. The gospel reading says that people were hurrying to bring the sick to him. The broken and needy, especially, were desperate to get to him and to connect with him. In our own lives too, it is often in our brokenness that we seek out the Lord with the greatest urgency. Something happens to us that brings home to us our vulnerability, our weakness, our inability to manage. In those situations, when we come face to face with our limitations, we can seek out the Lord with a greater energy and an urgency we don't normally show. It is those experiences, where we come face to face with our frailties, that bring home to us our need of the Lord and our dependence on him. It is often the darker and more painful experiences of life that open us up to the Lord. When Paul was struggling with his "thorn in the flesh," he heard the risen Lord say to him, "My power is made perfect in weakness." Our various experiences of weakness can be like gateways through which we reach out to the Lord and the Lord comes to us.
After forming man and woman to the divine likeness, God rested on the seventh day
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that hehad made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Never nullify the plain sense of God's word, in deference to our traditional practices
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother;' and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)--then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."
Genesis continues to proclaim the sacredness of the created world, now extending to the creation of human beings. As the pinnacle of creation, according to the priestly author of this first chapter, God crowns his work by forming humankind to the divine image. Male and female--"in the image of God he created them." While each other stage was "good", the inspired author says that after creating humankind, God "found it very good." Along with exalting the status of human beings as the pinnacle of creation, this text also suggests that the interplay of the sexes in marriage and the family becomes a significant image of God's inner being, and here God must continue to be present.
After this ultimate of all works on the sixth day, God proceeds to "rest from all the work he had done" and so "blessed the seventh day." This is not a withdrawal from his newly created world in order to rest, but rather God rests in the midst of all its beauty and goodness. The world is God's true temple and church; the sound of wind and surf, thunder and birdsong are hymns of praise.
This background can throw light on today's gospel, to understand why Jesus spoke as he did. He blames the Pharisees and [canon] lawyers for artificially setting aside God's will [that we respect and appreciate the world, as blessed by God] "just for the sake of keeping your traditions." To wash and clean our food before eating is of course good, but only done in a spirit of respect for others. But if it only leads to arguments and a better-than-thou attitude, it violates God's will that we form a united human family made in his own likeness. The Bible is continually undermining the barriers we want to raise between one group and another. Jesus could not tolerate separations and class-distinctions that divide and split apart. Any who promote divisiveness need to examine if the warning applies to them: "This people pays me lip service but their heart is far from me."
Jesus accuses the religious leaders of putting aside the commandments of God, the word of God, so as to cling to human traditions. Jesus recognized that the religious traditions of his time did not always correspond to God's will as revealed in the Scriptures, and as revealed in a much fuller way now by Jesus himself. The church needs to be always alert to ensure that its own traditions conform to God's word to us, especially as spoken by Jesus. Every so often our church has to renew itself, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to purify its traditions so that they correspond more closely to the true spirit of the gospel. We can understand the Council of Vatican II as a significant attempt to do just that. In our own personal lives too we can get into traditional ways of doing things that are not in keeping with the core of God's message to us in and through the Scriptures. Our own personal tradition, whether it is our religious tradition, or our tradition in the broader sense, is always in need of reform in the light of the gospel. We need to keep on hearing the word of the Lord afresh, and to invoke the Holy Spirit to help us to do so.
God creates Adam and sets him in the garden to cultivate it
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground--then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
What renders us impure is not what enters us from outside but what's in the heart
Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Genesis tells of the Lord planting a garden with all kinds of delightful things to eat and putting Adam there to cultivate and care for it. Within the garden was the tree of knowledge of good and evil whose fruit he was not to eat; Adam was expected to exercise self-control and a humble regard for God's instructions.
Jesus' words to his disciples develop this traditional idea, that external things are part of God's good creation. What we eat or drink is clean and healthy, gifts from the God of life. Evil comes from within the human heart, from whose wicked desires flow those crimes and offenses which corrode and corrupt the world about us.
The story-teller of Genesis wants to impress on us how the creation of human life needed a special intervention of God who breathed into man the breath of life; that the garden was not the result of human ingenuity but was prepared in advance by God. The wisdom to make the best use of the world also comes from the Lord, with our intellect illumined by his assisting grace. It is a wisdom that includes a humble attitude to care for the earth and the strength to control our selfish desires. A sensitivity towards God, a remembrance in prayer of God's gracious acts for us in the past, a joy from offering praise and adoration to our Maker, all this belongs to the wisdom by which good judgment is formed.
Without such wisdom, wicked designs begin to take hold within the heart. Jesus names some of these evil tendencies, almost the reverse of the ten commandments: fornication, theft, murder, greed, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. The wisdom by which we direct our lives must be sincere and fully supernatural, open always, as we read in the creation of the first human being, to the breath of God's Holy Spirit. At the base of every good life lies an intuitive, secret wisdom, the fruit of living prayerfully in God's presence and of responding humbly and obediently to the movements of God's spirit within us.
The image of the human heart is the traditional symbol of love. In the gospel Jesus takes a somewhat more nuanced view of the human heart. He declares it to be the seat of evil intentions, intentions that are damaging and destructive of others. The heart is the inner core of the person and we know that our inner core can have both its light and its shade; it can be a reservoir for good and for harm. One of the great traditional images of our faith in the past has been the Sacred Heart. Many of us may have grown up with an image of the Sacred Heart in our homes. It was an image which declared that at God's inner core was a totally selfless love, a love that was revealed fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This greater love was powerfully creative and life-giving. Our calling is to have hearts that in some sense reflect the Sacred Heart, to have an inner core that partakes in some way of God's inner core. This grand vision of our fundamental calling is well captured in that simple but profound prayer that many of us will have learned at some time, "Come Holy Spirit, fill my heart, and kindle in me the fire of your love."
Woman stands equal to man; they are to be joined as one flesh
Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
By persevering faith, a Syro-Phoenician woman gets Jesus to cure her daughter
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-phoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." The he said to her, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Women are centre-stage in today's readings. In Genesis the first woman heals the loneliness of man, measures up to him in a way that no other creature could, and the two are united as equals, "in one flesh." While the woman brings joy and stability into the life of the first man, pagan women are also held responsible, at least in part, for apostasy in Israel. Then in the gospel a pagan woman surprises Jesus with her faith and humble perseverance.
These texts invite our reflection about the relationship of the sexes, in family, friendship and community. Our differences as man and woman along with diversity in personality, talents and interests help us to complement each other and challenge one another to grow. Genesis clearly suggests that woman and man in isolation are each lacking important gifts and qualities. The union by which they complement one another enables the image of God, divine goodness, strength and fidelity, to be manifest. In this way marriage sets the pattern for all human friendship and community.
Many of the women in the Scriptures are in some sense models for both men and women, just as men provide examples for both women and men. What is scattered and fragmented must be reunited in Jesus, for as Paul says: "among you it is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28-29). Belonging to Jesus, then, in a radical way heals all fragmentation arising from gender or race.
Adam exclaimed, "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." If a spouse is to leave father and mother and cling to the other, then each has a divine mandate to put nothing before one's love and loyalty for the other person. Jesus put it still more heroically and totally: There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends (John 15:13). In this context we understand Jesus' other words: Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it; whoever loses it will keep it (Luke 17:33). Not only do we refuse to put any other object before our spouse, friend or community member, but we do not even place ourselves in preference to them.
Love and friendship make demands on our generosity. Even Jesus seems reluctant to divert attention away from his own chosen people, Israel, to attend to the pagan woman. There is no simple way to soften the harsh reply of Jesus, except perhaps that he would not repeat the mistakes of Solomon who was led astray by foreign women. The apparent rejection is healed by the woman's humility, perseverance and love for her child. Not for selfish pleasure or personal gain, but for the sake of her daughter, does the woman turn aside Jesus' harsh words by replying: "but even the dogs under the table eat the family's leavings." This answer overcomes his first objections, and Jesus heals the woman's daughter--a splendid example of gentle perseverance rewarded.
Woman and man disobey God and try to hide from him in the garden
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Jesus cures a man who was deaf and dumb
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
One might take the first reading as describing paradise lost, while the gospel tells of of paradise regained. In the "paradise lost" story , the man and woman now feel shame at their nakedness, while up to the time of their sin in the garden they had felt no unease in each other's company, but felt their whole selves as created to the image of God and as very good.. A sense of paradise restored is felt in the gospel, where in his cure of the deaf and dumb man, Or Lord puts his fingers in the man's ears and touches his tongue with saliva, and looks up to heaven with a groan of petition. Jesus' words and action, even his distressed groan over the man's disability, show how this man--symbolic of all of us--was led back to the fullness of life.
That Mark intends this scene as the start of the final age, of paradise regained, is clear from hints later in the text. The phrase, "he makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" is from the prophecy of Isaiah, where "those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy." The fulfillment of the messianic prophecies is at hand, when "desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom… Here is your God, he comes with vindication, to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared" (Isa 35:1-5).
In fulfilling the prophecy, Jesus offers a hint of universal salvation, something already observed in yesterday's story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. We can contrast the two paradises, lost and regained. In Genesis man and woman, once they had sinned, realized that they were naked and felt ashamed. In the gospel, once the man's hearing and speech are healed, every other impediment is dropped. With joyful spontaneity he forgets the injunction not to tell anyone. Not only the man himself but everyone else announces the good news of what Jesus has acomplished. The gospel has almost a playful interaction here, for when he enjoined them strictly not to tell anyone; the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.
On leaving paradise Adam and Eve felt compelled to cover themselves up, each needing cover of some kind against the other. Fear and mistrust now inhibited the open spontaneity of their relationship. The man cured of deafness and dumbness seems to toss inhibition to the wind, dancing, singing, leaping, shouting and proclaiming the good news. While we lose paradise and will--hopefully--re-enter paradise as human beings who are both physical and spiritual, the Bible encourages us to a sense of gratitude to God, source of all our good.
We can sometimes take our senses for granted, the fact that we can see, hear, smell, touch and speak. It is only when we lose one of our senses or someone close to us loses one of theirs that we begin to realize how precious those gifts are. Because they are such wonderful gifts we need to keep challenging ourselves, "How am I using these gifts of hearing, sight, speech?" In today's gospel a deaf man is brought to Jesus with an impediment in his speech. There can be a link between the two; the inability to hear can affect how people speak. Jesus 1st opened the man's ears, and then he could speak clearly. For us who have the gifts of both hearing and speech, it is nevertheless true to say that the quality of our speaking is in some way related to the quality of our hearing. The better we are at listening, the better we may be at speaking. We need to listen to each other if we are to speak well to each other. More fundamentally, we need to listen to the word of the Lord if we are to speak the word of the Lord. It is only in listening to him that he can speak through us.
The Lord sentences the serpent, and Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden
The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."
The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."
To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
Then the Lord God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"--therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Jesus multiplies bread and fish for about four thousand people
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, "I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way--and some of them have come from a great distance." His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven." Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his discipls and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
In Genesis we have heard how our first parents are condemned to return to the ground from which you were taken. The gospel seems to reverse this, on a different, more optimistic note. The men and women who came out into the desert to hear him are so tired and hungry that if Jesus sends them away without food, "they will collapse on the way." Therefore he multiplies bread and fish, and they all return not to the earth but to their homes with renewed vigor. In the beginning Adam and Eve ate the forbidden food and die; in the gospel their children eat the heavenly food and live.
The difference between orientation towards life or death lies within ourselves and our motives for acting. Earth itself is not evil, since it provides God with the material for moulding man and woman, and produces the bread and the fish, that Jesus gives as food of new life for the people. Even the break of the northern tribes from the Davidic dynasty at Jerusalem was not in itself an unmixed evil for it happened in the name of the Lord God.
The ways that lead to death can entrap us exclusively either in the secular world or in the religious realm. In Genesis we find man and woman giving themselves wholly to secular values. Driven by pride, desire to master the world and by an overweening ambition to control all things, man and woman sinned, falling into the typical sin of secular society. In the Book of Kings, the way to death comes through misuse of the religious realm. Jeroboam uses the instruments of religion, the priesthood, sanctuaries and feastdays to control the riches of the northern kingdom and to prevent peace and reunion with the south. By envy he kept north and south, which both professed the same religion, at each other's throat.
The orientation towards life or death is not "out there" but inside ourselves, in how we react to God and to share with others as God has shared, indifferent to personal ambition. It is amazing how quickly and simply today's gospel text ends. After the magnificent miracle of feeding "about four thousand" from seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, the story ends abruptly. He dismissed them and got into the boat with his disciples to go to the neighbourhood of Dalmanutha. Acting out of compassion, not ambition, Jesus did not make a living from miracles. The happiness of seeing others restored to life and strength was its own joy.
Cain's jealousy leading to the murder of his brother Abel
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have produced a man with the help of the Lord." Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."
Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" And the Lord said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me." Then the Lord said to him, "Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance." And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.
Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, "God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him."
Jesus refuses to give spectacular signs
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation." And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
St Mark refers more often to the emotions of Jesus than any other evangelist. In today's reading, Mark states that Jesus responded to the Pharisees' request for a sign from heaven "with a sigh that came straight from the heart." That sigh led to the question, "Why does this generation demand a sign?" We can almost sense the frustration of Jesus in that sigh, straight from the heart. Religious people are often tempted to search breathlessly for signs from heaven, to long for and emphasise the extra-ordinary and unusual. Jesus always directs us towards the ordinary--the sower who goes out to sow his field, the woman who looks for her lost coin, the care given to a stranger on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the man who unexpectedly finds treasure in his field, and so on. It is in the ordinary that the mystery of God's kingdom is to be found, because God's good creation of full of God's glory.
If faith is at the centre of biblical religion, we must seek what is the heart of faith. From the gospel we learn that faith does not revolve around miracles. When jealous and suspicious people test Jesus and demand some heavenly sign, he sighs about the weakness of their faith. St James urges us to cope with every sort of trial, for "When faith is tested this makes for endurance, so that you may be fully mature."
Cain might run away from his family but he could not run away from God. "The Lord put a mark on Cain," a mark of divine protection, a pledge of the Creator's fidelity to all he has made. When some people responded to Jesus with suspicion and envy, he left them and went off. Such dispositions do not keep Jesus in our midst; he remains only with people of faith, compassion and forgiveness.
The universal flood; the Lord's regret at creating the human race
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created--people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord.
Then the Lord said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.
Jesus is amazed at the blindness of his disciples
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, "Watch out--beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread." And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve." "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven." Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"
On first reading today's texts are about external things: Noah escapes from the flood that covered the earth while in Mark the disciples are worried that they have too little bread, as they set sail across the Sea of Galilee. Our own reflections--and our theology--, must also begin with externals. It is the sight of the poor and the oppressed that stirs us into considering what place or purpose suffering may have in the wise providence of God. The behaviour of the people in Noah's time provoked regret in God's heart and that phrase in Genesis raises all sorts of theological problems: how can God regret? Did he see the creation of mankind as a mistake? Is there room for change in the divine mind? Similarly in the gospel Jesus;' response to the disciples turns into a volley of questions which evinces surprise on Jesus;' part that his followers acted as they did: "Do you still not see or comprehend? Are your minds completely blind? Have you eyes but no sight, ears but no hearing? Do you not remember how I broke the five loaves…?" The gospel ends on the question: "Do you still not understand?"
We begin with the externals but we must go beyond them too. Biblical interpretation must not get bogged down arguing about the externals, as in the case of Noah's flood: did it really cover the earth? Could all those animals have been contained within the ark? etc. Even if archaeology suggests that mammoth floods swept across large areas in Mesopotamia and gave rise to various flood sagas, these stories show people struggling with theological issues too. The flood story in Genesis begins with the dispositions of the human heart; for when the Lord saw how much wickedness was on earth, and how no human desire was even anything but evil, he regretted having made man, "and his heart was grieved." The Scriptures move from external actions to human desires and to regret in God's heart.
In the gospel today, Jesus seems very frustrated with is own disciples. In spite of all he has said and done in their presence, they do not really understand who he is or what he is about. They misunderstand his words and do not see the real significance of his deeds, such as his feeding of the multitudes. Worse is to come of course. They not only misunderstand Jesus, but they will eventually abandon him. Mark, the evangelist, gives quite a negative portrayal of the disciples in his gospel. Yet, these are the very disciples that Jesus keeps faith with. Mark's gospel ends with the words of the young man from the tomb, "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you." After their failure, Jesus met with his disciples again in Galilee to renew their call. The gospel of Mark proclaims that Jesus is faithful to us, even when we are less that faithful to him. He goes ahead of us into all the places we journey to and find ourselves in. He is always there, ahead of us, calling us to begin again after we have failed. St Paul puts this very simply, "if we are faithless, he remains faithful."
The Lord promises never again to destroy the earth
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.
In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."
Jesus cures the blind man with spittle and the touch of his hands
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Can you see anything?" And the man looked up and said, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking." Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even go into the village."
The gospel suggests the long, gradual process by which we come to the light of truth and the persistence to follow the way of truth. Genesis points out dramatically that the period of the flood must run its full course and that the earth's return to normal existence cannot be rushed. The miracle story is told only by Mark; it was not repeated nor even adapted by Matthew and Luke, even though these evangelists relied heavily on Mark. This is also the only miracle which Jesus worked in stages. Jesus even uses such lowly human substance as spittle.
Jesus' willingness to live on our human level offers much to encourage us. There is a notable sense of consideration in the way he dealt with the blind man's need. He first took him by the hand and led him outside the village. Then, away from the crowd, he put spittle on his eyes and touching the closed eyelids with his fingers, Jesus bonded with the blind man. This poor man could not see the sorrow in Jesus' eyes at the sight of this disability, but could feel the clasp of his hand and touch of his fingers. Jesus is not just conforming to common ritual practices but adapting himself to the human condition of need.
The two stages of the miracle are interesting: at first, all was so vague that people looked like walking trees; then after his cure, he could see everything clearly. These too are the stages of our growth in faith. We may be grateful to Mark for preserving the memory of Jesus' respect for the stages of our life and its growth to sanctity. The steps to sanctity follow the path of human existence, only we cannot walk the path alone but must be like Jesus who took the blind man's hand and led him outside the village. We take the hand of our neighbour in need, and to our surprise the hand that we clasp is leading us to our salvation, just as the blind man led Jesus into an episode that preached redemption to us today.
The rainbow, a perpetual sign of God's covenant with Noah and the human race
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it."
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth."
Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah; then receives a reprimand
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
The two great signs of the covenant between God and the entire human race are the rainbow and the cross. And just as each spans the universe, so the covenant levels all men and women to an equal status with no favouritism in God's eyes. We are invited to reflect on the glories and hopes of forming one human family and to realize the cost in sacrifice and sharing.
The rainbow and the cross both symbolize God's deep union with the human family. Each has a vertical and a horizontal span, and presumes some measure of purification, while offering a strong promise of joy and completion. The rainbow appears after the rain has cleansed the sky and is a herald of bright sunlight. In Genesis the rainbow announces the end of Noah's flood and also gives a divine promise that such a flood will never again sweep the earth. Despite its lightsome beauty, the rainbow will not let us forget the devastating force of the flood, which is now seen as a purifying thing, washing the human race clean of its wickedness.
The same applies to the cross. No one can look at a cross, no matter how ornate it may be, without remembering the excruciating death of Jesus. Yet the cross is lifted high on our churches and is worn as the sign and emblem of our victory over sin and despair, for Jesus' resurrection is the pledge of our own future life. Both cross and rainbow carry a message of universal salvation. They belong to the world and in fact come to our attention first from the secular sphere of life. The cross was the dreaded Roman form of execution; the rainbow is visible to every human eye, whatever the person's religion may be.
The cross and the rainbow are beautiful and demanding, hopeful and distressing, dark/grim and open/fragile, deeply personal and fully universal. In their light we can truly answer Jesus' question to the disciples, "Who do you say that l am?"
Like Socrates, Jesus delighted to ask questions of the people he encountered. One of his most important questions is found in today's gospel, "Who do you say that I am?" It is a question addressed to each one of us and each of us is asked to answer that question for ourselves. But it is not a question that just asks for information, whose answer could be found in a book. It is a question that addresses our heart as well as our head. Peter's answer to Jesus' question was correct, "you are the Christ."
Peter's answer was not the whole truth about Jesus. Jesus went on to identify himself as the Christ who would also be the suffering Son of Man who would be rejected and put to death. This self-revelation of Jesus was not acceptable to Peter. He had still to learn to accept the whole truth about Jesus, to receive Jesus as he was and not as Peter wanted him to be. Peter had a long way to go before he could answer Jesus' question fully. We are all on that same journey, coming to receive Jesus as he really is and not just as we want him to be or imagine him to be.
When people sought independence from God, their language is scrambled
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Losing one's life in order to save it
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."
The tower of Babel and the hill of Calvary: two ways of approaching heaven and of being with God, one deceptively attractive but ultimately wrong, the other forbidding but in the long run good. The contrast is intriguing and enigmatic. We see human the striving to construct the tower of Babel and the reluctance to carry one's cross after Jesus. In building the tower of Babel the proud entrepreneurs destroyed peace and harmony; in the epistle of James, good works become the proof that God is present within us and these works unite us with our neighbour. The gospel contrasts two forms of activity: taking up one's cross or acting for personal aggrandizement. Again the action which threatens to destroy us is the one which adds permanence of our life; the action which seems to affirm and build us up turns on us and destroys us. "Whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
To act against our selfish inclinations and pious camouflage, to reach out spontaneously with practical help to the neighbour in need, means to take up one's cross. To stand by someone in need and disgrace is to follow the way of Jesus who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors. It means to lose one's life; and in the depth of that faith we will have a glimpse of the true "kingdom of God established in power." Where we seem to have lost everything and to have died, we become fully alive in a way that can never taste death. No one can take that vision from us, the memory of being with Jesus and reaching out, as he did, to those genuinely in need of us. What can equal life such as this, joyful like Abraham's joy in the return of Isaac, with dignity restored, like Rahab the harlot in saving the lives of the messengers.
Being true to the teaching of Christ, to the values that shaped his life, will often mean having to go against the grain, renouncing ourselves so as to put the Lord 1st in our lives. To others, and sometimes even to ourselves, this will seem like a loss. In our efforts to stay faithful to the Lord's path, we will often have to say "no" to what many are saying "yes" to. Following in the Lord's way is not easy; it often means taking the way of the cross. Being a follower of Jesus can be very demanding, especially in today's culture. But he promises that those who lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel will save their lives, will be more alive. What seems like a loss at the time will ultimately be a gain. Jesus recognizes the temptation to be ashamed of him and of his words, the temptation to keep our faith in him under cover so as to go with the flow. However, if we are prepared to live our faith publicly even when pressured to do otherwise, then we will come to experience that fullness of life that the Lord desires for all of us.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and "he was not found, because God had taken him." For it was attested before he was taken away that "he had pleased God." And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an eir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
Jesus' transfiguration, between his fore-runners, Moses and Elijah
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" He said to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him."
The need for faith is not removed even by the experience of visions. The experience of Jesus' transfiguration led to further questions for the disciples--Peter, James and John, who were with Jesus on the mountain--who now perceived a new dimension present in their daily life. Visions do not stop the clock but are a momentary insight that will tend to leave us more restless and unsettled than before.
The transfiguration of Jesus, like his baptism and prayer in Gethsemane, enables us to see for a moment the intimate personal relation between Jesus and the Heavenly Father. We see also his close contact with us in an earthly life ending in death, and the overlapping of future glory with present difficulties in one profound life-force. It shows how close Jesus is to God the Father, but likewise the fearful sense of impending doom is accented. Coming down from the mountain Jesus speaks of his death, and in Luke's account he discusses with Elijah and Moses his "exodus" or passing from this world to the next (Luke 9:31).
Jesus felt the profound mystery of God the Father's presence within the path of his human life on its various stages towards his inevitable death. Death will be the supreme moment of God's intense, intimate presence with us as it was with Jesus. Only after we have traveled that passage from life through death into eternal life, only after the child of earth has risen from the dead, can we really tell what we have seen in the course of our life, just as the fleeting vision of Jesus' transformation on the mountain transformed his disciples' understanding of him.
Hebrews summarizes what we have seen in Genesis but also warns that what we thought we understood is only half of the truth. For this author, "faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see." When we think we see and understand, we should be filled with new questions. The wonder of God is so great that we may be certain that it is far beyond what we understand.
There are moments when we can feel wonderfully happy, happier than we could ever have imagined, when, like Peter on the mount of transfiguration, we feel exalted in spirit and are inclined to say, "it is good for us to be here." Sooner or later we are made aware of some unfulfilled longing in us; we sense an unease, a restlessness, a kind of emptiness that is never fully filled. That is because we are made for something which this world cannot fully give us. Saint Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God. That is why there is so much truth in Philip's prayer to Jesus, "Lord, let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied." We cannot but be struck by Jesus' response to Philip, "to have seen me is to have seen the Father." Jesus is saying that to see him with the eyes of faith, to enter into communion with him, is to see the Father. Already here and now in this earthly life, we can begin to experience that for which we ultimately long in and through our relationship with Jesus.
All wisdom comes from God and returns to him
All wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it remains forever. The sand of the sea, the drops of rain, and the days of eternity--who can count them? The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth, the abyss, and wisdom--who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom--to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties--who knows them? There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne--the Lord.
It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works, upon all the living according to his gift; he lavished her upon those who love him.
The mute spirit which convulses the boy is driven out by Jesus' prayer
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, "What are you arguing about with them?" Someone from the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so." He answered them, "You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me." And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; butif you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Jesus said to him, "If you are able!--All things can be done for the one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!" After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, "He is dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "This kind can come out only through prayer."
Three great and related moments in Mark's gospel--Jesus' baptism, transfiguration and prayer in the garden--are each followed by struggle: Jesus' baptism by the Lord's wrestling with Satan in the desert (Mark 1:12-13); the transfiguration by the disciples' futile wrestling to drive out a demon from the mute boy; the prayer in the garden where Jesus struggles with the will of the heavenly Father amidst "sorrow to the point of death" (Mark 14:34). Even though Mark is not characterized like Luke as a gospel of prayer, nonetheless each of these episodes is surrounded or at least concluded by prayer: Jesus spends the forty days in the desert in prayerful seclusion (1:13), caught between heaven and earth, between overwhelming goodness and demonic evil, in the grip of deep contemplative prayer. Today's episode of the boy under demonic possession ends with the statement, "This can be driven out only by prayer." In the garden Jesus admonishes his disciples, "Be on guard and pray that you may not be put to the test" 14:38).
Regarding the spirit in which to pray, we can learn from the reading from Sirach. In the last chapter of book, we learn that this elderly gentleman conducted a "house of instruction"--in Hebrew, beit midrash--for the sons of the nobility (Sir 51:23). With serenity and sureness of touch Sirach spoke about every aspect of human existence, ranging from the home into the business world, from study of the law to the entertainment of guests. Yet he always ended in a spirit of wonder, prayer and the true fear of the Lord. "Extol God with renewed strength, and do not grow weary, though you cannot reach the end... It is the Lord who has made all things, and to those who fear him he gives wisdom (Sir 44:32,35).
Sirach values the fear of the Lord as glory and splendour that warms the heart. To bring this kind of reverence into our prayer, we look to the opening poem from the Book of Sirach: God's wisdom is spread across "heaven's height and earth's breadth," so great that no one can explore them. God "has poured her forth on all his works and on every living thing. He has lavished her on his friends." This wonderful wisdom exists at the depth of our being and is also with God where it remains forever.
When we review our own prayer, we might cry out with the father of the mute and epileptic boy, "I do believe. Help my lack of trust." The biblical appreciation of prayer may seem far beyond us. In fact, it is and we remember again Sirach's healthy advice, "weary not, though you cannot reach the end." What we strive to reach, we already possess at the depths of ourselves. Through Jesus we discover who we are, provided we persevere long in prayer and provided we balance our prayer with true and healthy fear, with humility and good sense.
The disciples were trying to heal a seriously disturbed boy; and whereas they failed, Jesus succeeded. In response to their question as to why they could not heal the boy, he answered that "This is the kind that can only be driven out by prayer." The implication is that the disciples were trying to heal this boy with their own power, but it was only God's power that could heal him. If they were to be channels of God's power they needed to pray more. They needed to be in deeper communion with God if God was to work through them in a life-giving way.
In his reply to their question, Jesus points to the power of prayer and the need for prayer if certain kinds of difficulties are to be resolved. Some situations in life are so much bigger than us, that it is only prayer that will get us through them. Perhaps we know that from our own experience. When we are really up against it, we can discover that it is prayer that keeps us going, when all else fails. It is the Lord who keeps us going, and our connection with him through prayer, when every other resource appears inadequate.
Experience shows that those who hope in the Lord are not forsaken
My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.
Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.
Cling to him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous.
Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient.
For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation.
Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.
You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy; do not stray, or else you may fall.
You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost.
You who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy.
Consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken?
Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected?
For the Lord is compassionate and merciful; he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.
Whoever welcomes a child for Jesus' sake welcomes Jesus himself
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
The call to welcome Jesus as one would welcome a child rounds off today's gospel. We can find him among the servants and the apparently least important people. Just as children easily find other children and quickly begin enjoy themselves at play, so we ought to gravitate towards the servants and the least. Childhood in this sense is not a matter of age only. A person who is lonely may be someone who also treasures beautiful memories and buried hopes, genuine possibilities, waiting for the healing touch of kindness. To welcome Jesus as a child is to open one's arms to the infinite possibilities that lie before us in life.
Sirach proposes that we reflect on our ancestors, and the success of their godly lives: "Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the Lord and been disappointed?" This Lord, we are told, is "compassionate and merciful... he saves in time of trouble." Sirach beautifully combines fear with confidence: "You who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy." As we see any child, we can recall the opening words from today's Bible passage in Sirach, "prepare yourself for trials." Yet as we find again the child in each of us, we welcome Jesus. Our trials are united with his cross and resurrection, and we rebound with firm hope because after three days, he rose again.
With loving attention the church prepares children for their first Communion and some years later for their Confirmation. In these sacraments we are welcoming them into the church, receiving them into the family of believers. That welcoming children has great value is clear from today's gospel. There Jesus identifies himself very closely with children. He goes so far as to say, "anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." Somehow it is in and through children we encounter Jesus and his Father. Elsewhere Jesus identifies himself with the most vulnerable -- the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned. Children, by definition, are among the most vulnerable. They are dependant on others for life in all its dimensions. The gospel reading suggests that ministry to children and to young people, whatever form it takes, is a sacred ministry; it is indeed holy ground.
Following wisdom brings happiness and reveals life's deepest secrets
Wisdom teaches her children
and gives help to those who seek her.
Whoever loves her loves life,
and those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy.
Whoever holds her fast inherits glory,
and the Lord blesses the place she enters.
Those who serve her minister to the Holy One;
the Lord loves those who love her.
Those who obey her will judge the nations,
and all who listen to her will live secure.
If they remain faithful, they will inherit her;
their descendants will also obtain her.
For at first she will walk with them on tortuous paths; she will bring fear and dread upon them, and will torment them by her discipline until she trusts them, and she will test them with her ordinances. Then she will come straight back to them again and gladden them, and will reveal her secrets to them. If they go astray she will forsake them, and hand them over to their ruin.
Jesus corrects the apostles for blocking outsiders from acting in his name
John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
While Sirach, the wise old head of a Jerusalem school of practical philosophy, tends towards caution and prudence, the gospel message for today reaches outward almost with abandon, "Anyone who is not against us is with us."
It is generally agreed that wisdom is a quality that is dearly won, and whose acquisition depends on often painful experience, making it seem distant and difficult to master. Sirach recognizes this with poetic flair: "Wisdom walks with us at first as a stranger, and she puts us to the test; Fear and dread she brings on us and tries us with her discipline; With her precepts she puts us to the proof, until our heart is fully with her." He knows that wisdom is not a neat set of ideas and a dictionary of facts; rather it blends and integrates ideas with practice, and enables us to live with and respond to one another as persons. We are not automatons, pushed around by laws; instead, we interact with patience and forebearance, with interest and enthusiasm, with responsibility and self-control. This kind of wisdom has to be grown into, slowly and carefully, so that it becomes totally ourselves. Sirach puts it this way: If we trust wisdom, we will possess her; and our descendants too will inherit her.
As a man of wisdom, Jesus reprimanded his disciples for their envy and fear. Feeling threatened, or at least slighted, by some villager who went about using the name of Jesus to expel demons, they said indignantly to Jesus, "We tried to stop him, because he is not of our company!" But his reply was decisive, based on his unique wisdom. He did not inquire about the doctrinal position of the other man but landed on solid, common sense ground. "No one can perform a miracle in my name and at the same time speak ill of me. Anyone who is not against us is with us." Such a response, totally free of envy and fear, totally relaxed with nothing to lose, is not easily learned, but is the fruit of wise reflection. It reflects a person at peace, and therefore strong and secure.
Wise persons are rooted in genuine values, not persons who quickly make their profit and move off somewhere else. If we walk life's path with wisdom, we become relaxed, generous and trustful, and walk along that path with Jesus.
The disciples had a somewhat black and white view of people. Only those who were "one of us," as they put it, could be trusted to do the Lord's work. Jesus had a much more nuanced view of people than his disciples. He could see that even those whom he had not formally called to become one of his disciples could be doing God's life-giving work. Indeed, he makes the very generous spirited statement, "Anyone who is not against us is for us."
This is a lesson to take to heart in the times in which we live. There are a lot of people who are not explicitly for the church, in the sense of practising their faith in the way we have come to understand that, and, yet, they are not against the church either. The spirit of today's gospel is that we work to build bridges with all those who in some way share the church's mission to bring life where there is death, wholeness where there is brokenness, relief where there is suffering. We can be partners in mission with those who are "not one of us" in the strict sense. In these times we need the vision Jesus displays in today's gospel rather than that displayed by his disciples.
Rely not on your wealth nor on your strength
Do not rely on your wealth, or say, "I have enough."
Do not follow your inclination and strength in pursuing the desires of your heart.
Do not say, "Who can have power over me?" for the Lord will surely punish you.
Do not say, "I sinned, yet what has happened to me?" for the Lord is slow to anger.
Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin.
Do not say, "His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins," for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners.
Do not delay to turn back to the Lord, and do not postpone it from day to day; for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will come upon you, and at the time of punishment you will perish.
Do not depend on dishonest wealth, for it will not benefit you on the day of calamity.
A drink of water given to a follower of Christ will be rewarded
For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
Some lurid statements must be taken figuratively, for in no way does Jesus demand that we disfigure ourselves, or gouge out an eye. His words reflect the primacy of the eternal over the temporal, of heavenly over earthly life: "Whoever would save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospels' will save it" (Mark 8:35). Paraphrasing, one might put it: "If we use our hands, feet, eyes and our other faculties exclusively for selfish pleasure and not for loving service, we will lose everything in the end. But if we lose ourselves for the sake of goodness and for living by the gospel we will be saved for all eternity." Life is for sharing what we possess with others and forming one body with them. In such a loving lifestyle, even small acts of helpfulness take on a very special meaning: "Anyone who gives you a drink of water because you belong to Christ will not go unrewarded."
Sirach offers consoling advice, "Rely not on your wealth or strength," since overconfidence merely adds sin to sin. At the same time, he clearly sees the possibility of personal conversion, which should not be just put off from day to day. This is very much along the lines of the urgent biblical call to make use of the grace of the present moment. "If today you have heard the voice of the Lord, harden not your heart" (Ps 95:7-8).
We have all found ourselves stumbling from time to time, hitting the top of our shoe against a raised kerb, perhaps, and falling forward, sometimes with damaging results. In the gospel today, Jesus speaks about stumbling blocks. He is very critical of those who are a stumbling block to the faith of others, those who undermine and weaken the other people's faith. He issues a warning against leading others astray, leading them away from God. Part of our baptismal calling is to nurture the faith of one another; to do the opposite is considered by Jesus to be a very serious matter indeed. He moves on from how people can be a stumbling to others in their relationship with God to how we can be a stumbling block to ourselves.
The hand, the foot, the eye can be a stumbling block to our own relationship with the Lord. When Jesus says, "if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out," he does not intend to be taken literally. It is simply a striking image to bring home the seriousness of what he is saying. The positive calling of the gospel is that every aspect of our embodied existence is to serve and nurture our relationship with the Lord. Our calling is to give our whole selves to the Lord and to his way, to gather up all the elements that go to make us up and point them all in the one direction, the direction of the Lord and his will for our lives. That will not happen all the time but it is worth striving for. When our whole selves point in the direction of the Lord, then one of the beatitudes will come to pass for us, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Let your friends be tried and trusted.A faithful friend is a tonic
Pleasant speech multiplies friends,
and a gracious tongue multiplies courtesies.
Let those who are friendly with you be many,
but let your advisers be one in a thousand.
When you gain friends, gain them through testing,
and do not trust them hastily.
For there are friends who are such when it suits them,
but they will not stand by you in time of trouble.
And there are friends who change into enemies,
and tell of the quarrel to your disgrace.
And there are friends who sit at your table,
but they will not stand by you in time of trouble.
When you are prosperous, they become your second self,
and lord it over your servants;
but if you are brought low, they turn against you,
and hide themselves from you.
Keep away from your enemies,
and be on guard with your friends.
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
for as they are, so are their neighbours also.
Jesus' condemnation of divorce and remarriage
Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Though our acquaintances be many, only "one in a thousand" should be our confidant, or our partner in life. A quality of either friendship or marriage highlighted in today's scripture is the need to persevere in it. Sirach opens his mini-essay on friendship with the advice: "A kind mouth multiplies friends, and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings." We begin with a smile; our first communication, imparted intuitively, is one of interior joy and peace, showing that we are at peace with ourselves and with God. His well tested wisdom is put to the service of the students in his Jerusalem school, who "take up lodging in the house of instruction" (Sir 51:23). His guidance is both peaceful and cautious, for he counsels: "When you gain a friend, first test him, and don't be too ready to trust him." He proceeds to give the positive qualities of a true friend, who will be like "your other self; a treasure beyond price; a sturdy shelter a life-saving remedy."
The true friend, the "treasure... beyond price," may eventually become one's spouse, since the transition from friendship to marriage is part of most people's life-plan. Much can be lost by simply giving up, and betraying a love that we have pledged. In the stern language of Jesus such a break can be called by the blunt word, "adultery," and is not what God intended, when in the beginning he made them male and female. "For this reason a person shall leave father and mother and the two shall become as one... let no human agency separate what God has joined." Just as Sirach instructs us not to commit to a friendship lightly or quickly, so our Gospel for today warns us not to disrupt what God has personally blessed and united.
Sirach has some lovely things to say about friendship, "A faithful friend is the elixir of life." The author also says in that reading that those who fear the Lord will find a faithful friend. In other words, when we relate well to the Lord we will find faithful friends. When our relationship with the Lord is right it helps us to find and to form good human relationships that are marked by faithfulness and self-giving. In the gospel Jesus speaks of a special kind of friendship, the relationship between a husband and wife in marriage. His vision of marriage corresponds very much to the vision of friendship in the 1st reading, two people, man and woman, faithful to each other for life to the point where they become no longer two but one. Whether married or single, we are all called to experience faithful friendships through which we come to experience the Lord's faithful love in others and reveal that faithful love of the Lord to others.
God made us in the divine image, and looks with favour on us
The Lord created human beings out of earth,
and makes them return to it again.
He gave them a fixed number of days,
but granted them authority over everything on the earth.
He endowed them with strength like his own,
and made them in his own image.
He put the fear of them in all living beings,
and gave them dominion over beasts and birds.
Discretion and tongue and eyes,
ears and a mind for thinking he gave them.
He filled them with knowledge and understanding,
and showed them good and evil.
He put the fear of him into their hearts
to show them the majesty of his works.
And they will praise his holy name,
to proclaim the grandeur of his works.
He bestowed knowledge upon them,
and allotted to them the law of life.
He established with them an eternal covenant,
and revealed to them his decrees.
Their eyes saw his glorious majesty,
and their ears heard the glory of his voice.
He said to them, "Beware of all evil"
and gave command to each of them concerning the neighbour.
Their ways are always known to him;
they will not be hid from his eyes.
Jesus embraces and blesses the children who come to him
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The human community is viewed from several angles in today's texts. Sirach makes a grand sweeping reflection, to include all the families and communities of earth, while Mark has Jesus turn attention to the children. From Sirach we have the impression that families and communities cannot survive without close bonds of loyalty, love and obedience; James shows our need of the advice, prayers and blessing of the elders; and then Mark teaches how children model for us the correct attitude for belonging to the Kingdom of God.
It is good to begin with Sirach where the dignity of human nature and of family relationships is stated with absolute certainty, "The Lord created humankind from the earth and made us to the divine image." Even if the material substance is earthly, our shape, form and way of acting and thinking image the divine. Sirach reaches into the details of our bodily existence: He God forms the human tongues and eyes and ears and imparts to them an understanding heart.
Our tongues, eyes and ears are simply instruments by which we communicate the desires and impressions of our heart. It is in our ways of interacting with one another that the divine way of life is most perfectly manifested.
God has no material body. Therefore, our imaging the divine life must be in our actions with one another, our bonds of love and loyalty, our creativity and fruitfulness, our planting of marvellous mysteries at the heart of our actions. When God "looks with favour on our hearts," the divine image becomes apparent to others. "He shows his glorious works." Sirach sees the need of honesty and integrity; he recognizes the evil of sham and make-believe. Our "ways are ever known to him; they cannot be hidden from his eyes." Last of all, Sirach reaches outward to the world family of nations. He confesses the special choice of Israel, who is "the Lord's own portion." That unique choice is available to all men and women through faith in Jesus. Here is the most complete blessing on family and the most perfect of all divine images.
Mark's gospel today draws us to the children within the family. Here Jesus states a message inscribed deeply in the gospel and in our memory: It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
The reference to people bringing children to Jesus in the gospel is reflected in the parents who have bringing children for baptism. The contrast between how the disciples, on the one hand, and Jesus, on the other, reacted to the parents bringing children to Jesus is very striking. The disciples turned the parents and their children away, whereas Jesus insisted that the children come to him and that nothing be placed in the way of their coming to him. Jesus suggests that we all have to do what we can to bring children into a relationship with Jesus, to support them in coming to him. Jesus also suggests in the gospel that as well as the responsibility we have to children we also have a lot to learn from them. We have to learn to welcome the kingdom of God as children do. Children are very receptive to good things, to gifts, including the gift of the kingdom of God, the gift of the Lord. They are open to that gift; they are very receptive to it. We can easily loose that receptiveness, the openness to the Lord, as we grow older. As adults we have to keep on recovering it, we need to keep learning to become like children so that we can welcome the gift of the Lord as openly as they do.
Repent from sin while you are still alive. The dead cannot praise God
Their iniquities are not hidden from him,
and all their sins are before the Lord.
One's almsgiving is like a signet ring with the Lord,
and he will keep a person's kindness like the apple of his eye.
Afterward he will rise up and repay them,
and he will bring their recompense on their heads.
Yet to those who repent he grants a return,
and he encourages those who are losing hope.
Jesus invites the rich young man to give away his money and be a disciple
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
The paradox of voluntarily losing something in order to gain something else appears both in 1 Peter and in Mark, and is a hallmark of Markan (and of Petrine) theology, for Mark was Saint Peter's disciple and helper in Rome. This principle also has a number of practical applications outside the religious sphere. The gambler knows that she or he stands to lose the wagered amount--but risks it just the same, in hope of the prize to be won, whether on the card-table, the racetrack or the stock-market. The farmer knows what must first be spent on seed, grain and fertilizer, in order to ensure a crop. And how many physicians urge their patients to lose some weight, in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.
This imperative is echoed in today's austere message, where in a memorable image Jesus expresses the no pain, no gain philosophy. "It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." The anonymous rich young man was ready for other aspects of discipleship, perhaps: the learning, the travelling, the companionship--but not this stark call to renunciation. The riches and talents of life can block and stultify us unless they are enjoyed in accordance with God's will and in a spirit of service and of sharing with our neighbour. That other haunting statement of Jesus comes back to mind: "Whoever loses his life will save it" (Mark 8:35).
While First Peter is among the most life-affirming documents in the New Testament, it too has more than a hint of the world-renouncing principle. Peter sees the glory of the Risen Jesus transforming us from within, we who have been reborn by baptism into an imperishable inheritance. It looks as if this epistle began as a baptismal homily, possibly in Rome, when entering the outlawed early church carried with it the risk of martyrdom. This risk to one's life and freedom lends special quality to what Peter says about the life-enhancing grace of baptism. Through it we begin a new life, the glorious life of Jesus, a source of extraordinary joy and strength now, a pledge of what is "to be revealed in the last days."
Sometimes when we ask a question, we can find the answer to our question difficult to come to terms with. That is the case with the rich man who ran up to Jesus in this morning's gospel with the question, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' When Jesus asked him to go beyond the Ten Commandments he had been keeping and to sell all he owned and follow Jesus along the way, he couldn't live with that answer. We are told that he walked away sad. Jesus did not ask everybody he met to sell everything and to journey with him, but he did ask this man. This was this man's particular calling. Like this man, we can often find ourselves faced with a call to do something which seems beyond us. The temptation can be to walk away from the call, even though to say 'yes' to the call would be the path to life for us. The Lord can call any one of us beyond where we are; he can call on us to grow in our relationship with him, to be more generous in our response to his presence. We may not be able to answer that call in our own strength, but we will be able to answer it with the Lord's strength. In the gospel reading, Jesus declares that 'everything is possible for God.' When Mary was called to become the mother of Jesus and she hesitated, that was the message she heard. The angel declared to her 'Nothing will be impossible with God.' It is the message we too will hear whenever we seek to answer the Lord's call to us.
He recommends generosity to the poor and condemns extortion
The one who keeps the law makes many offerings;
one who heeds the commandments makes an offering of well-being.
The one who returns a kindness offers choice flour,
and one who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering.
To keep from wickedness is pleasing to the Lord,
and to forsake unrighteousness is an atonement.
Do not appear before the Lord empty-handed,
for all that you offer is in fulfillment of the commandment.
The offering of the righteous enriches the altar,
and its pleasing odour rises before the Most High.
The sacrifice of the righteous is acceptable,
and it will never be forgotten.
Be generous when you worship the Lord,
and do not stint the first fruits of your hands.
With every gift show a cheerful face,
and dedicate your tithe with gladness.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
Repaid a hundred times over for anything we have given up for Jesus' sake
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
When Sirach took part in the temple liturgy, he was filled with joy. His exuberance pours out while praising "the greatest among his associates, the glory of his people,… Simon the high priest" (Sir 50). What a contrast to the prophets who often excoriated the temple priesthood for their laxity and self-serving ambition. The words of Hosea capture this: "With you is my grievances, O High Priest. My people perish for want of knowledge. Since you have rejected knowledge, I will reject you as my priest… They feed on the sin of my people, and are greedy for their guilt (Hos 4:4-8).
The prophets called out passionately for social justice and kindness towards the poor. Micah has given this cause its most pity expression: "You have been told what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Isaiah reduced the entire law to hearing the orphan's plea and defending the widow (Isa 1:16). Orphans and widows were the accepted symbols of defenseless people. In a less fiery mode Sirach expresses the same concern for the poor, stating that works of charity are equivalent to offerings of fine flour on the altar. For him also, to refrain from evil and to avoid injustice is the best kind of sacrifice. God cannot tolerate injustice for long.
When Jesus appeared, he identified with the poor, gravitated towards them and spoke up in their defense. The village of Bethany was prominent because this city marked the spot where lepers came closest to Jerusalem, to overlook the holy city from the Mount of Olives. To reach out and touch the leper in one sense it renders us unclean, not fit to share in temple ritual. Yet in another way it renders us holy with the Jesus who befriended lepers and declared that "The last shall be first."
Sirach bids us never forget the poor, even in the midst of elegant ritual with its pomp and circumstance. If we will not listen to the gentle voice of this wise teacher, the prophets will fling their threats at our conscience. At moments of prayer, when we are closest to God, we must not forget the poor, for all of us in our deepest need, turn out to be God's poor ones.
Today's gospel begins with a question from Peter, "What about us? We have left everything and followed you." He and the rest of the twelve had given up a great deal to become followers of Jesus. They may have wondered if it was really worth it all. We too have responded to the Lord's call, maybe not in the same very radical way that those first disciples had answered his call, leaving their livelihood and family for a very uncertain future. Perhaps on our off-days we might be tempted to ask like Peter; "Is it worth the effort, this following of Jesus, this struggle to live by the values of the gospel day in and day out." The answer of Jesus to Peter and to us all is that, "yes, it is worth the effort." Jesus promises us in that gospel reading that when we respond to his call, when we give of ourselves for his sake, we will receive far more than we will give. In particular, he says that we will gain a new experience of family, far beyond the confines of our blood family, the family of believers. We will find ourselves co-travellers with others who are trying to take the same path as ourselves; we will experience the richness of the church, the community of the Lord's followers. That community embraces not only those of us still on our pilgrim way, but all who have passed beyond this life, including the saints, that "great cloud of witnesses."
Faithful to His promises, God will reveal his salvation to the ends of the earth
Have mercy upon us, O God of all,
As you have used us to show your holiness to them,
so use them to show your glory to us.
Then they will know, as we have known,
that there is no God but you, O Lord.
Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time,
and let people recount your mighty deeds.
Let survivors be consumed in the fiery wrath,
and may those who harm your people meet destruction.
Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say,
"There is no one but ourselves."
Gather all the tribes of Jacob,
and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning.
Have mercy, O Lord, on the people called by your name,
on Israel, whom you have named your firstborn.
There will be no rank and privilege in God's kingdom
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." ServiceJames and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able. Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Sirach insists on the respect we must show towards the gifts of others. Absorbed in what God can do for his chosen people, he prays that foreign nations too will fear God. He lived and conducted his school in Jerusalem during a time of peace, just before the great troubles that pulse through Daniel and the books of Maccabees burst upon Israel. Yet not content with the serenity of peaceful times, he begs God not to let his people be dulled into complacency and compromise. Unlike other sapiential writers (like Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) Sirach delights in the temple liturgy. He shows respect for the talents and gifts of others and encourages them.
The gospel describes the disciples dismay, on the road to Jerusalem, as they hear Jesus speak about his coming Passion. He foretells that "the Son of Man will be handed over; and they will mock him and spit at him, flog him, and finally kill him. But three days later he will rise." God's promises are so amazing that before the event there is no way of understanding them. Even though Jesus' enemies will do away with him, God will turn their political contriving into a loving sacrifice, leading to an outpouring of life. "This is my body to be given for you… my blood which will be shed for you."
In contrast with this exalted theology of hope and life, of self-giving martyrdom and total love for others, the ambition of Zebedee's sons, James and John, seems petty and even detestable. How can they jostle for privileged places in the kingdom, seeking to outrank the other disciples, when Jesus has announced the giving of his life for everyone? Jesus' answer was very simple, "Whoever aspires to greatness must serve the rest." This is the mind of Jesus, the mind that must also be in us (Phil 2:5).
There are several clashes between Jesus and his disciples in Mark's gospel, as they make their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified. They are clearly on different wavelengths, which finds expression in the very different questions they ask of each other. James and John ask Jesus for glory, honour, status. What he asks of them focuses on the experience of rejection and suffering that he himself must face, "Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?" He was referring to the cup of suffering and the baptism of fire. The question of James and John showed their interest in self-promotion. The question of Jesus showed his interest in self-giving. At the heart of being his disciple is self-giving love, becoming the servant of others, and this will often mean taking the way of the cross, as Jesus knew from his own experience. James and John, and all of us, are being called to follow the one who did not come to be served but to serve, whose purpose in life was not to promote himself but to empty himself for others. It is only in following this way that we will receive that share in Jesus' glory that was the focus of James and John's request.
God fills the universe with an infinite variety of life, strange and marvellous
#In his majesty he gives the clouds their strength,
and the hailstones are broken in pieces."
The voice of his thunder rebukes the earth;"
when he appears, the mountains shake."
At his will the south wind blows;
so do the storm from the north and the whirlwind."
He scatters the snow like birds flying down,
and its descent is like locusts alighting."
The eye is dazzled by the beauty of its whiteness,
and the mind is amazed as it falls."
He pours frost over the earth like salt,
and icicles form like pointed thorns."
The cold north wind blows,
and ice freezes on the water;
it settles on every pool of water,
and the water puts it on like a breastplate."
He consumes the mountains and burns up the desert,
and withers the tender grass like fire."
A mist quickly heals all things;
the falling dew gives refreshment from the heat."
By his plan he stilled the deep
and planted islands in it."
Those who sail the sea tell of its dangers,
and we marvel at what we hear."
In it are strange and marvelous creatures,
all kinds of living things, and huge sea-monsters."
Jesus heals Bartimaeus of blindness because of his faith
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Sirach moves from outward things to inner mysteries, from the beauty of Nature to the depths of the human heart where emotions vibrate and reasons may clash. "God plumbs the depths and penetrates the heart, and understands their inmost being. How beautiful are all his works… to meet each need, each creature is preserved." Following Sirach's advice, our life of faith too should follow the quick spontaneity of the child that reaches towards its mother's breast for "the pure milk of the spirit."
A lovely stained-glass window in a local church depicts today's scene, the healing of the man born blind.. At the bottom of the picture is written the exchange between Jesus and the man, "What do you want me to do for you?," "Lord, let me see again." Apparently this man almost did not get close enough to Jesus to really talk with him. When he first cried out, from his place by the roadside, "Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me," some friends of Jesus scolded the man and told him to keep quiet.
Jesus was critical of those who prevented others from coming to believe in him. He reproved his disciples for preventing children being brought for his blessing. He ignored those who tried to prevent blind Bartimaeus from making contact with him. Rather than shutting doors in people's faces, Jesus wants his followers to open up the kingdom of heaven to others. We are to lead each other to the Lord, reveal the Lord to each other, and, in so doing, to support one another on our journey towards God. We can only admire the efforts made by pope Francis in this direction.
Jesus stopped his walk and told those who were insisting that the man keep quiet that, instead, they call him to come over. These well-meaning followers of Jesus were preventing this man from relating to Jesus, much to Jesus' annoyance. Our calling is to do the very opposite; it is to help each other meet the Lord, to bring each other to the Lord in some way, to support one another in our efforts to follow the Lord along the road.
Remembering our ancestors with respect
Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
their wealth will remain with their descendants,
and their inheritance with their children's children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;
their children also, for their sake.
Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
The barren fig-tree withers away
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not let anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer or all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
"Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your trespasses."
Mark's gospel sets Jesus' cleansing the temple in some association with his cursing the fig tree and its withering, since the story of the fig tree envelops the other incident, a style quite common in Mark. Jesus was doing more than cleansing the temple, for his words, drawn from the Old Testament, announce a new type of temple: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people." In those days, non-Jews were forbidden under pain of death to advance beyond the outer court of the gentiles, and the Roman authorities ratified this prescription. But Jesus draws from an Old Testament passage (Isaiah, 56) from a tradition which was not dominant in the life of Israel, though the words give an understanding of God's plans for the future of his people. Clearly, he wants them to live more prayerfully and more generously towards others, and let outsiders to share in the Jewish prayerful awareness of God's presence.
Mark often links two stories together that he perceives to have something in common. In this morning's gospel reading he links the story of Jesus in the temple with the story of Jesus and the fig tree. Jesus could not find any fruit on the fig tree, and he declared that the tree had no future. Mark is implying that when Jesus entered the temple he found that it was not bearing the fruit it was meant to bear. Instead of being a house of prayer it had become a robber's den. Like the fig tree, it too had no future. At the end of the gospel reading, Jesus speaks again about prayer. The temple is to be replaced by a new house of prayer, a new praying community, the community of those who do the will of God as Jesus has revealed it, the community of Jesus' brothers and sisters, what came to be called the church. The church is to be a prayerful community. It is also to be a community that is marked by forgiveness. When Jesus speaks about prayer at the end of that gospel reading, he links it to forgiveness. 'When you stand in prayer, forgive whatever you have against anybody, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too.' The readiness to forgive as we have been forgiven is one of the primary fruits that God would expect to find among this new community of prayer.
In praise of Wisdom
You of Lord saved me from destruction
and rescued me in time of trouble.
For this reason I thank you and praise you,
and I bless the name of the Lord.
While I was still young, before I went on my travels,
I sought wisdom openly in my prayer.
Before the temple I asked for her,
and I will search for her until the end.
From the first blossom to the ripening grape
my heart delighted in her;
my foot walked on the straight path;
from my youth I followed her steps.
I inclined my ear a little and received her,
and I found for myself much instruction.
I made progress in her;
to him who gives wisdom I will give glory.
For I resolved to live according to wisdom,
and I was zealous for the good,
and I shall never be disappointed.
My soul grappled with wisdom,
and in my conduct I was strict;
I spread out my hands to the heavens,
and lamented my ignorance of her.
I directed my soul to her,
and in purity I found her.
Jesus will explain his authority if others will state their judgment on John's ministry
Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me." They argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?"--they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
The writer we call Ben-Sirach is calm and confident, knowing that fidelity over the years to ancestral wisdom has brought its own kind of peace, and a joyful feeling within his heart. In this way one opens the gate to the fullness of life. But we must be honest with ourselves and with others, and let God to set the agenda and the questions. Our God works within reality, and it requires honesty to relate to Him. Unless we recognize reality, he cannot interact with us, for dishonesty sets up a higher barrier to God's presence with us than any other sin. All can be forgiven by God's excelling mercy, but only if we honestly admit what needs to be forgiven.
Jesus makes a similar demand, when religious leaders feel that their monopoly of truth and holiness dispenses them from ordinary justice. To protect their status they are prepared to be devious. In the early church, some people felt so spiritually sanctified that they could ignore normal discipline in their lives, particularly in acts such as eating or physical expressions of love. They neglected the integral unity between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual.
Sirach writes from Old Testament times before the Holy Trinity was revealed. Yet the same approach to faith is found in both Testaments. From our Wisdom readings these past two weeks we have seen this teacher as practical and down to earth, while every so often flashes of profound mysticism shine through his lines. He says, "I will cultivate her until the end," meaning this wisdom that is God's gift. "I became preoccupied with her, never weary of extolling her." If the text asks us to meditate today on honesty before God and before our neighbour, we are not only led along the path of reality, with our feet firmly on this earth, but we are also being guided into a heavenly mystery, a mystery of transcendent wonder, kindness and eternal life. If we are honest, we pursue this journey with Jesus, who will then answer every one of our questions.
Today's gospel comes just after Jesus cleansed the temple, which was a very daring thing to do. There were people in charge of the temple and Jesus certainly had not been authorized by them to do what he did. The question the religious authorities responsible for the temple put to Jesus is very understandable, "What authority have you for acting like this? Who gave you this authority? This happened towards the end of Jesus' public ministry. At the very beginning of his ministry, according to Mark, the ordinary people of Galilee were struck by the authority with which Jesus spoke and acted. Far from being disturbed by Jesus' authority, as the religious leaders were, they were greatly impressed by it. They were all amazed, Mark tells us, and kept asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching, with authority." Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. For those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, it was a liberating authority. We all need an authority of some sort as a reference point in life. The real issue is who or what will we take as our authority. The gospels assure is that Jesus embodies the authentic authority of God, an authority that empowers us to become fully human and fully alive
In exile far from home, Tobit still cares for his neighbours
I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life. I performed many acts of charity for my kindred and my people who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh in the land of the Assyrians.
During the reign of Esar-haddon I returned home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobias were restored to me. At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to eat. When the table was set for me and an abundance of food placed before me, I said to my son Tobias, "Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles in Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me. I will wait for you, until you come back." So Tobias went to look for some poor person of our people. When he had returned he said, "Father!" And I replied, "Here I am, my child." Then he went on to say, "Look, father, one of our own people has been murdered and thrown into the market place, and now he lies there strangled." Then I sprang up, left the dinner before even tasting it, and removed the body from the square and laid it in one of the rooms until sunset when I might bury it. When I returned, I washed mysel and ate my food in sorrow. Then I remembered the prophecy of Amos, how he said against Bethel, "Your festivals shall be turned into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation." And I wept.
When the sun had set, I went and dug a grave and buried him. And my neighbours laughed and said, "Is he still not afraid? He has already been hunted down to be put to death for doing this, and he ran away; yet here he is again burying the dead!"
The wicked tenants kill the vineyard-owner's son, but justice is restored
Then he began to speak to them in parables. "A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyrd to others. Have you not read this scrpture: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?"
When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
A slender thread links Tobit with the gospel parable for today: how to survive in a changed situation, when the cultural and moral markers one has relied upon seem to have diluted or disappeared. In today's gospel, brutish people grow recklessly selfish way because of God's apparent absence. In an age of shifting cultural values we need the commonsense message of the book of Tobit, which integrates religion with everyday life, and deeply-held family values are revived to provide a foothold of meaning. In the story, God responds to Tobit's sense of fidelity. This book can be read as a religious novel, whose message is clearly relevant for today. The inspired author used a lively story form, figures of speech, the setting of the Assyrian exile, lines from the prophets and from the Book of Proverbs, to make one major point: even the tragic and baffling turns of life can lead to a happy ending.
Today's gospel also wrestles with the problem of failure and the sense of loss. The vineyard owner seems to have vanished, so the tenant farmers behave recklessly, even killing the owner's son to seize control of the property. When Jesus told this parable, he surely had in mind the familiar text: "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." (Ps 118:22). This principle of reversal holds that God is always faithful to th ose who trust Him, and can draw new life from the worst of situations. Christians later applied this text to the spread of the faith to the gentile world after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 66-70.
The story of Tobit, as intriguing as a short novel, invites us to admire the person who risks his own security and peace in order to give a decent burial to his murdered fellow-exile. The gospel's message too is fundamentally optimistic: out of disaster good can come. Jesus, the stone rejected by the builders, is the bedrock and keystone of our lives. If we are founded and rooted in him, God will build us a peaceful home on earth and our eternal dwelling hereafter.
The story Jesus tells in today's gospel is about rejection. A vineyard owner sent his servants to collect his share of the fruits of the vineyard; all of them were rejected out of hand. He then sent his son who was not only rejected but killed. At the end of the story Jesus declares that the stone rejected by the builders went on to become the keystone, the most important stone in a building. The story is a veiled reference to what had happened to the prophets before Jesus came and what would soon happen to Jesus himself. He would be rejected and put to death, but God would raise him from the dead and make him the keystone of a new spiritual building, the church. The feeling of rejection is a common enough human experience. People can feel themselves rejected by others, often by significant others, at various stages of their lives. Jesus who knew the pain of rejection identifies with us in our own moments of rejection. He also assures us that there can be life and love beyond rejection; the rejected stone can become the keystone. God can work in a life-giving way in and through all the various painful experiences that we struggle with in life. Experiences that we might judge to be completely negative can turn out to be foundational for our lives. The Lord's power often manifests itself in surprising ways in our moments of greatest weakness.
That same night I washed myself and went into my courtyard and slept by the wall of the courtyard; and my face was uncovered because of the heat. I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films. I went to physicians to be healed, but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind. For four years I remained unable to see. All my kindred were sorry for me, and Ahikar took care of me for two years before he went to Elymais.
At that time, also, my wife Anna earned money at women's work. She used to send what she made to the owners and they would pay wages to her. One day, the seventh of Dystrus, when she cut off a piece she had woven and sent it to the owners, they paid her full wages and also gave her a young goat for a meal. When she returned to me, the goat began to bleat. So I called her and said, "Where did you get this goat? It is surely not stolen, is it? Return it to the owners; for we have no right to eat anything stolen." But she said to me, "It was given to me as a gift in addition to my wages." But I did not believe her, and told her to return it to the owners. I became flushed with anger against her over this. Then she replied to me, "Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds? These things are known about you!"
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it."
It is good to find our daily life issues mirrored in the Scriptures. We must keep an awareness of God, even amid our quarrels and banter. The virtue being taught in the first reading is perseverance, at whose heart there should be love, leavened with humor. Tobit's wife feels that her husband's piety goes a bit too far. When he doubts her honesty over the gift of a young goat, she can take it no longer, "Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are all your virtuous acts?" she demands. It may seem strange that today's reading ends with Tobit's wife's exasperation with her husband and poor, blind Tobit himself rendered speechless.
The gospel also ends with no clear answer, only an enigmatic, general principle, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's but to God what is God's." When religion and politics clash today--as, for instance, in Ireland; whether we should legislate further in the direction of a permissive society--we might wish that the Lord had explained exactly what belongs to Caesar as distinct from what belongs to God. Jesus does not spell out where the boundary lies, but he always promotes honesty, compassion and forgiveness. The critics who questioned him were not seeking an honest answer; so, knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus looked at them, and began his reply with the question, "Why are you trying to trip me up?"
If we were to follow the homely example of Tobit, and are sincere and open in our faith, we will accomplish what is within our power, and the Holy Spirit can do with us more than we imagine, towards building up the Kingdom of God on earth.
The question put to Jesus in today's gospel is deliberately meant to trap him. If he were to say, "Yes, pay your taxes to Caesar," he would lose the esteem of most of the Jewish people who resented the Roman presence; if he says, "No, do not pay your taxes to Caesar" he would be liable to arrest and trial by the Romans. Jesus was asked many questions in the course of his public ministry and when the question came from a heart that was genuinely searching he took it very seriously. On this occasion, however, Jesus' questioners were simply out to get him. Yet, Jesus did not stay silent before this question, insincere as it was. In a very succinct and somewhat enigmatic fashion he declared that people should give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give back to God what belongs to God. The coin can be given to Caesar because it belongs to him, but what is to be given to God is something much more fundamental. A little later in that same chapter of Mark's gospel, Jesus will spell out what is due to God--God is to be loved with all our heart, soul and mind. God is to be our first and greatest love, our primary commitment. That certainly can never be said of any human authority, be it political or otherwise. Jesus is saying that no Caesar, no political institution, no human institution can ever take the place of God in our lives.
Tobit and Sarah pray to God in deepest anguish; they beg God to let them die
Then with much grief and anguish of heart I wept, and with groaning began to pray: "You are righteous, O Lord, and all your deeds are just; all your ways are mercy and truth; you judge the world. And now, O Lord, remember me and look favourably upon me. Do not punish me for my sins and for my unwitting offenses and those that my ancestors committed before you. They sinned against you, and disobeyed your commandments. So you gave us over to plunder, exile, and death, to become the talk, the byword, and an object of reproach among all the nations among whom you have dispersed us. And now your many judgments are true in exacting penalty from me for my sins. For we have not kept your commandments and have not walked in accordance with truth before you. So now deal with me as you will; command my spirit to be taken from me, so that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust. For it is better for me to die than to live, because I have had to listen to undeserved insults, and great is the sorrow wihin me.
Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress; release me to go to the eternal home, and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me. For it is better for me to die than to see so much distress in my life and to listen to insults."
On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father's maids. For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. So the maid said to her, "You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them. Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!"
On that day she was grieved in spirit and wept. When she had gone up to her father's upper room, she intended to hang herself. But she thought it over and said, "Never shall they reproach my father, saying to him, "You had only one beloved daughter but she hanged herself because of her distress.' And I shall bring my father in his old age down in sorrow to Hades. It is better for me not to hang myself, but to pray the Lord that I may die and not listen to these reproaches anymore."
At that same time, with hands outstretched toward the window, she prayed and said, "Blessed are you, merciful God! Blessed is your name forever; let all your works praise you forever. And now, Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes toward you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproaches any more. You know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man, and that I have not disgraced my name or the name of my father in the land of my exile. I am my father's only child; he has no other child to be his heir; and he has no close relative or other kindred for whom I should keep myself as wife. Already seven husbands of mine have died. Why should I still live? But if it is not pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life, hear me in my disgrace."
At that very moment, the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God. So Raphael was sent to heal both of them: Tobit, by removing the white films from his eyes, so that he might see God's light with his eyes; and Sarah,
In the resurrection, they will not marry. God of the living, not of the dead
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that 'if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.' There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong."
Jesus' provocative remarks about marriage are followed by his promise that heaven awaits those who are faithful. We will rise but we will be radically changed, and so will the entire earth be radically new. Marriage and family will be transformed, too, but hardly destroyed. Love will be the determining factor. Our future destiny is decided on such works of mercy as: whether or not we feed the hungry, help the thirsty, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, visit prisoners, and so on (Mt 25:40). If love for others is so remembered and rewarded, surely the love and self-sacrifice in marriage and family life will be too.
Tobit's story points to prayer being answered in the marriage of Tobias to Sarah. This was the providential result of Tobit's becoming blind and his son's subsequent search for a cure for him. The young man's journey not only has him find a cure for his father's blindness, but enables the old man to see his grandchildren and to die in peace. This story speaks of the profound link between marriage and family, loyalty and mutual support.
The gospel declares that patience will have its reward. Jesus defends belief in the resurrection of the body--in a transformed state. But affirming belief in the resurrection of individuals would hardly win the argument unless his listeners already had a deep trust in God's love and compassion. Faith in the value of life and love, and in God as bountifully generous, makes all the difference. We will not be raised up to half-life or half-love. What that fullness of life and love will be remains God's secret, but it is our highest destiny.
The question about the afterlife has intrigued people from very earliest times. In today's gospel, Jesus is approached by the members of a party in Judaism, the Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death. The Sadducees recognized only the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, as Sacred Scripture, and they saw no evidence in those five books to suggest that there was a life beyond this earthly life. They approach Jesus as someone whom they know has a different view on this issue to themselves. The kind of scenario the Sadducees put to Jesus indicates that they understood eternal life as simply and extension of this earthly life. However, Jesus' reply suggests otherwise. "When they rise from the dead, men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven." Life in heaven is not just a continuation of life on earth; it is qualitatively different. In his first letter to the Corinthians St Paul speaks about this life beyond death in terms of transformation. "We shall all be changed." In that same letter he states that "love endures"; love endures into eternity. Our love for the Lord and for each other will be perfected in heaven, even though it will be expressed in a very different way to how it is expressed on earth. We can be sure, therefore, that because of the transformation that awaits us we will be more like the person God wills us to be and always intended us to be.
The marriage celebration of Tobias and Sarah, and their devout partnership
When he entered Media and was approaching Ecbatana, Raphael said to the young man, "Brother Tobias." "Here I am," he answered. Then Raphael said to him, "We must stay this night in the home of Raguel. He is your relative, and he has a daughter named Sarah. Now when they entered Ecbatana, Tobias said to him, "Brother Azariah, take me straight to our brother Raguel." So he took him to Raguel's house, where they found him sitting beside the courtyard door. They greeted him first, and he replied, "Joyous greetings, brothers; welcome and good health!" Then he brought them into his house. Then Raguel slaughtered a ram from the flock and received them very warmly.
When they had bathed and washed themselves and had reclined to dine, Tobias said to Raphael, "Brother Azariah, ask Raguel to give me my kinswoman Sarah." But Raguel overheard it and said to the lad, "Eat and drink, and be merry tonight. For no one except you, brother, has the right to marry my daughter Sarah. Likewise I am not at liberty to give her to any other man than yourself, because you are my nearest relative. But let me explain to you the true situation more fully, my child. I have given her to seven men of our kinsmen, and all died on the night when they went in to her. But now, my child, eat and drink, and the Lord will act on behalf of you both." But Tobias said, "I will neither eat nor drink anything until you settle the things that pertain to me." So Raguel said, "I will do so. She is given to you in accordance with the decree in the book of Moses, and it has been decreed from heaven that she be given to you. Take your kinswoman; from now on you are her brother and she is your sister. She is give to you from today and forever. May the Lord of heaven, my child, guide and prosper you both this night and grant you mercy and peace." Then Raguel summoned his daughter Sarah. When she came to him he took her by the hand and gave her to Tobias, saying, "Take her to be your wife in accordance with the law and decree written in the book of Moses. Take her and bring her safely to your father. And may the God of heaven prosper your journey with his peace." Then he called her mother and told her to bring writing material; and he wrote out a copy of a marriage contract, to the effect that he gave her to him as wife according to the decree of the law of Moses. Then they began to eat and drink.
Raguel called his wife Edna and said to her, "Sister, get the other room ready, and take her there." So she went and made the bed in the room as he had told her, and brought Sarah there. She wept for her daughter. Then, wiping away the tears, she said to her, "Take courage, my daughter; the Lord of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow. Take courage, my daughter." Then she went out.
When the parents had gone out and shut the door of the room, Tobias got out of bed and said to Sarah, "Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety." So she got up, and they began to pray and implore that they might be kept safe. Tobias began by saying, "Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever. You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung. You said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.' I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together." And they both said, "Amen, Amen." Then they went to sleep for the night.
Love of God and love of neighbour excel all ritual sacrifice
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other;' and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbour as oneself,'--this is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Some of the finest biblical glimpses of marriage and family life appear in the Book of Tobit. The bride's father, Raguel, expresses a noble view of marriage when he tells young Tobias, "Sarah is yours according to the rules laid down by Moses. Your marriage to her has been decided in heaven. From now on she is your beloved." This sense of God's blessing continues in the prayer of newly married husband: "Blessed are you, O Lord of our ancestors, who said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I take this wife not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and let us live together to a happy old age." After blessing God and receiving a blessing, the newly-weds went to bed for their first night together. The ideal of pre-marital chastity is a given, in this culture.
The gospel links love and commandment. Normally we do not think of love as a law but as a spontaneous response of one person to another. Yet how easily what is called love can be a cloak for lust, in contrast to the noble purpose of Tobias and Sarah in their marriage. True love is a giving of self, "with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength." It reaches out to others and loves them for themselves, to "love your neighbour as yourself." Such love is "worth more than any burnt offering or sacrifice." Without love everything else loses in value, while with it we are "not far from the reign of God."
The trials of love can chasten and purify the heart. Between the elderly couple, Tobit and Anna, divine providence worked to make the good better, the faithful heart all the more tenacious. The psalmist says of God's word, "The promises of the Lord are sure, like tried silver, freed from dross, sevenfold refined" (Ps 12:7). Silver ore was placed in a burning cauldron. With strong heat the slack was burnt off and the pure substance remained. Such is the way of true love. It requires a lifetime to become pure and strong, ready for eternal life.
Jesus is asked a number of questions that are vital to our relationship with God. One of these is at the beginning of today's gospel. A Jewish scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" There were a lot of rules and regulations in the Jewish religion at that time. He wanted to know which one was the most important. In his answer Jesus gave more that he was asked for. He was asked for the first commandment; he gave the first and second commandment, the first being to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second being to love our neighbour as ourselves. In that way Jesus was showing that these two commandments are inseparable.
We cannot love God without loving our neighbour, and in loving our neighbour we are, at the same time, loving God. Yet, the two commandments are not on the same level, one is first and one is second. It is the love of God which is to be the primary love in our lives. We owe the greatest devotion to God. As Jesus says in one of the other gospels, "Seek first the kingdom of God." God as revealed in Jesus is to be our greatest love. If we are caught up into a loving relationship with God, it will overflow into a love of all those whom God loves, and our various human loves for other people will reflect something of God's love for them.
The joyful reunion of Tobias and his parents
Meanwhile Anna sat looking intently down the road by which her son would come. When she caught sight of him coming, she said to his father, "Look, your son is coming, and the man who went with him!"
Raphael said to Tobias, before he had approached his father, "I know that his eyes will be opened. Smear the gall of the fish on his eyes; the medicine will make the white films shrink and peel off from his eyes, and your father will regain his sight and see the light."
Then Anna ran up to her son and threw her arms around him, saying, "Now that I have seen you, my child, I am ready to die." And she wept. Then Tobit got up and came stumbling out through the courtyard door. Tobias went up to him, with the gall of the fish in his hand, and holding him firmly, he blew into his eyes, saying, "Take courage, father." With this he applied the medicine on his eyes, and it made them smart. Next, with both his hands he peeled off the white films from the corners of his eyes. Then Tobit saw his son and threw his arms around him, and he wept and said to him, "I see you, my son, the light of my eyes!" Then he said,
"Blessed be God, and blessed be his great name, and blessed be all his holy angels. May his holy name be blessed throughout all the ages. Though he afflicted me, he has had mercy upon me. Now I see my son Tobias!" So Tobit went in rejoicing and praising God at the top of his voice. Tobias reported to his father that his journey had been successful, that he had brought the money, that he had married Raguel's daughter Sarah, and that she was, indeed, on her way there, very near to the gate of Nineveh.
Then Tobit, rejoicing and praising God, went out to meet his daughter-in-law at the gate of Nineveh. When the people of Nineveh saw him coming, walking along in full vigor and with no one leading him, they were amazed. Before them all, Tobit acknowledged that God had been merciful to him and had restored his sight. When Tobit met Sarah the wife of his son Tobias, he blessed her saying, "Come in, my daughter, and welcome. Blessed be your God who has brought you to us, my daughter. Blessed be your father and your mother, blessed be my son Tobias, and blessed be you, my daughter. Come in now to your home, and welcome, with blessing and joy. Come in, my daughter." So on that day there was rejoicing among all the Jews who were in Nineveh.
Jesus explains that David was not the Messiah
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet." ' David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?" And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
All that one needs to interpret the story of Tobit is an appreciation of family. This is first formed at home and then within one's circle of friends, later echoed by our membership of the church. Paul refers to this family background when writing to Timothy, "From your infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures." Earlier he refers to the sincere faith "which belonged to your grandmother Lois and to your mother Eunice." A good home prepared Timothy for his apostolic ministry.
Such a home setting ought to be reflected in our churches. The Jerusalem temple was called the "house of God." In its Hebrew origins during their exodus from Egypt, their shrine for God was a simple nomad's tent providing a roof for the entire family. Tent-dwelling fostered intimacy, trust and a common sharing of sorrow or joys. The ark of the covenant was first housed in such a tent. David was blocked from building a house of cedar and mighty stones, because, God says, "from the day I led the Israelites out of Egypt to the present… I have been going about in a tent" (2 Samuel 7:6). The family home provides a norm for church and temple, and offers a guideline for our interpreting Scripture.
When we turn to today's gospel, we see an instance of religion turned into a business and the temple into a place for controversy. How easily this can happen if church people put more stress on esoteric questions instead of on the elementary virtues of love, patience, forgiveness, generosity, and prayer. Jesus refuses to answer the question about the messianic age on the grounds set by the questioners. We may recall another time when, on being asked when the reign of God would come, he replied, "It is not it a matter of reporting that it is 'here' or 'there.' The reign of God is already in your midst" (Luke 17:21).
In today's gospel, there is an argument between Jesus and the Jewish scribes about the identity of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Jesus is confronting the teaching of the scribes according to which the Messiah will be the son of David. He quotes from one of the psalms to show that Messiah was to be not simply David's son but David's Lord. Although a descendant of David, Jesus, as Messiah, is declaring himself to be David's Lord. In other words, there is more to Israel's Messiah than the scribes appreciate. As the long awaited Messiah, Jesus is Lord, Lord of the Sabbath, Lord of David, Lord of all. One of the great confessions of the early church was, "Jesus is Lord." That was a very striking confession in a Jewish context, because up until the time of Jesus, the title "Lord" was given only to God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God of Israel. Today's responsorial psalm, a Jewish prayer, declares "My soul, give praise to the Lord"--to God. Jesus is Lord of Israel's greatest king, David; he is our Lord, Lord of each one of us, Lord of the church. Our calling is to live our lives under his Lordship, or, to put it in another way, to live as his servants, placing ourselves at the service of his purpose for our world.
The wedding of Tobias and Sarah
When the wedding celebration was ended, Tobit called his son Tobias and said to him, "My child, see to paying the wages of the man who went with you, and give him a bonus as well." So Tobias called him and said, "Take for your wages half of all that you brought back, and farewell."
Then Raphael called the two of them privately and said to them, "Bless God and acknowledge him in the presence of all the living for the good things he has done for you. Bless and sing praise to his name. With fitting honour declare to all people the deeds of God. Do not be slow to acknowledge him. It is good to conceal the secret of a king, but to acknowledge and reveal the works of God, and with fitting honour to acknowledge him. Do good and evil will not overtake you. Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies.
"I will now declare the whole truth to you and will conceal nothing from you. Already I have declared it to you when I said, "It is good to conceal the secret of a king, but to reveal with due honour the works of God.' So now when you and Sarah prayed, it was I who brought and read the record of your prayer before the glory of the Lord, and likewise whenever you would bury the dead. And that time when you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner to go and bury the dead, I was sent to you to test you. And at the same time God sent me to heal you and Sarah your daughter-in-law. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord."
So now get up from the ground, and acknowledge God. See, I am ascending to him who sent me. Write down all these things that have happened to you." And he ascended. Then they stood up, and could see him no more. Then Tobit said: "Blessed be God who lives forever, because his kingdom lasts throughout all ages. For he afflicts, and he shows mercy; he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth, and he brings up from the great abyss, and there is nothing that can escape his hand."
As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Religion loses meaning if its leaders focus upon splendid vestments, guaranteed front seats in synagogues and churches, places of honour at banquets, long prayers. To correct such a distortion of religion, Jesus warmly praises the old woman putting her two small copper coins, worth about a couple of cents, into the collection box. In her intent, she contributed more than all the others; for they gave from their surplus while she gave from her dire need. This is another way of arriving at the end of the journey and of finishing the race. The widow gave herself totally to the Lord.
The phrase widow's mite has made its way into the English language. It often refers to something small which, nonetheless, displays a tremendous generosity of spirit. The widow gave a very small amount of money to the temple treasure, but in giving that very little, she was giving everything she had to live on. Jesus identifies her to his own disciples as an example of a wonderful generosity of spirit. Jesus often encouraged his disciples to learn from people who were not his disciples. At this point in the gospel Jesus is in the Jerusalem, about to face into his passion. This woman who gave everything was a figure of Jesus who was soon to give everything on the cross. This seemingly insignificant widow who seemed to give next to nothing was, in reality, a living witness of divine generosity. The widow reminds us that there are saints in our midst that we don't often notice. A wonderful generosity of spirit can reveal itself in gestures that appear very ordinary and even insignificant to those observing. There can be times in our lives when we appear to have very little, in all kinds of ways, but if we give generously out of the little we have, we are rich in the eyes of the Lord.
God comforts us in our troubles so we may comfort others
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
The Beatitudes, our basic principles for living
When he saw the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain; and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
People who are more poor and neglected are not necessarily holier or more spiritual. Poverty is not in itself a biblical ideal, but sometimes it brings out the finest qualities in a disciple. Paul makes a connection between our need and God's gracious help; and then the gift of being able to console others. But poverty can just as easily lead to vice, to stealing, disregard for the property and even the lives of others. Of course these vices are also found among the wealthy, only under more sophisticated forms of greed, dominance or arrogance. Without money or rank, we are forced to rely on basic human resources.
Notably, the first of the beatitudes is spoken to the "poor in spirit"--a kind of humility based upon dependence on God rather than on fame and fortune. It is linked to the patience and compassion which mark people as true disciples of Jesus. Poverty and mildness of spirit can be the school of compassion as well as purity of heart. More people are attracted to the faith by the compassion of its religious leaders than by any other virtue; more are turned away from religion by arrogance and dominance than by all other faults of those in charge of others, whether parents, teachers, priests or ministers. Today's texts are a call to merciful spirit of servant-leadership and point to the good results to be achieved. Such leadership from our bishops and priests fosters a strong, caring Catholic community, a persevering community and foreshadows the kingdome of God. In such a community, those who have shared the suffering of Christ will richly share in his consolation. When we are poor in spirit, we let God accomplish the beatitudes in us, and then through us for others.
Portrait painting is a very specialized skill. When I am in London I love to visit the portrait gallery just off Trafalgar Square. There are wonderful portraits there of all kinds of people from the present time back through the centuries. People like to have their portraits painted. If you are ever in Rome and you go to Piazza Navona you will find people sitting to have their portraits pained by local artists. I like to think of the beatitudes as painting a portrait. When Jesus spoke those beatitudes he was painting a portrait of himself. He is poor in spirit, in that he depends on God for everything; he is gentle and humble of heart; he mourns because God's will is not being done on earth as in heaven; he hungers and thirst for what is right, for what God wants, and is prepared to suffer to bring that about; he is merciful to the broken and the sinner; he has a purity of intention, wanting only what God wants; he works to make peace between God and humanity and among human beings. In painting a portrait of himself, Jesus was also painting a portrait of his followers. It is our portrait, and we are called to try and fit that portrait. We cannot become the person of the beatitudes on our own; we need the help of the Holy Spirit who works within us to mould us into the image and likeness of Christ.
God has reconciled us and given us the ministry of reconciliation
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away. Look, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jesus calms the storm. "Why were ye so afraid?"
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?"
Saint John Chrysostom's Homilies on Matthew were preached in Antioch and show his engagement with details of the text. His main objective was promoting morality, so that in dealing with any passage he concludes with an exhortation to some special virtue. Here is part of what he says about today's Gospel. The citation is long, but it is full of keen insights: "Behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, so that the ship was covered with the waves, but he was asleep." Jesus took them with him, not by chance but in order to make them spectators of the miracle that was to take place. For like an excellent trainer, he was anointing them with a view to both objects; as well to be undismayed in dangers, a to be modest in honours. Having sent away the rest, he kept them and lets them be tossed with the tempest; at once correcting this, and disciplining them to bear trials nobly. For while the former miracles were great indeed, this one contained also in it a major kind of teaching, and was a sign like that of old. For this reason he takes with him only the disciples. For as when there was a display of miracles, he also lets the people be present; so when trial and terrors were rising up against him, he takes with him none but the champions of the whole world, whom he was to train. While Matthew merely mentioned that "he was asleep," Luke says that it was "on a pillow;" meaning both his freedom from pride, and to teach us hereby a high degree of austerity."
Chrysostom goes on to moralise about the disciples' fear: "When the tempest was at its height and the sea raging, they awoke him, saying, "Lord, save us: we perish." But he rebuked them before he rebuked the sea, because as I said, these things were permitted for training purposes and they were an image of the trials that would come to them later. Yes, for after these things again, he often let them fall into serious tempests of misfortune; and Paul also said, "I would not have you ignorant that we were pressed beyond our strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life;" and again, "Who delivered us from so great a death." Indeed their very alarm was a valuable occurrence, that the miracle seemed all the greater and their remembrance of the event be made lasting. Having first expected to be lost, they were saved, and having acknowledged the danger, they learned the greatness of the miracle. So that is why he sleeps: for had he been awake when it happened, they would not have been fearful, or they would not have begged him. Therefore he sleeps, to give occasion for their timidity and make clearer their perception of what was happening."
He concludes by saying that Jesus "stretched out no rod, as Moses did, neither did he stretch forth his hands to Heaven, nor did he need any prayer, but as for a master commanding his handmaid, or a Creator his creature, so did he quiet and curb it by word and command only; and all the surge was immediately at an end, and no trace of the disturbance remained. This the evangelist declared saying, "And there was a great calm." And that which had been spoken in praise of the Father, he showed forth again by his works. For it says, "he spoke and the stormy wind ceased." So here likewise, he spoke, and "there was a great calm." And the multitudes who wondered at him; would not have marvelled, had he done it in such manner as did Moses."
Inf Matthew's time the story of the storm at sea would have resonated with the readers' own experience. They would often have found themselves praying the prayer of the disciples in the boat, "Save us, Lord, we are going down." We may have prayed a version of that prayer ourselves, either in relation to our own personal lives or in relation to the life of the church as a whole. In the gospel, Jesus addresses his fearful disciples as people of "little faith." They are somewhere between no faith and full faith. Many of us can find ourselves in that in-between place, people of little faith, especially when the storms threaten to engulf us. We can easily identify with the prayer of the man in the gospels, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Jesus, who had been asleep in the storm, brought the fragile boat with its fearful disciples through the storm into a place of calm. In stormy times that expose our vulnerability and frailty, the Lord remains with the church and with each of us as individuals, keeping us steady and guiding us to our destination. This passage would have reassured Matthew's church and can reassure us today that the Lord is always stronger than the storm which threatens to overwhelm us.
The new covenant of grace is based not on some written law but on the Spirit
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses' face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!
You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.
"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
If the reading from St. Paul reflects serious tensions, today's Gospel seeks to harmonize and reconcile. As a wise man wrote, "There is a time for everything. A time to tear, and a time to sow. A time for war, and a time for peace." How well that idea of "a time to plant and a time to uproot" fits with our Lord's words today. In order to fulfil the Law and the Prophets he must uproot whatever is old and obsolete, to help us embrace the new. We are not to follow a dead code of law that has lost its meaing but a new living law of the Spirit. Paul calls us, like the Corinthians, to make a clear decision to move ahead.
But Matthew notes that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. We need to discern which things are old yet not obsolete--such as the ten commandments. Ecclesiastes' sense of prudent timing applies to many aspects of Church life, where some want to conserve traditions of the past which others consider overdue for renewal or outright discarding. Our Church must take on board some values--mainly democratic and participative--of our modern society, in order to share Christ's mind with our contemporaries, while avoiding bad, short-term and emotionally-driven decisions. But Jesus and Paul tell us that it is the Spirit who gives life, so we must not be rigidly bound by rules which made sense to our Church in the past but which no longer offer hope for the future. With this outlook we can have mature discussion about the way forward in presenting the Gospel in ways required by the time in which we live. We must rely on prayer, dialogue and the guidance of the Holy Spirit who has called us to share in the responsibility of helping to build the Kingdom of God.
In the gospel, Jesus the Jew is respectful of his own Jewish tradition, "don't imagine that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets." However, he also declares that he has come to complete the Law and the Prophets, to bring their true intention to fulfilment. Jesus valued the good in his religious tradition, but was also open to the ways that God was working to enrich that tradition. We too are called to value the good in our own religious tradition, to critique the shadow side to that tradition and to be open and receptive to the ways that the Lord is constantly renewing and enriching that tradition. God is like the potter who takes what is there and reshapes it so that it serves his purposes more fully. God is always ahead of us in that sense; our task is to keep up with what God is trying to do.
My brethren, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Often we hear of a mountain as the place where God was encountered in a transforming moment of grace. In today's reading Paul reminds us of Mount Sinai, where Moses stayed with the Lord for forty days and he wrote the words of the covenant on the tablets of stone; then, as he came down from Mount Sinai, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant (Exod 34:28-29) so he had to veil his face whenever he met with the people. According to Paul, we join Moses on the Holy Mount, and enter into the immediate presence of Jesus. We enter behind the veil, opened up by Jesus' death on the cross (Matthew 27:51) and where there is true freedom. Paul develops this idea into a profound mystical theology, in a way freely open to everyone. All of us gazing on the Lord's glory with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory into his very image by the Lord who is glory.
Then there is the famous Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Lake of Galilee, where Jesus delivers the extensive Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chaps. 5-7). He tells us how to see his glory and so to be transformed to be like him: "Do not grow angry, do not use abusive language, do not offer a gift on the altar without first being reconciled with neighbour." This advice may seem too elementary, ever to place us on the road to mystical experiences like Moses or Elijah or Jesus. Yet, it is charity, patience and forgiveness that draws us to Mount Calvary where Jesus died, that tore open the veil that separated us from the Holy of Holies, and that enables us like Moses to converse with God.
Jesus calls for a virtue that goes deeper than the virtue of the scribes and the Pharisees. He is looking for a virtue that is at the level of attitude and feeling and not simply at the level of action. The ten commandments relate to actions which are to be done or, for the most part, not to be done. Jesus quotes one of the commandments at the beginning of our gospel reading, "You shall not kill." What Jesus goes on to prohibit is not just the action of killing but the kinds of attitudes and emotions that can led people to kill one another. He warns against anger towards others and the perception of others that leads us to refer to them as fools.
We might be tempted to think of the commandment, "Do not kill," as not really relevant to us because the likelihood of any of us killing somebody is very remote. However, when Jesus speaks about the deeper level of emotion, attitude and perception, we cannot distance ourselves so easily. We have all experienced anger and can recognize its destructive power even in ourselves. We have all perceived some people in ways that lead us to speak of them or to them in a manner that is disrespectful. Even though we may differ from others at the level of action, when it comes to that underlying or deeper level that Jesus talks about in the gospel we all have much more in common. That virtue at the deeper level that drives our actions is one we are all constantly striving to attain. In calling for this deeper virtue Jesus was aware that it can only be attained with God's help, with the help of the Holy Spirit, whose power at work within us can begin to shape all we do and how and why we do it.
Brothers and sisters, we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture - "I believed, and so I spoke" - we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Perfect fidelity includes right mental attitudes and motives
Jesus said to his disciples, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Quotable quotes abound in today's readings, "treasure in earthen vessels"; "whoever looks lustfully at another"; "the small, still voice," phrases coined by Paul, Jesus and Elijah respectively. Such proverbial phrases possess a universal relevance that speaks a message for everyone. Yet, for the general statement to become a personal word of God, it has to be reflected on and applied to oneself. "The sayings of the wise are like goads" says Qoheleth (Eccles 12:11)--goads to drive us on to clearer thinking and self-understanding, but also spikes on which to hang our own ideas.
In Paul's memorable quote, we are only "clay jars," not immune to suffering or temptation. He adds his eloquent statement about living in hope, through whatever happens: "afflicted in every way but not crushed; full of doubts, but not despairing; persecuted, but not destroyed." Then his concluding words make good sense to both mystic and Christian activist: "we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus also may be revealed."
Jesus' proverbial words articulate genuine ideals which may not be fully realizable, or sometimes even wrong to literally implement. It would be wrong to gouge out one's right eye or to hack off one's right hand, just because they have led us into trouble or temptation. There is a shock treatment in his mode of address, like his other words about "hating" father and mother in order to love God (Matthew 10:37). What Jesus says about adultery, whether in the heart only, by lusting after another person or in action, by breaking up a happy marriage, must be taken seriously, as an ideal. He sets up ideals for us, and although we are tempted, undergo doubts and confusion, and at times falter and sin and need forgiveness, they remain a precious guideline for us, for as long as we live in our "earthen vessels."
The language Jesus uses in today's Gospel sounds strange to our ears, "If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away;" He speaks in an exaggerated way to get our attention; he clearly does not intend to be taken literally. This image of tearing out our right eye links back to his view of adultery not just as a physical act but as an intention or a desire, "whoever looks at a woman lustfully." Jesus goes behind the actions that the Ten Commandments prohibit to the roots of those actions in the human heart. This is the deeper virtue that he referred to a few verses earlier. Jesus calls for not just a change of behaviour but a change of heart, a purifying of desire and intention. This interior transformation is understood elsewhere in the Scriptures to be the work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who renews the human heart. It is above all in prayer that we open ourselves to the Spirit of God. As Elijah in the first reading sought out the mountain of God, we need to seek out the mountain of prayer. On the mountain, Elijah experienced the presence of the Lord in "the sound of a gentle breeze," as another translation expresses it "in the sound of sheer silence." It is above all in silence that we seek the Lord's face, in the words of today's responsorial psalm, and open ourselves to the coming of the Lord's Spirit, who works within us to create in us a heart that reflects the heart of Jesus.
The old order gives place to the new. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation
From now on, brethren, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Swear no oaths, but speak with a simple "Yes" or "No." Anything stronger is from the evil one
Jesus said to his disciples, "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Spiritually, we may still be in our adolescent stage, old enough to be responsible but young enough to blunder and fall; far enough along to glimpse the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 21:1, Isa 65:17) and to share in the "new creation," announced today by Paul, and yet at the same time still looking backward and in need of God's forgiveness and patience.
Many statements in today's readings project fully forward into the kingdom of God as fully realised on the earth. We read in 2 Cor 1st Reading: : "Since one died for all, all have died." "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old order has passed away; now all is new."
The kingdom of God is a wonderful idea and glorious dream--but are Jesus' directives in the Sermon on the Mount literally possible in this world of ours? Some Christian groups follow them literally, and keep their speech simple and exact, as honest as the blue sky on a spring morning. Most people, however, feel the need to say more than a crisp "Yes" or an absolute "No." We consider it fair to have our ID card checked out, our driver's license verified, and are willing in court to swear on the Bible that our words are true. We and our world are not yet fully there, in kingdom mode!
Earlier this week we were assured of being sealed and anointed by the Spirit who is the pledge and first payment of eternal life. We are, incipiently, part of that new creation, but God is patient and forgiving as we stumble forward. Meanwhile, we too should be reconciling towards our neighbour.1st Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
Jesus opposes the kind of oath taking that seeks to control God for one's own purposes, swearing by heaven, God's throne, or by earth, God's footstool, or by Jerusalem, the city of God. The temptation to control God for one's own purpose has been deeply rooted in the human spirit. Ancient magic was an attempt to control the spirit world for one's own purpose, and, indeed, the same could be said of certain forms of contemporary magic. However, in the Lord's Prayer, the only prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, Jesus calls on us to begin by surrendering ourselves to God's purpose, "your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done." Jesus whole life teaches us that God's purpose for our lives is ultimately life-giving. In trust we can invite God to have God's way in our lives because that way is one that will lead to authentic life. It is not a case of manipulating God to serve our purposes but of giving ourselves over to serve God's purpose for our lives and for his creation, after the example of Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed, "Father.. not my will but yours be done," and after the example of Mary whose response to God's messenger was, "Let it be to me according to your word.”
Paradox of the apostolate: a poor man who enriches many
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothin, and yet possessing everything.
The challenge to offer the other cheek and go the extra mile
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Some of Paul's phrases echo his heroic endurance during his wandering ministry for the sake of the Gospel: "We are called imposters, and yet we are truthful; nobodies but in fact are well known; considered dead, yet here we are alive; punished, but not put to death; sorrowful, though always rejoicing; poor, yet enriching many; seeming to have nothing, yet everything is ours." It is clear how courageous he was in standing firm for the Gospel, not only against external threats and dangers but even in face of some temporary wavering by Peter himself, about the equal treatment of Gentile converts (Gal. 2:1-10). His unswerving obedience to the call he received from God eventually found him numbered among the pillars of the Church. He wrote: "poor, yet enriching many; called an imposter, yet truthful."
We are priveleged to have such witnesses within our family of faith, and thank God for their inspiration. Jesus' ideals in the Sermon on the Mount are exemplified for us in a dramatic way by Paul's apostolate, in the perseverance and huge level of generosity of spirit, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and sharing whatever he had with others. The lives of such saints demonstrate the hidden potential in each of us to be givers more than takers, up-builders rather than critics, contributors to love in our world.
In the gospel Jesus calls on his disciples not to repay evil with evil, but to respond to evil with goodness. The worst instinct in human nature is to respond in an evil way to goodness; the crucifixion of Jesus was an example of that instinct. The best instinct of human nature is to overcome evil with good. This in fact could be termed the divine instinct, God's instinct. It was the way of Jesus. He overcame the evil that was done to him with good. In the very moment when he was being violently rejected he revealed his love most fully. He lived and died to overcome evil with good. It is not easy to remain good in the face of evil, to remain loving in the face of hostility, to be faithful in the face of unfaithfulness, to be peacemakers in the face of violence done to us. We cannot live in this way drawing on our own strength and resources alone. We need God's strength, God's resources, God's Spirit, because such a way of life is the fruit of God's Spirit at work within us. In the first reading today Paul calls on us "not to neglect the grace of God you have received." God is always gracing us and if we rely on his grace we will be able to keep giving expression to that divine instinct of overcoming evil with good.
Those who generously helped to finance Paul's mission were richly blessed
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints--and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had alrady made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.
Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you--so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Love your enemies and so be perfect--just like your heavenly Father
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Whenever we hear the gospel command to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors, we think of Jesus' own heroic example, praying for his executioners, as he hung on the cross (Luke 22:34). Paul, today, also pleads for generosity as he tells the church at Corinth about the evident kindness of the churches of Macedonia. He was now collecting alms from the Corinthians for the church at Jerusalem, coming to the aid of a church that had persecuted him, blocked his apostolic work for the gentiles and even questioned his right to be an apostle.
These Scriptures focus on the spirit of forgiveness. We are asked to swallow our pride and turn away from our any instinctively harsh judgment of others. If even King Ahab repented, it shows how others can change. No matter how justified our anger or how eloquent our condemnation, like the prophet Elijah we too must look to the Lord God and seek to be forgiving and thus perfect as our Father is perfect.
Jesus calls on his followers not to take vengeance on the enemy. In today's gospel, he goes further and calls on us to love the enemy. As one commentator on this passage puts it, "Who else is left to love, after one has loved the enemy?" The love Jesus speaks of is not just a feeling but finds expression in active service. We might think of the parable of the good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan renders loving service to the injured Jew, who would have been regarded by the Samaritan as an enemy. Such a love of the enemy will also find expression in prayer for the enemy, as when Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion. The human tendency is to focus our love on those for whom we have strong feelings of warmth and affection. This is natural, but according to today's gospel, it is not exceptional. Jesus calls on us to stretch beyond those our love would naturally embrace. This is one of the gospel texts that does indeed stretch us. Jesus is calling on us to reveal, by our way of relating to others, the God who in love causes the sun to rise on bad people as well as good, and the rain to fall on honest and dishonest alike. This way of life that Jesus calls us towards is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives among us and within us.
Reaping what we have sowed
Brothers and sisters, here is the point: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.
Beware of practicing your piety in public
Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
We must give for God's sake rather than look for praise from others; act silently rather than ostentatiously. At the same time, most of us cannot do without the good example of others. There is value in remembering God's deeds in the lives of his saints. Paul even goes so far as to claim that the more we give to others, the more we ourselves will have, since "Whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will reap generously." He seems to echo the Book of Proverbs (11:24-25), one of the most practical books in the entire Bible. It never stirs up a prophetic tempest, and cautiously tempers excessive zeal.
To feel needy for constant approval is not psychologically or spiritually healthy. Such people are fundamentally insecure, and so are grasping for crutches to hold onto. They are so taken up with themselves, with telling their own story and seeking praise for their own acts, that they have little time for others. In turn, others find it more and more difficult to converse with them, and so their friends drop off and keep their distance. Jesus offers healthy advice when he says, "Do not blow a horn before you in synagogues and streets, looking for applause." He goes on to propose a low-key approach to almsgiving, doing it anonymously, "not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing." The underlying motive for acts of mercy should be that they are acts of basic human decency, done according to the will of God, "and your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
We should try to respect both our own dignity and that of others whenever we are in a position to help them, whether with material or spiritual help. One way, of course, is by anonymous giving, so nobody knows who did it except God "who sees in secret." Another way, Paul suggests, is to live so cheerfully that we get more joy out of giving than the other does in receiving our gift. In this case the centre of activity is the relationship: we are the happiest in seeing others happy, because we love them.
Today's gospel begins with Jesus saying, "Be careful not to parade your good deeds before others to attract their notice." Yet, a little earlier in the same sermon, Jesus appears to have said the very opposite of that, "Let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven." There seems to be a tension between these sayings. Yet, there is truth in both. We are not to hide the light of our faith, keeping it under a bushel; rather, we are to publicly proclaim our faith, our relationship with the Lord, by the lives that we lead, by the deeds that we do.
On the other hand, we are not to publicly proclaim our faith in order to attract notice or draw attention to ourselves, to win praise or reputation. Rather, our public living of our faith is with a view to bringing glory to God. Today's gospel invites us to ask, "Who is being honoured by my public living of my relationship with the Lord? Is it myself or is it God?" Another way of asking that question is, "Who is being served by my good deeds? Is it myself or is it the Lord?" The opening petitions of the Lord's Prayer points us in the right direction, "Hallowed by your name, your kingdom come."
Paul asks for their patience; he will not be a financial burden to them
I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you.
Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God's good news to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!
Our prayer must not be too wordy and must include a spirit of forgiveness
Jesus said, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
"Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Some of the Corinthian Christians must have accused Paul of merely "rattling" words, seeing him as just a talker, not a doer. They must have complained that he should be more tolerant and patient towards their faults. Paul does not back down but claims the right and privilege of speaking openly to them. He lashes out at roving preachers who want to undermine the Corinthians' loyalty to himself and adopt a different vision of Jesus. He dubs them as troublemakers, "super-apostles," and implies that these so-called apostles were making a good living off the people, and treating the preaching ministry as a profitable career. By contrast, he and Barnabas were prepared to work manually for their living (1 Cor 9) so that the gospel message was untarnished by personal gain and could be accepted as God's pure word.
His plain speech cleared the air and purified the people's hearts. Paul calls on them to make their language "Yea" and "Nay" (2 Cor 1:18) and dedicate their lives to Christ. Here is the best kind of forgiveness, wiping the slate clean so that all can begin over again, this time with mor wisdom and maturity. Using an Old Testament image to describe this new life: they are like a chaste bride coming to her marriage, with joyful enthusiasm to be united with Christ. This imagery from the prophet Hosea (Hos 2:16), was developed by Jeremiah (Jer 2:2), Second Isaiah (Isa 54:5) and the Song of Songs, and is echoed in various ways in the preaching of Jesus.
Paul's words seem to have had a purifying, sobering effect on the Corinthians and to have brought at least some of them back to their first fervour, as a "chaste virgin" presented in marriage to Christ. By forgiving one another each of us takes on towards our neighbours the reconciling role of Elijah and of Paul. We announce the coming of God's kingdom and both receive and distribute the "daily bread" he gives us.
Jesus' giving of what has come to be known as the Lord's Prayer is to be found in two gospels, Matthew and Luke. In Matthew's gospel Jesus prefaces the giving of the prayer by calling on his disciples not to use many words, not to babble, when praying to God, as the pagans do. Jesus is referring to the pagan practice of bombarding the gods with various formulae, with the intention to forcing the gods to behave in a way that is favourable to humankind. However, the disciples of Jesus are not to relate to his heavenly Father in that way. God is not there to be manipulated by our many words. Rather, as the opening petitions of the Lord's Prayer suggests, we begin by surrendering to whatever God may want. What matters is God's name, God's kingdom, God's will. We don't try to force God to do what we want; we surrender to what God wants. After doing that, as the prayer indicates, we acknowledge our dependence on God, for our basic needs--for food for the day, for forgiveness, for strength when our faith is put to the test. The Lord's Prayer is powerful in its simplicity. It is not simply one prayer among many; it is a teaching on how to pray always.
Paul boasts about his hardships in carrying out his ministry
My brethren, since many others boast according to human standards, I will also boast. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
But whatever anyone dares to boast of--I am speaking as a fool--I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman--I am a better one: with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the desert, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not eak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
Do not lay up earthly treasure where moths and rust corrode
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Today's words from the Sermon on the Mount touch on a problem we instinctively feel about Paul's boasting. Jesus puts it bluntly: "Do not lay up for yourselves an earthly treasure that moths and rust corrode. Instead, store up heavenly treasure. If your vision is bad, you will be in darkness. And if your light is darkness, how deep the darkness will be."
Poor Paul gets caught up in a confusing whirlwind of boasting. "Since many are bragging, I too will boast," he says, with embarassment, when trying to offset whatever criticisms some were levelling at him in Coringh. Oddly enough, his boasting mostly is about the failures, disappointments and rejections he has suffered. When drawn into the boasting game, he can brag only of his sufferings while pursuing his apostolic work. Yet he leads the people to put their confidence in the power of the Spirit. Paul's eloquent bragging is not really an attempt to lay up earthly treasures, for he hopes to direct people towards the true source of any real strength that we have. His way of handling the false claims of others turns out to be such a delicate balance that it is difficult to imitate. But it enables us to reconstruct Paul's personal biography and to have a rare insight into the personality of this genial saint.
Other words of Jesus provide more practical advice. He advises us to have a "good eye," filled with light and so able to see goodness and light in the actions and hearts of others. Rather than be annoyed by their faults and idiosyncrasies, our "good eye" can recognize their good side. We should commend them for their virtues, not condemn them for their vices, and not imitate them in bragging or boasting. But if we must brag, let it be about the grace of God that helps us in whatever are our weaknesses, failures or moments of rejection.
In today's first reading Paul boasts of experiences that most people would consider great misfortunes and only to be mentioned in hushed tones. He speaks of beatings, imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwreck and much more. Yet, he is prepared to boast of all these negative experiences because he endured them in the service of the gospel. It was because of his devotion to Christ and his gospel that all this suffering and misfortune came his way. They demonstrate where his true treasure lies, in the language of the gospel. His true treasure is the person of Christ, as he says in his letter to the Philippians, "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." When Jesus calls on us to store up for ourselves true treasures in heaven, he is calling on us to take him as our true Jesus. In the language of one of the parables of Matthew's gospel, he is the pearl of great price. The Eucharist gives us an opportunity to treasure the surpassing value of this priceless pearl.
A thorn in the flesh forced Paul to find his strength in Christ
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows--was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it ould leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
We cannot serve two masters. Do not be anxious for tomorrow
Jesus said to his disciples, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first or the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
About the reversal of values, Paul writes, "I must go on boasting, however useless it may be." Even if he had visions and revelations of the Lord and was caught up to Paradise "to hear words which cannot be uttered," he feels the foolishness of talking about it and says he will boast no more except about his weakness, which God helps him to bear. Lines like that are more intelligible if we remember that Paul dictated his epistles (and then to prove the authenticity of the letter signed it in his own handwriting--1 Cor 16:21). Perhaps Paul asked his secretary to re-read part of the letter to him, and then added "no more boasting."
This awareness leads to the admission that he was tormented by "a thorn in the flesh." Many a guess has been proposed about what he means by this intriguing "thorn." Was it an unattractive appearance, a recurrent sickness, poor eyesight, a tendency to intemperately blunt speech? Was it an unfulfilled instinct for intimacy, having set aside the natural desire to marry? All we know is that this "thorn in the flesh," whatever it was, prompted him to turn repeatedly to the Lord for help. Paul records the answer to that prayer, when God revealed to him, "My grace is enough for you, for power comes to perfection in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Even his very weakness led Paul to discover a source of strength far greater than any of his natural gifts and talents. His weakness led him to depths of prayer and dependence on God, as expressed in Jesus' words, "Don't worry about tomorrow. Your heavenly Father knows all that you need."
"Enough for the day, let tomorrow take care of itself, today has troubles enough of its own." According to Jesus, it is more vital to live today than to worry about tomorrow. Life is more important than food, the body more valuable than clothes. It is not psychologically healthy, much less Christian, to surrender to a compulsion for exotic foods and luxurious clothing. He warns us to review our scale of values, "Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap… yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?" Selfish desires lead to all sorts of trouble, but as Paul points out, weakness turns into strength when it brings us to prayer and trust in God and the memory of God's goodness. Such an awareness of weakness can put our values back into good order, for God can transform even our sins into occasions of grace.
We all worry from time to time. Worrying is part of the human condition. Parents worry about their children. Family members worry about each other. Young people worry about their future. Jesus must have worried about his disciples, about the lack of response on the part of some of his contemporaries to his message, about many things. In today's gospel Jesus is not saying "don't ever worry about anything." The focus of worry in that gospel reading is food, drink and clothing, and the worry in question is excessive worry or preoccupation. Jesus makes reference in that reading to "the pagans who set their hearts on all these things." The issue is setting our hearts on what is not of ultimate importance. To that extent, the gospel is really about getting our priorities right, getting our priorities into line with God's priorities. That is why towards the end of the reading Jesus declares, "Set your hearts on God's kingdom first, and on his righteousness." Don't be so preoccupied about food, drink and clothing, Jesus is saying, that there is no room in your heart for concern about the coming of God's kingdom or the doing of God's will. The first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer relate to what might be termed God's priorities, "Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done." These were Jesus' priorities and he calls on us to make them our own as well.