Weekday Mass Readings for Lent
The Bible readings for Mass, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Texts from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) are marked by consistently inclusive language. Homily notes, from a wide variety of sources, have already appeared in the ACP website, in the section edited by Fr. Patrick Rogers, Dublin, Ireland.
"Return to me with all your heart" .. "Spare your people, Lord"
"Now, now," says the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say,"Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"
Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
Do not receive the grace of God in vain
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.
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!
Your Father who sees in secret will reward you
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.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we want to live Lent as a time of cleansing and holy desire, helped by some Gospel practices: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. We begin this season by receiving ashes on our foreheads, often in the form of a cross. The forty days of Lent echo the time Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry. Lent is meant to help us to a more effective Christian lifestyle.
The Christian life, said St Augustine, "is an exercise of holy desire." It does not ask that we suppress our normal desires, but to raise and purify them. Our desires are too small if our ultimate values are those of this world; for God wants us to have so much more, no less than his very Self. During Lent we tune in to higher desires, to deep-down longing for God. And Jesus shows us the way of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, the classic Lenten practices. Of these, prayer has first place. Our eternity will be our relationship with the living God, a relationship that begins in this life, or it does not begin at all. Our most shared prayer is during the Mass, the loving sacrifice of Christ which opens heaven to us. Prayer is the daily practice of our friendship with God, and it opens the way to eternal life.
Fasting is more tricky for us today and is perhaps practice more by Muslims than by Catholics. But while we appreciate our food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal, we should also find a place for fasting. The main goal of Lenten fasting is not a well-toned body to be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: they practiced voluntary self-denial, to sharpen their appetite for God. All of us resonate in some way to the ideal of alms-giving as compassionate sharing. Lent is good time to rid ourselves of some clutter in our life. With a bit more vision, could we perhaps do more to serve the needy, not to be praised as generous, but to imitate God's generosity to us?
Augustine sees cleansing as preparing us to practice holy desire, which is possible only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with this world. It is like filling an empty container. "God means to fill us with what is good—so cast out what is bad! If God wishes to fill us with honey and we are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must first be emptied and cleansed."
Ash Wednesday could hardly make more tangible the transience of things and our own mortality. We start Lent humbly, close to the ground, close to our earthiness: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." But the ashes are not just to commemorate the transience of creation. These ashes used this Wednesday are the residue of the palms of last year's Passion-Sunday. Jesus died and was buried in a tomb, the place of decay and the place of dust. Yet he rose from the dead to new life. Our ultimate destiny is not dust and ashes but a sharing in the Lord's risen life, becoming conformed to the image of Christ. As we journey towards that destiny we hear the call to grow more fully into the image of God's Son, which is a call to turn away from sin, to repent. The ashes are a sign of our desire to do just that. The traditional practices of Lent that we heard about in the gospel put before us the essentials for growth into the image of God's Son " a greater love of God (prayer), a more generous love of neighbour (alms giving), and a truer love of ourselves (fasting). We recommit ourselves on Ash Wednesday to build our lives on those three loves, so that we may more fully become all that God is calling us to be. [MH]
The more active women in a certain parish once decided that their Lenten project should be something to benefit the whole parish. They met several time to discuss what each of them thought would be most beneficial project they could sponsor. One woman suggested they have a children's Easter fashion show. She knew her daughter would love to do something like that. Another woman suggested a "house walk" where some of the owners of the newest and biggest houses in the community could let the rest of the community see how they decorated their houses for Easter.
Several similar ideas were put forth but support for each idea was rather evenly split. Finally, one woman who had been silent during the whole discussion suggested that a Lenten project that would benefit the entire parish might best be one in which everyone in the parish could participate as they lived out the season of preparation for Easter. The other women were a bit surprised at her suggestion. No one had stopped to think "outside the box" of spring fashion shows and hose walks. As they thought about it & discussed what they might do, they came to realize that they had gotten caught up in ideas that didn't really reflect the spirit of Easter. This shared insight helped them focus on ways in which their project would be one that would help the whole community appreciate the spirit of resurrection.
A warm call to fidelity. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live!
Keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Jesus predicts his passion. Disciples must carry their cross daily, after him.
Jesus said to his disciples, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"
The Jesus who declared that his life purpose was "that they may have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10) also said that his friends must share in his death and carry the cross with him. The two statements stand in paradoxical tension, but not in contradiction.
From the start of the church it has been a fixed principle that only through dying with him can we enter the fullness of life.
Deuteronomy, a book much loved and used by Jesus, presents fidelity, as the key to the future of God's people. "By walking in his ways, you shall live" it says, but if your heart turns away and you do not hear, I declare to you today that you shall perish!" In this, his final address to the people he has led out of slavery and into the Promised Land, Moses ends with the heartfelt appeal: "Choose life!"
Jesus says that if we want to be his followers we have to be ready to renounce ourselves. Lent is traditionally a time for self-denial. We ask ourselves what it is we need to let go, to give up, in order to follow the Lord more closely. We all have something we need to let go off; it might be some excessive attachment that is holding us back, or some habit that is not serving us well. Self renunciation is more difficult today than in the past because we live in a culture which encourages us to indulge ourselves. We can easily think of self-renunciation as something negative. Yet, the giving up, the letting go, is always with a view to life, to living life to the full. The 1st Reading puts it very positively, "Choose life," and Jesus says in the gospel that whoever loses his life for his sake will save it. We pray this Lent that the Lord would give us the grace to keep on choosing life.
True religion is contrasted with merely external observance
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like rushes, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Jesus predicts fasting in the future, once the bridegroom has left this world
Then the disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
I expect that many people felt insulted when Isaiah accused them of rebelling against God. They saw themselves as devout Jews, eager in their religious practice. But the stern, uncompromising prophet pointed out that even while they fasted for religious purposes, they were still unworried about oppressing their workers. In which case, the religion they practiced was not really to please God, but to please themselves. Their ritual observance has become merely a traditional activity, something they are doing for themselves. Even on the days when they fast, they end up arguing and fighting, self-righteous and disunited. Today, we too can fall into this syndrome, putting questions of ritual, etiquette and procedure on a higher pedestal than they deserve, while leaving the substance of charity (i.e. loving service, as prescribed by Jesus, the washer of feet) on the back burner.
Many seem to limit the ideal of "walking-with-God" to something that is fulfilled in a one-day-a-week commitment, by attending church. Some will do even this only if the Mass or service be held at a time that caters entirely to their personal preferences. We become so wrapped up in our own concerns, that there is hardly time for conversing with God our Maker. But helped by the words of prophet Isaiah, perhaps we can see more clearly the penance that God offers us as a special blessing, in the blessed season of Lent. It's designed not as a time to indulge oneself, but as a time to think of others. The fast that God prescribes for us is to find the time to clothe the naked, to right injustices, to feed the hungry, and to make provision for those who have no home. It is to love my neighbour as truly as my own self. As always, the living Word is here to help and guide us.
We normally link fasting with food. To fast is to deprive ourselves of certain foods for a period of time. But in the first reading Isaiah defines fasting more broadly. He understands it as leaving aside all those ways of relating to people that damage and oppress them and replacing such ways of relating with working for justice on behalf of those in greatest need. Isaiah seems to be saying that fasting can never be separated from that other Jewish practice that we associate with Lent, almsgiving, the sharing of our resources with others. On Ash Wednesday the gospel put before us the three great Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Isaiah reminds us today that all three stand or fall together. They are three expressions of one way of life. We cannot focus on any one to the detriment of the other two. Fasting is saying "no" to something. Isaiah reminds us that such saying "no" is always with a view to saying "yes," a "yes" that finds expression in greater service of our neighbour. Such service of others makes our prayer more acceptable to God. In the words of our first reading, "Cry, and the Lord will answer; call and he will say, "I am here".
If they are converted, they are blessed, with waters that never fail
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am." If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The tax collector sits at table with Jesus, who welcomes sinners to him
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered, "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 to repentance."
In Jesus we see one who loves and accepts each individual in his or her unique reality, just as life has formed us. His open acceptance of Levi as a conversation partner at dinner, and later as a trusted helper, is typical of this "Man For Others." The converted tax collector is not treated as a second-class citizen, simply for coming late into the Lord's circle of friends. How refreshing to hear Christ's warm welcome of Levi echoed in the words of pope Francis, in his call for the doors of the church to be open wide so that all may enter. Certainly Jesus believes in conversion: but he calls people to it in such a non-judgmental way, and awaits their positive response. How fully he would endorse Isaiah's conviction on this matter: "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am."
Isaiah offers a message that foreshadows the healing acceptance with which Jesus welcomes all who come to him. It is one of the prophet's most stirring promises, in God's own name: "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am." The promise that our God will always be near us, to guide us both in our actions and in our patient acceptance of what we cannot presently change, is a deep source of personal serenity. And then Isaiah adds a series of powerful metaphors, to reinforce the message of a caring God. He will make your bones strong; you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. This is the kind of conviction on which a person of faith can build, and which gives full meaning to any good effort we may be making for Lent.
In this morning's gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees ask why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? As far as they were concerned, to eat with tax collectors and sinners was to risk being contaminated by them. They would have argued that it was better to keep yourself separate from such people in order to preserve your moral health. However, Jesus did not share this concern. Rather than the sin of others infecting him, he knew that his goodness, God's goodness in him, would transform them. The Lord is never diminished by our failings; rather, we are always ennobled by his holiness. That is why the Lord does not separate himself from us, even when we might be tempted to separate ourselves from him, because of what we have done or failed to do. The Lord is always ready to sit with us, to share table with us, to enter into communion with us, in order that in our weakness we might draw from his strength and in our many failings we might draw from his goodness and love.
Practical guidance for worship and for social compassion
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.
When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
The final judgment, based on "As you did it to these, you did it to me.'
Jesus said to his disciples, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited ou?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Today's Scriptures focus is on issues of life and death, of hunger and thirst, of nakedness and imprisonment. They help us examine our conscience on basic issues, on sharing and not defrauding. The whole moral landscape of our social and economic life needs shaking up, if we are to fulfil the Lord's guidance in Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." How far this is from the culture of fat-cats, of clandestine "top-ups" for those alrealy highly paid, while cutting medical and social helps to those less fortunate. If they were to take on the Lenten message, wealthier people would undertake some taste of the hunger felt by those at the bottom of the economic scale. By solidarity and unostentatious alms the rich can offer the destitute an opportunity for self-respect; by gracious acceptance the poor can teach the proud how to be of humble heart before God and neighbour.
Leviticus declares the deepest laws of creation where we are reduced to our common, shared status as children of God. "Love your neighbour as yourself" remains a cardinal principle. Unless this divine law is pursued and obediently followed, then at the end of life Jesus can do nothing else but say: "I do not know you!" The final judgment simply ratifies how we have responded to the basic laws of human nature-and here we find the sublime guidance: "As often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me." Jesus too is bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.
It is clear that many did not recognize God present in Jesus. In many ways Jesus seemed too ordinary to be someone through whom God was at work in any significant way. The people of Nazareth said, 'Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?' Then when Jesus was crucified by the Romans this confirmed for many people that God could not have been visiting them through Jesus. How could God be present in the crucified body of a convicted criminal? Yet, we believe that God was present in Jesus throughout his life, and especially in his death, even though very few recognized Jesus as God-with-us. In the gospel Jesus declares that very few will recognize his presence as risen Lord either, especially his presence in the crucified, in those who are in greatest need, whether it is the need for food, drink, clothing, hospitality, health, freedom. At the end of time, people will ask, 'when did we see you. . ..' God's presence in Jesus was not always obvious to Jesus' contemporaries, and the presence of the risen Lord will not always be obvious to us either. The Lord comes to us not in signs and wonders but in weakness, in the brokenness and suffering of others whoever they are. Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus says whoever welcomes a child welcomes him. Jesus is suggesting that there is a deeper, more sacred, quality to our encounters with others than we might realize at the time, especially in our encounters with the weak and vulnerable.
God's word comes down from heaven like rain, to make the earth fruitful
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Guidance about prayer and the spirit of forgiveness
Jesus said to his disciples, "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.
Year on year, each Lent we give special care to hearing and pondering God's word. Carefully listening to the word of God, of appreciating and absorbing it, of responding to it obediently, is a lifelong task. This cycle of life is symbolized by rain and snow, falling from the sky and soaking the earth, then rising towards heaven as bushes and trees. Divine inspiration is the rain and snow, our inspired lives are the bushes and trees. This image concludes the great section of Isaiah 40-55, some of the most sublime literature of the Old Testament. The lines of this exalted poem show all the hallmarks of human genius, well trained and carefully exercised. They seethe with hopes and ideals, with courage and persistence, calling us to trust in God. The author of this sublime poetry was "Second Isaiah" the great unknown genius of the Old Testament.
"See!" God says through the anonymous prophet, "upon the palms of my hands I have written your name" (Is 49:16). And the reason is "because you are precious in my eyes and because I love you" (43:4). Divine love is portrayed in terms of unconditional forgiveness. And this is exactly the type of love which Jesus teaches us when he taught us to pray the Our Father. Hope, confidence and security are planted in our hearts and genuinely confessed, when we say: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, forgive us . . . and deliver us. . ." These beautiful words (of a kingdom to come, of fresh, daily bread, of gentle forgiveness from depths of understanding, of deliverance from anxiety, of soothing every wrong) allow the soul to develope from a new embryo into a fully formed man and woman of God.
A gentle, persistent concern reaches us through the liturgy of Lent. This year let it not be just another Lent, but a time for the divine word to be fully alive in us, "achieving the end for which I sent it." From all their needs God will deliver his people. Look to him that you may be radiant with joy!
The gospels portray Jesus at prayer many times, and sometimes they give us the content of his prayer. However, only once is Jesus presented as teaching his disciples a prayer for them to pray, and that prayer has become known to us as the Lord's Prayer. It is a prayer that has had a privileged place within the Christian tradition because it is the only prayer that Jesus explicitly taught us to pray. For all the differences across the various Christian denominations, this prayer is one that we all have in common. It is a prayer we can all pray together. In giving us this prayer, Jesus was also giving us a lesson on how to pray. The first part of the prayer is focused on God rather than on ourselves, God's name, God's kingdom, God's will. Jesus is teaching us that prayer is a letting go to God, a yielding to what God wants for his world and for ourselves. Only after those petitions that focus on God does Jesus teach us to focus on our own needs. The Lord's Prayer encourages us to pray out of our fundamental needs, our need for sustenance, both material and spiritual, our need for forgiveness, our need for God's deliverance when evil in whatever form puts our faithfulness to the Lord to the test. It is significant that in those second set of petitions, the Lord's Prayer teaches us to focus on ourselves not as individuals but as members of a community; that is why the language of the second part of the prayer is 'our' rather than 'my.' In praying those petitions, I am praying not just for myself but for others. We pray this prayer as members of a community of faith. Through the two sets of petitions that make up this prayer, Jesus is teaching us that prayer is always a going out of ourselves towards God and towards others.
When Jonah's preaching bears fruit, God has mercy on Nineveh
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days" walk across. He began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
The only sign given will be the sign of Jonah, who returns from the dead after three days
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
The author of the Jonah story knew his Bible and his sacred history well and weaves into his narrative ideas and allusions from other parts of the Israel's Scripture and traditions. The words of the Assyrian king, "Who knows God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath?" are drawn from earlier texts like the penitential prayer in Joel 2:14. The inspired author had meditated so long on earlier prophecies that his own preaching and writing became like a tapestry of biblical passages.
Because he knew his Bible so well that he could think only in its language, the author of Jonah almost explodes with exasperation and frustration. Why do those people-his own-with such a rich heritage, refuse to reform their ways and respond to God with faith and justice, with prayer and hope? Look, says this writer, the pagans, even the worst of them, the ruthless and ever hated Assyrians, are more spontaneously good than my own people!
Jonah underlines that most wonderful of surprises, the extraordinary and unsuspected goodness of strangers, even of such unlikely candidates for holiness as . . .. The dotted lines must be filled in by each of us; here we name our worst enemy, the most impossible sinner, hopelessly wicked to the marrow of the bones. Such was the "Assyrian" in the ears of Jonah's people. The same resonance today might attach to such words as Communist or Nazi, paedophile or child molester!
The message of the readings can be summed up in a single phrase, there's always hope! As long as life lasts we must never lose hope in others or indeed in ourselves. Things can always improve, in the local or national scene, and even in world affairs, like the present crises in places like Ukraine or Syria. So surely conversions and transformations can take place. How marvellous that the once pagan city of Nineveh can come to believe in God, proclaim a fast, pray for forgiveness, to become a model of goodness for all the rest of us! Hope can come from unsuspected quarters! Jonah adds that when God saw the repentance of Nineveh, he "repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them." If God can change his mind, how can we maintain rigid condemnation of others?
Queen Esther's prayer wins God's help in a time of crisis
Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord. She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said: "O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born I have heard in the tribe of my family that you, O Lord, took Israel out of all the nations, and our ancestors from among all their forebears, for an everlasting inheritance, and that you did for them all that you promised.
Remember, O Lord; make yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O King of the gods and Master of all dominion! Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion, and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him. But save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord, who have knowledge of all things."
Ask, and it will be given you… Jesus teaches prayer
Jesus said to his disciples, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."
Esther's story perfectly illustrates what Jesus promised: "Ask and you shall receive." God heard her prayer and acted to save his chosen people at a time of critical stress. In her people's time of mortal danger, Esther had to risk going to the Persian king on their behalf, which she knew could cost her her life, yet to do nothing but hide in her priveleged ivory tower while her people were destroyed, would leave her haunted with guilt all her days. But how many of us simply turn a blind eye when a risky action is called for?
Esther prayed: "My Lord, our king, you alone are God. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you." Times such as these lead to experiences of heightened prayer. Fantasies of ambition, selfish motivations, reliance upon wit and diplomacy and half-truths-all such contaminating elements are swept from our memory. Every crutch is taken away, and if we are to stand, it will be through God's strength alone.
Prayer at such times is bound to be heard, because we are in touch with the best and deepest part of ourselves, with the loving Creator whose plan called us into life and who alone knows the secret of our future. We must place no conditions on what God can accomplish in us. "Which of you would hand their child a stone if the child asks for bread?" We must trust him and hand our lives over into his care.
The opening words of Jesus in this gospel encourage us to be seekers, 'ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.' What are we to seek? What should we ask for? The simple answer is to seek the Lord and his will for our lives. Many such seekers are mentioned in the gospels. Zacchaeus comes to mind among many others. His story reminds us that the Lord whom we seek is always seeking us. At table with Zacchaeus, Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost.
Because we can never fully find the Lord this side of eternity, we will always be in the role of seekers after him. We are always on a journey towards the Lord, without ever fully arriving at our destination. Like Abraham we are always setting on a journey in response to the Lord's call. In the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians, we strain 'forward to what lies ahead'; 'we press on towards the goal', or in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, 'we run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.' Jesus assures us in the gospel that if we remain faithful to that search of the Lord and the journey it gives rise to, we will be given 'good things' by God. In our seeking the Lord, we open ourselves to his many gifts and graces.
Personal responsibility to replace the idea of shared guilt
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?
But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die. Yet you say, "The way of the Lord is unfair." Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
True justice goes deeper than simply keeping a set of laws
Jesus said to his disciples, "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.
Ezekiel calls us to persevere in doing good across a lifetime. In Matthew's gospel Jesus roots the discernment of good and evil in the depths of the human heart. We must do more than keep a set of rules, stopping short of murdering others; we must aim to be at peace with them and not harbour anger or resentment. Jesus names the objects of our patience and kindness: they are our brother and our sister. At first, this designation might seem to make the practice of tolerance somewhat easier. Yet common experience tells us that people often lose their temper more quickly and find forgiveness harder within their own family.
This journey of reconciliation begins first in our heart when we decide to do all in our power to win back our brother or sister. On that condition we can continue with our Eucharist in good conscience. The effort must be continued for, as Ezekiel warns: "If the virtuous person turns from the path of virtue to do evil . . . has broken faith and committed sin, . . . he shall die!"
Does this ask too much? God asks nothing without first giving us the grace of a "new heart and . . . a new spirit" and putting his own spirit within us (Ezek 36:26-27). Then there is the assurance us that whatever be our offense against life and goodness, God forgives us if we turn from our evil ways. Ezekiel's understanding of God's outlook concludes with this great phrase, "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone . . . Return and live!"
In today's gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to a virtue that goes deeper than the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees. One of the ten commandments of the Jewish Law was "You shall not kill." The call of Jesus goes deeper than that; it looks beyond the action of killing to the underlying attitudes and emotions which lead people to kill or injure each other. Jesus invites us to look below the surface of what people do to why they do it. He calls for a renewal of the heart and mind; that is what we mean by "repentance" or "conversion." That deep-seated renewal that Jesus calls for is not something we can bring about on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to work that kind of deep transformation within ourselves. A traditional prayer puts it very clearly: "Come Holy Spirit, fill my heart, and kindle in me the fire of your love." It is a prayer I am very drawn to. It calls on the Holy Spirit to recreate deep within us the love which shaped the person of Jesus; it prays for the roots of that deeper virtue which Jesus speaks about in today's gospel.
This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord's agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.
Jesus said to his disciples, "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.
God first chose Israel, and within Israel included each of us, as a people of his own choosing. God took the initiative to make his presence known within the depths of our mind and heart, in the subconscious of memory reaching back into that of our parents and ancestors, within the customs of our faith, echoing the prayer and traditions of our church. God's call surrounds us like the sun and rain. While we are still asleep, God summons the sun to spread a burst of light across our day; while we are distracted by duties and grumbling about drought, God orders the rain to drop moisture upon our dry earth and weary hearts. God first loves us.
Just as God acts out of love, each of us is called to respond "with all your heart and with all your soul." The book of Deuteronomy returns repeatedly to the theme of "today" as the time to respond to God. "Today you are making this agreement with the Lord." As with God so with us, the covenant needs to be renewed each day. Chapter 1 of Joshua extends the today of Deuteronomy into a recital of God's love and our loving response "by day and by night" (Josh 1:8).
Lent is a time of fasting and prayer, of much human work and dedication, so that we may be disposed to let the beat of God's heart and the rhythm of his spirit take possession of ours. Happy are they who follow the law of the Lord.
If we hear that someone is a perfectionist, it can conjure up in our minds someone who is very demanding and rather fussy about getting everything right down to the last detail. When Jesus says at the end of today's gospel, "Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect," that is not what he means. The corresponding passage in Luke's gospel is almost word for word the same as the passage from Matthew, which we have just heard. Yet, it is striking that in Luke the gospel passage ends with Jesus saying, "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate." Luke has captured there what Jesus meant by "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
In today's gospel, being perfect is identified with being loving to an extraordinary degree, loving our enemy, praying for those who persecute us, who make life difficult for us. Being perfect consists in loving in the way that God loves, which is with a love that doesn't discriminate on the basis of how people relate to us. This is the pinnacle of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The fact that Jesus calls on us to love as God loves shows that he does not consider this call unrealistic. We may not be able to love in this divine way on our own, but we can do so with God's help. As Jesus will say to his disciples later on in Matthew's gospel, "for God, all things are possible."
I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, "Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.
"Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.
Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged;do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
Where Matthew's gospel has Jesus say, on the mountain: "You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), Luke, in the sermon on the plain, reads: "Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate." Luke's expectations are more specific and more attainable. All sinners ought to be capable of compassion, as they continually seek this very response of mercy from God. Yet, Jesus does not allow half-measures; it must be all, it seems, or nothing! Pardon must be bestowed so generously upon anyone who has hurt us, that it runs over and pours into the folds of one's own garments. We are expected to bestow twice as much love as the other person showed us hate, twice as much trust as the other party manifested suspicion.
This divine compassion can be partly learned, as we meditate upon the example of Jesus who died for us when as yet we were God's enemies by our sins (Rom 5:8). Yet, this attitude of overwhelming goodness and understanding can never be fully and adequately learned by study nor be acquired by human effort, no matter how diligent and persevering we may be. We cannot transform ourselves into God, as the human race should have learned at the beginning (Gen 3:5).
The way to give ourselves to God is unconditionally and without reservation. Without anticipating all that will happen to us and be asked of us, we give ourselves totally into God's hands. We try to enter Jesus' prayer: "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). God will then act through us, reaching others with infinite compassion, infinite tenderness, infinite trust! Without counting the cost or the outcome, such divine life will overflow into the folds of our garments!
Lenten fasting may reduce the aggressiveness of our responses. If it is accompanied by a surrender of our spirit to God, then divine grace will flow through us. Our fasting reminds us and symbolizes to others that God alone is the source of our decisions and actions.
Possessed by this divine spirit of compassion and pardon, we can pray for mercy with the confidence of Daniel in today's reading. We can admit to God that "we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and laws." Whein confessing our sins, we are already within the bond of God's love and our sins are gone forever, driven out by God's holy spirit already within us.
Daniel admits to being "shamefaced." Shame can be destructive or it can be purifying. Sometimes it begets a wholesome humility and honesty. It helps the adult to be again as a child in spirit, in trust, in a wholesome purity. Such an adult trusts, loves and forgives as easily as God himself. "Of such is the kingdom of God."
A call to personal conversion, to remove our sins from God's sight
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Unlike any worldly hierarchy, in Jesus' circle the greatest will serve the others
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves ill be exalted.
The orphan and widow stand for all the helpless and needy people of the world. Isaiah mentions them after a stern and fearsome passage, omitted in today's liturgy. To neglect the poor while spreading out one's hands in prayer draws from God the terrifying response: "I close my eyes to you . . . I will not listen." In fact, being heedless of the poor, God declares, makes "your hands . . . full of blood!" The prophet must have shouted out the next phrase. "Wash yourselves clean!" And the way to do this, he says, is by helping the orphan and widow.
This is a hard teaching, for we have all passed by beggars without giving alms; we have all driven comfortably past slums where we would hate to live ourselves; we have wasted food in the same city where some were sleeping hungry in the streets. And now Lent somehow invites us: "Come now, let us set things right!" God offers us the possibility of total conversion. "Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool." All this integrity can only happen "if you are willing and obey." "But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." We may question if Isaiah's consoling message of forgiveness and new life should end on such a terrifying note. Charity and integrity are a matter of life or death, and Lent calls us to think about such things.
Jesus criticises the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on people's shoulders. In contrast, his own invitation was, "Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest." His work consisted in easing off unnecessary loads from people's shoulders rather than laying extra burdens on them. Most of us have to deal with burdens of one kind or another as we go through life. Some burdens are necessary and unavoidable; they are the burdens of love, the burdens that come to us from giving ourselves to others in one way or another. Jesus is critical of those who impose unnecessary burdens on others. We can all be guilty of doing that from time to time. Rather than imposing unnecessary burdens on others, our calling is to help carry each other's burdens, to make life less burdensome for each other. In doing that we will be acting in the spirit of the one who said, "Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest." The Lord helps us all to carry our burdens, both the necessary and inevitable ones and the unnecessary ones. As St Paul knew from personal experience, he is strength in our weakness, and in times of weakness we can turn to him for strength.
In desperate need, Jeremiah pins his hope on God
"Come, let us decide what to do with Jeremiah," people say. "There will still be priests to guide us, still wise men to advise us, still prophets to proclaim the word. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words."
Give heed to me, O Lord, and listen to what my adversaries say! Is evil a recompense for good? Yet they have dug a pit for my life. Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them, to turn away your wrath from them.
Leaders: remember that the greatest must be as servants
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised."
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father."
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be our servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Both readings note the ill-will people can feel towards others. Jeremiah's own family have turned against him (Jer 12:6-23), and now the religious and secular authorities plot to do away with him as a troublesome challenger of the status quo. But Jeremiah's aim was always for the welfare of others. "Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them." What he wanted was their health, their peace, their life.
These gifts come from the Lord and must be sought from him. Jeremiah's apostolic activity redounded from the remembrance of the Lord and His plans and hopes for others. The end of Jeremiah's "confession" seems to reverse this attitude and demand revenge and pain from God upon these same people, now It seems that these "confessions" of Jeremiah originally formed a separate, personal diary, never intended for publication. A later editor found this diary, after the initial draft of the Jeremiah manuscript—in fact, after the prophet's death—and inserted these candid personal documents where he felt they belonged. When Jeremiah curses his enemies, he is not at his best. He is simply being honest and open about his feelings, saying, as it were: "Here, God, is how I feel. Help!"
When Jeremiah was most in darkness, he still sought the Lord's will. It is important to trust that God has an over-arching plan. Even Jesus did not claim to know every detail of this plan (Matt 24:36) and so he was unable to promise to James and John the privileges they asked for. Perhaps it was the mother of James and John who asked this promise from Jesus to give her sons the highest places in his kingdom. In Mark's version, it was the pair themselves who made this proud request. But God's plans are not to be advanced in the way of personal ambition or double-dealing! The gospel today begins and ends humility and sacrifice. He "has come, not to be served but to serve, to give his own life."
Jesus asks James and John, "Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" He was asking them if they were prepared to share his cup, to throw in their lot with him, to follow where he leads, even though it may mean the cross. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me." Yet, he went on to drink that cup to the full on the cross. At the last supper, he drank of the cup, and then gave the cup to his disciples, who also drank from it. Yet, a little later, they deserted him and fled.
In spite of their express desire in today's gospel to drink from the Lord's cup, James and John would not follow where he would lead. In a few minutes we will be invited to drink from the Lord's cup, the cup of the Eucharist. In doing so, we are expressing our willingness to go where he leads and walk in his way. Jesus teaches that way of self-giving service of others, as against lording it over them. We pray that in talking the Lord's cup today, we would be faithful to what that action signifies—walking in the footsteps of the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord rather than in mere mortal power
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the desert, in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
The contrasting fortunes in the next life, of the uncaring wealthy and poor Lazarus
Jesus told them this parable, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
In Jeremiah's lament and the parable of Jesus face up to seeming barrenness and failure. Even one who trusts in the Lord must deal with the heat of the desert and the hardships of the weather. In today's parable the imagery changes from Jeremiah's desert to the gateway of a wealthy person's villa. Inside there is feasting, and outside destitution. When the Rich Man wipes his mouth and hands with a piece of bread, and tosses the bread away, Lazarus is lucky to snatch these crumbs to stay alive. The poor man manages survives in his own waste land!
Jeremiah's poem developes the contrast further. "One whose heart is turned away from the Lord . . . is like a barren bush" without fruit, fit only for kindling. The other bush, typified by one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord, is surrounded with the same dry sand, yet continues to bear fruit. The roots sink deeply beneath the surface into the hidden water of God's holy will. This description fits the prophet himself. His life was in ruin, with even his own family turned against him; the king spoke to him only in secret and left him exposed to his enemies in daylight. The prophet died, rejected and persecuted, in the foreign land of Egypt. Yet, with his heart attuned God's will, Jeremiah became one of the key figures in Israel's survival as a people. His influence upon their faith turned out to be deeper than anyone else's in their history. The book of Jeremiah sustained Jesus in prayer and continues to be a support for Christians as well as Jews. Even when he felt himself useless, Jeremiah was keeping his nation's faith alive.
In spite of appearances Jeremiah was bearing fruit, and Lazarus kept his integrity even though sitting with dogs and begging for crumbs at Dives' door! Destitution can destroy one's confidence and self-respect, but in principle it can and does coexist with inner peace and strength. The beggar can be nearer to God than the banker, the cardinal, the CEO or the government minister. The true measure of a person's worth is the spiritual goodness of the heart.
The parables are intended to make us think and reflect. In the one we have just heard, two people lived side by side, a rich man in his great house and a poor man at the gate of the house. Yet, there was a chasm between them; whereas the poor man looked towards the rich man for scraps, the rich man did not look towards the poor man but ignored him. The parable seems to be challenging us not to allow a chasm to develop between us and those who, although physically close to us, live in a very different world to the one we inhabit. The rich man in the parable lived in his own world and made no effort to enter the world of the beggar at his gate. We can all insulate ourselves in our own world. The parable challenges us to enter the world of the other and to allow the other to enter our world. That, in a sense, is what Jesus did; he entered our world and invited us to enter his world. We can do the same for each other. When we cross the threshold into the world of the other, into the world of those who are very different from us in all kinds of ways, we may discover that we not only have something to give the other but a great deal to receive as well.
Jacob's sons envy their brother Joseph, and sell him into slavery
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am."
The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the desert, but lay no hand on him"—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his rob, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Greedy for property, the wicked tenants kill the landowner's son
Jesus said to them, "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, ' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance." So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
The story of Jacob's sons is told in detail (Gen 37-50) to conclude the book of Genesis. It has one overriding motif found at the end in Joseph's words to his brothers: "Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his purpose, the survival of many " (50:19-20). Mysteriously yet powerfully God can bring a convoluted, mixed-up and even misguided life to a positive end, even for our enemies and for those who cared little for us. It was through Joseph's perseverance in his trials that the twelve tribes were established in Egypt where they developed a distinctive culture and a strong religious unity. In Jesus' case his rejection by the Jewish leaders led to a gloriously new Israel, joining Jew and Gentile in one family (Romans 11).
The story of Joseph and the ministry of Jesus exemplify God's providence. A divine plan reaches into the depth of our existence. At times we may have a passing glimpse of it, other times we have the intuition in prayer, yet always we are being directed and guided by it. Jesus refers to this guiding plan of his Heavenly Father in his frequent references to the Hebrew scriptures. The earliest Christians firmly believed in a worldwide plan in the mind of God, culminating in Jesus. In today's parable Jesus quotes from Psalm 118: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the keystone. It was the Lord who did this and we find it marvelous to behold!"
Lent ought to purify our minds and put us into closer touch with the depth where God resides. Selfishness and false ambition should be swept away by our prayer, Bible study and other devotional practices. We should begin all over again to "dream" our best ideals, planted in us by God. This can renew our conviction that God's mysterious providence is in effective control of our lives. It offers serenity even in the face of problems and disappointments if we can see that God directs everything towards some good. If this belief of Joseph becomes our own we see a marvelous effect, a truly rich harvest of grace.
We have just heard a parable about the son of a vineyard owner being killed by the tenants, so as to seize his property. In this way Jesus points ahead to his own rejection and death. Having told the parable, Jesus quotes from the psalms, "It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone," which looks forward to his resurrection. Although he was rejected by the religious and political leaders of the day, Jesus rose from the dead and in so doing became the keystone of a new temple, the temple of the church, the people who believed in him. He teaches us that what is rejected can often turn out to be of crucial importance. What we might be initially inclined to reject can be the means through which God may want to speak to us. Those aspects of our own lives that we may be prone to reject and slow to accept may be the very channels through which the Lord can work most powerfully in our lives and, through us, in the lives of others. The experience of Jesus also suggests that God always has a purpose for what is rejected. God is not in the business of rejecting. Although we can reject God, God never rejects us.
Israel's God is a God of mercy
Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvellous things.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.
The parable of the Prodigal Son
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: ""There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went o his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Today's parable tells of an inheritance, "squandered . . . on dissolute living." But the prodigal son hopes that the Father will somehow take him back. The Micah passage also talks about hope. The people of Judah have been "trampled underfoot," and driven off to a foreign land. This disaster was due to the people's sins, insisted the prophet, and must not be explained just by the enemy's vastly superior army. Even now that the exile has ended and the poverty-stricken people have returned to Jerusalem, they are insignificant numerically and economically. The prophet begs God to "show us wonderful signs . . . as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old" (v 15, 20).
The prodigal son, too, survived on his memories and so was humble and courageous enough to seek a way back. "Coming to his senses at last" meant that the goodness of the father, planted within the bones and blood of the son, finally caught up with the young man and overcame his wayward resistance. A beautiful touch in Jesus' parable indicates that from a distance the father was willing the boy to come home, before the son ever noticed him. It almost seems as if the father's desire had been reaching across miles and mountains to touch the faith of the son. The son's remembrance might even be like a passive surrender to a hidden stimulant, calling out for love and celebration.
A newly awakened hope could be the miracle our Church needs right now. Our legacy to future generations is this trust in God's total goodness at the very core of our existence. From our heavenly home we can beckon sons and daughters on the right path, as we wait for them to come home. We may ultimately celebrate like the father upon the return of the prodigal son. When God's deeply planted life in us makes all these claims come true, the family of God's children will be complete.
This parable of mercy must resonate through this Year of of Mercy inaugurated by Pope Francis. Listen to what the Father says. To the servants he says, "this son of mine was dead and has come back to life"; to his elder son he says, "your brother was dead and has come back to life." There is more than one form of resurrection. The resurrection to new life that we long and hope for beyond this earthly life can be anticipated in various ways in the course of our earthly lives. In the parable, a kind of resurrection for the younger son took the form of a journey from a self-imposed isolation to an experience of community, from a sense of guilt to an experience of loving acceptance. It was the father's unconditional love which allowed his younger son to complete his journey, to rise from the dead. The father's emotional response to his son was one of compassion. The father in the parable is an image of God. The parable suggests that God's compassionate love is always at work bringing people from some form of death to a new life. In contrast to the father, the elder son considered his brother dead and was happy to see him remain in his self-imposed tomb. Whereas the father's response to his son was one of compassion, the elder brother's response to him was one of anger. The parable challenges us to embody in our own ways of relating to others the life-giving presence of the father's compassion rather than the deadening presence of the elder son's anger.
Naaman the Syrian takes the prophet's advice and is cured of leprosy
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "A I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clen'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant."
Nazareth's rejection shows how no prophet is accepted in his own place
Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease) was a terrible scourge, which happily has almost entirely disappeared. Contrary to popular belief, it is not very contagious, but the Gospel mentions how widespread it was in biblical times: "There were many. . . in the time of Elisha." Poor Naaman had almost given up hope of a cure. Had tried everything. Seemed rejected by Elisha. On his way home, angry and discontented, when his staff begged him. . . Story teaches two main things: Life has many burdens. . . but nothing is ever completely hopeless.
I once heard the English actor Stephen Fry going on a brilliant rant, telling whoever was watching what a scorching tongue-lashing he would give to God .. if there was a God .. for making such a cruelly unjust and topsy-turvy world. In effect he was saying, if this world was made by God, he made a hopeless mess of it.
Because of Jesus, we can have a very different view of the world. He encourages us to see the positive side of life (Lilies of Field, Birds of Air, Seasons of Growth & Harvest; Joy of Children; Practice of Mercy and Charity) and how to be grateful for life's blessings. The darker side of life .. sickness, misfortune, loneliness, betrayal by others, the pains of old age .. he invites us to embrace in a spirit of faith, as sharing in his cross. Accepting with patience what we cannot change has, it seems, a saving power of its own. The other great teacher of hope was the apostle Paul: "All of creation groaning in one great act of giving birth.." All the hard times he had as a missionary. . . "I fill out in my own life what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the sake of his body. . ." This was the spirit that kept St Francis Xavier going, in Far East, despite sickness, weariness, fever and failure.
Hope is in short supply, in our times. Disillusion with politicians; Distrust of church leaders; apparent inability of HSE to provide early treatment. . . Falling off of personal belief in Divine Providence and the wise and loving care God has for us.. High rates of drug and alcohol abuse among young people. . . We need to pray for them. . . Times for keeping up Hope, when things go wrong. In a marriage where there's conflict. . .. Or when partner dies and one is left to get on with life. Or a relationship has ended, and you're trying to cope with a new situation. Not to just slide into a decline.
In "The King and I": "Whenever I feel afraid. . ." Good enough advice, as far as it goes. But our faith asks us to go further, and put our hope in the Lord, who won't let us down. St Paul of the Cross, Founder of the Passionists, had a great devotion to Our Lady of Holy Hope. Though living a simple life in a poor, rural village, our Blessed Lady was full of hope and joy .. because "He who is mighty has done great things in me."
No matter what age we're at, we may find new wellsprings of hope, for ourselves and for others. If, like Naaman, we put aside our pride and trust in the Lord, he will never let us down.
Jesus challenges the rather narrow view that his townspeople of Nazareth had of God. Just as they felt that Jesus belonged to them, "Do here in your home town the things we heard you did in Capernaum," so they felt that God belonged to the people of Israel. When Jesus reminded them of a couple of passages in the Scriptures where God seemed to favour the pagans over the Jewish people they did not like it, and in response they forcibly ejected Jesus out of Nazareth. His rejection in Nazareth anticipated his even more brutal rejection in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth's God was too small and Jesus was seeking to broaden their understanding of God. He wanted them to realize, in the words of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, that "God has no favourites." The God of Jesus was more generous, more expansive, more inclusive than people realized. Jesus was always trying to show people that there was much more to God than they imagined. He is more like the father in the parable of the prodigal son than his is like the elder son. Jesus' vision of God remains challenging for us today, but it is a vision of God that is fundamentally "good news" for all who are willing to receive it.
Nebuchadnezzar admires the miraculous escape of the young Jews
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, "Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?" They answered the king, "True, O king." He replied, "But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god."
Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!" So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king's counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.
Nebuchadnezzar said, "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king's command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way."
Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, within the province of Babylon.
The forgiving spirit Jesus wants in his church
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, is lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
The blow to Israel's life through invasion and exile, was devastating, leaving them with "no prince, prophet or leader.. no place to find favour with you." But after such destruction the faithful survivors, like Daniel, turned back to God, unreservedly. Daniel confessed: "We have sinned and have done every kind of evil". God preserves the faithful from both the flames and the teeth of lions.
Just as Daniel and his people found their future within a renewed community, so the Gospel parable also speaks of renewal. The forgiveness one receives from God must then be offered and passed on to all our ellow human beings. "Should you not deal mercifully with your fellow servant," our Father asks, "as I dealt with you?" What we receive with gratitude builds us up; we cannot be our best unless we give share things unreservedly. The gift from God most difficult to share and bestow upon another is forgiveness; yet it's often the one of which we stand most in need. By giving we receive, and by it communion with others and with God is made. In Lent we seek forgiveness from God, but on the way we also seek to be reconciled with our immediate neighbours.
Peter has a high profile in Matthew's gospel. It is only there that Jesus addresses him as the rock on which he will build his church. It is only in Matthew that we find Peter asking the question, "Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?" In the Scriptures, seven is a symbol of fullness and completion. While to forgive someone seven times would seem about as far as one could possibly go, still Jesus said that we should forgive seventy seven times… in other words, there is to be no limit to our willingness to forgive.
Of course Jesus was well aware of the human tendency was to put strict limits on forgiveness, as is clear in the parable he told to Peter and the others. In that story, even the fortunate person who had been generously forgiven a huge debt could not find it in his heart to forgive another to a much lesser extent. Foremost in Jesus' mind is how forgiving God was. In today's gospel he calls on Peter and on all of us to be God-like in our readiness to forgive. This is a major part of what he meant earlier in Matthew's gospel, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." It is also what Pope Francis wants this Year of Mercy to mean for us.
God's people have clear duties and a high destiny
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children after you.
Deeper than the letter of the law is seeking the will of God
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Deuteronomy sets out a code of laws that do not exist for their own sake, but as a help for people to show their devotion to God. Most of this fifth book of the Bible (called the "second law" as "Deutero " means 2nd) consists of fervent motivational homilies. This book frequently mentions "today" as the very day when Moses receives the law from the Lord and gives it to the people in God's name. It tries to guide our attitude to God, as one who speaks to us. "Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today" (Deut. 6:5-6). We note the evocative repetition here of the word today.
This God is closer than any pagan god to its devotees, and is to be loved with all our heart. The Lord is to be dearer to us than anything else we value in life, including life itself. It seems that Jesus himself turned to Deuteronomy in forming his own response to life. It was among his favourite texts for its sense of compassion to neighbour and devotion to God each passing day. Whether in the temptation scene (Matt 4:1-11) or in answering the questions about the first and greatest law (Mk 12:28-34), Jesus used this book. Deuteronomy resonated the core attitude of Jesus; it spoke to him more than any other book in the Bible. It helps us appreciate Jesus' reflection: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them . . . not the smallest part of a letter of the law shall be done away with until it all comes true."
We want to grow into the mind of Christ, so that the least wish of God becomes our guide to living. God in Jesus is that close to us. He speaks today, this moment. He appeals to the love of all our heart. Love such as this, stirred within our heart by God's immediate presence, happily takes away our liberty as we spontaneously seek this clasp of love. Without deciding between a million and one options we have chosen the very best, and all the world will testify: "This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people."
Jesus was a great innovator of imagery to describe what is important in life. He used the image of new wine for his ministry, declaring that his new wine required new wineskins. In other words, the traditional way of doing things would no longer do. Yet, Jesus also had great respect for his tradition, for his own Jewish tradition. The Scriptures of his people nourished and inspired him. The gospel says he declares that he has come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to complete them. He did not pretend to be starting from scratch. There was much in the tradition of his own people which he valued, but he wanted to bring that tradition to a greater richness and fullness; he came to renew Israel's tradition not to replace it. Jesus' attitude suggests that we don't simply jettison our religious tradition but we don't just canonize it either. The church is always in need of reform and renewal; the new wine of the Holy Spirit will always require new wineskins. The work of renewal will always involve honouring what is best in our tradition by allowing its rich potential to be fully realized.
Life's highest goal is obedient response to God
But this command I gave them, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you." Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward.
From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did. So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.
Healings proved that Jesus acts with the authority of God
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, "He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons." Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? ? for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever oes not gather with me scatters.
Basic virtues, like compassion, forgiveness, prayer, understanding, loyalty, loving affection, makes the difference between heaven and hell, life and death. Jeremiah clearly expressed this: "Only if you reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbour, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood, or follow strange gods to your own harm will I [your God] remain with you." (7:5-7) Jesus too is clear about the right thing to do. To his detractors he says: 'If I have done a good thing, how can you think I acted with an evil spirit? If I show mercy to a mute person, do not accuse me of sin!' The messianic age is at hand if we can speak kindly, love compassionately, protect courageously, receive even the alien warmheartedly.
Jeremiah and Jesus are not so different as much as we might suppose. We must not be stiff-necked, but faithful, listening and responding to God. Jeremiah ends with the word "faithfulness." In the Hebrew the phrase implies: be what you are supposed to be! He calls for consistency, fidelity, in our relationship with God and with our neighbours, even the refugees in our midst. Lent invites us to help the needy and the stranger, that these basic virtues become second nature to us. Then we will be acting under the finger of God and promoting the kingdom of God in our world.
Some people are completely wrong about Jesus, declaring that he heals by means of Satan's power. Instead of acknowledging that God was powerfully at work in Jesus, they declared that Satan was at work in his life. It is hard to conceive of a greater error than that. They were calling good evil. In response to their grave misjudgement, Jesus declared that his healing work was done through the finger of God. God was at work in Jesus and some of his own contemporaries could not see it. We can all be blind to the finger of God, to the working of God among us.
We are graced in some way by God and we hardly notice it. The Lord blesses us and rather than recognize the blessing and giving thanks for it we focus on what we do not have or what is wrong in our lives. We need to keep on praying for the gift to see as Jesus sees, which is the opposite of how people in the gospel saw. Jesus saw the working of God in creation, in the sower, the vineyard, the flowers of the field and birds of the air. He saw God's presence in those whom many people had written off. Jesus teaches us to see with generous and hopeful eyes. When we see with those kind of eyes, then, in the words of Paul, we will be inspired to give thanks in all circumstances.
How God supports those who trust in Him
Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him,
"Take away all guilt; accept that which is good,
and we will offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy."
I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;
they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me.
Those who are wise understand these things;
those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
and the upright walk in them,
but transgressors stumble in them.
Jesus endorses love as the greatest commandment
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.
The thrust of both our readings is conversion of the heart, and goes beyond turning away from sin. In Hosea, Israel is to "return to the Lord, your God" as to a loving partner; in the Gospel, the love of God and of our neighbour are closely linked. This desire for God is an active response, not a theoretical notion. Rather than be distracted by theological argument, the people should reach out effectively with compassion for the orphan.
Both Hosea and Jesus speak in the language of the ancient Scriptures which they had learned from joining in the liturgy. Our liturgy on earth reflects the beauty and peace of heavenly life. According to Hosea the dew of heaven rests upon Israel; just as we still invoke God's Spirit to bless our Eucharist like the dewfall . Jesus says "Amen" to this anticipation of heaven: "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Hosea and the Gospel help us to put our Lenten practices into proper relationship with ourselves with our neighbour and Church, and all with God.
In the gospels the scribes or lawyers are generally portrayed as in conflict with Jesus . In today's gospel, however, Jesus and a Jewish scribe are very much of the same mind. Jesus says to this particular scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Both are agreed on what are the two great commandments of the Law. What these two commandments have in common is the call to love; where they differ is in the object of that love. The first commandment calls us to love God and the second to love our neighbour. The priority is given to God. The two commandments also differ in the intensity of the love they command. It is only God who is to be loved with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. It is only God who is deserving of the love of all our being. To love God in this way is to be caught up in God's love for humanity and that is where the second commandment comes in. Love of neighbour is where the pure and total love of God invariably leads us.
God wants our love more than ritual sacrifice
"Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth."
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Pharisee and Tax-collector pray differently. A lesson in humility
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In the Bible we have a rich resource of guidance for every occasion. But it's not just knowing the words that matters. From them we might muster a nice verbal response and wrap a mantle of piety about our motives and so feel smug and self-righteous. But even the devil can quote Scripture for his purpose, as Shakespeare noted! If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a lopsided Bible scholarship can be still more perilous. Bible study becomes illusory if not accompanied by sincere conversion of morals, and humble prayer.
The certainty of God's answering our prayers was deeply embedded in Israel's tradition; and Jesus shows the same confidence. Hosea quotes the liturgical prayer: "Come, let us return to the Lord,. . . He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up." This theme of salvation on the third day occurs frequently enough in the Old Testament .. and Jesus stands within this biblical tradition by his rising from the dead "on the third day."
God certainly answers prayers, but is displeased by the mere mouthing of words. For words to become true prayer, it is not enough that they be sanctioned by tradition and used in a solemn setting. Words become prayer, says Hosea, when joined to a humble love and knowledge of God. The Pharisee and the Tax-collector have very different approaches to prayer. One spends his prayer-time listing his own virtues and achievements; and the other just asks for mercy, humbly aware of being a sinner. Jesus clearly favours the latter approach!
Two went up to the Temple to pray, but while both appeared to pray only one of them really prayed. The Pharisee offered a prayer of thanksgiving, which began, "I thank you God that I'm not like all the rest." The tax collector offered a prayer of petition, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Both used traditional formulas but only the tax collector's prayer was well directed. What distinguished the two was the attitude of heart prompting them. Which of them do we most resemble?
In the case of the Pharisee, it was an attitude of pride and of judgement of others; the tax collector's attitude was one of humility; he recognized his poverty before God. Both men who went up to the temple to pray were equally poor, spiritually poor, before God, but it was only the tax collector who recognized his poverty. We always come before God as beggars, as needy. In the Our Father Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses." A prayer that originated in the Eastern church and that has been prayed by Christians down through the centuries is what is known as the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, be merciful to me, a sinner." This prayer is often prayed to the rhythm of our breathing. It is a slightly longer version of the prayer of tax collector. It is a prayer that keeps us humble and reminds us of our poverty before God; it is a prayer that will always be answered.
"Rejoice in what I am creating!" Good things in store for those who love God
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
Jesus cures the son of a royal official, his second miracle in Cana
When the two days were over, he went from that place to Galilee (for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in the prophet's own country). When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.
Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." The official said to him, "Sir, come down before my little boy dies." Jesus said to him, "Go; your son will live." The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, "Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him." The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live." So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
Isaiah looks forward to a new heavens and a new earth. We too look forward to a life beyond the here and now, when in God's presence we will somehow live a new kind of existence. St. Paul writes of a new creation, when what is sown perishable will be raised imperishable (1 Cor 15:42). Jesus gave hope to the soldier at Capernaum, whose son was nearly dead when came and asked for help. Quite simply he told him, 'Go home. Your son will live.' This pagan officer put his trust in Jesus and started for home, trusting that the boy who was gravely ill will now have a full recovery! Do we share the hope and confidence of this pagan official, that the Lord can work miracles in our lives? Are we convinced that God cares for each of us, whatever our religion or status? Is our heart secure in the faith that whatever happens at the end of each journey .. no matter what .. it will really be for the best? We can make our own the officer's prayer of faith: "Yes, Lord, I believe."
Jesus really can work miracles, now no less than then. The centurion believed his promise, "Your son will live." Vibrant faith does not exclude human initiative. If it did, the officer would never have bothered coming to Jesus asking that his son be healed. We are told that this was the second sign given by Jesus. The Cana miracle of water into wine was the first sign (John 2:11). These are signs of new life and new joy, promises that the old will be swept away and the past be remembered no more. They point to a new creation through and beyond death. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy, for you have changed my mourning into dancing.
Many people approached Jesus for help as he went around the villages. On this occasion a court official asked him to come to his home and cure his seriously ill son. This official was probably attached to the court of Herod Antipas. His request at first met with what seems like a refusal. But he wasn't put off; he persevered, "come down before my child dies." In response to this man's perseverance, Jesus grants his request, but not in the way the man wanted. He didn't go home with him to cure his son; he simply said, "your son will live." The man had to believe the word of Jesus and he did just that. He returned home on his own, with the promise of Jesus in his heart, and on the way he discovered that his prayer had been answered.
When we approach the Lord in prayer, asking for his help, we too can feel that the Lord is not answering our prayer. He does not engage with us in the way we had hoped. When that happens, we must persevere in prayer, like the royal official in the gospel. Like him, we will discover that the Lord will answer our prayer, even if not in the way we expected. Like the royal official we are asked to take the Lord at his word and to travel with the Lord's promise in our hearts.
Life-giving water flows out from the Temple of God
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.
Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side. Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist.
Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, "Mortal, have you seen this?" Then he led me back along the bank of the river.
As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.
On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."
Jesus cures the paralysed man near the pool of Bethzatha, on the Sabbath
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids .. blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, "It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat." But he answered them, "The man who made me well said to me, 'Take up your mat and walk.'" They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, 'Take it up and walk'?" Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you." The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
We live in an age of pollution and environmental crisis, with global warming a real threat to the future of life on earth. As Pope Francis has graphically reminded us in his encyclical "Laudato Si," this world is our shared home; but with the earth's air and water becoming so contaminated, we are putting in peril the living conditions of future generations. We are strongly called to practice inter-generational justice, to actively protect our environment and pass on the earth unharmed to those who will follow us. The fresh-water image, therefore, in Ezekiel's prophecy has great relevance for today and its protection by God all the more necessary. Only by the mercy of God, it seems, can the destruction of our planet be reversed. Only God's grace can convert human hearts in such numbers as are needed to make the difference.
Ezekiel offers us reasons to hope and pray. His words also inspire us to pray and work for another, closer kind of purification, that of our inner selves. Each of us needs a stream of fresh water to flow through our minds and hearts, to bring a new fresh vigor to our attitudes, to enliven and brighten our hopes, to allow a new spontaneity within our responses to life. Each of us is only half alive; we are as lame as the man in John's gospel, waiting for the movement of the water.
While Lent is a period of self-denial it also recalls the waters of Baptism. It is the time when catechumens prepare for their Baptism on Holy Saturday. Lent trains us like athletes, to throw off the sluggish and heavy drag of gloom and pessimism, to turn aside from false values, so that our best self may emerge. The waters of Ezekiel's prophecy flow from the Holy of Holies at the temple. We are reminded of the sanctuary of our parish churches where we try to meet more frequently during Lent. Through this extra prayer and liturgy we feel the touch of these transforming waters. The preceding passage of Ezekiel (verses one to twelve) show the prophet is meditating upon earlier biblical passages, especially one from Jeremiah (17:5-7). Reflecting upon the Bible we find another source of life-giving water; like Ezekiel we will be more able to spot new signs of life about us where previously we saw only desert.
Finally, the lame man at the pool of Bethesda shows the value of waiting with patience. This most important virtue is inculcated by the prophets, especially Isaiah who said: "By waiting and by calm you shall be saved. Your strength lies in quiet and in trust." (Is 30:15). As we wait we come to know that it is Jesus who can work the transforming change we need. The lame man could have waited forever and remained lame, if he was not alert for the coming of Jesus.
God promises the exiles, "You'll be a sign of salvation!"
Thus says the Lord: 'In a time of favour I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves." They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up.'
Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Jesus speaks of God as loving father and life-giver
But Jesus answered them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working." For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he ill show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
"Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out .. those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
"I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Isaiah's vision of his people returning from exile and today's section from St John both invite us to see the larger picture. The prophet thinks of God splitting the mountains to bring his people home from afar. Almost in the same breath he imagines this mighty God as a mother, tenderly loving the child of her womb. Even if these images are mismatched, they serve to enhance the manifold mystery of God. John's gospel ponders the mysteries of the Godhead. Today he ponders the equality of Father and Son, alongside the subordination of Jesus to the Father. Questions about life and death, judgment and resurrection, sin and grace, heaven and damnation, life received and life possessed, are the subject of John's contemplation. Such are the possibilities of our own life. We can be so deeply touched by inner joy that we want to summon the mountains to break out in song. The depth of God's goodness and majesty .. the plunging into the eternity behind us and the sweep of contemplation into another future eternity .. causes the soul to sing!
How petty seems the argument about whether or not good works should be done on the Sabbath! Jesus cures a lame man at the pool of Bethesda, and jealous people bicker over a violation of Sabbath rest. Long before, Isaiah had explained how to keep the Sabbath free from profanation: People should "do what is just . . . and let the foreigners join themselves to the Lord" (Is 56:1-8). God works on the Sabbath by keeping the created world going, by bringing infants to birth and by calling others in death. But legalists can be blind to the wonderful and the tender, preferring to argue a point of legal procedure. A tiny hill turns into a mountain, blocking their view of God's beautiful world of people and natural phenomena.
We can easily become narrow, prejudiced, blinded, tied up in all types of red tape while on our screens we see how some people are dying of starvation, refugees are deprived of what they need for a full life, and the potential of many young people goes untapped for lack of educational resources. We allow fear and greed to keep us protecting our own piece of turf! Lent could still purify us so as to live more aware of the wonderful grace of God, of the awesome gift of life, and of our good planet earth. The Lord is faithful in all his words and holy in all his works!
Jesus declares clearly, "my aim is not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." His whole life was shaped by the will of his Father, and that will is that all men and women would find life through believing in Jesus. As the evangelist says a little earlier in his gospel, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." God wills life and that is why Jesus says, "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full."
This is also the image of God we find in today's first reading. Just as a mother cherishes the child of her womb and gives life to her child, even more so does God cherish us and work to bring us to fullness of life. God guides us to springs of water. When we pray in the Our Father, "your will be done," we are praying that a culture of life would prevail over a culture of death. We are also committing ourselves to doing God's will by protecting life, by bringing life to others, by helping others to life fully human lives, lives that are shaped by the Holy Spirit and lead to eternal life.
Though his people rebel, Moses begs another chance for them
The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, "It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth"? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Throwing light upon our way to God
Jesus said to his disciples, "If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John"s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?"
Our readings centre around complaints and criticism, a very common human response to current events. Our Jewish forebears had a positive genius for complaining, on their long camino through the Sinai desert! God points out to Moses how stiff-necked they are, how unwilling to be led. In fact the Lord wants to give them up and start a new nation, founded not on Abraham but on Moses and his sons. "I will make of you a great nation." We may wonder, is this a projecting into the mind of God of Moses' own frustration? He had hesitated himself, at times, especially told to strike the rock to find water (Num 20:6b-13). If Moses is confusing his own inclination with the will of God, then how well he is mirroring ourselves. Like Moses we too can imagine that our own inclinations are an expression of God's holy will!
Like Moses, Jesus continuously had to face the arguments of his critics. Even though he had just healed a man who had been lame for many years, they carped that such things should not be done on the Sabbath. Both Jesus (and the early church) patiently carefully explained the reasons for his actions. Jesus appealed to their experience of John the Baptist, again to his own miracles as works of his heavenly Father, to the interior presence of God the Father within the mind of each person, and to the Scriptures.
During a lively argument we must often decide which approach is best, to reach a positive outcome. Inner conviction, and letting ourselves be directed by the Lord, will eventually win the day. This attitude of serenity enables us to persevere and lessens the temptation to quit. And so our faith community will eventually, perhaps after long delay as in Moses' case, cross the river Jordan and enter the promised land. Our deeper aim is not to win arguments but to win people for God.
Malice against the good foreshadows the Passion of Jesus
Foolish people reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, "Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. Let us then lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.
"He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.
"Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God's child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected."
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
Jesus goes up to Jerusalem privately; the crowds wonder about him
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world." (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come." After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, "Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from." Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, "You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me." Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.
The upright person (first reading) persecuted and tested by malicious enemies, provoked this opposition by claiming to be a child of God, a claim they angrily dispute. Jesus suffered a similar kind of rejection. When his own relatives think they have all the facts about him, he answered, "I was sent by One whom . . . you do not know. I know him because it is from him I come." While the Just One in the Book of Wisdom is humiliated and oppressed, no one yet laid a finger on Jesus, because his hour had not yet come. This points forward to John's account of the Last Supper and the Passion, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (Jn 13:1) And during the Supper he promised them, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." (Jn 14:18)
As the response to the Psalm we repeated this mantra: "The Lord is near to broken hearts." Broken hearts are painful and lonely, but they also enable us to reach even more deeply into our roots, where God is very near with the loving providence of his mysterious clasp. Our God is close to those in trouble; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves. Many are the troubles of the just man, but from them all the Lord will save him.
By the phrase "the Jews," John nearly always means the Jewish religious leaders. His gospel tends to distinguish between the Jewish religious leaders and the people as a whole . It is not said that the Jewish people were out to kill him. That was what the leaders wanted; but the people also disparage Jesus when they say, "we all know where he comes from." They were saying, in effect, "we know that he comes from Nazareth, a little village in the hills." In reply, Jesus declares that he really comes from God, the Almighty One who sent him. To know that Jesus came from Nazareth falls far short of knowing who he really is. It is generally the case in John's gospel that those who say "we know" don't really know. The evangelist reminds us that there is always more to Jesus than we realize. When it comes to the Lord, we are always on a journey of discovery. What really matters is to keep travelling that journey, to keep striving to know him more fully.
The Just One is led like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter
It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, "Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!"
But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind, let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.
The authorities wonder about Jesus: can he be the Messiah?
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, "This is really the prophet." Others said, "This is the Messiah." But some asked, "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?" So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why did you not arrest him?" The police answered, "Never has anyone spoken like this!" Then the Pharisees replied, "Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law .. they are accursed." Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?" They replied, "Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee." Then each of them went home.
The Jewish leaders were undecided about Jesus, but most of them concluded that he was not the promised Saviour of Israel. The same argument raged among the Jewish laity, yet a group of them decided in Jesus' favour. The temple guards spontaneously express admiration for him: "No one ever spoke like that before!" In our day many theologians and laity still argue over the essentials of religion: Who is Christ? What is the Church? What is needed for salvation? What is right and wrong? Christians are divided into so many denominations, each quoting the Bible as their authority. Because Lent summons us to more intensive prayer and study, with frequent Eucharistic celebration and special biblical readings, we might want to review what guidelines we follow for reading the Bible profitably. Today's prophecy of Jeremiah and words from Saint John offer some help for interpreting the Bible today.
First, as Nicodemus pointed out, we should give the Bible a fair hearing, just as we would to each individual person, trying to know the facts before we reject or accept. As we make this effort of patient observation, we must be respectful and show tolerance for differences of opinion. If Jesus' messiah-ship was a public issue among his people and their religious authorities during his lifetime, we ought not be surprised that theological conflicts continue today.
Jesus never suggested that he or his disciples should abandon their Jewish faith. Rather, he held that God wanted to bring this religion to greater perfection. So he gained the respect of honest people, who valued whatever is good and wholesome. The unlearned temple guards reply to the court theologians: "No one ever spoke like that before!" The Bible ought never be used to make what is good look bad, nor make what is bad look good. Biblical interpretation should be honest and fair. Honest, decent people with a positive attitude toward others, people who are slow to condemn and who are tolerant of other people's convictions, have the best chance of interpreting the Bible fairly.
Susanna is falsely accused; Daniel's questions uncover the truth
There was a man living in Babylon whose name was Joakim. And he took a wife named Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah, a very beautiful woman and one who feared the Lord. Her parents were righteous, and had taught their daughter according to the law of Moses. Joakim was very rich, and had a spacious garden adjoining his house; and the Jews used to come to him because he was the most honoured of them all.
That year two elders from the people were appointed as judges. Concerning them the Lord had said: "Iniquity came forth from Babylon, from elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern the people." These men were frequently at Joakim's house, and all who had suits at law came to them there.
When the people departed at noon, Susanna would go into her husband's garden to walk. The two elders used to see her every day, going in and walking about, and they began to desire her. And they perverted their minds and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering righteous judgments.
Once, while they were watching for an opportune day, she went in as before with only two maids, and wished to bathe in the garden, for it was very hot. And no one was there except the two elders, who had hid themselves and were watching her. She said to her maids, "Bring me oil and ointments, and shut the garden doors so that I may bathe." Now Susanna was a woman of great refinement, and beautiful in appearance. As she was veiled, the wicked men ordered her to be unveiled, that they might feed upon her beauty. But her family and friends and all who saw her wept.
Then the two elders stood up in the midst of the people, and laid their hands upon her head. And she, weeping, looked up toward heaven, for her heart trusted in the Lord. The elders said, "As we were walking in the garden alone, this woman came in with two maids, shut the garden doors, and dismissed the maids. Then a young man, who had been hidden, came to her and lay with her. We were in a corner of the garden, and when we saw this wickedness we ran to them. We saw them embracing, but we could not hold the man, for he was too strong for us, and he opened the doors and dashed out. So we seized this woman and asked her who the young man was, but she would not tell us. These things we testify." The assembly believed them, because they were elders of the people and judges; and they condemned her to death.
Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and said, "O eternal God, who dost discern what is secret, who art aware of all things before they come to be, thou knowest that these men have borne false witness against me. And now I am to die! Yet I have done none of the things that they have wickedly invented against me!" The Lord heard her cry. And as she was being led away to be put to death, God aroused the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel; and he cried with a loud voice, "I am innocent of the blood of this woman."
All the people turned to him, and said, "What s this that you have said?" Taking his stand in the midst of them, he said, "Are you such fools, you sons of Israel? Have you condemned a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts? Return to the place of judgment. For these men have borne false witness against her." Then all the people returned in haste. And the elders said to him, "Come, sit among us and inform us, for God has given you that right." And Daniel said to them, "Separate them far from each other, and I will examine them."
When they were separated from each other, he summoned one of them and said to him, "You old relic of wicked days, your sins have now come home, which you have committed in the past, pronouncing unjust judgments, condemning the innocent and letting the guilty go free, though the Lord said, 'Do not put to death an innocent and righteous person." Now then, if you really saw her, tell me this: Under what tree did you see them being intimate with each other?" He answered, "Under a mastic tree." And Daniel said, "Very well! You have lied against your own head, for the angel of God has received the sentence from God and will immediately cut you in two."
Then he put him aside, and commanded them to bring the other. And he said to him, "You offspring of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has deceived you and lust has perverted your heart. This is how you both have been dealing with the daughters of Israel, and they were intimate with you through fear; but a daughter of Judah would not endure your wickedness. Now then, tell me: Under what tree did you catch them being intimate with each other?" He answered, "Under an evergreen oak." And Daniel said to him, "Very well! You also have lied against your own head, for the angel of God is waiting with his sword to saw you in two, that he may destroy you both."
Then all the assembly shouted loudly and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him. And they rose against the two elders, for out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness; and they did to them as they had wickedly planned to do to their neighbour; acting in accordance with the law of Moses, they put them to death. Thus innocent blood was saved that day.
Mercy shown to the woman caught in adultery
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
Susanna's trust illustrates the very essence of faith: "she trusted in the Lord with all her heart." By contrast, lust drove her two accusers to suppress their consciences, so that mercy and justice were driven from their thoughts. Her story suggests that if we fix our hope on God, we get a solid peace of mind and a true perspective on things, even in very dark moments. Things may look bleak but the Lord is always aware of our need. In that spirit Susanna prayed: "Eternal God, you know what is hidden and are aware of all things." She did not lash out angrily against her accusers or panic about how to defend herself, but simply trusted God and bravely affirmed her innocence when they accused her. Then, in the light of her obvious innocence Daniel is led to find the right solution. It is a lesson we would do well to follow.
In today's Gospel, an obviously guilty woman was dragged into Jesus' presence. We admire his restraint in responding to the case that was put to him, for he simply bent down and started doodling on the ground in the dust. When he eventually looked up he suggested, 'Let whoever among you is without sin be the first to stone her;' and again he started to write on the ground. The accused woman also shows great restraint .. for she might have shouted accusations against the man caught in the act with her and yet who was allowed off scot free. Clearly her accusers did not want even-handed justice or both culprits would have been accused, for they were just using the woman to trap Jesus. But he refused to be trapped, and so did the woman lying on the ground, whose silence projected more honour and dignity than her accusers' self-justifying pomposity. They eventually drifted away one by one, beginning with the elders.
We pray for the wisdom to know when to choose the silence from which can flow honour, serenity, forgiveness. It is these depths of character that we seek when we possess our souls in the presence of God. He becomes our light, our witness, our justification. It can be true of us too, what was said about Susanna, "blessed is God who saves those who hope in him."
The Pharisees who brought an adulterous woman to Jesus were suggesting a simple answer to her moral failure. Condemn her to death by stoning. The gospel reading also makes clear that this was not Jesus' way of dealing with moral failure. He understood that the situation was far more complex that the Pharisee's crude and simplistic solution allowed for. The men who brought the woman to Jesus saw her only in terms of her immediate past. Jesus' way of looking at her was far more generous; he saw the whole picture of her life, not just one little bit of it. Seeing the whole picture of her life, he also saw that she had a future, a future that those who brought her to Jesus would have denied her. When the Lord looks at us he sees the whole picture too; he does not become obsessed with one or two details of the picture. He hears the full story of our lives, not just a couple of lines of our story. The Lord knows that our story is unfinished, and will only be complete when he himself comes to transfigure our lowly bodies into copies of his glorious body.
The brazen serpent; anyone bitten can look at it and live
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
When they have lifted up the Son of Man, the truth will be finally revealed
Again he said to them, "I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come." Then the Jews said, "Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, "Where I am going, you cannot come"?" He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he." They said to him, "Who are you?" Jesus said to them, "Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him." They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him." As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
The symbol of Israel's sin, the serpent that with its poisonous bite, is changed into an instrument of salvation. Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, so that all who look upon it admitting their sin and regretting their offense were cured by the Lord. Acknowledgment of sin purifies the mind and heart, exposing all excuses and calling evil by its proper name "sin" i.e. an offence against the God who guides our lives. The people come to a new outlook when they admit that sin brings sorrow and death, that their grumbling is destructive, and that their contempt for the Manna provoked God's anger. This bronze serpent has a somewhat murky history. Long before Moses cast this figure in copper, the serpent was a popular figurine in Canaanite fertility rituals. It was a serpent that symbolized the devil in Genesis 3. Perhaps it was because of this pagan background that Moses' bronze serpent later became an object of false worship and was destroyed as an idol by King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:4).
Paradoxically the early church recognized in this symbol a sign of Jesus on the cross. Saint Paul wrote: "For our sake God made the sinless one to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). In the goodness, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus we recognize by contrast our own violent and harsh attitudes. The very image of Jesus on the cross shows the effects of human violence but also reveals "the kindness and love of God our Saviour" (Tit 3:4). The "miraculous interchange" of which the liturgy speaks is that while Jesus conforms to us externally (adopting our humanity), we are enabled to conform to him internally, becoming children of God. His goodness forces the poison of our sinfulness out of our system, by his enduring with love the violence of the crucifixion, and through his act of loving self-surrender, we come to belong like Jesus to the Father who is above all.
Trusting in God, they are saved from the fiery furnace
Nebuchadnezzar said to them, "Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?"
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."
Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, "Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?" They answered the king, "True, O king."
He replied, "But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god."
Jesus promises that the truth will make us free
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free"?"
Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father's presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father."
They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does." They said to him, "We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself." Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.
In this drama from the book of Daniel the young men put their trust in God no matter what happens: "If our God can save us, may he save us! But even if he will not, O king, we will not serve your God!" With almost unimaginable serenity they accept the consequences of remaining faithful to their Jewish traditions. "There is no need," they said, "for us to defend ourselves." The issue is very clear to them; they choose integrity at all costs. Then God saved them from being consumed in the furnace and led Nebuchadnezzar to exclaim: "Blessed be the God who delivers the servants that trust in him." Jesus, too, acted with integrity, doing "the will of him who sent me" (John 5:30). Yet, unlike the young men in the fiery furnace, he was not saved from the violent death of crucifixion. However, even in such a death the Father in heaven was answering his prayers. As contradictory as it seems, Jesus "was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when perfected he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." (Hebr 5:7-9)
It also was by such unconditional, loyal obedience that Jesus proved his relationship as a son to the Father. "I did not come of my own will; it was he who sent me." His total response, according to St. John, His devotion to the Father's loving will, was at the core of Jesus' life, his conscious being. Jesus' very existence centered on this sense of total loyalty as the Father's Son. Our identity as Christian disciples flows from this spirit of integrity. As in today's gospel: "If you live according to my teaching, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." At crucial moments in our lives we may be expected to be heroic, self-sacrificing like the young men in the book of Daniel, or indeed like Jesus himself. If we can respond with all our heart, our true self will emerge most fully, for Our Lord has given us power to become children of God. And when our final prayer is heard through the act of dying, we will be saved by him for eternal life.
There have been many slogans relating to freedom down through the centuries. Perhaps the most notorious was the Nazi slogan "Work makes free" that hung over the gates of the concentration camps. In today's gospel, Jesus declares, "the truth will make you free." A little later in John's gospel Jesus will say of himself, "I am the truth." Jesus, in other words, is declaring himself to be the source of true freedom. As he declares in today's gospel, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." It is only through Jesus that we can enter into what St Paul calls "the glorious freedom of the children of God." It is Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that he pours into our hearts, that frees us from sin and all that diminishes us, and empowers us to live as God intends us to live, in ways that correspond to what is best and deepest in us. True freedom is the freedom to love, the freedom to give of ourselves to others as Jesus gave of himself to us. It is for this freedom we pray during these final weeks of Lent.
First Reading: Genesis 17:3-9
Abraham believe in God's promises, despite delays and disappointments
Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."
God said to Abraam, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations."
Gospel: John 8:51-59
The mysterious relationship between Jesus and Abraham
Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death." The Jews said to him, "Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, 'Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.' Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?" Jesus answered, "If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whomyou say, 'He is our God,' though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Abraham's Enduring Promises
The promises of Abraham reached forward into the future, even into centuries beyond our present age. In them God anticipates a day when all the nations of the world will find themselves united as though they were blood-relatives, all of them offspring of their one father Abraham. The different races of planet earth cannot establish this bond through common genealogy or blood descent. It can happen only by sharing the same faith and hopes and that means faith in land promised equally to all persons, faith in a way of salvation where no single group travels alone, faith in a common sharing of earth's riches, faith in the one divine dignity of all persons.
The promises to Abraham, when compared to the later exodus out of Egypt under Moses, have a much more universal sweep. They are reflected in the kingdom of David, when Israel opened lively diplomatic relations on an international scale and absorbed many customs and values of their neighbours .. with God's blessing. The promises to Abraham advise us to think big, to respond openly, to seek and dream the divine ideal of one world, one people.
The words of Jesus reach back not only to the age of the great patriarch (1850 B.C.) but even behind that first day in Israel's history to the eternal day before creation. "Before Abraham came to be, I AM." Jesus identifies himself with Yahweh. This name for God, very special and sacred to Israel, means in the Hebrew language "He who is always there."
In St. John's great message, Jesus is more than the fulfilment of Abraham's faith and hope; Jesus was one with God who planned for the day of Abraham before the universe was created, directed world history so that Abraham would be the single hope of all people, led Israel's history forward till this eternal Word became incarnate as Jesus, son of Mary. As the great I AM, Jesus is the Lord of our history. His hopes and plans will remain at least partially unfulfilled until all men and women are one. We are reminded of St. Paul's famous statement: "All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with him. There is no longer among you Jew or Greek, slave or free person, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, if you belong to Christ, you are the descendants of Abraham, which means you inherit all that was promised." (Gal 3:27-29)
Though many plot against God's servant, he is safe in God's hands
For I hear many whispering: "Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!" All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. "Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him."
But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonour will never be forgotten.
O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.
Amid growing danger to Jesus' life, he withdraws to a quiet place
The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, "I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God." Jesus answered, "Is it not written in your law, "I said, you are gods"? If those to whom the word of God came were called "gods," and the scripture cannot be annulled, can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, "I am God's Son"? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. Many came to him, and they were saying, "John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true." And many believed in him there.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus were hounded by friends and even close relatives who turned against them. Former companions can change their attitudes when they feel their own personal interests or security threatened. Jeremiah speaks of God who "has rescued the life of the poor" and Jesus cures the helpless, the blind and the crippled, the deaf and the mute, and returns them to full vigour on the Sabbath. Both were condemned because they each upset the accepted legal system by shifting concern from ritualism to caring for actual people. Their opponents were not bad people but were deeply misguided. They knew their Biblical laws by heart. But these had become ossified, no longer meaningful truths that must fit in with the mercy of God.
If taken rigidly, the commandments of religion can become like idols, worshipped in place of God. They can be quoted to dictate how God must view each act of behaviour. Religious people sometimes find a bogus security in unchangeable rules. Our present pope Francis has warned against this trap. "To be ruled by Christ" he said "means always reaching out what lies ahead." And Jesus clearly condemned a hidebound view of the commandments when he compared the legalist Pharisees to "white-washed tombs" (Matt 23:27). Such rigidity is prompted by "their father the devil" (John 8:44).
We can offset any judgmental tendency we may have, first by a common-sense awareness of today's culture and of the needs of others. Then we must root ourselves in God, trying to discern his will, in a spirit of compassion and truth. Jeremiah calls God the One who probes mind and heart. Jesus is rooted in his intimate awareness of that God: "the Father is in me and I in him." We can echo Peter's prophetic awareness, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
In today's gospel, the Jews strongly oppose Jesus because of the claims he makes about himself. "You are only a man and you claim to be God," they said. Jesus goes on to say of himself, "I am the Son of God… the Father is in me and I am in the Father." Jesus claims to have a unique relationship with God, such that whoever sees him sees God, the Father. The author of the fourth gospel puts it very simply when he writes, the Word who was God became flesh, became enfleshed Word. Jesus, in other words, is God in human form. That conviction is at the core of our Christian faith. Jesus is the revelation of God, and because of that, in the words of the gospel, the good works that he does are the work of the Father. God is doing God's work through Jesus. God will always be something of a mystery to us, but Jesus has unveiled that mystery to a great extent. Jesus has revealed that the mystery of God is, ultimately, the mystery of Love. In the words of the first letter of Saint John, "God is Love." In the words of the gospel, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." That is the wonderful mystery that we will be remembering and celebrating this coming Holy Week.
First Reading: Ezekiel 37:21-28
I will bring them back, and I will cleanse them
Say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.
They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children's children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them forevermore.
Gospel: John 11:45-56
Caiaphas prophecies that one must die for the people
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, "What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?"
Giving it all: the Great Uniting Force
In order that all the dispersed children of God can become one family as the prophet Ezekiel announced, they are not asked to lose anything .. but to freely give all away. Many centuries later, Paul told his gentile converts to "preserve all that is true, admirable, decent, virtuous or worthy of praise." (Phil 4:8). God-given talents and qualities, however, must be shared and thereby further enriched in a covenant of peace, the people's covenant among themselves and with their God.
To share the best that we have is where it pinches. No one of us sweats much over sharing our superfluous items. In fact we are anxious to clean house, give them away or hold a yard-sale, and forget about them. But the Bible does not want us simply to get rid of things; it calls us to share as one family. Ezekiel, always practical minded about details, adds that we be united in politics (one prince), in worship (one sanctuary), and in our sense of belonging (one land).
Jesus interacted with politics, religion and social customs. He cured the sick and the handicapped and broke religious taboos; he threatened political structures, where even the high priest was the appointee of the Romans; he ate and drank with non-observant people. He showed us how to share the best even with those considered the most lowly.
To fulfil his mission in this world, Jesus seemed to lose everything, even life itself. He was killed by the most shameful, excruciating form of execution! Yet, because he lost his life in an act of sharing his best with others, that life was raised up to new glory by God, the all-just, all merciful Father. He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together; He guards them as a shepherd his flock. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will console and gladden them after their sorrow.
My servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, the One in whom my soul delights
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Mary's gesture of love, pouring ointment on Jesus' feet
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus" feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The impulsive, loving gesture done for Jesus by his close friend Miriam or Mary of Bethany (not the same as Mary Magdalene), is so inspirational that it's a wonder Christians have not made more of it in our liturgy. This woman, Miriam, may not yet have seen Jesus in the full light of prophecy, as "a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners who sit in darkness" (1st Reading), or indeed as the world's only Saviour, but she knew and loved him as a man of God, a fearless preacher of truth, love and fairness, and an extraordinary, compassionate healer of many, including herself. For this reason, she honoured and loved him and dared to show her love by that extravagant gesture of anointing him with perfumed oil, to which Judas so coldly objected. Rising to her defence, Jesus interprets her action as a preliminary anointing for his burial. "She bought it for the day of my burial." A little earlier, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas has declared that "One man must die for the nation," and a few verses later Jesus will speak of the need for the seed to die, in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24), and of his imminent "Lifting Up" so that he can draw all people to himself (12:32). Mary's impulsive act of loving generosity is thus given the status of a prophecy, preparing for his sacrificial death.
How strange that this iconic story is so relatively little known, and that it never received sacramental stature in the Church. Vatican teaching has been adamant that whatever kind of quasi-ministry may be implied in this act of anointing by Mary of Bethany, or in Mary Magdalene's later mission of announcing that Jesus was truly risen, does not constitute a basis for women to be ordained to priesthood. Perhaps that's why the Lord's apparently solemn and clear directive, in the parallel passage about Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman in Bethany), that "Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done shall be told, in memory of her" (Mt 26:13 is so little observed. Gospel texts such as these would seem to call us to reconsider what Jesus meant as ministry within his community, nothing to do with status and with power, and all to do with actual loving service.
We are at the beginning of Holy Week during which we reflect on the final journey of Jesus. Most of the people Jesus encountered on that final journey were hostile to him. Yet, according to today's gospel, six days before the feast of Passover during which Jesus was crucified, he experienced great kindness. Not only is he the guest at the table of a family that he loves, one member of that family, Mary, went to great expense to render him a very thoughtful service. She anointed his feet with very expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. A little later in the same gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anticipates that servant gesture of Jesus himself. She gives herself to Jesus in a way that corresponds to how Jesus would give himself to his disciples, and to all of us. Jesus interprets Mary's action as preparing him for his death and burial. At the beginning of the last Week of his life, Jesus experienced great kindness from Mary of Bethany. What Mary did for Jesus we are called to do for each other. On our own journey through life, we may meet people who make our journey more difficult. We will also experience people like Mary who support us on our journey, and, hopefully, we can be for others what Mary was for Jesus, a kindly and generous presence in an often hostile world.
The life of God's servant seems a failure, but it bears great fruit
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength, he says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Jesus warns of betrayals; but those who stay faithful will follow him hereafter
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me." The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?" Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do." Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the festival;" or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, "Where I am going, you cannot come."
Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward." Peter said to him, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
For the first followers of Jesus, his condemnation and brutal execution must surely have seemed like total failure. To those who stood at a distance watching him die on the cross (Mk 15:40) and the others who had fled for safety but who later heard about his crucifixion, it seemed like the end of an inspiring movement that had first filled them with hope and enthusiasm but now seemed only a great delusion. With the death of Jesus, all their hopes based on him as their leader lay in ruins. Whatever predictions he had made about his suffering and subsequent rising had not been taken seriously, either by Peter or the others (Mk 8:32).
Only later, after their glimmering, stuttering visions of his risen presence, did they get to reflecting seriously on Our Lord's predictions. In this they were greatly helped by some studious member of their group who first got the insight that all Jesus' sufferings were foretold in prophecy; and most clearly in the Isaiah poems about God's loving Servant. It suddenly dawned on the early Christians that words first spoken about the whole people of Israel now found their full meaning in Jesus. In him God's message was fulfilled, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Our Lord's apparently futile attempt to renew and purify his Jewish people would not end with the crucifixion. Through this loving outpouring of his life, he achieved more than to "raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel." It's fruit was exactly what, in Saint John's account, it was meant to be: for the sake of people everywhere ("I will draw all people to myself!") The early church saw in Jesus the fulfilment of Isaiah 49:6, "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
In his Last Supper story, John interweaves the two strands: apparent failure and ultimate triumph. Even among the Twelve, Jesus has to contend with one who will betray him, another who will deny him, and their general incomprehension of what he wishes to tell them on the eve of his Passion. And still the Evangelist is convinced that Jesus himself faced this supreme trial with a firm hope that through the willing acceptance of the Cross, "God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once." This is also our hope, as a Christian community gathered around his memory, in loving prayer, this Holy Week.
Today's gospel portrays responses to Jesus on the part of his disciples as he begins the final days of his earthly life. Judas heads off into the dark, while the disciple Jesus loved is described as reclining next to Jesus, literally, "close to his chest." In his very first chapter the evangelist described Jesus as "close to the chest of the Father" (or in the Father's bosom). It seems that this beloved disciple has a relationship with Jesus similar to Jesus' own relationship with the Father. The evangelist presents him as the kind of person we are all called to become. This disciple is not named in John's gospel, because we are all invited to put our own name on him; we are to identify with him and become like him. For the fourth evangelist, we are all called to the same relationship with Jesus as the beloved disciple had. We are called to be as close to Jesus as he is to his Father. That is why Jesus goes on to say, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; remain in my love, as I remain in his love." He wants us to have that same relationship with him as he has with his Father. That is something worth pondering, during this Holy Week.
The Suffering Servant trusts in God for rescue
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens, wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Christ knows that Judas will betray him, yet lets him share at his table
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, "The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'" So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me." And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?" He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man must go as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" He replied, "You have said so."
This is "Spy Wednesday," so called from the Lord's betrayal by Judas Iscarioth, one of his own inner circle. Poor Judas was doubtless talented, probably very astute, and had in his youth some spark of idealism; and yet when it came to the test he proved treacherous, unreliable, profoundly untrustworthy. The Gospels offer a few clues that may suggest what led the misguided Apostle towards that ultimate act of treachery: selling Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. We might even feel a twinge of pity for Judas, about whom Jesus spoke those chilling words, "It would have been better for that man not to have been born!" But rather than spend time trying to explain or analyse the level Judas' guilt, or trying to figure out his mixed motivations, it would be more fruitful to examine some ways in which we ourselves are untrustworthy and in need of the grace of repentance. The story of Judas is a sobering lesson for us all. "There but for the grace of God go I!" we may well say.
It is also a day to pray especially for all those who have tragically taken their own lives, trying to escape from the depths of despair; and to pray for grace, compassion and friendship for any poor soul who may be tempted to suicide. We could show our solidarity with the Samaritans who offer counselling to people in deep trouble, and even invest some of our time in being good listeners, where people can find help in time of trouble. On the example of Jesus, each of us could ask the Lord God to help us deepen our discipleship, and to grant us the gift of encouragement, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word."
The early church was very aware that Jesus was betrayed to his enemies by one of his closest associates. Even though this was a very uncomfortable truth for the early church, there was no attempt to gloss over the disturbing truth that, in the words of today's gospel, Jesus was betrayed by someone who dipped his hand into the dish with Jesus, someone who was an intimate. The gospel declares that when Jesus announced that one of those sharing table with him would betray him, everyone present was "greatly distressed." To be betrayed by someone you trust is very distressing for the one betrayed and for all those associated with him.
Some of us may have had the experience of our trust being betrayed. We confide in someone and they use that information against us. This week tells us that, in the case of Jesus, human betrayal did not have the last word; God had the last word by raising his Son from the dead. God brought good out of the evil of betrayal and the many other evils that Jesus endured. God can also bring good out of the negativity that we sometimes have to endure from others. These days invite us to trust that God can work in life-giving ways even in those dark experiences that are contrary to what God desires for us.
Israel's departure from Egypt, and how this is to be celebrated for all time
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?" He answered, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Then Moses was afraid and thought, "Surely the thing is known."
When we proclaim Christ's saving death in bread and wine, it makes him ever present with us
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
The example of Jesus washing their feet shows us how to live
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples" feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean." After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord-and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
When Jesus says, "Do this in memory of me!" clearly he means us to understand what "This" was and is. What exactly had he in mind through the symbols of the broken bread and the shared cup of wine? We need to get behind the formal Catechism answer about the "holy sacrifice of the Mass," and think anew about the meaning of that paschal meal. The Last Supper was celebrated in the context of the Jewish Passover meal and tonight's first reading explains the meaning of this feast. In words and symbols it recalled the greatest saving act of God in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt, setting God's people free from slavery. It opens us up to the idea that God enters our lives to save us and set us free from whatever oppresses us. So "opened up," we are prepared for the good news that the definitive saving work of God is done in and by Jesus Christ.
We reflect this evening on what St John calls the "hour" of Jesus, the high point of his saving work, the new exodus, his passing from this world to the Father through which he brought into being a new relationship between God and us human beings. Sharing in this new exodus is our ultimate liberation, freeing us from enslavement to material things and petty self-interest and setting us free to love generously, the very purpose for which we were originally created in the image of God. Through his love-without-limit, in his own utterly unselfish heart Jesus overcame all human selfishness and with it, human sin. Precisely this love, which the Father wants us all to have and to share, is the very heart of Jesus' exodus. It is just this self-giving kind of love which Jesus wishes to be kept alive among us. With his disciples in the Last Supper he anticipated his death for us on the cross, giving himself in the sacramental symbols of bread and wine. From then on the celebration of our Eucharist is the living memorial through which we are joined to Our Lord's saving act of love. It is our way to share in the new exodus, to be freed from the isolation of self-concern so that they become fully human as God wants us to be.
St John implies that we are united with Jesus by letting him wash our feet, accepting his great act of loving service. Having accepted the gift we must embrace it as a value to practice in our lives. What Jesus does for us in his Passion shows us how to live. In some real sense, we must live like Jesus, "for" God and others. There is a close link between Jesus washing their feet and then their going on to wash the feet of others in the future. If the Eucharist is the place where the Lord washes our feet, daily life is the place where we can wash the feet of others. Eucharist leads to life leads to Eucharist. True Eucharist piety must lead to service of others. Jesus who broke the bread of the Eucharist also washed the feet of his disciples. We must follow his example both at the altar of the Eucharist and at the altar of life.
Thought for the day (from Fr. Kieran O'Mahony)
There is much more to the washing of the feet than an example of humble service. The act of loving service goes to the heart of Jesus' death and resurrection. The "lifting up" in John's Gospel is truly an act of loving service. The words at the start of this reading make that clear: Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father. These words make it clear that whatever happens next points most deeply to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Can we accept such astonishing love from God?
The humiliations of the suffering servant, who bore the sins of his people
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him-so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals, so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
We have in Christ a great high priest who understands us fully. By his sufferings he accomplished our salvation
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. 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.
With dignity and strength, Jesus goes the royal road to Calvary
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go." This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken, "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me." Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, "You are not also one of this man's disciples, are you?" He said "I am not." Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?" Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, "You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not." One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" They shouted in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him." So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.
Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, "The King of the Jews," but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfil what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? .. In the words of that haunting song, sometimes it does indeed cause me to tremble, when I hear those words from the cross, "It is Consummated!" Consummated, completed, achieved to the last degree, engraved forever on the memory of mankind. "I have come to seek and to save what was lost, The Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve." His life was one long act of loving service, and now it ends on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem's walls, with a final act of total self-surrender to the Father, on our behalf. Nothing like it was ever accomplished before, and its fruits go on forever.
The marvel is that, in another sense, this hour of his death remains powerfully alive in the hearts of all who trust in him, this point of total, utter contact between us and almighty God. The utterly self-giving, loving, loyal spirit of Jesus at the point of leaving this world is shared and handed on. In the crucifixion, all is consummated, because by it he draws us into contemplation of the grace and mercy of God in our lives in every circumstance. As Joseph Mary Plunkett put it in a poem written in 1916, I see His Blood Upon the Rose
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
The poet finds in Christ the key for coping with sorrows in life, appreciating God's presence with us every step of the way, and never more so than when we are called to share in the cross:
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
Yet in another sense the wonderful saving work of Jesus is not completed until it is recognised, welcomed and absorbed by each of his faithful followers, and until we in turn bring the spirit of his boundless compassion to bear in our world, reaching out as he did to bring our fellow human beings, and especially those most in need, into the warmth of God's family circle.
In John's Gospel, Jesus dies with the words "It is accomplished." This Gospel beings with the words "In the beginning" and in John 20 we are told that the Risen Lord "breathed upon" the apostles. These details remind us consistently of Genesis 1-2, where "In the beginning God created heaven and earth" (Gen 1:1); "on the seventh day God had completed the work he had been doing" (Gen 2:2); blew the breath of life into his nostrils, (Gen 2:7). The evangelist is teaching us "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17).
(Kieran O'Mahony osa)
Calvary sets in consoling relief the experience of all who suffer, whether the nightmare of physical pain or the emotional trauma of significant loss or the prospect of imminent death. The human Jesus, struggling to come to terms with the reality of his predicament, echoes every human experience of suffering and of loss and reflects the complexity and confusion of emotions that attend all those caught in the slipstream of pain and loss and death.
This Friday, in homes and in hospitals all over Ireland, those who experience pain and desolation in whatever form, all those who like Mary stand at the foot of the cross, will sense something of the complexity of emotions that were present on Calvary: the same confusion, the same disillusionment, the same desolation, the same anger, the same reproach. How many indeed this Friday will, in whatever shape or form, echo the great lamentation of Jesus as he died on the cross: My God, what have you done to me, answer me?
All who are suffering in whatever form this Good Friday, all who struggle to make sense of what, by any human estimate, seems to be senseless will find an echo of their pain in the sufferings of Jesus because the contradiction of the cross is that what it represents, the sufferings of Christ, continues to save and to heal and to comfort.
Contemplating Jesus on the cross brings comfort and resilience and strength to those who need it. And it reminds us that it is through his suffering that everyone and everything is redeemed, that the power and the presence and promise of God are now accessible to us in our suffering and in our need. Contemplating Jesus on the Cross reminds us that in our present frail and redeemed bodies we carry the saving power of God. Kiss the cross on Good Friday, not for God's sake but for your own.
from a Good Friday reflection by Brendan Hoban