Ordinary Sundays of Year A (1-34)
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.
A courageous servant of God will help others to keep the Covenant
Thus says the Lord:
"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.
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."
After his baptism of Jesus went about doing good. Baptism sends us out to do good
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him."
After being baptised, Jesus was filled with the Spirit, to do the work of God, his Father
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom am well pleased."
I've had the privilege of leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on several occasions. One of the highlights was an immersion in the river Jordan, when I and each of my fellow pilgrims renewed the promises of our baptism. It was a moving moment, and one could envision the Spirit descending, and the Father confirming each of us as his son or daughter. Many of those who experienced it remember that moment with great emotion, and with a sense of renewed commitment.
The baptism of Jesus is a moment of special grace in our story of salvation. Not only did he join us in our sinful state, but the Father and the Spirit are seen and heard to be there with him. The gospel uses the simple phrase that "the heavens were opened," but it is a powerful statement. Later on, when Jesus completed his life-journey on Calvary, we read how "the veil of the Temple was rent in two." Now at last we were free to enter the Holy of Holies. Today's gospel is the beginning of a journey, which, through our own baptism, each of us is asked to travel. It is a journey full of purpose.
Each of us needs a sense of purpose and pattern to our Christian living. When I set out on a journey I need to have a definite idea of where I intend going, and how to make the journey. Peter summarised the purpose and pattern of Christ's life when he said, "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him." We are invited to make his purpose our own.
A man was down the country travelling along by-roads where the signposts were few and far between. After a while, unsure of his directions, he decided to ask the first person he saw. When he came across a farmer driving his cows home for milking he stopped the car and asked if he was on the right road to Mallow. The farmer told him that he certainly was on the Mallow road. The driver thanked him and was about to move forward when the farmer added, in a nonchalant way, "You're on the right road, but you're going in the wrong direction!'
God is preparing his people Israel to become a light for all nations
The Lord said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
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 honored 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."
Paul greets his converts in Corinth, who are called to be saints
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sos'thenes, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist announces the One who will baptise us with the Holy Spirit
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." John also testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
Two thoughts dominate the readings: first, John's dramatic call to behold the Lamb of God; second, that we do a good personal stock-taking during this first month of the new year, look where we are going, and make the practical resolutions that might raise the quality of our lives. The Baptist urges us to ask what are we fundamentally about and then seek to reset our lives. And St Paul reminds us that we are "called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
An honest stock-taking of our spirituality may unveil the selfish, ego-centric motives that often direct our lives. To rise above these we need to recognise something outside of and larger than ourselves, the God who cares for us and for the whole human community. Can we listen to John's call to restore what is broken, and Jesus' call, to bring light to the world? Do we see that it is with our cooperation that the Lamb can remove the "sin of the world?"
Facing such truths is always difficult; it calls us to not just drift along with this world's evil, always taking the line of least resistance. Discipleship is urgent and costly, but it is also possible and is the way towards the deeper joy and fulfilment that our soul is longing for. If we properly hear the Baptist as he witnesses to Christ, our response will be a stock-taking that goes to the root of our being. It may even reveal to us the truth that sets us free.
Isaiah foretells a Saviour for the people who walked in darkness
In the former time God brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
Even in the early Church there was disunity, through rivalry and schism
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apol'los," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Jesus calls his the fishermen to leave everything to follow him
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John , in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Today's gospel reports the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. John had been arrested, so that was the end of his active input to the religious revival of his people. The gospel tells us that instead of going to Nazareth (in other words, instead of going home), Jesus went to Capernaum. The show was on the road, as it were. Aren't the words used by the prophet powerful to describe what happens when Jesus began his ministry,"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who lived in the land where death cast its shadow, a light has shone." Jesus would later refer to himself as the light of the world; and, in commissioning his apostles, he would tell them that they, too, were to be light to the world.
The message of Jesus is a simple one. "Turn from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of heaven is near." When I was growing up the word "vocation" was highjacked by priests and religious. It has been given back to the laity, and more and more baptised people are actually experiencing themselves as being called. There is nothing dramatic about this. It just means that I don't just stumble into the Christian way by default, but that God has chosen me: "I have called you by name; you are mine." "You didn't choose me; no, I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that would remain." If the gospel is now, and I am every person in the gospel, then, through the gospel of today, I am being called again.
"Turn from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of God is near." There is a story told about Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting of the Last Supper. Leonardo searched far and wide for what he considered to be an ideal model for each person in the scene. He began with a fine-looking young man, full of vitality, and chose him as a perfect model for Jesus. He followed with other models for each of the apostles, and the work took quite a while. He left Judas till last, not knowing who could represent him. Finally, he came across a tramp sleeping rough, whom he thought that would probably sell his soul for money. Leonardo persuaded him to come to his studio. While the work was in progress, both of them came to the same realisation. This man had been in the same studio before, representing Jesus; but he had gone astray, lost his way, and was now on Skid Row. It was a shock to de Vinci, and a sharp prod to conversion for the man.
Theme: The beatitudes are the basic Christian ideals, not a moral code or a set of rules to avoid God's punishment. They aim to raise our perspective above the constraints of self-interest and gain.
For I will leave among you a people humble and lowly
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord's wrath.
For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord - the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord."
The spirit of the Kingdom: the Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Beatitudes cause a lot of soul-searching for Christians, evidenced by a certain feeling of unease every time we hear them. Yet Jesus intended them as an encouragement to us. They make no demands, they are not a law, they do not lay a new yoke on the disciple's shoulders. They are a description in eight striking sentences of the marvellous freedom which the truly devout soul enjoys. Jesus is speaking from experience, because he himself lived the Beatitudes in his own life, and it is only by living them also in our lives that we can discover how true they are.
Although they are not set commands, they are nevertheless revolutionary; and how revolutionary can be seen when they are compared with the beatitudes advocated by the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. These latter describe as happy the man who has a good wife, obedient children, faithful friends, the one who succeeds and prospers in all he puts his hand to. But surprisingly, according to Jesus, the happy and blessed are not the propertied, not the contented or the successful, but rather the poor, the hungry, the mourners, the despised and persecuted. We may begin to understand this if we can answer the vexed question, "Whom did Jesus have in mind when he spoke about the "poor in spirit"?" Was it those lacking in material goods, or those with plenty of resources without being over attached to them, or perhaps the people who were convinced that material things mean nothing and that God means everything? The fact is that the vast majority of the population of the Graeco-Roman world in those times enjoyed littlematerial prosperity.
In line with the Old Testament, it would seem that St Matthew's "poor in spirit" was a reference, not so much to those lacking worldly possessions, but rather to those who found themselves in humble circumstances and continued to make do without complaint, those whose spirits remained free despite their lowly social standing and their servile behaviour, which were in such stark contrast to the arrogance and assertiveness of those who controlled the sources of wealth, and also were its principal beneficiaries. Hundreds of years prior to Christ we read in one of the Psalms, "This poor man called, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his distress" (Ps 34:6). Such a person willingly became detached from material things because he knew that they would not bring him complete happiness or security, and so he turned to, and relied on God, for he was confident that God alone would give him help and hope and strength. However this does not mean that material poverty is a good thing. It simply is not. Jesus, fr example, would never regard that state as blessed where people live in slums without having enough to eat, and where health degenerates because conditions are all against it.
Paradoxically, it is also true that Jesus himself never initiated any social reform, or campaign to assist the poor and the exploited. "Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven" he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:19+). So firmly did he refuse to be cast in any such role that he was even referred to as the friend of publicans or tax collectors, themselves the greatest exploiters of people at that time. The truth is that despite his miraculous feeding of the multitudes Jesus' concern never stopped short at the material goods, or lack of them, in peoples" lives.
It was on people themselves, the human person as he, or she, stood in relation to God, that he focused his mission. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well" (Mt 6:33). And there is absolutely no doubt that his sympathy, his concern, went out to the humble, the toilers and heavily laden, the outcasts like sinners and publicans who lived a despised existence on the verge of Jewish society. The people who have only God to turn to, the powerless, those who mourn, those who are persecuted, abused and calumniated on account of Christ, all these will be comforted. They will have mercy shown them. Theirs will be the kingdom of heaven; in them the love of God will reveal itself as the meaning of life; they will be called children of God, they shall see God.
Some years ago I made my one and only visit to Palestine. I had always thought it was a barren and desert land. I probably went at the best time of the year, towards late April. I was quite surprised at how beautiful it was and particularly the places Jesus chose for the various happenings recorded in the gospel. One sunny morning I climbed the hill of the beatitudes overlooking the lake and sat down there reflecting on today's reading. The hill was ablaze with flowers. It suddenly dawned on me that Jesus Christ was not only the Son of God but he also had a marvellous eye for the beauties of nature. The beauty of his words on than occasion were fittingly matched by the beauty of his surroundings.
Yet, what he said there was extraordinarily radical. How his listeners reacted to it then, I have no idea. I have some idea what the reaction would be today. Imagine a father or mother giving this list as advice to their eighteen year old son or daughter as they set out to make their way in the modem world. Were they to suggest that the attitudes to get on were the following, to be attached to poverty, to be gentle, to be activists for human rights and peace etc, their offspring might be forgiven for thinking their parents had gone crazy.
If they were poor in spirit, that is not dependent on others, especially people of influence, to get on, they wouldn't go far. How often parents have said to me because they think the priest has influence: "You wouldn't put in a word with so-and-so for my boy?" How often we imply if we do not say to our children:
"It's not what you know but who you know that counts." Whatever else gentleness or meekness may achieve, it won't help you climb the ladder of success in the company. To do that you need to be pushy and aggressive and you may well need to be ruthless as well. We know well what happens to those "who hunger and thirst after right." Their cases are well documented in history books. They end up, like St Paul or Andrei Sakharov, in a prison cell. Not many like Nelson Mandela become president after twenty-eight years in prison. Most finish up in an unmarked prison grave unknown and forgotten. The attitudes listed by Christ in his sermon are exactly the opposite of what the world demands of the successful. As St Paul says: "It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones God has chosen."
We speak a lot nowadays about "practising Catholics." We have reduced practice, conveniently for ourselves, to one single solitary item. And one that is not too demanding at that, attendance at Sunday Mass. There is no mention of that in the sermon on the mount. Christ did not set up a moral code with the "i's" dotted and the "t's" crossed. He probably knew we were good at that ourselves, if the Pharisees were anything to go by. He simply pointed out the attitudes needed to enter the kingdom of heaven.
These "happy attitudes" are the charter of the kingdom. They are ideals and like all ideals well-nigh unattainable. What is the point of them then? They are the heights we aim at and measure our standards against. Fortunately for us, history throws up rare examples of individuals who incarnate one or other of these beatitudes, like a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There are many others whom we know nothing about "whose godly deeds have not failed." As St Paul says in today's reading: "You, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God's doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom."
Today's gospel, naming the beatitudes, is like a summary of Jesus' teaching. It is the gospel in a condensed form and, therefore, requires a great deal of teasing Out to get to the simple point-by-point message that it contains.
We are all familiar with political manifestos. These are statements about where the political party is at, what they stand for, what is in it for you if you vote for them, and what they intend to achieve if you elect them. Many people are quite cynical about politicians, and politics in general. No matter how sincere their promises are, many of them fail to deliver on those promises. Today's gospel is Jesus' Manifesto. The important thing for us to remember is that, in the words of Jesus, "heaven and earth will pass away before my word passes away." In other words this is a manifesto in which he certainly will keep his side of the bargain.
There is a lot of teaching contained in today's gospel, and it would not be possible for us now to reflect on it at any great length. Let me try to put the beatitudes into simple ordinary words, and that, in itself, might help us. They are blessed who are detached, and have a humble attitude. Even if they have great riches, the riches do not possess them, nor are they boastful and proud about them. Grief is the price you pay for love, so, if you have any capacity for love, then you will need to carry some tissues with you. If you never want to cry at a funeral, don't ever love anyone. The meek and the gentle are the opposite to the bully, and they are the ones who are really powerful. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King refused to fight back, so the only way to stop them was to kill them.
They are good people who have a real desire for justice and fair play, and who are prepared to ensure that this is available to others. As you treat others, so you yourself will be treated, so if you want mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, then you must begin by giving this to others. A pure heart is not devious, deceitful, selfish, and cunning. A pure heart reflects an aspect of God. Jesus did not say that they are blessed who have peace. Rather did he commend those who build bridges of peace and reconciliation between others, and between themselves and others?
Jesus warns us that, if we follow him, we will be treated like he was. There is a cost in Pentecost, and following him means taking up the cross. Right from the beginning when Simeon took the child in his arms in the temple, he announced that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction. Everything he said, everything he did, and everything he stood for, was a contradiction to this world and its values. Those with power, prestige, and control were threatened by him. The religious leaders who ran the show, and who were the final arbiters as to what was right and wrong, were so threatened by him that they planned and succeeded in killing him.
Response: There is a certain sense of cleansing in today's gospel. It is about letting go of things in our lives that are not life giving, and about becoming wholesome and free. It is a programme for living, a blueprint for inner peace and happiness. Religion runs the risk of being about rules and regulations and, ultimately, about control. Spirituality is totally the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is about surrender. Spirituality is about letting go, knowing that, in death, I must let go of everything anyhow.
To live life more fully, it is necessary to be as free from outside controls as possible. I can have wealth, but it need not control me, and drive me in a compulsive way towards accumulating more and more wealth. When I forgive someone, I am setting myself free. Having a resentment against another is a case of me drinking poison, and I'm expecting the other person to die! When I am authentic, or pure of heart, I become a life-giving person, and I mediate life to others. It's rather frightening to think that if I am inauthentic, lam mediating death to others.
When I take Jesus and his message seriously, and decide to follow him and to belong to his kingdom, then I can be sure and certain of meeting opposition. Quite a lot of that opposition will come from within myself. Self-preservation is a fundamental human instinct. Following Jesus involves dying - to self, to my creature comforts, to my pride, etc. If I let my head take over, rather than responding from the heart, then I risk getting sidetracked into endless cul-de-sacs. Prudence will advice me to hold back, and not get too involved. Procrastination will cause me to do nothing, really, because I will end up not doing anything today that I can put off till to-morrow.
This is one of those days when I wish I had copies of today's gospel, and a highlight marker, which I could give to each of you as you leave. I would ask you to read, and re-reread the passage many times. Then as parts of it become clearer to you, you could highlight those. The whole process, of course, could bear fruit only if the Holy Spirit is invited to lead me, to teach me, and to enlighten me.
Have we ever taken time out to reflect on how we are living our life? Part of the weaknesses of our human condition is that it blinds us to the reality of how we are. I could be a bully, and be the only one around who doesn't know that. Part of the disease of alcoholism, for example, is that it is the only disease known to man or woman that denies its own existence. Every dog in the street knows that John is an alcoholic, but he himself just cannot see that. It's his wife's fault, it's the stress of work, it's the need he has to take a break, and be good to himself, etc. Everything except the simple truth of looking at himself in a mirror, and saying, "You are where you are right now because of yourself, and the things that you do." It is a good thing, from time to time, to take the lamp of truth and go inside, and see what's happening there.
Today's gospel is all about blessings. It is about a whole shower of blessings, when I make myself available to receive them. I open my heart, and I ask the Holy Spirit to imprint the words of today's gospel on my heart. I accept the words as a guide to healthy and wholesome living, and a way to the life God intends for me.
To be right in God's sight we must share our blessings with the poor
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. 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.
We are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, and not by our own merits
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Salt of the earth; the light of the world
Jesus said to his disciples,
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
In India when two people meet, instead of shaking hands as we do in the West, they have a graceful custom of joining their hands, as if in prayer, and bowing towards each other, a gesture which appears so meaningful and full of respect. Perhaps the best way to counter the sign of the clenched fist, mentioned today by Isaiah, is with the sign of the joined hands, which denotes generosity and respect, and one might even say readiness to pray for others. If you allow your life to be moulded by such attitudes, then indeed "your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows become like the noonday." The gospel is even more emphatic when it says, "Your light must shine before others, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven."
There might seem, however, to be a contradiction between this saying about "letting your light shine," and the fact that Christ spent all his own life--with the exception of three years--in the obscurity of the remote village of Nazareth, and that seemingly with little effect, for the inhabitants refused obstinately to see him as anything other than the carpenter, the son of Mary. So much so, as St Mark tells us, that Jesus himself was amazed at their incredulity. "He could work no miracle there because of their lack of faith," (Mk 6:5f). How consistent is Jesus, if he cautions me not to hide my light under a tub, while all that time at Nazareth he seemed to act like the man in his own parable, who received but one talent and was condemned for not putting it to good use. The message of his quiet life in Nazareth is not easy to unravel. What Jesus was called upon to practise at Nazareth was the heroism of the ordinary, the daily, often dull, routine, which requires its own kind of courage. Nazareth then was the scene of a hidden life, the ordinary everyday life of a family, made up of work and prayer, marked only by hidden virtues, and only God and Christ's closest relatives and neighbours were witnesses to any of it. Here in fact we have mirrored the lives of the majority of us. What sets Jesus apart from the rest of us is that he possessed the one basic talent, beside which all others are worthless. This was his ability to remain in God, to anchor his whole life firmly in the Father, to let the Father be the guiding force in his life. In his own words, "The Son can do only what he sees the Father doing, and whatever the Father does the Son does too" (Jn 5:19). But this close relationship with God is not something we can earn, or plan for ourselves. It is God's miracle, God's doing. It is like the man in the parable, who scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps or when he is awake, the seed is germinating, sprouting, growing. But how, he does not know. Concealment, we might even say, is the way God's glory is revealed in the world. So for the people of Nazareth, Jesus would remain just "the carpenter;" while it was only through the mystery of the resurrection that the light of Christ's true identity was revealed to his chosen disciples.
So it was too with many of the great saints, who never tried to create an impression of holiness, but strove inwardly to remain always close to God, "in loving attentive expectancy," said St John of the Cross. These words could also describe the short life of another great Carmelite saint. Therese of the Child Jesus died at the age of 24, after nine years in her Convent at Lisieux. Very few people took notice. According to her sister Pauline, several of the nuns even said that Teresa had achieved nothing during her time as a Carmelite. Yet within less than thirty years she had been canonised a saint before a huge throng in St Peter's Square in Rome. Two years later, Teresa Martin who had never once left her convent was proclaimed Patroness of the Foreign Missions. How did this come about? Reflecting on St Paul's assertion that there are three virtues which endure, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love, Teresa saw her mission in life. "In the heart of my mother, the Church," she said, "I shall be love." And in the concealment of her convent God's glory was to be revealed in a special way before the whole world.
Theme: Using freedom well
It is not our misdeeds which accuse us before God, but our hearts, fractured and divided as they are. Jesus insists that we go deeper than our external deeds. The vital question is what is going on in our hearts, our thoughts and motivations? The teaching is presented using various examples, presented sometimes with great simplicity, other times with irony and wit.
To act well and faithfully is a matter of our own choice
If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water;stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him,and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.
We can know the power of the cross by the wisdom that comes from God
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him," God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
We must obey the spirit, and not just the letter of the law
Jesus said to his disciples:
"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. For 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.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
We notice a potentially fruitful tension between the Gospel and the first reading from Sirach. While Jesus makes the commandments even more demanding, Sirach claims that we can keep the commandments if only we really want to. Both readings are very direct and there's no missing the message.
One approach to today's Scriptures would be to take them as pointers and ideals for Christian morality. Jesus forbids not merely murder, as the most extreme form of disregard for another person, but also lesser forms of injuring others. What unites the three faults he lists (losing one's temper, using insulting names and of refusing to forgive) is that in each case the other's feelings are trampled underfoot. The importance of forgiveness is shown by the fact that it comes before strictly religious duties, and presumably the same priority is assigned to the other two matters. So the point Jesus makes is that one must respect not simply people's right to life but also their right to dignity and self-respect.
Then he speaks about sexual purity, but broadening it out to purity of intention in general. A mere legal observance is utterly insufficient for Jesus. The words about self mutilation have never been understood literally by the Church and are best understood as a parable to express vividly the disastrous effects of sin. The correction he makes of the Old Law disallows an abuse which Moses tolerated, namely remarriage after divorce. The exceptive clause ("except on the ground of unchastity") has long been debated, but its main interpretation in the Catholic Church is that it refers to a previous marriage that was prohibited by Jewish laws. The only divorce permitted is one where there was no real marriage, and Jesus was simply reaffirming the sanctity of the marriage bond, as in Genesis "the two shall become one flesh" -- a loving, interdependent unity.
The prohibition of oaths has not been taken as literally by the Catholic Church as it has by some other Christians. Jesus held that oaths should not be necessary at all, if there is a general a atmosphere of trust and truth-telling. In such a society reinforcement by oaths would not be needed. This it is an atmosphere of openness and mutual confidence which Jesus promoted. What he teaches by his corrections of the Law is a morality of values held from the heart.
Theme: We naturally resent those who do us wrong. But nurtured hatred can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be more forgiving.
God calls each believer to love his neighbour as her/himself
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 not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt youself. 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 Church is the body of believers and the temple of God
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are.
Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."
So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apol'los or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.
The ultimate ideal: Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
Jesus said to his disciples, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"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."
In the teaching of many preachers some time ago, God was presented as an ever-vigilant watcher, with a warning finger in front of it, and written underneath, the words, "God sees you." It may well have been an attempt to express visually the feelings of job in the Old Testament, where he became obsessed and frightened by the thought that God was scrutinising his every action. "Will you never take your eyes off me, long enough for me to swallow my spittle?," he cried (Job 7:19). Or it could have been an illustration of a saying in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, "Their ways are always under his eye, they cannot be hidden from his sight" (17:15).
But such a concept of God, instead of drawing souls to him, can also have disastrous results on the mind and heart, as for example in the case of the French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He stated in his autobiography that, in the middle of an innocent boyhood prank, he suddenly realised that, in his own words, "God sees me." And this so frightened him that, by deliberate choice, he cursed God, and became a bitter atheist for the rest of his life. In his writings, for part of which he refused the offer of a Nobel Prize, he painted a picture of man as a responsible but lonely human being adrift in a meaningless world, with a terrifying freedom to choose, that brought with it anguish or enduring anxiety. But God, from whom we come and to whom we go, instead of fixing a cold and calculating eye on us, bestows life and joy and, if we but have faith in him, a sense of being cared for - cared for, not because of what we do, or indeed the choices we make, but for our own sakes. God, we might say, even turn a blid eye on our faults, as shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son; he is indiscriminating in his compassion; he is a Father who is prodigal in his forgiveness.
Never should we see God as a threat to our lives. Rather does he want us to live, to grow, to come to maturity and fulfilment. To err is human; to forgive divine, and this readiness to forgive is the unique attribute of our God. "Father forgive them," Christ prayed for his executioners, "because they know not what they do." As the gospel points out, God treats all alike. He causes the sun to rise on the bad people as well as the good, his rain - a blessing in parched Israel - to fall on honest and dishonest alike.
And in our attitudes too, Christ tells us, there must be no spite, no hatred, no vindictiveness towards others. "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," he tells us. "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy," the first reading says. Strange as it may seem, the principle of "an eye for an eye" was not a barbaric practice, but rather a call to the people of the Old Testament to exercise restraint towards those from whom they differed. It became known as the Law of Recompense or Retaliation (Lex talionis). But if we read the story of the creation in the book of Genesis, we see how quickly the disorders in society, caused by sin, spread after the fall of our first parents, recounted in chapter three. Chapter four describes for us the first murder; and the spirit of hatred and feuding between families and clans that spread amongst mankind is exemplified by the reference to Lamech saying in the same chapter: "I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance is taken for Cain,ut seventy-seven-fold for Lamech."
The pursuit of such vendettas - which by the way we have witnessed in our own times also in the wiping out of whole villages, even cities, by way of retaliation - brings about the virtual collapse of society. We have seen it in our own country, in the sectarian violence promoted in the name of religion, in the collapse of the fabric of community life within certain areas of our cities, with the resulting unhappiness and longing to get away from it all on the part of many. It is striking how quickly even the first Christian communities became divided and partisan, some taking Paul's side, others that of Apollos, and so on, as described in the second reading from the Letter to the Corinthians. But tensions, it can be said also, seem to give more purpose to a community. They oblige people to spend more time in prayer, in dialogue, in working at the restoration of unity. "As the Lord has forgiven you," St Paul warns, "so you also must forgive. Put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And le the peace of Christ rule in your hearts" (Col 3:12-18).
Other thinkers had said: "do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." That is perhaps the basic law of manners and politeness. Jesus, characteristically, goes beyond this: Do to others.. The Christian ethic is positive. It goes beyond "Thou shalt not.." to "Do..." It is activist. There is the story of the man who appeared at the gate of heaven asking to be let in. St Peter asked him why he thought he should be let in. The man answered: "my hands are clean." "Yes," answered Peter, "but they are empty!'
The Christian ethic always asks us to grow. Many people are puzzled and confused because Christian moral guides are sometimes slow to lay down a clear minimum which people must achieve to be justified. But Jesus asks for more. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?" What is so special about that? Jesus asks for extra. We told his disciples: "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Yet with those who tried and failed he was full of sympathy and compassion. He will never say "enough," but he will not reject anyone who has failed and comes back to him.
Some people see life in terms of survival of the fittest, or 'dog-eat-dog'. David had his chance to kill his enemy before his enemy killed him, as Saul fully intended to do. But he held back and he would not take Saul's life. The temptation to violence is an easy one. The world is full of wars and violent confrontations. We yield too readily to our instincts of aggression, whether it is the great aggression where nation confronts nation in a balance of terror, or violent confrontations between groups of citizens, or violence in the home. Education in peaceful means of solving interpersonal and intercommunal difficulties is one of the greatest needs of our age. The way is open to Christians to start to learn more about non-violent means of solving conflicts and becomes peacemakers.
Mercy is God's primary characteristic - even of the "Old Testament God" whom many commentators, following some Christian heretics, prefer to portray as harsh and cruel. Our psalm, which comes from the Old Testament emphasises that God is not the seeker of vengeance that many people imagine him to be. He is not waiting and anxious to punish each and every fault, but he is concerned only to remove our sins and to make us one with him.
God's merciful goodness towards us is shown most clearly in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This Jesus wants to join us with him for an eternity of fulfilment and happiness. God's compassion for sinful and unhappy humanity is the model of our compassion. St Matthew had said: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Ch. 5:48.) St John said: "God is love" (1 John 4:7.) St Luke's report of Jesus' words is: "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate."
The old cowboy films of my boyhood had a recurrent scene that always intrigued me. In the bar-room shoot-out, the crook, beaten to the draw, tottered to the floor, riddled with bullets. As the gunman turned away, the dying crook weakly raised his gun and fired a last shot into the gunman's back. Then he slumped back and died, almost contentedly, a wisp of smoke spiralling from his gun and a flicker of a smile on his face. Sweet revenge!
I accepted all this then as part of the Western fantasy-world. I know better now. Life is full of people with chips on their shoulders, real or imaginary, all waiting for a chance to get their own back. They carry their scars through life, refusing to let them heal until they have settled accounts. Feuds, vendettas and - grudges are nurtured in parishes, in streets and even in families.
Some are even passed down from one generation to the next. A colossal amount of energy and ingenuity is expended on settling old scores and exacting vengeance. The lex talionis - "an eye for eye and tooth for tooth" - is alive and well and thriving in every human environment, but nowhere more so than in the in dustrial world. Management singles out troublemakers for redundancy. Blacklists are kept. Workers know where and when to call a lightening strike and who in management is to be sacri ficed. Even in the corridors of power, in the velvet setting of plush boardrooms, the knives are long and sharp and are slipped between pin-striped shoulder-blades almost with a smile.
Honour is always at stake when the God of vengeance is invoked. "Getting one's own back" is raised to the level of a virtue in our world. The injured party could never hold its head up again if the injury is not repaid. Loved ones too are invoked. We owe it to our wives and children. "Getting even" becomes an obsession. "I'll fix him if it is the last thing I do." Shades of the prostrate crook and his smoking six-shooter! The world has nothing but contempt for the one who "turns the other cheek." He is a weakling. "He took it lying down." It goads us on to vengeance. "Don't let them get away with it."
The Bible tells us otherwise. The Lord said to Moses: "You must not take revenge, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people." What is refreshing about today's gospel is that it recognises us as we are, full of pettiness, exacting hurt for hurt, trading blow for blow. We all have enemies who persecute us. Letting them get away with it is not easy. Loving them is a call to perfection, to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
God's love is like a woman's for the child of her womb
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.
Apostles have authority as stewards of the mysteries of God
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.
We are not worry; our deepest needs are supplied by Providence
Jesus said to his disciples: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
"And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith?
"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
Christ wants to reassure us: Do not worry so much about things, always wondering, "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?" Remember, your heavenly Father knows you need them all and he will take care of you." Or as that holy woman, Julian of Norwich used to say, "all manner of things will be well."
Of course, this would not be a practical principle to apply in business, or government, or the professions; as if one did not have to plan ahead, study the details of a project and use all of one's insight and energies to bring things to fruition. Like other countries, in Ireland we have learned to our cost that expecting a boom-time to last is a recipe for needing a bailout and the stern monitoring by the International Monetary Fund!
Nobody doubts the need for prudence and for providing for the foreseeable needs of the future. However, just as important for our wellbeing is the kind of basic trust and optimism commended by Jesus. His words offer a radical antidote to being overburdened by caution and afraid of the risks of living. We really do need the sense that Someone up there is looking after me. A lovely image of divine providence is portrayed by Isaiah in the rhetorical question:
Does a woman forget a baby at the breast?
or fail to cherish the son of her womb?
Yet even if these forget,
I will never forget you.
People's fears are real enough. It seems that we are afraid of something all of the time and of everything some of the time. Many are afraid of failure, afraid of letting others down and of being let down ourselves by others. We may be afraid to love somebody because they might not love us; afraid of losing our jobs, our health, our security, our grip. We are afraid of growing old and of dying. Fear comes in a wide variety of forms, stress, doubt, tension, pressure, anxiety. It manifests itself in ways from a nervous tic to a nervous breakdown. Or as in my case now, a tendency to look over my shoulder at every shadow in the street.
So we all of us have a lesson to learn from the great teacher of wisdom who said, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith?" A deep faith can put all our normal fears into healthy perspective.
We must sincerely try to do the will of the eternal Father. The divine will is for us to show care and concern for others.
Observing God's commandments will bring a blessing
Moses said to the people: "You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.
"See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.
When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today."
The way to God for everyone is through free grace, not "works"
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
We need to build on a solid foundation
Jesus said to his disciples, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was its fall!"
It is easy nowadays to live a shallow existence in our modern world. What used be once referred to as the thinking man or woman is fast becoming part of an endangered species. It is an era of continual distraction - radio, television, computer games, cyberspace or virtual reality, the internet enabling people on opposite sides of the world to exchange typed messages at the touch of a key. There are some individuals who spend up to 40 hours a week linking up with other people involved in this latter. Our Irish missionary priests in Ecuador find it extremely difficult to persuade their parishioners - mostly poor people - to give up watching television all through Sunday morning.
It has been said that in the US "being busy" has been glorified to such an extent that one of the most embarrassing situations for the true American is to be caught thinking - doing nothing, just thinking. It goes without saying that against such a frenetic background the practice of perseverance in any prayer apart from the Mass is becoming more difficult to pursue. There is moreover within the Church itself a minority of people who are ready to look with disdain on what they regard as mere religious trimmings, and who would go so far as to deride as "craw thumpers" and persons to be pitied all who would take seriously St Paul's exhortation to keep on praying at all times.
At first sight today's gospel, and indeed our Lord's own words, seem to lend weight to their arguments, that we should concentrate on doing our duty and not waste our time on novenas, and rosaries, and such like. After all, Christ had spelt it out clearly to his disciples, "Not everyone who says to me "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven." Is the possibility and the necessity of prayer, we may well ask, being here called into question?
We might begin to reply by admitting that a truly profound prayer life can only be achieved by devoting effort, and time, and perseverance to it. In modern times there are many businesses which demand round the clock attention, so destroying the old habits of private and family prayer. For others the morning has become the most intense part of the day, and the evening the most profane and distracting section. But to interpret the words of Jesus in the gospel as praise for anyone who bypasses prayer is precisely to distort them.
In fact, according to the gospel, the criterion by which Jesus judges us is whether he "knows us," whether there exists between him and us a truly personal bond and relationship. There could possibly be certain individuals with the ability to drive out devils, to work miracles, to foretell the future, all done in the name of Christ, but were they without this knowledge of Christ, without a close spiritual affinity linking them with Christ, they could well face complete rejection by him. He does not mince words when he says, "I shall tell them to their faces: Away from me, I have never known you."
If there is one thought we might all profitably take away with us this morning, it is this: that prayer is the way we come to know Christ; that it is an essential part of the Christian life; that in effect, as somebody has said, one can no more believe without prayer, that one can swim without water. The basic expression of faith is not, "I believe in the Bible, or in the doctrines of Christ and his Church, or in observing the commandments." Faith is rather a turning to the mysterious and hidden being whom we call God, with the words; "I believe in you, I trust in you, I commit myself entirely to you." And every prayer is in a way a repetition in endless variations of this personal response, "I believe in you."
Faith is to be practised as a real part of our everyday life, and so we should not pray merely as the mood strikes us. Nor, however, should we regard prayer as an obligation, a duty which presses upon us, or purely a repetition of set formulas, like the "Lord, Lord" of the gospel. Prayer must instead be a loving expression of our living faith. There was a stage in the history of the Church when every-day work was seen as service to the world, and so as a distraction from God. But following the advice of St Paul that our lives should be lives of continuous prayer, we should regard our entire working activity as an indirect form of prayer, prayer without words. No matter what you do, do it for the glory of God.
There is a real unity linking all three readings. We may start with Romans where Paul states that "a man is justified by faith and not by doing something the Law tells him to do." Paul, before his conversion, had been a Pharisee and, like all Pharisees, firmly believed that it was precisely by exact observance of Law that salvation was assured. His religious experience on the road to Damascus led him to the view which he expresses in Romans, that justification comes through the free gift from God of faith in the person of Christ and in his redemptive work.
At first sight the first reading would seem to contradict Paul's statement in Romans. The curses and blessings which Moses attaches to the keeping of the Law seem to be saying that salvation comes through doing what the Law tells one to do. The whole book is about law as its title "Deuteronomy" (The Second Law) informs us. However, this must be balanced by the Deuteronomic theme of the love of God for Israel and the appeal of the book that Israel should love God in return and make the love of God the motive behind their observance of the Law. The prominent part given in the Book of Deuteronomy to the love of God saves it from being described as legalistic in nature. The book is saying something like what Christ meant in the saying in John: "If you love me, keep my commandments." Legalism is not simply the keeping of laws; it is the keeping of laws based on the false belief that salvation comes through the keeping of laws.
When laws become multiplied excessively and love wanes, legalism makes it entry. The multiplicity of laws in Deuteronomy combined with the decline of emphasis on the motive of love after the Exile led to the growth of the spirit of legalism among the Jews. At the time of Christ who opposed it vigorously, it was triumphant. The early Church had to sweep away almost all the Mosaic Law before it could establish itself firmly in the Greco-Roman world. See Acts, ch. 15.
The Gospel returns to the balance of Deuteronomy, the keeping of the essential Law or doing "the will of my Father in heaven" out of love for him. It goes further than Deuteronomy. Not only does it insist on the necessity of both hearing and doing the will of the Father, it also insinuates the unique position of Christ as God. To hear and do the will of the Father by acting on the words of Christ is to build one's house on a rock. Is Christ here calling himself "the Rock," a term much used by the Jews to designate God. This is the theme of the Responsorial Psalm for today: "Be a rock of refuge for me, my God."
Since faith and salvation are God's free gift to us, we cannot wrest them from God. We can, however, and we are expected to co-operate with God in the work of our justification. We can; perhaps, do this best by learning from today's readings in conjunction with our personal experience of our need of redemption, by becoming aware that we do not save ourselves by our good works or observance of laws. If we trust in these things, we are building our houses on sand. We must build them on the Rock which is Christ who will lead us not only to listen to his words but also to act on them. In this way we shall avoid the danger of legalism and the risk of living as if law does not matter.
Quite simply the commandments are more necessary and relevant today than ever because of the way living has gone. We say and hear that we are materialistic. It is true, and it must be repeated. Materialism always brings in an erosion of general and religious values. And no matter what people say there is a need and an inborn leaning in us for quality in life. As long as that quality has not surfaced there is going to be frustration, resentment, anger and of course materialism and hedonism.
Take an alcoholic example. No one ever lived more selfishly, hedonistically etc., nor more destructively. See him when recovered. He has a new sense of wonder in life, from flowers to his own wife and children. He never even saw them before. And his key to life is spiritual values - doing his best to live as God wants him to. And God does know best - he made us. People engrossed in the rat race are similarly blinded even to what is within themselves.
So much effort at economic recovery is trying to heal symptoms only, and not getting at the root cause. The only remedy is massive conversion to Jesus as Lord - Lord of every tissue of life. And for that the commandments as deepened by Christ are vital. (See Sundays 6 and 7 of this year.) In our day we are pragmatic. Our first question so often is: "Does it work?" It really does.
Why attendance at Sunday mass should ever have been made the primary test of Christian practice, I have never understood. Priests, like accountants, tend to be fisated on figures. Mass-attendance, like baptisms, marriages and deaths, lend themselves to easy measurement. But a large measure of the Christian life is not so easily quantified. Christian charity by its nature is anonymous. It is a secret between the giver and the receiver. More often than not, even the beneficiary does not know who the donor is. Priests frequently receive sums of money, large and small, to be distributed to those in need, in envelopes slipped through their letterbox, without ever knowing where they came from. Church poor boxes yielded tidy sums until church vandals deprived the poor of this valuable source of income. Nobody can be in any doubt that church-attendance figures are in steep decline and, more than likely, this trend is irreversible. But more than one observer has commented on the high level of concern, particularly among the young, or the poor and the deprived in society. Many volunteer to work with the poor on inner city projects here, or abroad with famine victims in the Third World. I confess to feeling justifiably proud when watching reports on French television on the plight of refugees in Rwanda, where the short interview invariably features a young Irish volunteer, cradling an emaciated child in her arms. At least for a small country a disproportionate number of Irish seem to be featured in such reports. If Catholic practice is in decline, that does not mean that Christian practice is. Mass observance may be down, but observance of the Gospel is certainly up.
In every sense of the word, today's gospel is a solid teaching on exactly what Jesus means by being a disciple of his, and of doing as he prescribes.
It may sound strange, but religion was often been a cause of conflict and wars, right from the beginning. There is hardly a war anywhere in today's world but that is given a religious flavour. As a pupil in junior school, I used listen with shock to the horrors attributed to Cromwell, as he sought to subjugate the Irish people. What shocked me most was when I heard that he was a deeply religious man and, every night, after massacring hundreds of the Irish "Papists," he would go on his knees and thank God for the privilege that was his.
One comes across people who adhered strictly all their lives to all the external trappings of their religion and yet, when the crunch came, when the cross arrived, when death approached, the whole fabric of their religion came apart, and they were certainly on shaky foundations. Calling Jesus "Lord," if he's not really the guide of my life, won't get me anywhere. "I am the Good Shepherd. I know mine, and mine know me." Allowing Jesus to be Lord in my life is a different and, yet, a simple thing. It is all a question of obedience. If he is to be Lord, then I must do things, and live my life according to the clear guidelines he left me. "If you love me, you will obey me There is a religious song called "Jesus is the rock of my salvation, and his banner over me is love." Jesus uses the word "rock" several times. When he called Peter, he said "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." Peter himself wasn't actually a rock, as his unfolding story shows, but he was to be the titular leader of a group of which Jesus himself would be the rock. When Jesus called Peter, he "looked at Peter." Later, when Peter denied him, "Jesus turned and looked at Peter." Peter saw that the look hadn't changed, and he knew that Jesus alone was the same yesterday, today, and always. Later, in one of his letters, he woud write "Always have an explanation to give to those who ask you the reason for the hope that you have."
One translation of today's gospel has Jesus saying, "Go away. I never knew you. The things you did were unauthorised." Jesus is the author of our salvation. He has written the script. It is our vocation to learn that script, and to live it out. "Apart from me you can do nothing." As a Christian, I am someone who is sent, who is commissioned to carry a message. That message is about Jesus, and about the good news that he came to proclaim.
We notice in today's gospel that Christian living is not about what we do, as much as why we do it. I could be a pagan, and be a good person, and do many kind acts. What is unique about the actions and words of the Christian is that all of this is done because Jesus has entrusted this mission to me. On several occasions in the gospels Jesus asked by what authority he did what he did, and he always replied that he had come to do the will of his Father in heaven. "They marvelled at him, because he spoke as one having authority." Later on he would say, "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. If you love me, you will obey me Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and always. That is why, if my life is based On him and on his word, I can stand firm in the midst of all the storms and trials of life. "I will not abandon you in the storm. I will come to you." We can all be sure of the trials, and the moments of testing, that is part of life itself. It is at such times, more than others, than I can be mostaware of Jesus' presence and his promises. It is often at such times that real growth takes place in my life, rather than when everything is smooth, calm, and under control. What to one person is a problem, to the Christian can be an opportunity.
There is nothing automatic about Jesus or his message. Just because I was baptised is no guarantee that I will ever become a Christian. There comes a time when I must take personal responsibility for my Christian vocation and, with a generous heart, I accept Jesus as my Lord, and I ask for the anointing of his Spirit to enable me live and walk in his Way. Nobody else can do this for me. There is nothing profound or earth-shaking about this, although, indeed, it is an extraordinary moment of grace. The words I use matter little. It is the goodwill in my heart that the Lord is seeking. Could that moment happen in your life today?
Let's not forget the crunch line in today's gospel. There is one thing you can be absolutely sure of. You are going to die one day, and come face to face with Jesus. Immediately the first part of today's gospel comes into effect. You either know him or you don't. There is a vast amount of material written about what happens, at such a time, to two-thirds of the world who never heard of Jesus, or who never heard his message. While acknowledging that there are solid, reasoned, and reasonable replies to such questions, they do not concern us now, because I am not speaking to those people at this time. I am speaking to us, about us, right here, right now. We all can slip into the habit of putting off till tomorrow something that should be done today. This question, however, is too serious for that. There are people walking around today, feeling strong, healthy, and well, and they will not be alive tomorrow. Not one of us can have any claim on tomorrow, which is a gift that God may or may not give us. We certainly canot take it for granted.
Don't judge people by the company they keep. Jesus was friends with dubious types, for their good. Those who follow him should try to show his mercy to others.
God desires steadfast love rather than sacrifice
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.
Abraham's faith was reckoned to him as righteousness
Hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
The gospels emphasise, time and again, how Christ had pity on the multitudes. It is not immediately clear what it was in the multitudes that drew forth his pity. It was not because they were for the most part poor, though he himself also belonged to that category. It was not because they were ignorant about what kind of lives they should lead. They had the Mosaic Law, which covered every possible eventuality or situation likely to arise in their lives. It is in his dealings with the sick that we get an insight into what moved him to pity. As the gospels tell it, his main concern on such occasions was with the spiritual condition of the sick person.
When, for example, in Capernaum a paralytic was brought to him on a stretcher Jesus' first words were, "Courage, my child, your sins are forgiven." The thoughts of the Scribes on hearing this were, "This is simply blasphemy; it is so easy to say your sins are forgiven." But back came the Lord's reply, in the form of a question, "Which is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Get up and walk"? And then to make quite clear he had authority to forgive sins, he said to the paralytic, "Rise, take up your bed and go home," and the man did so.
Indeed, it is stated emphatically in today's gospel that the reason Jesus became one of us is to call sinners, to help sinners, to enable them conquer their sinful tendencies. Moreover, this mission of Christ is an ongoing one. For all of us, without exception, are sinners, and to deny that such is our state, is to deny that we have any need for the redemption which Jesus has gained for us by his death and resurrection. To make such a claim would be to align ourselves with the Pharisees. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves," St John says, "and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1:8).
It is remarkable that some who have protested their sinfulness loudest of all have been the noblest of human beings, namely the saints. Whenever St Philip Neri, an outstanding saint in 16th century Rome, saw a criminal being led to his execution - a common enough sight at the time - he would say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." We, who for no merit of our own have been given the gift of faith, should see the Church as the means by which Jesus continues to this day, his seeking out of sinners, ministering to them, healing their broken relationship with their heavenly Father.
Our Church has been blamed for highlighting the role of sin and giving rise to guilt complexes in perfectly innocent people. But this blame is naive. We have but to look around us to see the stark reality of sin in the world. Where any nation or individual exercises tyranny over another, where there is exploitation of the poor, the weak and those who cannot fight back, wherever there is cheating, selfishness and disregard for others, where humans causing suffering and death instead of promoting life, harmony and peace, sin is at work. Where there is peace, whether in the individual soul, the community or a whole nation, there is redemption.
Unfortunately, we are not yet fully redeemed; that we are born into a community of sinners, wherein, even setting aside our own spiritual shortcomings, we are continually being confronted with, and affected by the sin of others. We should never be ashamed to admit our own sins, no matter how great, before the priest who represents Christ in the sacrament of penance, for the priest himself also stands in need of repentance. But if we strive with all our might to change, to distance ourselves from the cause of our evil habits, to seek from God the graces that will keep us faithful, then from the God, who will not be outdone in generosity, we will receive the assurance that, sinners though we are, he loves us, that his grace is more powerful than all our sinful activity, that he accepts us as we are, even with all our faults. For as St John points out, "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." We, however, can never in this life fully understand the enormity, the malce, the inevitability of sin. All we can do is turn to God daily and plead, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
The readings for today can be seen as complementary to those of the ninth Sunday. The lesson drawn from those readings was that the correct attitude to religion and salvation is not legalism. Today's readings complete the message by telling us what the correct attitude should be.
Hosea tells us what this attitude should be in the first line of the first reading: "Let us set ourselves to know the Lord." We shall have an imperfect idea of what the prophet intended to convey to us if we understand "know the Lord" in the limited sense in which the word "know" is used today, for the Israelites did not confine its meaning to getting information or ideas about someone or some thing. For them it had a much broader meaning. "To know the Lord" meant for them obeying and loving the Lord, observing the conditions of the Sinai Covenant, especially the first commandment which committed them to the worship of Yahweh alone to the exclusion of all other gods. Hosea called "knowing the Lord" a marriage with Yahweh, a relationship of the most personal kind.
All successful human marriages, that is, between men and women seem to have a common characteristic, good communication between husband and wife, an ability to expose one's deepest thoughts to the other, to enter into dialogue when problems arise. It is true that many marriages break down and it would seem that the beginning of the collapse of the marital relationship is always heralded by the drying up of communication, by a growing difficulty to continue in dialogue. When married couples retire into their own shells; live their own thoughts and shun the exposure of their inner selves to each other, their mutual love is on the wane and danger looms ahead for the covenant entered into by the taking of marriage vows.
It is similarly with our relationship with God. Christians arc the Bride of Christ, the God Man, who calls himself the Bridegroom (Mat. 9:15.) The marriage is developed through mutual self-revelation. God tells us about himself through his Word: when we reflect upon God's Word in silence and begin to speak to him inwardly about its meaning and about ourselves, we have entered into dialogue with him. Prayer, therefore, especially interior prayer, is meant to be our contribution to the mutual self-revelation which is required if our personal and intimate relationship with God in Christ, the Bridegroom, is to be developed and deepened.
The reading from Romans reinforces the teaching of Hosea, though from a different angle. St Paul starts from the example of Abraham, "the friend of God," the ideal man of faith. When the Scriptures speak of faith, they mean much more than mere nod of our mind to revealed truth. Faith here clearly includes obedience to God's Word. New Testament faith includes not only obedience, but also hope, trust in God and love of him. It is possible to have faith without love, but remember St Paul's warning: "If I have faith in all its fulness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all" (1 Cor. 13:2.) St John mainly avoids using the word "faith" and prefers to speak of love as the main virtue, giving it the same wide meaning which St Paul gives to "faith," including under it the reality of faith, obedience, trust and hope: "If a man love me, he will keep my words" (John 14:23.) Both writers are urging Christians to move towards a relationship with Christ which Hosea had in mind when he wrote: "Let us set ourselves to know the Lord." The outcome expected from this relationship is fidelity to Christ, promised on the occasion of our marriage to Christ, our Baptism.
One could preach on the attitude of Christ towards sinners, an obvious approach to the Gospel of today and a easy task. However, we shall limit ourselves to linking the Gospel with the first reading from Hosea. The message of Christ to those who were scandalised because he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners is a direct quotation from Hosea and occurs in the first reading: "What I want is mercy (i.e. love), not sacrifice." Our mercy and love for others is not to be distinguished from our love for Christ and serves to intensify our commitment to him.
"Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" the Pharisees asked Jesus' disciples. It was depressing to find that, after two thousand years, such attitudes still persist. Later followers have not always shown that friendship for sinners that so characterised its Master. The church has often been more liberal with its condemnations than its concern.
Matthew must have been in later years the butt of many a jibe about his collaborating past. The tax he collected then was for an occupying power. There is more than a hint of it in the account of his vocation he wrote in today's gospel. He relished Christ's robust rejection of the Pharisees" sneers about the company he kept. "Go and learn the meaning of the words," he told them, "What I want is mercy, not sacrifice." He was quoting the prophet Hosea, who pulled no punches either:
What am I to do with you, Ephraim? What am I to do with you, Judah? This love of yours is like a morning cloud, like dew that quickly disappears.
This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets, why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth, since what I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.
Today's gospel is a gem, a little cameo of how Jesus dealt with sinners, how he related to them, and how he showed an undisguised preference for them. We must never confuse the difference between Jesus loving the sinner, while not approving of the sin. In another story, he told the woman taken in adultery, "neither do I condemn you. Go in peace, and sin no more."
There was a popular book around some years ago called Joshua, and I'm sure it is still available today. It is story about a man who is uncannily like Jesus in today's world. He came to live in this little town, he seemed different, and he soon had the attention of everyone. He made friends with the people of the town. The problem with each group was that he made friends with those whom they considered to be outside the circle. He went to church on Sunday, but he caused great anger when he went to each church in turn, including the synagogue. The religious people had a watch on his house, because he had questionable late-callers, like alcoholics and the homeless. He wasn't actually crucified, but was run out of town. Some things never change.
It's important that we understand what it means to be a sinner. It doesn't mean someone who is committing sin all the time. It is a state of being, a human condition that is the result of original sin. If I let go of a bunch of keys, they will fall to the ground. That is caused by the law of gravity. On my own, I cannot lift myself out of the quicksand of my own selfishness. Jesus understands our human condition much better than we ourselves do. He can see things as they really are. That is why he came to redeem and save us, and certainly not to condemn us.
It is difficult for us to enter into the mind-set of the people who lived in the time of Jesus. Tax collectors, and all others who did not conform to the strict laws as laid down by the zealous religious leaders, were looked down upon, and treated as the scum of the earth. They were to be avoided at all costs, and one could be guilty by association in any way. Imagine how the Pharisees looked on Jesus when they saw the company he kept!
This comment of Jesus should be written loud and clear on the outer and inner walls of all our churches. "You can keep your sacrifices. I would much prefer you showed love, forgiveness, and mercy to each other. I came to heal the wounded, and those who are broken; I came to welcome, embrace, and forgive the sinners, whom you condemn. What I want is genuine love, not heartless prayers, and meaningless religious exercises."
He came to call sinners. I will never hear that call unless I am convinced that I am a sinner, and that call is meant for me. Part of my sinful condition is that it blinds me to that fact, and it is easier for me to recognise the sin in other people. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead me into truth. "He will convict you of sin," Jesus tells us. It may seem a contradiction to say that holiness is coming to believe and accept that I am a much greater sinner than I thought I was! If I stand in a spotlight, I can notice every bit of dust on my clothes. The closer I come to God, the more obvious my sins are.
There is nothing negative or self-condemnatory about all of this. It is simply our human truth, an acceptance of how things are. It can be difficult for those of us who were brought up on a religion of rules to genuinely relate to Jesus in our sinfulness. A leading psychiatrist once told me he could discharge two-thirds of his psychiatric patients if he could get them to deal with their guilt, and most of that is the result of their religious upbringing. What a sad comment on what we have done with the message and the attitude of Jesus in today's gospel!
Do I fall into the trap of categorising people, slotting them into pigeonholes, making a clear distinction between whether John is a doctor or a docker? Jesus seemed to have a preference for all the wrong people! I don't have to "hang-out" with marginalised people to treat them with respect. If the poor "wino" has a hand out for money, I can treat him with respect, as I give him something. When I die, I won't be asked what he did with the money; rather I will be asked if I gave him something. Even stopping for a few words, asking him how things are, etc., can be more important than anything I may give him. Do you think Jesus would pass him by, and ignore him?
There are people who do not go to church, receive communion, etc., because they feel they are unworthy, and "outside the pale." Today's gospel stresses the fact that there is nobody outside the scope of God's love and acceptance. The more convinced I am that I am a sinner, the more at home I should feel in his presence.
A man came into the doctor's surgery one day, and he was worried. He explained his problem. "Every part of my body that I touch is very sore, my nose, my elbow, my head, my left hand." The doctor gave him a thorough examination, x-ray, blood tests, etc. The man returned the following day for the results, and he was nervous. "Did you find out what's wrong with me?" he asked the doctor. "I did," he replied. "What is it?" enquired the worried patient. "All that's wrong with you," replied the doctor, "is that your finger is broken!' If I fully understood the nature of sin, I will have a much clearer idea why I do what I do. I sin, not because I'm evil, but because I'm weak. Jesus understands that only too well.
Theme: Failures and scandals have sometimes put the Church into deep crisis. Jesus us to pray that God will provide worthy ministers for his church.
God bore the people up on eagles' wings, crossing the Sinai desert
They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain.
Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites."
We are restored to grace through the death of Christ
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. "
Mission and reconciliation are prominent topics in the readings. The people of the Old Covenant received their mission through Moses. We, the people of the New Covenant receive our mission through Jesus. What is our mission? We are commissioned and sent to proclaim loud and clear to all and sundry that the kingdom of God has come.
The gospel passage reminds us that Jesus chooses some of his disciples for specific tasks. That is not to say that the others have nothing to do. The whole Church is missionary. Each of the baptised is duty bound to spread the Gospel to the best of his or her ability. There are many ways of doing that. But the basic and most important contribution which we can make is to live a deep Christian life.
Before considering whether or not we are doing anything to spread the Gospel we might consider our attitude towards the project. Do we think about the matter? Jesus sent the apostles because he had compassion on the crowds. There are millions who have never heard of Christ. How does that fact impinge upon us? Do we regard it just as a fact or do we accept it as a challenge? Do we in any way share Christ's compassion and give expression to it? St John Chrysostom wrote: "Nothing is colder than a Christian who does not care for the salvation of others." Today's gospel may well be a call to us to break out of our little ice cubes.
The harvest is the Lord's. God will provide but he must be asked to do so. God sends workers in answer to prayer. That was the first thing Jesus told the disciples. Work without prayer will be fruitless. Paul was aware of that. In his letters he often asks for prayers that God would bless his missionary work. St. Thé rè se of Lisieux was an enclosed contemplative nun. Her short religious life was spent in prayer, household chores and penance. She offered her life and prayer for the missions. After her death she was proclaimed Patroness of the Foreign Missions. A strange choice at first sight. Yet a powerful reminder that they also serve who "only" kneel and pray. A reminder too that one way of fulfilling our obligation to spread the Gospel is by remembering the missionary work of the Church in our daily personal prayer. Many generous people are prevented by circumstances from engaging in missionary work. There is nothing to prevent people from praying for the spread of the Gospel. Indifference to the salvatio of others is an unacceptable excuse for not doing so.
Jesus gave the apostles power over evil spirits. He gave them power to heal. The exercise of those powers was to be a clear sign that announced the presence of the kingdom. Satan was being challenged and defeated. The apostles worked many miracles. In our day the miracles may not be as frequent or as evident but the power is there in the Church. Every Christian is called upon to be an influence for good in society. The presence of the kingdom is announced, Christ's mission is continued and extended when we bring the compassion of Jesus into the lives of others. Through our ordinary daily contacts with people especially with the lonely and rejects we can and ought to be instruments of acceptance, reconciliation and healing. We don't have to go on the foreign missions in order to do that. For most Christians the home, the parish, the work-place are the mission territories where they have to spread the Gospel message as best they can.
When the human race turned aside from from God, God did an extraordinary thing. On his own initiative, motivated by sheer love, he sent his only Son to die for us. The death of Jesus achieved our reconciliation. We are now friends of God. Paul exults in this. We have proof of God's love for us. He urges us to cast doubts aside. Now we have firm grounds for hoping that God will find us righteous in his sight. Like Paul, we too have a mission. We are to be "ambassadors for Christ." Ambassadors ought to be builders of what they announce. We joyfully announce reconciliation. That involves consistently helping our sisters and brothers by our good example to be reconciled to God and to one another.
At a time when the role of Church is sometimes confusedly understood even by Christians, our Scriptures remind us that Christianity from the beginning was communitarian in nature. Jesus never intended an individualistic do-it-yourself approach to salvation.
Paul tells us that we are called and brought into a special relationship with God not because of anything we have done. We are justified and reconciled with God because of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not something we can do on our own. Exodus also assures us that it was God who brought Israel to Sinai. It was on God's initiative that salvation or the freeing of Israel from the slavery of Egypt was accomplished. Jesus too had compassion and pity and sent the apostles forth to continue his work of preaching the Good News.
We are reminded also of our new relationship with God because of what God has done for us. The beautiful images in our first reading and Gospel recall this intimacy. "I bore you on eagle wings," "You shall be my special possession," and "his heart was moved to pity" are all ways of telling us how God has loved us. Paul reminds us that Christ's death is a sign of that love. That love too, he tells us, is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
We live today in that special relationship, with the corresponding obligations that we have as God's people. The message of Good News is not meant only for ourselves. God reminded Israel that "all the earth is mine." Like the apostles, we too are sent forth with power to proclaim the goodness of our God.
The first and second readings are closely related, and what links them is the theme of trust. If we start with the first reading, we find the Israelites in the Sinai desert after the Exodus. Moses conveys the word of Yahweh to the people, a message of God's loving care expressed under the image of a large bird, an eagle, who has just carried Israel out of the slavery of Egypt into freedom; The imagery is pagan, for the Egyptians thought of the sun-god Horus as an eagle, which crossed the sky daily from east to west; this did not prevent them from picturing the sun god as the sun disk and combining them in a single symbol - a sun disk endowed with wings The Israelites took over the imagery of the Egyptians, while transforming the theology. For the Israelites "the sun-with-wings" became a symbolic statement for Yahweh's special care for his people. "Under the shadow of your wings, protect us, 0 Lord," is a cry to Yahweh which appears in the Psalms five times in all. In each case the Psalm in question is a psalm of hope. The imagery is clearest in the prophet Malachi: "The sun of justice shall shine with healing in its wings. The Exodus, liberation, salvation, has come to Israel through the mercy of Yahweh who has taken the initiative in this work of grace.
If we turn to the Second Reading, we find a similar lesson derived for the encouragement of Christians from consideration of the death of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ are the New Exodus by which liberation and salvation come to men. "We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.. Surely we may count on being saved by the life of his Son." Reconciliation brings joyful trust in God through Christ.
Our trust in God is based on God's love for us which is proved by the fact that he died for us even when we were sinners and unworthy of his love. We have here a point of great importance which is applicable to us in our own daily lives. It is essential for parents, for example, not to give the impression to their children that the parent's love has been withdrawn when children have been guilty of minor, or even major, breaches of correct conduct. The conclusion the children will reach is that their parents love them, not so much for themselves, as for their goodness, the respectability of their lives and the undisturbed peace which formerly reigned in the home. All these reasons concern the interests of the parents, not the children. This is not love at all, for love seeks the interests of the loved one. If, for example, a unmarried girl becomes pregnant, true parental love will see to it that the girl remains truly loved, just at the moment when she is most in need of love. The only negative attitude to be dopted is that of refusing to condone what has happened, of saying that what is wrong is right. In this way parents will reflect faintly the love of God for his erring children. To do this, parents will have to be free from "the slavery of public opinion and able to set aside considerations of public respectability. The result will be greater personal freedom from fear of what other people may say and interior growth for the parents.
The second reading speaks of "joyful trust" It may be too much to expect "joyful trust" of everyone, for hope is not its nature essentially joyful. Hope has as its object things which are difficult to attain and often it is a matter of clinging on in hope. What is important is hope, whether joyful or not. We can be helped towards this by either the imagery of "God's wings" or consideration of the redemption through the death of Christ who loved us while we were still sinners.
At the end of the Vietnam war, when the city of Saigon fell, the communists swept in from the North and the Americans, the greatest power on earth, beat a hasty and undignified retreat. In the final twenty-four hours, they launched a massive evacuation of US personnel and Vietnamese sympathisers, flying a constant stream of helicopters from the embassy compound to a fleet of forty US warships standing out to sea. Panic set in on the streets of Saigon.
Thousands of Vietnamese who felt compromised or had reason to fear the wrath of the invading communists, tried to flee. They crammed on to boats and barges along the Saigon River, with their few possessions and far too little provisions, and put to sea. So began the "boat people." Li Pinh was a twenty-year old student, who managed to climb on to a boat, with seventy others, packed like animals. For days they drifted in the South China sea, quickly running out of food and water. Death and delirium began to take its toll. Just then they encountered a British freight-carrier, plying between Hong Kong and Singapore. They begged to be taken aboard but the captain refused adamantly, offering instead to give them supplies of food and fresh water. Li Pinh pleaded desperately with the captain. As a last resort he held up a new-born baby. A young woman had given birth on the boat. The captain relented. They were taken to Singapore, from where Li Pinh and others were eventually transported to England. Now, twenty years ater, he is a parish priest in Manchester. "I owe my life and my priesthood to that little baby," he said, when he described his ordeal to me recently. I had simply asked him: "How come a Vietnamese is a parish priest in Manchester?' For who can say by what strange way Christ brings his will to light.
There are others, too, whose paths to the altar were no less strange. There is young Huu-Thu from Laos, a sixteen-year old who with his younger sister spent some years in a refugee-camp, before finally reaching Switzerland and the priesthood. His mother is a Buddhist. Or M'boya from Kenya, whose parents were Muslims. Or Thallapalli whose family belong to the caste of Untouchables in India. These I know because I shared a home with them in an international convitto in Rome. The fastest growing church today is that of Seoul in South Korea. Many of the older churches in France and elsewhere in Europe are served by priests from Africa and other recent missionary countries.
Those depressed in Ireland by the recent decline in clerical numbers might take a global view of church and its priesthood. Maybe what our jaded church needs now is a new infusion of blood. New priests who see their priesthood with more gospel eyes. Yesterday's converts become tomorrow's missionaries. So might the church be revitalised. But our hierarchy/bishops may also need to look again at the requirements for a priestly vocation. It is not at all obvious to many of us, priests and laity, that the discipline of imposed celibacy is appropriate for our times.
Maybe the growing scarcity of priests is God's deliberate way of creating space to develope the priesthood of all believers, including that of devout women, ready to serve the community of faith. A church reluctant to avail of all that talent may now be forced to do so. Nor will God leave us "sheep without a shepherd', as long as we continue to want such priests. All we have to do is ask. Jesus gave his own assurance: "The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest."
Today we heard about the compassion Jesus felt for those who followed him. They were like lost sheep, sheep without a shepherd, without any direction, goals, or purpose in life. He asked his immediate followers to join with him in praying to the Father for more workers, as the harvest was great and the labourers were few. Already he wanted to share his mission because, when he had completed his part of it, his followers would have to take over, and continue it.
Jeremiah is under stress from enemies, yet holds to his confidence in God
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 dishonor 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.
The effects of Adam's sin are cancelled by the death of Christ
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
Jesus forewarns his disciples to be prepared for trials and suffering
Jesus said to his disciples, "Have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."
When professor Mahaffey, a with and scholar at Trinity College Dublin, was once asked if he was a Christian, he drawled, "Yes, but not offensively so." Clearly he felt that Christianity should not intrude on the society he kept, nor put obstacles in the pursuit of any pleasure that attracted him. This could easily be a description of the Christianity of many of us here and now also. While we are quite prepared to admit that we are Christians, we are, by and large, careful not to take religion too seriously. I think it's fair to say that rarely do we in any practical way so shape our lives according to our religious beliefs, that they offer and reprimand, however silent, to people who live by totally different standards.
A genuine Christian cannot fully escape Christ's call to be different from the world. What he asks us is not to conform to the standards of this world, but rather to transform those standards. St Paul thought of Sin entering this world through one man, Adam, and through sin death, so that death has spread throughout the whole human race, because sin is so universal. The world's greatest sin is unbelief, and the task of the Church is to challenge this unbelief, relying on the help of the Holy Spirit. The last words of Jesus, according to St Matthew, were, "Go and make disciples of people everywhere; baptise them and teach them to observe all that I taught you. And I am with you always, yes to the end of time."
While we live in this world, we are meant to remain aware of the world to come, and live for God by pursuing the standards Jesus set for us. When the Apostles worried about the future, Christ encouraged them, "Don't be afraid. I am with you always." The deepest truth about God that Jesus taught is that he is a caring God, compassionate and forgiving, a God who is on our side. Our attitude to life can be that of the psalmist who says, "In God I trust - I shall not fear" (Ps 56:1. The only thing to fear is losing God, loss of trust in God. This lack of trust begins when I look for security through my own efforts, in the works and wealth of my own making. Jesus criticised the feverish efforts, the anxious haste and worry of those worldly people, who refuse to grant God any part in their lives. "In God I trust; I shall not fear."
Jesus himself on the night of his last Passover, was about to suffer more than anyone had ever suffered, or ever will suffer in time to come. Yet, he remained affectionate and caring towards his friends and shared the meal with them, even the one who was plotting his betrayal. Later in Gethsemane when the terror of what lay ahead caused his sweat to fall like great drops of blood, his prayer was still, "Not my will but yours be done." No matter how awful the future may seem, this should be our prayer and our spirit too.
Today's first reading reminds us of the trials of the prophet Jeremiah, and the Gospel speaks of our duty of witnessing to Christ in the world - both reminders that all members of the People of God are potentially prophetic and that all should play some part in handing on the truth about God. In a sense, we are all successors to Jeremiah and to the apostles whose job it was to share Christ's message with the world.
Not all Christians have equal opportunities of being spokespersons for God. Bishops and priests have the official duty of encouraging and teaching the faithful. Their difficult but worthwhile task is to faithfully hand on Christ's teaching, and correct errors that threaten the integrity of the traditional Christian doctrine or ethical standards. Like Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets, they remind their people of God's revealed will and of the high moral standards God asks of us. And, like the prophets, priests can often expect criticism and opposition, just for doing their job.
Theologians too have an important work to fulfil in the Church, to deeply study the revealed truth, and then blend that traditional teaching with modern knowledge, so as to honestly apply the Christian message to new problems. To help them in this daunting work they have the light of the same Holy Spirit who guided the prophets of old, provided they do their research not as masters but as servants of the word of God. But it is not only priests and theologians who have the prophetic role towards God's people. The Second Vatican Council taught that every Christian should give a living witness to. Christ, at least through living a life of faith and charity and by joining in worship and prayer.
This is not such an easy matter. The spirit of today's society, the example of our contemporaries, and the irreligious mood of much of the media do not always foster God-fearing attitudes or encourage sound moral standards. In most countries today, Christians are not persecuted for showing faith in Christ and his Gospel, but when she or he lives according to this teaching they will be swimming against the tide of a materialistic culture and will not find the going easy. Jesus warns that being a Christian will cost sacrifice and suffering. We are bound to face opposition from a world that does not gladly submit to the word of God, that makes so many demands on human nature. But there is real satisfaction, too, in standing up for the truth of things. In the centre of their souls, prophetic people have the happiness of working with the Lord, who is the ultimate truth on whom we all depend.
Wherever you go, I shall go/ Wherever you live, there shall I live/ Your people will be my people/ And your God will by my God, too. This promise of fidelity from the book of Ruth reminds us that Christ will live and go with us, wherever we live and wherever we go. But it also invites us to care for people because they are his people, too. Christ asks each disciple to be his partner in the work that God the Father sent him to do in this world. And he promises to be our partner, whatever our work, whatever kind of life we live, wherever we go. We follow him, trusting that he is with us, not just for a moment, but for the whole of our lives. Wherever we go, however we live, "the Lord is at my side." His commitment to us is lifelong despite our own inability to think of him always, or even despite our occasional thoughtless rejection of him. The mystery of God's call to us and of our response to him is that he is always there for us. "I am at your side; you are my friends," said Jesus, even to disciples who sometimes lose the way.
"Wherever you go, I shall go." If we take those words to heart we can accept the risk of going out to others in his name. In saying "yes" to our life as Christian disciples, we can, like Jeremiah, go forward in a zigzag fashion, going somewhere, but not always directly or in a predictable manner. "Do not be afraid," Christ said and still says. Christ is not for the fearless but for those who must control their fears. Neither is he for the perfect but for those who need his word of forgiveness. If this ideal of going the journey of life with Christ seems beyond our reach, remember how once said to his friends, "With men it is impossible but not with God; for all things are possible with God." I follow Christ best when I realise that the gospel ideal is beyond the reach of my own strength. It is then that I can lean on him and build on the strength of the Lord who is always at my side.
In the Eucharist we welcome Christ and are also welcomed by him, strengthened for our journey. With his grace, we try to extend the same welcome to others whose lives touch our own.
A woman welcomed Elisha, recognising him for a holy man of God
One day Elisha was passing through Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to have a meal. So whenever he passed that way, he would stop there for a meal. 9 She said to her husband, "Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. 10 Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us."
One day when he came there, he went up to the chamber and lay down there. He said, "What then may be done for her?" Gehazi answered, "Well, she has no son, and her husband is old." He said, "Call her." When he had called her, she stood at the door. He said, "At this season, in due time, you shall embrace a son." She replied, "No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant."
Our baptism calls us away from sin to live a new life in Christ
My brethren, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
To be a real disciple is to put the spirit of Jesus before all else
Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up he cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
It is a wonderful thing to meet a man or woman of God. There is about such people a peace of such a fullness as communicates God to us. We, no less than the people of biblical times, are looking for someone to "give us a word:" a word which engenders faith and hope, a word which can ignite the smouldering embers of our heart unto a fire of a love which is beyond us.
To welcome such people in the sense of really accepting the word of the Gospel which they speak, more often through their being and actions rather than their words, is to welcome Christ and his Father. Jesus often speaks in the Gospel of his Father and himself coming to abide in the hearts of those who "keep his words" while the "sweet guest of the soul" is a beautiful title used if the Holy Spirit if the tradition.
Meeting someone good can also threaten us. It faces us with the necessity of change in our own life. Unfortunately this does not just mean the struggle to rid ourselves of obvious moral evil but even of things which are in themselves good and valuable in order to make way for newness. When we come face to face with Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life the choice is even more radical the most valuable things in life such as family and even the quest for our own self-fulfilment must take second place and the following of Jesus which inevitably involves the cross of self-giving and change must be embraced.
When we choose Christ in baptism we choose immersion ('baptism') into his death. We are buried with him, we are grafted on to his death and our "old self" is crucified with him. These images used by Paul in Romans 6:3-11 leave us in no doubt as to the radically of what welcoming Jesus and his word into our lives means. However, just as the woman of Shunem is rewarded with new life for receiving the "man of God" SO the reward from welcoming Jesus is infinitely greater. We be-come the dwelling places of God himself and we become a "new creation" in the image of the Son.
Openness to life! Hospitality of heart - These are some of the themes that suggest themselves through the readings of this Sunday. The woman in the first reading was open to life; she welcomed the prophet into her home, was aware that he was a holy man of God, and set about facilitating his mission. In the gospel we, as disciples of Jesus, listen to his words addressed directly to us telling us how we are to open our lives to him, give him pride of place over family and friends even to the point of bearing his cross. Our welcome is to be whole-hearted, and if I am in any doubt as to where I am to exercise this total acceptance of Christ in my life I have only to turn to my neighbour. "He who welcomes you, welcomes me" Nothing could be clearer. Christ is all around me. He is present in my home, at work, in those who pass me in the street.. He is present in myself! In today's second reading St Paul adds his voice to the celebration of Christian life! Through baptism we have entered into the great life of the reurrection. No wonder we cry out with the psalmist in joy; "I will sing forever of your love, 0 Lord." The beautiful story of the Shunemite woman illustrates the fact that God's word finds acceptance in people's lives through the instrumentality of human agents. Elisha may seem to be an itinerant preacher. It is the woman who detects his mission and makes room for him in her house. Likewise, many a parent makes space for God in their family life by helping a child learn the words of a prayer and by showing respect for the things of God. When I reflect on how God found a space in my life, I will inevitably return to the influence of a human agent. The gospel's emphasis on hospitality is presented in the form of a strange equation: "He who welcomes you, welcomes me."
We may expect, then, that Christ will come to our doors in many disguises and almost always at the wrong time! He may not even be wearing clerical garb! Rather, I may find him hidden in the stranger, the outcast of society, the neighbour, the child needing attention, the sick person.. There are many delightful fairytales of princesses hidden in rags and of princes imprisoned in toads. Every child's eyes light up in wonder at the moment when the disguise is dropped and the truth is revealed. Openness to wonder, to the mystery of Christ hidden in the other: these qualities are often sadly missing in my life. The "cup of cold water" is proverbially quoted as a somewhat dubious sign of Christian charity. Perhaps this is because it does not cost much in rain-drenched climates! In a hot, dusty climate, however, a drink of cold water can be a life-saver. The attitude of thoughtfulness, the lack of self-absorption; these would seem to underline the Christian attitude towards others. It is not what is given that counts but the heart with which it is given.
A legalistic, mathematical mind tends to measure the bare requirement due to the other. This does not make for a happy environment. No wonder that a sub-theme of today's liturgy is joy: "Happy the people.. who find their joy every day in your name" we read in the psalm. The open-hearted person is always happy; there is much joy in giving. Cups of cold water may be translated into a letter, a phone-call, a smile, a word of appreciation. They cost little but how the world today is crying out for cups of cold water! Christ is often wounded and struggling in my neighbour. The image that could be explored by the homilist pertaining to the theme of hospitality is that of making a space for God in our lives. The woman of Shunem had a room built on the roof of her house for the prophet so that he might be rested and refreshed for his mission throughout Israel. She made physical space for the holy man of God. Christianity calls on us to make space for Christ and his message in our lives. Where do I find this space? Is it my time? A small part of my earnings to support the preaching of God's word? Or is it a quiet space in my life where I can turn to welcome the indwelling of Christ in my heart? Mary is the model of Christian hospitality: she made a space in her heart for the Word just as she made a space in her womb for his body. She pondered his words in her heart so that gradually her whole life was filled with his presence.
Their king-Messiah will come humbly, riding on a donkey
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
By the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we live the new life of grace
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Gentle and humble in heart; his yoke is easy and his burden light
At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
"Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee" was the refrain of a popular Gospel song some years back. Putting your hand in somebody else's is a gesture of intimacy, which is very characteristic children with their parents. To a loving father or mother a child will give its hand unquestioningly, with complete trust. Holding his or her father's hand there is nowhere the child will not venture. It is not only willing to be led, but positively wants to be brought somewhere. Somewhere in the growing up process we outgrow our dependency on our parents, and having lost the need for their guidance, even God can become remote for us. Only those who are children at heart can fully understand what Jesus tells us about God -- that God reveals Himself to "mere children."
Growing up means ceasing to be dependent. We exchange a child's dependence on people for an adult's dependence on things, like money, alcohol, success and influence. But these props are notoriously fickle and the adult world is often plagued by stress and anxiety. Our props may provide temporary relief but can still leave us -- as Jesus puts it -- "labouring and burdened;" labouring under illusions of grandeur and burdened with unrealistic targets. The heaviest load we have to carry is that of our own unfulfilled ambitions, the burden of our bruised egos. Only a return to humility can restore our lost innocence and our lost paradise., that honest humility that accepts our creature-status, our status as children before God. To enjoy the peace of Christ we must "put our hand in the hand of the man from Galilee', who guides us along life's journey and helps us to find the way home.
'Come to me', he says, 'all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.' In spite of all our problems, we trust him when he says, my yoke is easy and my burden light.
God's word is like rain which fertilises the earth
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.
All creation eagerly waits for God to reveal his glory in us
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
The Sower and the seed. The good soil of the receptive heart
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!"
Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn-and I would heal them.'
"But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
"Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."
As a former teacher, I'm often surprised at what some past-pupils remember. It would be less embarrassing on occasions if they conveniently forgot. "I remember you saying one time. .." and out it comes, if not word for word, at least in its general thrust as they heard it. Even merely spoken words can have an extraordinary life-span. Sometimes we remember things our parents said, long after they are gone; their words are not dead so long as we are alive and recall them.
What's true of the ordinary word is even more true of God's. That's what's stressed in today's readings. It's put in the strongest of terms in the reading from Isaiah 55:10-11: "So it is with the word that goes from my mouth: it will not return to me unfulfilled, or before having carried out my good pleasure and having achieved what it was sent to do." The only defence against God's word is inadvertent or deliberate deafness. And being deaf or hard of hearing is something today's Gospel does not recommend. In fact, it urges us to hive our ears cocked. But it conveys that message in a different image. It urges us to let the Word fall into good soil, so that it can yield a rich harvest in our lives.
Even though we're meant to have our ears cocked in church, and even though there's no substitute for hearing God's word as a worshipping community, the richest soil in any parish has to be in the home. The home, more than any place else, is a good place for growth. If space is made for God in the home, if parents pray with their children from an early age, if parents treat one another well, if the relationships within the home are basically sound, if Mass, as Christ's memorial, is seen to matter to the older people, then there is a fair old chance that in the hearts and minds of the children, the seed will take root and grow! It doesn't always happen, but on balance, if we do the best we can, there's a fair old chance that it will! In a sense, education is what remains when you have forgotten the texts themselves. We forget so easily what was said in church or school. We never forget what happens in the home. The hate and the tension and the fighting, or the hope and the love and the peace. I knew a cole once who used to get up every night and do a Holy Hour for one of their children who was sick. Wasn't that extraordinary? What family could ever forget that? What family could fail to be influenced by it? But in a sense it's a bad example because it's so exceptional. It's the ordinary things that make the impact on most of us, the daily effort, the daily drudgery, the repeated efforts a father or mother make separately or together to think of us and to remind us of God. It's only when somebody dies and people start looking back that the ordinary daily sacrifices take on a heroic pattern, and people say, "God, she was a great woman" or "he was a great man." If we receive God's word every day in our lives and try to live it, then we are scattering the seed ourselves for the younger generation and generations to come.
I wouldn't like to give the impression that it's only parents or older people who are expected to receive God's word and live it! I think God's call comes to us at its most personal and urgent when we are young. That's when most of us felt called to our particular vocations. That's when I felt the call to be a priest! God's word has fresh soil and a great future when it falls in a young heart. So if you are young, be generous with God. Be truthful and just and caring and good-living. Be faithful to your Sunday Eucharist and give it continued life throughout the week in the great commandment of love. One of the greatest saints the Church has ever produced, St Thérèse of Lisieux, "the little flower," was only twenty-four when she died. What use she made of her youth! She had one great objective: At the heart of the Church, my mother," she said, "I shall be love." Make that your own. Make it your personal resolution, your greatest objective, your life-long ambition! At the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love."
Because God is all-powerful he governs the world with lenience and patience, allowing us time to repent of our sins
For who will say, "What have you done?" or who will resist your judgment?
Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations that you made?
Or who will come before you to plead as an advocate for the unrighteous?
For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people, to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly; nor can any king or monarch confront you about those whom you have punished.
You are righteous and you rule all things righteously, deeming it alien to your power to condemn anyone who does not deserve to be punished.
For your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power, and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.
Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.
God understands our ill-expressed wishes better than we do ourselves
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
God will judge all justly at the end of time
Jesus put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world." Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds ar the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
There were people in Our Lord's time who wanted him to separate the bad from the good as well. Among them were people who claimed the moral high ground, the Pharisees whose name means "the separated ones." Even John the Baptist expected Jesus to separate the cream from the skim, to have only holy people around him. John foretold that Our Lord would separate the chaff from the wheat. He said (Mt 3:12) "He will gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out." That's precisely what Our Lord didn't do. He had all sorts of people around him, a rainbow coalition of people, the learned, the ignorant, the good-living, the badliving, tax-collectors, prostitutes, the lot. What in God's name is he doing, they said. Why doesn't he get down to business? Why doesn't he weed them out?
As any gardener knows, weeding can be the greatest threat of all to the life of the young seedling. At first, the problem is one of identifying which is which. The weeds must be left until the seedling can be clearly recognised. Even then, removing the weeds may pose an even greater threat. It might sever the seedling's root system. Often the weed brings the seedling away with it.
In the case of human beings it is an even more risky business. "Weeding-out" has no history of success which doesn't seem to curb people's passion for it. Seventy years after Hitler's final solution, the horrendous weeding out of six million Jews in concentration camps, the Bosnian Serbs are attempting the brutal policy of "ethnic cleansing." Race, religion, colour, sex, politics are still considered ready-reckoners for identifying society's weeds. Increasing power over nature provides new and sinister instruments for weeding out. The unborn child, the seed of life is threatened with abortion. At the other end of life, euthanasia is proposed as the final solution for the new Jews, the old, the maimed, the incurables and the burdensome. Right through life, the weeding-out continues remorselessly. The handicapped axe institutionalised, the delinquent are penalised, the deviant are ostracised and the poor are patronised.
Weeding out is not confined to faceless bureaucracy. We're all tempted to try our hand at it. We are sharp at spotting the undesirables, the troublemakers, the misfits. One shudders to think of the people who might have been weeded out if God had not chosen to intervene. Probably most of the saints in the calendar. Peter, after his triple denial in the crucifixion crisis should have been weeded out for failing the leadership test. Strange isn't it, that Christ never weeded out Judas? The church did not always show her master's tolerance. Galileo could testify to that. The spirit of the Inquisition lives on. Excommunications and anathemas may be out of fashion but old habits die hard.
The parable of the weeds is starkly simple and yet widely ignored. To the question "Do you want us to go and weed it out?" the answer of Jesus is a categorical "No." And the reason is self-evident. Only God has eyes sufficiently discerning and fingers sufficiently gentle for this job. Weeding out is God's prerogative. Life would be so much better for everybody, if only we would leave it to him.
Pray for the gift of discernment, something that we all need as our guide in making decisions. All things have their own intrinsic value, but if we over-value any of our favourite "things", we devalue God. Deep down, I need to loosen my grip on what is transient, and hold firm to what is eternal, in the spirit of faith-filled discernment. I need to find what is the real treasure, the one thing really worth
King Solomon's prayer for wisdom: he prays for a heart that would discern between good and evil
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life f your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
If we simply love God, all that happens to us will work for our good
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Three parables: the treasure, the pearl and the net. The kingdom to be prized beyond everything else
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like th
Those of us reared in the country are familiar with how fiercely an old farmer can cling on to his land. Even a miserable patch of grassy bog feels like an insurance against abandonment. But hanging on is not the answer. It only sows bitterness and frustration in sons whose best years are squandered in waiting. Sons who in turn never learn themselves from the mistakes of their fathers. Love alone can guarantee security and care in one's declining years. Possessions provide only the illusion of security.
Elderly farmers are not the only ones who hold on to things for security. Others have their own holdings from which only death can separate them. It may be property and wealth, status and prestige or power and influence. It may even be an awful lot less, trivial comforts and an easy life. It may be a sixteen-hour day or the thankless responsibility of high office. Or a reputation we can no longer live up to. There is nothing more pathetic than an ageing beauty queen who refuses to accept the ravages of time.
"Ask what you would like me to give you," God said to Solomon. "Give your servant a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil," he replied. It is the kind of gift we all need. Possessions come in many forms. It is not so much these possessions that we should rid ourselves of, as the demon of possession itself that should be exorcised. Poverty has become a dirty word in the world we live in. We should not let an Ethiopian famine or a Rwanda disaster make us forget that poverty is also a Christian virtue. It is no accident that Christ began his Sermon on the Mount with "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Or that the only condition for his followers is that "they leave all things." Or that the rich young man should have failed all because he failed this one test, "for he had great possessions." Or that the pearl in today's parable could only be bought by "selling everything he owns."
The trouble with most people is that they want it both ways. All this and the good life too. But they can't have it both ways.
There is a pearl for everyone. And there is a price for everyone to pay. A price tailored to each individual circumstances. Detachment is that price. To be able to walk away from what we cherish most without so much as looking back with regret. Our tragedy is not that we cannot find the pearl but that we are unwilling to pay the price.
"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters." God invites his people to come to him for true life
Thus says the LORD:
All you who are thirsty, come to the water!
You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me and listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
The love of Christ holds us in a strong embrace
Brothers and sisters:
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The loaves and fishes foreshadow the Eucharist, the true bread of life
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, "This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves. " Jesus said to them, "There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves. " But they said to him, "Five loaves and two fish are all we have here. " Then he said, "Bring them here to me, " and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over -- twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
The crowds in today's gospel had nothing to eat, but our Lord knew the had another hunger apart from that of the stomach. They followed Jesus, listening to every word he spoke, and in none of the stories does it say that they were bothered about food for the body. In today's episode, it is the apostles who expressed this concern, on behalf of the people. In another place it says that Jesus "looked at the crowd, and felt sorry for them, because they had been with him for several days, and had nothing to eat." Yet the twin hungers in today's world are for meaning as well as for food.
Jesus sets the apostles a seemingly impossible challenge. When they point out the lack of food he tells them to feed the people themselves. This, of course, cannot be done, and they tell him so. He then taught them, and us, a basic lesson: "Whatever you have is enough. Just let me have it, and I will do the rest." At Cana, all they had was water, and it was all he needed; He would do the rest. In another version of this story, where one of the apostles says "We only have a few loaves and some fish, but what is that among so many?" The temptation was to put the loaves and fish back in the bag.
There is power in the actions of Jesus as he says a prayer and begins distributing the bread. Before he called Lazarus forth from the tomb, he raised his eyes to heaven, and said "I thank you, Father, that you have heard me." It was his constant contact with the Father that inspired his actions. At his baptism in the Jordan he had heard the Father's voice saying "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." He lived constantly with the Father's approval, even when everyone else rejected him. What a lesson this is for all of us! In commissioning his apostles, later on, he would tell them to feed the hungry. Because he came "to do and to teach," that is why he fed the hungry before sending his disciples to do the same.
It is a scandal that so large a part of today's world is made up of hungry people. Most of us have more than we need of money, clothes, food, etc. We may not have as much as we want, but we have more than we need. There is a struggle here, and there is a tension from which we cannot escape. "Whatever you do for the least of these, I will take as being done for me." The decisions to walk in the Christian Way removes many of my options and choices. Christianity is much more than just saying prayers. It is also a call to action. It is a call to do as Jesus would do. I cannot read today's gospel and remain indifferent or detached.
"It is in giving that we receive." When we give, we discover that we are not at a loss. It is an extraordinary paradox, but it is literally me. I will never know this until I try it. How do you consider yourself in the whole area of responsibility for the welfare of others? We are all familiar with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Concern, Goal, etc., and we may admire what they do. But we must go beyond admiration and become willing to imitate, and follow their example. Christianity is about witnessing, and in the witnessing is the invitation to "go and do likewise." The opposite to love is not hatred, but indifference. If God is love, and I am indifferent, then I must seriously examine where God is in my life. This is a fundamental and basic question that must be asked, and it must be answered.
God's voice was like the gentle whisper of a breeze
At that place Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. " Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Paul grieves to see his fellow-Jews refuse to accept Jesus. He would do anything to win them for Christ
I am speaking the truth in Christ-I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
When Peter begins to sink Jesus chides him for his lack of faith
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear.
Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. " Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. " He said, "Come. " So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
1. Voyage: Life can be viewed as journey (Pilgrim's progress; Exodus; Odyssey), or still better as voyage (because driven by forces more powerful than ourselves, like wind and wave.) We sail upon a rippling surface of events, feeling the joy of movement, being alive and going somewhere. When things go well, we feel the contentment of those experienced sailors, the apostles on their way home across the quiet lake of Galilee.
2. Waves: A gale blew up, changing their mood. Danger and fear of drowning. Our own life-voyage has its share of storms too, anxieties, problems and pressures of various kinds. How often a sudden turn of events can rob us of inner peace. Are we on a charted course, or just drifting along without any determined direction? Many find it hard enough to stay afloat, pressurised by the bewilderingly changing times, ill-at-ease in their relationships with others, discontented and insecure in themselves. That's exactly what the frightened apostles in the storm mean for us today: we are those sailors, tossing about in the waves.
3. Remedies: Many prescriptions are suggested, to ease the upsets of our voyage. Like different brands of medication for sea-sickness! A long quiet rest, a change of occupation, psychiatric help or counselling, a course of Yoga or Transcendental Meditation, Contemplative or Charismatic Prayer. Doubtless, every remedy has its own advantages, but what better support can be found in times of stress than an understanding friend? Today's gospel suggests that our first and most constant recourse should be to none other than, Christ himself.
4. Presence: God is present where we least expect him, although it is a hidden, unseen presence, not always easy to discover. It takes faith nearer than the door." So the apostles were amazed to see Christ coming to them in the middle of the storm, for (at that stage) they were men of little faith. Elijah, that lonely refugee, faithful to his God despite cruel persecution by Jezebel, discovered the mysterious presence of God in the still, small voice of his own soul. Standing at the mouth of a cave, on the slopes of the holy mountain, he got strength and comfort from the Living God. Where God is, there is peace. But his presence is everywhere, for those who learn to discern it.
A fine expression of this belief in God's unseen presence is given in Francis Thompson's poem, The Kingdom of God:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air --
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;-
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But when so sad thou canst not sadder
Cry; -- and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, -- clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
5. Safe Harbour: We do not expect to be immune from the hardships and problems faced by all the other voyagers through this life. Indeed, Christ himself shared fully in all of these anxieties, being tested as we are. If the Church be seen as a boat (in which there are no idle passengers, but all are needed to row!), then we have as destination the safe harbour of eternal life. With the compass of faith, and Christ himself as unseen captain of the ship, that harbour will surely be reached. In the meantime, though tossed about by circumstances, he tells us: "Courage! Do not be afraid, men of little faith!'
The Lord will bring foreigners to worship in Jerusalem
Thus says the Lord: Have a care for justice, act with integrity, for soon my salvation will come and my integrity be manifest.
Foreigners who have attached themselves to Yahweh to serve him and to love his name and be his servants --
all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain.
I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their holocausts and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.
Paul trusts that eventually his fellow-Jews also will come to Christ
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Jesus answers the prayer of a persistent woman and praises her faith
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon. " But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. " He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. " But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me. " He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. " She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. " Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. " And her daughter was healed instantly.
1. Not a church of pigeonholes: For office filing purposes pigeonholes are splendid. Beaurocrats love tidy compartments where accounts, applications, drafts etc. can be systematically stored -- everything in its proper place. A good office motto might be: No surprises and no disorder! There's a temptation to think of God's grace as parcelled out in a similarly neat, orderly way -- as something reserved for the God-fearing elect, the People of God. Historically, many of our Jewish forebears adopted this view, and they (and we!) require the universalist message of Isaiah: God wants a house of prayer open to all the nations. Christians need to remember it too: God wills ALL human beings to be saved; in the Father's house there are many mansions.
2. Blessings of Loss: Our heavenly Father draws people towards Himself in strange, unpredictable ways. Just as in a family the misfortune of one member can serve to unite the others in a new, protective loyalty; or as in business the failure of one concern can direct energy into a new, more productive line.. so the rejection of Our Saviour by the Jews resulted in His more rapid acceptance throughout the Gentile world. It's an ill wind blows good to nobody! Even the lapses and sins of mankind can be turned to good account, says Paul in a profound but difficult section of his letter to the Romans: "God has imprisoned all men in disobedience only to show mercy on all." Our own past sins will not bar us from Christ-they only show us how much we need him ("To seek and save what was lost.")
3. Crumbs in the Kitchen: Why does Jesus want to limit himself to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel?" Was he not concerned for people of other nations, like that foreign woman with the loud voice, who pleaded for his help? She didn't give up; that's the first thing. Second, she found the perfect answer: "Even the pups get the crumbs that fall from the master's table!" Thirdly, her prayer was answered, and her faith warmly praised. But still, what do we make of the initial remark? A popular idiom in Israel, used by Jesus to convey that his primary mission was the conversion of his own Jewish people? Historically, that was his way; first to revive the Chosen People, so that these in turn would furnish a "house of prayer for all nations." However, even during his lifetime He was willing to receive those pagans who came to him; and he predicted that in future "many will come from East and West, and will sit down at table in the Kingdom of God." Notice too the world-wide mission of the disciples, after the Resurrection (Mat. 28:18.)
4. Expanding circles: That's how Christian faith should spread, like the rippling circles expanding on the surface when a stone drops into a still pond. First to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. Always handed on by direct contact, the sharing of trust, the witness of peaceful conviction, the bearing of one another's burdens. But will our path of faith be smooth? Or will there be setbacks and obstacles, objections from people more clever than ourselves, a contrary wind of current opinion hostile to religious belief? In such circumstances, the Canaanite woman offers inspiration, with her iron resolve coupled with good humour and ready wit.
Isaiah warns Shebna that the key, the symbol of his authority, will be taken from him
Thus says the Lord to Shebna, the master of the palace: "I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post. On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.
After the anguished chapters 9-11 comes a hymn to the wisdom and goodness of God
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Peter declares faith in Jesus and is promised the keys of the kingdom
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Above the sanctuary of Saint Peter's basilica in Rome, written in huge lettering of gold mosaic, is this promise of Jesus to his chief apostle: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." These words are held by Catholics as the basis for the papacy, applying to the bishop of Rome as the successor to Peter, to be the chief spokesman for the church's living faith, and wielder of the spiritual power of the keys.
We must not be too simplistic in how we apply those words to the original Peter and even more so to his successors. Non-catholic Christians, our brethren in the Protestant churches, do not accept that there could be any succession, in the full sense, to the position held by Saint Peter. They find any claims to juridical and absolute authority for the papacy, under titles like "apostolic jurisdiction" or "the power of the keys" to be out of harmony with the Gospel message. They interpret differently what today's Gospel means for leadership in the Church. We need not insist that the Roman way is the only way of taking Christ's words. Still, this Gospel deserves close attention for what it says about faith, enlightenment and leadership, and guidance for our own lives.
Each must make a personal answer to Our Lord's question: "Who do you say that I am?' although Peter's credo is a solid basis from which to begin. Notice the beautiful phrase: "Son of the Living God," expressing more richly what "Christ" means. Peter's worshipful faith comes to him as gift from above, not from any mere logic or ingenuity. Why was the blessing given to him in particular? Perhaps because his humble and contrite spirit made him best prepared to receive it? Or because God chooses whom He wills, irrespective of their merits? It is to this Peter that Jesus entrusts whatever is meant by the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Upon his solid, dedicated faith the Church will always rely, for unity and encouragement. Keys are mainly for opening; many doors lock by themselves. We could reflect further on Peter's task, as seen in other Gospel passages (Mat. 14:28ff; 17:24ff; Lk. 22:32; Jn. 21:15-17), and in the Acts (1:1 5ff, 2: 14ff; 3:1 2ff).
While he is appointed to "feed the lambs and sheep" of Christ, to "confirm his brethren," and welcome the first pagan convert into the Church, Peter is no plaster saint. Weakness of faith (when he began to sink), rash self-confidence and eventual denial are also portrayed by him. But these serve only to underline the grandeur of his conversion, when with a new clarity of self-knowledge he turns and says to Jesus: "You know that I love you." The task is not one of stern domination, or merely of the efficient organisation of Christ's Church. Pastor and penitent at once, convert and the support for other converted sinners, he leads the faithful by witness and example. This pastoral understanding of authority finds a lovely echo in the first epistle of Peter. Elders or leaders are asked to "tend the flock of God, not as domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (5:13.) Just so, Peter tended the early church by sharing his deep faith in Christ the Risen Lord. So, he kept them united in a community of mutual love, and in faithful obedience to the Gospel. Such an ideal situation of harmony in the Church is briefly sketched for us in the Acts (2:42ff; 4:32f.)
What of today's Church, spread in all continents, united under the leadership of pope Francis? How can this work of teaching, encouraging and uniting so many millions of baptised believers be carried on? Jesus remains at the centre, as the Christ, Son of the Living God, and he continues to be the Church's true Rock. We today, just as much as in the time of St Peter, need the ministry of faithful apostles, entrusted by Christ to build up his people, witness to the faith, and provide leadership in Christian love. Pope, bishops, priests and other ministries exist in order to serve. But in some sense, we get the service that we deserve. It is for us to make known to our pastors both our appreciation and our loyal criticisms; especially to pray for them, for their courage and perseverance. Today we particularly remember the present successor of Peter, our Pope; that God may establish him in faith and wisdom; that being strong in himself, he may confirm the brethren; and that as Chief Shepherd he may help us on our way to the Kingdom.
Our invitation to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is an ideal to realise the full potential of our lives. Jeremiah and Jesus fulfil God's will in spite of opposition. This is a hopeful message to all whose life is a struggle, and for whom the cross is a daily burden
In anguish Jeremiah complains to God at having to preach such a hard message to his people
O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Do not follow the social conventions of this world, but try to discern what is the will of God
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The disciple of Jesus must also follow the way of suffering and self-renunciation
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. " But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. " Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.
If invited to pick and choose within the Gospels, and form our religion only with what appeals to us, what a cosy, comfortable church we would have! We might keep the stories about Christ's birth and infancy, his temptation in the desert and his healing miracles. We would include our favourite parables, like the Prodigal son, the Pharisee and the Publican, and of course, the Good Samaritan. But would we leave out that Gospel for today, that hard teaching about renouncing self, taking up the cross, losing our lives for the sake of Jesus? And even if we have not removed those words from our Gospels, do we remain deaf to them in practise, in our lives?
In a way, isn't following Christ like accepting a friend whom we must accept in full or not at all; welcoming the demands as well as the benefits of friendship? Just as we need to take people as they are, without trying to change them to suit ourselves, so with the Gospel: we accept the whole of Christ's recorded words, because we trust him and know that his ways are truth.
So what does the Lord want from us? What does he mean by "renounce yourself," "lose your life for my sake," "carry your cross," or (in the epistle) "present your bodies as a holy sacrifice?" Surely these words don't refer to anything suicidal, to devaluing of this present life, its joys and its achievements? And yet, are these not something more than a pious way of saying: Put up with what cannot be changed? These are questions to revolve in the mind, without expecting any quick or simple solution. If we will allow, God's Word challenges us out of any complacency with a comfortable, conforming religion. It unmasks our many evasions, our double standards, our desire for "cheap grace" -- wanting salvation at cut price, unwilling to involve ourselves in sacrifice.
Perhaps a clue to this Lord's demand is in the first reading, in Jeremiah's extraordinary accusation that he was seduced by God. Letting his prophetic vocation overpower him, Jeremiah was involved in many a thankless task. He had fallen in love with God, so that nothing held him back from doing God's will, no matter where this might lead. Have we fallen in love with Christ? Are we seduced by him, so as to gove to his service all that is ours to give? Wouldn't that be becoming a living sacrifice?
We might overly focus on the "renunciation" in today's Gospel so as to miss its positive aspect. All growth, all lasting achievement demands effort and sacrifice. Yet the sacrifice can be a satisfying part of experience, when orientated towards a high and valued goal. (Examples: athletic training; mountain-climbing; studying a language; practising any skill.) So, the self discipline involved in Christian life, and accepting the circumstances in which God places us, contribute to our personal destiny. And we look forward in hope to the great reward of loyal service -- when the Son of man, coming in glory, will reward all according to their behaviour.
We have a moral obligation to correct blatant wrongdoing, whether in the family, the workplace or society. But it is incumbent on those who have others in their care to offer correction with love and respect. The old dictum, "hate the sin but love the sinner" is a good guideline in many situations, as is St Paul's principle: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another."
As a preacher, Ezekiel has the responsibility to warn sinners to repent
The word of the Lord was addressed to me as follows,
"You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life."
Paul condenses all the commandments into "love one another"
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;" and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Fraternal correction within the Christian family
Jesus said to his disciples, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
In recent years, disclosures about paedophile priests have shocked and dismayed many Catholics. Old priests with long experience of dealing with sinners and their sins, with all their sordidness, were known to have broken down and wept. That a fellow-priest betrayed his sacred trust with the most innocent of all victims, a child, was beyond their comprehension. What angered people most of all was that his superiors knew about his child abuse aberration for years. How many victims might have been spared had those superiors removed him from ministry.
This issue is clearly linked to today's gospel where Christ said to his disciples: "If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother." Then there is a further process if he does not listen, and finally, "if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector." One wonders whether Christ had anything as heinous as child-abuse by a disciple in mind, when he gave them those practical instructions.
Ironically some who preach against permissiveness can be guilty of its grossest forms. Permissiveness, with its tragic consequences, is symptomatic of our times. From bishops to bosses, politicians to policemen, parents to teachers, "passing the buck" is rampant. We want the privileges of power without its burdens. We shy away from problems, cast a blind eye, shirk the responsibility to speak out. And when the scandal leaks out we want to claim we didn't know. But such ignorance is rejected in Ezekiel where the Lord says: "I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel." And he went on to state plainly: "If you do not warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then I will hold you responsible."
American President Harry Truman had a card on his desk in the White House declaring in bold capitals THE BUCK STOPS HERE!, "The buck stops here." This message would fit in any office where people are "their brother's keepers." But nowhere would it fit better nowadays than on the kitchen mantlepiece, with its four simple words pointing straight at us like an accusing finger. For people with others in their care, the main task is not be to be popular but to be of help. And we help most by accepting our responsibility.
The homilist might take a leaf from Ezekiel's book. This prophet borrowed an image from war and its threat to national survival. He knows that a people under threat needs its sentries. The real threat that sentry Ezekiel sees, is not an attack from without, but failure of the community from within, a breakdown that leads to death. The danger that he must warn about is the threat of sin. This warning of Ezekiel is not directed to the community as a whole but to the individual within it. Individual responsibility takes on a new force in his message.
Our own era too is preoccupied with problems of national and international peace and security. For us, the watchman on the city wall is no longer a sufficient form of security. Our world leaders feel the need of sophisticated "early-warning" devices, so that our peace hangs upon a balance of terror. The threat of our times is no longer the fall of a city but an international holocaust.
When Ezekiel preached he was a prisoner in enemy territory and he could warn that it was not external force, but the enemy within, that is the real threat to life--that enemy is sin, the abandonment of God. It is the prophetic role of the Church to continue this preaching (even if its voice is treated like something coming from foreign soil.) The gospel of Christ is that life and peace come from faith in God and the doing of his will. This gospel calls us to repentance but is no mere denunciation of sin. Christ brought the gift of reconciliation and life. One might develop this further by reflecting on how we as a community can be a sign of what we preach, a repentant community that has found the life and peace offered by Christ.
A reconciled community: Today's readings confront us with two aspects of the question. Firstly the need for a sense of individual responsibility in the way of conversion. Ezekiel certainly made it clear that the individual is addressed by the Word of God calling for repentance. There is no way out of this personal responsibility.
But all of this should not be seen simply in terms of what the individual owes to the community. The whole Church is called to be supportive of each person who seeks reconciliation. This is especially important in a world where so many people feel threatened by the alienating force of impersonal state structures. The Church is not called to be mega-corporation.
Individuals who are perplexed by their own failures or oppressed by the weaknesses of others, need a community that does not drive them further into isolation but one which calls them through forgiveness and love into the life of fellowship. Living in this fellowship does mean that we owe debts to one another, and as Paul reminds us today the only obligation tat ultimately counts is the debt of love we owe one another.
This reconciled community will be an effective sign to the world not because it creates a superficial harmony, but because it faces the reality of sin in itself. It finds forgiveness as the solution to this threat. Renewal of the ministry of reconciliation in the Church increasingly takes the form of communal services of penance, linked to the celebration of the sacrament. This is an effective way of bringing home to people that all sin effects the community and reconciliation must include the community.
It is inconsistent to celebrate our God as the Lord of compassion and love, unless we show mercy to those who have wronged us. Today's Gospel calls us to forgive as Christ forgives us. Some of the finer minds among the Old Testament writers already perceived this connection: "If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?"
Our desire for revenge can block us from receiving God's mercy
Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them.
The vengeful will face the Lord's vengeance,for he keeps a strict account of their sins. Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath,who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside;remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbour;remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.
As we belong to Christ, we live to the Lord
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
The spirit of the unforgiving debtor rebounds on himself
Peter came and said to Jesus, "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 rfused; 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."
A woman, pushing on in years, boasted to her pastor that she did not have an enemy in the world. He was very impressed. What a wonderful thing to be able to say after all those years! And then she added:- 'I have outlived them all'. I suppose if we live long enough we will also be able to make the same statement.
We have all been hurt in some way or other in the journey of life--made fun of in school by a teacher, not invited to the wedding, didn't get the job I thought I should have got, or at a more serious level, betrayed by someone you trusted, abused physically or sexually and so on.
Sheila Cassidy, who was herself tortured in South America, had this to say:- 'I would never say to someone 'you must forgive'. I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive? I can only say: 'However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us..We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed'. Nelson Mandella continually reminded his fellow prisoners in South Africa that unless they let go of their hurts they would remain in the grip of their abusers.
By failing to forgive, we hurt ourselves more than anyone else. Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he told how the merciless servant was cast into prison when he refused to forgive his fellow servant. I don't think he was suggesting that God would cancel his mercy. He is simply saying that an unforgiving spirit creates a prison of its own. It builds up walls of bitterness and resentment and there is no escape until we come to forgive.
Forgiving and letting go is not easy, especially when the wound is very deep. This is why I call forgiveness the 'F' word, because it's not to be used lightly. Forgiveness is a choice and often involves a three stage process: (1) I will never forgive that person (2) I can't forgive (forgiveness seen as a good thing, but the hurt is too great) (3) I want to forgive and let go with God's help.
Also we must learn to forgive ourselves. Imagine you are responsible for something very serious. You are driving a car with drink. There is an accident and a young person is killed. That life cannot be brought back. For more and more people there is a something in the background, some skeleton in the closet--a broken marriage, an abortion, a pregnancy outside marriage, a broken relationship, a serious mistake. And for many of us we do not believe that there is another chance much less a seven times seventy chances. This is not the teaching of Jesus. God does not just give us another chance, but every time we close a door he opens another one for us.
The Lord challenges us not to make serious damaging mistakes, but he also tells us that our mistakes are not forever--they are not even for a life time--and that time and grace wash clean, that nothing is irrevocable.
Hatred and resentment are moral cancers that eat away at our enthusiasm to do good. An appeal to strict justice is not enough to solve the dilemma, since taking out another's eye does not really cure the loss of one's own eye, and revenge cannot really settle the account of a grievance. But forgiveness is a hard virtue to gain and to maintain. We can feel the problem in the question Peter asks of Jesus today: "How many times must I forgive?" And although his proposal of "seven times" is used as a round symbolic willingness to forgive "as much as it is humanly possible to forgive," Jesus suggest we must go further still, since God forgives "seventy seven times" (or seventy times seven times.) Forgiveness is not a question of just how often or how many times, rather it reflects God's unending willingness to pardon. There are no limits to his forgiveness.
It is so easy to forget God's goodness, as our first reading illustrates today. (Eccl 27:30-28:7) Even the stark reality of our own death does not keep each of us alert to God's gracious promise of salvation as the guiding principal of our actions. It is not easy to see the goodness of God in the hurt we inflict on each other in our selfish interactions. Paul tells us today that we do influence each other. We affect each other. But is it for the good (Rom 14:7-9.)
Our parable today shows that we are incapable of forgiving without first appreciating the forgiveness we have received from God. Notice the three scenes:
(1) We are insolvent, indebted, overdrawn in our account with God's goodness. God has given us freely life, freedom, integrity and hope. We are incapable of achieving anything by our own resources- we have none! "Without me you can do nothing."
(2) We are puffed-up with our own importance: "Pay me what you owe me!" We can be intolerant, demanding, inexcusable and arrogant. We can be unkind and unforgiving. We can injure our neighbour, and he can hurt us. We can elbow our way roughly through life. We can so easily hold a grudge, and refuse to forgive.
(3) The ultimate reality "God's goodness" is never simple-minded. God is not blind. The unforgiving cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness only comes from realising that we have been forgiven. In pardoning we are pardoned. Our tenuous hold on others must quickly be consumed not by following our hatred to the hilt, but by pardoning in gentle forgiveness. Only so can we realise the equation: Insolvency cannot make demands!
And so let us forgive from our hearts, for if we leave the court with our own suit dismissed, and fail to forgive, then we find ourselves immediately rearranged and in the dock as the guilty accused!
She slipped upstairs to find a few more playthings. Her neighbour had just left her two little ones with her to mind and, with her own two, there wasn't enough to go round. They had started squabbling already. Rummaging in the toy-box, she came across an old photograph. She looked at it, daydreaming for a moment. Just long enough for one of her little charges to toddle out the front door which had been left slightly ajar. The little body was found later in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She went to pieces. While she was being treated in a psychiatric hospital, the mother of the dead child came to see her, the worst of her grief now over. Her forgiveness helped enormously to set her on the road -to recovery. But she was never the same again. She could never forgive herself for that moment's neglect.
There is a young couple in Paris, with whom I am friendly. They have two little children. Since they don't have a car, they occasionally call on my services to ferry them somewhere or other. I am always delighted to do so. Once the two little ones are firmly strapped in the back seat, I dangle the keys in front of the parents and ask: "Now, which of you is going to drive?" They are both excellent drivers. I just couldn't take responsibility for them. If anything were to happen, God forbid, I would never be able to forgive myself.
Forgiveness is a hard thing. "Forgive and forget', we are told. If only we could forget, forgiveness would come easy. But the scars of old hurts fester on, refusing to heal. And our resent- ment grows each time we remember the rejection, the insult, the injury. Our resentment wells up again, as if it was only yesterday. Bygones refuse to be bygones. The closer the friendship, the deeper the hurt. The only forgiveness we can muster, is usually reserved for strangers. Our lives are strewn with broken friendships. And all because we couldn't find it in ourselves to forgive. "Shake hands and make up" we were told, when we fought as little boys in the school playground. That lesson seems to have disappeared with our schooldays.
"May God forgive him!" we mutter to ourselves, recalling for the umpteenth time some ancient hurt. We could spare ourselves that prayer. What God would like to know is will we forgive him. Jonathan Swift, with all his satire, was closer to the truth than we care to admit: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." How else explain those murderous wars between those who claim allegiance to their God? Not long ago it was claimed that, of all the thirty wars going on in the world, none were simple defence against foreign aggressors. Most of the belligerents were compatriots, separated only by their religion. Such wars will last as long as we refuse to forgive.
"Seek the Lord while he may be found." But on the other hand, God's mercy is beyond measure, so that even those who come late to his vineyard will be welcomed by his infinite love. We all can identify with those workers of the eleventh hour, whom the master of the vineyard treats so well. As Isaiah said, God never ignores the needs and prayers of those who are humble in heart
Turn to the Lord in urgent prayer; for he never ignores the prayer of the humble
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundanly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Though Paul wants to be with Christ in heaven, he will serve the Gospel as long as God wills it
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard; God welcomes all into his kingdom
Jesus said to his disciples: "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
The core of the Gospel parable is also in the Isaiah passage: "My thoughts are not your thoughts." Try as we may, it is impossible to justify the payment of the workers in the vineyard in ordinary social terms. It could hardly be said to be fair. Yes, the owner is generous to the last comers, but why is he not generous to the others as well? It is simply that there is no reckoning up deserts when man meets God.
In Our Lord's time Judaism had reached a legalistic state, and the mentality was prevalent that salvation could and must be earned. There were many commands which must be fulfilled, and people were divided into two classes, the righteous who were on the road to salvation by fulfilling the commands, and the unrighteous, outcasts despised by those who kept the law. It was this slot-machine conception of God that Jesus opposed by his emphasis on love, for in love there is no calculation of duties, rights and obligations; there is only an open-handed giving without counting the cost, and a grateful receiving. We can never say that we have earned our salvation, or anything from God, but can only stand suppliant before him. The latest workers in the vine-yard have not earned what the owner gives them, and the mistake of their envious colleagues is to think that they can deserve well of the owner.
Devout Christians may find it hard to stomach that someone who repents on his deathbed is admitted to the kingdom no less than those who have struggled and suffered all their lives for what is right. But this would presuppose a commercial attitude of reward and punishments from God, and it neglects the nature of love. The relationship of the believer to God must be personal love, and as such it is its own reward, for it brings its own happiness also in this life. The greater the struggle, the more a Christian turns to God and finds comfort in the security of his love. Also, fidelity through a long life does bring some advantage over a skimpy final conversion, for it may well be that the relationship of love has so deepened over the years that the Christian, faithfully following Christ, has more capacity for the full enjoyment of God's company than one who comes to know God only at the last moment. Here it is not a matter of God giving a greater reward, but of the person being more capable of receiving it.
Of this deep and rewarding relationship with God and with Christ Paul shows himself in the second reading to be a shining example. Writing as he does under persecution he is yet filled with the joy of Christ. His life is already united with Christ's life, and he longs for the fulfilment of final union.
The parable of the vineyard-workers is no blueprint for labour relations, but it illustrates very well Jesus' teaching about grace and mercy. There are consequences to be drawn, and, in The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote: "The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel." (§114)
Jesus warns that prostitutes and tax-collectors may be closer to God than their supposed betters. Social or religious standing means little in the sight of God. The parable of the two sons, neither of whom does what he says he will do, highlights the dictum that "actions speak louder than words." Doing good actions is better than speaking fine words
God deals justly with us, forgiving the sinner who repents and rewarding those who persevere
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.
Unity depends on Christians imitating the humility of Christ who became obedient unto death
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The parable of the two sons reminds us that good actions speak louder than fine words
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders: "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today." He answered, "I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, "I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."
Until around 1900, bishops in Ireland were chosen only from the ranks of the aristocracy. Of course, there was a good economic reason for this: they had to be self-supporting because the people were too poor to pay them. But it was equally true in wealthy countries like France. There too the first requirement in a bishop was that he be from the ranks of the nobility. The great mass of the lower clergy, parish priests and curates, were excluded from bishoprics. Some of the trappings of aristocracy still survive in the church, titles like "princes of the church," living in "palaces', forms of address like "Your Lordship" and offering a ringed hand to be kissed rather than shaken. One of the last aristocratic appointments in Ireland was appointed Bishop of Cork, where he served for twenty-three years. When his brother, Lord Dunboyne died, he abandoned the Catholic church, became a Protestant and married to ensure an heir to the family. Ironically, he failed to produce an heir. Rome had lost a bishop while the Dunboyne lineage died out.
The beginning of the end of the aristocratic world came when the French Revolution abolished hereditary titles and made all citizens equal before the law. The world of the common man was begun and now what titles remain are largely honorary. But old habits die hard, and not only in the church. A new elite has replaced the old. Aristocrats have given way to plutocrats. The exclusive world of privilege never really dies. It only changes hands. The modern rich have all the trappings of the old nobility, save the titles. They live in security-guarded palatial homes and frequent exclusive clubs, to protect them from contamination from the common herd.
The need for exclusivity and superiority seems imbedded in human nature and has invaded even the sanctuary. The Jews were happy with their exclusivity, excluding not only pagans from God's favour, but even the Samaritans who failed their rigid test of orthodoxy. Jesus was indignant when he told the chief priests and elders, "Prostitutes and tax-collectors are making their way into the kingdom of God before you." From the Jewish elders to Calvin's elect, to our own former mantra "outside the church there is no salvation', exclusivity is a temptation to religious people. With the diminishing numbers of church-goers and religion no longer a mass phenomenon, we may be more than ever tempted to circle the wagons. So Jesus' warning to the Jews has a special relevance for us today, as a warning against seeing the church as a "Members-Only" Club.
A theme common to all three readings is that of changing one's mind. Our capacity to change our minds leaves us open to hazard and to hope; hazard when we choose to "renounce our integrity and to commit sin, hope when we choose to renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest" (Isaiah.)
The Gospel story shows us the nobility of a humble change of mind. The first son "thought the better of it." He was open to change, to better thoughts. The second son was set and closed. The ability to change one's mind is essential to all healthy relationships. A mind that is closed, whether from pride, stubbornness or stupidity, tends to destroy all relationships--e.g., when we refuse to admit a mistake, when we are unwilling to apologise and change our ways, when we persist in prejudice against a person or group, when we think we know it all.
The second reading, from Philippians, talks of a more specific and positive change of mind: "in your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus', or as an older translation put it, "let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus." This is the direction in which we must be constantly changing our minds day by day.
Paul emphasises one aspect in particular of the mind of Christ--his humble openness and self-emptying in contrast to the conceited grasping and clinging of Adam: "he did not cling to (or grasp at) his equality with God (as Adam did in Eden) but emptied himself.."
Ever since Adam, we are all born as clingers and graspers. The new-born babe has to have a tight grip, and as we get older the grip often gets stronger. Clinging permeates all of life; we cling to people (possessiveness) ; to things (greed) ; to power and position (ambition) ; we cling to opinions (pride.) At the root of our clinging lies fear and insecurity. The apparently strong person who clings aggressively to set ways or ideas is in reality full of fear. Notice your physical reactions to fright; you clench up and grasp at something or someone, as a frightened child clings to its mother.
In the Buddhist tradition, clinging is seen as the root of all suffering. When you are unhappy, it can be enlightening to pursue the question "What am I clinging to?" It might be an idea, a plan, an expectation, power, possessions, reputation, a place, a person, health, even life itself. All wise traditions recommend a light grasp of everything. Anxious clinging leads to misery. As soon as we begin to relax our tight grasp and let go, we begin to be free and happy. ("Letting go" is a useful modern equivalent for "self-emptying.")
Jesus did not cling. He knew that reality could be trusted, because at the heart of reality is "Abba--dear Father," and that underneath everything, even death, are the everlasting arms. So he did not cling even to life, "accepting death, death on a cross." "Into your hands,. I commend my spirit." May this mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus.
The basic thought of the Gospel reading is well expressed by the Isaiah passage: "My thoughts are not your thoughts." Try as one will, it is impossible to find a way in which the payment of the workers in the vineyard could be said to be fair. The owner is generous to the last comers, but why is he not generous to the others as well? It is simply that there is no reckoning up deserts when man meets God.
In the time of Christ Judaism had reached a legalistic state, and the mentality was definitely prevalent that salvation could and must be earned. There was a host of commands which must be fulfilled, and men were divided into two classes, the righteous who were on the road to salvation by fulfilling the commands, and the unrighteous, outcasts despised by those who kept the law. It was this slot-machine conception of God that Jesus opposed by his emphasis on love, for in love there is no calculation of duties, rights and obligations; there is only an open-handed giving without counting the cost, and a grateful receiving. We can never say that we have earned our salvation, or anything from God, but can only stand suppliant before him. The latest workers in the vine-yard have not earned what the owner gives them, and the mistake of their envious colleagues is to think that they can deserve well of the owner.
The most devout Christians often secretly find it a little hard to stomach that someone who repents on his deathbed is admitted to the kingdom no less than those who have struggled and suffered all their lives for God's cause. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Not only does it presuppose the commercial attitude of reward and punishments from God, but also it neglects the nature of love. The sole relationship of the believer to God must be personal relationship of love, and as such it is its own reward, for it brings happiness also in this life. The greater the struggle and the suffering, the more a Christian turns to God and finds comfort--often the only comfort--in the security of his love and fidelity. But furthermore, fidelity through a long life does bring some advantage over a skimped final conversion, for it may well be--though this is perhaps not invariably so--that the relation-ship of love has so deepened over the years that the Christian, conformed over a long period to the image f Christ, has more capacity for the full enjoyment of God's company than he who comes to know God only at the last moment. Here it is not a matter of God giving a greater reward, but man being more capable of receiving it.
Of this deep and rewarding relationship with God and with Christ Paul shows himself in the second reading to be the perfect example. Writing as he does under persecution he is yet filled with the joy of Christ. His life is already united with Christ's life, and he longs for the fulfilment of final union.
The church is the choice vineyard of the Lord, planted for a noble and productive purpose. Here we can grow to maturity in the sunshine of God's grace. But the vineyard can fall into disuse, or fail to produce the expected fruits of loving mercy. We pray that our lives may never be soured by bitterness or disillusionment
Israel is the vineyard God has tended. It is expected to bear fruits of holiness
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed
righteousness, but heard a cry!
We should do "what is true, honourable, just and pleasing."
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
God is master of the vineyard and expects a proper return from the tenants
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders: "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, 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 its fruit."
Our God is a God who trusts his workers. Just as the landowner gave the tenants a fully equipped vineyard in which to work and produce, God creates the possibilities for work, fruitfulness and success for us too. He provides us with opportunities and resources and trusts that we will make the most of these. Our own, personal vineyards are completely unique. Do we recognize how our lives are molded by God? Do we recognize the opportunities and resources that God has given us? Have we experienced the freedom and trust that God gives us? Have we responded responsibly or have we responded similar to the tenants at times?
The first reading from Isaiah echoes this truth. The friend of Isaiah owns a fertile hillside, he spades it, he clears it of stones, plants the choicest vines, builds the traditional watchtower, installs the typical wine press and then anticipates an excellent and abundant harvest. What he gets instead are wild grapes. We feel the pain of unrequited love in the second half of the reading of Isaiah. We feel the pain of a broken heart acting out in anger--an earthy, anthropomorphic illustration of the disappointment God feels in his people who have not acted justly and with compassion to the lowly and oppressed.
We can read the parable in the social context of the time. Jesus does not necessarily approve of what people do in his stories. John J Pilch (The Cultural World of Jesus Cycle A) writes: "The parable reflects a reality familiar to all peasants, namely, the extortion practiced by hard-nosed absentee landowners. Modern scholars have pieced together bits and pieces of information to gain a better understanding of the situation of tenant farmers based on what is known about peasant free-holders, that is, peasants who were fortunate enough to own and farm their own land. Some of the crop would have to be used for trade to gain other necessities of life. There were also social dues (gifts), religious tithes, and taxes adding up to about 35 or 40%. About 20% of the annual produce would be left to feed the family and livestock of a free-holding peasant. Far less would be left to tenant farmers who also owed land rent."
In addition to this, in the story the landowner shows little concern for his servants/slaves and even for his own son and heir: he too in a different way is dispossessed. All are losers.
And yet the story describes reality, then and now. Injustice leads to desperation, desperation to violence, and violence to yet more violence. The more we have, the more we have to protect. There is a strong message here for society today--and for the church and its leaders. Who delivers the fruit?
With so much violence in the news, our mind could be overcome with the powers of evil. We need what St Paul says: "beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Pádraig McCarthy)
By baptism we have been called to salvation, and to take our place in the future kingdom of God. Somehow, we must get a wedding garment, so as to take our place at the wedding feast. Our eucharist recalls that invitation and prompts us to reflect on how we are doing. But it is not all our own work, as Paul reminds us. It is God's grace that prompts us to a worthy life, despite human weakness; we can do all things through him who strengthens us
The image of a banquet symbolises the blessings God has in store for His People
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
Paul tries not to depend on material things, but trusts in the Lord for what he needs
I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
God is like a king who invites us to a banquet. Many refuse their invitation
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
What does tomorrow hold for us? What is there to hope for? Often our imagination projects into the future. As children, we wondered "What will it be when like when we grow up?" Parents promised new freedoms and new possibilities "When you are older." Human nature lives in vital tension between the Already and the Not Yet.
As adults we may indeed have to trim down and focus our hopes and fantasies into more precise channels, with the passing years. But we are still gripped with interest in what lies ahead--not just for oneself and family, but for the wider society and world. What steps in science and technology lie just around the corner? How will society develop, between now and the year 2050? The changing balance between richer and poorer countries; the unstable marital climate of our own nation; proposed educational changes and law reforms; new employment initiatives; the provision of better medical and recreational facilities --all are subject to our keen analysis and hopeful projections.
Elderly people may ponder more on the past than the future and to dwell on bygone events and treasured relationships. Their looking forward is more often marked with resignation or anxiety than with hope. In the dignity of their mature years, they accept that "Che sera, sera; whatever will be, will be'. And, if they have learned the habit of prayer, they peace-fully leave their future in God's hands.
Today's Scriptures invite us all to raise our sights, and our hearts, when thinking of the future. Beyond this present life, God has planned a great future for all of us. Isaiah's prophecy of the heavenly banquet is an invitation to think of our eternal destiny. There is more to live for than what we see in this present world, interesting and challenging though it is. What really counts, indeed, is whether we succeed in reaching our eternal happiness with God.
Perhaps our predecessors in the faith had a stronger sense of the afterlife than we have today. Like Saint Paul, they believed that history is in God's hands and that divine justice will have the last say. Difficulties in one's present life could then be seen as growth-pains, or as a means of purifying the spirit from selfishness and sin. Under it all, the world was "in travail," in process of bringing a new era into existence. So it was that Paul--and many other men and women of faith--could be inwardly at peace, no matter how hard the circumstances in which they found them-selves. We can "do all things in Him who strengthens us," if we hold on to the hope of everlasting life.
The eternal banquet must not be abandoned as so much "pie in the sky'! Christians don't literally expect to sit down to an everlasting meal, an eternal eating and drinking festival somewhere in the stratosphere. While heaven is described in vivid anthropomorphic images, we realize that "eye has not seen.. nor can the human heart imagine, what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9.) Still, the banqueting atmosphere of friendly conviviality is a good image for that perfect loving communion with God and with others towards which our lives are destined.
Jesus emphasises that this wedding-banquet is open to all people indeed, that God sends his messengers out to scour the highways and byways in order to fill his house with guests. It is a comforting thought that God wants us to be saved, even more than we do ourselves.
On the other hand, there is a special regalia or wedding-garment that must be worn. This is the level of personal commitment required, in order to accept our place at the wedding feast. I like to think that this refers primarily to community spirit, an ability to share our well-being with other people, in the presence of God. Though founded on faith in God's creative love, Christian hope retains a strong ethical dimension. Our wedding-garment is therefore being woven daily, by the quality of our interaction with others. In this sense, we hold tomorrow in our own hands, as with the help of God's grace we build our own eternal future.
Our notion of heaven derives largely from what we regard as most desirable in this world. Such was always the case. Every age reinvents heaven to mirror its own time. What is depicted tells us more about conditions here than in the hereafter. The idea of its being a marriage feast has little appeal for some of us. Like most priests, I have had more than my share of wedding receptions in this world, with their invariable menus of turkey and ham, to have any desire for more of the same in the next. Yet, there was a time in my life when food came high on the list of desirables. The smell of fried eggs and bacon from the staff dining-room in my boarding-school days could transport me to another world!
Such was the bleakness of the lives of most people in biblical and other times, when food was basic and scarce, it is not surprising that Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a royal wedding feast. There was of course a political agenda behind those royal banquets. They helped to insure that the heir to the throne would be accepted and loved by his poorer subjects. Caesars and senators in ancient Rome were accustomed to sponsor gladiatorial contests and other bloody spectacles for much the same reason. Cynical Romans were well aware that their acquiescence in, if not allegiance to, the ruling junta, was being bought with 'bread and circuses'. Vestiges of the same still survive today as richer countries vie with each other to host the Olympic Games or the World Cup.
In the parable Jesus spoke to the religious hierarchy of his time. They were his prime target and they knew it. Already they had plans to rid themselves of this rabble-rousing rabbi, for they were too preoccupied with clinging to privilege and power to accept God's invitation to the wedding-feast. Others had their 'farms' and their 'businesses', their deals and the social whirl. Unhappy with being reprimanded for their dubious practices, they rejected the prophetic messengers sent to warn them that the feast was ready. This story goes on finding in every age a new target audience. Maybe Curial executive types who run the local churches like regional subsidiaries of a giant international company should take the warning nowadays. But they are not alone. It would be comforting to think of ourselves as too ordinary to be included, or that we are among those at the crossroads who finally fill the wedding-hall. Our baptism placed us squarely on the guest list. Our profession of faith every Sunday confirms it. But our actual priorities might still keep us from making to the wedding feast.
It used to be thought that heaven was the better of the two options on offer when we die. The Christian truth is that the offer of heaven is made here and now; for death only fixes for eternity the choice we actually make in this life. We have already received our invitations. We have been tagged with an RSVP. -We are already making our responses by the priorities we choose here and now.
Daniel Berrigan noted the sharp ironies in this parable: "The story is charged with ironies. We have the Christ of "love your enemies" telling about a king who takes revenge on his enemies (Matthew 22, 1-14). This king, in fact, recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers. The invitation to his banquet declares that everyone is welcome, "both evil and good." But after the ragtag guests assemble, someone is by no means made welcome. Quite the opposite. He is "bound hand and foot, and cast into outer darkness." His offense? Lacking that well-known wedding garment. This anonymous guest, someone from "the main highways," perhaps homeless, almost certainly destitute, where was such a one to come on a festive robe? Imagine a homeless person in New York rounded up to appear at a wedding and then berated for not being clothed in a tuxedo!"
Today's Christians are called to live in a very pluralist world, that presents us with huge challenges. Only the grace of God and the depth of our convictions will enable our faith to survive and to thrive in a secular society. But then, throughout history the life of faith has often thriven in spite of unpromising circumstances, whether it was the Jews under the Persian king Cyrus or the early Christians under the harsh rule of imperial Rome
Providence appointed king Cyrus to liberate Israel from the exile in Babylon
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him, and the gates shall not be closed:
"For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west,
that there is no one besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other."
Paul assures his readers that he prays for them and is glad for their zeal as converts
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
Jesus refused to be drawn into a sterile argument, about paying taxes to Caesar
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that belong to him, and to God what belongs to God."
No sooner had the Berlin Wall fallen, marking the end of the Cold War, than another ominous divide in our world made its appearance. This new division is between the Muslim world and what was once the Christian West. The Muslim world has experienced an extraordinary growth in fundamentalism. Many countries there have imposed or are seeking to impose the law of the Koran as the law of the state. Algeria in North Africa, just off the southern tip of Europe, is presently the scene of a murderous East-West conflict. Some European countries feel threatened, particularly France, with its large Muslim population and close historical ties with Algeria. Muslims demands that their schoolgirls be allowed to wear the veil in French public schools. Strange how people so often adopt the attitudes and strategies of their adversaries. Muslim fundamentalism in Arab countries has been matched by a noticeable "move to the right" in western countries. Now even the more moderate mainstream parties are calling for tighter immigration laws. The signs for the future are ominous, to say the least.
The clash between religion and the secular state is not new. The story of the Christian West is largely a history of this conflict. For the first few centuries of its existence, Christianity was fiercely persecuted by the state, leaving in its wake, a bloody trail of martyrs. All that changed with the conversion of the emperor Constantine. Soon Christianity became the state religion. Now the boot was on the other foot. The high point of the power of religion came at Canossa in the high Middle Ages when an excommunicated emperor knelt in the snow and humbly submitted to a pope to regain his imperial crown. In the Caesar-God contest, that round went decidedly to God. All throughout the Middle Ages the church extended its sphere of influence into the secular domain. With the break-up of Christianity in the sixteenth century the process began to reverse. The French Revolution marked a decisive turning point in favour of the state. Napoleon made the point dramatically, when he took the imperial crown from the pope and placed it himself on his own head. Ever since the state has been clawing back the ground once claimed by the church. And the church has ceded its former influence reluctantly. The boot has changed feet once more.
Today's gospel, with its famous "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" has a particular topicality in our world. While the principle is clear and unambiguous, its application in particular circumstances is quite another matter. The Catholic Church Catechism points out three circumstances where citizens are obliged in conscience to refuse obedience to the civil authorities. They are when the laws are "contrary to the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons and to the teachings of the gospel." The principle is clear. However, its application may not be so simple when there is an apparent clash of rights.
The complexity of these issues may render them unsuitable topics for the pulpit. What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers on the obligation of Christian behaviour in all circumstances. No matter how deeply they hold their convictions or how warmly they espouse their causes, they must never resort to violence. And that includes intimidation in all its forms. Muscular crusades, whether modern or medieval, cause irreparable harm. The end never justifies the means. We live, even in Ireland, in a world of pluralism. There are others whose principles and beliefs differ radically from ours. The state must also take cognisance of them. Our only resort is persuasion. Persuasion is always a gentle art. We best persuade by living our Christian lives to the full, remembering always that "the anger of man works not the justice of God." (Liam Swords)
Before being called by Christ to be one of his twelve Apostles, St Matthew was a tax collector operating in a customs house, somewhere in the north of Galilee. Since this profession required that he be able to read, write and especially keep records, these skills he would put to good use in writing his gospel account of Jesus' mission. His literary style, as an evangelist, may be more artificial than that of St Luke, but there is no doubt that the gospel excerpt you have just heard is truly dramatic. The question put to Jesus, as to whether it was permissible for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, gives a clear insight into the minds and strategy of the Pharisees. They were trying to walk Jesus into a political trap that would set him at odds with the Roman authorities, who were the rulers of Israel at that time, or, failing that, would discredit him before his own people. To avoid giving rise to suspicion of their intent, they decided not to get involved personally themselves. They sent some of their disciples along to Christ instead. It is quite likely that the leaders of the Pharisees stayed in the background because they wanted the followers of Herod, the Roman appointed tetrarch of Galilee, to take part also in the plot against Jesus, even though these Herodians, who openly advocated cooperation with the Romans, were normally their most bitter enemies.
The mock tributes to Jesus by this delegation, mention of his honesty, his fearlessness, his disregard for the status of those he encountered, all this flattery coming from people who normally were hostile to him merely highlights the hypocrisy of their praise. Then the trap was sprung: "tell us what is your own opinion? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" Were Christ to answer, "Pay the tax," then he would stand accused of collaboration with the Roman oppressors, and would incur the scorn of ordinary Jews each of whom had to pay a poll tax, from the age of twelve for women and fourteen for men. Were he to advocate non-payment, he could be arrested for sedition by the Roman authorities. Jesus' response, however, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," left them confounded, and they slunk away. But Jesus' reply left the matter in suspense, because it did not touch upon the right of the Romans to rule Israel, nor did it enumerate precisely the things o Caesar or those of God.
The opposing claims of God and state were left to be decided by the informed conscience of each individual, as they still are to this day. But there remains the warning of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, that "no one can serve two masters; one cannot be the slave of both God and wealth" (Mt 6:24). Wealth in early OT times was seen as created by God, and bestowed on patriarchs, kings and leaders who had roles of special responsibility. Later on, wealth ceased to be regarded as a gift from God. "Woe to those who join house to house and field to field, until everywhere belongs to them," Isaiah warned (Is 5:8), and Jesus himself said, "alas for you who are rich; you are having your life of ease now" (Lk 6:24). The world and all its resources were created by God for the benefit of all human beings without exception, and this must usually obtain alongside the right to private property, whether inherited or acquired by personal enterprise. It is the task of government to seek balance between policies that will help the common good of all the citizens. And taxation is still one of the most common means of achieving this.
Pádraig McCarthy notes:
The coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar had the inscription: "Augustus Ti(berius) Caesar Divi Aug(usti) F(ilius)"--The August (= consecrated, venerable) Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus". Tiberius is Son of a god! On the other side was inscribed "Pontif(ex) Maxim(us)" = "The Greatest Pontiff": The High Priest!
Matthew, Mark and Luke locate this encounter in the Temple, where graven images were absolutely forbidden.
There were, however, the non-graven images: human beings, man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God. Give to God what belongs to God.
Our Gospel celebrates the great commandment of love. To love our neighbour as God does, prejudices based on race, religion or colour have to go. The revelation at Mount Sinai prompted a sense of fairness towards others, deeper than specific commandments. Jesus demonstrates a life of utterly unselfish loving, and invites us to make that our guide to life. For St Paul, this imitation of Christ is the core of spirituality
The Israelites must show fairness in practical matters
The Lord said to Moses, "Tell the children of Israel this:
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.
If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.
If you take your neighbour's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate."
The fervour of the Thessalonian converts encouraged other local churches
Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Jesus' summation of morality as the twofold commandment of love
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
All our texts today suggest one clear and practical principle: loving God involves doing practical justice in our world. But even our superficially Christian society is full of people who show little respect for love or justice. Political and economic life is ruled by values far from those of the Gospel. Greed, and fierce desire for power and profit can be seen in our daily papers. We are closer to the paganism mentioned in Paul's letter than we may imagine. Today no less than then, the world is hostile to what Jesus represents, and it is hard for us to take a stand even on important issues of justice and compassion. Our Lord shows love of God and genuine love of the other as two basic aspects of the same call. There can never be a contradiction between the two, even though one may sometimes feel trapped in a situation where a particular law of Church or State seems to create a contradiction.
An approach to the second commandment about love could be by reflecting on how we love ourselves. Love of neighbour becomes virtually impossible in the agone of self-hatred in which some fearful, discouraged people can find themselves. Loving the other as oneself only becomes possible if we have, or can grow into, a healthy, sane level of self-appreciation. This is a sound psychological principle, which should be mentioned in our churches even though Christian love transcends all the transient vogues of psychology. Its ideal is the example of Christ himself, with also his commitment to justice for the poor.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants who have come to live among us in Ireland. We have moved from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural, multi-racial society. Today's readings invite us to reflect on how well we receive these strangers, make them feel at home in our society and in our church. "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." They are distinct from us, and, often, different from us. The saying, "Birds of a feather flock together," expresses the evident truth that like attracts like. It is tempting to frequent the company of people like ourselves. Yet, the Lord gathered about himself a community of great diversity. Even within the twelve there was to be found a tax-collector and a zealot, men from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a similar way, the Spirit of the Lord at work in our lives prompts us to connect with those who are different from us, as well as those who are like us. The one we find initially strange can reveal the Lord to us in surprising ways. We pray this morning for a greater openness to the many ways the Lord comes to us in life.
Life is becoming increasingly complex. We value people who have the gift of getting beyond the multiple dimensions of an issue so as to zoom in on the heart of the matter. Such people prevent us from missing the wood for the trees. They are good at separating out what really matters from the things that are less important. They encourage us to invest our energies in what is really worthwhile, rather than allowing them to be dissipated by what is not significant.
Jesus was a person who knew how to go to the heart of the matter. On one occasion someone asked him to intervene in a family dispute about inheritance. In his reply, he ignored the concrete issue and, instead, he called on the person who approached him to "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed" (Lk 12:13-15). He saw that the real issue was not the details of the particular case but the greed which underlay the dispute.
This capacity of Jesus to get to the heart of the matter is clear from his response to the question put to him by one of the Pharisees in today's gospel reading, "Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?" In the time of Jesus there were known to be 613 commandments in the Jewish Law. The potential here to miss the wood for the trees was enormous. Preoccupation with the detail of regulations could result in people ignoring what really matters, like straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Mt 23:24). Jesus answered the Pharisee's question by going straight to the heart of the Jewish law. He was asked if there is one "greatest" commandment, but in reply he named the second greatest commandment as well. For the first commandment, loving the Lord your God with all our heart and soul, is inseparable from the conjoined commandment, of loving my neighbour as myself. For Jesus, what God wants from us above all else is love. There is no genuine love of God unless it finds expression in love of our neighbour. Love of neighbour, in turn, presupposes a healthy self-love, recognising and appreciating myself as fundamentally good, because I am created in the image and likeness of God..
No one could disagree with the ideal of loving God and loving one's neighbour. In preaching this can be a difficulty, in that no one who joins in the Sunday Eucharist could conceivably reject such a basic attitude of the faith. One could politely listen and agree. The celebrant might take the road of spelling out examples of how we might better show love of neighbour, but people are not so eager to hear a harangue about the preacher’s pet sins of omission. Since mere generic ideals could fail to register effectively with many people, the homilist might develop the gospel theme of the one charity that reaches to God and neighbour with the same life; or might instead focus on the second reading.
It is clear that Paul mixed closely with the communities whose lives he shared and the authority of his word seems to have sprung from the quality of his life. His attitudes and work-habits were in tune with the message that he delivered. His commitment to the task was evidenced by the troubles he had to bear, while spreading the good news. There was an intrinsic link between what he said and how he lived. The word spoken gave meaning to the life lived and the quality of the life guaranteed the sincerity of the word. The people of Salonika accepted his message and found that it had a power to change their own outlook on life. Paul names their experience “joy of the Holy Spirit.” They touched the living Spirit of God in the midst of their own lives.
Genuine human concern that touches lives is an effective sacrament of the transcendent love of God. The homilist might look at the mystery of the Christian God from the point of view of God’s transcendence and immanence. The love of God is actually enfleshed in the nitty-gritty of human interpersonal relationships. The authenticity of our religion is guaranteed by the value of our love for real people. One could use the image of the flower that is rooted in the soil; it grows slowly by transforming the elements of the soil in to its own living cells and eventually reaches up to the beauty of the sky with its own form, colour and scent. The one sap enlivens the root, the stalk, the flower and produces the perfume.
A truly Christian life is rooted in the earth and yet reaches up to the mystery of God through living in love. Another possible development might stem from Paul’s notin of the Thessalonians” reputation spreading through the surrounding area. People were drawn to the Christian faith by the way these people were leading their lives. The word of the good news diffused itself quietly through people admiring the way the Christians lived. People can be quick to condemn those who have offbeat values or live a different lifestyle. We can fail to appreciate the faltering efforts others make to cope with the struggles of frail human nature. If we could plumb the depths of meaning in our own personal life histories we might be able to forge more effective link with others. The gift of our humanity, savoured and appreciated, can become mirror and window to the mystery of God for ourselves. It can be more a more effective means of evangelisation than all the hype of religious words that often only confirm the “converted” in their convictions.
Today's Scripture calls us to examine our conscience about the sincerity of our words and of our lives. We should rid ourselves of all hypocrisy and respect the truth about ourselves, in God's sight. Bishops and others in a leadership role, have special need to be self-critical, for the potential to be Pharisaic resides in all of us
Israel's unworthy priests are blamed; for not listening to God they mislead the people
I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.
But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction. Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
Paul recalls the love and care he has shown to the Thessalonians
We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.
Jesus attacks the scribes and Pharisees for their false forms of piety
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 honor 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 will be exalted."
It is important that the homily should not distort the teaching of Christ by giving undue emphasis to some personal viewpoint of the preacher, one which does not receive similar emphasis in the Gospels. But in choosing to illustrate the dangers of Pharisaism the preacher is on solid ground; for the Gospels have many conflicts between Christ and the Pharisees and he denounces their approach. What follows are called the "Woes" against the Pharisees. It is a pity that this section has not been selected for any Sunday throughout the three year cycle, for it helps to give a picture of the dangers, not only of Pharisaism in the time of Christ, but of the perils of the false practice of religion in all ages, including our own.
Pharisaism can be seen from several angles. It is the belief that one can save oneself through the observance of law, through the performance of works of piety, fasting, prayer and almsgiving with an eye on the praise of men. The Pharisees tended to put stress on little things ("Tithe of mint, dill and cummin') while neglecting the much more important matters of faith, justice and mercy. They were noted for their zeal in making converts who in due time became twice as bad as their converters. The outcome was that the Pharisees tended to be hypocrites, a title which Jesus bestowed on them with great liberality.
The "Woes" in Matthew against the Pharisees end with Christ denouncing them for violence, especially against the prophets whose blood they shed and whose tombs they later adorned. "You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets! Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began." Mat. 23:32. The finishing off of the work was the death of Christ for which the Pharisees were largely responsible. The works of piety, the strict observance of law was a defence mechanism at work within the Pharisees. They suffered from a sense of guilt which they refused to acknowledge, as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican informs us. However, if guilt is not acknowledged within oneself, it seeks a victim outside oneself. We can say that Christ was the victim on whom the Pharisees projected their own unacknowledged sense of guilt. No wonder that the repentant sinner of the Parable who cried out, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner," is exalted by Christ above the Pharisee who thanked God he was not asinner.
Today's Gospel is an invitation to all, especially the more pious and those who tend to be judgmental of others, to examine behind our good works. Are they an escape from a sense of guilt? If so, the remedy is not the rejection of piety and good works, but a search for a precious gift of God, the willingness to face up to ourselves by acknowledging our personal and national guilt.
Today's second reading issues a challenge to all Christians--especially the preacher! We are supposed to live up to what we say we are, followers of Christ. We are, in a single word, called to live by love, love in its deepest and Christian sense.
This word "Love" is much bandied about but less frequently understood and practiced. Jesus gave the supreme example of its real meaning in his life, death and resurrection. But he did not die and rise in order to prevent or excuse us from sharing personally in his selfless experience. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to be Christians with Him, we must in our turn undergo death and resurrection. We must practise what we preach! We must mean what we say and do what we mean.
In the play A Man for All Seasons (by Robert Bolt) there is a scene in which Margaret, the daughter of Thomas More, pleads with her father to desist from his opposition to the dissolute Henry VIII and swear to the Act of Succession. So lie will save his life and be released from jail. But More is unwilling to do something he doesn't believe in. He says: "If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly.. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit us far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and we have to choose to be human at all.. why then perhaps we must stand fast a little--even at the risk of being heroes." Margaret, emotionally, still begs him to compromise: "Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?" And her father replies in words that should be written in gold: "Well.. finally.. it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love."
This is the love that Christ spoke about and practised. In the end we shall be judged on that alone. Our often ragged efforts to bring direction and meaning to the "animated aimlessness" of our lives will--if touched by the love of God and expressed through genuine service of our fellow human beings--have an eternal value.
For Liam Swords, clerical dress was always rather a non-issue. For a large part of his life as a priest, he worked in France where the clergy wear civilian clothes. Prior to that he worked in the secular world of publishing and television, where it was customary for priests to dress like other employees. Wearing the collar there would be frowned on as an attempt to pull rank. Besides, being an historian, he was always aware of the wide range of clerical attire down through the centuries, from the powdered wigs and frilly cuffs of the ancient régime clerics in France to the peasant garb of penal priests in Ireland. And so he wrote, "for me our finest hour was those times of persecution when priests were disguised as others, rather than those decadent times like our own when, it would seem, others are often disguised as priests."
That there are solid arguments in favour of a distinctive clerical dress goes without saying. Perhaps the strongest is that the priest in the parish should be easily recognisable by those who seek his help. The notion that clerical dress has sign-value is more questionable. The problem is, a sign of what? If I lived the gospel as fully as Mother Teresa or Abbé Pierre, I would feel no embarrassment wearing a habit or a collar. But a sign works both ways. When taking a stroll in Rome I saw three young friars in their robes and sandals just ahead of me on the pavement. They stopped at a cash-dispenser, fished out their credit cards from the deep folds of their habits and withdrew some money. Most ordinary people nowadays do the same; and so do I. But in this case the clash of symbols deeply disturbed me. Rome is full of down-and-outs who sleep in doorways or on the pavements. What kind of sign would a sight like that be to them? What would that beggar-man, St Francis, have thought?
The strongest argument of all is today's gospel where Christ castigates the scribes and Pharisees who did "not practise what they preach." "Everything they do is done to attract attention," he said, "like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassles, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi." He could well have been describing the world where I first started life as a priest. The collar was much a symbol of power and privilege then and provoked a good deal of anticlericalism. I remember my sister, the mother of a few young children, returning home from the butcher's, furious. She had to queue for ages. A priest joined the end of the queue and when the butcher spotted the clerical collar, he called him up to serve him immediately. It didn't pacify my sister when I told her that the priest was probably embarrassed by this special treatment and did not refuse because he did not wish to hurt the butcher's feelings. "He doesn't have a dinner to cook and children to mind and feed like me," she retorted.
Coincidentally, that is exactly how St Paul describes his priestly work among the Thessalonians: "Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children." Whatever clothes we priests wear--and lam still of two minds about it--we must follow the teaching of Christ: "The greatest among you must be your servant." Otherwise, we will earn the curse Malachi threatened on the priests who strayed from the right way and become "contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people." Some might say we have reached that point already. The Psalmist aimed at the right spirit when he said,
0 Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
Underlying optimism: Everyone suffers sometime from bereavement, and some losses are especially difficult to bear. But if we hope in the resurrection we should not grieve like others who have no hope. The underlying optimism shining through today's text from the book of Wisdom is given a personal focus by St Paul, who says that all we have lost will be restored when Jesus returns in glory. The gospel adds that we must be ready to welcome him.
In praise of Wisdom, which is easily discerned by those who love her
Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one's thought on her is perfect understanding; one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.
We should not grieve as others do who have no hope
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
We must be ready to meet the Lord when he comes
Jesus told this parable to his disciples: "The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do no know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither theday nor the hour."
The refusal of the wise virgins to share may appear selfish. But here we are not talking really about lamps and oil but about people and life. There are certain things you cannot borrow or inherit. Your parents or my parents may have been the best people in the world. If so, that is a blessing beyond measure. But for all that it cannot be taken for granted that we will automatically become decent caring men and women. We can learn from one another, be inspired by one another, but in the last analysis we shape our own destiny. Character cannot be transferred or borrowed. We must build it for ourselves.
The same is true of the faith. Parents and other people are reminded that it is their responsibility to hand on the faith to the younger generation. But again faith is not like a farm of land or a legacy. It cannot be given by a parent to a child. Yes, all kinds of encouragement and good example can help enormously, but in the end, the young person as they grow up to maturity must accept or reject the invitation in his or her own heart.
The arrival of children of their own can often be a decisive moment for young parents as regards the faith. Some never seem to come back, but always remember God has his own way of welcoming people home even if along unexpected routes.
Our present-day western civilisation derives, in great part, from Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures. But in attitudes, in ancient times, towards life after death, there could be no greater gap between, on the one hand, the Graeco-Roman tradition, and on the other, the Jewish tradition. In particular, when confronted with the inevitability of death, the response of the person without faith was, and today is, one of despair. On a pagan tombstone from the classical period can be read the grim inscription, "I was not, I became; I am not, I care not." Essentially it means: "When you're dead, you're dead!" In similar vein, the Roman lyric poet, Horace, who died the year Christ was born, had this advice for the reader: "Enjoy the present day, and trust in tomorrow as little as you can." (Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero). No wonder then that he motto of the time was, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.")
In the Jewish tradition, belief in resurrection after death did not gain acceptance until the first century before Christ. But there was belief in a shadowy existence of the departed in a place called Sheol, where they could neither know God nor praise him. If we take the Book of Ecclesiastes, for example, written about 300 B.C., we find its author agreeing, yes, there can be a certain happiness in eating, drinking and being content with one's work while on earth, but because of the futility of earthly pursuits and possessions, there is in human beings a God-given yearning for something deeper, especially for the meaning of all experience and all time. And God is the only one who is wise, the only one who knows.
In a chapter full of vivid imagery, the author of Ecclesiastes describes how, without being touched in the least by the passing of man to his eternal abode, the things of nature carry on with their own pursuits. Even those who mourn the passing from this life of one of their own are already walking to and fro in the street before, as the writer says, "the silver cord is snapped, or the golden lamp (of life) is broken, or before the dust returns to the earth from whence it came, and the spirit to God who gave it." There is some element in each person which this world is not worthy to retain; it is of God, and after its sojourn here it returns to God.
The greatest change in attitude to life hereafter came about with belief in the resurrection of Christ. "For us," St Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:20), "our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the Saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these lowly bodies of ours into copies of his own glorious body." We should not therefore, he tells us in the liturgy today, remain without understanding concerning those close to us who have passed away.
We should not grieve as others do, who have no concept of eternal life. Note, he does not tell us to avoid all sorrow, for sorrow over the death of a loved one is a natural reaction, but rather not to be like others, who have no hope. The necessity of losing somebody in death causes us anguish, but hope consoles us. Our human frailty is tried by the one, but our faith is strengthened by the other. The liturgy this month asks us to respond in two practical ways. Firstly, it tells us to be prepared, not to let things go too late. No tolling funeral bell can cause greater anguish than the words "too late." Those who live all their lives close to Christ will never be unprepared to enter his presence, will be with Christ even in death, and will finally share in his glorious resurrection. Secondly, it invites us to assist with our prayers those who have gone before us.
St Monica was always anxious to be buried alongside her husband, but when she was dying at Ostia, the port of Rome, she made this last request to her son, Augustine, "Lay this body anywhere," she said, "let it not be a care to you. This only I ask of you, that you would remember me at the Lord's altar wherever you may be." We too should keep in mind that in death life is changed, not ended. This is our Christian hope; this is our God-given trust.
The wedding banquet is a consistent image of eternal life in the New Testament. We can only speak about the unknown and unfamiliar in terms of what is known and familiar. The wedding banquet highlights eternal life as that state in which the deepest hunger and thirst in our lives will be satisfied, especially the hunger and thirst for love, for God who is love. "O God. for you my soul is thirsting" (responsorial psalm.) In the second reading, Paul. without making use of the banquet image, speaks of life beyond death in a similar vein--it is that eternal moment when "God will bring them (those who have died) with him" and when "we shall stay with the Lord forever." Eternal life will mean entering into a new" and fuller relationship with God and, through him, with all creation.
Yet, the parable warns us that it is possible to exclude ourselves from the banquet of eternal life. It was only those who were ready, who went in with the bridegroom to the wedding hall. When God comes to bring us, will we be ready? Life, including life after death is God's gift to us and a gift. by definition, can be refused, However, we will certainly be ready to accept this ultimate gift, if throughout our lives we have learned to be receptive to God. Our daily attitudes will determine our attitude at the moment of death. Today's gospel concludes with a ringing exhortation "Stay awake." One important way in which we stay awake to God is prayer. "Why are you sleeping?" Jesus asked his friends, "get up and pray" (Luke 22:46.) To pray is to awaken to the Lord who is always awake to us. In prayer we look for the Lord, desire him, watch for him and think about him. To pray is to become like a child, to grow in receptivity to God's presence within us.
Today's gospel focuses on the kind of behaviour that will be tested in Final Judgment. We are here and now writing the book of evidence for that judgement on the value of lives. A key element is the use of the talents and opportunities God has given us
The ideally virtuous and industrious wife an Israelite husband hoped to find
A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant girls. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs a the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Paul admits that he does not know when the second coming will take place. But be vigilant!
Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
The parable of the Talents is a challenge to use our gifts to achieve what God expects from us
Jesus told this parable to his disciples: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who, before going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
At first sight, today's parable seems to suggest that the third servant took a prudent course of action--"I heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown." The scribes and Pharisees, towards whom it was directed, would argue: God demands perfection; the Law expresses his will; only a scrupulous observance of the Law can give us security. But God's way is different: He wants an abundant harvest. Jesus wants us to know that salvation come to those who are prepared to risk their all for him. A talent is given to bear fruit, not to lie there unused. It may seem prudent not to risk, but in the end it is not what God expects of us.
We know from experience that different people have different abilities. A person with an ability to listen to others may not have the ability to be a good administrator. Someone who is well able to mend a leak or fix a washing machine may have little or no musical ability. An effective teacher may be a hopeless mechanic. We learn from experience whose good at what, and we relate to people accordingly. We tend to entrust people with tasks that are in proportion to their ability. We also learn from experience what our own abilities are, and what our limitations are, and we tend to take on tasks that correspond to our abilities and avoid tasks that do not.
The rich man in today's parable was well aware of the abilities of his servants. Before he set out on his journey he entrusted his property "to each in proportion to his ability." He knew what each of his three servants was able for, and he only gave as much responsibility to each of them as each could carry. The man who received five talents of money was capable of making five more; the one who received two talents was capable of making two more; the one who received one talent was capable of making one more. The first two servants worked according to their ability. The third servant did not, giving his master back the one talent he had been given, instead of the two talents he was capable of gaining. What held this servant back from working according to his ability was fear. "I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground."
Many of us may find ourselves having some sympathy for the third servant, because, deep down, we are only too well aware how fear can hold us back and prevent us from doing what we are well capable of doing. Fear can be a much more powerful force in the lives of some than others. There can be many reasons for this. Those who have experienced a lot of criticism growing up can be slow to take a risk and may develop a fearful approach to life. We are familiar with the Irish proverb, Mol an oige agus tiochfaid siad. Praise the young and they will make progress. The converse can also true. Criticize the young and they will be held back. Unfair criticism can stunt our growth and prevent us from reaching our God-given potential. We hide what we have been given in the ground. There it remains safe, but useless.
Jesus was only too well aware of the disabling power of fear in people's lives. It is striking the number of times in the gospels he addresses people with the words, "Do not be afraid." When Simon Peter fell down at Jesus' knees saying, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man," Jesus replied to him, "Do not be afraid, from now on it is people you will catch." When fear threatened to hold Peter back, Jesus called him forward into a new way of life. Jesus was present to people in ways that released them from their fear. In particular, he did not want fear of failure to hold people back. He could cope with failure in others. He knew that many people could learn from failure. There was little to be learned from staying put. There was much to be learnt from striking out, even if failure was experienced along the way.
The tragedy of the third servant in the parable today is that, out of fear, he hid what had been entrusted to him, even though he had the ability to use it well. We have each been graced in some way by the Lord for the service of others. If I hide what the Lord has given me, others are thereby deprived. Most of us need a bit of encouragement to place our gifts at the disposal of others. Part of our baptismal calling is to give others courage, to encourage others. A couple of verses beyond where today's second reading ends, Paul writes: "Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing." In these difficult times for the church, the ministry of encouragement is all the more necessary. There is much to be learned from the mistakes of the past, but the Lord would not want us to go to ground. Now is not the time to hide our Good News in the ground out of fear. Rather, it is a time to encourage each other to share this treasure so that the church may become all that God is calling it to be.
The basic message of today's Gospel is that we all have talents. Maybe not spectacular or dramatic like other people who get national or international acclaim; just ordinary, but nevertheless important. Experts say that the average person uses only a fraction of their talents. Here are three statements to think about:
1. "I weep that there are so many missed opportunities for comforting, so many smiles withheld, hands untouched, kind words unspoken." (from Sheila Cassidy's Sharing the Darkness)
2. "They also serve who only stand and wait." (John Milton: On His Blindness **)
3. "Take the talent from him and give it to the one with five". In other words "use it or lose it". (Jesus)
One of the main reasons why people do not use their talents is because they have been belittled in the past. To belittle is to put someone down, to make them feel small, lessen their sense of self worth. There are many ways of demeaning another person: cynicism, sarcasm, non-appreciation, taking for granted. The antidote to belittle is to lift people up, to encourage them to value themselves. (homily notes from Mgr. John O'Connell)
On His Blindness
WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which 'tis death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd?"
I fondly ask. But patience to prevent
that murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his State
is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
and post o'er Land and Ocean without rest.
They also serve who only stand and wait."
On the last Sunday in the liturgical year we honour Christ the King. It is a timely year-end call, to renew our loyalty to Jesus our Saviour, and to show our love for him in the way that we love our neighbour. The shepherd-theme is predominant, both as a motive for our trusting in God's care for us and in the challenge to be, each in our own way, co-workers with that great Shepherd of our souls
God promises to personally care for his people, as the shepherd cares for the sheep
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will fed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:
At the end of the world, all enemies will be overcome and Christ will rule as universal king
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.
We will be judged by the standard of visible, tangible love
"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 you?' 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."
Paul visualises Jesus Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father at the end of time. This ideal kingdom is not something merely hoped for as a future gift, but something being worked for by Christians in the present time. The kingdom is indeed to be hoped for, but somehow it is also in our midst, in the process of becoming. Today's gospel shows how we are to promote the fuller coming of God's kingdom in our world. It comes whenever justice is done for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. To behave in this way is to imitate the Shepherd-King himself who is presented in our Gospels as one who eases alienation, who feeds, gives rest, heals and makes strong. Among his final words was a promise to the thief being crucified at his side, that he would be enfolded by the eternal love of God, in paradise.
The best way to honour Christ our King is to work for the unfolding and promoting of his kingdom. In working for the relief of deprived, oppressed or marginalised people, we are serving Christ in person, because he fully identified with people in need, right up to his final moment in this life. The disciple of Christ the King cannot afford the luxury of living in a gated community, resolutely secure in a fortress, comfortably "keeping myself to myself" with the lame claim that "I do nobody any harm." To be deaf to the cries of my neighbour in need is to be deaf to Christ. To be blind to the anguish of the dying is to be blind to Christ. To recognise Jesus Christ as our Shepherd-king involves being carers or shepherds in some way ourselves; for the work of the Kingdom goes on until he comes again.
No matter how strong, competent, assured or poised a person may seem to be each person can be hurt. There is always a weak spot in the circle of one's mind. Holiness is about allowing the divine light into one's life precisely at that place so that the whole of one's life may be renewed and transfigured. To be spiritual is to awaken to the light of one's own spirit, whose deepest source is God. When God started his Kingdom, he built it not on power, but on spirit. It is a kingdom made up not of achievement or possessions. Rather the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of emptiness. It is the place where those who are able to let go can enter. This is why Jesus always claimed that the Kingdom of God was beginning among the weak, the sounded, the strays and the lost. Jesus is King of the lost and the weak, those who have let go.
The human mind is one of the most beautiful achievements of creation. It seems that no other aspect of creation can gather itself to intimacy in the way the person can gather hisher life with the mind. Joseph Conrad said: "The mind of man is capable of anything, because everything is in it." The human mind is a miniature world, within the privacy of the body. To become human is to be an explorer--to go on the voyage inwards to the unawakened territories within.
The person who has the courage to awaken and inhabit their own interiority become transfigured. They learn to see that every moment of life comes from elsewhere, that one is not the author or controller on one's own life. One has no right to this giftedness. To realize this is to turn one's life into a celebration. The false burdens of control and power over one's life give way to a great sense of acceptance, joy and celebration. To come into this new way of seeing is to learn to be. The Kingdom of God transfigures fear into courage, sadness into joy, false attachment into real belonging and blindness into new seeing. The Kingdom of God is that which alone is real. Kathleen Raine says: "Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see at all."
One of the exciting things about the Kingdom of God is that it defies ordinary perception. No one can say whether an other is holy or not. As Jesus so trenchantly saw, it is not always those who seem to be in it, who are. The Kingdom of God is a completely different rhythm. The contour of the Kingdom of God is not drawn according to the lines of the world or the church. At the end of the day the ideal candidate for the Kingdom of God seems to be the Outsider, the one who has found the centre too suffocating and falsely possessive and had to move out to the edge. (John O'Donoghue)
You might have had the experience of doing something for somebody and only subsequently discovering that it meant far more to that person than you realized at the time you did it? We are not always aware of the good we might be doing. We don't always appreciate how significant our actions are for others or how much our presence means to them. In some ways that can be a good thing, because it can prevent us from becoming too proud, or taking ourselves too seriously. In other ways it may not be a good thing because we can fail to value something in ourselves that others value much. We may be tempted to give up doing something that people really value because we are unaware of how significant it is. We may think we are doing nothing particularly worthwhile, when we fact we may be doing something of real value.
The thought came to me from the two groups of people in this gospel parable. The first group were amazed to discover that what they had done in life was far more significant than they had realized. Only at the end of their lives did they realize that their ordinary simple acts of kindness and consideration were in fact serving the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. To their amazement, they discovered that there was a much deeper dimension to what they were doing than they had ever suspected. In attending to the ordinary, they were, in reality engaging with the eternal. "When did we see you?... " they asked the Son of Man. His reply was, "In so far as you did this to one of the least, you did it to me." What they did in a matter-of-fact way turned out to have eternal significance. In dealing with their broken and troublesome and unfortunate neighbours, they were, in reality, dealing with the Lord of the Universe. What they had been doing was far more significant than they could ever have dreamt, and ha consequences far beyond what they realized at the time.
It can be difficult for us to realize that in our ordinary dealings with each other we are in a real sense dealing with the Lord, and that is especially true when we are confronted with others in all their brokenness and need. It is in the ordinary, every day affairs of life that we are responding to the Lord. The care that someone gives to a sick relative is care given to the Lord, whether that is realized or not. The welcome we give to a stranger who feels vulnerable in a foreign environment is a welcome given to the Lord. The way we relate to prisoners or ex-prisoners reveals how we relate to the Lord.
In the parable, Jesus doesn't say "I was imprisoned for no good reason and you visited me," or he doesn't say, "I was imprisoned because of my witness to the gospel and you visited me." No, it is much simpler than that, "I was in prison," full stop. No attempt is made to distinguish one prisoner from another or one crime from another. How we treat our prisoners, regardless of what they have done, is a commenary on how we treat the Lord himself. This gospel reading gives no encouragement to the attitude of lock them up and throw away the key. How we try to integrate ex-prisoners into our community, our society, is also making a statement about how we are receiving the Lord's coming to us. As a society how many resources are we putting into the important work of helping ex-prisoners to find a meaningful role in our society, so that they can build a new life for themselves that is crime-free?