Ordinary Sundays of Year B (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 servant of God, a chosen one, will courageously help others to salvation
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.
Alternative 1st Reading, ad libitum:
Come to the waters, come buy and eat
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
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 abundantly 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.
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.
Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and went about doing good
Peter addressed Cornelius and his household: "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.
About love and faith, and the witness that God has given to his Son
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,
and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know
that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his
commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers
the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus
is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus
Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.
And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood,
and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony
of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified
to his Son.
As Jesus receives baptism a voice says, "You are my Son" and the Spirit rests on him
John the Baptist proclaimed,
"The one who is more powerful than I is coming
after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his
sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with
the Holy Spirit."
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized
by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove
on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased."
I've had the privilege of leading several pilgrimages to the Holy Land. One of the highlights is a communal immersion up to our knees in the river Jordan, to renew the promises of our baptism. It is a moving experience when one recalls 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 use it to renew their 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!'
The sacrament I like celebrating the most is the sacrament of baptism. It is always a happy occasion. A young child has recently been received into their family with great joy and celebration, and now they are being received again into another family, the family of the church. In being received into this family, the children become our brothers and sisters in the Lord, sons and daughters of God, and temples of the Spirit. The joy of the occasion is palpable, especially when the parents and godparents come up to the baptismal font and the water is poured over the head of the child by the celebrant. Each child is anointed before and after baptism with special oil, the oil of catechumens and the oil of chrism; the baptismal shawl is placed around the child and the baptismal candle is lit. The whole occasion is somehow uplifting in a way that is unique to that sacrament.
The vast majority of our baptisms are of children. They are oblivious to all that is happening around them. A big decision is being made on their behalf without their knowing anything about it. Yet, just as parents make all kinds of other big decisions for their children without consulting them, so parents are happy to make this particular significant decision on their behalf. There is a story in the gospels of parents bringing little children to Jesus. When the disciples tried to stop parents doing this, Jesus rebuked his disciples and said to them, 'let the children come to me and do not stop them, for to such as these the kingdom of God belongs.' Parents continue to bring their children to Jesus today whenever they present them for baptism, because in baptism they are being baptized into the person of Christ; they become members of his body; Jesus begins to live within them through the Spirit. When parents bring their children for baptism they are making a decision for them that is very much in keeping with the Lord's desire. 'Let the children come to me and do not stop them.'
Today we celebrate the feast of the baptism of Jesus. It is a good day to reflect on our own baptism and its significance for us. The day of Jesus' baptism was a watershed in his life; it was a day of new beginning. On that day he began his public ministry during which he gave himself fully in the service of God and all of God's people. On that day Jesus launched forth as the one who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. As he set out on that momentous journey for all of us, he was assured of God his Father's favour, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you', and he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, who descended upon him life a dove. Even though Jesus received the baptism of John as an adult and we received Christian baptism as children, our baptism was also a day of new beginning for us. On that day we were launched on the great adventure of becoming disciples of Jesus in our own time. On that day, we too, like Jesus, were given an assurance of God's love and favour, and we too were empowered by the Holy Spirit for the journey that lay before us. On that day we were caught up into Jesus' own very special relationship with God and we became a member of Jesus' family of disciples, the church. It is a momentous occasion that has the potential to shape our lives in a very fundamental way, in a way that is in keeping with God's purpose for our lives.
In a sense we spend the rest of our lives trying to catch up with that day of new beginning. We are baptized as children but it is as adults that we confirm our baptism for ourselves. It is as adults that we say our own adult 'yes' to the Lord who said 'yes' to us as young children on the day of our baptism. It may be in our late twenties or our thirties or forties or even later that we come to say that 'yes' with all our heart and soul and mind. It is often in those mature years that we can hear the call of Isaiah in today's first reading, 'O come to the water all you who are thirsty, Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near.' The Lord keeps calling out to us from the moment of our baptism, and as the Lord declares in that first reading, 'the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.' Our response to the Lord's call, the Lord's word, can be slow in coming, but his call, his word, remains powerfully creative and will in some way or other make of us what God wants for us.
The call of young Samuel, one of the great vocation stories
Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.
Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; we should do all for the glory of God
The body is not meant for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!
Whoever is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication. Every other sin one commits is outside the body; but to fornicate is to sin against one's own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Jesus invites disciples to "Come and see" and they followed him
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him an said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
"I have called you by your name; you are mine." Remembering people's names–what a problem this can be; even with the best of intentions, even when we are really interested in someone and recall the actual person, the name eludes us. So many methods of mnemonic are advised and tried, just to avoid the disappointing admission, "Sorry, but I just can't remember your name." Every man and woman (and child!) likes to be recognized by name; when others forget, it is a blow to our person-hood.
God knows each individual by name totally, intimately, always. None of us is ever ignored by him; like the birds of the air, and all created things, we are forever in God's mind, under his care (cf. Mat. 10:29.) Even the person of no particular significance in his neighbour's eyes, the born loser who lives in the shadows of depression most of the time–even he (or she) is precious in the eyes of God, perhaps more precious than anyone can suspect.
Samuel stands for all the little, forgotten people. Just a boy, with no high illusions about himself, a servant and apprentice to the old man Eli; he slept at night in a little room like an altar-boys' sacristy, at the religious shrine of Israel. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he heard God calling him by name; eventually Samuel recognizes that the call is from God, and not just from the priest, so he submits himself heart and soul to listen to God's word. Only then did Samuel discover his own potential, his new identity, the role he was to fulfil in life.
Some of us may feel a strong, but quite false, sense of our own identity. Our self-understanding derives too exclusively from our own achievements, failures, efforts and ambitions; God's plan for us hardly enters the picture at all or we dismiss it as too uncertain, too "spiritual" and remote from daily life. Biblical faith, on the contrary, insists that God calls us into relationship with himself on a day to day basis, always offering us life, and always making demands on us to live our life worthily in his sight. Called by name. For Christians, specifically, it is relationship with Christ our Lord that lies at the heart of our identity. Not only are we called by name to friendship with Jesus–we become "members of his body," sharers in his spirit. Sometimes, in prayer we can taste the rich privilege of belonging to Christ. More often, it is in the darkness of faith that we simply believe in it. But always, and in ordinary details of behaviour, we are called to live up to the standard of love and truth set y the Spirit of Jesus. That is our real Christian vocation; and only by trying to live that vocation are we worthy of our name.
Later, we all hope, we will discover our full identity in God's presence, when this life is over and he calls us by name into the next life. Like the two apostles who wanted to know Christ better, we will be invited to "Come and see."
We can probably all think of people who opened doors for us in life. Perhaps at a crucial moment in our lives they pointed us in the right direction. They were an influence for good on us; maybe they shared with us some gift they possessed, or allowed us to benefit from an experience they had or some discovery they made. We appreciate these people because they had the freedom and the generosity to give something worthwhile away for the benefit of others, rather than keeping it to themselves.
That is how John Baptist is portrayed in the gospel reading this Sunday. He had come to recognize Jesus as a very special revelation of God's love. Far from keeping that discovery to himself, he shared it with his own disciples, even though he knew that in doing so he was going to lose them to Jesus. He pointed two of his disciples in the direction of Jesus. He opened a door for them, even though it would mean a loss to himself. A short while later, one of those two disciples, Andrew, did for his brother, Simon, what John the Baptist had done for him. He led his brother to Jesus. In the first reading, Eli did something similar for Samuel, helping him to hear God's call. The readings this Sunday put before us three people, Eli, John the Baptist and Andrew, each of whom, in different ways, pointed others in the right direction, led others to the one who is the source of life.
We could probably all identify a John the Baptist or an Andrew or an Eli in our own lives, people who, in some way or another, brought us to the Lord, or helped us to recognize and receive the Lord who was present to us. We might think first of our own parents who brought us to the baptismal font as infants. As early as possible into our lives they wanted to say to us what John the Baptist said to his disciples, 'Look, there is the lamb of God'. Then, in the following years, they may helped us to grow in our relationship the Lord into whom we had been baptized, bringing us to the church, praying with us, reading stories from the gospels to us, taking us to see the crib at Christmas, placing an image of the Lord or of one of the saints in our room, helping us to prepare for the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confirmation. If we were fortunate, we might have had a good religion teacher at school who took us a step further in our relationship with the Lord, who enabled us to 'come and see', in the words of the gospel reading today. I went to secondary school in Beneavin College in Finglas, and one of the De La Salle brothers there brought us through the gospel of Luke in religion class. Looking back, he was sharing with us his own relationship with the Lord. It made a deep impression on me at the time.
Samuel who was led to the Lord by Eli is described in the first reading as a boy. In the gospel reading, the two disciples who were led to the Lord by John the Baptist and Simon who was led there by Andrew were all adults. It was as adults that they allowed themselves to be directed towards the person of Jesus. In our adult years, we too may have met people who helped us to grow in our relationship with the Lord. There can come a time in our adult life, when we are very open to a reawakening, a deepening, of our faith. We may find themselves searching for something more than we presently experience. The first words of Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist took the form of the question, 'What do you want?', or, 'What are you searching for?' Jesus sought to engage with those who were searching. He enters our adult lives in response to our deepest longings. In our searching we can meet someone or some group who opens a door for us into a deeper relationship with the Lord. Through them the Lord can reach us and touch our lives in a way he had never done so before.
At any time in our adult life we can meet a John the Baptist who says to us, 'Look, there is the Lamb of God', and that can happen to us over and over again, right up to the very end of our lives. The Lord never ceases to call us through others into a deeper relationship with himself. Indeed, there can come a time when the Lord asks any one of us to be a John the Baptist or an Andrew or an Eli for somebody else. He may call us to share our faith in some simple way, to open a door to the Lord for others. Our response to such a call can take many different forms. For Eli it took the form of helping the younger Samuel to find the right words for his prayer. For Andrew, it took the form of sharing a significant experience with his brother. The readings this Sunday invite us to be open to the many ways the Lord can draw us to himself, and also to the ways that he may be calling us to help him in drawing others to himself.
Jonah's preaching finds an unexpected response from the pagan Ninevites
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Paul proposes a level of detachment from the dear, familiar things
Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.
"Repent, and believe in the good news."
After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
"Living with their heads in the clouds" is no compliment to anyone living in this world of ours. How realistic is Paul's advice, to live as though the ordinary events and concerns of life did not matter? As if business, planning, bereavements, possessions and the rest were of no fundamental importance? Well, first of all he does not mean that people should withdraw from all these things, or neglect the practical life.. What he does mean is that we should get our priorities right, and get a proper balanced view of things, so that what is of lasting importance can play its part too–namely, the question of our eternal destiny, and how we stand in the sight of God.
Under the influence of a brush with death–a near escape, or a recent bereavement–we come to realize how trivial are the usual concerns that engross us, when compared to the abiding mystery of life and death. Does it have a purpose? Is our life going anywhere, or is it simply an absurd farce, poised between comedy and tragedy? There are three common reactions to this mystery of life and death:
First: You can't take it with you–so spend it while you can. When you're dead you're dead and that's it! So make the most of these short years, enjoy them to the utmost, and then submit to the universal annihilation that awaits us all
Second: A hope that there may be life beyond the grave, but one which seems so shadowy and insubstantial that there's little point in thinking about it. Still, it's a worry. Perhaps there will be a punishing judgement for wrongs done in this life, which we managed to get away with
Third: The conviction that God holds each human life securely in his hand, so that death is just a passing-over into his direct presence. In the biblical view, we should not worry about death, nor about anything. in life so much as to turn to God, and obey his word. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his glory" says Jesus. If we can make the right primary decision, if our first desire is to fit in with God's plan for us, then everything else will fall into place; life and work, marriage, successes and failures, sickness and even death itself.
All of us, no matter how long we have been living in the faith, need to reawaken this attitude of trust. We need conversion, no, less than the people of Nineveh, or the people of Galilee. Repent, and believe, says Jesus today, to each one here. Believe that God is my father and your father; believe that he is near at hand, and that he is merciful; realize that God's will for you is that you be saved–and that includes the need to live by his Gospel. "Repent"–yes, the challenge is as fresh today as when our Lord first spoke it. As though we were hearing of the kingdom of God for the first time, and making our first act of total trust and total submission to God's love.
Taking Jesus at his word, being converted to genuine faith in God the Father, does not mean living with our head in the clouds. Genuine Christian devotion certainly fixes our ambition away above the passing things of life, but also keeps us aware of everyday duties towards other people. Hearing the Gospel, welcoming and following it, keeps a person with feet well grounded in reality, more keenly involved than ever in carrying out the tasks that have to be done here and now, because now is the day of salvation; now is the time, given us by God to pay him our thanksgiving through service.
We can all become rather set in our ways. We get into certain ways of doing things and it can be easy to stay with those ways and rather difficult to change from them. We develop routines and those routines keep us going. It often takes someone else to broaden our horizons a little, to open us up to areas of life that we would never otherwise have ventured into. We each might be able to identify such people in our own lives, those who introduced us to something that proved to be very enriching and that helped us to grow as human beings.
Jesus was such a person for the two sets of brothers in this morning's gospel. Peter, Andrew, James and John lived in a world that was very much defined by the Sea of Galilee. They were fishermen. The tools of their trade were their boats and their nets; the fruit of their trade was the fish that they caught and the money they received for selling on the fish. They had every reason to believe that this would always be their way of life. Their lives had a very particular rhythm and they probably intended go on living to that rhythm until they were too old or sick to work. Then, one day Jesus entered their lives and the impact he had on them was such that they left their boats and their nets, and even their families, to follow this man and to share in his mission. 'Follow me and I will make you fishers of people', he said to them. Instead of gathering fish into their nets, they would now share in Jesus' work of gathering people to God. It is hard to imagine a greater change of rhythm than the one which today's gospel puts before us.
The call that Jesus addressed to those two sets of brothers, 'Follow me', is addressed to each one of us. In our case that call will not mean leaving our jobs, if we are fortunate enough to have one, or, much less, leaving our families. Yet, the call of Jesus to follow him will always involve the opening up of some new horizon or other. In calling on us to follow him, Jesus is always opening us up to the horizon of God, to God's perspective on life. This will often mean looking afresh at the way we do things, the routines that we have built up and seem to keep us going, the rhythms that we have become used to and have learnt to live by. The Lord's call to follow him is addressed to us every day of our lives. It will mean something different every day, but it is always a call to keep making a new beginning in some way or other, to keeping setting out on a new journey, God's journey, which is the journey towards other people in selfless love, the journey towards a wider horizon.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were called to leave their natural family to embrace a much larger family, the future family of Jesus' disciples. The Lord's call to us to follow him today will always involve some element of that call to open ourselves up to a wider family, the family of the church or of humanity. The first reading this morning is from the story of the prophet Jonah. He was a Jew and he had all the prejudices of some Jews at the time against non-Jews. Yet, God called him to head out and preach the message of God's merciful love to the pagans, to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the arch enemies of the people of Israel. Here was a call that was stretching Jonah's horizon to breaking point and he ran away from it. Yet, God pursued him and did not give up on him until Jonah answered the call. In this morning's gospel we find Jonah doing just that and his message met with tremendous openness from the people of Nineveh.
God's horizon is always so much wider than ours. The call of Jesus to follow him always involves a call to allow our own limited horizons to be stretched to embrace God's vision for our lives. Before Jesus called on Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him, he announced, 'the time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news.' The kingdom of God is not like any human kingdom. It has no boundaries; it needs no mechanisms to keep people out. Our calling is to keep living out of the endless horizon of God's kingdom. To do that we need to keep on repenting, to keep on dying to whatever narrowness of vision and lifestyle may be there within us. Saint Paul in the second reading today calls on us not to become engrossed in the world, not to give ourselves over completely to what does not endure and is not of ultimate significance. While living in the world we are called to look beyond it towards that endless horizon of God's kingdom. Today is church unity Sunday. Regardless of the church to which we believe it is in responding to that fundamental call of Jesus that we will grow closer together.
Moses predicts the coming of a future prophet greater than himself
Moses said to the people: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet lie me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: 'If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.'
Then the Lord replied to me: 'They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-that prophet shall die.'"
Paul promotes celibacy, to focus one's undivided attention to the Lord
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
When Jesus heals the man in Capernaum, people recognise the power of his message
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
In the not-too-distant past, Catholics felt confident that God's will for our faith and conduct is infallibly communicated by Pope and bishops, with the teaching authority given them by Christ himself. The doctrine of papal infallibility proclaimed in 1869, stressed the principle of authority so strongly that many felt unfree to make up their own minds on issues of faith or morals. Whenever controversy arose, we could expect a statement from the Magisterium to put the issue beyond doubt. Recently, many ordinary Catholics show a much lower respect for Church authority. Some welcome this greater freedom for individual conscience, while others long for a return to the clean-cut edge of dogma, defined and unquestionable. Perhaps we can get some light from today's Gospel, where Jesus "teaches with authority, and not as their scribes."
Our knowledge of God comes to us primarily from Jesus, the Word of God, who makes the Father known to us. If we pay attention to his gospel read at Mass, or give time to the private reading of holy scripture, the main lines of Our Lord's teaching will be clear enough. Apart from reading or hearing the word of the Gospel, we have the prompting and guidance of Christ's Spirit, if we take time to pray, reflect and let our conscience come awake in God's presence. And finally, to help us apply the message of Jesus to definite areas in our lives, we have the teaching ministry of the Church. The only valid purpose of authority among Christians is to keep the Lord's word alive in the community, to keep us reminded of what Jesus said, and still says, to us his followers. God knows, we need such a reminder often enough, due to the slump-factor in all of us, tending to lower our ideals, and cool our devotion. We're often like a flock of straying sheep, needing the care of alert shepherds to hold us together, and keep us moving on the upward path. Yet, after listening with respect to what our leaders say – whether it be the Pope and bishops, or more locally the parish clergy – each adult Christian must look into his or her conscience, to blend the official teaching into our personal faith in God.
Under several papacies in the recent past, many worried about an excessive dogmatism, seeking to stretch of the boundaries of defined doctrine. Surely it is right to expect our leaders to ground their teaching in the well-springs of the Gospel. Yet somehow, beyond and beneath all authority in the Church, and permeating it with vitality, is the prophetic authority of Christ himself, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through him, in faith and loyalty, we can know with certainty what God the Father expects of us, and what we must do in order to gain eternal life. Just one thing is needed: to be willing to undertake whatever he shows us, no matter how difficult. If Christ is God's fullest Word to us, we can have no reserves about doing what he says.
We have all had teachers in the course of our lives, at primary school, at secondary school, at third level or in other less formal educational contexts. Some of those teachers we might prefer to forget, but others we remember with great fondness. Some of them had a significant influence for good on us. They inspired us with a love for the subject that they taught and we may have gone on to study it ourselves. They shared some expertise with us and encouraged us to head off in a direction of our own. In today's gospel the people of Capernaum recognize Jesus who had come to their synagogue as a teacher, and not just another teacher but a teacher who was very different to the teachers they had grown used to, the scribes, the experts in the Jewish Law. His teaching, we are told, 'made a deep impression on people, because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.' The people in the synagogue exclaimed, 'Here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it.' This journey of Jesus to the synagogue where he taught with authority and healed a man with an unclean spirit is the first public act of Jesus in Mark's gospel. According to Mark, Jesus first appeared on the scene as an authoritative teacher, as someone whose teaching, whose word, could deliver people from their demons, from the forces that were oppressing them and leaving them diminished as human beings.
Jesus was recognized as someone who taught with authority. The word 'authority' has received a rather negative press in recent times. Various 'authority figures' have been criticized, often with good reason. Yet, in Jesus people experienced an authority that they found attractive, an authority that, in the words of the gospel, left them so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. Jesus was recognized as a person of authority because of the word that he spoke and the impact for good of that word on others. Ultimately, his authority was rooted in God, in the Spirit of God that descended upon him at his baptism. The first public words he spoke after his baptism were, 'the reign of God, the power of God, is at hand.' God's life-giving, liberating power was working through him, and, so, he was recognized by others as authoritative. The power of God's love working through him gave him that authority which people found so attractive and so new.
Jesus defines authority as the exercise of God's life-giving and liberating power, the power that raises the lowly and fills the hungry with good things, that includes within the community those who have been living on the edge, the power that forgives those who have done nothing to deserve forgiveness. This is the power of the good Samaritan who took care of his fellow traveller even though he was a Jew; it is the power of the Father who welcomed his returning son, the prodigal, who had messed up; it is the power of the widow who in giving two copper coins to the temple treasury gave everything she had. Within the gospel's vision of life, these are the exercises of power that confer authority. Not all power is worthy of being recognized as authoritative. The imposing figure of G.K. Chesterton, the English writer and wit, was, apparently often seen squeezed behind a table in London restaurants. During one of his literary lunches, Chesterton was expounding on the relationship between power and authority. He described the difference in these terms: 'If a rhinoceros were to enter the restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here, but I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.'
For us as Christians, Jesus remains the ultimate authority. Like the people of Capernaum, we recognize his authority, the authority of his teaching and his deeds, the authority of his life, death and resurrection. That is why we confess Jesus not just as our teacher but as our Lord. We are happy to submit to his authority, to his lordship, because we recognize that in doing so we will have life to the full, and, like the man in the gospel, be freed of those spirits that prevent us from becoming the person God intends us to be. There can be great reluctance today to submit to anyone. The value of personal autonomy is highly prized and sought after. Yet, it is not possible to live without submitting to some authority even if it is the authority of the self. What matters is to submit to the right authority and this morning's gospel suggests that such authority is to be found in the person of Jesus. [Martin Hogan]
A lovely line in the Book of Psalms says: 'The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord' (33:5). It certainly is. The crops keep producing food for our tables. The summer heat gives way to cooling autumn breezes. Most diseases are now curable. Tyrants are sometimes overthrown. Social reforms like pensions for the needy are here to stay. Conflicts end in reconciliation. Shaky marriages get patched up. Love survives misunderstandings, thoughtlessness, insults and indifference. Wars come to an end. Enemies become friends. We forgive others and are forgiven. Sport keeps contributing to what is good, decent, and noble about human beings. A rare example of exceptional goodness is a prayer scrawled on a piece of wrapping paper found at the Nazi Concentration Camp at Ravensbruck:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will but all those of ill-will. Do not only remember the suffering they have subjected us to. Remember the fruits we brought forth thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage and generosity, the greatness of heart that all of this inspired. And when they come to judgement, let all these fruits we have borne be their reward and their forgiveness. [A. de Mello]
In short, there is goodness everywhere. But where there is goodness, there too is God and the Kingdom of God. So, God's loving rule is still happening among us.
But so too is the anti-kingdom of evil. Its power and force keeps staring us in the face. Newspapers and news bulletins report it daily in its ugly manifestations. Our own consciences remind us of its hurtful and harmful influence. It has been reliably reported last week, for instance, that 1% of the world's population now owns half of the world's wealth. Too many persons work for less than a dollar a day, and others are denied health and safety precautions. Random acts of terrorism are inflicted on defenceless people. Refugees exercising their legal rights to seek asylum are visited with systematic acts of cruelty as deterrents to others. Persons are being kidnapped and sold into slavery, including sexual degradation. Racism, consumerism, and devastation of the earth's natural resources are still raging round the world. In many parts of the world large segments of the population are involved in unrest and civil war. Violence is growing. Individuals, high on drugs, smash their targets to the ground. What we are facing, then, are both the evil acts of individuals and evil social structures.
In the days of Jesus on earth, people called different evil forces 'demons'. Jesus himself recognised one super-force behind them all. He named it 'the EVIL ONE' – also known in his day as 'the Devil', 'Lucifer', and 'Beelzebub'. Today's gospel is a striking example of his confrontation with, and victory over, the 'the Evil One'. As the story has it, 'the Evil One' has taken possession of a deranged man, who interrupts Jesus as he teaches and challenges his power and authority over evil. Jesus does not answer the man's taunts, but addresses 'the Evil One' sharply and directly: 'Be quiet! Come out of him!' Throwing the sufferer into convulsions, and with a last loud scream, 'the Evil One' wriggles out of him. At long last its victim is free from its torments.
More recently if less dramatically, followers of Jesus in a particular parish chased evil from a disturbed man at Sunday Mass. From the back of the church he kept repeating the Mass parts after the priest, softly at first but gradually more loudly and belligerently, with profanities and mockery thrown in. Although the man was clearly odd, people began to feel offended and angry. Then something wonderful happened. At the Sign of Peace, a woman left her pew and extended her hand to the man. He took it, and then another person appeared behind the woman, then another. Soon dozens gathered to offer peace to the troubled intruder, and then the man began to weep openly. When he sat down, a small child, touched by his tears, climbed on to his lap. The Mass continued and the poor man never spoke another word.
Job wrestles with the problem of innocent suffering
And Job said:
"Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a laborer? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who look for their wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me. When I lie down I say, 'When shall I rise?' But the night is long, and I am full of tossing until dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope. "Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good."
Paul is prepared to be "all things to everyone," to bring them the Gospel
If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law-though not being myself under the law-that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ-that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Even Jesus needs a quiet place to pray. Then he starts a new phase of his mission
On leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
The story of Job is a like a roller-coaster: He has made it big — happy home, good material resources, and he's a regular religious observer. The Lord brags to Satan about him — what a virtuous man Job is — but Satan says that Job's prayers might stop if his bank account was blocked. So the Lord reluctantly lets Satan do his worst, and poor Job doesn't know what hit him. He speaks about the misery and emptiness of life. When some friends of his come along, offering religious comfort, it doesn't seem to help poor Job.
We're far removed from Job in time, but not that removed from his experience. The human condition remains what it was when Shakespeare said, through Hamlet, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles,and by opposing end them?". He continues listing various things "That make calamity of so long life;For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office and the spurnsThat patient merit of the unworthy takes? … Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?
We would have to be hermits to avoid seeing the pain and misery into which human life is so often plunged. We see the marriages heading for the rocks, people with nervous breakdowns, teenagers at odds with their parents, destruction and violence in our cities. At times it seems that the world in which we live is full of immorality, injustice, exploitation, and hypocrisy for its systems to operate. It leads some clever people like Stephen Fry to call God a sadist. We can repeat, maybe with less polish, most of the sentiments that Job speaks in the first reading.
What might a Christian have to say to Job – or to people who think like Stephen Fry? What can we say to the many brothers and sisters of Job who live in this world? There is no easy catechism answer to take away the pain they find in living? Maybe in dire situations it is not our task to speak, but to listen. The cry of emptiness, loneliness, despair, and pain may not be the most profound insight into life, but the cry is real, and honest, and strong. In a way, that cry is part of the Christian message; we even find it in the Saviour's mouth on Good Friday. That cry today is part of the Word spoken now, and it demands response.
What is our response to persons in pain? To some extent, we can see that response at work in the Gospel passage: the sick come to Jesus, and he heals them. He does not debate the meaning of suffering — he stretches out his hand and heals. Our first reaction is to think that here we cannot be imitators of Christ. But that is only true if we take the miracles of Jesus in a narrow sense. We cannot make illness go away with a simple action, as Christ could. But we can respond, and we can help to ease the suffering. We can let Christ himself act in us to fill the loneliness, care for the sick, to be with the fearful and the heartbroken.
Today's Scripture challenges us to listen and to share. We are to follow Jesus not only in our happy times but also in times of loneliness, and even of tragedy. Like him we seek ways to reach out with love toward people who are worried, sick or depressed — to let the Lord use us to bless those situations somehow. Then when he calls us to himself — he will hasvelet us be his eyes, his smile, his ears, and his hands, quietly at work in the world.
There is a debate about whether the people whom Jesus healed were really possessed by the devil or were just mentally disturbed. That debate is utterly besides the point. These individuals were deeply troubled and Jesus healed them. His intent was to heal people both in body and soul. Most scripture scholars now agree that miracles were an important part of Our Lord's ministry and of the memory of that ministry in the early church. We simply cannot abandon them to please those who say miracles are impossible. The precise explanation of how these healings were accomplished is another matter and perhaps one that is also besides the point. Jesus did not work miracles to prove anything. Rather they were signs that God's healing love is at work in the world.
Once upon a time some doctors discussing whether prayer helped their patients. "Does it do any good," they asked, "for people to pray for those who are sick?" One group said "Well, it helps those who pray to feel that they're doing something for the sick person. But it really doesn't help the sick person at all." The other group said that they had the impression that prayer really had a positive effect on sick people. The first group said "That's scientifically impossible!" So they decided to try a "double blind" experiment on those who were recover from heart problems. They would have prayers said for some and not for the others to see what happened. The doctors didn't know who was chosen to be prayed for and the subjects of the prayers didn't know either. However a list of first names were given to those who were to do the praying. So neither the "pray-ers" nor the "pray-ees" nor the researchers knew who had been chosen to be the target of prayer. What happened? Those for whom praers were said recovered more quickly. "See!" said those who had argued that prayer worked, "there's more things under heaven than science dreams of." (This story of research was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.)
We are all familiar with suffering in one shape or form, whether it is physical, emotional, mental or spiritual suffering. There is no getting away from suffering; it comes to us all and it comes in different guises at different times of our lives. To live is to suffer. Regardless of our differences, suffering is something we all have in common. Some people seem to suffer more than others. Yet, it is difficult to measure suffering, especially in others. Some who do not seem to be suffering can be in great pain and others who seem to be suffering greatly can have a deep peace. The cry of Job in this morning's first reading is one that comes out of deep suffering. He is in a very dark place indeed. Not only has he lost his health, his property and members of his family but he seems to have lost God. He had been living an exemplary life and he cannot understand why God has allowed so much misfortune to befall him. The God whom he worshipped when times were good now seems a complete stranger to him. The God to whom he related as a friend now seems to have become his enemy. The experience of loss, whether it is the loss of health or property or loved ones, can bring on something of a spiritual crisis. Some can be tempted to abandon God, when their prayers out of the depths are not heard. They feel angry at God; they sense that their trust in God has not been vindicated. That is very much the place where Job finds himself in today's first reading. Job in that sense is every man or woman. The literary figure of Job is a very authentic depiction of the dark side of human experience, indeed, the dark side of faith in God.
The Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis was both a great intellectual and a man of great faith. He set out to give a rational explanation for the Christian vision of life. In 1940 he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in which he brought his intellect and his faith to bear on the problem of suffering. However, twenty one years, in 1961, he wrote a very different book, called, A Grief Observed. In that book he recognizes that his rational, cerebral, faith has taken something of a battering. The book consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife has died, slowly and in pain, from cancer. The book gives a vivid description of his own reaction, as a man of faith, to his wife's death. His rational faith fell to pieces when confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind. He writes at one point, 'Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.' The name of Lewis's wife was Joy. He had earlier written a book called Surprised by Joy in which he wrote about the impact meeting her had on his life. His book A Grief Observed has received a wide readership because of his authentic and moving account of the impact of bereavement. Even though his rational, cerebral faith took something of a battering because of Joy's death, Lewis did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he claims to have come to love his wife more truly. He writes that God had helped him to see that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith can be purified and deepened. Jesus himself entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today's second reading, Paul says of himself, 'For the weak, I made myself weak.' That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered fully into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere, in one of his letters, Paul says of Christ that 'though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.' On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was on Calvary that, in the words of Lewis, Jesus went to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Yet, that cry of desolation is itself an act of faith; it is the language faith uses when confronted with the harrowing darkness of loss. God did not forsake Jesus, but brought through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own experiences of suffering and desolation, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in this morning's gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved beyond the depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even when we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.
Lepers had to live apart. Only if a priest pronounced a leper cured could he or she come back into normal life
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: "When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. he is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head.
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."
Instead of offending people, we must aim to please them if we can
My brethren, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Jesus cures a leper by the healing touch of his hand
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
By referrring to leprosy in two of the three readings today , clearly the Church wants to direct our attention to something deeper than a purely physical disease. This is confirmed in the Responsorial Psalm, celebrating the joy of those who confess their sins before God, and experience his forgiveness. We might regard sin as a kind of leprosy of the soul. The ancient world used to combat physical leprosy by isolating the lepers, make them live outside the camp or town, and making them cry aloud, "Unclean, unclean!" as a warning to anyone approaching them. Also, whoever had the misfortune to even touch a leper would be regarded as unclean, and would be excluded from the community.
Perhaps there is some parallel to this on the spiritual plane. In the church of Jesus Christ, a sin committed by any member of this community is never a purely private affair, but a rejection in some degree of the standards the members have pledged to uphold. One of the most disturbing sayings of Christ in the gospels was his reference to Judas at the Last Supper: "Not one of them is lost, except the one who chose to be lost" (Jn 17:12).
There is a touching humility in the leper's request to Jesus, "If you want to, you can cure me." This appeal was met with compassion by Jesus, who, as St Mark comments,was moved with pity. He went further, stretching out his hand and touching the leper, so making himself unclean according to the law. Shortly afterwards Mark says that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in country places. This compassion for suffering humanity resulted in more and more people coming to him, and even today the outstretched arms of God's Son on the cross are a never-ending invitation to sinners to seek refuge with him. No longer was the leper, when cured, forced to live apart. After showing himself to the priest he was re-admitted as a member of the community.
What in the past was called confession is now called the sacrament of reconciliation. We should reflect that just as mortal sin is not an isolated act, but rather the culmination of a series of minor infidelities, so reconciliation is a gradual return to God over a period of time, with the reception of the sacrament as the high point, a time to celebrate our joy and gratitude in being at one with God again. This conversion, this newly-found commitment to the Lord is a thing which has to be constantly renewed. There is an enduring need for reconciliation, if we want to love God with our whole strength, and our neighbour as ourselves — the task Christ has set each of us when he said, "This do, and you will live."
Today's story may be an early version of the story of the ten lepers. However the point is quite different. In this version the leper, far from not thanking Jesus, goes about shouting his gratitude to all who would listen. The passage is made more obscure by Mark's literary device of the "Messianic Secret" his recurring claim that Jesus was trying to keep who he was a secret, which today's scholars regard as just an odd, narrative form. Surely, however, Jesus did not want to be known as the kind of military messiah that so many people in his time wanted and expected.
The predicament of the leper in the time of Jesus was truly pathetic. Those unfortunates were debarred from all social life, both religious and commercial. We might try to explain their plight with examples from one's local surroundings, although it is difficult to find such an all-embracing boycott, in modern cultures.
Jesus crosses social and religious boundaries in order to cure the leper. But before this could happen, the leper had the courage to break the Law of the Old Testament and approach Jesus. The outcast had such a high opinion of this holy man that he risked a rebuke from him for ignoring the normal prohibitions. At the heart of the encounter, compassion moves Jesus not only to respond with a word of encouragement, but also to reach out and touch him. Here Jesus shows us God's attitude to human disability. He wishes to reach us in our weakness and restore us to fullness of life.
It is not enough that the outcast is restored to health. Without the permission of the priest he could not regain his place in society and would remain an outcast. Jesus wishes to reestablish communion in a broken human family. Leprosy drove people away from others through the fear of the healthy that they would contract the dread disease Jesus wishes to remove these barriers between human beings and set up a communion that is free and harmonious. We might apply this to our own community by instancing types of bias and prejudice that exist locally and invite people to ask the Lord to heal whatever keeps them at a distance from certain others. Continuing reconciliation is necessary as we go through life and receive various types of hurts, which could make us withdraw from others as the leper did. It requires the courage of the leper to bring these hurts and fears to the Lord for healing.
A different homily could be built on the second reading. Paul's emphasis on thought for the other's good is a reminder that none of us can ignore. He does not pander to the desires of others, but in a generous spirit thinks of how his actions might affect them. He wants to imitate the Lord, who loved his brethren even unto death. Paul wants to love them in their weakness and to work for their advantage. This type of attitude is unto the glory of God in ordinary things, such as eating and drinking. It resembles the practical advice given by Matthew in 18:10 that no one can ignore anyone else, even the least.
We all need to connect with others, to be in communion with them. We don't like to feel isolated or cut off from family, friends, or the wider community. One of the most challenging aspects of sickness or disability can be the isolation that it brings. When we are ill or our body grows weak we cannot take the same initiative we used to take to connect with others. People can become housebound because of their physical condition; the things they used to do to meet up with others are no longer possible. Certain forms of illness can be more isolating than others. The most isolating form of illness in the time of Jesus was leprosy. For hygienic reasons, lepers had to live apart, 'outside the camp', in the words of today's first reading. Lepers were only allowed to have each other for company. They lived apart from their family, their friends and the community to which they belonged.
The leper in this morning's gospel seemed determined to break out of his isolation. He did something that was unconventional and daring in approaching Jesus and pleading on with him, 'If you want to, you can cure me.' His desperation to be healed of an illness that kept him totally isolated drove him to do something that was against the Jewish Law at the time. In response to the leper's daring approach, Jesus did something just as unconventional. He reached out his hand and touched the leper. If it was forbidden for a leper to approach the healthy, it was certainly forbidden for a healthy person to touch a leper. It seems that the leper's desire to be freed from his isolation was met by an equally strong desire on the part of Jesus to deliver the leper from his isolation. The gospels portray Jesus as someone who worked to deliver people from their isolation, whether it is an isolation imposed by illness, as in the case of the leper, or by their lifestyle, as in the case of someone like Zacchaeus.
Both Jesus and of the leper have something to say to us about steps we can take to connect with people, to break out of our isolation, even when the odds seem to be stacked against us. We can all be tempted from time to time to retreat into our shell, whether it is because of our health or some disability or some past experience that has drained us of life. It is at such times that we need something of the initiative and daring energy of the leper. There can come a time when, like the leper, we need to take our courage in our own hands and, against the conventional expectation, to head out in some bold direction. It was desperation that drove the leper to seek out Jesus. Sometimes for us too, it can be our desperation that finally gets us going, gets us to connect with that person who matters to us and to whom we matter more than we realize or gets us to link up with some gathering or some group that has the potential to do us good or maybe even to transform our lives. Sometimes I can be amazed at the initiatives that some people take to connect with others, people who are much less healthier than I am and are much less physically able. I come across it all the time in the parish – older people who have mastered the internet and have come completely at home with Skype; younger people who in spite of some serious disability have found the means to live a very full life that is marked by the service of others. The man in today's gospel who approaches Jesus could well be the patron saint of all those who strive to connect with others against all the odds.
Unlike the leper, Jesus was perfectly healthy, but he had something of the same desire and energy to connect with others. When approached by the leper, he could have turned away, as most people would have done. Instead, Jesus stood his ground and engaged with the leper, reached out to him not only by word but by action. He not only spoke to him, but he touched him. Jesus often healed people by means of his word alone; but this man who had suffered from extreme isolation really needed to be touched. Jesus did more than was asked of him; he took an initiative as daring as the leper's move towards him. He went as far as any human being could go to deliver this man from his isolation. What the Lord did for the leper he wishes to continue doing through each one of us in our own day. There are many isolated and lonely people among us. The scope is there for all of us to take the kind of step that Jesus took towards the leper. Again, I can see examples of that in the parish all the time – people who look in on neighbours and make sure that they are all right and have what they need. There are always people among us waiting to be touched by our compassionate presence. When they are, they can experience the same kind of transformation as the leper did in today's gospel.
God is going to give an amazing new demonstration of saving love to Israel
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The people whom I formed for myself will declare my praise.
Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
Paul claims to be reliable, a man of his word, following the reliable Christ
Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say "Yes, yes" and "No, no" at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been "Yes and No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not "Yes and No;" but in him it is always "Yes." For in him every one of God's promises is a "Yes." For this reason it is through him that we say the "Amen," to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.
Jesus proves his authority to forgive sins, by curing a paralysed man
When Jesus returned to Capernaum, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"-he said to the paralytic- "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
Not many today accept the view that Jesus did not work any miracles except the conversion of hearts. The tradition that Our Lord did signs and wonders is just too powerful to be casually dismissed. The stories do leave open the question of the precise nature of the miracles but we need not doubt that Jesus provoked astonishment. According to Mark, he did signs and wonders to show that the kingdom of God was at hand. The issue of how he did them is less important than that he did them and why he did them. His miracles of healing human bodies showed, as in today's Gospel, that he came to heal our spiritual hunger too.
Probably a good proportion of the people in this church are wearing glasses. If we misplace our glasses at home we often have trouble finding them. I sometimes need glasses to find my glasses, which is why I always keep a spare pair in a drawer in my desk. Apart from difficulties with our physical sight, there are other ways we can have difficulty in seeing. When we experience life as a trial and a struggle we can become so focused on the negative that we can fail to see what is good or promising in the situation.
The first reading was addressed to the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon, at the darkest hour in this people's history. They were aware of so much they had lost; they had been taken from their land, the city of Jerusalem was a ruin, the Temple of God's presence had been destroyed. Yet the prophet Isaiah felt another reality at work in all the failure, the loss, the devastation, if only his people could see it. God was preparing a miracle, creating something new out of the ruins, opening up an avenue in the wilderness. "See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it?" The people had great difficulty in seeing it.
Our God is a creative force in our lives. God did not simply create in the past, but is always working creatively in our midst, doing new deeds, bringing new life out of situations that might seem unpromising. The gospel reading this morning also reveals God doing a new deed, speaking a life-giving word into a situation of paralysis and guilt. "Your sins are forgiven; pick up your stretcher and go home." God in the person of Jesus was making a new road in the wilderness of this man's life. Not everyone present saw what happened as God doing a new deed. The scribes saw what was happening as an insult to God. "He is blaspheming." Yet, there were others, the men and women of Capernaum, who saw more deeply, "We have never seen anything like this." They recognized what was happening as God's new deed, and they praised God for it.
We need to be more than just passive observers of what God is doing. God calls us to work with him in doing the new deed he seeks to do. We can create openings for God to work in new ways. This is what we see happening in the gospel reading this morning. When the friends of the paralytic created an opening in the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching, they were also creating an opening for God to work through Jesus in a new way. Their friendship of the paralytic created a space for God to work in a way which left some people saying, "We have never seen anything like this." These four friends knew that Jesus was more interested in people than in buildings. Their strong friendship enabled the paralytic to experience the Lord's life-giving presence. We need to befriend each other in similar ways if the Lord's new deed is to get done. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the Spirit in our hearts. The act by the friends in today's story shows the Spirit at work. When the Spirit works in similar ways among us, God's new deed gets done..
Ironically, the more we advance technologically, the more nostalgic we seem to become. We lapse into reminiscing about old times at the drop of a hat, or at least with every encounter with old friends. Nostalgia has proved a rich vein for TV programme makers. Each season has its own crop of revivals of old movies, like "Gone with the Wind." New serials are created each year from old classics. Even the recent past has now become part of the "good old days."
Our penchant for looking back has many explanations. For some it is an escape from the drudgery of the present, or the uncertainties of the future. Most of us hanker after a lost innocence. Memories of our childhood fill us with warmth. It was the only time in our lives when we felt completely secure. The older we become the more we tend to indulge our nostalgia. There comes a point in everyone's life when there is more to look back on than to look forward to.
Gilding the past is a dangerous deception. Recalling the good old days "when sex was dirty and the air was clean" is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Memory is highly selective. We remember the good times and bury the unpleasant. The summers of long ago were not all sunshine. Life in every age prior to ours was "nasty, brutish and short." War, disease, and poverty were endemic. An old Russian proverb says, "Look too much at the past and you lose one eye." While we should respect time-honoured traditions and cherish the distilled wisdom of our ancestors, mourning over a lost paradise is a dangerous illusion..
God calls his people back to their first fervour
Thus says the Lord:
"I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord."
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life
Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
It is useless to put new wine into old wineskins, or sew a new patch on an old garment
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to Jesus, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? " Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."
Wine is nearly always associated with a wedding feast, with the beginning of a marriage, as was clear from yesterday's gospel of the marriage feast of Cana. Having spoken of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus goes on to liken his presence to that of new wine. The new wine of the Lord's loving presence and life-giving activity calls for new wineskins. The Lord's love is a grace but it also makes demands on us, calling on us to keep renewing our lives so that they are worthy receptacles for his love. New wine, fresh skins. We have to keep shedding our old skin and grow new skin. We can never fully settle for where we are.
Jesus speaks of some new kind of fasting he has in mind, different from the fasting practised by the Pharisees. During Ireland's struggle for national independence, a heroic figure, Terence Mc Sweeney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike in Brixton prison in England. The man believed so strongly in his cause that it was even more important to him than food to keep him alive. Mahatma Ghandi had a similar preference for passive resistance and fasting, rather than violence, as a way to gain political change.
Fasting is not about going without food, for its own sake. If merely being without food was in itself virtuous, then the starving millions in the world would be truly blessed, rather than the victimes of unjust distribution of what our world produces. It is important to understand that I am inextricably both spiritual and physical. While I need food for that in me which is physical, I have an equal need for spiritual nourishment. "Not on bread alone do people live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Remarkably, when Jesus speaks about prayer in Matthew's gospel, he immediately adds, "And when you fast... do it this way..." Two things strike us about this. The first is that, after prayer he adds his teaching about fasting, as if the two were inseparable. He didn't say "If you fast," but "When you fast. " Prayer strengthens the spirit, and fasting curbs the body, and prevents it running the whole of our life. We live in a developed world where there is a great waste of food and drink. The problem is not just that half the world is caught in hunger, but that the other half is on a diet, trying to get down the weight!
Jesus disapproved of the multiple Jewish rules and regulations about fasting, because they inflicted it as burdensome, rather than conferring freedom. He longed for the day when the Spirit would impel his followers to fast voluntarily, as a sign of having their priorities right. He compares himself to the groom at a wedding, a time when nobody is required to fast. When he leaves them, though, and the Spirit comes, they will have the goodwill and the motivation to fast as an exercise that will be part of their spiritual life.
There is now very little fasting prescribed by church law. It is more common now to see young people do a twenty-four hour voluntary fast in support of those who suffer from hunger. Fasting is now becoming more of a spiritual and social exercise than something being imposed by law or obligation. It is becoming an exercise of love and charity, rather than a burden or an imposition.
One of the signs of the times today is the speed of communication. We can e-mail, text or tweet a person in another hemisphere and they can reply back, in a matter of seconds. Years ago that communication would have taken three or four weeks, to exchange letters across continents. Even those who have converted to electronic mail late in life soon come to recognize what a wonderful means of communication it is. But as with most things, there are drawbacks. We can end up getting e-mails from people and groups we don't really want to hear from.
For all its value, it's a pity that e-mails, tweets and facebook are likely to totally eclipse the letter. From time to time, there's still a value in writing a letter by hand, even to those who have an e-mail address. We sense that a letter written to someone in our own handwriting is experienced as a more personal communication from us. In holding a letter that someone has written personally to us, feeling it, noticing how it is written, we feel more fully in touch with the person who wrote it that we would be in reading the same message on our computer screen.
St. Paul knew all about writing letters. He was a great letter writer. We had an example of his style this morning. In that reading he uses a lovely image, telling the Corinthians that they themselves are a letter written by Christ and that he, Paul, is the secretary Christ used to compose this letter. By the letter written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit, he means that they are Christ's messengers to the world, that their lives are a message from Christ to be seen and read by all.
We could think of our own lives as living letters of that kind. That may be the background when we say of someone that he or she is a difficult person to read. Paul's words might prompt us to ask ourselves, "How do people read me?" What message am I sending out to others, by my way of life? Paul is suggesting that we should become Christ's letter, allowing the Lord to write the script of our lives, so that we become people who not only deliver a message but actually embody that message.
When we write a letter and send it to someone, it's like what Pilate said to the Jewish authorities on Good Friday, "What I have written, I have written." Once it is sent, we can't change it. But if our lives are like letters, they are letters that still can change. We need never say in a sense, "What I have written, I have written;" for the Lord is constantly at work in our lives writing something new. Our past script need not determine our future, in the Lord's eyes. The Spirit of Jesus is constantly at work in new way within us, and in that sense, our lives are an evolving letter.
We can be tempted to hold onto one particular script for our lives and for the life of our church. As in today's gospel we can be tempted to cling to old wineskins. Yet the Lord wants to work on our lives renewing our wineskins and pouring new wine into them. He calls us to be open to his new wine, even if it means letting go of some old ideas. He asks us to be receptive to the letter that he continues writing in our hearts. This letter will only be truly finished when our names are written in heaven.
The sabbath is not just for rest, but for reflection, for masters and servants alike
The Lord says:
"Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day."
An apostle may be burdened or perplexed, yet still minister the life of Jesus to others
It is the same God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath
One sabbath day Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? " But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
If as a child you were ever chased out of someone else's orchard or a strawberry patch you may wonder about the accuracy of the first part of today's Gospel. Could a first century Jew walk into another man's field of grain and start lopping off heads of wheat to eat? Actually, yes; because in the Law of Moses (Deut 23:25) it is written: "If you go into your neighbour's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour's standing grain." However, an objection can be raised from Exodus 34:26 where it says "Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none." So even if the fields were ripe for harvesting there can be no work on the Sabbath. It is very explicit in Ex. 20:10, "The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns."
So it looks as though the Pharisees have a good case against Jesus and his disciples. Maybe they were not breaking the law by picking the heads of grain, even if it is on what we would call private property; but what offend the Pharisees is their timing, for they were doing so on the Sabbath, when no manual work should be done. But Jesus had a good reply, based on the example of King David, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat?" Then he laid down a basic principle that holds good right to our own day, "The sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath." The sabbath was made for our good, as a help for human beings, not a hindrance.
This principle may not have changed the Pharisees; but it changed the minds and hearts of others who heard these words of Jesus. Life throws a gem like this to us once in a while. We experience, read or hear something that really changes us. We see something more clearly, we reprioritize our lives, we hold new things dear to us, we fall in love all over again with a loved one or with God. We gain new insight, wisdom, if you like. Near-death experiences often serve as shortcuts to this kind of insight too. In the sacristies of some churches a sign hangs above the door from which the priest comes out for Mass, stating: "Priest, celebrate this mass as if it is your first Mass, your last Mass, and your only Mass." It is meant to focus, to clear the mind of distractions, and make us aware of the intimacy that will take place between the people of God and their creator.
The Sabbath is meant to help keep focus, to banish distractions, and foster the intimacy between humans and their Creator. Mistakenly, the Pharisees used the Sabbath law against a group of hungry men. Sometimes we are too like the Pharisees. We take the true and beautiful meaning out of our own Sabbath by looking at it legalistically. We forget how the Sabbath, and our attending Mass is meant to bring us closer to God. We need to remember that we are here to worship God as a community, to receive his grace through the Word and through the hold Eucharist. This is a holy place, a house of prayer. Have we been coming to Mass out of duty or guilt rather than for worship and thanksgiving? Is it time to make a change and think anew, so as to give Sunday its full place in our lives?
The Sabbath rest may be older than Moses; it is surely older than the many laws governing it, that are written into the Old Testament. Basically, as its Hebrew name indicates, it was a day of rest. What this rest involved, and how it was to be observed, varied from one age to another, at first among the Jews and later also among Christians. In several Gospel stories we see how, in Christ's day, among the Jews a huge emphasis was placed on the absolute duty of the Sabbath rest.
Within its few years, the Christian community came to consider as the sacred day of their week not the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), but the Lord's Day, the day of Christ's resurrection from the dead (Sunday). They observed this day as holy, without transferring to it all the Jewish legislation about Sabbath. Later a whole series of Sabbath laws and observances emerged within the Church, many of them following the Jewish religious tradition. Closer to our own time there has been a change in Sunday observance and a reinterpretation of the Sabbath rest, which is now seen mainly for reasons of recreation. We should do our best that the sanctity of the Lord's Day is not lost sight of.
Christians of our age still need to come together once a week to reflect on Christ's victory over sin and death. They need to take a break from their everyday work and recall that the one thing necessary in this as in every age is to seek first the kingdom of God. While attendance at Mass cannot be taken as the sole criterion for Christian practice, it is difficult to see how a strong Christian life can exist without contact with the source of life in the Eucharist. A homily on the Lord's Day could also lay stress on frequent communion. The Sunday rest itself, in the sense of freedom from work, may require mention in cases where the Lord's Day is in danger of being turned into just one other day of the business week.
Evil is too well documented to be dismissed as just a religious concept. It thrives precisely because many choose to ignore it. Like thepsalmist, we recognise our complicity and seek forgiveness.
Adam and Eve were tempted and sinned. The consequences of their fall
The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you? " He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? " The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done? " The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."
Paul looks forward to a permanent dwelling place instead of a temporary tent
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture-"I believed, and so I spoke"-we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Jesus was misjudged by his family and the scribes, but accepted by the ordinary people
Jesus went home with his disciples, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went to restrain Jesus, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered."
"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." For they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers? " And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
A thread running through today's readings is about the threat of evil in human existence. The Genesis text deals with the origin of evil — it comes both from outside man (as the Serpent-Tempter) and also from within. The human condition with its experience of disharmony in human relationships and in our relationship with God is presented as a fall from the ideal, and this disharmony which is the essence of evil, is the result of sin.
The homilist might develop the notion of evil from contemporary examples — e. g. of political and social discord fragmenting societies with oppression and violent revolution, disharmony in family life, and the resulting chain reaction of bitter responses. Just as in the case of Adam and Eve, sin is never a private affair; it always has social implications, for others are affected.
On this theme of disharmony the parable of Jesus takes on a resonance that was not originally intended; a house divided cannot stand. Equally we can see that a humanity radically divided and fighting against itself cannot survive, since our ingenious creativity has put so much destructive power in our hands. One of the paradoxes of the human situation seems to be that the more we develop our control over the world and the more good we are capable of producing, the more the possibilities for evil also proliferate. This is the Achilles heel, the radical flaw in the fallen human condition.
This ambiguity was hinted at in the Genesis text when it says: "He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." Human achievements are so often flawed; we can build our towers to the heavens but they become a Babel of confusion and races. What hope is there then for us? The Gospel provides a way forward. What was hinted at in Genesis came to its full revelation in the ministry of Jesus, who worked to fully overcome the power and influence of evil. What he revealed in action was God's power restoring creation — healing women and men and making them whole again. From here on our humankind is no longer left on its own in a hopeless struggle against evil. It is now possible for us to share in the new creation, if we belong to Christ.
Still, there is nothing overwhelming about the presence of God in Jesus, as we can see from the cynical reaction of the scribes to him. Pride, the desire to make oneself the arbiter of all that is good, motivates them to see in Jesus not the visible power of the Spirit of God, but a trick of the devil. What seemed to be good they could not deny but only reinterpret, in order to hold on to their own fixed position. Such a closed mentality merits the censure of Jesus; he reminds us that we must be ready to see God's goodness in unexpected places. Our road back to the new creation involves true openness and humility. It is a journey that does not involve positions of guaranteed privilege. Even the blood relatives of Jesus have no special standing in the kingdom. To belong to Jesus is equally open to all; the only condition is our readiness to commit oneself to doing the Father's will. This was the commitment that Adam and Eve failed to make but which is opened up to us in Christ.
In a celebrated speech, a former President of the US, Ronald Reagan, describe Soviet Russia as the "empire of evil." How uncomplicated life would be if evil could be so geographically defined! This formula had all the simple charm of an old Western movie with its classical conflict between the good guys and the bad guys. That the system of government in the Soviet Bloc was corrupt was widely known. Writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago) had fleshed out its operation with spine-chilling detail. Other courageous dissidents such as Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov added further witness. With the arrival of Glasnost and the sudden collapse of the Iron Curtain, more of the evil that permeated the system has come to light. But we should not leave this movie, cheered that the good guys had triumphed. There is little cause for anybody, least of all an American President, to rub his hands gleefully at the demise of communist totalitarianism. Evil is not that easily routed. The serpent raises its ugly head elsewhere.
Satan is alive and well, not far from the White House itself, ravaging the streets of Washington with crack and cocaine. The old maxims are often vindicated by events. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." We can also recall the Shakespearean maxim: "The evil men do lives after them." What never ceases to astonish about a Nazi Germany or a Stalinist Russia, or the promoters of an "Arab Spring" is how so many people, by all appearance simple, decent and well-motivated', can be got to connive at evil.
Another maxim is worth remembering: "For evil to triumph, it is enough that good men do nothing" (Edmund Burke).Too many people are content look the other way, while refugees throng in camps or are sent back to places of destruction. Yeats once wrote, graphically, "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."
It has become fashionable in our time to reject the doctrine of original sin, which, the catechism said, left us "prone to evil." But in myriad ways our daily newspapers confirm this doctrine. Four times each day, morning, midday, evening and night, newscasters chronicle in words and pictures the spectacle of man's inhumanity to man. Through our mass-media, no generation was ever better informed than ours of the effects of original sin. We can think of many spectacular examples. Our own sins may be less newsworthy but nonetheless deadly. The psalmist speaks for all of us. "If you, 0 Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness:For this we revere you."
It is the Lord who plants and grows; who raises and humbles
Thus says the Lord God:
"I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it."
Paul's boundless confidence in God, in spite of setbacks and opposition
We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
In a parable,Jesus notes the mysterious miracle of growth and fruitfulness
Jesus said to the crowds, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
With this Sunday, we return to "ordinary time" and take up again the regular reading of Mark. We get to hear one of the very few passages in Mark not taken up by Matthew or Luke, the parable of the farmer asleep. With all the drive and tension in Mark, it is refreshing to reflect on this parable of purposeful inactivity. [Kieran O'Mahony]
Spiritual renewal is the gift of God, through the Holy Spirit and through prayer. As Ezekiel—surely a keen gardener himself—puts it graphically, it is God who does the fundamental planting of his people. The sprig from the cedar's lofty top is planted on a high mountain, and for a noble purpose. In our tradition, God's favoured tree is the holy catholic church, called to be a welcoming family, source of both enlightenment and comfort to people of all nations. This tree, of God's own planting, must be there "in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar" providing shade for creatures of all kinds.
Jesus was a great believer in and promoter of renewal, both of his hearers' personal outlook and of the structures and priorities of the Jewish religion. In today's parable, he draws attention to the mysterious miracle of growth and fruitfulness. Yes, of course the gardener must do the initial spadework, and subsequently whatever weeding and watering may be required; but in the end it is the Spirit of God who makes fruitful change happen. So we call on the Pentecostal Spirit to breathe strongly on our Church today, and awaken in all our hearts that loving desire for sharing, for communion, which is the ideal at the heart of each Eucharistic congress, and indeed of every Mass.
When it comes to rediscovering spiritual priorities in our lives, we can find uplift in today's hope-filled words from St. Paul. In the middle of all the turmoil and tension he felt in dealing with dissent in Corinth, he holds on to his confidence in Christ, as his invisible, ever-present friend. Paul can be serene even at the prospect of his own death, when he will be more "at home with the Lord." He then adds a guiding principle valid for each one of us: "Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him." Without giving up on all hope for collegiality and dialogue in our Church, these are secondary to our basic trust that it is and will remain the Church of Jesus Christ, whose Spirit will stir up whatever is needed to make his Church grow and thrive.
Children are great for asking questions. They ask one question and, having received an answer, they ask another. As children grow into adolescence, they begin to ask more probing questions, questions that look for some kind of light to be cast on the deeper issues of life. In time, they may come to realize that clear answers are not always to be found to life's more profound questions. As adults we often have to reconcile ourselves to living with many unanswered questions. We discover that all our searching will never exhaust the many mysteries of life. We continue to take delight in making fresh discoveries, but we also realize that coming to terms with 'not knowing' is an important part of life's journey.
Today Jesus speaks a parable which acknowledges the mystery that is at the heart of the most everyday experiences of life. A farmer scatters seed on the good soil of Galilee. Having done the sowing, all he can do is to go about his other business, while the seed takes over and does its own work, producing first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear, until the crop is ready for harvest. In the parable it is said of the farmer that 'he does not know' how all this happens. Between his actions of sowing the seed and harvesting the crop, a great deal of activity goes on, which is invisible to him and which he does not fully understand. There is a great deal in our world which we do not fully understand, in spite of the great expertise that has developed over the centuries on all aspects of our universe.
He begins with the statement, 'This is what the kingdom of God is like.' Jesus seems to be saying that if the farmer does not know the ways of the humble seed, how can any of us fully know the ways of God? If growth in the natural world is mysterious, how much more mysterious must be the growth of God's kingdom? The Jewish author of the book of Qoheleth expressed it well, 'Just as you do not know how the breath comes into the bones in the mother's womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.' With the parable of the seed growing secretly Jesus says that the kingdom of God can be growing among us in ways that we do not fully understand, just as the seed the farmer sows in the ground grows to harvest in ways he does not understand. There is a reassuring, hopeful message here for all of us who may be tempted to discouragement by the slow progress that the ways of God appear to be making in the world. The spreading of God's reign is ultimately God's work and that work is always under way, even when we do not see it or understand it. We have a part to play in the coming of God's way of doing things among us, just as the farmer has a role to play in the coming of the final harvest. However, that first parable in the gospel warns us against overestimating our role. St Paul expresses this perspective well in his first letter to the Corinthians, 'Neither the one who plants, nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.'
The second parable in today's gospel reminds us that God can be at work in situations and places that seem very unpromising to us. There is a stark contrast between the tiny mustard seed (the smallest of all the seeds), and the large shrub that grows from it, in whose branches the birds of the air can nest. Insignificant beginnings can lead to a wonderful result. The kingdom of God is like that; it often finds expression initially in what is small and seemingly insignificant. We can feel that our own faith is insignificant, as small as a mustard seed. Jesus assures us that the Spirit is working in and through such faith. Our hope can appear to diminish to the size of a mustard seed. The parable says that such hope is enough for the Lord to work with. Our various efforts can seem to bear very insignificant results. The parable assures us that the Lord will see to it that the final harvest from those efforts will be abundant.
Sometimes we have to learn to be content with the small seeds that we can sow, trusting them to bear fruit in ways that will surprise us. The kingdom of God is something very humble and modest in its origins. We need to learn to appreciate little things and small gestures. We may not feel called to be heroes or martyrs every day, but we are called to put a little dignity into each corner of our little world. There are little seeds of the kingdom that all of us can sow, a friendly gesture towards someone in trouble, a welcoming smile for someone who is alone, a sign of closeness for someone who is in despair, a little ray of joy for a heart full of distress. God's reign comes in power through the seemingly insignificant actions of each of one us.
Job's pride is curbed by awe
The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:
"Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stilled!"
Paul's spiritual outlook: A life prompted and sustained by the love of God
The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.
Calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee
When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
St John Chrysostom's Homilies on Matthew were preached in Antioch and show his keen engagement with details of the text. His main objective was promoting morality, so that in dealing with any passage he concludes with an exhortation to some special virtue. Here is part of what he says about today's Gospel. The citation is long, but it is full of keen insights: "Behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, so that the ship was covered with the waves, but he was asleep." Jesus took them with him, not by chance but in order to make them spectators of the miracle that was to take place. For like an excellent trainer, he was anointing them with a view to both objects; as well to be undismayed in dangers, a to be modest in honours. Having sent away the rest, he kept them and lets them be tossed with the tempest; at once correcting this, and disciplining them to bear trials nobly. For while the former miracles were great indeed, this one contained also in it a major kind of teaching, and was a sign like that of old. For this reason he takes with him only the disciples. For as when there was a display of miracles, he also lets the people be present; so when trial and terrors were rising up against him, he takes with him none but the champions of the whole world, whom he was to train. While Matthew merely mentioned that "he was asleep," Luke says that it was "on a pillow;" meaning both his freedom from pride, and to teach us hereby a high degree of austerity."
He goes on to moralise about the disciples' fear: "When the tempest was at its height and the sea raging, they awoke him, saying, "Lord, save us: we perish." But he rebuked them before he rebuked the sea, because as I said, these things were permitted for training purposes and they were an image of the trials that would come to them later. Yes, for after these things again, he often let them fall into serious tempests of misfortune; and Paul also said, "I would not have you ignorant that we were pressed beyond our strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life;" and again, "Who delivered us from so great a death." Indeed their very alarm was a valuable occurrence, that the miracle seemed all the greater and their remembrance of the event be made lasting. Having first expected to be lost, they were saved, and having acknowledged the danger, they learned the greatness of the miracle. So that is why he sleeps: for had he been awake when it happened, they would not have been fearful, or they would not have begged him. Therefore he sleeps, to give occasion for their timidity and make clearer their perception of what was happening."
Chrysostom concludes, "He stretched out no rod, as Moses did, neither did he stretch forth his hands to Heaven, nor did he need any prayer, but as for a master commanding his handmaid, or a Creator his creature, so did he quiet and curb it by word and command only; and all the surge was immediately at an end, and no trace of the disturbance remained. This the evangelist declared saying, "And there was a great calm." And that which had been spoken in praise of the Father, he showed forth again by his works. For it says, "he spoke and the stormy wind ceased." So here likewise, he spoke, and "there was a great calm." And the multitudes who wondered at him; would not have marvelled, had he done it in such manner as did Moses."
In good weather it is lovely to live near the sea, especially when we have such a lovely promenade. Last month I was involved in a blessing of boats ceremony organized by our boat and yacht club. It was my first time in the premises of that club and it brought home to me how many people, including young people, from the area are involved in sailing and boating. We are fortunate to have a relatively sheltered stretch of water between the promenade and the open sea where people can sail reasonably safely. It is a wonderful amenity. Let's hope it is left to the people of the area and to the people of Dublin well into the future. Yet, for all the attractiveness of the sea, we know too that the sea can be treacherous. Even our sheltered stretch of water can sometimes look quite choppy, never mind the open sea beyond the lighthouse. Those who spend time on the sea learn to treat it with respect, because they know it can be a destructive force as well as a benign one.
The Sea of Galilee was a very large inland lake more than a sea, yet, like a sea, it could turn very nasty due to winds suddenly blowing down onto it from the surrounding hills. Something of the fear that a storm at sea can evoke is very well captured in the way that the disciples address Jesus, 'Master, do you not care? We are going down!' They could have been forgiven for thinking that Jesus did not care because, according to the gospel, he was asleep as the storm raged. There is a striking contrast between the relaxed demeanour of Jesus in the storm and the great agitation of the disciples. Jesus was clearly coping with the storm better than they were. Having been rebuked by his disciples, Jesus goes on to rebuke them, 'Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?' They had been with Jesus for some time and had witnessed God powerfully at work in and through him. That experience should have been enough to reassure them that, in spite of the raging storm, all would be well, because Jesus was with them. He had said to them at the beginning of their journey, 'let us cross over to the other side.' They should have trusted that, with Jesus with them, they would make it to the other side, in spite of the storm they were encountering.
The church's reputation has gone through stormy waters in recent times. Unlike the storm on the lake, the storms the church has been battling are, to a large extent, of our leaders' own making, by covering up cases of abuse in order to safeguard reputation. Perhaps, in the midst of these storms some of us may have been tempted to cry out with the disciples in the boat, 'we are going down.' We may be asking, like those disciples, where is the Lord in all of this? Like them, we may find ourselves fearful and losing faith as the church lurches from side to side in the stormy waters.
One of the messages of the storm story is that the Lord remains with the church in the storm. The Lord is present to his fearful and faithless disciples. He may rebuke us as he rebuked those disciples in the boat. However, his presence to us in the storm is not just a rebuking presence. It is ultimately a creative and life-giving presence. Jesus brought calm out of the chaos; he tamed the storm and saw to it that the boat reached the other side. The Lord remains stronger than the storms that threaten the church, whether those storms are self-inflicted or brought on by others or a combination of both.
Like the apostles, we need to trust that Our Lord works to bring his church through the storm to a new place where, as in their case, fear gives way to awe and their rebuking question, 'Master, do you not care?' gives way to amazement, 'Who can this be? Even the winds and sea obey him.' This conviction (that the Lord of the church is stronger than the storm) should not make us complacent. Yet, it keeps us hopeful and faithful, even when so much seems under threat. Today's responsorial psalm assures us that if we cry to the Lord in our need he will rescue us from our distress. Our need and distress can open us up more fully to the Lord's life-giving presence among us.
Saint Paul makes a wonderful statement at the beginning of that second reading, 'the love of Christ overwhelms us.' Another translation would be 'the love of Christ urges us on.' The love of Christ for us was revealed above all in his death on the cross. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, 'God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.' It is that remarkable love of God in Christ for us that urges us on, even when we are battling against a headwind. It urges us on until we reach what the gospel calls 'the other side', the place towards which the Lord is guiding the church — the place where he wants us all to be.
All that God does is wholesome, and he intends us to enjoy a blessed immortality
God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.
God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
Paul asks his well-off Corinthians to help the Christian poor in Jerusalem
As you excel in everything, in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you, so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
Two cures of Jesus are blended into a single story: the hemorrhaging woman and the daughter of Jairus. (For shorter version, omit the text in italics)
When Jesus had crossed in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So Jesus went with him; and a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in er body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and waiing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha kum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
1. The Wisdom author takes up a key idea from Genesis, that we were made in the image of God (Gen 1:27.) But whereas Genesis applied the phrase to human existence as such, the Book of Wisdom confines it to a special quality which causes humans to act in a God-like way which makes us "friends of God" (see Wis 7:26-27.) Living as a Friend of God means that we will act towards the world as God acts, seeing it as "good" (Gen 1:10) and therefore being concerned for its welfare rather than being involved in its exploitation. What is stressed in equating the serpent of Genesis 3 with the devil is the necessity of the avoidance of evil in one's life if one is to be a friend of God. A link can be made from today's first reading with the evil we are doing to the "world's created things" in which "no fatal poison can be found" in themselves. If we continue to pollute the world we will have poisoned many of its resources for ever more. How can we then continue to be called friends of the Creator God who "takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living?"
2. Paul would be an asset to any fund-raising programme. His method is simple: first praise, then appeal and lastly threaten. But his principles are valid for all time; we have no right really to what we do not need. Today's second reading could be used as an appeal to help the disaster areas of the world. As Gandhi said: "I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. In India we have got 3,000,000 people having to be satisfied with one meal a day, and that meal consisting of unleavened bread containing no fat in it, and a pinch of salt. You and I have no right to anything that we really have until these three million are clothed and fed better. You and I, who ought to know better, need to adjust our wants in order that they may be nursed, fed and clothed."
3. The miracle stories show Jesus healing either by touch or by a word. Both methods are present in the two miracles of today's gospel reading but there is a certain poignancy in the touch story as it is not Jesus who consciously touches the woman but she him. The stealth of the woman with the "issue of blood" in trying to touch Jesus without anyone being aware of it was occasioned by the ignorance of those times which considered that a woman in her condition was ritually unclean and anyone she touched was also rendered unclean. The fact that she touched him does not bother Jesus. The remarkable fact of Jesus being able to break through the taboos of his time could provide the basis for a discussion of present day taboos, especially in relation to women, and what they are doing to the human race in general and the Church in particular.
My presbytery was just across the street from a doctor's surgery. He had an excellent reputation and people queued up all day long to consult him. One morning there was an urgent knock on my door. When I opened it, the caller said: "Come quickly, Father. A man has just dropped dead on the pavement outside." Grabbing the sacred oils, I rushed out. Sure enough, a man was lying prostrate on the footpath. I anointed him conditionally, as there may be an interval between real and apparent death. A small group gathered around the body, just a few yards from the door of the surgery. It seemed like a cruel irony. Had he gone these few extra yards, his life might have been saved by the doctor. As I straightened up, I mentioned thisto the bystanders. "You have it all wrong, Father," a woman replied. "He was just on his way out from the surgery." Whatever the doctor's advice was, the man took it with him to the grave. Doctors, as they say, bury their mistakes.
In today's gospel, the woman with the twelve-year-old haemorrhage had undergone long and painful treatment under various doctors, without getting better. Of course, up to quite recently, medicine was fairly primitive. For most of human history people prayed for real miracles to cure their infirmities. In the Middle Ages, death stalked everywhere, not least in plague-ridden cities. Local wars were fairly constant and hygiene unknown. Town and country swarmed with the deformed, the maimed, the crippled and the blind. Death ran riot throughout Europe during the horrific period of the bubonic plague, aptly called the Black Death. Nothing stood between the individual and death except God. The centre of every church was its shrine containing relics of the saints. People flocked to these shrines in search of cures. Many travelled great distances to Rome, the Holy Land, Compostella, believing, like the woman with the haemorrhage, that even touching an important relic might restore them to health. Compostella claimed to have such a relic, no less than the remains of St James, who had watched Christ raise the daughter of Jairus to life. One could hardly come closer to the healing power of Christ than that.
But the world has changed much since then. In our own time cures have been found for almost every ailment. We have all become fervent believers in the "miracles of modern medicine." Clinics have replaced churches for the stricken. The few relics that have survived seem like embarrassing reminders of our naive past.
But was it all that naive to h ope for a miracle? Jesus attributed his two miracles to the faith of the seekers. "Your faith has restored you to health," he told the woman who was cured of her haemorrhage. All that separates us from her is the depth of our faith. Even modern medicine, in spite of all its successes, has rediscovered the importance of the patient's faith in his cure. Who knows? That man who died outside the surgery door might not have stepped so abruptly into eternity, had his faith in his doctor not faltered. That, like the doctor's prescription, is a secret he took with him.
Christ can, now as then, cure our sicknesses. All he needs is our faith. Of that, Lourdes is proof, if proof were needed. God does trail his coat in our shabby little world. With a little faith we could find it; with a little courage we could touch it. "Do not be afraid," he says to us, as he said to Jairus, "only have faith."
It often happens that we have it in mind to do something and we go about trying to do it. Then we are interrupted in some way; someone comes along that we were not expecting and holds us up and we don't get to do what he set out to do at the time we intended to do it. If you are a certain type of person you can get very annoyed by this. You can be there waiting for the person to move on so that you can get back to doing what you think you are supposed to be doing. I can be a bit like that myself at times.
Yet, I have come to appreciate that every encounter is in some way providential. What can seem initially like an interruption can be where we are meant to be. The person who unexpectedly crosses my path and who could be seen as interrupting what I have set out to do, can be one whom the Lord has sent into my life. Rather than seeing the encounter as interrupting something else, it can be better seen as a grace, an opportunity. What I set out to do may not be what is most important. Rather, the call of the present moment may be what really matters, the person who stands before me here and now.
I was reminded of all that by today's gospel encounter. One of the synagogue officials, Jairus, pleaded with Jesus to come to his daughter who was desperately sick. Jesus set out with him on this very important journey. On the way to the house of Jairus, Jesus had an encounter with a woman, which delayed him. It took up precious time. Yet, Jesus did not react angrily or dismissively to this interruption. Indeed, the contrary was the case. The woman with the flow of blood simply wanted to touch the clothing of Jesus, without holding him up in any way. It was Jesus who ensured that the fleeting encounter that the woman was looking for became, in reality, a truly personal encounter, a real meeting between two human beings. When Jesus noticed that power had gone out of him because of the woman touching his clothing, he stopped, turned around in the crowd and asked, 'Who touched my clothing?' He wanted to meet this woman, in spite of the urgency of the journey on which he had set out. Eventually the woman came forward, frightened and trembling, not knowing what to expect. Jesus addressed her in very tender terms, 'My daughter', he said, 'your faith has restored you to health.' He engaged her in a very personal way; he called her into a personal relationship with him. This was the task of the moment. Some people would have seen this encounter as an unfortunate interruption; as a result of the delay Jairus' daughter had died before Jesus could get to the house. Yet, for Jesus this encounter with the woman was of ultimate significance; it was a moment of grace. It was the prelude to an even more wonderful moment of grace in the house of Jairus when Jesus not only healed the very sick girl as he was asked to do, but raised him from the dead.
The gospel encourages us to pay attention to the interruptions in life. What can seem like distractions can be where the Lord is calling us to be. When our plans do not work out as we wanted because of some unexpected turn of events, it may not be the disaster that we think it is at the time. Sometimes when our plans do not work out, it can create the space for something else to happen that we did not plan but which, in itself, can have great value for ourselves and for others. In the story we have just heard, Jesus gave himself fully to the interruption. He could have kept walking when the woman touched his clothing, but he attended to her. That was the call of the present moment for Jesus. In answering that call, he was doing God's work, and the task he initially set out to accomplish did not suffer. Jairus had his daughter restored to him. There are times in life when we need to embrace the interruptions, rather than just driving on with our head down towards the goal we have set for ourselves. We can misjudge where the real work lies. We often need to come to a deeper appreciation that the interruptions are our work, especially when they involve responding with compassion to the needs of others. When we set out on a journey, what happens on the way can be more important than arriving at our destination.
God sends Ezekiel to call the people to repentance
The spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said:
"Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. Their descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.' Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them."
Paul welcomes his "thorn in the flesh," since "power is made perfect in weakness"
Considering the exceptional character of the revelations, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Jesus is rejected by his Nazareth neighbours; no prophet is honoured in his home town
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.
The last line of the Gospel is fairly stark. 'He was amazed at their lack of faith.' Many would suggest that if Jesus was to come among us again he would be amazed at how Ireland has changed. People living in fear of being attacked in their homes. Violence and murder a daily occurrence. Suicide on the increase. During an Irish visit some years back, Bill Clinton spoke about our need to return to core values in the journey to economic recovery. A country's economic difficulties are not the end of the world but the beginning of another chapter in our history. 'We need to help our friends not just to recover but to keep their heads on straight while recovering.'
If everyone had thirty lucid minutes before dying nobody would spend them thinking how great it was to be rich. We would think about people we liked and loved, and how the flowers smelled in Summer. Parents would remember what it was like when your children were born or when you gave your daughter away at the Altar.
Times change but values last. 'The spirit came into me and made me stand up and I heard the Lord speaking to me' (Ezekiel). We Catholics will have to stand up and be counted. Stand up for values and principles we hold dear. Prophets may or may not be accepted among their own people but silence is not always the answer. We need to speak the truth. We need to keep the faith.
When my nephew started playing rugby, he was explaining to me that when his team get the ball you have to 'use it or lose it.' With faith or talent or any God-given gift the choice is simple too—'use it or lose it.' Anything worth preserving takes time and effort. You know the story of the young musician who dreamed of playing in Carnegie Hall New York. She was called to audition in the world renowned theatre but was unsure which way to turn when she got off the bus. She saw an old man and asked: 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall ?.' He smiled and said: 'Practice my friend. Practice. That's how you get to Carnegie Hall.' It's how we become good Christians. It's how we become more sensitive to the needs and hurts of those around us. It is the secret of nurturing the faith we treasure. 'Practice my friend. Practice.'
Each of today's readings raises serious issues for the person who wishes to follow Jesus along the way. A few phrases strike me in a particular fashion and I would like to reflect on these against the background of God's call in Christ to all of us to live according to His way of love, justice and compassion. Ezekiel says that the Spirit of God "set him on his feet." This reminds me that without the Holy Spirit, without grace, without the energy that is God's gracious gift, faith-life is not possible, inner transformation is not possible, change is not possible, the movement into the wholeness that Yahweh-Shalom offers is not possible.
In saying this I know that it is easier to do nothing than to do something, it is easier to be negative than positive, easier to be destructive than creative, and that I am an amalgam of these contradictory tendencies. That is why I have so often been stiff-necked, stubborn and rebellious, even cynical—because free-wheeling refusal to be responsible takes little effort and less understanding. To live the covenant, however, demands awareness; it calls for a commitment to be conscious of grace and of the practical implications of grace that needs to find expression in real, practical, reconciling, forgiving, growth oriented patterns of life and relationship.
Today's gospel suggests we need to confront any tendency to judge others, take hurt and offence from them, reject them, and make them scapegoats of our own unrecognised aversions and resentments. We need to become more aware of how we spread negativity at home, among our friends at work—or wherever—lest we become like Pharisees or Herodians, or those of Jesus' own people who so readily rejected him. We need to realise how easy it is to confuse reality with our own ingrained prejudices and preferred viewpoints. We need to see that every story has another side, every person has his or her own reasons for what they do.
With St Paul I need to acknowledge my own "thorn," my own complex, shadow, inferior function, potential for neurotic behaviour; call it what you will, each of us has it! If I really want to be disciple I need to learn to rebuild the centre of my existence on God's terms lest I scatter myself and lose myself because I have no ground of coherent meaning on which to base my relationship with reality. This is spirituality, this is what psychology so often discovers we need. May we remember God's grace, may we remember that it precedes us along the way, may we allow it to set us on our feet and make us courageous. May we permit it to energise us for the next few steps on the perilous, wonderful, bright, dark journey to abundant life.
When family members leave home for the first time to make some kind of a home of their own it can be a very difficult experience for all the family. The one leaving will often have mixed feelings, wanting to strike out and become independent and yet feeling the pain of leaving loved ones. Parents will often have the same mixed feelings, happy that their son or daughter is ready to move on and yet knowing that they will miss them very much. In contrast to partings, homecomings are more likely to be very happy experiences for all involved. Yet, homecomings can also be complicated affairs. The one returning for a visit may have changed significantly since leaving home, and those at home may have changed too. There can be certain expectations all round that are more appropriate to how things were in the past than to how things have become in the meantime. Adjusting to the changes that have taken place while the family member was away can be a challenge for everyone.
In today's gospel, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth, having left there some time previously. He had spent the best part of thirty years in Nazareth. During that time he was known by all as the carpenter, the son of Mary. However, since leaving Nazareth, Jesus' life had taken a new direction. He had thrown himself into the work that God had given him to do. He had left Nazareth as a carpenter; he returned as a teacher and a healer. There was in fact much more to Jesus that his own townspeople had ever suspected while he was living among them. The gospel suggests that they could not accept this 'more'; they rejected him. They wanted him to be the person they had always known; they would not allow him to move on from that. Jesus' homecoming turned out to be more painful than his leaving home. God's unique Son who proclaimed the presence of God's kingdom was experienced by the people of Nazareth as a thorn in the flesh, to use an image from today's second reading.
The people of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus. The image they had of him, which they held on to with great tenacity, became a block to their learning more about him. We too can easily assume that we know someone, when, in reality, we only know one side to them. We can form strong opinions about people on the basis of past experiences. We can become so attached to these opinions that even when the evidence is there to challenge them, we are completely unmoved. There was more to Jesus than the people of Nazareth were aware of. Indeed there is always more to every human being than we are aware of. That is true even of those we would claim to know well, such as family members and good friends. We are each made in God's image. There is a profound mystery to each one of us. We can never fully probe the mystery of another person's life. We each need to approach everyone with the awareness that there is more here than I can see. It was Jesus' very ordinariness that made it difficult for the people of Nazareth to see him as he really was, in all his mystery. God was powerfully present to them in and through someone who was as ordinary, in many respects, as they themselves. God continues to come to us today in and through the ordinary, in and through those who are most familiar to us. In the religious sphere there can be a certain fascination with the extraordinary and the unusual. The gospels suggest that the primary way the Lord comes to us is in and through the everyday. This is what we mean by the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The ordinary is shot through with God's presence.
The Lord can even come to us in and through what we initially experience as something very negative. St Paul made this discovery for himself, according to our second reading today. He struggled with what he called a thorn in the flesh. It is not easy to know what he means by this. Whatever it was, Paul wanted to be rid of it. He saw no good in it and he prayed earnestly to the Lord to take it from him, fully expecting that his prayer would be heard. Paul's prayer was answered, but not in the way he had expected. In prayer he came to realize that God was powerfully present in and through this thorn in the flesh. When we find ourselves struggling with something inside ourselves or with something outside ourselves, some person perhaps, we can be tempted to see the struggle as totally negative and just want to be rid of it. Like Paul, however, we can discover that this difficult experience is opening us up to God's presence. The very thing we judge to be of little or no value can create a space for God to work powerfully in our lives. There is something of a paradox in what Paul hears the risen Lord say to him, 'My power is at its best in weakness.' It is often when we most feel life as a struggle that God can touch our lives most powerfully and creatively.
Amos the herdsman is called by God to be a prophet
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom." Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"
Praise of God's lavish grace to mankind
(or shorter version: Ephesians 1:3-10, omitting the text in italics)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Jesus sends out the twelve, to heal and proclaim repentance from sin
Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Sometimes it feels like a cultural loss to our young generation that it has been more or less cut adrift from the literature of Greece and Rome that marked so much of western civilisation. At a time long past when the only education available to Irish Catholics was provided by the hedge schools, an Irish poet, Eoghan Rua Ó Sú illeabháin, could stud his poetry with references from Greek and Roman literature. Among the outstanding literary works of Europe, written by its first great poet, Homer, was the Iliad, about the siege of Troy by the Greeks. It tells how Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, was granted by the god Apollo the gift of being able to foretell events which were sure to come. But because she had offended him, Apollo decreed also that nobody would believe her predictions. The more urgently she warned against future disasters, the more her prophecies were ignored by her people. They were not prepared to accept that their behaviour, their actions, could in any way have tragic consequences.
The Cassandra story may be a legend, but its rather like the reactions of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the warnings of the prophet Amos, in today's first reading. It was a time in the history of the Northern Kingdom when there was a superabundance of court prophets, and without offence to our national advisers, one might refer to them as the spin-doctors of that age. They were kept and paid for by the king, and their task was to put before the people, as being the will of God, what really were the secret ambitions and policies of the king himself. Amos refused to be one of these professional prophets, and in turn they banded against him and told him to go home to his own countrymen in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. "Go away," they said, "we want no more of your style of prophesying." Indeed it was Amos alone, who had been given an authentic message by God for the people.
He tried to get them to change, especially in the area of social justice. And it was also Amos who saw that while, outwardly, Israel seemed thriving and healthy, inwardly, it was stricken with a malignant cancer. For not only was it guilty of social injustices, it was also reneging on its call to be in a special way God's people. There would be no more special privileges for Israel, but only disaster. He delivered this warning from God, "Behold the eyes of the Lord God are upon this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth." God scorned those who tried to bribe him by burning incense in the shrine at Bethel one day in the week, while on the other six days defrauding the poverty-stricken of the nation. But like the warnings of Cassandra, Amos" words fell on deaf ears. Much of his message could be applied to our own age, for he criticised the inequalities amongst the people of that era of so much prosperity, the luxurious dwellings and life-style of the wealthy, their selfish and greedy expoitation of the poor, their lack of concern for justice in the community, the way in which the courts were used to evade the law and perpetuate abuses.
This people displayed all the outward trappings of religion, but in their hearts there was no place for God. God had sent them warnings through his prophets, but he did not force them to comply with his demands. And so it was that Israel slithered down the slope to its own destruction by the Assyrians, never again to attain the status of an independent kingdom. We see all this re-enacted in the person of Christ and his warnings also. But in Christ's time it was not wealth which was the obstacle, but rather a narrow-minded nationalism, which within a generation later would lead to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. In the light of this we might try and see what is the predominant failing of our own lives, our own society. Is it the greed which confronted the prophet Amos so long ago?
In the gospel, Jesus warns his missionaries that people will refuse to listen to them, just as he himself had been ignored; but their message should not be forced on the people. Indeed an odd thing about Jesus' discourses to the Twelve is that he never tells them exactly what to say to people; rather he tells them the kind of lives they should lead. They must give witness to their faith by what they do, so by their example leading others to change too, to accept freely the kingdom of God.
He pitied the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Today we see how people become frightened, shattered, lost, all because of the way society is organised, because of their disenchantment with declining standards of behaviour. Secularists, industrialists, trade unionists and others, indeed to a certain extent all of us, quite often pursue a policy of living-for ourselves, of taking all that we can from our environment without thought for the less favoured or for future generations. People are striving, if sometimes unwittingly, for the maximum return for their own efforts, while regardless of the cost to others. If we follow these selfish trends in unthinking fashion, the tragedy is that life will cease to have meaning; there will be no genuine goal to aim at that will beget a feeling of self-fulfilment.
A modern philosopher has put it this way: "Humanity's sickness is that it has nothing to believe in ..., people cannot live without a sense of significance." Humans can never be satisfied if they are regarded merely as economic factors, or cogs in a giant industrial wheel. Let us, for our part, consider this day that people have a spiritual side to them also, and that apart from their material aspirations, they seek, like St Augustine did for twenty years, to acquire spiritual fulfilment as well. Christ, as we see in the gospel, was above all the man for others. He emptied himself of his divine glory and became the servant of the servants of God. But of course, as St Augustine said, "God who made us without our consent, will not save us without our consent." We must be of one mind with him. Furthermore, our consent must not be mere words; it must be accompanied by actions. "My mother and my brothers," Christ told the people, "are those who hear the word of God, and put it into practice" (Lk 8:21).
It is certain that by trying to do this we can become an influence for good in the community of which we are part. Somebody has said that it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. If Christianity could but capture once again the idea of service, that Christ gave us, it would restore once more the meaning of life, and the significance for others of the work we find ourselves doing.
July and August are traditionally the months when people take holidays. For most of us, a holiday involves a going, a journey of some kind. An important part of a holiday is leaving the familiar, the place where we usually live and work, and heading off to a different kind of place. There is always something exciting about setting out on such a journey. There are other journeys in life that are not of our choosing in quite that way. These are journeys we make because, at some level, we feel we must make them. Something within us moves us to certain path, to head out in a certain direction. Even though we sense the journey may be difficult, and we may have all kinds of hesitations and reservations about it, nonetheless, we know we have to set out on this path, if we are to be true to ourselves. Yes, we choose to make such a journey, but it is a choice in response to what seems like a call from beyond ourselves or from deep within ourselves.
Such a journey is put before us in today's first reading. Amos, according to himself, was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees in the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet, at a certain moment in his life, he felt under compulsion to make a difficult journey into the Northern kingdom of Israel in order to preach the word of God there. It was a most unlikely journey for the likes of Amos to make, and Amos was well aware that it would be no holiday. Yet, he also knew that this was a journey he simply had to make. He spoke of this compulsion in terms of God's call: 'The Lord took me from herding the flock and said "Go".' Amos went because he had a strong sense that he was being sent. In a similar way, in the gospel, the disciples set out on a journey because they are sent on that journey by Jesus. They set out freely, but in response to a call, a sending.
The experience of Amos and the disciples can be our experience too, setting out on a journey not completely of our choosing. The second reading suggests the mystery of God's purpose for our lives. It says that God wants us to live in a certain way, to live our life's journey as Jesus did. Although we often make all kinds of journeys of our own choosing, whether holidays or business or other trips, there is sense in which we try to allow our God to guide us to take certain paths and to avoid others, moving us in one direction rather than another. Although God has chosen this journey for us — 'before the world was made', according to St Paul — God wants us to also choose this journey for ourselves, and waits for us to do so. This is not a choice we make once and for all; it is one we are constantly remaking. All our lives we can keep on choosing to surrender to God's purpose for us; we keep setting out on the journey God is calling us to take; we keep inviting God to have his way in our lives, saying with Mary, 'Let it be to me according to your word.'
If we keep choosing the journey that God has chosen for us in Christ, responding to God's call, this will impact on the many smaller journeys we take in life. It will influence our holidays for example. We will choose to holiday in ways that are genuinely recreational, that help re-create the image of God's Son in us. We will relax in ways that are life-giving for ourselves and for others, in ways that help us to become more fully the person God wants us to be.
Periodically, our newspapers publish a list of wills. The name and occupation of the deceased is followed by a figure denoting the value of his or her estate. In Ireland, an editor may highlight any priest who figures in the upper bracket, to headline the piece. Scarcely the epitaph Christ would have wished for one of his disciples! For more than a century, priests had a dominant - even domineering - position in Irish society. As a result, they have come in for a fair share of criticism in literature and the media. In this, James Joyce had predecessors as well as followers. But traditionally, the people were more indulgent towards the short-comings of their pastors. Those who fell victim to the demon drink were more pitied than censored. Those who succumbed to the charms of the fairer sex were more gossiped about than condemned. The harshest criticism was reserved for the money-grasping priest. In this, the ordinary gut-reaction of the people, their sensus fidelium, mirrors accurately the Gospel priorities.
Poverty, in the modern world, has almost become a dirty word. We are bombarded almost daily by the media with harrowing accounts of grinding poverty in the Third World. For over a decade, stories of the famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan have reached news saturation-point several times, forcing editors to curtail or withhold coverage for fixed periods. Following that, the Eastern Bloc has drawn media attention, with their lengthening food-queues and empty shelves. The First World too has its poverty stories, with statistics showing the growing numbers living below the poverty line in the "rich man's club." No great city in the Western world would be complete without its poverty belt where people in the low- or no-income sector are confined within their poverty trap. The resulting plague of crime and drugs has obliged governments, in fluctuating bouts of enthusiasm, to declare war on poverty. Poverty, like disease, must be eradicated.
Small wonder if the virtue of poverty has become tarnished with the same brush. Unlike our ancestors, we are not given to making distinctions. In the popular mind, the virtue stands indicted like its demographic namesake. Even in economic terms, this is little short of disastrous. The reality will continue to ravage the Third World, as long as the First World fails to practise the virtue. They will remain poor, as long as we fail to share our largesse with them. In certain cases the situation is even worse. Recently, the story broke of an Italian shipping company dumping its cargo of dangerous toxic waste in an underdeveloped African state. Having plundered that continent for centuries to raise our standard of living, we now have the gall to fill its empty belly with our waste.
If the Christian West wishes to continue to preach the gospel in Africa and elsewhere, it badly needs to give a more authentic witness to it. If we wish to establish the kingdom of God on earth, we should remember that Christ began its charter with the words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." When he called his disciples, he made only one demand: That they leave everything to follow him. The only one who refused his call, the rich young man, did so because "he had many possessions." As he was sending them out to preach, Jesus told them: "Take nothing with you." So any priest who leaves behind as the fruit of his labours a tidy nest egg, has miserably ignored his Master's direction on this point.
God will raise up worthy shepherds for his people
The Lord says, "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: "It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings," says the Lord.
"Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing," says the Lord.
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness.'"
A people reconciled and brought near by the blood of Christ
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
After a quiet retreat, Jesus returns to serve the crowd
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
At an international sports event two pole-vaulters tied for second place and the silver medal when it became too dark to complete the competition. They were good friends, and on the podium they were disappointed when one was asked to accept the silver medal and the other the bronze even though they had tied.When they returned to Japan they cut the two medals in half and joined half of the silver to half of the bronze. Each then had what they agreed to call a 'medal of eternal friendship.' Sport is about winning and losing but it is also about friendship. Long after the shine is gone off the medals there will be smiles on the faces of friends we make through sport. The joy of sport or the joy of living life to the full gives us the satisfaction of knowing that we did our best. There is contentment in knowing that we made good use of the gifts God gave us. The old motto was a good one: 'Who you are is God's gift to you; What you become is your gift to God.'
Great athletes also do what we are all called to do in today's Gospel. 'You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.' We hear also that 'he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set about to teach them at some length.' The shepherd has taught us many things. 'He came to bring the good news of peace, peace to you who are far away, and peace to those near at hand' (2nd Reading). When we disturb the peace the shepherd urges us to say sorry—to say sorry and to mean it. A failing in most of us is to include the 'but' when we say sorry. 'I am sorry but you know I'm not in great form ! I am sorry but I didn't know the full story !.' The shepherd of peace would like the apology to be unreserved. 'It was my fault. Please forgive me. I am sorry.'
A heartfelt apology is like the superglue of life. It can mend just about anything.
In many areas of life there is a crisis of authority. The simple fact of holding a leadership position no longer ensures loyalty and unquestioning obedience today. The ideal leader is one who can win respect and generate trust, one with a clear sense of responsibility, who can get things done while respecting people's dignity and feelings. Shepherds, in to today's readings, are people of integrity who care for others (Jeremiah); people who help us follow the right path (Psalm), and show compassion toward others in their weakness (Gospel).
Some might think of the shepherd image as applying only to bishops— the official "pastors" in succession to the apostles, or to the local pastors in the parish —but in fact the shepherd role at one level or another, applies to all kinds of leadership. We are invited today by God's word to examine what our own leadership is like.
The shepherds condemned by Jeremiah were the leaders who neglected their responsibilities and let abuses thrive. His message today might be to political figures, ministers and government officials at all levels, who have the task of keeping public order, defending the rights of citizens and promoting fairness for all, insofar as possible. The shepherd image suggests that authority is not mainly the power to impose rules. The shepherding role is one of service more than dominion. Its goal is to set a good direction and enable a community to live together in peace, where each individual has dignity and an equal chance of personal fulfilment.
While the term shepherd rightly applies to spiritual leaders, prelates can sometimes push the image too far, seeming to treat their people more like sheep to be driven than as intelligent human beings to be persuaded. In today's world, the "Father knows best" attitude is not well received. As pope Francis so effectively points out, our clergy cannot rule by formal decree but must try to win minds and hearts, and communicate an inspiring vision, suited to our times. They must trust the maturity of their people, and promote a sense of owning the Church we belong to.
Besides the official leaders of Church and State, many others must offer pastoral leadership at a local and domestic level. Parents and teachers are the most obvious examples of this. In practice it is they who help to develop a child's character, laying the foundations for growth into adult maturity. They pass on values by which young people can live, and foster qualities that can grow over the years. For this they need the sensitivity and compassion shown by Jesus in today's Gospel. "He had compassion for them and began to teach them many things."
We are very much in the middle of holiday time. We all need a break from our routine, whatever that routine might be. Most of the time we go on holidays with somebody, or we go away to stay with somebody. Most of us like to be with others when we are away from our routine. In the gospel we find Jesus taking his disciples away together for a period of rest and quiet. They have had a busy time and were full of all they had done and taught and wanted to share it all with Jesus. He suggests a change of pace and of location, to take them away to a quiet place, where they could rest. This was to be a time of reflection in the company of Jesus, a time when they did nothing except be present to each other and to the Lord.
In our own faith life we all need such desert moments, times when we try to be present to the Lord and to each other. We have a prayer group in the parish that meets on a Monday night; it is a desert moment, a short period of about 30 minutes when people sit in silence having listened to a short talk. We have another prayer group that meets on a Tuesday evening, when a group of people gather around the gospel for the following Sunday, and listen to it in silence for about thirty minutes and then share a little on how it has spoken to them. These are times when people are present to the Lord and to each other in a more intense way than is usually the case. They are little desert moments that people can share together, times when we can come away to rest for a while in the Lord's presence and in the presence of other believers. Our church here is open every day until about 6.00 pm. Our church is that sort of desert space in the middle of our community. It is a place to which people can come away and rest for a while, in the words of the gospel. The silence can be an opportunity to share with the Lord what has been going on in our lives, just as in the gospel the disciples shared with Jesus all they had been doing and teaching. Other people can have that desert moment by going for a walk. As we walk we can become aware of the Lord and his presence to us, and we can become more aware of people in our lives, even though we may be walking alone. However we do it, as believers, as followers of the Lord, we all need to come away to some lonely place all by ourselves and rest for a while so that as to allow the Lord to be in a deeper communion with us.
If the first part of the gospel proclaims that value of coming away from our everyday cares, in order to be present to the Lord, the second part proclaims another value. The lonely place suddenly became a crowded place, even before Jesus and his disciples had reached the place. Jesus and his disciples stepped out of the boat not into quietness and peace but into human need and demand. We are all familiar with that kind of experience. We plan something and it doesn't work out. We go somewhere expecting something and the opposite transpires. We want to be alone and we are inundated with people. Jesus and his disciples experienced a major interruption to what they were intending. Interruptions are part of all our lives, and as one writer put it, God is often to be found in the interruptions. Jesus responded to the interruption by become completely present to it. He did not try to avoid the crowd or to send them away; he became fully present to them. In the words of the gospel, 'he took pity on them', 'he had compassion for them.' That is very much at the heart of our own calling as the Lord's followers, to be present to others, even when they turn up unexpectedly and interrupt what we had carefully planned. It is so easy to get worked up and irritated when something happens that is not part of the script we had in our head. We can be so fixed on that script that we can look on people as nuisances instead of being present to them with the compassion of Jesus. Jesus had the habit of spending time alone with God; it was those times of presence to God in prayer that enabled him to be present to others, no matter who they were or how they turned up. Our own coming away to be with the Lord will help us too to be present to those who come into our lives. Our contemplative moments, our desert times, help us to be contemplative, attentive, in our way of relating to those who cross our path in life.
Elisha provides food for a hundred men
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack.
Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
From prison, St. Paul invites us to live a life of peace and harmony
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Jesus feeds the people with a boy's loaves and fishes
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"
Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world." When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
We can sometimes find ourselves in situations beyond our abilities to cope, when the gap between the resources at our disposal and the issue to be dealt with seems too great. We feel a sense of helplessness which drains us of the energy to tackle the problem. The challenge seems simply too great to be faced. In this gospel we have an example of that kind of apparent powerlessness. Jesus and the disciples are faced with a very large crowd of hungry people in a deserted place. They need to be fed and the resources to feed them don't appear to be there. The sense of being overwhelmed by the task that needs doing is audible in the comments that Jesus' disciples make. Philip states, 'Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them a small piece each.' Andrew comments that there is a small boy present with five barley loaves and two fish, but he asks rather despairingly, 'What is that between so many?' I am sure that people who work for aid agencies like Trocaire, Concern, Goal and Gorta often found themselves in a similar situation in those parts of the world ravaged by conflict and famine. The huge need outstrips the available resources. Yet, in that situation such workers always do whatever they can with whatever resources they have at their disposal. They don't despair; they tackle the situation as best as they can.
In the gospel, Jesus was just as aware as his disciples of the enormity of the task and the apparent lack of resources. However, he did not share their sense of defeatism. He saw that in some way the small boy with the five barley loaves and two fish was the key to feeding the vast crowd. We cannot be certain what exactly happened on that day in the wilderness but it seems certain that the small boy with his few barley loaves and fish played a very important role. There was only enough food there for a simple meal for a poor family. Yet, he was willing to part with his barley loaves and fish; he handed them over to Jesus and, in some mysterious way, Jesus was able to work with the young boy's generous gift to feed everyone. One generous boy was the beginning of the feeding of the multitude. The boy's generosity gave Jesus the opening that he needed. In and through this small boy's simple gift, Jesus worked powerfully.
This is one of the very few stories about Jesus that is to be found in all four gospels. It clearly spoke very powerfully to the early church. Perhaps in and through this story the early believers came to appreciate that the Lord can use our tiniest efforts to perform his greatest works. As Paul declared in his letter to the church in Corinth that God's power is often made perfect in our weakness. The Lord can work powerfully in and through the very little that we possess, if we are generous with that little. The small boy is our teacher in that regard. He gave over his few barley loaves and fish, and the Lord did the rest. So often the spontaneous generosity of children can have a great deal to teach us. In giving away the little we have we leave ourselves very vulnerable. Yet, the gospel suggests that the Lord can work powerfully in and through that very vulnerability which is the fruit of our generosity. The Lord needs us to be generous with what we have, even though it can seem very small and very inadequate in our eyes. The Lord does not work in a vacuum; he needs us to create an opening for him to work. Without the presence of Jesus, the crowd would not have been fed. Without the presence of the small boy and his few resources the crowd would not have been fed either. The Lord needs us to be generous with what we have today if he is to continue to feed the various hungers of today's crowd, whether it is the basic hunger for food, or the hunger for shelter, for a home, for friendship, for community, for acceptance or the deeper spiritual hunger for God. The gospel this morning teaches us never to underestimate the significance of even the tiniest efforts we make to be generous with the resources we have at our disposal, whether it is resources of money, or time or some ability or other.
All four evangelists saw a connection between what happened in the wilderness on that day and what happened at the Last Supper and what happens at every Eucharist. Just as Jesus transformed the small boy's simple gifts of five barley loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands, so he transforms our simple gifts of bread and wine into a spiritual feast for all, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. The way the Lord works in the Eucharist is how he works in the rest of our lives. He takes the little we offer to him and by means of it, in the words of Saint Paul, he is 'able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.' [Martin Hogan]
Today's Old Testament and Gospel readings tell of the feeding of hungry people. Elijah's miracle, for the poor widow, came towards the end of a long drought when famine raged in the land of Israel, and the kindly action of a well-wisher enabled the prophet to feed his hungry community.
We are all too familiar from television with the obscenity of people dying of starvation in an affluent world for whom there has been no miraculous feeding. Sometimes, by contrast, we have known joyful moments of humane solidarity, when music and celebration aroused the hope that we could "Feed the World." On days like that, the little we gave seemed as important as the loaves and fishes. When people share food and resources with strangers, barriers are broken down. They recognize their dependence on one another.
But just as soon as one crisis of starvation has been relieved, another seems to arise. People in the poorest countries still struggle, just to survive. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of the sheer impossibility of feeding the world, to allow the first symptoms of "compassion fatigue" as the aid agencies call it, to give way to numbed indifference. Like Elijah's servant or Andrew, we ask, "How can we feed so many, with so little?"
It would horrify the humane voters in democratic lands if our leaders and planners openly admitted how the economic logic which sustains our way of life dictates that the most powerless are destined to go hungry for ever. But our developed world makes tough trade agreements, creates food mountains and milk-lakes, and diverts financial and human resources into the arms trade rather than into development and education. Even if our leaders and planners are sensible, humane people, they are—like ourselves—caught in the web of unjust expectations which is part of what we mean by "the sin of the world."
Mahatma Ghandi said once, "To the poor man, God does not appear except in the form of bread and in the promise of work." The Eucharist renews the deepest springs of our humanity by a story of bread broken and eaten for the life of the world. Can we help those who celebrate the Eucharist with us this Sunday to see a link between it and the hunger of the world? Has the parish some project to support a missionary helping in the developing world, or can some local people to be enlisted in telling the story of such a project? "Gather up the fragments so that nothing gets wasted." Global solutions lie beyond the power of our local parish, which is why we need to remember the lesson of the fragments. If we can put a little new heart into our efforts, that will be something worthwhile. If we can become conscious of our wastefulness of world resources, it may be the beginning of repentance.
Today's homily could focus on the ideals proposed in the second reading, showing the true Christian character according to Paul, prisoner for Christ.
1.Freedom is as much "for" as "from": Personal freedom is something we rightly treasure. As a vital part in the pursuit of happiness, it is increasingly taken for granted, at least in our developed countries, as a basic human right. We resent any excessive and unwarranted intrusions on our liberty, whether by our neighbours, or by officials such as police, bureaucrats, revenue collectors, or even by the leaders of our Church. We want to be free to do as we please with our lives, our energy and our income. This is a good desire, on just one condition, that what we desire is itself good. It's not enough to be free from pressures and interference. Freedom must also be for something. It is not complete until we put it to work, using it for something worthwhile.
2. A Christian should be positive. We all know some people who seem to have an unusual level of freedom and initiative, in deciding what to do with their energy and their time. They get things done, while others would still be anxiously fretting and wondering whether to do anything! Paul of Tarsus was a great "Doer," a man who believed in his mission in life, which was to share Christ with as many people as possible. Among the apostles, he was the supreme activist, spreading the Gospel "in season and out of season." While the conservative Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem worried about what conditions would need to be imposed before letting Greek converts into the Church, Paul was already out on his mission-field, winning those Greeks for Christ. What made Paul so sure that his way was right? He was deeply convinced that it was God's way, that his vocation came to him direct from the living God.
3. Each one has a personal vocation. He wrote this letter not just to the leaders, nor even to the whole community in Ephesus, but to every one of his converts. It is meant as an "encyclical," a final word for all his mission parishes. And his message holds good today, for each adult Christian who is willing to listen to God's call. The whole basis for our faith, says Paul, is that the good God has blessed us, and made us his children by grace: there is one God, the Father of us all. He is the God of mercy, who "opens wide his hand" to bless, and is "loving in all his deeds." Once we realise this, we also understand how much is asked of us in response. We need to love others as God loves them, "with unselfishness, gentleness and patience." This is the truly "good" life, the proper life-style for a Christian. Of course, such perfect love and unity with others is not an easy vocation, and indeed is never quite within our power to achieve. Still, it is there as a guiding ideal, calling us onward and upward. Any worth-while vocation is like that; it calls us beyond ourselves.
4. The importance of making a Start. All too often, our response to such high idealism is to shrug and say, "Be realistic! Don't expect much from me! I'm no hero, just an ordinary person." Paul would not let us cop out of the love ideal so easily. With a nice sense of balance, he advises, "do what you can to achieve and preserve it." The problem often lies in getting started. What you or I can actually do, here and now, to help our neighbours, may seem woefully small. But it's all that's required of us just at this point in time. Elisha's servant felt that his twenty small loaves were nowhere near enough to feed a hundred hungry men. Still, once distributed, those loaves made all the difference.
5. Cooperating with Christ. The Christian vocation to love others, whether it comes to us as married or as single, as lay-person, religious or priest, is always part of our personal relationship with Our Lord. It is only fulfilled in co-operation with him. Each of us can be like those disciples, who took the bread that Jesus blessed, and then distributed it to the crowds. Some of us, like Philip, may feel reluctant at first to get involved in a problem that looks too big to solve. Others, like Andrew, are a bit more optimistic, and begin to notice whatever glimmerings of hope are there in the situation. But if Jesus has the willing co-operation of all his friends, something great will be done for the people in need.
We just need to open our eyes, to see the needs around us. Problems to be faced; people to be loved, respected and listened to. To be involved in helping others, with our talents, our energy and our love, is the best and proper use of our freedom. And it will, please God, add up to "a life worthy of our vocation."
God feeds the hungry Israelites with manna and quails
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this desert to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
"I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the desert was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."
Give up your aimless lifestyle and embrace goodness and truth
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Jesus, as the ultimate "bread from heaven," offers eternal life
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"
Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. or it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"
Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
One of the masterpieces of fiction was the satire Don Quixote by the Spanish writer Cervantes. It tells how the absurdly chivalrous hero set out to perform deeds of heroism to win the admiration of all the Spanish ladies. Quixote was so open to adventure that he decided to go wherever his horse Rosinante would lead him. But the horse, once given free rein, naturally returned to the place it knew best, its own stable. We might find ourselves going the same way, doing the same thing, returning to the same haunts again and again, drifting aimlessly, or lured on by the novelty of sensationalism, or even carried away by the latest fashion in religion.
St Paul declares that aimless living will lead us exactly nowhere. "I urge you in the name of the Lord," he says, "not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live." In paganism, according to Paul, lack of direction led to deep moral lapses and indecency of every kind, or spiritual collapse. But he says. "if we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, until it has built itself up, in love" (4:15f). In other words, Christ must be felt as a living influence in the lives of all his true followers.
The help of divine grace is always there for the asking. "Work for your salvation in fear and trembling," the New Testament urges us, and then goes on, "It is God who gives you both the will and the ability to act, and so achieve his own purpose" (Phil 2:12f). We could not even begin to seek God, if he had not already found us.
On the other hand, if people are wrapped up only with trivial things and selfish pleasure-seeking, their understanding will be darkened, and, worse still, their hearts become insensitive to real values. This lapsing from our ideals will be gradual and barely noticeable, and nobody becomes decadent all at once. When people first become aware in their conscience that they are falling into bad habits, they may regard it with some regret. But if they ignore conscience and continue their merry way, inevitably the unused conscience falls asleep, and they can sin without any feeling of guilt. At that stage they are incapable of discerning right from wrong.
The people gathered around Jesus along the lakeshore were concerned only with their need of food and drink. They were so enthusiastic about his multiplying the loaves that they wanted to make Jesus their king. They were blind to the spiritual significance of the miracle, and the message he wanted to teach through it. "Do not work for food that cannot last," he warned, "but for food that lasts to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering."
What about ourselves? If we are willing to follow Jesus, but only on our own terms, we can be like the careless crowd. If we feel he has let us down, we may turn away from him. This is not the response that draws grace into our lives. We must seek our Lord for himself, and not for what we can get from him. The bread from heaven for us is the Eucharist, and the proper way to receive its blessing is to open up to God's love, given to us in Jesus. Unlike those who abandoned Jesus when no more bread was forthcoming, we must persevere as his faithful followers.
It appears that many things produced today are not made to last. Take our modern buildings for example. In Dublin we live in a city with some beautiful buildings that are centuries old. The old house of Parliament, now the Bank of Ireland, in College Green comes to mind; it is almost three hundred years old now. I wonder how many of the building that have gone up in recent years in the city will still be there in three hundred years time. Much of what we buy on a smaller scale, like furniture for our homes, does not seem to last very long either. The clothes that we wear have a shorter life span compared to a generation or two ago. We live in a throwaway culture, even if some of what made today will last into the future. There are probably some books of our own time will have an enduring value too. Some movies and plays that are presently being made will be watched and enjoyed for generations to come. We always retain the capacity to create something of enduring value, that has the capacity to engage people not just in the present but into the future. They last because their value is great.
On our journey through life we tend to seek out what might be of lasting value because we sense that it can enrich us and make us better human beings. Having found something of real value we often return to it, whether it is a book, a poem, a piece of music, a painting or a building. We know from our own experience that what we really value are not so much objects or things but people. A good friend is worth so much more to us than a good book, or a good piece of music, or a good painting. There is nothing more valuable to parents than their children. For those who are in love, their treasure is the beloved. Everything else is on a much lesser scale of value. We want the people we value to last forever, which is why the death or the loss of a loved one is such a devastating experience.
In today's gospel the crowds of people whom Jesus fed in the wilderness come back, looking for him, wanting more of this bread he had provided. Jesus takes the opportunity to point them towards more enduring. His advice is, 'do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life.' The horizon of Jesus is not the mere horizon of this world but that of eternity. When he speaks of what truly lasts he means what it is that lasts into eternity. For Jesus what is of lasting value is not just what is remembered for generations into the future, but what will continue to have value in eternity. It is hard to keep that horizon of eternity before us, especially in these times when our universe seems so all absorbing. Yet the horizon of Jesus is the horizon of eternity. Certainly he takes this earthly life very seriously; he has invested himself in showing us how to live in this life, by his teaching, his way of relating to others. He gave himself over to meeting the basic needs of those he met. He healed the sick; he comforted the bereaved; the fed the hungry; he befriended the lonely. He told us to do the same and declared that what we do for others we do for him. Yet, all the time the backdrop was an eternal horizon. In living in this way, we are preparing ourselves to live forever. Those who live by the values of the kingdom of God will inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus spoke of himself as the way. He is the way to live in this life; he shows us how to life well. Thereby, he is also the way to eternal life; those who follow in his way will live forever. Jesus is concerned about what endures not just into successive generations but what endures into eternity. He understood that we have been created by God to live forever and he came to show us how to attain that eternal life and to empower us to attain it. That is why he speaks of himself in the gospel as the bread of life. He endures into eternity and those who receive him in faith and walk in his way will also endure into eternity. If we come to him and stay with him our deepest hungers and thirsts will be satisfied in this life and more fully in the next. When we think about what endures, we are to think first of Jesus. He is the gateway to enduring life, for ourselves and for all we love and value.
One of the masterpieces of fiction is the satirical story of Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. It tells how the absurdly idealistic hero, followed by his squire Sancho Panza, set out to find adventure, do deeds of chivalrous bravery and win the admiration of everybody. He had such an open mind in this quest that he decided to go wherever his horse Rosinante would lead him. But the horse, finding itself given free rein, naturally returned to the place it knew best, its own stable. Too often perhaps, we humans find ourselves going the same way, doing the same thing, returning to the same sinful habits again and again, sometimes also drifting aimlessly, sometimes lured on by the novelty of sensationalism, sometimes a prey to the enticements of others, or carried away by the latest fashion in religion.
St Paul, in today's text, is quite adamant in his condemnation of that kind of haphazard behaviour. "I want to urge you in the name of the Lord," he says, "not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live." The inner life of pagans was one in which human weakness led to countless moral failures, and the pursuit of a career of indecency of every kind, often culminating in permanent spiritual collapse. However, "if we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, until it has built itself up, in love" (4:15f). In other words, Christ must be seen before the whole world to be a living influence in the lives of all his true followers.
On the other hand, if people engage only in immoral things, their mind will be darkened, and worse, their hearts will be petrified, that is to say they become like stone. This lapsing into sin may be more discernible to others than to the person himself or herself. There is a certain mystery attached to sin, but we can say for certain that nobody becomes a sinner all at once. When people first become aware by the light of their conscience that they have fallen into sin, they may regard with horror and regret the action which led to it. But if they ignore it continue in sinful ways, there will come a time when they will lose all sense of wrongdoing, when they lose all feeling of guilt or shame. At that stage conscience is petrified, a dead thing incapable of discerning right from wrong.
In the gospel, the people who followed Jesus along the shore of the lake were concerned solely with satisfying their hunger. They were so enthusiastic about this sudden abundance of food he provided that they decided to ensure its continuation and so set out to make Jesus their king. They were blind to the spiritual meaning of the miracle, and the message Jesus drew from it. "Do not work for food that cannot last," he warned, "but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you."
With us too, it can happen that we are willing to follow Christ - even to seek him out with a certain kind of zeal - but on our own conditions, namely, that he solve our immediate problems and grant our requests. If we feel he has let us down, we may even contemplate turning our backs on him. But never on such conditions will he draw near to us. We must seek him for himself, and not for what we can get from him. The bread from heaven that Jesus promised is the Blessed Eucharist, and for its proper reception we need to open ourselves to God's love in our lives. It demands that we show acceptance of others as well. Unlike those who abandoned Jesus when no more food was on offer, we must keep on trying to be his faithful followers.
"Work for your salvation in fear and trembling," St Paul urges us, and then goes on to reassure us, "It is God who gives you both the will and the ability to act, to achieve his own purpose" (Phil 2:12f). It is a great encouragement to us that we could not even begin to seek God, if he had not already found us.
Revived by miraculous food and drink, Elijah reaches the mountain of God
Elijah went a day's journey into the desert, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
Be kind and forgiving towards one another as God is towards us
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Jesus is manna from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever
The Jews began to complain about Jesus because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"
Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise them up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
"I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh, for the life of the world."
The annual holiday has become standard in our society; it is part of the contract for most jobs and professions, This is topical right now, in the time of the year when holidays are being enjoyed, and because it may help us reflect on what "real living" is and specifically what the link is between the Eucharist and this "real living." People looks forward to their holidays as the chance to get away, free from the pressures of their work. For a young person it can conjure up all kinds of possibilities of adventure, new experiences, a time to be oneself — or even to find oneself. More settled adults have more limited expectations. The holiday offers less the prospect of new discoveries or experiences, and more the chance for rest, the restoring of flagging energies and perhaps renewing their joyfulness and zest for life. Whether young or old the holidays are a time to be really ourselves and to really live and ideally they help us to live with more zest when we return to "normality."
This time of leisure is a time for recreating, restoring our lives, ultimately to benefit our living. It is not in itself the object of our life. We do not live in order to have leisure, we have leisure in order to live. This may sound trite but most people feel it when a holiday is too long or perhaps just a little aimless, the idea of endless leisure somehow sounds intolerably boring.
This image of rest and recreation links up with Eucharist and Christian living. In today's reading, we see Elijah as a man who has had too much of this life and its burdens. His mission to fight against the paganism promoted by Queen Jezebel had sapped his energies and hopefulness, and he wanted out. Unfortunately there was no such thing as a vacation for the prophet, but he did seek rest and renewal by going to the mountain of God, searching for God who alone could give him the renewed faith and courage he needed. It was out there in the wasteland of his life that he found the bread of God which gave him the strength he needed.
Like the adventurous youngster, the tired worker and the jaded prophet, the Christian, too, needs rest and recreation if he or she is to really live the life that God has given us. Today's second reading has guidelines on what kind of living is involved here. It offers a standard against which we can measure ourselves, to see whether we are really living (in the Christian sense) or not. There are warning lights to show if our spiritual lives are running down or we are becoming dispirited — malice, bitterness, slander. These are forms of weakness which lead us to snap at our neighbour; they are destructive. We can usually rationalise them in terms of the difficulties we are facing, we have suffered disappointments, frustrations of our plans, emotional rejection by others, etc.
Living as a Christian involves trying to make our response to such hardships tune in with the response of Christ himself, For the Christian to "really live" is to live "like Christ" and that means to live "in Christ." What does this kind living look like? It looks like constant kindness to those around us, constant forgiveness of their annoyances and the ways they reject us, the ability to be tender-hearted towards anyone in need. It is a kind of living to which we would all aspire and even occasionally achieve, but it is a kind of living that needs constant support and nourishment if it isn't to die out altogether.
The perfect model of this way of living is Christ and he is the only possible source for us, only he can give it to us and nourish it in us. He does this by his giving himself to us in the Eucharist. Here we receive the bread of life, we are united to Christ through our believing in him, listening to his word and receiving his body and blood. If this communion with him is real and not sham then we have his life in us and it must show itself by our leaving Mass every Sunday to go and live like him. Living the Christian life really means living out what we have celebrated in the Eucharist. Equally we need to learn that without this frequent return to the bread of life we will be unable to keep the spirit of Christ alive in our hearts.
Just as we need holidays so we need spiritual recreation. Our Eucharist is a source of re-creation, a source of new life in us. Here we can find new inspiration and vision through the Word of God. Here we can have our faith renewed and we are given the strength to live it out.
We all do our fair share of complaining, and sometimes with good reason. We complain about the weather a great deal. We complain about all kinds of things. If we are not careful we can find ourselves complaining about nothing in particular, just complaining. We can easily get ourselves into a very negative frame of mind. We see the problems but we see nothing else. We fail to see the bigger picture which will nearly always have brighter shades in it. Our vision can restricted to what is wrong or missing or lacking.
The gospel this morning opens with the Jews complaining to each other about Jesus. As far as they were concerned, he was a problem, and they could not see beyond the problem. They had always known him as the son of Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth; they knew his family and his mother. Yet, here he was claiming to be the bread that came down from heaven. They were scandalized that one of their own could make such claims for himself. Their response to Jesus was to complain about him. Complaining on its own is rarely an adequate response to anything or anyone; it is certainly not an adequate response to the person of Jesus.
In the gospel, Jesus calls for a very different kind of response. He speaks of this response initially as coming to him. To come to Jesus is the first step on the way to faith. In the first chapter of John's gospel, when Jesus meets the disciples of John the Baptist for the first time he says to them, 'Come and see.' They came, they saw, and eventually they went on to believe in him. Jesus' call to come to him is given even to those who already believe. He calls those who believe to come closer to him so as to believe more fully, more deeply. As followers of Jesus, we spend our whole lives coming to him. We never fully arrive to him in this life; we never fully grasp him, either with our minds or with our hearts. We are always on the way towards him. No matter where we are on our faith journey, the Lord keeps calling on us to come.
Jesus declares in the gospel that nobody can come to him unless drawn by the Father. We cannot come to Jesus on our own; we need God's help. The good news is that God the Father is always drawing us to his Son. When Jesus says to us, 'Come', we are not just left to our own devices at that point. God the Father will be working in our lives helping us to come to his Son; he will draw us to Jesus. There is always more going on in our relationship with Jesus than just our own human efforts. That should give us great encouragement because we know from our experience that our own efforts can fail us in the area of our faith as in other areas. Our coming to Jesus, our growing in our relationship with him, is not all down to us. God the Father is at work in our lives moving us towards his Son, drawing us towards Jesus. There is a momentum within us that is from God, a momentum that will lead us to Jesus if we are in any way open to it.
The language of the gospel is very graphic. Jesus speaks of himself as the bread that comes down from heaven and calls on us to eat this bread. When we hear that kind of language we probably think instinctively of the Eucharist. Yet, it might be better not to jump to the Eucharist too quickly. The Lord invites us come to him and to feed on his presence, and in particular to feed on his word. In the Jewish Scriptures bread is often a symbol of the word of God. We may be familiar with the quotation from the Jewish Scriptures, 'we do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' We need physical bread, but we also need the spiritual bread of God's word. We come to Jesus to be nourished by his word. The Father draws us to his Son to be fed by his word. The food of his word will sustain us on our journey through life, just as, in the first reading, the baked scones sustained Elijah, until he reached his destination, the mountain of God. When we keep coming to Jesus and feeding on his word, that word will shape our lives. It empowers us to live the kind of life that Saint Paul puts before us in this morning's second reading, a life of love essentially, a life in which we love one another as Christ as loved us, forgive one another as readily as God forgives us. That, in essence, is our baptismal calling.
Wisdom has built her house with seven pillars
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn herself seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, "You that are simple, turn in here!" To those without sense she says, "Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight."
Make the most of each day, according to the will of God
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the living bread for believers
Jesus said to the crowd, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But whoever eats this bread will live forever."
When we have moved into a new house or done a refurbishment, often we have a little celebration to which we invite our friends. Once the house is to ourr satisfaction we open it to others and provide refreshments. We call it a house warmer. It is as if the house needs a good presence of others to be properly launched. In today's first reading something similar is happening. We have this woman by the name of Wisdom. She builds herself a house, clearly a very elegant home with no less than seven pillars. She throws a feast of fine wine and good meat and sends out her servants into the streets to gather people to her table. In that reading the building of a house, the making of a feast, the invitation to come and eat and drink, is an imaginative way of speaking about God as the wise host who invites all of humanity to learn from his wisdom. It is interesting that God is portrayed as a woman in this reading, Woman-Wisdom.
That image of Woman-Wisdom who says, 'Come and eat of my bread, drink the wine I have prepared' finds an echo in the figure of Jesus in the gospel who declares, 'I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.' Like Woman-Wisdom Jesus invites us to come and eat of his bread, but unlike Woman-Wisdom he declares himself to be that bread. We are to eat of him, to drink of him. More specifically he calls on us to eat his flesh and to drink his blood. This goes far beyond anything Woman-Wisdom calls for in that first reading. Jesus' language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is shocking in many respects. We can sympathize with those who object, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' We cannot hear this language without thinking of the words of Jesus to his disciples at the last supper when, taking bread, blessing it and breaking it, he gave it to them saying, 'Take, eat, this is my body', and taking and blessing a cup of wine he gave it to them, saying, 'Take, drink, this is the new covenant in my blood.' He gave himself to his disciples, his body and blood, under the form of bread and wine. The last supper became the first Eucharist. We cannot but hear the language of the Eucharist in this morning's gospel, the Eucharist which we are now celebrating together.
We invite people to our home and put food and drink before them and we invite them to eat and drink. Jesus invites us to his table and he puts himself before us as food and drink and invites us to eat and drink. In language that is very daring Jesus declares himself to be our food and drink, the one who can satisfy our deepest hungers and thirsts, our hunger and thirst for life. Jesus declares in that gospel, 'anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.' We come to the Eucharist to draw life from the risen Lord to draw God's life from him, God's love. We are then sent from the Eucharist to be channels of that life, of that love, for each other. We come to the Eucharist hungering and thirsting for life, for authentic life, the life of God, the love of God, and we are sent out from the Eucharist as life givers, as agents of God's life and love within our homes, our society, our world.
Jesus is living food for us, sent from the Father in heaven. Unlike ordinary food, which just sustains bodily life, this food offers a life that is eternal. From the burning bush to the gentle breeze, God has made his presence known among us since the beginning of time. Being among us as food for body and spirit is a significant way of being present. Christ's eucharistic presence is in bread and wine, among the commonest elements of food and drink in his day. The Lord is present among us through everyday things.
Bread comes from a process that starts with seeds of wheat mixed with water. These are brought together as dough and, after several stages of development, they end up as a unity which we call bread. Wine begins as a cluster of grapes which, when they are processed, they end up as what we call wine. A group of people gather together for prayer, each of them unique. After a process which is the work of God's Spirit, they become a unity, which we call church, or the Body of Christ. In communion, the (community) Body of Christ is being nourished by the (sacramental) Body of Christ.
If someone invited you all to gather around me, as close as you can, because he was going to whisper to you, something else would take place that might surprise you. You'd notice that the closer you come to me the closer you'd be to each other. If you gathered closely around one person, you would be touching shoulders with each other. That is how community or the Body of Christ is formed. It is a question of bringing people closer to the Lord and, as a direct result of that, they end up being closer to each other.
Throughout history, God has spoken to his people in surprising ways. He spoke to Elijah through the gentle breeze, and he spoke to Moses in the burning bush. The natives of Bethlehem weren't too excited that a new baby had been born and, later on, Herod would mock Jesus as a fool, and the soldiers would jeer him as a king. After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene thought he was a gardener, Peter thought he was a ghost, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was a stranger passing through. That he should present himself in so simple a form as food and drink is just what we might expect from "The God of Surprises."
With Eucharistic Theology, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the mystery and philosophical difficulty of transubstiation. But in today's Gospel, Jesus keeps it simple for us. As preachers, sometimes it is good to simply respect and embrace the mystery and profundity of it all and continue to keep it simple.
When experienced athletes take training workshops, the instructor oftentimes begins with the absolute basics to ensure that the fundamental positionings and postures of the body have not gotten sloppy or lax; for the rest of the physical technique relies upon the absolute basics for excellence and achievement. Perhaps it is enough this weekend to illustrate what is fundamentally communicated and then draw similar parallels.
Here are the simple facts that Jesus communicates: Earthly bread sustains earthly life. It helps us grow. Heavenly bread sustains heavenly (eternal) life. It also helps us grow. Jesus is that heavenly bread. When we ingest it (Him), we enjoy a special intimacy with Jesus. He literally abides in us.
Here is a Homily skeleton which can be dressed with some personal facts. With earthly food and drink we live. Outside of self-imposed fasts, or surgery preparation, it is unlikely that any of us have been deprived of food for substantial periods of time. From the day we were born we have been ingesting food each day in order to sustain our earthly lives. We all know what hunger feels like, and we all know what kind of weakness and irritability accompanies that hunger.
Without earthly food we die. Although starvation and dehydration may not be part of our daily, observable surroundings, we know this is true. We see this fact reported on the nightly news when countries are hit with famine, droughts, and disasters. We see this fact reported when we learn of a person who is trapped in a space from which he can not be rescued in a timely manner.
Earthly food helps us grow. There are lots of stories to illustrate this fact in our personal lives: growth spurts, grocery bills from a household of teenage boys, and the intentional high protein intake of bodybuilders to name a few.
Earthly food can produce great joy! we all have favorite foods, some of which are more nutritional than others; but the fact remains that when we ingest certain foods a kind of intimacy is enjoyed with that food that produces a satisfied, warm glow to our faces.
All of the above facts can be mirrored in the ingestion of Jesus, our Heavenly food that gives us heavenly (eternal) life. With our heavenly food we live forever. although we will all die an earthly death we will live forever. Without heavenly food we die. No heavenly food, no eternal life. Heavenly food helps us grow. The need for regular, earthly food intake to help us physically grow is paralleled to the need for the regular ingestion of heavenly to help us spiritually grow. Heavenly food can produce great joy! The reception of Jesus, our heavenly food, need not be an occasion for solemn, dreary faces. The experience is to be savored and enjoyed. The intimacy with this food can produce the same satisfied, warm glow that earthy food can yield.
Perhaps this is the weekend to keep it simple. If we do not we might find ourselves quarreling saying: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
When they reach the Promised Land, will they serve the true God?
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.
Then Joshua said to all the people, "If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God."
A loving marriage is an image of the love between Christ and the Church
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
When many turn away from Jesus, his friends must choose
When they heard his doctrine, many of his followers said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe."
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Paul's text today presents marriage as the most widespread way of life and holiness in the Church. Every Christian is called to integrity of life, to holiness really, and for most people this is achieved within and through their marriage partnership. This idea might make some people nervous, because they have too austere an idea of holiness; consequently they find it hard to see how their marriage fits into it. Traditional devotional writing linked holiness to heroic devotional or charitable activity, usually undertaken by women and men with vows of celibacy. Hence many still see the vocation to holiness and the choice of married life as two parallel lines which don't intersect. By contrast, St Paul saw the faithful living of family life as a basic way to holiness. This is not some second-best option for those who have neither the talent nor the zeal for apostolic works.
Our Church links holiness with lovingly embracing our role in this world. The married Christian's vocation is to show genuine love as husband, wife, mother or father. Of course, to exercise this love with integrity is not so easy. The statistics of breakdown suggest how hard it is to sustain a permanent relationship. Far from the self-absorption which marks so much of modern living the ideal of faithful, life-long love looks more and more like a holy ideal, a glimpse into another and better world.
Most of us have met people of extraordinary courage who remained faithful despite the strain of their partner's prolonged illness, or separation due to conditions of economic need. These unusual situations are a true test of commitment. The promise made in Christian marriage is the commitment to no longer being the sole master or mistress of our own destiny. The married Christian can no longer think merely in terms of "my life"— for everything is now related to another. This commitment is not one-sided but is mutually shared and mutually life-giving. At root, it is the mystery of Christ's love, laying down our life for another. It is in and through this loving relationship, in the joy of giving and receiving love, that the married Christian is called to holiness. And living it is the married vocation. (courtesy of Peter Briscoe)
Many of the hearers left him, while others decided to stay with him. What do we make of that? Fishing fascinated me when I was young. The tackle was basic and the catches were modest. One of the memories that stands out in my mind today was hunting for the best place to fish. As soon as someone caught a fish further along the river or lakeshore, I'd gather my gear and run off to fish there. What often happened was that soon someone else hooked a fish just at the place I had left! Maybe that's why I was not such a great fisherman! Stability and sticking at it were not my greatest virtues!
Today's Gospel is about coming to a decision and sticking by it. Jesus had the rare ability to offer a straight option—you were either for him, or against him. He himself was fully committed to his mission, and to all that was best for us, even if at times his disciples complained. He was used to being criticised by his enemies, but when he could not depend on the loyalty of his friends, he had to call them to account.
In a way it was hard on the disciples, because, by the nature of what Jesus offered, it could not just be some sort of an a la carte menu, from which they could choose whatever suited them. When some of his followers began to walk away, he didn't run after them and try to reason with them. That was not his way. Rather he turned to those who stayed and challenged them to commit themselves. There are three types of people in every gathering. those who cause things to happen; those who watch things happening; and those who don't know what is happening! Peter was the one who stepped up to the occasion. "Lord" he said "You alone have the words of eternal life. We know, and we believe that you are the Christ, the Holy One of God." For Jesus, losing the others was worth it, if it left him with loyal followers like Peter.
A group of Christians were gathered for a secret prayer meeting in Communist Russia, at the height of the Stalinist era. Suddenly the door was broken down by the boot of a soldier, who entered the room, and faced the people with a gun in his hand. They all feared the worst when he said, "If there are any of you who don't really believe in Jesus, get out now while you have a chance." There was a rush to the door and in the end only a small group remained. The soldier closed the door and stood in front of those who remained, gun still in hand. Finally, a smile appeared on his face, and as he turned to leave the room he whispered "Actually, I believe in Jesus, too. And believe me, you're much better off without those others!'
In our culture success can often be a game of numbers. A successful television programme is one that has a very large viewing audience. If the numbers watching declines, the programme is in trouble. Democracy is based on majority vote. The candidate with the most votes gets elected. Every political party is anxious to maximize their vote on election day. In all kinds of ways, numbers matter in our society. The schools with the biggest number of graduates going on to University are considered the better schools. If some event that is organized only attracts a small crowd it is considered a failure.
The gospel this morning suggests that Jesus was not too concerned about numbers. The gospels for the last four Sundays have been taken from chapter 6 of John's gospel where Jesus speaks of himself as the Bread of Life and of the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life. In this morning's gospel some of Jesus' own disciples express their unease with this language. 'This is intolerable language', they say, 'How could anyone accept it?' Jesus is portrayed in that reading as being very aware that some of his followers were complaining. Yet, he did not make any effort to soften his teaching in order to hold on to his numbers. Rather, he insists that the words he has been speaking, all his words, are spirit and life. As a result, the gospel tells us that 'many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.' Jesus suddenly lost a whole swathe of his following. From the perspective of the culture of the time and of our own culture he was suddenly less successful. According to the gospel, Jesus even turned to the Twelve apostles, his core group, and asked them, 'What about you? Do you want to go away too?' He was prepared to suffer a haemorrhage from that core group rather than compromise on the teaching that he had given. It seems that numbers were not important to him. What was important to him was proclaiming the truth as he had heard it from God his Father. On this occasion Jesus held onto the Twelve. Peter, their spokesperson, grasped the moment to declare their faithfulness to Jesus, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.' Yet, Jesus would go on to lose even some the Twelve. At the time of his passion Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him. If success is to be measured by numbers, by the end of his earthly life, Jesus was a total failure.
The whole life of Jesus shows that the value of something does not bear any necessary relation to the number of people who support it. Popularity does not necessarily show where truth is to be found. We can be tempted to think that if a lot of people reject some viewpoint that, therefore, it must be wrong. Numbers are not everything. We follow Jesus not because he was or is popular but because, in the word of Peter in the gospel, we recognize that he has the message of eternal life, or in the language of Jesus himself in that same reading, we acknowledge that the words that he speaks are spirit and life. We will find some of his teaching very challenging. We may be tempted to say, in the words of some of the disciples, 'This is intolerable language. How can anyone accept it?' We may not be troubled so much by his identification of himself as the Bread of Life or his call to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It may be some other aspect of his teaching, perhaps his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. Some people react negatively to some of Jesus' parables. They feel sorry for the older son in the parable of the prodigal son and for the men who worked all day and who got the same wages as those who worked for the last hour in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It should not surprise us when we find ourselves struggling with some of what Jesus says. In the language of the prophet Isaiah, God's thoughts are not our thoughts; God's ways are not our ways. It has been said that Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We all need Jesus to do both for us. We need his comforting and sustaining presence when we are afflicted, but sometimes we need his disturbing presence in our comfort.
The teaching and the life of Jesus will always challenge us at some level of our being. There may even be times when we will feel like walking away from it. That is why it is so important for us to keep renewing our response to the Lord's presence and invitation. The Eucharist is the primary moment when we commit ourselves again to the Lord's vision for our lives; it is our weekly opportunity to make our own those words of Peter in today's gospel, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.'
Listening to God's word brings life and wisdom
Moses said to the people: "So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?"
As doers of the Word we must put it into practice too
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The Scribes' and Phariseed' worship of God was mere lip-service
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
So these Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
"You have abandoned the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." Have you ever been sat in a church service and wondered that you might be out doing something more useful instead? It's not that you don't believe, not that you don't feel that God is present in your life, but that you wonder if the church has anything to do with your faith. There are occasions when such thoughts have crossed my mind, perhaps it was a failing on my part, but there have been moments at church services where I did not get a great sense that I was meeting with the living Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man. Shouldn't coming to church be about meeting with him?
I remember someone talking about growing up and having to endure what he called "the mind-numbing boredom of the Church of Ireland". There are moment when I wonder if that feeling is widely felt in the Catholic Church too. When we hear Jesus' scathing attack on the Pharisees, we think it's got nothing to do with us. The Pharisees were a religious group 2,000 years ago, but they had become stuck in their ways. Their beliefs were sincere and they were good people, but the life and the power had gone out of their religion. Jesus says to them, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
The Pharisees would have been furious with Jesus, seeing him as a troublemaker and a rabble rouser. They would have been angry with him because he had hit a sore spot. Many devout Jews knew that their religion had become lifeless. The very reason why groups like the Pharisees had sprung up was to try to counteract what they saw as the rottenness and deadness at the heart of religion.
Jesus doesn't tell them that what they believe is wrong. He tells them that how they go about practising their beliefs is the problem They have forgotten the commands of God and they have become concerned only with their own traditions.
There are many people, particularly younger people, who have no problem with Christianity, their problem is with the way the church goes about things. They are happy with the commands of God, what they are not happy with are the traditions of the church.
Jesus' command to us is clear, to make disciples of all people, but we will not be able to do that if our traditions become an end in themselves. Traditions are only useful if they serve the original purpose, which is to tell people about Jesus. Jesus is not concerned with the outward rituals, he is concerned with what is in our hearts and the hearts of those we meet.
It is not what we do, it is the way that we do it. It's not the outward traditions that count, it's the faith we have in our hearts. There can be 16th Century liturgies that are full of warmth and life, and modern worship events that are cold and impersonal; what is important is that we meet with God and not just with tradition. What is important is our meeting with this amazing, charismatic, life-changing man, and our response to him.
Jesus criticized the worship of the Pharisees in words from Isaiah, 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me'. I'm sure that criticism applies to all of us at times, it certainly does to me, what matters is how we respond. What matters is us asking ourselves, 'how can I help make my church a place where anyone who walks in feel that they can meet with God?'
"You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men," Jesus accuses the Pharisees. Let's not be guilty of the same accusation.
In ancient times burial was rarely permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, more than 2,000 years later, just outside Rome, along the Appian Way leading towards Naples. A particular variant on this was that, just before the Feast of Passover, in Palestine, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous, thus easier to avoid. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, alhough within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.
According to Jesus, that was precisely what the Pharisees were like, whited sepulchres, devout men who seemed intensely religious in every way, but looked down with contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees means "separated ones," a group who distanced themselves not just from gentile sinners, but also from lax Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law. With haughty arrogance they dismissed such people as "a rabble that do not know the Law." In today's Gospel we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to hear Jesus, but instead of listening to what he had to say they just began to criticise the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man's credibility by disparaging his friends.
The charge against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were breaking the ancient Jewish traditions. This typified the Pharisees' air of self-righteousness, and was based not on any interior, personal relationship with God, but from purely human customs. This is not to say that all Pharisees were bad or immoral. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder for a good man than to avoid being proud of being good, and once pride intervenes, his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere he feels. There was always the possibility that in attempting to be perfect in every little detail of the Law the Pharisee could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a violent zealot. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of them truly good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.
His warning holds a message also for each of us, to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and duty to obey it, as we see it in our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we behave, based on what in our hearts we believe to be right and true and proper. "It is from within," Jesus tells us today, "that evil arises." He wants us to look beyond current opinion, the confrontations and problems of our own time, and strive for greater purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and from slavery to convention and taboos, he says, and open up to the Holy Spirit's word of life.
To some extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We have traditionally done things in a certain way and it can be hard at times to start doing things differently. The personal habits, or traditions that we have developed can serve us well; yet, there can come a time when they begin to hold us back. As well as personal habits or traditions, we also have communal traditions, traditional ways in which we as a society or as a church have done things. Those communal traditions can serve us well, but there can come a time when they can restrict us.
In the gospel Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees who had a great regard for what is referred to in that gospel as 'the tradition of the elders.' These were traditions that had been passed down orally for hundreds of years and that applied the Jewish Law to all the details of daily living. These traditions were not written in the Scriptures but they had come to acquire an authority that was equal to that of the Scriptures. In the course of his ministry, Jesus challenged the prominence that the Pharisees and other religious leaders gave to these religious traditions. In the gospel Jesus contrasts these human traditions to the commandment of God and he declares that in their zeal to uphold these human traditions, the religious leaders have ended up undermining the commandment of God. Jesus is implying that what mattered so much to the Pharisees did not matter to God. God had other priorities. Long standing traditions about ritual washings of hands and of cups and pots do not matter to God; what does matter to God, according to Jesus, is what is in our heart and what comes from out of our heart.
Those of us who are into gardening know we have to prune our bushes and shrubs. Otherwise, they can get too big and the flower or fruit loses its quality. Jesus was in many ways a pruner. He pruned back the traditions that had come to acquire an importance they did not deserve. In his pruning he tried to highlight what was most important in God's eyes. Jesus did not jettison the Jewish tradition completely. In this morning's gospel he critiques the traditions of the Pharisees by drawing upon the tradition of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was able to identify in the Jewish tradition what really mattered to God and what did not. Jesus did not dismantle the Jewish tradition in order to start completely afresh. Rather, he wanted what was best in that tradition to flourish. He highlighted those elements of the Jewish tradition that revealed God's desire for our lives, most fully. Jesus was very aware that religious tradition can hide God as well as reveal God. An important dimension of his work consisted in pruning back those elements of the tradition that were hiding God.
Our own religious traditions are always in need of pruning, be they our own personal traditions or the traditions of the church. What has become important to us over time may not be as important to God. That is why we need to keep going back to the New Testament and to the gospels in particular to learn over and over again what Jesus says is important to God. We have to keep going back to the source of our Christian tradition, which is the word of God, to allow that tradition to be purified and pruned. The Lord continues to speak to us through his word, reminding us of what is important to God and what, therefore, should be important to us. Today's reading from the letter of James calls on us to 'accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you.' The word of the Lord is not just outside of ourselves in a book; it has been planted in us, through baptism. In attending to the Lord's word we are attending to what is deepest within ourselves. James reminds us in that reading that accepting and submitting to the Lord's word means not just listening to it but doing it, doing what the word tells us. If we submit to the Lord's word in that full sense, then what is important to God will become important to us. The letter of James is very clear about what is important to God. In the words of our second reading, 'pure unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.' I have no doubt that Jesus would have been very happy with that way of expressing what is important to God.
The first priority in God's eyes is how we relate to one another, in particular how we relate to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Jesus did not hesitate to heal the sick on the Sabbath even though the tradition of the elders held that this constituted work and so was unlawful. The words and deeds of Jesus are always are best guide to what is of real value in our own religious tradition and what it is that may need to be put aside
Take courage, for God will save his people
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the desert, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Class distinction should have no place among Christians
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
The cure of a man who was deaf and dumb
Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
1. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels and is the one that brings us closest to the humanity of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels it makes direct statements about what Jesus was thinking or feeling. It contains two miracle stories that are not taken up in the later Gospels and that show Jesus's healing activity as involving a struggle and an element of trial-and-error. In both stories he uses healing techniques that were common at the time, such as the use of saliva. In the healing of a blind man from Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), a story not used in the Sunday lectionary, he leads the blind man out of the village (to avoid showy publicity? to lead him to a place of quietness in the presence of God?); then he spits in his eyes, and touches them, and asks if he can see; the blind man answers "I see men, walking around like trees". Jesus touches the eyes again, perhaps repeating the whole operation, and this time the man sees everything clearly.
In today's story the people ask Jesus to "lay his hands" on the deaf man — referring to the common gesture of healers. Jesus again takes the man aside, touches his ears with his fingers, and his tongue with his spittle. Then he looks up to heaven and sighs or groans deeply (the verb can mean either). Looking up to heaven to gain power is "recommended in several magical texts as a potent action" (D. Nineham, Penguin commentary on Mark). Mark's Jesus reacts to illness and infirmity not by lightly brushing them aside but with a compassion that feels their full weight, and his healing is rooted in that compassion, which calls forth from him an extraordinary effort, rooted in prayerful confidence in God the Father. It is precisely because he is so near to human suffering that he can be a channel of divine healing power.
2. The word of healing is given in Aramaic, the actual spoken language of Jesus, which is heard as well in "Talitha kum" to the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:41) [and also in"Eloi eloi lama sabachthani" (Mk 15:34)]. Such healing words were thought to lose their power when translated into another language. Their dramatic force is increased for us by the feeling of being brought closer to the original atmosphere of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.
3. At the end of stage one in the story of the blind man, the man sees, but not clearly. In today's story the man can speak, but not clearly. The Greek word that Mark uses, mogilalos means a speech impediment rather than absolute dumbness. It is a rare word occurring in only one other place in the Greek Bible, precisely in today's first reading, in the phrase "the tongue of the speechless." Perhaps these stories have a special relevance to Christians today, who are not so much absolutely blind or dumb as suffering from a condition of blurred vision and impeded speech. People who wear glasses will appreciate how the finest details become marvelously clear when they put their glasses on. We need the same kind of clarity in regard to our faith. As to clarity of speech, we are often mealy-mouthed or tongue-tied when it comes to sharing the vision of faith. "Woe to those who are silent concerning You," said St Augustine, "for in their loquacity they remain dumb." "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" said St Paul. Let us ask Jesus to touch our eyes and our tongue that we may see him more clearly and speak of him more clearly.
4. The healings of the dumb man and the blind man are presented by Mark as Messianic signs. In the last sentence of today's gospel, "He has done all things well" could mean "he has well fulfilled the Messianic prophecies." The amazement of the crowd is not merely at the healings themselves but at their Messianic significance. They begin to wonder whether Jesus could be the long-promised Anointed One, who is to bring in a new age. In Mark, Jesus keeps his Messiah-hood a secret, but it begins to leak out in spite of his commands to tell no one. Some, notably St Peter, have a glimpse of Jesus's Messianic identity, but they only half understand, and soon fall into crude misinterpretations, thinking of power and fame rather than the way of the Cross. The full revelation of Christ as Messiah is withheld until after his death and resurrection. Can we recognize in Jesus, in his humanity that is so close to ours, the Messiah, the Christ of God? More than that, since he promised that his disciples can do the same signs as he did (Mk 16:17-18; Jn 14:12), can we too, in our human weakness, become channels of the healing power of God?
When it comes to people it is very difficult for us not to make distinctions. We invariable favour some over others. We choose some and not others. A man chooses one woman to be his wife out of several he may have come to know. A woman chooses one man to be her husband. We choose our friends, and some people choose their friends carefully. Parents will favour their own children over other children. It is natural and human for us to make distinctions. In this morning's second reading, James calls on the members of the church not to show favour on the basis of social class, making a fuss of the better off.
St James is saying that certain forms of favouritism are never acceptable within the community of believers. Everyone is to be treated equally regardless of their social background; in the context of worship there are to be no special seats for the more socially prominent. He In all areas of church life everyone should feel equally valued. This is very much Paul's vision of church as well. In his letter to the Galatians he declares that in virtue of baptism, 'there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' James spells out that vision of Paul in very practical terms. That second reading from James prompts us to ask if any form of unhealthy favouritism is to be found in our own church, our own parish. Are there people we are not noticing? Are they voices we are not hearing? Are there people who would like to be involved in the life of the parish but who feel that they are not welcome, that their potential contribution is not valued? I hope not but it is something we all need to keep alert to.
The letter of James claims to be written by the brother of the Lord. If so, then James knew the Lord's mind and heart well and his outlook on things reflects that of his more significant relative. The gospels strongly suggest that Jesus was not partial to people on the basis of social class. Indeed the portrait of Jesus we are given in the gospels suggest that he favoured the vulnerable, the poor, the weak, the defenceless. He was partial to the voiceless and the afflicted. This morning's gospel bears that out. A man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech was brought to Jesus by his friends. In an oral culture where people were largely illiterate, not to be able to hear or speak properly was an enormous liability. Those who could neither hear nor speak were invisible; they could not be communicated with in any meaningful way and they could not communicate. This man was fortunate to have people who cared enough about him to bring him to Jesus who had a reputation for giving new life to the broken. The personal attention that Jesus goes on to give this man is striking. He takes the man away from the crowd, so that the two of them could be alone. Although the man cannot hear of speak, he can experience the sense of touch, and so Jesus touches the man's ears, putting his finger into them, and touches the man's tongue with his own spittle. Jesus also looked up to heaven, in prayer; it was Jesus' relationship with God that would bring new life to this man. Jesus invests himself in a very personal and tactile way with this man's healing. It is worth noting that this man was a pagan, not a Jew. The Decapolis where the healing story is set was a predominantly pagan region. Jesus favoured the voiceless and the afflicted, whether they were Jew or pagan.
The behaviour of Jesus in the gospel is an even more powerful message than the words of his relative James in the first reading. If, as people who have been baptised into Christ, we are to have favourites, they are to be the voiceless, the afflicted, the vulnerable and the weak. The friends of the man in the gospel can be our inspiration in that regard. They brought man to Jesus, and, in so doing, they opened him up to a whole new life, a life that was richer and fuller than he had ever known. They were strength in his weakness. Their voice, their speaking to Jesus on his behalf, led to him coming to have a voice of his own. Even though he could not speak, his friends heard him; they heard the stirrings and longings of his heart, and their attentive listening lead on to him being able to hear for himself. Their attentive listening to him was prior to their speaking on his behalf. If they had not first listened to him, they would not have taken the initiative to speak up for him. Very often, our own sharing in the Lord's life giving work, in response to our baptismal calling, begins with attentive listening to someone, a listening to the whole person and not just to the words they speak.
Samuel was one of the most remarkable gospel preachers in his village in Africa. This man was blind and never went to school. Later in life he joined the Jehovah's Witnesses and had to memorize large portions of the Bible since he could not read. Samuel's little boy would lead him to your house and Samuel would begin his preaching with the words, "I was blind but now I see!" It was fascinating to see this blind, illiterate man challenging educated and sighted people, and saying, "Now let us turn to John 3:16 and read." His presence bore testimony to the fact that in Christ, seeing and hearing mean much more than the use of the physical senses of the eye and the ear.
The similarities as well as differences between our external senses of seeing and hearing as compared to the internal faculty of knowing and obeying the message of Christ is the key to understanding Mark's use of the healing miracles. Mark wrote to a community of believers under persecution. In such a situation speaking up for Christ was a dangerous thing. It could cost you your life. The story of the deaf-mute in today's gospel is apparently aimed at those members of his community who could not bear witness to Jesus because they would not hear his word. Because they are deaf to the words of Jesus, that is why they have a speech impediment in speaking about him. There is, therefore, a parallel between the deaf-mute in today's gospel and Jesus' disciples. The man can neither hear nor speak properly. The disciples cannot understand the message of Jesus, and this constitutes an impediment in their proclamation. They, too, need healing.
Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly (vv 33-35). Why did Jesus take the deaf man away from the crowd? And why did he have to go into such a detailed and graphic healing process when he could simply have said a word and the man would be all right? I think that in these details of the story, Mark is saying something to his readers.
By taking the deaf man far from the madding crowd in order to heal him, Mark is probably saying to them that in order to be healed of their deafness to the word of God they needed to distance themselves from the masses around them, since the healing encounter with Jesus happens in the private intimacy of one's heart and that of their small Christian community. Remember that Christians were then a small minority and their meetings took place not in big churches but in the private homes of members.
This healing is different from the healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter which preceded it. In that story, Jesus did not take any action other than to announce the healing to the woman (v. 29). But in this case he goes into an elaborate ritual in seven acts: (1) He takes the man aside. (2) He put his fingers into the man's ears. (3) He spits and (4) touches the man's tongue. (5) He looks up to heaven and (6) he sighs. (7) He issues the healing command, "Ephphatha." Why does Jesus go into all this? More importantly, why does Mark record all this? Probably Mark's church was beginning to develop their rituals of anointing and the use of special formulas. In that case this was a way of saying to the readers that by participating in these early liturgical ceremonies they would experience healing. And then, after one has experienced this healing, nothing on earth could stop one from proclaiming Jesus, even in the unlikely circumstance that Jesus himself would ask them to keep silent.
Do we realize that we are deaf? Does it occur to us that, as individuals and as church, we do not yet fully understand the message of Jesus? Is that not the reason why we have a speech impediment and the people of our time no longer understand us when we try to tell the Good News? As individuals and as church we need to come to Jesus for healing. And this can happen here, far from the madding crowds, in the privacy of the Eucharistic celebration
The suffering servant did not rebel or turn aside
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
Faith without good works is dead. Morals in the Christian life
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Though Peter believes in Jesus, he resists the idea of sacrifice
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Today's gospel reading is the central turning point of the Gospel of Mark. Thus far in the story Jesus has appeared as a healer and exorcist, a wonder-worker, displaying an "authority" (exousía) that throws the Pharisees, upholders of a conventional orthodoxy, into disarray. The meaning of his activities is far from clear and produces a host of conflicting interpretations. Now Jesus turns to his disciples, and to us, the readers of the Gospel, with the question: "Who do you say that I am?"
In Mark, the humanity of Jesus is so strongly emphasized that it would not be unreasonable to read this as a genuine question on Jesus's part, not just a catechist's prompt. Jesus perhaps wants to learn how people see him and define him. Perhaps he also wants to clarify his own identity, and is asking the disciples' help in defining his role. When John the Baptist asked, "are you he who is to come or should we look for another" (Mt 11:3; Lk 7:19), Jesus did not answer directly, but pointed to the signs of healing he had worked. These can be interpreted as messianic signs, but Jesus himself in his humanity may have been surprised by them and may have come to discern his own messianic vocation, and all that it entailed, only by degrees.
There is a fine moment in Martin Scorsese's controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus points to one of the Servant songs in Isaiah foretelling that the Messiah must be a man of sorrows, as if he himself had painfully learned about the necessity of the Cross. One can imagine Jesus making his own the words of these passages, as in today's first reading: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting."
Peter's perception that the authority of Jesus can only be that of the expected Messiah earns him a blessing in Matthew's version of this story, and also a title: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18). Matthew and Luke project a vision of the splendour of the Church that we do not find in Mark. In Mark's story the dramatic revelation of Jesus's identity is quickly surpassed by the command of secrecy, followed by the first of the three passion predictions, and the rebuke to Peter for "setting his mind not on divine things but on human things." In his resistance to the message of self-denial and the Cross Peter speaks on behalf of all of us. Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that any of us would have chosen. But God chose a weak and suffering man to be the saviour of weak and suffering humanity.
The place where this dialogue takes place is one of the many towns throughout the Roman world with the name Caesarea, referring to the Emperor. Emperors, to judge from Robert Graves' classic work, I, Claudius, were often bloated, ruthless egoists, indulging every obscene passion—that seems true at least of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. The sovereignty of ego might flatter our tastes at first, but it ends in horror. A Messiah is also a King, successor of David. But Christ as King, and the Kingdom of God, belong to a different reality from the earthly power and authority supremely embodied in the Roman emperor.
For the rest of the Gospel, Jesus is oriented to Jerusalem and his journey is marked by two further passion predictions. His Messiahhood remains hidden. Only at 14:62, in response to the direct question of the high priest—"Are you the Messiah?"—, does Jesus at last declare his identity openly: "I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven."
This theme of the "Messianic secret" has fascinated theological and literary students of Mark's Gospel. Perhaps it suggests that the title of "Messiah" does not fully suit the singular event of Jesus, and that indeed any title will not quite fit. Jesus is more question than answer, a divine question opened up at the heart of human history. Paraphrasing St Paul, we might say, "The questions of God are more saving than the answers of men." No matter how securely we define the nature of Christ, in biblical study and in doctrinal formulations, he will always remain one who questions us. Who do we say that he is? He is the crucified and risen one, who will come in glory. But where do we find him today? In fact Christ is crucified all around us, and the power of his resurrection is at work everywhere as well. We miss seeing this when we cling to our selfish security, "for whoever would save his life will lose it."
Today, Jesus tells us "no cross, no crown." There can be no Easter without a Good Friday . Everything that happened to Jesus had been foretold by the prophets long before. He came for a purpose, and, as his life unfolded, it became clearer to him what that purpose was. It may seem strange to put it that way, but, for my own spiritual growth, I like to think that Jesus discovered more and more about his mission as time went on. Don't forget, he did take on our humanity, and I would be slightly uncomfortable with someone who knew exactly every detail of life well in advance! I'm not sure I could relate to that as being realistic, or being anything near what I myself experience.
Many of our sins of omission in life are the result of our fear to face up to something, unsure what it will cost us. We want to get to Easter, and bypass Good Friday, but this cannot be done. No cross no crown. It is the short-term pain for the long-term gain. There is a cost in Pentecost, and living my Christian vocation involves facing up to the fact that I have to die to myself many times in the service of others. This prospect can cause me to hold back, to delay, to try to avoid. I put off facing up to something I should do, in the hope that it may go away by itself. This includes patterns of behaviour, addictions, compulsions, and injustice to others. I know rightly what I should do, but it seems to be too difficult, so I keep postponing doing anything about it, and then, perhaps, life is over, and I never got around to it. This is something on which to reflect today.
There were three young trees growing together in the forest. They were young, healthy, and ambitious. They compared their dreams. One wanted to be part of the structure of a castle or a palace, so it would be a spectator in the lives of the high and mighty of society. The second wanted to end up as the mast in one of the tall ships, sailing around the world with a great- sense of adventure. The third hoped to end up as part of some public monument, where the public would stop, admire, and take photographs.
Years passed by, and all three were cut down. The first was chopped up, and parts of it were put together to form a manger for a stable in Bethlehem. The second was cut down, and the trunk was scooped out to form a boat, which was launched on the Sea of Galilee. The third was cut into sections, two of which were put together, to form a cross on Calvary. Each had a unique and special part to play in the one great story of redemption.
I think we would all agree that it is never easy to get to know someone really well. A husband and wife who have lived together for many years probably know each other really well. They have come to know each other's qualities and limitations and have learnt to accept one another. Likewise, two people who have been friends for years will have come to know one another really well. They will have come to some measure of mutual acceptance and appreciation. The number of people we could claim to know really well in life is probably quite small. Even those we know well can continue to surprise us. We can discover a side to them that we never noticed before. We can suddenly be reminded of the extraordinary mystery of the other person, struck by the otherness of the person whom we have come to know and love. We realize more clearly that the other person is different to me and will always remain a mystery to me, even though I know them as well as I know anyone.
If we were to ask someone who really knew us, 'Who do you say that I am?' and then asked that person to write a couple of paragraphs answering that question, we would certainly recognize ourselves in what they would write. Yet, it is likely that we would also recognize that there are sides to us that are not present in the description. There is always so much more to us than someone's account of us, even the account of someone who knows us deeply. In the gospel this morning Jesus asks his disciples two questions. The first was, 'Who do people say that I am?' The answers the disciples gave were fine in so far as they went, 'John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.' Jesus was a prophetic figure who proclaimed God's word. Yet, to say that Jesus was a great prophet, which is what Moslems say of Jesus, does not go far enough. Jesus then asked his disciples the more probing question, 'Who do you say that I am?' Peter's answer went beyond the answers that other people had given, 'You are the Christ, the Messiah.' Peter was saying to Jesus, 'you are the Jewish Messiah, the one we have been waiting for, the one whose coming the prophets foretold.' Yet, in spite of the very good answer that Peter gave to Jesus' question, he really did not know Jesus at all. The term 'Messiah' meant different things to different people. Probably Peter thought of a Messiah in the tradition of king David who had established a kingdom, having defeated all Israel's enemies. Jesus would do the same, driving the Roman occupying power from the land. This was not the kind of Messiah Jesus understood himself to be. At this point in this ministry he understood that far from leading a movement to drive out the Romans, he would end up on a Roman cross, crucified like a common criminal. Faithfulness to his mission would cost him his life. When Jesus began to articulate this reality Peter rebuked Jesus. This was not Peter's idea of a Messiah. Peter could not accept the otherness of Jesus, the mystery of Jesus' identity. Peter was comfortable telling Jesus who he was, but when Jesus began to reveal who he really was and what that entailed Peter became distinctly uncomfortable.
We probably all find it easier telling people who they are than listening to people tell us who they really are. In particular, we can struggle to hear the story of someone's brokenness, especially if our picture of them has been one that doesn't allow for that. Peter wasn't able to hear Jesus talking about himself as a broken, failed, rejected Messiah. It was really only after the resurrection that Peter and the disciples were able to come to terms with such brokenness, such failure. It can be a struggle for us to accept failure and brokenness in others and also to accept our own brokenness. Jesus could accept his own failure, his own brokenness, because he trusted in God as one who would make him whole. Because he could accept his own failure, his own brokenness, he was at home with the failure and brokenness of others. The broken, the failures of this world, flocked to him, and in his presence they came alive. We will more easily accept our own brokenness and failures if we know in our heart of hearts that we too can approach the Lord as one who can make us whole. The Eucharist has been described as bread broken for a broken people. The Lord who was broken on the cross for us is present in the Eucharist as our Life-Giver. We approach the Lord in the Eucharist in our own brokenness asking to be made whole, and asking also for the grace to be able to sit with others in their brokenness.
The cruelty of the wicked against the just
The godless say to themselves,
"Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God's child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected."
Jealousy, ambition, and self-seeking contrasted to gentleness, mercy and peace
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your ravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
In light of his passion, Jesus calls them to be servants of all
Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
The first reading today sounds like one of the Psalms that are applied to the story of Christ's passion or like one of the Servant songs in Isaiah. But in reality it comes from one of the latest books in the Bible, composed not in Hebrew but in Greek, in Alexandria (and not contained in the original Hebrew Bible). The situation of the righteous man who is insulted, tortured, or executed is one that is not confined to special religious texts; it is a situation that arises at all times. So the passion and death of Jesus, which he predicts to his disciples for the second time today, is not in itself an extraordinary destiny. Many people suffer worse and longer torture, detained for years in solitary confinement for example, and more painful and degrading deaths. Many are unjustly condemned and never vindicated, unlike Jesus. That Jesus dies as a martyr is again not something absolutely unique. Many people have been prepared to lay down their lives to resist injustice and oppression.What makes the passion of Christ unique is its saving role, expressed a little further on in Mark's Gospel in words that may well come from the lips of the historical Jesus himself: "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Some people today find the idea of the death of Jesus as a saving sacrifice, an atonement, to be objectionable, and it is caricatured as showing a cruel God torturing his son in order to avenge himself on humankind. We need to put aside such reaction to let the message of salvation claim our hearts and our minds. Jesus's life befits a Messiah, bringing healing and enlightenment to all. But his death brings salvation to the whole human race. God does not punish but grants healing and salvation to all by allowing his beloved Son to enter so deeply into our suffering, including the suffering people inflict on one another, and including the ultimate failure of death and dishonor. If we embrace the Messiah that God sets before us we will find also that the divine vindication of this Messiah, who is raised up from death, also becomes credible.
The minds of the disciples are completely elsewhere. The question that bothers them in their discussion is which of them will have the highest place in the Kingdom. It even gives rise to a quarrel. It is easy to laugh at them, but the laugh is on us. Called to follow Christ, we worry about tiny advantages and securities as if Christ never was. Jesus appeals to the disciples' ambition: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Indeed Jesus often appeals to our low level of thinking to inspire us with the ambition of imitating him, who came "not to be served, but to serve" (Mk 10:45).
"Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'" Today a wave of refugees sweeps across Europe. When we welcome these children we welcome the Son of Man, who had "nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58), and in welcoming him we are welcoming God back into our dessicated lives. To welcome the suffering multitudes is also to welcome the Cross, and to discover its saving power, first shown in the community of love that it creates.
St Mark traces the profile of Jesus as a strange and disconcerting Messiah. That is what Jesus was in reality for Peter and, as we know, Mark echoes the catechesis of Peter and his itinerary of discovery of the Messiah. The emphasis throughout is on the newness and originality of Jesus in the context of human history. He is on an entirely different level compared with the traditional teaching of the Scribes and Rabbis, and, even, the Law itself, because of the sublimity of his message. Beside him, all else is second-rate or old-fashioned.
The life of Jesus unfolds as an enigma at the centre of which lie his Passion and death. That he comes from a modest, unpretentious background, that he presents himself without rank or title, without wealth or backing, that he makes no effort to command everybody's obeisance by means of some great cosmic sign — all of these are already disconcerting enough. All limits are exceeded, however, when he announces a most sinister ending of his life as being on the way. He is going to allow himself to be arrested, insulted and crucified like a common criminal. This enigma can be articulated in two great rhetorical questions that dominate the
Gospel: who is Jesus? (from 1:14 up to Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, 8:30) and Where is he going? (from 8:22 to 16:8). The answer — that he is the Son of God — runs through the entire Gospel, but somewhat like an under-surface stream that cannot be heard unless one listens attentively, as, for example, when Jesus holds up the little child.
When a pope or bishop takes a little baby from its mother's arms to raise it above the crowd, he is repeating what was a significant gesture of Jesus. It is not just a demonstration of the kindly nature of a good man; it is a sure sign of the Kingdom and an indication of the kind of Messiah that Jesus was proclaiming himself to be. By this gesture, Jesus expresses the absolute newness that he himself is. In our ordinary world, deference would be given to grown-ups; Jesus gives it to the child. What is it in the child that merits this? Surely, it is that the child is an explosion of joy and life, is full of spontaneity and confidence, is without deviousness and mental reservations, and has the freshness of the dawn or the fountain-head. The child is like Springtime, like the rising sun, the bearer of the future. The child sparkles and makes everyone else sparkle, even the one with the murkiest face.
The Messiah is not to be a prince or a hero in worldly terms. Rather, A child is born to us (Is 9, 5.) His first appearance is in swaddling clothes. The Son of God wished to be born, to live and to die as a child, innocent and unsuspecting, poor and dependent, because the Father's House is the Kingdom of children. Unless we become as little children, we cannot enter it. What a disconcerting Messiah Jesus is! He never ceases to astonish us. The child, the Messiah — and the Father, what a trinity! Another case of Like Father, like Son.
One would really expect better of the disciples. Although they had spent so much of their time in the company of Jesus, saw so much of his behaviour and heard so much of his preaching they were still wide of the mark in their understanding of greatness and service. Jesus himself set the pattern of real service: "though he was in the form of God.. he emptied himself, assuming the condition of a slave" (Phil. 2:6f.) In the Gospel of Mark Jesus predicts his passion three times within quite a short period of time. The first is in chapter eight (8:31-33) and takes place in Caesarea Philippi just after Peter's profession of faith which was our Gospel last Sunday. The second is today's reading from chapter nine (9:30-32) in Galilee just after the healing of the dumb demoniac. The third comes in chapter ten (10:32-34) on the road to Jerusalem just after the teaching about leaving everything for the sake of the Gospel.
These three predictions of the passion have been compared to the solemn tolling of a bell. Jesus is in the thick of his ministry but is progressing irrevocably towards Jerusalem where all was to be brought to fulfilment. Of these three accounts the one we have today is the simplest and for this reason is regarded as the most primitive. In each case the disciples misunderstand what Jesus is telling them. But they realise that things are slowly coming to a head and they want to be part of it, that's surely why they were arguing about who was the greatest. The disciples are slow on the uptake but gradually they begin to get the message. This news about a forthcoming passion is hard for them to grasp and that's why Jesus repeats it on several occasions.
We gather here in this Church week by week, we come here because of our faith and we do so in order to pray and worship God together. We are Christ's disciples in the world today we are trying our level best to live the way he wants us to live, we try to refrain from struggling for position, we try to live out the prescriptions of the Gospel in our daily lives. We know that we frequently fail, but with the help of God we pick ourselves up and start again in the knowledge that we are moving towards the goal for which we long so much.
If anyone wants to be first he must make himself last of all and servant of all. This teaching is at the heart of the Gospel. It is Jesus' recipe for discipleship. But be careful and notice what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean a Uriah Heep sort of humility. It doesn't mean putting yourself down all the time. It doesn't mean baseness before others. But the actual text says that Jesus wants us to be the servant of all. This sounds like a bit of a tall order but it is actually all of a piece with serving Jesus. Our master gave his life for the whole human race. He valued each and every creature, he served even the lowest of the low. He did so not always in the way they expected but he changed their lives and through his actions enabled them to live in a new and better way. So we should do no less. To put it at its simplest we serve others in the way Jesus serves us.
We can all struggle at times to listen to someone if what they say arouses painful emotions in us. They might be trying to tell us something about ourselves that we find difficult to hear. That very human tendency is reflected in the disciples in this morning's gospel. Jesus had something very important to say about what was about to happen to him. In the words of the gospel, he was telling them that he would find himself in the hands of others, who would put him to death. This was something that the disciples found very hard to hear and were not able to take on board. As the gospel says, 'they did not understand what he said and they were afraid to ask him.' Already in Mark's gospel Jesus told them what was likely to happen to him. They were no more open to hearing it the second time than they were the first. They did not understand it and they were reluctant to question him because they were afraid they might not be able to live with the answers he would give them. In some ways that is a very human reaction. We often find ourselves not willing to ask questions because we suspect that we would struggle to live with the answers to our questions.
Yet, in our heart of hearts, we often recognize that there are certain realities we have to face, even if they are painful to face. There are certain illusions we may have to let go of, even if we have come to cherish them. In the second part of this morning's gospel Jesus worked to disillusion his disciples, in that good sense. He needed to prise them away from the illusions of greatest that they harboured. They seemed to have thought that being part of Jesus' circle would bring them privilege and status. No sooner had Jesus spoken of himself as someone who would end up as one of the least than the disciples began to argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. They wanted power and, it seems, that they wanted power for its own sake. This is the kind of self-centred ambition that James talks about in the second reading when he says, 'you have an ambition that you cannot satisfy, so you fight to get your way by force.' In place of that very worldly ambition, Jesus places before his disciples a very different kind of ambition, an ambition that has the quality of what James in that reading refers to as 'the wisdom that comes down from above.' This is God's ambition for their lives and for all our lives. It is the ambition to serve, as Jesus says in the gospel, 'those who want to be first must make themselves last of all and servant of all.' This ambition to serve, again in the words of James in that second reading, is something that 'makes for peace and is kindly and considerate; it is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good.'
Jesus implies that this is to be our primary ambition as his followers. All our other ambitions have to be subservient to that God-inspired ambition. In his teaching of his disciples and of us all, Jesus elaborates on his teaching by performing a very significant action. He takes a little child and sets the child in front of his disciples, puts his arms around the child and declares that whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes him and not only him but God the Father who sent him. Jesus was saying by that action that the ambition to serve must give priority to the most vulnerable members of society, symbolized by the child who is completely dependent on adults for his or her well being. Our ambition is to serve those who, for one reason or another, are not in a position to serve themselves. Jesus goes, assuring his disciples and us that in serving the most vulnerable we are in fact serving him. In the presence of the disciples who seemed consumed with an ambition for power for its own sake Jesus identifies himself with the powerless, those who are most dependent on our care. Over against the ambition of the disciples to serve themselves, Jesus puts the ambition to serve him as he comes to us in and through the weakest members of society. In our gospel Jesus is putting before us what his family of disciples, what the church, is really about.
Moses shares his leadership of God's People with others who have gifts of prophecy
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men stayed in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"
Wealth is often gained by exploitating the weak
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.
You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one who does not resist you.
Be tolerant, and yet don't scandalise the little ones
John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."
The first reading is one of the first references to the spirit of prophecy in the Bible. Usually we think of Moses as the man of the Law, the letter that kills, and not a man of the Spirit who gives life. But here we discover that the Spirit is upon him and that he generously shares it, temporarily, with the seventy elders. These prophetize, in a regular way, outside the tent. Perhaps we can imagine them in a state of ecstasy, praising the God who leads his people through the desert. But Eldad and Medad are mavericks and they carry the disturbance of prophecy inside the tent. It is as if the Spirit could not be controlled.
Quite contrary to what we might expect, Moses, the man of Law, is delighted, and wishes that all God's people would be prophets. or would "make a mess" as Pope Francis puts it. The behaviour of prophets always has something "scandalous" about it, and in this reading there is a progression from the licenced behaviour of the elders, to the unlicenced behaviour of the two mavericks, to the supremely scandalous declaration of Moses. Who would expect Moses to be a figure like Pope Francis? Perhaps the "Moses effect" is not a grim repressive legalism, after all, but an outburst of freedom, energy, and illumination. The Law of Moses is celebrated in the Psalms as light and life to those who follow it; the more it is followed the more it is loved; and it issues in the joy and freedom of a prophetic way of life that creatively follows the promptings of the Spirit.
Jesus shows the same unconcern about borders: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." Many of Jesus's utterances, too, have an edge of scandal, due to the tolerance and boundless mercy that he upholds.
But alongside good scandal there is evil scandal, and many people who are giving this evil scandal, undermining the faith of others, imagine that they are giving good scandal, or that they are prophets. The text about the millstone is often used today to attack pedophiles, but like all biblical texts it should rather be read as applying first and foremost to its hearer. Each one of us can be a stumbling block to the simple faithful and an evil influence on the young. We may be piling scandal on scandal without being aware of it. (We can also fail children by coldness and indifference, by avoiding them, and Jesus gives a counter-example to this by making much of every child he sees.)Determination in cutting off sources of scandal can be compared with the struggle to break an addiction. Today many people are addicted to their computers and smart phones. In the past people reached habitually for their prayer book or rosary beads and filled their spare moments with prayer. Now they check in to the internet first thing in the morning. Pope Francis expressed concern about this aspect of human ecology today, when he said, "You won't meet God sitting in front of your computer screen." How to cut off this scandal — this stumbling block to our spiritual progress? People fear to disconnect because of the news they will miss — but it is better to live in the present, even in ignorance of the latest news or the latest email, than to be fully in touch with everything and not to live at all. The generation of "digital natives," who actually live in the internet, are suffering from this epidemic of internet dependency, losing the powers of concentration and the habits of reading that are essential for academic progress. Adults should be giving them a good example in using the internet judiciously and ensuring that there is plenty of time for concentrated reading and for prayer. It is culpable frivolity to spend too much time on Facebook, Hotmail, and so on. But Jesus is not out to make us feel guilty, but to bring us alive; here and now as well as hereafter.
This passage contains the only reference to Hell in Mark's Gospel, and it is a rather ferocious one. It may be doubted if threats of hell fire have had much good effect on human beings throughout history. Today our pastors play them down, as when Pope St John Paul II said that "faith obliges us to believe in the existence of hell, but hope obliges us to hope it is empty." The notes of universalism (the idea that all are saved) in St Paul, and in Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others, underline that hell is not at the centre of the Christian faith. What is at the centre is that "God will be all in everyone" (1 Cor 15) and "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1) and "God did not send his Son in order to judge the world but that the world would be saved through him" (Jn 3:17). "The possibility of final loss" (Rahner) is a shadow at the edge of the canvas, a dimension of conscience calling us to responsibility. Fear and anxiety are never the last word for Christians, for they can always turn to Christ in trusting faith and let him clothe them with the mantle of his righteousness. The Irish proverb that "the help of God is nearer than the door" applies first of all here, in our encounter with Jesus, Messiah and Saviour, welcomed in faith.
Traditionally, hospitality has had a high profile in the Middle East. Even to the present day, travellers testify to this and its commendation in the Bible in passim rather than passing. One only has to recall — in the context of the allusion to the drink of water in today's Gospel — the delightful story of Eleazer and Rebekah (Gen 24:15-26) and, of course, the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well. As a Christian virtue, hospitality received a new element from Jesus when he linked the guests with the home-base, or with those who sent them. Whoever receives one sent by Christ receives Christ himself and will be repaid accordingly. There is to be a sense in which God is in his Son and his Son is in the apostles and they, in turn, are in the Christians who are received — because of those who receive them. When this link is recognized, Jesus promises this particular kind or reward even to those who act without any thought of reward, such as those who give as little as a cup of water. One great difficulty with this brand of hospitality is that it cannot be practised on a pick-and-choose basis.
Most people find it relatively easy to be good hosts when they are safely on their own territory and are called upon to entertain a friend or, at least, a guest who enjoys some sort of entitlement to special consideration. It can be an entirely different matter to deal, for example, with people outside one's own circle, even those engaged in good work of one kind or another. We can get so wrapped up in our own organization or Church that a certain dynamic takes over, leading to a building up of barriers rather than bridges between ourselves and those seen to be a rival groupings, just as happened to Eldad and Medad or the freelance exorcist in today's readings. All of this can occur because we tend to have an unbalanced view of your own importance, or of the importance of being one of us, and forget that it is not just we who are involved in the serving of others or in being received by them; what is paramount is Christ's presence acting in us and being received by others in and through us. Those who cultivate a proper outlook in this regard are less likely to fall into the habit of always waiting for the big heroic occasion while neglecting the little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love, such as giving somebody a drink of water.
As members of our Church, we Catholics are not always enthusiastic about acknowledging the spread of God's Spirit in other Churches, in non-Christian Religions and, indeed, in every creature. It came as a shock to some of us when the Second Vatican Council recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in the development of the Ecumenical Movement among the non-Roman Catholics. But, here again, there is a relevance for would-be-ecumenists, as well as others, in Christ's uncompromising stand vis-à-vis scandal, described in today's Gospel. The recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit outside the Church does not mean we have to neglect it inside the Church or compromise on the doctrines taught by the Church under the guidance of that same Spirit.
More than once I have had the experience of walking along and then suddenly falling forward, having stubbed my foot against a slightly raised paving slab. Sometimes the very paving that is meant to help us walk safely can prove to be a stumbling-stone because they are out of alignment with what surrounds them. Part of our baptismal calling is to support each other in our response to the Lord's call. We need each other's example, encouragement and, sometimes, challenge, if we are to walk in the way of the Lord. Many of us will be able to think of people who are a support to us in the living of our baptismal calling. The saints have traditionally played that role in the history of the church. We look to them to show what it means to be the Lord's disciples; they can continue to speak to us across the centuries. People who are much closer to us in time and place may have done the same for us. They show us the Lord's way by living that way themselves. Yet, we are also aware that some people can lead us astray, inviting us to take paths that are not in keeping with our baptismal calling. They can become obstacles to us, tripping us up as we struggle to follow in the way of Christ.
In today's gospel, Jesus shows a strong awareness of these two possibilities. He speaks of the one who gives a cup of cold water to one of his followers and the one who is an obstacle to bring down one of his followers; the one who supports and the one who blocks. Jesus himself had experienced Peter, the leader of the twelve, as an obstacle. When Peter sought to dissuade Jesus from taking the path that God was asking him to take, because it would involve the cross, Jesus rebuked him with the words, 'You are a stumbling block to me' (Mt 16:23). The gospels suggest that Jesus' disciples proved to be stumbling blocks to others on more that one occasion. Mark tells us that when parents were trying to bring their children to Jesus that he might bless them, the disciples spoke sternly to the parents and tried to block the children from reaching Jesus. In today's gospel, we find Jesus' disciples trying to block someone from doing the Lord's work, just because he was not one of them. In response, Jesus rebukes them, 'Do not stop him—Anyone who is not against us is for us.'
Peter and the disciples meant well in all these cases. Even well-meaning people, it seems, can become obstacles to the Lord's work. We can all find ourselves in the role of the stumbling block without realizing it. Thinking that our way is the Lord's way, we can then proceed to try and impose that way on others. The disciples in today's gospel had to learn that their way was, in fact, a much narrower way than the Lord's way, and that their narrow perspective was an obstacle to the Lord's work getting done. Those they judged to be 'not one of us', Jesus regarded as 'for us.' In contrast to his disciples, Jesus was able to recognize and encourage goodness wherever he found it. He knew that the Spirit blows where it wills. He was alert to the signs of the Spirit's presence wherever he came across them. In the same way, Moses in the first reading recognized and rejoiced in the movement of the Spirit in the lives of Eldad and Medad, even though Joshua wanted Moses to stop them prophesying.
We all have a role to play in recognizing and supporting the working of the Spirit in each other. Towards the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul says, 'Do not quench the Spirit.' To quench the Holy Spirit in others is to become a stumbling block, an obstacle, to God's working in their lives. We can quench the Spirit in others and hinder the good work that God is doing through them for a whole variety of very human reasons. We can be motivated by jealousy, as Moses suggests Joshua was in today's first reading. Like the disciples, we can refuse to acknowledge God's good work in the lives of others because they are not 'one of us', because they belong to a different church or religion or ethnic group. We can be dismissive of the good someone else is doing simply because it is not the way we would have done it, forgetting that the Holy Spirit works in many diverse ways in people's lives. Living as we do in a culture that is awash with obstacles and stumbling stones to God's working in our lives, we who seek to be the Lord's followers need to ensure that we do not become stumbling stones for one another. The Lord looks to us to give the cup of cold water, to nurture what is good in each other, and to rejoice in the working of the Spirit in the lives of others.
God intends man and woman to become one flesh
Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Jesus became fully our brother and a saviour for all
We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
(or shorter version: Mark 10:2-12, omitting the text in italics)
"What God has joined together" and receiving the kingdom of God as a little child
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery too."
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The discussion of relationships occupies a huge space in our world today. It has been well said that when rituals are changing, then some large shift is taking place in society and it is more than evident that the rituals around marriage are changing fast. The readings provide a chance to talk about all this, in the context of mercy and compassion. (The recent changes initiated by Pope France regarding canonical annulments may be of interest.) The wider context of many different kinds of relationships may help us here. It is not just about marriage. Kieran O'Mahony
Many would sees today's gospel as impracticable for our times. How can a couple be expected to stay together for possibly 50 years, given today's longevity? But is important to distinguish between the ideal of marital fidelity, and how that law is applied in our Church. Sometimes in the past the law about marriage was harshly and insensitively preached. The sad truth is that not all marriages work out well. Some marry in haste, and some may not have what it takes to live in a lifelong relationship. But following Jesus we at least support the ideal he laid down: that marriage is meant to last for a lifetime.
On their wedding day, a couple set out on a journey, which hopefully will lead them into a deeper love and partnership with the passing years. Possibly their early love for each other has a quality of infatuation, or feeling in love, and our emotions, while good and useful, are largely outside our control. True, lasting love is more based on decision than emotion. While I cannot control my emotions, I can renew a decision each and every day.
Our Catholic Church sees marriage as a covenant between a woman and a man, who enter a partnership of their whole lives. It is a life-project, a vocation for which they receive the grace of a special sacrament to make it viable. For a marriage to succeed requires a constant effort of goodwill, to cooperate with the grace of God. The couple should foster a relationship that is dynamic, never static; some say that if it is not moving forward, it is going backwards. Living in married love with another means dying to self in many little ways, because love is a kind of laying down a life for one's friend. Our faith says that it is only by dying to self that we are capable of giving life to others, which carries within it Christ's promise of eternal life.
While modern society makes us tolerant of divorce following marital breakdown, in today's Gospel Christ invites us to reflect on the ideal of permanence of marriage and on the value of lifelong commitment. His words on the indissolubility of marriage set an ideal that is especially difficult for our times, when we are so much influenced by a libertarian ideology that prizes personal fulfilment above all else.
Marriage is built on basic, life-giving human instincts and can survive even in a time of radical social change. Families who have kept fidelity over the years demonstrate that love can weather the storms which even the best of relationships cannot always avoid. But the instability of family life today, and the large number of marital separations, needs to be prayed about. At the same time, as pope Francis has said so warmly, our Church must show due regard for people who are in new unions after their first has broken up, for whatever reason. It is not enough just to propose an ideal of marriage based on fidelity; the problems of tense marriage relationships are not solved by constant preaching, no matter how well-meant. Conscious of this, the Church has agencies to help couples to prepare for marriage, and later help them cope with the conflicts that threaten their perseverance. (Examples of the kind of marriage-counselling available locally could feature in today's homily.)
There are many reasons why a marriage might fail. Possibly the parties were not emotionally mature at the time they married, nor fully free in giving their marriage consent. People who never thought of the deeper, spiritual meaning of marriage, can come to feel that their marriage was an unfortunate mistake.. In helping to prepare couples for marriage, trying to foster their growth in married love, and even when declaring certain marriages to be null and void, those involved must try to combine their ideal of marriage with an appreciation of love between the sexes and with understanding and compassion for those today who find difficulty in living up to the challenges of Christian marriage .
We pray for the Synod of Bishops now taking place in Rome, that they may be open to new insights on how to care for marriage and the family today, and advise the Pope on what steps the Church can and should take, to be a more welcoming place for those whose marriages have proved unsustainable, but who wish to continue as faithful friends of Christ.
According to Genesis 2, God created man from the earth and God created woman from the side of man. This account has often been misinterpreted to suggest the subordination of woman to man. The translation 'helpmate' is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew word. Something like 'indispensible partner' would be better. The text suggests that the woman is to stand alongside the man as his equal. She corresponds to him exactly, as the man affirms, 'bone of my bones', 'flesh of my flesh.' But if the man names the animals, suggesting a certain authority over them, he simply recognises the name of the woman as ish-shah, the female version of himself. The primary relationship between the man and the woman is adult to adult. The text proclaims that from the beginning God intended men and women to interact with mutuality and partnership. According to our first reading that mutuality between a man and a woman finds its fullest expression in marriage, a 'man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.'
In this morning's gospel, Jesus turns to this text from the Book of Genesis when he is put on the spot by some Pharisees regarding the question of divorce. As the Pharisees would have known, the Jewish Law permitted a form of divorce. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, a man who becomes displeased with his wife because he finds in her something objectionably could write her a bill of divorce, hand it to her and dismiss her from his house. There was no provision in Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband. It was a law which left women vulnerable. In reply to the Pharisees Jesus declares that what the law allows is not what actually what God wills. God's purpose for marriage, according to Jesus, is to be found in those opening chapters of the book of Genesis. Whereas the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, in his reply Jesus places the focus on marriage. His vision of marriage is of a profound union between a man and a woman, a communion of faithful love. It is no coincidence that immediately after the passage in which Jesus speaks of marriage, Mark in his gospel gives us a story about children, about parents bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them. Marriage between a man and a woman is a tried and tested way in which children can grow up to be loved, as well as being given stability and security. No other setting has been proven better for the nourishing and flourishing of children. If society cares about children, it will channel financial and professional resources into supporting marriage, understood as a communion of faithful love between a man and a woman, the fullest expression in human form of the communion of love between the Lord and us.
We know from experience that that not all marriages reflect the ideal Jesus sets up in today's gospel. Many of us will have relatives whose marriages have not lasted. The gospels are clear that although Jesus has a vision for human relationships, including within marriage, he did not condemn those who feel short of that vision. All of us, married or single, are called to love one another as the Lord has loved us, and we all fail in our response to that call. It is in those moments of weakness and failure that the second part of this morning's gospel has most to say to us, 'anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.' We stand before the Lord with a child-like heart, in our weakness and vulnerability, open and receptive to the great gift of the Lord's love that is given to us unconditionally. It is that gift which empowers us to keep reaching towards the goal, the ideal, the Jesus puts before us all.
Solomon praises Wisdom as more precious than gold, silver, health, or beauty
Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth.
The word of God is alive and active, bringing wisdom
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
(or shorter version: Mark 10:17-27, omitting the text in italics)
The rich young man declines to follow Jesus
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age-houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions-and in the age to come eternal life.
African hunters have a clever way of trapping monkeys. They slice a coconut in two, hollow it out, and in one half of the shell cut a hole just big enough for a monkey's hand to pass through. Then they place an orange in the other coconut half before fastening together the two halves of the coconut shell. Finally, they secure the coconut to a tree with a rope, retreat into the bush, and wait. Sooner or later, an unsuspecting monkey swings by, smells the delicious orange, and discovers its location inside the coconut. Slipping its hand through the small hole, the monkey grasps the orange, and tries to pull it through the hole. Of course, the orange won't come out, since it's too big for the hole. But the persistent monkey continues pulling and pulling to no avail , never realizing the danger it is in. While it struggles with the orange, the hunters approach and capture the monkey in a net over. Looking on, we could see that as long as the monkey keeps its fist wrapped around the orange, it is trapped. The only way to save its life is to let go of the orange and flee.
Seeing the monkey struggling to get the orange while the hunters are closing up on it, an animal-lover would shout to make the creature abandon the stupid orange and run for dear life. This is rather like what Jesus advises the rich young man. He sees him in danger of losing his chance for eternal life on account of his fixation on money. So he advises him to turn his back on wealth and save his life. Why did the choice have to be so stark? Mark say it is because "Jesus looked at him and loved him" (10:21a). The advice of Jesus often seems hard to follow but it is always meant for our own good. It will change our way of thinking if we realise that these are the words of someone who loves us and who knows better than we can do what can lead us to eternal life.
The rich young man is like the monkey tragically clinging to the orange when its very life is in danger. So Jesus suggests another way to him: "Go and sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." But the young man finds this teaching a hard pill to swallow since, like many others, he believed his wealth was a sure sign of God's blessing. Even today the "prosperity gospel" is widespread: the belief that wealth is a sign of God's approval, and poverty and hardship a sign of God's disapproval. Therefore when Jesus said how hard it would be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, his disciples were astonished and asked, 'Then who can be saved?'" (v. 26). The real gospel challenges the prosperity gospel for God's love can go hand in hand with material poverty. In fact, voluntary, dedicated poverty can be a way of responding to God's love. Materialism is the belief that without wealth life is meaningless. The rich young man was a materialist at heart. We can pray today to have more wisdom than the monkey, and avoid materialism in all its forms. For what is the use of to gaining the whole world and lose our life in the process?
At first sight the young man comes across as an exceptionally good person, deferential to Jesus and somehow searching for the way of eternal life. He had kept God's commands since his youth, and Jesus looked on him with love. An ideal person, you would think, to receive the gospel. And yet Jesus wanted to show him something about himself of which he was totally unaware. He was owned by his own wealth, and it had a stronger grip on him than he had on it. Jesus invited him to become free of it, but the cost seemed too just too high. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
There is nothing wrong with money as such, or even with being wealthy. Some of the world's greatest people who did most for the welfare of humanity, have been wealthy people. But at a deeper level the fact is thatI own nothing, absolutely. My hold on things is provisional, temporary. A sudden stroke, a brain haemorrhage or a heart attack, and I am separated forever from all my worldly belongings. "There are no pocket in the shroud." Apparently there was a narrow entrance at the side of the temple called the "needle." It is wide enough for a camel to pass through, but only if the load was removed from the camel's back. With the panniers of goods the camel normaly carried on either side, it would be impossible to pass through the Needle gate. How hard it is for people who are weighed down with money and ambitions to enter the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom belongs to children. It belongs to the poor in spirit; not so much economically poor, but detached from riches in their inmost spirit. For a worthy cause, they can part with their wealth.
Then there are some who give up everything to follow Jesus. He doesn't call everybody to do this. He didn't ask Lazarus or his sisters to leave home and follow him. But being a follower of Jesus does mean having to leave something. It involves a change of priorities, a new way of valuing things, an interest in the riches that are stored in heaven, "where moth cannot consume, nor rust corrode." Those who leave everything to follow Jesus are among the most blessed of people, dedicated souls like Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, aid workers in places torn by war and disease, and many other unsung heroes. Such people are blessed with the riches of God's grace, and bring much blessing to the lives of others.
Jesus gave his full attention to people who turned up out of the blue, wanting to talk to him. In this morning's gospel, we are told that Jesus was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put the question to him, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' At this point in Mark's gospel, Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem; this was the most important journey of his life. When the gospel says that Jesus was setting out on a journey, the evangelist was stating that Jesus intended to journey on further in the direction of Jerusalem. Although the unexpected arrival of this man with his burning question held Jesus back and prevented him from setting out on his planned journey, Jesus gave him his full attention. The present moment was all important to Jesus. What he had planned to do always took second place to the call that was made on him in the here and now. Jesus teaches us to take seriously the call of the present moment. This man who turned up out of nowhere made a call on Jesus, and Jesus responded, even though the call was unexpected and cut across what he had planned. The call of the present moment can take all kinds of unexpected forms for us, and, yet, it is there that the Lord very often meets us and we meet him.
The man made an unexpected call on Jesus, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' Jesus went on to make an unexpected call, on this man, 'Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor— then follow me.' There is no other person in Mark's gospel who receives this particular call from Jesus. This was a call for this man. This was his call of the present moment. This is what the Lord was asking of him here and now. Jesus' call on this man was as unexpected as this man's call on Jesus. The man's reaction to this call of Jesus shows how unexpected it was. Whereas he had run up to Jesus, breathless, with his burning question, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?', in response to Jesus' answer to his question we are told that 'his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.' His excited running to Jesus gave way to his sad walk away from Jesus. The call of the present moment was too much for him to hear, and the fruit of his refusal to hear it was a sadness of heart, a heaviness of spirit. He was attached to his possessions; he couldn't let go of them, even though letting go of them and throwing in his lot wholeheartedly with Jesus was his particular calling in life. In the words of today's second reading, the call of Jesus, the words Jesus addressed to him, were alive and active, cutting into him like a two-edged sword.
If we approach the Lord, as the man in the gospel did, if we seek out the Lord and enter into a personal relationship with him, he will call out to us too. His particular call to us will probably not be the precise call the man in today's gospel received. However, his call to us will have something in common with that man's call. It will always be a call to give ourselves more fully to the Lord's way, and to let go of whatever it is that is holding us back from living according to the values of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and lived. His call to us will be a call to go and do whatever it is we need to do in order to walk in the Lord's way more wholeheartedly. There will be moments when we will hear that call very strongly — perhaps when we are least expecting to hear it. If the particular call that the Lord is addressing to us seems daunting, we can find reassurance in the Lord's words to his disciples in the gospel, 'everything is possible for God.' What we cannot do on our own, we can do with the Lord's help. The Lord's grace at work within us can empower us to live as he is calling us to live.
God's faithful Servant bears the world's sins and sorrow; but he will prosper in the end
It was the will of the Lord to crush his servant with pain. When he make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Jesus knows our needs and weaknesses. Our high priest is very approachable
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus overturns our ranking system; people who serves others are greatest in God's sight
(or, shorter version: Mark 10:42-45, omitting the text in italics)
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. Jesus called his disciples and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
The theme of the willing servant matches the missionary ideal perfectly. The ideal missionary is so devoted to the good of the people whom s/he is sent to sereve that they plan both their activities and their life-style to match the real needs of those people. There is a huge effort of adaptation and inculturation involved, so tha the Gospel can integrate into the lives of the local people. This goes well beyond the initial need to learn the local language, and the most effective symbols to use, so that the message of Jesus can be understood and loved.
In our world, where most of the celebrities highlighted in the media seem motivated by self-interest and self-assertion Jesus' call to total service seems unrealistic, and, one might think, unlikely to succeed. But today's Gospel offers the ideal of dedication to the service of others as fundamental to Christian discipleship. Jesus came "not to be served, but to serve" and this example must always be a guiding light for his followers. He went about doing good (cf. Acts 10:38), bringing justice, healing, forgiveness and kindness into people's lives. This is why those who believe in him are challenged to give themselves, their talents and their time, to the service of others without seeking any other reward than knowing that this is supremely worthwhile. The acted parable of the foot-washing at the Last Supper gives out the same message.
In practice what can we learn from our Lord's life and actions? He clearly said that he came to do the Father's will, and this thought stayed with him, even when it led to suffering and a cruel death. He was always about the Father's business, and made it his business. This prompts us too, with an active sense of duty, and a personal dedication to God's will for us. Normally, we discover our duty and God's will for us, not in world-changing plans or in heroic ideals but in the ordinary tasks of each day. At home or in the office, or the school or other workplace, or wherever the activity of the moment calls us, we try to be aware of duty and a sense of dedication. Whenever we work in a slipshod manner, of fail to offer the needed helping hand, we fall below our personal call to service. What a change it would make, if there was a widespread return to this spirit, with regard to people's daily work. We need to be reminded that in rendering to others the service of a job well done we are imitating the serving Christ and being his fellow-workers in building up the kingdom of God on earth.
It is tempting to be selfish with our time and energy. There are so many plausible excuses for excluding ourselves from the work that needs to be done. How easy to join the many who just live for themselves and let society fend for itself. But today's Scripture calls us to examine our conscience, and to face the question, "What can I do for my community, rather than what can my community do for me?" It is one of the most basic values we have to keep on learning throughout our lives. The approach of James and John, in today's Gospel, is not unlike the way many of us come to God. We approach him in prayer with the greatest fervour, whenever we want something for ourselves. Jesus responds to their request with a request of his own, thereby showing that what he wants for us must take priority over what we want for ourselves. The only request worth making is that which he taught us to make, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10.) His will, as expressed in today's Gospel, is that we should share in his cup and in his baptism, that cup which he was to ask the Father to take from him (Mk 14:36), and that baptism of fire which he knew he had to undergo. His death on the cross was but the final expression of that total service which characterised the whole of his life. Everyday he died to himself, because he lived "not to be served, but to serve." His life was a daily emptying of self (Phil 2:7), a self-emptying which was only complete when he gave his last breath on the cross The complete missionary!
Most of us have had the experience of asking for something and not getting it. That experience begins in childhood when we begin to learn the difficult lesson that others do not automatically respond to our wants and whims. In adolescence we discover that our peers are not mirror images of ourselves and do not always behave or respond to us in the way we want them to. In adulthood we learn the delicate art of compromise when what we want and what others want come into conflict with each other. We also discover that in our relationship with God our prayers are not always answered, even when they focus not on ourselves but on others and their well-being. The experience of unanswered prayer can be a real challenge to our faith.
In today's gospel, James and John come before Jesus with a prayer of petition. They ask him, 'allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.' The previous time Mark had depicted James and John together was on the mount of transfiguration with Peter. There they had an experience of Jesus in his glory, flanked by Moses and Elijah. James and John understood this experience as an anticipation of what was to come, and in the future they wanted the places occupied by Moses and Elijah. Mark emphasizes the inappropriateness of this request of James and John by placing it immediately after the third announcement by Jesus of his coming passion and death, 'the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles—' (Mk 10:33-34). As Jesus declares that he is shortly to be humbled, James and John ask Jesus that they be exalted. Here is a prayer that has far too much of 'self' in it. It is not a prayer that Jesus can respond to. Sometimes, our own prayers can have a lot of 'self' in them, even when they are prayers for others. One dimension of our growing up into the person of Jesus is learning to pray as he prays, entering into his ongoing prayer to the Father. It is only the Holy Spirit who can enable our prayer to harmonize with that of the risen Lord. As Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, 'God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying "Abba" Father!' (Gal 4:6). In his letter to the Romans he comments that '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' (Rom 8:26). Our prayer will be a sharing in Jesus' own prayer when it is shaped by the inarticulate sighs of the Spirit deep within us.
In response to the brothers' request of Jesus, he makes his own request of them, 'Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?' Jesus is presented in the gospels as asking many questions. One access point to the gospel story of Jesus for us today is to sit with the many questions that Jesus asks. A very different form of prayer to the prayer of petition is to listen to the various petitions that Jesus addresses to us and, having listened, to respond honestly from the depths of our heart. Jesus' petition to James and John finds an echo in Jesus' own prayer of petition in the garden of Gethsemane, 'Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want' (Mk 14:36). The very cup that Jesus asked James and John to drink, he hesitated to drink himself. Yet, he went on to drink it because his prayer, 'Remove this cup from me', was secondary to his more fundamental prayer, 'Not what I want, but what you want.' Jesus does not request of his disciples anything he is not prepared to do himself. As today's second reading remarks, we have a high priest 'who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.' Jesus' petition to James and John is addressed to all of us. He asks if we are prepared to commit ourselves to his servant way, even when it means the way of the cross, the way of self-denial and self-giving. The attentive listener may be put in mind of the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism by Jesus' reference to 'the cup' and 'baptism.' At baptism we are baptized into Jesus' servant way and when we celebrate the Eucharist we renew our commitment to that way.
Jesus uses the simple examples of salt and light to illustrate the effect of a Christian life as a witness to him and to his message.
When I was growing up, my uncle used kill a pig every year. We had no fridges or freezers in those days, so one of the old tea chests was used to store the sides of bacon. The secret was to pack the bacon as tightly as possible, with a whole sack of salt, into the tea chest. With a large family, the bacon lasted for about a month, before it was all eaten. Because of the salt, the bacon remained fresh, and we never had to throw out any of it. The salt preserved the bacon, and kept it from going off. That is what I think of when I hear Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth. We are preservers of goodness and life within the community
Salt preserves, and it also gives taste. Heart specialists may prefer if it were removed from all dining-room tables, but serve up a boiled egg, a tomato, or boiled potatoes, and you can be sure that someone is going to be looking for the salt. The salt cellar on the kitchen table is part of the kitchen essentials. Salt does make a difference. That is why Jesus uses the image to stress the effect of the Christian within the community. The witness of Christian living is supposed to make a difference.
We understand many things because we know the opposites. If there was no such thing as darkness, we could never appreciate the light. The same goes for hot and cold, health and sickness, life and death. Darkness can be more than the absence of light. There are people living in darkness because they are blind, or because they are in a deep hole of depression. The Christian is called to be a light. It is like someone carrying a lantern, leading others along a dark tunnel. Every flying object is attracted to the light, as we know when we leave a window open, and the lights are on within the house. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The role of the Christian is to light that candle. We cannot hope to brighten up the whole world, but one candle in a dark room transforms the whole room. I have known individuals who were like that candle within the room of my surroundings.
Today's gospel calls us to action. If we are to be the salt of the earth, then we must not lose our flavour. We must be effective. Christianity is about action. "By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Jesus tells us that we should let our light shine before people so that they will know that we are children of the Father. If God has children living here on earth, then surely their presence should make an enormous difference: His Son, Jesus, certainly made an enormous difference.
It is always essential for us to personalise the gospel as we read it. The words of today's gospel are meant for us. Right here, right now we have the salt and the light. Like a jigsaw, where each part is essential to complete the picture, each one of us must respond to the call that is issued today. There is nothing dramatic or fanatical about this. The gospel is enlightened common sense, and, because of Incarnation, our response and our role is ordinary and commonplace. It does, however, require a personal input. No words of mine can speak for you. You have to take personal responsibility for your own response.
Letting your light shine before others is not about showing off, or preaching to others, and telling them what to do. Your life is your greatest sermon. If you were deaf and dumb, you could still speak loudly about Jesus and his message. In a good sense, I will make a difference if I am different. Jesus was a sign of contradiction to this world. His values were different, and his life was different. That is why so many people followed him. If I went to live in a cave in the mountains, and lived with the Lord, there would be a pathway up the mountainside within a few years. Christianity is about attracting rather than about promoting.
It is a wonderful grace to have a programme for living; to have a map that charts the course, to have guidelines to follow. Jesus gives a clear and definite programme for living. He lived it himself, and then he asked us to live as he lived. By ourselves, of course, that is impossible, and Jesus knows that only too well. That is why he sent his Spirit, so that we could live in the power of that Spirit. Just as he was led by the Spirit, so can we. The X-factor in all of this is my declared willingness to accept that mandate. Again and again, I am called to repeat my "yes" to his call. Every part of the gospel calls for a response from me. Today is just another of those days.
The following story is told about John Ruskin, the 18th century English writer, when he was quite old. He was visiting with a friend, and he was standing looking out the front window of the house. It was nighttime, and the lamplighter was lighting the street lamps. From the window one could see only the lamps that were being lit, and the light the lamplighter was carrying from one lamp to another. The lamplighter himself could not be seen. Ruskin remarked that the lamplighter was a good example of the genuine Christian. His way was clearly lit by the lights he lit, and the light he kept burning, even though he himself may not be known or seen.
At the beginning of the gospel, Jesus said that he was the light that had come into the world. Today, he tells us that we are to become that light for others
God promises to lead back the remnant of Israel
Thus says the Lord:
"Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, "Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn."
Like Melchizedek, Jesus is a priest forever, our mediator with God
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.
And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you;" as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."
Jesus hears the prayer of a blind man and gives him back his sight
As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Contrasting previous blindness with the sight of faith — the metaphor is ancient (Plato's cave) and takes us beyond religion only. We all have blind spots, some minor, others not so minor. Usually, it takes some event to trigger the recognition that we are not seeing with 20:20 vision. The same can be true at the level of faith. Perhaps we could make our own the request of Bartimaeus: Let me see again!
There are other stories in the gospel about blind people being healed, but the one about Bartimaeus is told in the liveliest way, and it has a nice lesson for us. The poor man had lost his sight, and when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he had to make a choice, quickly. He could just sit there and let Jesus pass him by, or he could grab the moment, and ask to be healed. Jesus was said to have the power to heal, but you had to get his attention and ask to be healed.
In an American cartoon by Schultz, a sharp-tongued little girl called Lucy was trying to reform her schoolmate Charlie Browne. She glared at him critically. "Do you know what's wrong with you, Charlie Browne?" she said. "What?" he asked nervously. Lucy fumed at him and said, "What's really wrong with you is that, well, you don't want to know what's wrong with you!" Bartimaeus was not like that, for he knew quite well what was wrong with him, and was determined to have it cured! When he called out to Jesus, people around him tried to get him to shut up, and stay quiet. But he just shouted louder, and kept shouting until Jesus stopped and called him over. Although Bartimaeus was blind, Jesus stayed where he was and let the blind man come to him. If he really wanted to be cured, he would find a way to get to Jesus.
It was obvious that the man was blind, and yet Jesus asked him "What do you want me to do for you?" The man had to clearly name his problem, and do so himself. If one of us needs to be cured of something, whether blindness, alcoholism, depression or any addiction, then we need to come to Jesus and tell him what's wrong. We need to NAME it. Of course he knows our needs, and yet he says "Ask and you will receive." "Your heavenly Father will surely give to those who ask."
Bartimaeus's words were simple and uncomplicated. There was no long speech, no haggling or wheedling. "I want to see" was his direct reply. And Jesus told him that his faith had healed him. Rightly, this blind man knew that Jesus would not turn away from the cry of the poor. Just think of what he did: he threw aside his old cloak, got up, and ran to Jesus. The old cloak may be a symbol for his past, his darkness, his despair. He made an act of hope-filled faith, and Jesus did not disappoint him. All attempts of the bystanders to silence him made him more determined. He was clear about what he wanted, and knew who could help him. That's why Bartimaeus has a lesson for us all, here and now.
A blind man was invited to attend a wedding. The young couple were being married in a village church well known for its architecture and its beautiful grounds. The guests were commenting on all of this at the reception afterwards and how they were struck by how well the church, the grounds and the setting all looked. When the blind man heard all this he thought to himself, 'But didn't they hear the bell?' For him, the church bell that pealed to welcome the bride and groom had been magnificent. The air was filled with its vibrating jubilation. He was amazed at the atmosphere of joy and celebration the bell had created for the occasion. Everyone else seemed to have missed that element. Although he could not see, perhaps because he could not see, his hearing was very alert. He heard the beauty that others missed. The sounds that passed others by touched him very deeply.
Today's gospel is the story of a blind man, a blind beggar. Although he was blind, his hearing was very sensitive, so he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Although he could not see Jesus, he made contact with him through his sense of hearing. His finely tuned hearing to the presence of Jesus led him to using another sense to make contact with Jesus, his sense of speech. He cried out, 'Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.' Even when people around Jesus, including perhaps some of Jesus' disciples, told him to keep quiet, he shouted all the louder, 'Son of David, have pity on me.' Even though he could not see Jesus, he was determined to make contact with him through his gift of speech, through his urgent prayer from his heart. His prayer was an act of faith on his part. He recognized Jesus as 'Son of David' which was one of the titles for the Messiah, and trusting that Jesus could heal his blindness. His making contact through his hearing and his speaking revealed that he had an inner sight. Even though he was blind, he saw Jesus with the eyes of faith. Even when he was rebuked by the crowd for confessing his faith out loud, he refused to be silenced. He had the courage to keep professing his faith, in spite of the hostility and scorn it brought upon him. This man's courage faith and the quality of hearing, and speaking and seeing it gave rise to may have something to teach us when professing our faith publicly can invite scorn.
This man's faith literally brought Jesus to a standstill, in spite of the fact that at this point in his ministry he was hurrying from Jericho to Jerusalem. The gospel says simply, 'Jesus stopped.' Jesus' response to the heartfelt prayers of this man was in complete contrast to that of the people around him. Rather than telling him to keep quiet, Jesus told those around him to call him over. Jesus is portrayed as the champion of those not considered worthy enough to come near to God. Again we witness the extraordinary responsiveness of this man to Jesus' presence, to the call of Jesus. When he heard that Jesus was calling him, he first of all threw off his cloak. His cloak, no doubt, served many purposes. He sheltered him from the weather; it was his bed; it was in a sense his home. Yet, he abandoned it, and having done so, he jumped up and went unerringly to Jesus in his blindness. Nothing was going to hold him back from connecting with Jesus, not even his precious cloak. He speaks to all of us of our own need to free ourselves of the binds that stifle our faith and keep us from approaching the Lord.
The question that Jesus asked that man when they came face to face was not the kind of dismissive question that comes from annoyance at being interrupted, 'What do you want?' Rather, it was a very personal question 'What do you want me to do for you?' It is a question that we can all hear as addressed to each of us personally, and how we answer that question can reveal a great deal about who we are and what we value. In the passage in Mark's gospel which immediately preceded this one, Jesus asked that same question of two of his own disciples, James and John, 'What do you want me to do for you?' Their answer revealed a self-cantered ambition, 'Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory?' The blind man's answer to Jesus' question revealed a very different heart. Aware of his blindness, aware of his disability, he asked simply, 'Master, let me see again.' In answering his prayer, Jesus addressed him as a man of faith, 'your faith has saved you.' He was already seeing Jesus with the eyes of faith before he received back his physical sight. Once he received back his physical sight, we are told that he followed Jesus along the road. He immediately used his newly restored sight to walk after Jesus as a disciple up to the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus would be crucified. His faith had shaped his hearing and his speaking, and now it shaped the path he would take. His faith had shaped his hearing and his speaking, and we could do worse than take this man as a model of faith in our own lives. Like him we are blind beggars who need to keep on crying out to the Lord who passes by so that we can see him more clearly and follow him more nearly.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
Moses said to the people:
"You and your children and your children's children, should fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart."
Christ our high priest can never lose his priesthood
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.
Which commandment is the first of all?
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbour as oneself,'-this is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
At first sight, today's gospel seems to contain nothing new or startling that was not already known by the Jews of the Old Testament. Indeed the words, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind," were words written on the heart of every Jew, and to this day they form part of the daily prayer a devout Jew is required to say. This prayer is referred to as the Shema, because it begins with the Hebrew words, "Shema Yisrael," meaning "Listen Israel." "Listen Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord," and it continues with the words just quoted. And yet, there is a certain paradox about today's gospel reading, in that it tells us that love of God is realised by our love for each other.
In other words, our love of God is illusory if it stops short with God, if it does not result in our loving each other, reaching out to everyone without exception, even our enemies. But then, a word of caution, love of neighbour, if it is divorced from love of God, can well become refined self love. For one can easily end up loving others purely for the response one gets from those loved, for the feeling of satisfaction and self-gratification one derives from being generous and kind to them. A Jewish Rabbi, named Hillel, a renowned scholar, a spiritual and ethical leader of his generation, who had a great following just before the birth of Christ, when asked, "Which is the greatest commandment?," gave the famous reply, "What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary."
Jesus, however, stated that love of God linked with love of neighbour jointly form the greatest commandment. Commenting on that, the advice of St Augustine was, "Love God first, and then do what you will," meaning that if we love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, then we cannot but be obedient to his will, which wants others to share in that love. St John, the evangelist, who saw all the events of Christ's life on earth in terms of love, and kept preaching about this virtue to the early Christians, to the extent that they became wearied of it, and asked him to talk about something else, St John in his first letter puts it forcibly like this, "Anyone who says, "I love God," and hates his brother, is a liar, for how can a man who does not love the brother that he can see, love God whom he has never seen. So this is the commandment that he has given us, that anyone who loves God must also love his brother" (1 Jn 4:20f).
If we embrace this commandment, if we try and put it into practice, as did the saints, then we will be doing something which is truly radical, which to the non-Christian outsider will often be seen as odd, a seeming contradiction, difficult to understand. These seeming contradictions abound in our faith. For we believe that life comes from death, that gain comes from loss, that receiving comes from giving, and that Christ had to die and come to life again that we might share a new life with him in heaven. We profess to be followers of Christ, who made a complete offering of himself to the Father - "Not my will but yours be done" - who gave his life, his energies, his time in the service of others, who returned to his Father devoid of any earthly goods - the clothes he had worn ceasing to be his before he yielded up his spirit, having being made over by lots into the possession of his executioners.
All this does not imply that we have to tread exactly the same path as Christ. What it does indicate, however, is that our surrender to God does not mean that we retreat into a paradise of unreal spirituality. It means that if we love God, then we have to concern ourselves with others, with the members of our family and community. It means that we must rise above ourselves, a and our own interests, and become convinced from the words of Christ that St Paul ,has given us, that "there is greater happiness in giving than in receiving" (Acts 20:35).
"The world is too much with us," the poet Wordsworth wrote, "late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." We pass this way but once, and while we are on our way let us do as much good as we possibly can with our God-given powers, the gifts that each of us has, in serving God and others. But always keep in mind as well the promise of Jesus (Jn 15:5), "Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty," and because of the presence of Jesus, this fruit will last.
Sacrifice is a common notion in everyday existence. We speak of people sacrificing themselves, their time, their energy, their lives. Wherever such sacrifice obtains it is always the source of new life, the mother who stays up all night to care for her ailing child. The sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary was like that. This is the point that is being driven home in the continuous readings from Hebrews over the past and coming Sundays. The sacrifice of Jesus was all-sufficient and complete because of him who offered it, the perfect priest and at the same time the perfect victim, perfectly human and humanly perfect. The Son of God and the Son of Mary. His sacrifice on Calvary and its acknowledgement by the Father in raising his Son from the dead to his right hand in heaven makes him a priest for ever. His sacrifice endures forever, He lives on in the heavenly sanctuary to make intercession for us.
The sacrifice and the intercession are symbolically represented on the altar in bread and in wine. Because we say a thing is symbolic it doesn't mean that it isn't real. In a sense it's more real than the real thing. A shy lover who gives a rose to the loved one is saying more by means of the rose than he ever could express by word of mouth. The rose expresses and contains the reality of his love. It becomes a symbol.
The bread on the altar becomes the body broken for us, the blood poured out for us. The bread and the wine are symbols expressing and containing the reality of sacrifice. The reality is more than the reality of sacrifice. It's the whole reality of Christ, of his Paschal Mystery, of his passion, death, resurrection and glorification. The Christ who has come in the flesh, is coming now in bread and in wine and will come at the end of time in glory. The whole reality is made present by the power of God's Word. It wasn't just a man face "Superstar') who said, "this is my Body," "this is my Blood." It was the Word made flesh who said it, the Word through whom all things were made, through whom creation came into being. Neither are the words spoken out of the blue. They are spoken in the context of remembering, making the memorial. We remember and we ask God to remember. And in the Bible when God remembers, he does something. Mary in her Magnificat declares how God has chosen her his lowly servant, remembering his ercy
The element of sacrifice is mentioned in all the Eucharistic prayers. It comes with the prayer of remembering which is the first one after the supper narration. In Eucharistic Prayer II, the celebrant says "In memory of his death and resurrection," and then adds: "we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup." Watch out for it in the other Eucharistic prayers and make the offering of yourself, of your life, "the living sacrifice of praise" along with the offering of Christ himself. What the Mass is all about is summed up in a terse phrase contained in one of the documents which followed on the Vatican II Liturgy Constitution. The Mass is described as "a memorial sacrifice and a meal."
"Complex," "authoritarian," "slow to adapt," are some inadequate ways of describing our church. We should declare more frankly that it's all about love, really, just as Moses so marvellously said.
Cut to the core— get to the point! What is our religion really about? Well, the eternal, loving God has loved us into being, and wants us to love, in our turn, fully, unconditionally, with all our heart and strength.
Jesus quotes Moses for the first half of his reply.. perhaps the deepest part.. but he stops us from sliding into false mysticism by adding part two: the daily application - loving the people right next door.
It's a lifelong task, to love that next-door neighbour; a challenge to know how to do it, to re-start doing it, after a lapse. But it's part of the very soul of Christian living, and why we need our Eucharistic food.
So what is the real purpose of human life? It's never been better expressed than in this double commandment that gets to the heart and soul of things.
Many would welcome a word on the love principle applied to concrete examples, within their real-life contexts (family, work, neighbourhood, employer-labour relations, social involvement, school, church, citizenship, environment, and international issues of conflict and co-operation.) Married couples might also be glad if the "love as oneself" were applied to conjugal relations, family planning and dealing with conflict at home. But since next Sunday's readings treat of compassion and generosity, we might postpone most of the practical examples until then, and today focus on the ideal of love as the core of Christian morality.
"Which is the greatest commandment?" was a reasonable question for that Jewish teacher to ask of Jesus. In our Catholic tradition, we often feel the need for a simple guideline as to which doctrines are central, and which are relatively secondary. Without rejecting any Church teaching, we need to know which of them express the core of our faith.) Still more was a rule of thumb required in the Jewish tradition. Under a system which listed over six hundred religious laws and regulations, even the most earnest person would fail sometimes to keep them all. So it was vital to distinguish the main duties from purely trivial matters. In answer, Jesus combined the two highest commands of the Old Testament and gave them new force by relating them so closely to each other. There is no genuine love of God without love for our neighbour; and there can be no sustained love of neighbour without an underlying love for God.
The Beatles" song "All You Need Is Love" stated the same truth, in a way that sounded flippant and irresponsible in the sex-charged pop-culture in the 1960s. Seen in a more positive light, the slogan does sum up the Gospel attitude towards morality. In a classic of spirituality, Dom Eugene Boylan characterised Jesus as "This Tremendous Lover." Love is the most precious and powerful quality in a human life. It is the one value that outlasts all others (1 Cor 13) ; 50 central, indeed, that it best describes God himself: God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God (1 Jn 4:16.)
How does the love principle interact with the Ten Commandments, which both Jews and Christians have long revered as expressing central moral concerns? Echoing Jesus, Paul would see the Decalogue as spelling Out some of the concrete implications of love; for "he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8). Still, that sentence cannot be simply reversed. There's a real shift of emphasis from the Decalogue's "Thou shalt not" to the Christian "Thou shalt." Of course we must refrain from murder, theft, adultery and lying under oath; but Jesus asks for much more than that, both by his own example ("love one another as I have loved you') and by the boundless compassion of the Good Samaritan about whom we are told: "Go and do likewise" (Lk 10:37). It is not enough to refrain from sin; we are to keep the commandments in a spirit of love.
But, is it possible to love God "with all your heart?" Or to cherish another as much as oneself? The love-command is not some regulation that can be simply monitored, and no one can say "I have kept it perfectly. What else is required of me?" Rather, it offers a target, an orientation, a yardstick against to measure the whole thrust of one's life-style and goals. Its fulfilment is only partial and provisional, always in need of renewal and reassessment. Jewish tradition tells of old Rabbi Eleazar, who bravely resisted the foreign king's decree that all Jews must conform to pagan ways. He was prepared to die a martyr, rather than submit by eating the prescribed piece of pork. His disciples tried desperately to save the old rabbi. Eleazar need only pretend to conform, in order to be spared a painful death. But he refused this way out. "All of my life," he said, "I have wanted to understand what this means, To love Him with all your soul and with all your strength. And now that lam on the point of finding out, wll you persuade me to draw back?'
At funerals, we discuss the encounters we have had with the deceased in order to capture something of their personality. On the grave-stone, too, we often try to express some great value that they cherished. What really counts in God's sight is, How much did they love? Wouldn't it be great if, when all the speeches are over, the final verdict on our life was, "Kind, thoughtful, devoted to others, committed to love?"
The widow of Zarephath shares the last of her food with Elijah
Elijah set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."
Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth."
She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil ail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Christ our High Priest opened for us the door of salvation
Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The offering of the widow had great value in God's sight
As he taught, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
In the upcoming Year of Mercy we could look at how we are practising the Christian virtue of mercy? Statistics can first be quoted about trends in the Church: about the drop-off in sacramental practice and Mass attendance, about vocations to priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty of involving young people in Church-based activities. And then comes the question: Is Catholicism in decline in the developed world? If we define "decline" by irregular attendance in Church and the ignoring of hierarchical authority, the answer must be Yes, we seem to be in serious decline. This challenges all of us, priests and people alike: How to make our Church a more welcoming place, where people who have drifted away would feel more cherished, cared for and understood. But there is another side to practising the faith, as alive today as at any time in the past.
Today's Scripture tells of a poor widow who showed mercy in the form of practical compassion, by sharing her last crust with the prophet Elijah. Was she practising the faith? Very much so, yes, because she did what Jesus expects of us . I was hungry and you.. If you give a cup of water in my name .. Then that other poor woman in the Temple, who quietly put in her last savings so that God would be properly worshipped, was she practising the faith, through a work of mercy? Yes, she followed the generous impulse of her heart Whoever gives whole-heatedly of himself/herself to a worthy cause is following the example of Jesus, whether they are aware of it or not. They have the blessing of God and are promised their reward.
We need to make sure that our idea of "practising Catholic" includes these vital qualities of compassion and generosity. Indeed, sharing in the Mass and the sacraments is only genuine if it prompts us to loving mercy of this kind. We also need our Church leaders to engage with us in open dialogue on sensitive points of sacramental discipline which many church members perceive as arbitrary impositions by authority, rather than as life-values arising from the spirit of the Gospel. Today in this Eucharist we re-commit ourselves to practice the faith in the way that really counts: by giving of ourselves as Jesus did.
"It's all taking and no giving!" as Dolly Parton belted it out, in the Film: Working Nine to Five, and her next line was to mock that way of life: "What a way to make a living!". Today's Scriptures point to another way. The good life manages to blend gracious taking with cheerful giving, and the value is in the giving. It's our giving that is recorded in the Book of Life. Jesus is the Great Giver: that we may have life, and have it to the full [Jn 10:10.] As a fine example of this kind of mutual help, we have hear how Elijah and the widow of Zarephath helped each other to survive. During the famine she shares the last of her food with the starving prophet. She gives without hesitation, and is blessed in return. In the Gospel Jesus says, in effect, "Give from the heart." The widow's offering to the Temple might seem small in the eyes of other donors, but it was whole-hearted and therefore priceless in value. Generosity is not the exclusive prerogative of the rich. The poor have great gifts to share too, and when they do so, others should respond with appreciation.
Gifts from ordinary people support many projects and causes in the Catholic Church, just as they kept the Jerusalem temple going in Jesus' day. It is a strange, but at the same time common truth, that generosity is more widespread among those who have little to spare than among those who have lots of money and property. But let's recall today that all donations made for the glory of God share in Jesus warm praise of the woman who "gave all she could." This story of the Widow's Mite invites us to examine the quality of giving in our lives — not just to Church collections, but to whatever worthy cause attracts our attention and our sympathy. More than once, Jesus spoke about this subject. Not only should the gift he made with a generous heart, but so far as possible in an anonymous, non-fussy way, so that "the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing." The thing should be done because it is right, with the intention of pleasing God rather than winning credit or praise from others. And the more it costs us in personal terms — giving up some of our time, or our comfort, for something worthwhile — the more it is part of the one great sacrifice of Christ, who gave himself totally for us.
Saint Paul coined the phrase "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor 9:6-7.) And there can be no doubt that the cheerful gift is more acceptable even among people on a everyday level. The hospitality shown to the famished prophet Elijah by the poor widow in the town of Sidon, was all the more precious in that it was given with loving respect, and not as a grudging duty. Here was a man of God, clearly in need of help. There was no need for long, involved argument about how he had gotten into this position, or whether he had drawn up a wiser plan for his future. She did what she could for him, and was blessed in the process.
"Charity brings its own reward," says the proverb. There is a glow of satisfaction in giving for a good cause. It is also, in a Gospel sense, the best possible investment for our eternal future — that "treasure in heaven" of which Jesus spoke, when he invited people to "sell what you have and give to the poor." And it has been well said that, from the perspective of our death-bed, we will be happier to think of what we have freely given away during our life-time than of what we have simply stored away for the rainy day.
Giving can be global as well as local. In our technological age, we have more detailed information than any previous generation about the hungry and deprived plight of people in Third World countries, and indeed of the major miseries endured in inner-city areas of high unemployment much closer to home. Sometimes we feel almost crushed into apathy by the sheer magnitude of the problems; at other times we may grow indignant at the political and economic structures that seem to perpetuate this state of affairs. Aware and intelligent generosity should prompt us to outspoken concern for justice, as well as some personal contribution to charities like famine relief, development funds and soon. At the same time, we ought not neglect the smaller, perhaps less urgent, needs at our own door-step. The personal touch is part of the giving, and giving our time can often be more precious than anything else. And Shakespeare's line remains true about all works of kindness and mercy, in whatever circumstances: "It is twice blessed: it blesses him that gives and him that takes."
Daniel's vision about the end of time, including the resurrection of the dead
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.
Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, "How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?"
The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished.
I heard but could not understand; so I said, "My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?" He said, "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days. But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days."
Christ offered a single sacrifice for sins, valid for all time
Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Warnings about the second coming of Christ
Jesus said to his disciples: "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Metaphors like "burning your boats" or "burning your bridges," suggest a radical option with no turning back. Having your lamp alight is a gentler image, but still a good one, for meeting the challenge of life. "What shall be the outcome?" is the question posed in both Old and New Testament. Where is this world headed? And more personally, what of my own destiny in the life to come? About that day or hour no one knows. And just as well, for it would be difficult knowledge to cope with. But his message is to be ready to meet him, whenever he comes. The Lord comes to us in many ways, both to gift us and challenge us. Welcoming him is what really makes us Christians, sharing the spirit of his first followers who said "Maranatha" — "Our Lord, come !" We are invited to live our lives within an awareness of eternity, seeing this life as preparation for and building towards an endless life with God.
The faster our cars become, it seems, the more we have to spend time waiting for the lights to change to green. The queue and the traffic-jam are signs of our times. The more we are in a hurry the more we feel held up. We travel at speed through the air, but wait interminably at airports. Business life is punctuated with frustrating times waiting for appointments. How do we wait? Sometimes with great impatience, sometimes with anxiety. But our waiting can also be coloured with joyful expectation. Expectation is often more pleasurable than realization. As Shakespeare said, "All things that are, are with more pleasure chased than enjoyed."
How should a believer await the coming of the Lord? Carefully, as those employed and carrying great responsibility. We will have to give an account of all our doings. The books must be in order. Actively, with our lamps burning, not asleep. We have to keep on working until the end. There is no time when we can say we have arrived, we have it all made. Joyfully, for if we are ready, then it is a joy to await the bridegroom and enter into the marriage feast. Hopefully, for we await him who in his one sacrifice lives to make intercession for our sins. In him we have confidence. He comes to reward us who have remained faithful and whose names are written in the book of life.
Our vision of the last things should not sink us in pessimism, or despair at our sinfulness. But the question should be asked: How ready are we? Our faith tells us that some generation in history will experience the second coming of Christ. Then a person may have but a moment to wonder: "Am I ready? Am I prepared? Even if ours is not the generation to see the second coming, still each of us must face our personal day of death. For some it comes unexpectedly, out of the blue, even perhaps at a young age. For others it will be fairly predictable and follow the more natural course of ageing and decline. Regardless, there will be a time when each must ask the question: "Am I ready? Am I prepared? Meanwhile, we are faced with multiple choices to make each day which may seem insignificant; but they all add up pointing us in particular directions, sometimes good, sometimes less so. Are our everyday decisions helping to make us ready? Are they making us prepared?
With the busy-ness of life it is easy to forget about the second coming of Christ. We prefer to ignore our mortality and put off our preparation for the death which we all must face. How do we prepare ourselves? How do we get ready? How will we be sure that the Lord recognizes us? What are the right choices to make during our day? The end of chapter 25 reads: "Then the king will say to those on his right, Come, you who 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 drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Although we do not know the day or the hour of the second coming of Christ, Although we do not know the day or the hour of our own deaths, we have been told what staying awake entails. It seems that if we meet the response from the Lord: "Amen, I say to you, I do not know you, it will be because of our foolishness and not because of a lack of mercy or justice on the part of the Lord.
Glorious vision of the Son of Man
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
The firstborn of the dead will be ruler of the kings of the earth
Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Pilate questions Jesus about kingship
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
Is kingship meaningless to us, as democrats and republicans? Nowadays, democracy, with all its complexities, is the preferred form of regulating society. Except in figurative phrases like "king of the road," words like royalty and kingship, with their absolute demand for respect and obedience, evoke an age that was marked by unjustified privilege and power. The notion of the "divine right of kings" protected radical inequality and allowed for the suppression of individual rights. So we regard kingship as an unsuitable image for our modern world. What then can we make of today's feast, celebrating Christ as our king?
Does he demand our service and submission? Would he suppress our right to self-expression and all other rights? Today's Gospel puts us on the right track to understand what kind of king he really is. Jesus told the Roman Governor that his kingship was like no other: "My kingdom is not of this world." His kingship is far removed from our usual notion of kings. Standing as a prisoner, robed and crowned with thorns as a mock king before this ruthless military governor, Jesus claims a spiritual authority that has nothing to do with external trappings or the power to compel by force. His authority is the authority of truth. He is king by the fact that he lives the truth and has the power to lead others to the truth — the truth that can save them to eternal life: "for this I was born and came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice" (John 18:37.)
Christ lived by the truth and he died for it. Through the centuries his followers have continued to commit their lives and even risk their all for loyalty to him. In him the Son of the Eternal God, the one who reveals the Father of all truth, millions have found the source and the inspiration for their own deepest truth, the truth which makes them free. His word, contained in the Scriptures, gives us the clearest kind of truth.
The truth of Christ is one of word and action, perfectly in harmony. Truth was vitally important to him, who hated all sham and pretense. Perhaps we tend to think of the truth in terms of the spoken word mostly. And we could be economical with it.. All those questions we posed, to see how to conceal the truth without actually lying. The old ironic remark "whatever you say, say nothing!" is still to be heard. But truth is something to be loved and lived, something to be acted upon, as St Paul says, "doing the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15.) It is by doing the truth in love that we honour his kingship. We spread his kingdom, his saving rule on earth. Doing the truth wherever we are, in business, in politics, at work or at home, should be our ideal, our guiding value, the hallmark of our lives.
To get deeper in touch with the truth demands our attention and maybe some change in our lifestyle. It needs periods of quiet, even spending some time with him in personal prayer. Truth cannot really mark our lives without the inspiration which comes from Christ its source. It has to flow from prayer to life, and back into prayer again. A new commitment to the truth can give us a new vision of life. And far from oppressing us, Christ the King of truth will be the one to set us free.
Paul speaks of Jesus Christ at the end of time handing over the kingdom to God the Father. Today's Preface repeats this, describing Christ's kingdom as one of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice. love and peace. This ideal is not to be merely a future hope but is to be worked for in the present. The kingdom is our hope, but somehow it is also in our midst, in the process of becoming. The gospel tells us how we are to promote the fuller coming of God's kingdom among us. 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 rescues from situations of 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 way to serve Christ our King is to work for the coming of his kingdom. In working for the relief of the deprived, the oppressed and the outcast we are serving Christ in person, because he fully identifies himself with all those in need, right up to his final moment in this life. The disciple of Christ the King cannot afford the luxury of comfortably "keeping myself to myself" or "Well anyway, I do nobody any harm." To be deaf to the cries of the 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 take Jesus Christ as our Shepherd-king involves becoming shepherds in some way ourselves; for the work goes on.