Thirtieth Sunday Year – A

When Harry Chapin’s song ‘Cats in the Cradle’ came out it gave many a father a guilt trip.  The song is about a father who was so busy he never had time for his son.  But when he got older and the roles were reversed, he discovered that his son grew up to be like him, for now the son never had time to visit him. 

One day a certain man hurriedly headed out of the door for work. In his path was a three-year-old son playing with blocks. The man patted the boy on the head, stepped over him, opened the door, and went outside and halfway down the walk a guilt bomb exploded within him.

“What am I doing?” he thought to himself. “I am ignoring my son. I never play with him. He’ll be old before I know it.” In the background of his thoughts, he heard the pounding rhythms of “Cats in the Cradle” ballad.  He returned to the house and sat down with his son and began to build blocks.  After two minutes, the boy said, “Daddy, why are you mad with me?” 

It’s not only what we do that counts but from where we do it. Our actions come from different places inside us. These different places affect the quality and effectiveness of what we do. We may think the inside is of little consequence as we push into the outer world, but it can change the impact of our actions.  “Steeling ourselves with a steel heart” and doing something is not the same as “opening ourselves” and doing the same thing.  Playing blocks out of guilt is not the same as playing blocks out of love, and the difference is quickly spotted, even by three-year-olds – especially by three-year-olds.  Doing something because it is expected and doing something from the heart are two different experiences. Perhaps that is why Jesus, in Matthew is Gospel, insist that we forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart.

As the Gospel puts it, the greatest commandment is love of God and neighbour.  But it’s never meant to be a commandment out of a sense of duty, or guilt or even baser motives.  Love can only come from a spontaneous and generous heart with no conditions attached.  Today’s reading from Exodus sets the bar very high with Moses’ insistence to treat the stranger, orphan and widow with the highest respect.  But how can this be done? The first principle was to remember from where they had come. They must remember that they were once strangers in a foreign land.  When they were the least of all nations God said to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people, I know what they are suffering, therefore I have come to rescue them.”  The point of remembering the suffering of the past, was not to take revenge or get even, but to practice with others the same compassion that God had shown them in the first place.  Reflecting on how they were blessed was the best medicine to open their hearts to others in a similar plight. 

In the Gospel a lawyer asks the most basic question of all.  “Which commandment is the greatest?”  Whether sincere or conniving, he was asking the core question of every human life: “what’s it all about?” or “what does God expect from humanity?”  We all know the answer but the striking thing about Jesus’ response is that he links directly love of God with love of neighbour.  You cannot love one without the other.  As 1 John 4:20 says, “Anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, is a liar, since whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Altogether, Jesus calls for a four-directional love: love of God, self, those who are close to us, and those whose purpose and way of life seems entirely different or even antagonistic to ours. In reality this boils down to two directions: love of the familiar and love of what is not like us. Love of the familiar comes naturally. This love affirms us and makes us comfortable — mostly!  But Jesus calls us to go further, and learn to love those who think and act differently.  This is far more uncomfortable — and risky.  You only have to think of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And yet, it is neglect of this kind of love, both down through the centuries and today — especially today — that has led this world to the crisis it is now facing.

Pope Francis leans heavily on this kind of love in his recent encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers and Sisters All). The only antidote to all the hate, fragmentation, division, racial segregation, selfishness, factionalism, fake news etc. is an open heart that reaches out to all and sundry, no matter who they are or where they come from.  Unless we do this we will continue to live in a world lurching from one crisis to another. (FT 31).

Faced with our current predicament the Pope says, ‘Some people attempt to flee from reality, taking refuge in their own little world; others react to it with destructive violence’ (FT 199). Instead the Pope offers another option, namely, dialogue.  “Dialogue between generations; dialogue among our people, for we are that people; readiness to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. A country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture”.

In paragraph 70 he makes clear that going forward there are ‘only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it. In moments of crisis, decisions become urgent.”

Sunday, 25th October 2020

Twenty-Ninth Sunday – A

The Israelites took great pride in being the nation that God had liberated from foreign rule.  Their very identity was synonymous with freedom.  The great catch cry of the Exodus was, ‘Set my people free!’ However, today we find that both in the first reading and the gospel, they are captive and subject to unbelievers.  Their exile in Babylon was most tragic and well summed up in psalm 137

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept at the memory of Zion. 2 On the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For there our gaolers had asked us to sing them a song, our captors to make merry, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’  How could we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right-hand wither!”

It’s important to let it sink in how much they lost: land, temple and, it would seem, their covenant relationship with God was in tatters.  But all was not lost.  In time they began to realise that, as a people, they had lost the plot long before their exile in Jerusalem.  It was not God who deserted them but rather they that deserted God.  They began to see their present exile as a dark night of the soul where their relationship with God was renewed.  And then, after two or three generations, along came King Cyrus.   He was a good man.  Though he reigned over the vast Persian empire, he proved to be a very different kind of leader from what was usually expected in those days.  He was wise and realised that every nation had a right to its own customs and religion.  In this he was way ahead of his time and it allowed the Jews in exile in Babylon to return home to their native Jerusalem.  But for all of this there was a problem.  He was an unbeliever, an outsider.  It seems that Isaiah, with the far-seeing eyes of a prophet had no problem with this and thus called Cyrus God’s anointed one, in other words, their messiah.  But I wonder how well that sat with the ordinary Jew. To say the least, it was a stretch for them to see God doing good deeds through an unbeliever.  How dare call him God’s anointed one?  Isaiah, however, chimes in with what Jesus was to say centuries later, ‘the Spirit blows where it pleases.’

In Jesus’ time the Israelites were under captivity too, but no way as bad as their ancestors in Babylon.  At least they had their land back, their temple rebuilt, and their covenant renewed once more.  But they were still living under foreign domination.  They still weren’t a free nation under God! This meant compromise and struggle.  The good Jew felt in his or her heart that the commandments of God must be kept.  But at times they were forced to pay taxes to the Romans with a coin that bore an idolatrous image and a blasphemous claim.  This ran counter to everything they held sacred.  It is small surprise then that the leaders who were very suspicious of Jesus confronted him with this same dilemma.  ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ There was nothing subtle about their approach.  They sought to nail him with this impossible dilemma.  But why such malicious intent toward Jesus?  Perhaps because he was a bit like Cyrus — a good man doing good works but an outsider nonetheless from faraway Galilee.  How could an ordinary layman with no credentials dare to be so wise? 

In the end they were the ones exposed, not Jesus.  When he asked for a coin, they immediately produced one thus violating the commandment of possessing a coin with an idolatrous image on it.  Jesus, however, made no accusation against them.  He simply sent them off with the now famous words, ‘Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’

Jesus doesn’t specify what belongs to Caesar. He left that to us to sort out, but it doesn’t take too much reflection to realise that precious little belongs to Caesar. He, along with the rest of us, belong to God.  As Psalm 24 puts it, “The earth is the Lord and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  What could belong to Caesar that doesn’t come from God? Aren’t all the subjects of the empire also sons and daughters of God?  There is no such thing then as two powers that can demand loyalty from their respective spheres on an equal basis. 

God’s great gift to us is the unique life God has given each of us.  Our gift back to God is what we do with that life.  As we bear God’s image it stands to reason that we be and live that image in all we do. But just as the Jews in Babylon and those in the time of Jesus were compromised by being captive to foreign unbelievers, so we too have to live out our lives bearing God’s image in compromised times.  Let’s start with Covid-19.  Call it our dark night of the soul where many have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.  Furthermore, with churches closed for ages it’s like we lost our temple too. We are all affected by corruption, falsehoods, populism and global invisible forces that rule our lives in ways we may not even know.  All these matters have a way of diminishing us, making us less that the people we are meant to be. 

The dark night of the soul that our ancestors endured proved to be a turning point in their salvation history.  Can we do the same with our dark night?  The key question that Jesus puts to us today is, ‘do we render to God what belongs to God?’  Is my heart invested in God or is it rather immersed in the trappings of this world?

The readings face us with one other question.  Do I see other persons of another persuasion or faith as threats simply because they are other?  God doesn’t and never ceases to use them for our good.  When it comes to God’s plan of salvation, there are no real outsiders.  All men and women of good will are insiders. 

We live in a world where political and religious differences pit us against each other, when persons of another persuasion or faith are considered outsiders or non-believers.  Whenever we hold such views, we fail to see the goodwill of others and we might overlook the good that God is working through them for our benefit.  We may in fact be making ourselves outsiders to the grace of God active in our world today. 

Sunday, 18th of October 2020

Twenty-Ninth Sunday – A

The Israelites took great pride in being the nation that God had liberated from foreign rule.  Their very identity was synonymous with freedom.  The great catch cry of the Exodus was, ‘Set my people free!’ However, today we find that both in the first reading and the gospel, they are captive and subject to unbelievers.  Their exile in Babylon was most tragic and well summed up in psalm 137

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept at the memory of Zion. 2 On the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For there our gaolers had asked us to sing them a song, our captors to make merry, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’  How could we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right-hand wither!”

It’s important to let it sink in how much they lost: land, temple and, it would seem, their covenant relationship with God was in tatters.  But all was not lost.  In time they began to realise that, as a people, they had lost the plot long before their exile in Jerusalem.  It was not God who deserted them but rather they that deserted God.  They began to see their present exile as a dark night of the soul where their relationship with God was renewed.  And then, after two or three generations, along came King Cyrus.   He was a good man.  Though he reigned over the vast Persian empire, he proved to be a very different kind of leader from what was usually expected in those days.  He was wise and realised that every nation had a right to its own customs and religion.  In this he was way ahead of his time and it allowed the Jews in exile in Babylon to return home to their native Jerusalem.  But for all of this there was a problem.  He was an unbeliever, an outsider.  It seems that Isaiah, with the far-seeing eyes of a prophet had no problem with this and thus called Cyrus God’s anointed one, in other words, their messiah.  But I wonder how well that sat with the ordinary Jew. To say the least, it was a stretch for them to see God doing good deeds through an unbeliever.  How dare call him God’s anointed one?  Isaiah, however, chimes in with what Jesus was to say centuries later, ‘the Spirit blows where it pleases.’

In Jesus’ time the Israelites were under captivity too, but no way as bad as their ancestors in Babylon.  At least they had their land back, their temple rebuilt, and their covenant renewed once more.  But they were still living under foreign domination.  They still weren’t a free nation under God! This meant compromise and struggle.  The good Jew felt in his or her heart that the commandments of God must be kept.  But at times they were forced to pay taxes to the Romans with a coin that bore an idolatrous image and a blasphemous claim.  This ran counter to everything they held sacred.  It is small surprise then that the leaders who were very suspicious of Jesus confronted him with this same dilemma.  ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ There was nothing subtle about their approach.  They sought to nail him with this impossible dilemma.  But why such malicious intent toward Jesus?  Perhaps because he was a bit like Cyrus — a good man doing good works but an outsider nonetheless from faraway Galilee.  How could an ordinary layman with no credentials dare to be so wise? 

In the end they were the ones exposed, not Jesus.  When he asked for a coin, they immediately produced one thus violating the commandment of possessing a coin with an idolatrous image on it.  Jesus, however, made no accusation against them.  He simply sent them off with the now famous words, ‘Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’

Jesus doesn’t specify what belongs to Caesar. He left that to us to sort out, but it doesn’t take too much reflection to realise that precious little belongs to Caesar. He, along with the rest of us, belong to God.  As Psalm 24 puts it, “The earth is the Lord and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  What could belong to Caesar that doesn’t come from God? Aren’t all the subjects of the empire also sons and daughters of God?  There is no such thing then as two powers that can demand loyalty from their respective spheres on an equal basis. 

God’s great gift to us is the unique life God has given each of us.  Our gift back to God is what we do with that life.  As we bear God’s image it stands to reason that we be and live that image in all we do. But just as the Jews in Babylon and those in the time of Jesus were compromised by being captive to foreign unbelievers, so we too have to live out our lives bearing God’s image in compromised times.  Let’s start with Covid-19.  Call it our dark night of the soul where many have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.  Furthermore, with churches closed for ages it’s like we lost our temple too. We are all affected by corruption, falsehoods, populism and global invisible forces that rule our lives in ways we may not even know.  All these matters have a way of diminishing us, making us less that the people we are meant to be. 

The dark night of the soul that our ancestors endured proved to be a turning point in their salvation history.  Can we do the same with our dark night?  The key question that Jesus puts to us today is, ‘do we render to God what belongs to God?’  Is my heart invested in God or is it rather immersed in the trappings of this world?

The readings face us with one other question.  Do I see other persons of another persuasion or faith as threats simply because they are other?  God doesn’t and never ceases to use them for our good.  When it comes to God’s plan of salvation, there are no real outsiders.  All men and women of good will are insiders. 

We live in a world where political and religious differences pit us against each other, when persons of another persuasion or faith are considered outsiders or non-believers.  Whenever we hold such views, we fail to see the goodwill of others and we might overlook the good that God is working through them for our benefit.  We may in fact be making ourselves outsiders to the grace of God active in our world today. 

Sunday, 18th of October 2020

Twenty-Eight Sunday – A

I was at a small birthday party the other day —small because of Covid-19.  The five of us had a lovely meal and a lovely sharing.  It was like the world stopped for a few hours and nothing else seemed to matter except enjoying this special moment and reminiscing on times gone by.  I thought to myself afterward: would this have been the same without the meal and a glass of wine or even a cup of tea?  Could we really have sat around for so long if nothing passed our lips?  I think not.  No wonder the gospels are taken up with stories of Jesus at meals again and again, whether it be Martha and Mary, or the tax collectors trying to get close to him, or indeed, the wedding feast at Cana. Meals seemed to be at the heart of the message of the Kingdom of God and small surprise therefore that the Mass itself is a meal.  In terms of the kingdom of heaven this eucharistic banquet symbolises God’s great yearning to be bonded with us.

The first reading, with its description of a great banquet, prepares us for the gospel. It takes place on a mountain because in the Old Testament, mountains were sacred places.  “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  Furthermore, the Lord will wipe away all negativity, tears and death.  There is now every reason to rejoice and be glad for ‘the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.’

When Jesus talked about the king who prepared the wedding feast, his audience realised that he was depicting how God loves and longs to share divine joy with humanity.  But the king in Jesus’ story quickly became a tragic figure.  Although he had cultivated relationships with his people as carefully as he had prepared the banquet, when the decisive moment came, all his efforts seemed to have been vain.  The very people with whom he wanted to share his joy boycotted his banquet and scorned the life he offered. 

There is one very telling phrase as to why those in the parable did not come.  ‘They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…’  ‘They made light of it.’ In other words, they saw no point, nothing to be gained from going to the wedding.  This is the big temptation of today.  The physical, in your face world of today seems far more urgent and important than the spiritual world which is less visible and can easily be passed off as a nuisance.  As Pope Benedict puts it, “At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” 

The king does not give up, however.  A second and third time he sent out his servants and, in the end, ordering everyone come: cultivated or crude, renowned or infamous, religious or infidel. Anyone who wanted to participate was welcome.  Although this revised celebration hardly resembled the original plan, the activity, the sounds and smells permeating the atmosphere proved that the king and his people were enjoying the festivities.  All except the spoiler. 

The spoiler who had no wedding garment may seem mystifying.  After all everyone is invited so why the fuss if someone is not properly dressed?  A little background may help. Apparently, there was a Jewish custom where the father of the groom provided wedding garments free of charge for the invited guests.  These garments had to be worn no matter how well one’s own apparel may be. Dignitaries and the privileged would conform to this custom as did those with poor apparel.  Once he has been given this garment, the homeless person from off the streets is on an equal footing with everyone else. Like school uniforms today, these garments created a sense of equality and mutual respect among the guests. 

From this point of view, the man with no wedding garment was arrogant, feeling himself superior and distinct from all others.  While the majority of the guests were far from saintly, this one person, assuming some sort of personal infallibility, attended the party but absolved himself from participating in its camaraderie.  Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’, sees this in action on a global scale, where technology that focusses on profit has made us neighbours to each other but not brothers and sisters and what is needed is a community that supports and helps each other. 

There is another message here. Once one has attended the party one must change.  To be part of the Christian community means it is no longer business as usual.  We must put on Christ.  We cannot keep to our old individualistic ways without a thought or care for others.  The early Christian community learnt this lesson very well where, “Each day, with one heart, they regularly went to the Temple but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone”  (Acts 2:47ff).  No room for spoilers there!

Today, as Jesus gives us a glimpse of his vision of God, he offers us an unbelievable invitation.  Let us allow ourselves to be touched by God’s desire for us and accept the invitation to enter into and fully enjoy the banquet of life God spreads before us. 

Sunday, 11th of October 2020

Twenty-Seventh Sunday – A

The first reading today is a masterpiece of storytelling. What’s extraordinary about it is the skill with which the prophet caught the listeners on the blind side.  He had them continually thinking that he was talking about someone else and not themselves until the last sentence.  Thus, they willingly agreed with his friend’s great effort of preparing the fertile hillside for grapes.  There are lovely details here about digging the field, clearing it of stones, building a watchtower and planting the choices vines.  It all sounds like a labour of love but, sadly, all ending in a huge disappointment.  The field only produces wild grapes!  When he pops the question, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” the people agree that the proper thing to do is to make a waste land of the field once again.  And then comes the punch line.  This is not a story from some distant country.  It is they the listeners who are the culprits! ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but found bloodshed, righteousness, but only a cry of distress.’

In the gospel Jesus is in conflict with the religious authorities who were threatened and angry after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, not to mention his preaching in the temple. How dare he! It was one thing for Jesus to make noises in faraway Galilee but to arrive at the gates of the holy city and cause an uproar there was an entirely different matter.  Put bluntly, they were scandalised by his behaviour.  There were all sorts of reasons for this.  How could anything good come from Galilee, less still Nazareth?  Who did this Jesus think he was?  Was he not an ordinary layman after all?  And how dare he challenge the upholders of the Law!  For whatever reason, they failed to see the sublime goodness in this humble servant of God.

In response to their criticism Jesus borrowed Isaiah’s outline and created a parable that summarised salvation history and his place in it.  As happened with Isaiah, he uncovers their blindness.  Not thinking this parable had anything to do with them, they were harsh, even merciless, in their criticism of the tenants.  “These wretches must be brought to a wretched end!”  This is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth mentality; something that Jesus abhorred. 

In reply, Jesus offered an entirely different approach. He doesn’t ask for punishment.  He didn’t want anyone brought to a wretched end. Instead he points out that God typically favours what others reject. ‘The stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone.’  There is an implication here that the builders are rejected too.  It’s a pattern that runs right through the Bible.  God began with lowly Israel, the smallest of all nations, continued with the prophets and came to a climax with Jesus himself.  As for Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom; it will simply be taken from the present leaders and given to a people wo will produce its fruit.  Just as he had done on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looked to the lowly and promised that they would be transformed and not destroyed. 

Isaiah’s parable lends itself to yet another interpretation, namely, the creation story in Genesis 1-3 including the violence these stories entailed.  The vineyard now comes to represent Mother Earth.  Put in today’s language the Earth has been in the making for 13.8 billion years.  The details of this making go way beyond the human mind to grasp but we can be sure that it was a labour of love, of joy and delight, as it was in the ballad of Isaiah.  Then God put us humanity in charge of it as stewards.  But rather than steward the Earth with the reverence due to a loving God, we have blindly sought to usurp and dominate what has been given to us as gift.  Today, thanks to our greed, exploitation and pillaging of the Earth, we are facing the consequences of global warming on a massive scale.

It’s more than a coincidence that today, the 4th of October, is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the final day of the worldwide observance of the Season of Creation. If Jesus was telling us that the time for repentance and change of heart is short, is now, the same goes for Pope Francis who is giving the world a similarly urgent message today. Whereas Genesis spoke of Abel’s blood crying out to God from the earth, Francis tells us that sister Earth herself “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her” by plundering and “seeing ourselves as her lords and masters.” Francis is now appealing to us to listen attentively to “both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”

Just over a year and a half ago there was a synod on the Amazon.  Many gave testimonies from there of the sad plight they are enduring, not least the rampant fires there, and maybe having mass only once every six months.  The synod came up with a very strong call to the entire church.  “Faced with the pressing situation of the planet and the Amazon, integral ecology is not one path among many that the Church can choose for the future … it is the only possible path.”

When Jesus told the parable of the vineyard owner and the tenants, he offered a life-giving alternative to his audience’s suggestion that the owner should annihilate the wicked. In Laudato Sí’, Francis calls us to embrace the exciting drama of our history, come together in union with all creatures and take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us. That seems to be a 21st-century plan for being a people bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God. Following Francis’ suggestion, we can change the tune of Isaiah’s sad ballad and sing as we go because “our struggles and concern for this planet [need] never take away the joy of our hope.”

Sunday, 4th of October 2020

Twenty-Fifth Sunday – A

“God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.” 

I like the way the parish chairman can reel off this rhyme before he announces that the parish finances are not in great shape.  This rhyme, however, turns out to be a good summary of today’s Liturgy of the Word. But what do we mean by ‘God is good?’  What is our measuring rod? Both Isaiah and Jesus will tell us that this phrase says more than we might expect.  To paraphrase the prophet we could say, ‘as high as the heavens are above the earth so the goodness of God is far above our goodness.’  God’s goodness never fits in our moulds.

Isaiah invites us to “Seek the Lord while he may be found!” The implication here is no matter how we have messed up on life, if, at five minutes to midnight, we ask for mercy, we will be forgiven.  That’s great news for the hardened criminal, but what about the decent folk who not only led upright, prayerful lives, but perhaps even suffered at the hands of such scoundrels. Have they no right, like the workers who bore the heat of the day, to feel cheated?  While pursuing the good life has its own joy still from our human standpoint this parable is very unfair.

There are two roads here in Benoni that give me the opportunity to see this parable from another angle.  One is lined with workers in their overalls hoping someone will hire them for the day.  On the other road are a few women hoping to get domestic work for the day.  Unfortunately, there seems to be far more workers than hirers.  That means many will end up without work — and money — and perhaps little mouths to feed back home.  We’re not told why the latecomers were late.  Perhaps they were looking for work elsewhere because their response to the owner was that no one would hire them. This seems to have bothered the owner more than the progress of the work.  Thus, despite each one’s work been pretty unequal, he gives them all a denarius: basically, what a peasant family of Galilee needs each day to survive.  Of more importance to this owner was the basic human right that everyone has a right to work. 

I’m reminded of a story about John that I heard years ago.  John was living in an institution that took care of his special needs.  He was big and strong but mentally challenged.  Boredom and frustration were his constant complaints and he let it be known.  But one of the carers with a compassionate eye looked for ways to relieve his boredom.  She came up with the idea of making him gatekeeper.  A simple task you might say but given John’s mental capacity it was a big ask.  John’s first instinct was to yank and pull the gate forgetting that it was locked.  Only after much patience did he learn to first get the key and then unlock the gate.  A few days later he got it right and with that his life was transformed.  He now had a focus, a job, a reason for living.  He was the gatekeeper.  People greeted and thanked him.  He was over the moon.  He was needed and appreciated. 

Sebastian Moore says that one of our greatest human needs is to be wanted and appreciated; to not simply desire but to be desirable and significant for others.  This is what changed everything for John.  The good news of Jesus is that we are all desirable.  God desires us no matter what time we turn up.  The work we do is of less importance than the fact that we are worthy and desirable in God’s eyes. 

There is still the difficulty of envy and jealousy that can stay with us long into adulthood. Why are others more gifted, more intelligent and popular than me.  Young children can find other children’s birthdays hard going because the presents aren’t coming their way. We can be like that too.  The trouble is that when we think this way, we often forget just how much God has gifted us.  The Good News is that God’s love and mercy are available to all, saints and sinners alike. What is needed is the simple exercise of contemplating God’s goodness in our lives.  Each of us is profoundly, perfectly, loved by God, and variously gifted by God. Each of us is wanted!  That alone satisfies one of our deepest needs.  The variety of the gifts is not a measure of the love we receive, but indicative of the diverse parts we are privileged to play in the building up of God’s kingdom. To refer back to our Gospel parable, the denarius is the love we each receive. We really need nothing more. 

Contemplating God’s goodness in our lives may also pre-empt us from praying to a god in our own image; a god who meticulously jots down the sins and the merits of human beings, in order to pay them back exactly according to what each one deserves. Such thoughts are totally unworthy of the God of Jesus Christ, nor should they ever find a place in his Church.  Pope Francis reminds us that “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”

God is good all the time. Not only that, but God wants us to enjoy divine goodness. Jesus calls us to mission, inviting us to do it in his way, not ours. Whether we begin at morning, noon or evening, God’s motive is to catch us up in a labour of love so that, to our delight, we will discover the reward that comes simply from doing it.

Sunday, 20th of September 2020

Twenty-Fourth Sunday – A

The numbers are astronomical.  The man in today’s gospel owed 10,000 talents. A talent weighed between 75 and 100 pounds; thus, the fellow was in debt for the equivalent of at least 750,000 pounds of sliver or gold — considerably more than anyone could hope to pay back in multiple lifetimes!  What amazes me is how he could squander that much in the first place.  Today, with all its high tech, you could spend it all on airplanes or an ocean liner, but back then there were no such outlets.  So how did he use it all up?

One way to interpret this is simply to say that Jesus was exaggerating big time. Or was he?  The depth of God’s forgiveness is way beyond our capacity to comprehend.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:9) But there is also another way of looking at it.  Let’s presume the man deep in debt represents humanity as a whole. That includes us all.  God has given us this beautiful earth to take care of.  Sadly, our stewardship has been deplorable and now we are faced with an ecological disaster of epic proportions.  Just look at the catastrophic fires ripping through California at the moment.  It’s beyond all doubt at this stage that this is the result of global warming. 

I’m not a great fan of the new translation of the liturgy and in particular the Confiteor where it says, ‘through my most grievous fault.’ When I look at people who are all goodness and outreach, I ask myself, ‘why do they have to say through my most grievous fault?’  But, if like Jesus, we identify with all of humanity, that we are part of the humanity that has made a mess to this earth, then it’s more real to strike our breasts and say we are truly sorry.  Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, says that the external deserts are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast (#217). What a statement!  If we are not at peace with our God and our brothers and sisters on the inside, the chances are that we are creating havoc of some sort all around us.  For this reason, the ecological crisis the world faces is an invitation to a profound interior conversion.

The man who was forgiven in the gospel didn’t learn much.  By forgiving him, the master had introduced the man into a new way of living; he invited him into a world in which people were more valued than any possession.  Tragically, rather than abide in a world of compassion, this wretched fellow refused to forgive another servant a paltry sum. Sirach sums up this kind of attitude.  The key word is ‘harbour’ or ‘nourish’.  When we harbour anger or nourish wrath in our hearts it only leads to our own destruction. 

Sheila Cassidy speaks in a similar vein.  She is an English doctor who suffered torture in South America for giving medical treatment to rebels against a dictatorship. Reflecting on her trials she made this comment: ‘I would never say to someone ‘you must forgive’. I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive?’ But then she goes on to say, ‘I can only say: ‘However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, (harbour it) it will poison us. We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed.”

By failing to forgive, we hurt ourselves more than anyone else. Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he told how the merciless servant was cast into prison for refusing to forgive his fellow servant. I don’t think he was suggesting that God would cancel his mercy. He is simply saying that an unforgiving spirit creates a prison of its own. It builds up walls of bitterness and resentment and there is no escape until we come to forgive.

Forgiveness brings with it a transformative power.  This is very true of Mehmet Ali Ağca. On the 31st May 1981, he shot Pope John Paul four times.  Almost immediately the Pope not only forgave him but asked the world to pray for his would-be assassin.  But his forgiveness did not end there.  Two years later the Pope visited him in prison.  Why did he do it?  Perhaps the Pope felt that his forgiveness must take a more tangible form, that a more visible encounter with Mehmet would be a healing moment for both of them.  His visit caught the world’s attention, but it was no PR stunt.  The Pope continued to stay in touch with his family during his incarceration, and in 2000 requested that Ağca be pardoned. The request was granted. Ağca was released and deported to Turkey, where he was imprisoned for the life sentence he had fled decades earlier.

The Pope’s forgiveness towards Ağca was not a simple statement on the day he was shot.  He continued to forgive him for many years to come by visiting him, staying in touch with his family and then requesting his pardon many years later.  Such forgiveness did not go unrewarded. Ağca, who already had blood on his hands before he shot the Pope, was not immune to the compassion he received.  During those long years of being incarcerated he converted to Christianity.  He was finally released in 2010.  In December 2014, he returned to Rome and laid two dozen white roses at the pope’s tomb.

Jesus said from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’  The message is clear: God’s pardon is the foundation for fraternal pardon and, yes, God’s extraordinary pardon obliges extraordinary pardon in return.

Allow me to end with a prayer found in the clothing on the body of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp where 92,000 women and children died. 

“O Lord remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill-will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to the judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be for their forgiveness.”

Sunday, 13th September 2020

Twenty-First Sunday of the Year – A

The story of Shebna serves as a background to that of Peter.  Both were called to be leaders but what a difference between the two!  Shebna was very powerful.  He was master of the palace; a very sought-after title and he knew it.  That title gave him far-reaching authority over the king’s household and possessions.  Sadly, he abused that power by taking advantage of perks to enrich himself even to the point of making a beautiful carved tomb for himself.  (Something very familiar about Shebna!) That’s why God unseated Shebna and established Eliakim in his place.  God wanted someone who would exercise authority with fatherly concern and compassion, not self-promotion, domination or greed.  In other words, the master of the palace should imitate the way God uses his authority to serve his people.

One might wonder why Jesus appointed Peter to be head of his Church.  In the Gospel he never really distinguished himself as a religious leader, if only because he slipped up a few times, even spectacularly so.  Today, however, is his watershed moment.  He is at the stage where he knows he must take a stand on the master he is following. He must answer from the truth of himself, not “who do people say he is?” but “who do I say he is?” Given that everyone expected the Messiah to be commanding armies to drive out the Romans, there must have been a pull on Peter to think likewise. However, there is no way in which the humble Jesus would measure up to this.  Therefore Peter had to either follow tradition or trust his own experience. In the end he could not deny the impact of Jesus on his life.  Take Luke 5 where Jesus stepped into his boat and into his life; where this carpenter asked him to cast out into the deep and Peter probably obeyed — perhaps just to prove him wrong.  But it was Peter at the feet of Jesus who was wrong.  Jesus was different, entirely so, to the point that God had to be working full time through him, not only in his miracles but in his general attitude.  Peter must have realised that Jesus was bringing about a new order; one where the human qualities of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness held sway over the Shebnas of this world. And so he exclaimed, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God!’  

It was an awesome moment, one that Jesus said couldn’t be the work of flesh and blood alone but came as a revelation from the Father.  It was also a watershed moment in Jesus’ life also.  In fact he must have been ecstatic that one of his little group finally got it!  Now he has found someone to whom he can hand over his mission. This person is a sure foundation, a “rock”, and “the gates of the underworld” will not “hold out” against him or her.

Peter got it right but that’s not the end of the story.  In the next episode, as we shall see next Sunday, Peter will be called Satan and told to step back.  Peter saying yes turns out to be the easy part.  Now it’s a matter of living with that truth.  As things unfold Peter seems to get it right and wrong in equal measure.  “Getting it right,” having this special spiritual insight, was too much to take in in one moment.  “Getting it right” begins a process that requires ongoing correction and judgement.  It will take a lifetime of correction to integrate this great insight into one’s daily living. 

The amazing thing is that Peter did get it right in the end, thus becoming the rock upon which the church would be built.  Here again Peter differs from Shebna.  The church in question is not at all about Peter.  Jesus declares, “I will build my church.”  It is not Peter’s church; it was and is Jesus’ church.  Peter, through all his ups and downs, learned to live for Christ and his church.  By integrating the fact that Jesus is the Christ, Peter became a servant of the people to the point of forgetfulness of self.   It is all these ups and downs that make Peter such an attractive model for all of us to follow.

The question that Jesus put to his disciples is put to us today.  ‘Who do you say that I am?’  Another way of putting the question is to ask ‘who is Jesus for you?’  The Gospels were written to help us answer that question.  They were not written simply to tell us what to do but rather to introduce us to Jesus so that we too would come to know him up close and personal ourselves.  We are here today because down through the ages saints and many, many ordinary people have given a positive answer to that question.  Jesus became the centre of their lives and the centre of Christianity.  Everything else came later.

So, let’s be honest.  What could be more urgent and necessary for Christians, than to awaken our passion for faithfulness to Jesus?  He is simply the best the Church has to give, the best we can offer and communicate to today’s mixed up world. Like Peter it is essential that we confess Jesus Christ as ‘Son of God’, ‘Saviour of the world’ and ‘Redeemer of the world’. Let’s not be pulled by the gravity of today’s relativism that would reduce Jesus to being merely human.  Rather let’s connect with him as the living Son of God, seek to know him better and never tire of being fascinated by the immense mystery of his being.  What we Christians need above all is to see him alive and up close, understand his message, grasp his deepest insights, and feel the heat of his passion for God and humanity. 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Feast of the Holy Trinity – A

Having celebrated the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost it’s appropriate that we pause to reflect and celebrate the God behind these great events with a feast day. St Catherine of Siena prayed: “You, O eternal Trinity, are a deep Sea, into which the deeper I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek; the soul cannot be satiated in Your abyss, for she continually hungers after You, the eternal Trinity… Clothe me, clothe me with You, O! Eternal Truth!”

What I find striking about this lovely prayer is Catherine’s fascination with God and her deep and growing desire for God.  It is all-consuming.  May this feast day fan into flame our own fascination with and desire for God also. Of course words fail us when we come to contemplate the divine but Carl Gustav Boberg makes a go of it when he composed that well known hymn in 1885 called ‘How Great Thou Art’. “Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made.  I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.”  

Today we talk of two books of revelation, that of God in creation and that of God in Scripture.  Carl Gustav rightly sees God in the marvellous works of creation.  Back then in 1885 people had some idea of how vast the universe is but it pales in comparison to what we know today.  For instance, back then they thought there was only one galaxy. Now astronomers claim that there are at least one hundred billion galaxies and still counting.  Thanks to Hubble we have discovered that the universe contains 10 times more galaxies than previously thought — and Hubble is only 30 years old!   If that’s too big for you to imagine then think of planet earth, with its teeming oceans, fabulous rainforests and a super abundance of life in all its richness, beauty and variety.  We have much more reason to say ‘how great is our God’ than Carl had.  With even more awesome wonder we can join in the refrain: ‘Then sings my soul, may Saviour God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art!’

If the book of creation is such a magnificent display of God’s greatness, we may well ask why do we need a second book, namely, the Bible?  Psalm 8 gives the answer.  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have made; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour.”  This psalm is clearly saying that no matter how immense the Universe is, God is still mindful of us mere humans.  Each one of us is significant for this personal God who wants to lift us up and draw us into the family of God.  That the God of the heavens should stoop down to the very least of us to establish a loving relationship with us is surely amazing — an even greater reason for us to be in awesome wonder.

Sadly, so much of this fascination and awesome wonder is lost on many in today’s godless world.  Not only do many openly profess their lack of faith, but the quality of life we pursue tends to promote a kind of atheism in all of us. Perhaps what is more disturbing than outright denial of God is the indifference to God. Pope Benedict speaks about today’s generation as “pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.”  How tragic is this?

But there is hope and it’s found in the first reading today.  Moses has this marvellous revelation where God passes before him and reveals that the Lord is a “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.”  This sounds truly overwhelming for Moses yet he is also aware that his own people down at the foot of the mountain are headstrong and even clueless about such a personal, loving God.  So he pleads with God to come down and ‘forgive us our faults and our sins, and adopt us as your heritage.’  Well God has just done that.  God has come down to us in many and varied ways but especially in Jesus Christ who befriended us like no other and the Holy Spirit who guides us and keeps the memory of Jesus alive for us.  This is the Holy Trinity that we celebrate today. 

‘A headstrong people!’ That our generation, like no generation before, should treat God as secondary or superfluous suggests that we too are headstrong, or perhaps selfish, narrow-minded or egoistical and only interested in ‘what’s in it for me’ kind of mentality.  There is a temptation in all of us to build our own little kingdoms but if we pray the Our Father and say  ‘thy Kingdom come!’ that means my little kingdom, no matter how much I cherish it, must go.  Letting go of the ego is the dying to self that Jesus asks of all of us so as to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  It may seem a big ask at times but in reality it’s not.  God’s world surely surpasses our petty little worlds. 

Once liberated from our egoism we too can celebrate that God is love, and that together the Father, Son and Holy Spirit represent the fullness of love. We are made in the image of a triune God. God the Father, who created us, his Son who saved us, and the Holy Spirit who continues to guide us. Our lives should reflect the Trinity. We should be always creative like the Father, compassionate like his Son, and dispose our talents in the service of others like the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Second Sunday of Lent – A

The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 must be understood against the background of Genesis 3 through 11.  Chapter 3 describes the Fall of our First Parents from grace.  Wanting to be creators rather than creatures led to endless troubles.  After that first radical blunder it was all downhill.  The next few chapters describe the spiral downwards of sin until we reach chapter 11 where there is total confusion with the building of the Tower of Babel. Breaking the bond between God and humanity led to the breaking up and scattering of the nations. When we cut ourselves off from God we end up with a truncated humanity.  So much is lost.  There is no focus.  Instead of life being a sacred journey back to the heart of a loving God our lives become a boring string of days and years with little or no meaning.  Sadly, the Tower of Babel is still with us leading to far too much of humanity feeling lost, alone and frightened.  

With chapter 12 of Genesis all of this is changed. God calls Abraham on a sacred journey.  He has to leave all behind so that he will not be distracted by the dreary routine and mediocrity.  Furthermore, his journey is to a land that God will show him — into a land of mystery, the mystery of God.  By following this call Abraham allows God to be in control.  The relationship with God is restored once more. 

The reason for God’s initiative is found in the responsible psalm today.  God’s merciful love, or loving-kindness, is the basis of God’s compassion and generosity.  We may leave God, but God will never desert us and will continue to reach out to us with, as Hosea says, leading strings of love.  And so, God begins with Abraham his great work of reconciliation.  Abraham was chosen to be the father of a great nation — great, not necessarily in the things of this world, but simply by allowing God to be God in their lives. 

Paul follows up on this call today.  He declares that God “saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works, but according to God’s own design.”  Again, God’s goodness to us is not a reward for righteous living for we have done nothing to deserve it.  Rather, God simply wants to shower us with his love. 

The transfiguration is a moment of great revelation of this love for the disciples of Jesus. They had been with Jesus for some time.  They witnessed his great works of healing and marvelled at his teaching. No doubt they were often amazed as were the crowds who followed him.  But none of this would have prepared them for what they were to experience now.  Ascending the high mountain was a good preparation as it represented their human ascent to God.  The cloud descending on them symbolised the divine presence just as it did for Moses.  That Moses and Elijah were there was surely a huge surprise.  How honoured they must have felt to be in such august company!  But then the focus turned on Jesus, the one they were daily walking with. It was he that was transfigured with his face like the sun and hi clothes becoming white as light.  Surely they must have wondered what is this all about?  Then, to top it all a voice from heaven speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him’.  In the end, when they raised their eyes after being totally dumbfounded, they saw no one but Jesus.  This suggests that Jesus in the one, not Moses, not Elijah, but only Jesus. 

The transfiguration of Jesus pulled a veil back revealing the inner reality of Jesus as God’s special son.  Soon after, the veil closed again, and they walked down the mountain to enter into ordinary life with its trials and tribulations. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is no longer special or divine.  An indelible mark was placed in the hearts of Peter, James and John and life would never be the same again. While they were on that mountain they were on sacred ground and surrounded by Mystery.  Now that they have left that mountain doesn’t mean they are no longer on sacred ground for all God’s creation is sacred. Even though they don’t have that deep experience of it doesn’t mean God is no longer there.  God is there and always will be, holding us with a grace filled Presence. 

The same holds for us.  Perhaps you too have had moments of enlightenment and transfiguration.  It may have been a sunset or a night under a star-studded universe.  The point is that these experiences are hugely revelatory.  However, we can’t stay there in that ‘it’s good for us to be here’ place.  These magical experiences are there to carry us through thick and thin and to remember that life, in the words of the poet Doris Klein, ‘is not simply a journey – through a string of days and years.  Rather, this is a Sacred Journey’.

Before the disciples left the mountain the voice from heaven gave them one command: “listen to him!’  How appropriate these words are for us as we journey through Lent.  I would like to finish with the words of Doris Klein from the same poem, ‘Risk the Sacred Journey’.

To risk the journey and the face of the future – is simply to walk in faith,

for there are no words – that capture the massive Mystery of God

We stand, clothed in grace and showered with blessing.

at times we see the flecks of light;

at other times we see only the shadows of the silhouette.

But always, both in our knowing and in our unknowing,

we are escorted into tomorrow by Love,

who gives us everything we need.

Sunday, 8th March 2020