Bob Birchall

Third Sunday of Lent – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God…A person had a fig tree planted in his orchard: ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So, cut it down. Why should I exhaust the soil?’ The gardener replied: ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilise it; it may bear fruit in the future.’ Luke 13, 1-9

At first sight, this gospel reading looks to be made up of two separate and unrelated sections. The first section outlines a discussion between Jesus and some people who wanted to talk about disasters and their causes. The second is a parable about a non-productive fig tree. Both sections are challenges to us to stop and look at the concept of God on which we base our thinking, our religious belief, and our way of conducting our lives.

The people who questioned Jesus about the moral standing of those who were executed by Pilate when they were at prayer and those who died when the tower they were building collapsed seemed to hold the belief that accidents and disasters were God’s way of punishing the wicked. That was a popularly held belief in Judaism at the time of Jesus. There are several stories in the Gospels which illustrate how physical disability was attributed to the sinfulness of the person with the disability or to his/her parents.

Is having people executed the way God’s view of them is expressed? Is God’s opinion of people demonstrated in the accidents that happen to them? Most of us are quick to point out that questions like this, to say the least, are grotesque.

A modern version of the questions put to Jesus would look something like this: Were the 43 people who died in the bridge collapse in Genoa last August all living in sin? Were the 50 people who died in yesterday’s flash flooding in Sentani, Papua Province of Indonesia being punished by God for their immorality?

We wonder what it is that motivates people to ask questions like this? What is their image of God? Even allowing that the people who confronted Jesus might well have been hoping that Pilate would add another Galilean (Jesus himself) to his list of victims or that Jesus, too, might have a building collapse on him, we still scratch our heads in puzzlement at people who go on living their lives as though the vindictive God they seem to believe in is not going to obliterate them when they themselves are less than perfect. Perhaps we might just have to be satisfied with the conclusion that the people who ask this kind of question are revealing how they would go about righting the world if they were God. Another interpretation is that we have among us people who, with the best of intentions, use this distorted view of God as a way of motivating others to change their ways. There is at least a hint of this in today’s second reading where we hear Paul telling the community in Corinth about some of their ancestors: “Most of them failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Angel of Death.” That kind of motivational talk might have gotten Paul a role in a Parish Mission Team of the 1950s, but it certainly would not get him a job on the religious education staff of a Catholic school in 2019.

From Paul all the way up this present day, people have slipped into making faulty presuppositions about God. And most of us have probably met people whose God is a cross between a nit-picking bean-counter and Sherlock Holmes. They’re the kind of people who give religion a bad name.

In the 1970s and 80s, George McCauley S.J. taught theology and Religious Education at Fordham University. In a delightful piece about people’s various images of God, he wrote: “We all have our pet peeves in this matter: A god who whispers in ears. A god of special confidences and secret winks. A competitive god whose pastime is to take on all comers at spiritual arm-wrestling. A god whose chief concern is picking spiritual lint off people, telling them, like your least favourite aunt: ‘Don’t cross your legs. Sit up straight. Don’t be gawking out the window. Where’s your watch? Who was that you were just talking to?’ A god, finally, who stares into your eyes a lot.”

Whatever our current image of God might be, we can be sure that it will change in time. Moreover, we hope it will grow and develop. But it will take more than one Lent or one year for that to happen. Even after a lifetime, we will not be satisfied that we have the “right” image of God. Still, today’s readings put before us two (or even three) aspects of God which we have to try to hold in tension. The first reading from Exodus presents us with a God who is interested in social justice: “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings” (Exodus 3, 7). And the gospel offers us both a God of action and a God of mercy: “Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?” (Luke 13, 7). Now there’s action for you. But immediately, we hear the gardener bargaining for a stay of violence: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down” (Luke 13, 8-9).

One of the characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that they leave us with uncertainty, looking for satisfying resolution. Yet, that is part of their value. They raise questions for us to ponder. Did the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son eventually join the party? What happened when the Samaritan returned to pay the bill for the injured stranger? Did the Samaritan return at all? And in this parable, was the gardener successful in making the fig tree productive, or did he just delay the inevitable? And that last question is significant, because we know that the fig tree will eventually die. Jesus did not say that death would not touch us. But he, the prophets before him and saints and religious leaders after him have reminded us of our social responsibilities: feeding the starving, providing clean water for all, addressing homelessness, protecting the vulnerable and abused, caring for the earth, working to prevent people-trafficking. What is alien to Jesus and the Gospel is sterility and non-productiveness. In this parable of the barren fig tree, we are reminded that death will come to us all but that, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to be productive with the lives and talents with which we have been blessed. If we heed the call of Lent to change our hearts (not just our actions), to allow ourselves to be transformed by the hope that God offers us, we will not stave off the chaos of suffering and death but open ourselves to the one who can nurture us, to the gardener who wants to bring us to blossom. We are the fig tree of the parable, given yet another chance to realise our productive potential.

Let’s not forget that this parable is also built on metaphor. The owner and the gardener are two faces of God – the face of justice and the face of mercy. As the parable unfolds, we listen to justice and mercy in dialogue. And the vineyard is a scriptural image for the people of Israel, and, by extension, for the people of God, the Church. If the extraordinary measures proposed by the gardener (mercy) fail, then Mercy will agree to abide by the verdict of Justice (the owner). There is no place in God’s kingdom for those who are irredeemably non-productive and sterile. We, the people of God are struggling with the destructive consequences of abuse within our community: the abuse of power, the failure to give recognition and voice to women and men in the pews, sexual abuse. Being the kind of people Jesus invites us to be – people whose productiveness is demonstrated in social action, compassion, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, healing the wounds of abuse – is the fruit for which he is looking. That fruit will be produced only through the severe measures that will bring to all of us a change of heart and the life that issues from that change of heart. Only we, the fig tree, will provide the end to this parable waiting to be completed.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Lent – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Luke 9, 28-36

As we grow older and wiser, we come to realise that where we stand influences what we see, and what we see influences what we say and do. One of the great paradoxes that emerged from the interpersonal engagements Jesus had in the course of his ministry was that the religious leaders who had two good eyes were blind to what they saw him doing, while those who were physically blind were able to see very clearly. Mystics in the Christian tradition, and, to my knowledge, in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, have spoken and written about seeing with “the third eye” – a way of seeing from the depths of one’s being or with what some of them refer to as “seeing with the soul”. Such seeing grows out of investing time in quiet and deep reflection. Whether or not we are practiced in deep reflection, we do know one thing to which modern psychology has drawn our attention: what and how we see has a significant impact on how we behave.

Just on thirty years ago, the American adult educator and businessman, Steve Covey published a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Essentially, the book is an exploration of how we impact on other people. In giving us insights about ourselves, Covey opens up for us possible changes that might improve the ways in which we relate to, and communicate with, others. One of his stories offers a powerful insight into how and what we see can influence our thinking and acting. It’s a story of an experience he had one Sunday morning on the New York subway:

People in the section I was in were sitting quietly reading their newspapers or just dozing. At one stop, a man and his children got into our car and in next to no time the peace was shattered, and replaced by something resembling mayhem. The kids were yelling at one another as they ran around the carriage. Then they started throwing things and grabbing at people’s newspapers. While all this was happening, their father sat quietly next to me and did nothing to quell the riot. It was as though he didn’t register what was going on. I couldn’t believe that he was prepared to let his kinds run wild and not even try to intervene. I could see the annoyance on the faces of all the people around me. Finally, with all the restraint I could muster I turned to the man and said: “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you could control them just a little bit.” The man lifted his head as though he was coming into awareness for the first time since he and the children had got on. Then he turned to me and said: “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Covey shared what happened inside him: “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”

For Covey, that was an experience of transfiguration, a moment of insight that turned him upside down and carried him through a very difficult situation. Are we any different? We, too, are given revelations of God in the ordinary events of our daily lives. Probably not every day, but if we don’t learn to see differently those revelations will pass us by.

Luke’s story of the Transfiguration begins with the simple statement: “Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain to pray.” Mark and Matthew tell of Jesus taking Peter, John and James to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. And the preface of this Sunday’s mass provides an explanatory link between Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of these three disciples and his having them accompany him during his agony in the garden: “He revealed his glory to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross.”

In commenting on these two experiences shared by Jesus with Peter, John and James, scripture scholar Bill Bausch notes that while the memory of the transfiguration was meant to bolster the three disciples when the going got tough, do the rest of us have only stories on which to rely when things are grim and when our faith is tested? The Steve Covey story demonstrates that our transfiguration experiences come to us wrapped up in the very ordinary, but there are times when we miss them because we are preoccupied with other things, or with ourselves. At other times, we catch up with them in hindsight, when we make time to reflect, and see them with our “third eye”.

One of my favourite writers is Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), a deeply committed Christian who is probably best known for her young adults’ novel A Wrinkle in Time (completed in 1960, it was rejected by more than thirty publishers before it was finally accepted for publication two years later). However, her writing covered a broad spectrum, from reflection on some of the very prominent characters in the Old Testament, to children’s books, poetry and memoirs of her own life experiences. She also had some talent for theatre and met and later married, actor, Hugh Franklin when they both had parts in Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard. The fourth volume of her memoirs (The Crosswicks Journals) is about her marriage with Hugh and carries the title Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. L’Engle had plenty of opportunity to reflect of the way her love for Hugh grew and developed, for she nursed him through his long and painful dying of cancer of the urinary tract. This is part of what she had to say: “I do not think that death can take away the fact that Hugh and I are ‘we’ and ‘us’, a new creature born at the time of our marriage vows, which has grown along with us as our marriage has grown. Even during the times, inevitable in all marriages, when I have felt angry, or alienated, the instinctive ‘we’ remains…Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.” (from an article “The Instinctive ‘We’” by Dan Wakefield, New York Times, December 18, 1988) This is not just about a particular marriage, it’s about the journey we call life. What L’Engle describes is what I would call the “second transfiguration”. On the mountain, the three apostles witnessed Jesus’ first transfiguration, with lots of drama and dazzling splendour. His second transfiguration was his resurrection, described in subdued terms, because nobody witnessed it. But let’s not miss the significance of the whispering between Moses and Elijah, mentioned in today’s reading. They were pointing to the transfiguration that comes after Jesus and we have negotiated the tough struggles of life – disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, deep pain, desertion, cynicism, bitterness, alienation, disease, loss of loved ones. God is in there somewhere, but so often we are not conscious of God’s presence and support. Jesus had to go through all these things on the way to his second transfiguration into glory. Along that way, he felt abandoned by God. And so do we, when we’re really down and troubled and hurting.

Today’s gospel story is about much more than a “sound and light” show. From time to time, we get a glimpse of the glory to come, but along the way we have to learn to shed whatever it is that holds us back. We have to struggle through the hills, the valleys and the deserts that life puts in our way. We have to remember that we are not alone as we travel that journey. But we have the support and encouragement of one another, of the community we call parish and church, the inspiration of the people like Madeleine L’Engle and Steve Covey, and the friendship and support of Jesus who’s been there ahead of us.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

First Sunday of Lent – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” Luke 4, 1-13

Last year, Pope Francis startled lots of Catholics when he suggested that there was need to change one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. He stated that this is really a poor translation of the original, pointing out that a loving God does not lead people into temptation just to see how they will cope. In making his comments, he referred to the opening verses of chapter 4 of both Matthew and Luke. This coming Sunday, the first of Lent, the gospel reading we hear starts with: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” Matthew’s Gospel has something similar: “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” I am encouraged by Pope Francis’ comments, because I find both of these translations troublesome. I just don’t believe that God puts temptation in anybody’s way. Pope Francis went on to say that he would prefer a translation like: “Do not allow us to be led into temptation.” Scripture scholars have joined the discussion with alternatives like: “Do not let us give into temptation when we are tested” and “When Satan leads us into temptation, please, God, give us a hand”.

So now, let’s look a little more closely at the context of today’s gospel reading. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan and, as preparation for what he saw was his unfolding mission, he decided to spend time in prayer and reflection in the solitude of the desert, to work out for himself how he was going to go about doing the preaching and teaching he felt inspired to do. Luke and Matthew present him as doing much the same as two other giants of the Jewish tradition had done. In their encounters with God, both Moses and Elijah went without food and water for forty days. Moses spent forty days in the presence of God when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34, 28). Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights before journeying to Mt Horeb (another name for Mt Sinai) where he encountered God in a cave in the form of a gentle breeze (1Kings 19). However, consolation for Jesus arrived only after he had battled his way for forty days and nights through temptations to take shortcuts to reach quick and easy ways to achieve his goals. He was tempted to dodge the kind of struggles that the rest of humanity also has to deal with as they set out to be true to themselves and to live with integrity.

Having taken on the human condition, Jesus was tempted to avoid having to do things the normal human way. Luke is really saying that, just beneath the surface, Jesus was being tempted to expect God to collude with such a plan. And if God wouldn’t agree to doing things by magic, then Jesus just wouldn’t cooperate and would refuse to accept the limitations of being fully human. That was the nature of his temptation. Underlying all three temptations is the question as to whether a way of living and acting built on faith in God is really worth spending a life on. Jesus realized that he had been invited to take on the role of being the Messiah for his people, and here he was being tempted to win people over with magic, razzle dazzle and impressive, superman tactics.

Yet, the temptations that Jesus faced were, in essence, the very same things that tempt us. There are times in our lives when we catch ourselves wanting to control God. Some of us want God to work it so that we get the winning lotto ticket, a perfect husband for our favourite niece or a top grade in our university exams, even though we don’t do the necessary work.

The first temptation Jesus experienced is presented in terms of bread. In contemporary English slang, bread is the equivalent of money or a stockpile of material and intellectual capital to be used as an insurance policy just in case the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. Jesus was struggling with the temptation to base his appeal to the people he encountered on what in the way of security and material well-being he could offer them. We, too, can get so involved in accumulating money, security and gadgets that we erode our ability to trust in God as one who is both competent and willing to care for us. There are times when we can even slip into giving God advice and directions: “Be a bit gentler here; be more sensitive there. Watch that trouble looming up in the distance. Do you think you’ll be able to negotiate the sharp turn coming up?” At other times we try bargaining.

As for Jesus, he did overcome the first temptation by deciding that he would himself be bread and nourishment for people instead of trying to base his public ministry on hand-outs. He proceeded to nourish people with his presence, his encouragement, his wisdom, his concern, his fidelity and the challenges he put to them. He came to know that we all grow through affirmation, encouragement and healthy challenge. He did not set out to win the support of people through promises of material goods or by offering them shortcuts to success. In order to proceed along the path he chose, he knew that he had to place his trust first, foremost and entirely in God. I ask myself if I will ever grow to the point of trusting God to that extent.

The next two temptations were further attempts at undermining the trust Jesus had grown to place in God. While they are presented as offers by the devil, they were more likely considerations by Jesus in his mind about the benefits that might flow from doing deals with the corrupt and the powerful of his day. After all, they would get things done more speedily and effectively than those who might respond to Jesus’ appeal to base their actions on love, kindness, compassion and justice.

I find the third temptation a little more difficult to grasp. Jesus was invited to test out whether God really cared for him or would let him die if he were to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus probably knew nothing about gravity. But he knew enough to appreciate that jumping from a great height onto stone would be fatal, and that God was not in the business of letting down gently anyone stupid enough to jump off the roof of the Temple. However, I want to suggest that Jesus struggled with something more subtle than that. Preaching about what he understood as the kingdom of God – about justice, mercy, forgiving one’s enemies – was not something that would easily win him friends and supporters, especially in a very conservative and narrow-minded religious community that was the Jewish world of his time. Jesus must have been tempted to doubt whether God would really support him when the going got tough, when religious leaders might think of having him removed. And we know from the description of his arrest, torture and execution that such doubts plagued him right up to the time of his death.

I want to suggest that these are the kinds of doubts and temptations with which Jesus struggled in the solitude of the wilderness and at other times in his life. Moreover, I am convinced that we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus easily brushed aside these temptations. They hung around in his consciousness for forty days and nights. Trusting God was not something that came to him spontaneously and automatically. If that were the case, he would not have been tempted in the first place. So, when we find ourselves struggling with our faith and trust in God, we might get some consolation and comfort from knowing that Jesus has been there before us. And when we are tempted to be less than our true selves, we might think of praying: “Please, God, give us a hand.”

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too, the defects of a person appear in his/her talk…Never praise others until you hear them talk; that’s the real test.” Sirach 27, 4-7

“Each of us speaks from our heart’s abundance…” Luke 6, 39-45

My reflection on today’s readings led me to a conclusion which is very obvious and not particularly profound: The best homilies I have ever heard are people! If I want to experience a good homily, the best thing I can do is to go around with my eyes and ears wide open, attentive to the extraordinarily good things that very ordinary people say and do.

So, there’s very little about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that has a churchy or religious ring about it. Very simply, what he says boils down to a very uncomplicated message: “If you want to be taken seriously, cut out being hypocritical; stop finding fault with others as you go about masking your own, and judging others is not only unfair, it helps you to delude yourself.” This is a very appropriate segue into Lent, which starts with Ash Wednesday later this coming week. We do that with a story from Pastor, Bill Bausch:

A small cruise ship, caught up in a very violent storm, lost power, drifted onto rocks and quickly sank. Only two men survived the disaster. They clung to floating debris and were washed up on a deserted island. By the time they had completed a quick survey of the island, they realized from the barrenness of the place that there was no running water. They sat down, discussed their situation and decided that the worst thing they could do would be to panic. So, they drew up a simple plan of action: First, they agreed that they would pray for God’s help. Then they decided that they would each take responsibility for a much closer survey of the island, and took half the island each. Moreover, they reasoned that such a tactic doubled their chances of seeing a passing ship searching for them. But they would have to live apart on opposite sides of the island. As they separated, they promised one another that they would keep up their prayers.

The first man prayed for food. The very next morning, he came across a tree laden with fruit, and ate to his satisfaction. He did not alert his companion to his good fortune, who stayed on his barren side of the island. Then the first man started to feel lonely, so the next night he prayed for a wife. A few days later there was another storm and an even smaller boat was wrecked. The next morning the sole survivor, a woman, struggled ashore on the first man’s side of the island. Still, the second man had had no luck with anything. He kept waiting patiently for a ship to come into sight. And he kept praying. He had spent his time building a huge pile of dried wood which he intended to burn to attract the attention of any ship that came into view. Meanwhile, the first man and his companion set about praying for more food and for clothes to protect them from the sun. A couple of days later, a crate was washed up on their side of the island, and it contained plenty of food and clothing. The second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed really hard for rescue to arrive. Three days later he awoke to see a ship anchored close by. He woke his companion and they headed out to the ship. As he climbed on board, his thoughts turned to the other man. Then he told himself that there was no point is going back for him. After all, since none of his prayers had been answered, he was clearly not worthy of God’s blessings. But as the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a booming voice from the heavens: “What about your friend on the other side of the island? Why are you abandoning him?”

“My blessings are mine”, replied the first man, “since I’m the one who prayed for them. Besides, all his prayers were clearly unanswered. He doesn’t deserve anything!”

“You are very mistaken”, the voice rebuked, “his prayer was answered. Indeed, he had only one prayer, and it was that all your prayers would be answered.”

That story fits in neatly with the stories collected in today’s gospel. It’s the kind of story Jesus would tell, then look at his audience quizzically and walk away, leaving them to reflect on how they might have judged others, hastily and wrongly.

A few years ago, a prominent English newspaper conducted a survey of its readers on their concerns for the future of the United Kingdom. This was well before Brexit was even on their radar. While there were lots of comments about the faltering economy, shrinking employment opportunities, terrorist threats, race riots and the pressure on the public health system, there were lots of surprising comments on the decline of morality, the disappearance of common decency, the collapse of values and the moral bankruptcy of many in public office. There was lament on the shift of focus from the common good to self-interest, from “us” to “me”, as one respondent expressed it. I suspect that a quick look at many of the so-called “developed” counties of our world would reveal that honesty, integrity, owning responsibility for one’s actions, compassion for refugees, respect for others, and speaking truthfully are becoming casualties very rapidly. Still, there is a ray of hope here and there to catch us by surprise. Those rays of hope are the people who turn out to be the best homilies. They nourish us until the next pleasant surprise appears.

I read recently on a website called, Chicken Soup for the Soul the story of an eleven-year-old, Rosalie Elliot, who was participating in a national spelling-bee in Washington. Rosalie was a softly spoken competitor from Florida and was asked to spell the word “avowal”. The judges were unable to hear whether she had spelt the last vowel as an “a” or an “e”. The judges replayed the tape several times but could still not decide what Rosalie had said. Finally, the chief judge put the question to Rosalie herself: Was the letter an “a” or an “e”? Unhesitatingly, Rosalie answered that she had misspelled the word, as she had used an “e”. She walked from the stage to a standing ovation. Centuries before Sophocles had said: “Rather fail by honour than succeed by fraud.” Jesus echoed that in today’s gospel.

We reveal who we are by what we say and do consistently. We can all say and do the wrong thing occasionally. We don’t need anyone else to tell us that. It’s the consistency of our word and action that truly reveals our integrity or its lack. In today’s first reading, the writer of Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) probably described us very accurately when he pointed out that what we say shows us to the world as confused, honest, devious or shallow. As George McCauley wrote in a book entitled The Unfinished Image (Sadlier, N.Y. 1983): “There is a thread that leads from our speech to our secret selves. There are many windings and detours along the way. But one iron law remains in effect: it’s easier to see into a person who has his mouth open. Sirach got it right centuries before Jesus, and so, too, did Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of…’” (Luke 6, 45).
We leave the last word to the letter of James (not one of today’s readings) where we are given yet another perspective: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it has never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3, 7-10)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give, and there will be gifts for you…because the amount you measure is the amount you will be given back.” Luke 6, 27-38

The parents and teachers among us will all know the experience of teaching children to share. They will remember times when there was only one apple pie or one cream bun for two children to share. Their technique was to ask one child use a knife to divide the pie or bun into two and to invite the other child to have first pick. On rare occasions, one child might have said to the other: “You can have it all!” When we teach children about sharing, we are really giving them lessons about equity and unselfishness. Yet, a close look at today’s gospel reveals that Jesus is teaching everyone who would be his disciples to be prepared to say to others, even enemies: “You can have it all!”

To find an entry point into this gospel reading, I invite you to do your best to put to one side all the things you’ve ever learned about Jesus and all the images you have of him and your beliefs about him. Then, see if you can imagine yourself in the group gathered around him. Luke calls them “disciples”. Jesus would be dressed like all the other men in the group sitting down in front of him. And he would have the swarthy, bearded look of the Arab or Palestinian males we see these days on the streets of Jordan or Jerusalem and in airport terminals in the Middle East. If you are a woman in the group, you would be wearing a long, loose-fitting gown and have a head-scarf or khimar to protect you from the sun. And each of the men among you would have a keffiyeh on his head and be wearing a long flowing garment like a kaftan, maybe with a rope belt around the waist. And then you hear Jesus say something that leaves you totally stunned. And when you dare to look around, you see others shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself something like: “He’s got to be joking!” And you hear a murmur of incomprehension spread through the gathering. Maybe someone voices an objection or a protest. Some people in the group drift away, shaking their heads. Jesus has just said something that seemingly shocks to the core everyone who heard it. And you, too, are wondering if he has lost the plot. “After all, he’s asking us to do the impossible. I can cope with reaching out to family, friends and neighbours. But, who does he think he is, asking us to love Samaritans, and that crook at the market who sold me a donkey that turned out to be lame in the fetlock?” When the restlessness dissipated and Jesus finished talking, a deathly silence fell over the group. They were stunned into silence.

Now, let’s fast forward to today. Have you ever been courageous enough, after reading something in the Gospels, to say to yourself or to your local priest: “I can’t accept that. It’s codswallop!” Yet that would probably be more honest than giving notional assent and then sanitizing Jesus’ demands to stop them from unsettling you. If we were asked to give ourselves a mark for our Christianity, we might give ourselves a distinction on all the “I believes” listed in the Creed we recite at Mass. But I wonder what grade we would give ourselves for the way in which we live the Gospel with meaning and purpose? Many of us, I suspect, would fare much better on right belief than we would on right living. We could not even imagine ourselves ever denying the theological concept of the Trinity, but please don’t ask us when was the last time we prayed for the tradesman who swindled us or the neighbour who screamed obscenities at us.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. Right belief is something to be pursued, but lots of rules and regulations in the Catholic Church have been promoted as truth whereas they have been little more than directions to ensure that we all conformed to what some authorities dictated. As a consequence, the measure of authentic discipleship sometimes slipped into belief in and adherence to promulgated Church doctrines. Comforted by our conviction that we were holding onto right belief, we continued to name those who were clearly enemies of our Church and, rather than pray for them or seek to be reconciled with them, we even prayed that they would be obliterated in one fell swoop. We found comfort in our own little enclaves, supported those who belonged to our Church, harboured prejudices about refugees and foreigners, gave atheists and agnostics a wide berth and labelled those we feared as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. Engaging with them as fellow human beings, forgiving them, and praying for them did not fit into our agenda. We can look back in horror at the period we now call the Inquisition when those identified by Church authorities as witches or heretics were hunted down and executed by burning or hanging. Right belief was the measure of belonging. Tolerance and forgiveness of unbelievers were non-existent, so why waste time praying for them? This kind of persecution of those who “did not belong” led Oscar Wilde to reflect:

“He who would be free,” says a fine thinker, “must not conform.” And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us. With authority, punishment will pass away. This will be a great gain – a gain, in fact, of incalculable value. As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)

If we are really serious about calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we might have to begin by measuring the way we live by what Jesus proclaimed rather than by what we recite in the Creed at Mass each weekend. Would I have the courage to proclaim:

I commit to:
Really loving those I know are my enemies and doing good to those who hate me;

Blessing those who curse me and praying for those who treat me badly;

Turning the other cheek to anyone who slaps me;

Offering my shirt, as well, to anyone who steals my coat;

Lending to those in need without expecting repayment;

Giving to every beggar who asks me for something;
Refusing to judge anyone, no matter what others say about him or her;

Being merciful and compassionate in imitation of the God who loves me unconditionally?

A well-regarded American writer and educationist, Kent Keith, put all this another way when he wrote:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Blessed are you who are poor: Yours is the kingdom of God…Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” Luke 6, 17, 20-26

Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel to what we hear proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s gospel. The account in Matthew is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Luke has Jesus deliver a sermon on a plain in which only four beatitudes are listed, and they are paralleled with four woes, which well-off people throughout history have mistakenly used as measures of success in life.

In the gospel reading for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaiming to the people of his home town of Nazareth that his mission was “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the downtrodden and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. The four “beatitudes” at the start of today’s gospel are a more poetic rendition of his mission statement, and directed pointedly to the strugglers in his audience. His intention was to offer them a message of hope and encouragement. Then he directed a sterner message to those in the crowd who were smug, self-satisfied and comfortable. Clearly, he had summed up the audience in front of him and deliberately set about comforting the disturbed among them and disturbing the comfortable.

We know from experience, that our lives take lots of different turns. We have all known tough and difficult times and we have all experienced times of satisfaction and comfort. Consequently, there are times when we need to hear Jesus’ words of comfort and other times when our comfort and complacency need to be challenged. Implicit in Jesus’ words about the “four woes” is a message that we all have a serious social responsibility to reach out to the poor, the neglected and the alienated, especially when we have the means to assist them.

Of course, there is an additional message here for us about the way we speak to all the different people with whom we engage in the course of our day. Do we measure our words to fit what we think that others want to hear from us or are we prepared to say what our own integrity demands of us? How we say it is just as important as the content of our message. Therefore, we would do well to reflect on our readiness to speak the truth in love, especially when we realise that the truth of what we want to say might threaten or upset the person/s to whom our words are directed.

I suggest that it is not coincidental that Luke has Jesus speak this message of beatitudes and woes on a plain. I believe that Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was one with the rest of humanity on the same level. In proclaiming the beatitudes, he was giving assurance to the poor, the forgotten and the discarded that they were not disregarded by God; rather, that God had a preference for them. His words of warning to those who were comfortably placed were a correction of a prevalent belief that wealth and good fortune were indicators of God’s favour. Any who did not subscribe to that belief seemed to think that all they had acquired had come to them as a result of their own efforts, and their efforts alone. It did not seem to occur to them that all their abilities were God-given gifts in the first place. Yet Jesus was quick to disabuse his audience of their misconceptions, pointing out that wealth so preoccupied those who had it that it often insulated them from the poor and marginalized, and desensitized them to their plight, in which they barely eked out an existence.
By debunking the prevailing idea of what constituted strength and success and elevating the lowly, the needy, those psychologically and physically imprisoned and those whose lives had been upended by loss and grief, Jesus acted as the great leveller. In so doing, he became God’s beatitude – a blessing to all, but especially to the downtrodden, in a society that gave preference to the rich and the successful. His words are a reminder to us that, whatever our status and circumstance, we are not overlooked by God, even if God’s way of noticing us is to give us a wake-up call. Nor are we meant to live only in the company of those who enjoy a similar status. We’re meant to interact with everyone around us, rich and poor alike. The level ground we share with everyone else is that we are all equal in worth and dignity, all beloved of a God in whose image we are created. We are not alone in our experiences, our needs and our losses, and we have an obligation not to leave our fellow human beings alone in theirs. And that’s the kernel of today’s gospel.

If it hasn’t struck us yet, another look at this gospel reading might help us to see that the list Luke’s Jesus gives of beatitudes and woes echoes the sentiments spelled out Mary’s Magnificat:

“He (the Lord) has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1, 46-55

Let’s conclude with a Middle Eastern parable about priorities:

Once upon a time in the depth of winter, an eagle was searching the frozen landscape for food. It spotted on an ice-floe the carcass of a deer that had been left behind by a party of hunters. The eagle swooped down and set about satisfying its hunger. It became so consumed by what it was consuming, that it became deaf to the thundering sound of a waterfall in the distance. Just before the ice-floe was about to go crashing over the edge, the eagle sensed the danger and flapped its wings to make its escape. However, its claws had become frozen into the icy remains of the deer. The eagle met the same fate as the deer on which it was feasting.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

After he had finished speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat, Jesus said to Simon: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch…Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Luke 5, 1-11

This coming Sunday’s readings focus on the topic of vocation. The word itself is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning to call. Yet not too many of us have heard a voice calling us to the vocation we are currently living. We all have a vocation in life, and we were all blessed with the ability to discern and choose the path in life which we believe is the best fit for us, which we are convinced is the most authentic way of expressing the love in our heart, of being our true self.

Pursuing one’s vocation in life involves a succession of choices. We Christians believe that, in making those choices, we have available to us the guidance of God’s Spirit, who is constantly present to us, acting through our thoughts and feelings, through other people and through the created world around us. But we have to be prepared to open ourselves to the promptings of God’s Spirit who works through the ordinary events of our lives. Ultimately, however, it is left to us to choose the path in life we believe is most appropriate for us, even though we seek the guidance of God’s Spirit in making our choice and living it out day after day as it unfolds, sometimes in surprising ways. Still, the metaphor of vocation as call, with its deep foundation in Scripture and tradition, persists in influencing the way we understand and talk about the life choices we make.

Closely associated with the reality of vocation is the phenomenon we call “a religious experience”. Simply put, a religious experience is a conscious encounter with the divine. Many ordinary and not-so-ordinary people tell of such encounters in their lives. Normally, those occasions are infrequent. Some of those encounters are recorded in the Bible, and are generally described in terms of verbal exchanges, hearing a voice of invitation or a call. Sometimes they are described as dreams. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, had several such dreams. Additionally, such encounters are often followed immediately by protests of unworthiness or not being fit or ready for the job, offered by those who have just heard the “call”. Moses, Jeremiah and Jonah fit into that category.

This Sunday’s first reading, which describes the call of Isaiah, contains all these features. The context of Isaiah’s religious experience is worthy of note. He lived at a time when the affairs of Israel were guided by King Uzziah, a good, wise and benevolent ruler who had come to the throne at the age of six and grew up to lead his people for more than fifty years. He had the foresight to strengthen the fortifications of Jerusalem to protect his people from invading armies. He also promoted agriculture as a practical way of providing food for the people, and had the common good as his principal focus. Eventually, however, he was stricken with leprosy and died. Isaiah came from a wealthy and highly respected family, all of whom were well connected with King Uzziah and his court. At the news of the king’s death, Isaiah went to the Temple to join all the people in prayer, as they expressed their grief. And it was there that he had a religious experience, in which he heard God inviting him to leave his comfortable life-style and devote himself to being God’s messenger to the people of Israel. Instinctively, his response was: “I’m not good enough. I have a history of criticizing others, of speaking nastily about them.” But God did not back off. The storyteller uses the symbol of Isaiah’s critical lips being purified by an angel carrying a burning coal from the altar of incense, situated in the Temple. Then God said: “If not you, Isaiah, who will undertake this job for me?” Then, to his own amazement, Isaiah heard himself saying: “Here I am, Lord; send me!” Whatever exactly happened for Isaiah in the Temple that day was so overwhelming that he sensed that God was not only in the Temple but everywhere: “All the earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6, 3).

In the gospel reading, we hear Peter respond in similar fashion. His experience of fishing had taught him that big catches are very rare in the heat of the day. He had not long finished doing what all professional fishermen do – trawl during the night hours. Reluctantly, he humoured Jesus by dropping his nets in the middle of the day. When the unexpected happened and he netted more fish than he could cope with, he realized that he was in the presence of holiness, and not worthy to be there. His response was: “Please, Jesus, have nothing to do with me. I’m weak, fragile and sinful.” Jesus ignored his plea, told him not to be afraid, and gave him the even more difficult task of “catching people”. He extended the same invitation to Simon Peter’s fishing partners, James and John. And almost incredibly, all three accepted the invitation on the spot.

In the second reading of this Sunday, Paul makes only a passing reference to how an encounter with Jesus turned his life upside down: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15, 7-9). There are full accounts in Acts, chapters 9 and 22. But whatever happened on that road to Damascus changed his heart.

There is something the same and something different about the accounts of the faith journeys of these three Biblical giants. Their stories serve to highlight how every person’s faith journey is unique. God’s Spirit touches us in the particular circumstances of our particular lives. We can all look at our lives in retrospect and point to events and people who made a very significant impact on us. Our encounters with them led us to reflect on how we wanted to live our lives. It was through them that God’s Spirit was at work. But we had to choose whether or not we would respond and what shape our response would take. Moreover, every day we continue to make decisions that confirm and nourish that very first risky, yet courageous, decision we made to embrace the way of life we believed would be an authentic expression of ourselves, our gifts and the love in our heart. There have also been times when we have made decisions that have been less than authentic and nourishing. But with God’s help we dust ourselves off and readjust our compass.

What’s more, we discover that these decisions about choosing our vocation in life are not in step with the calendar. Nor are they made in accord with some rigid, lock-step process. They are influenced by our personality, our insights, our skill (or lack of it) in discerning, our courage, determination and flexibility, and any number of other factors and circumstances. Our experience also tells us that we don’t all grow, flourish and find our true fit at the same rate. But there is one constant, and that is a recognition that life demands change. By definition, to grow is to change, and the prospect of change sometimes frightens us, even paralyses us temporarily. But failure or unwillingness to change leads to atrophy and death. And we have all met people who are dead but not yet buried. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t meet such people when we look into the mirror. And let’s never lose sight of the dream Jesus has for us: “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10, 10). Are we brave enough to choose life?

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however is the following way…If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong…Love is patient, love is kind…” 1 Corinthians 12, 31-13, 13

“I tell you solemnly”, Jesus said, “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country…And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these were cured except the Syrian, Naaman.” Luke 4, 21-30

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a text that is frequently heard at wedding ceremonies. As I reflected on it, I started to ask myself if the kind of love Paul described is actually possible. I wondered whether Paul was carried away with enthusiasm or even caught up in a rhapsody when he wrote it. We’ve all experienced love, but could anyone ever love with the completeness and intensity that Paul describes? Was Paul actually in touch with the reality of ordinary people doing their best to love those around them or was he trying to whip up his audience to rise to greater heights in their loving and caring for others?

We’ve all glimpsed different facets of the composite picture of love which Paul paints. We’ve seen those facets in the patience parents demonstrate in dealing with their teenage children. We’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers on our streets or in buses and trains. We’ve known prominent leaders who wear their position and status very lightly. We’ve seen friends and acquaintances, unjustly ridiculed and publicly humiliated, bounce back without carrying grudges, with no focus on revenge. But is it possible for any of us to integrate all these admirable facets of love into our lived reality?

No matter how hard we try, we discover that there is something elusive about love. We do reasonably well for a while, and then we slip backwards. But despite our lapses, we pick ourselves up and try again. Yet, even with the best of intentions, we find it difficult to remain fully committed to loving everyone we encounter. Moreover, there will always be people who have been so disappointed in their efforts at loving that they will want to tell us that our efforts will come to nothing. Still, while we know from our own experience that the way of love can be fairly steep, we keep returning to renew our efforts, probably because the experience of our past successes has been uplifting and personally rewarding. Deep down, we know that we are made for love – for giving love and receiving love.

When we look at the troubled lives of some of the people around us, and then further afield, at places like Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and South Sudan, we wonder if the supply of available love is sufficient to meet the demand. We even ask ourselves if we can keep at it into our own old age. Yet we have the inspiration of people who have been faithful in their loving commitments over fifty, sixty or seventy years. Then, we can find consolation and encouragement in Paul’s observation that “love is eternal” (1 Corinthians 13, 8).

One surprising aspect of Paul’s rhapsody of love is that he fails to point out that love has need sometimes to put on a hard face. Today’s first reading gives us a very clear picture of tough love. In launching Jeremiah on his vocation as a prophet, God assures him that he is to be “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” to stand against kings, princes, priests and people who will resist his message. And in today’s gospel Jesus expresses tough love as he confronts the people of his own town because of their pettiness, small-mindedness and prejudice. They set aside God’s invitation to live lovingly by turning their attention to questioning his pedigree, his qualifications and his courage in speaking the truth. Speaking the truth in love can be a considerable challenge to personal integrity. Yet we all know that there are times when love demands that of us. Genuine love can draw us into the discomfort of confrontation. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that genuine confrontation means inviting the other person (or persons) to stand beside us, so that together we can look at whatever it is that is challenging, dividing or discomforting us. Those are the times when it’s necessary for us not to lose sight of God’s love for all of us.

In quoting Isaiah to the people gathered in the Synagogue of Nazareth (last Sunday’s gospel), Jesus made it clear that his love and concern were to be directed especially to the poor and downtrodden, to prisoners, to those alienated because of physical disability, and to those confined by psychological illness. By implication, he was telling his audience that they, too, had to get their hands dirtied in caring for all those whom society had alienated or discarded. Initially, they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4, 22). But their admiration and amazement quickly turned to hostility when he referred to the way in which God, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, had expressed a preference for a widow and a leper who were Gentiles and from countries hostile towards Israel.

What blinkered the people of Nazareth from seeing what Jesus was saying to them were their sense of entitlement and their fixed expectations of how the long-awaited Messiah should act. They simply could not envision a Messiah who was from their town, who looked and spoke like them, and who favoured the outcasts. They dreamed of a Messiah who would rid them of their Roman oppressors, one who would restore to them every comfort, luxury and security to which they believed they were entitled.

And isn’t it a sense of entitlement that can block our vision and feed our prejudices? Haven’t there been times when we have felt that we deserved a better deal from God? Haven’t we felt that our fidelity to Sunday Mass, our monetary support of our Church and our integrity and honesty should have protected us from illness, accident and the untimely deaths of those close to us? Have there not been times when we have compared ourselves to others whom we have categorized as only half-baked Christians, and concluded that we’ll be given preferential treatment at the time of final accountability?

Jesus took the risk of telling his own townspeople a few home truths, and they resented it.

Are we able to apply to ourselves the underlying message of what he dared to point out to the people of Nazareth? Can we see God’s love reflected in our encounters with the other very ordinary people with whom we rub shoulders each day? Are we able to imagine that those we regard as “unchurched” might have something to teach us, something to soften our hardness and even melt away our prejudices?

Let’s conclude with a delightful story from the Middle East: “Abou Adam was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, he did his best to become spiritually enriched as well. One night, he was roused from sleep by frightful stomping on his roof. Startled, he sat bolt upright in bed and shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend’, answered a voice from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Disturbed by such stupidity, Abou called back: ‘You idiot! Why the devil are you looking for a camel on my roof?’ ‘You’re the idiot!’ came the reply. “What are you doing looking for God, lying on a golden bed, dressed in silk pyjamas?’”

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection

A Forum with Dr Anna Rowlands – not to be missed!

SATURDAY, 25th MAY, 2019

St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice. Deputy Director the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, United Kingdom.

1st Session: “Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Gillian Rose – Prophets for Our Crisis-Ridden 21st Century”. Followed by Q & A.

2nd Session: “The Other – A Realistic Understanding of Catholic Social Teaching” followed by Q & A.

Booking details, times etc will be confirmed nearer the time. SAVE THIS DATE. NOT TO BE MISSED.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Forums

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me…” Then he began to speak to them: “Today this text is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21

Garrison Keillor is an American writer, storyteller and comedian who was host of a radio programme in Minnesota for 42 years before his contract was terminated in controversial circumstances in 2016. He comes from a family that had strong connections with the Plymouth Brethren but now describes himself as a member of the Episcopalian Church. One of his stories is to be found in a collection called Listening for God: A Reader, but most are in the many books he wrote about the people of Lake Wobegon, a fictional town he created. He once stated that he was on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Among the many quotes attributed to him are the following: “One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.” and “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.” and “Computers can never completely replace humans. They may become capable of artificial intelligence, but they will never master real stupidity.” and “Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”

In one of his “Lake Wobegon” volumes entitled Leaving Home, he tells of a character who went to visit his home town after many years away. The frontispiece of the book carries a poem which begins:

One more spring in Minnesota,
To come upon Lake Wobegon.
Old town, I smell your coffee.
If I could see you one more time—

I can’t stay, you know, I left so long ago,
I’m just a stranger with memories of people I knew here.
We stand around looking at the ground.
You’re the stories I’ve told for years and years.

That yard, the tree – you climbed it once with me,
And we talked of cities that we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, and now I’m back again,
Please say you missed me since I went away.

Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ return for a visit to his home town of Nazareth, after a considerable absence. There were people there who remembered him as a boy growing up. There were many who knew Mary and Joseph. But Jesus’ reputation had gone ahead of him, and the crowd gathered in the local synagogue had come to see for themselves if the rumours of him were true. So, here he was in the synagogue he had known from his infancy, and, in keeping with the courtesy extended to any visiting rabbi, whoever was in charge handed him the scroll they had been reading. It was from Isaiah. Jesus opened it and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the Lord.” Having finished reading, he sat down, thereby giving his audience the traditional sign that he was about to give an important teaching. But it was a teaching with which he completely startled them: “Today, this passage is being fulfilled even as you listen.” The people gathered in the synagogue were so accustomed to hearing promises and predictions about what would happen in the future that they could not even hear that Jesus was telling them that, as they sat there in front of him, God was actually breaking into their lives. And it’s that very message that is put to us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year. God is present to us in everyone we encounter today, in everything that happens to us today, in every aspect of the created world that impinges on our senses today. And God is still present even if today turns out to be not quite what we anticipated.

Just imagine how different our world might be if Mozart had said: “I don’t write music”, or if Van Gogh had said: “I don’t paint irises”, or if Michelangelo had said: “I don’t do ceilings” or “I’m not going to waste my time chipping away at marble” and if Ruth had said: “I don’t fancy my mother-in-law” and if Florence Nightingale had said: “I don’t touch sick people”! The world would be the poorer, as it would if we were to repeatedly pass by people we would rather ignore and refuse to go to places to which we are invited but to which we would rather not go.

Gerald Jampolsky is an internationally recognized medical doctor, psychiatrist and adult educator. He founded a self-help group called Attitudinal Healing. It has spread to almost thirty countries, including Italy, Kenya, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India and Argentina. He, himself, has written well over twenty books. Among them are best-sellers like Forgiveness, the Greatest Healer, Love is Letting Go of Fear, Aging with Attitude and Advice to Doctors & Other Big People from Kids. In Love is Letting Go of Fear, he wrote: “Have you ever given yourself the opportunity of going through just one day concentrating on totally accepting everyone and making no judgements?…Everything we think or say or do reacts on us like a boomerang coming back. When we send out judgements in the form of criticism, fury or other attack-thoughts, they come back to us. When we send out only love, it, too, comes back to us.”

If we were to release our creative talents, set aside our fears or carry out Gerald Jampolsky’s advice, we, too, could say: “This scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” How would we be seen by those who know us if we had a succession of days without judgement, without complaint and not bound by fear?

Those gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth had him judged and categorized before he even opened his mouth. He was much too ordinary looking. He didn’t live up to the people’s expectations of what a prophet should look like, much less a Messiah. And, when they caught on to the real meaning of what he was saying, their disappointment turned to hostility. And there lies an important message for us. The Spirit of the Lord has been given to you and to me. We, through Baptism, are all anointed by God’s Spirit as prophets to proclaim in word and action the coming of the kingdom of God. And like Jesus and so many other prophets, we look like the ordinary people we are. Yet God is reflected in us and in the other ordinary people and things of our world.

But let’s think for a moment about the pressure Jesus must have felt to satisfy his home-town crowd, to deliver on their hopes, desires and expectations. Instead, he preached the simple, unembellished truth which disappointed and angered his audience. He held fast to the courage of his convictions and told them not only that he was the Messiah but outlined for them the kind of Messiah he would be. He was not prepared to sacrifice truth simply to please them. This last week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr, a man of courage, who, in imitation of Jesus, found the courage to speak the truth, knowing there was a price to be paid. We, too, are called to speak the truth in support of strangers, refugees and those treated unjustly, to do so with credibility, love and generosity, but without compromise.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Sunday Readings Reflection